Monday, November 5, 2012

What Do I Stand For?

What Do I Stand For? (Some Nights) - Fun 

In two days we will be boarding a Delta A330 aircraft as a family of four out of AMS, connecting through Minneapolis, and into DFW.  We haven’t set foot on American soil in over ten months and I am filled with anticipation, eagerness, longing, and curiosity.  We have had such an incredible journey thus far and at the top of my list of things to be thankful for behind friends, family, health and adventure, I’m also thankful for e-mail, Facebook, blogging, Skype, and ESPN America to keep us from feeling completely isolated from the people and news we hold close to our hearts and prevented us from going completely crazy. 
   A friend of V’s from Louisiana called the other evening and I talked to him for a little while since V wasn’t home from work, yet.  (The Netherlands changed their clocks back a week prior to the U.S. for daylight savings time and he had miscalculated the temporary 6-hour time difference).   He asked me a simple question, “So, how are you liking it over there?” (I’m pretty sure he hasn’t read my blog).  Tongue-tied and taken aback by my own confusion, I fumbled with my answer.  “Uh, it’s good.  It’s hard.  It’s harder in ways I did not expect.  But it’s fun.  I’ve learned a lot.”  If it was an interview, I pictured him nodding politely and quietly placing my resume on the do-not-call-back pile.  How can I sum up 11 months of adventures, confusion, frustration, excitement, and joys into a simple answer?  What has been the common theme of our year?  I knew I was going to be asked this question multiple times during our 10-day visit home.  What was the answer I really wanted to provide? 
  Later that evening, after the kids had been put to bed, V and I sat down to an adult-only dinner.  While our Paris jazz station played soothingly from our Internet radio and we sipped Italian red wine, I posed the question to V.  “So, how are you liking it over here?” I cocked my head, smiled, and raised an eyebrow.  Like any good interview candidate, he modified the question and corresponding answer down to a more manageable level.  “Well, I think the biggest difference and challenge between America and The Netherlands is convenience,” he responded.  I nodded and waited for him to flesh out his answer.  “In America, the consumer and competition leads the way.”  I agreed with him.  In America, everything is more convenient starting with infrastructure like indoor shopping malls, parking lots, 12-lane highways and supermarkets the length of city blocks.  There are drive-thrus, stores open 24-hours and all shops and restaurants (except Hobby Lobby & Chick-Fil-A) are open on Sundays.  All shops have parking lots without a price.  Convenience isn’t limited to the outside world.  Inside a typical American home, you can find gallons of milk, washing detergent boxes so heavy you can barely lift them and at least the possibility of water and olive oil in 5 gallon quantities.  Dishwashers, clothes dryers, and even some Master-bathroom American showers are created to do twice the job in half the time that the European counterparts are capable.  Focus the microscope one degree stronger and you will notice that every bag of shredded cheese or sliced ham sold in American grocery stores comes with self-locking plastic zippers or re-sealable containers.  We’ve gone through 25 boxes of ziplock bags since we’ve been here just trying to keep our lunchmeat and cheese fresh.    Kid’s clothes in The Netherlands have buttons instead of the standard U.S. snaps and zippers.  (I never knew how hard it was to button a wiggly baby’s clothes until you had to do it all day, everyday.)  These small standards of convenience are just funny examples of how either America has figured it out or Europe is so simply steeped in tradition or just doesn’t care about the consumer’s preferences.  Maybe buttons are cheaper than zippers?  I don’t know, but either way, bottom line, Americans want and demand convenience and choices and are willing to pay the price.   Maybe that makes Americans lazy, or maybe they’re just lazy because they can be.  Convenience, or rather, lack-there-of seeps into my family’s everyday life here in Leiden and is a running thread that connects a majority of our experiences.  I’d imagine, if V and I were here as a couple, we may not notice these things as much, but with two children, one of which who is just now starting to be able to walk herself the distance of the train station and back, it poses a larger impact on our daily life.         
  I took a sip of wine and took his response a step further.  “Yes, I think, if I could piggy-back off of your answer, I think I would say logistics have been the biggest challenge.”  I’m constantly asking myself, in the face of lack-of-convenience – how?  How do I solve this, but it’s a multi-level equation to decipher.  You have a problem, say – Baby Girl needs to be enrolled in school or we need a can of paint.  You must first figure out where to find the information to solve the problem (this is where the internet has been an invaluable resource), then map out where you need to go, then decide how to get there (Car? Train? Bike? Walk? Each answer, by the way, has a different solution and route, unlike in America, where you just drive.  Park.  Walk in.)  Then, do we take the kids, does one of us want to go by ourselves, what about X child’s nap time, if we do go as a family do we take the double stroller, or two strollers, or put one child on our back, make one child walk, etc. etc.  if we drive is there a parking lot close, is parking free, who wants to stay in the car with the kids while we feed the machine and get the parking ticket to put on our dash, etc. etc. etc.  What if it’s raining or cold, do we have the appropriate rain boots, stroller covers, mittens, rain poncho for cycling or umbrellas for walking, etc. etc. etc. 
  But those are the answers to how would you describe living in The Netherlands vs. America.  There is a deeper answer to “How’s it going?” that I’m not sure if I will be able to pin-point until we return from our trip home. 
   I had anticipated missing friends and family, their physical presence and being able to talk to them easily on the phone.  But surprisingly, isolation in terms of being able to relate, not only to our friends at home, but the Dutch, other Expats, and sometimes even my husband, was an unanticipated challenge.   I have many readers, but wherever you call home, who is it that you associate and feel closest with?  As I’ve mentioned before, my husband went to LSU and still considers many of his former fraternity brothers amongst his closest friends.  Why?  Because, they spent four (ahem, or five years) experiencing the same thing at the same time.  Classes, fraternity, football games, dating, socials, drinking, and I don’t even know what else.  Back at home, I still keep in touch with high school friends, friends from my first job, my second job, my third job, etc.  I have friends from college and even a friend from pre-school I count as my closest friends.  Why?  Because we have had the same experiences, traveled to the same places for work, complained about the same boss, went to each other’s childhood birthday parties, or cheered our high school football team to a State Championship many years ago.  The route we were on was similar and familiar. 
  Not many people can relate to a moving a family of four across the world because few people have done it themselves.  Not many people can understand the physical requirements of cycling two kids around town, not for fun, but for purpose, in the rain.  The Dutch can relate to that, but even as I hosted brunch to my husbands’ cousins for Little Man’s 1st bday, they stared at the Farmer’s Casserole (a dish my friends back home and my Expat friends here loved).  They looked at it and said, ‘what is this?”  The Dutch don’t eat eggs the same way we do, and I had forgotten.  They ate it and seemed to like it, but then started asking me why I hadn’t learned Dutch, yet.  Perhaps they don’t understand the complexities I have found living here as an American.  Perhaps they don’t understand the physical requirements of caring for two children under three (Maslow. . . let’s have some sleep and friends first, then we’ll talk about expanding our minds. . .)    
    Understanding comes from experience, and few people can relate to the tears I shed after being berated by a Dutch grocery store clerk for putting packaged chicken in a produce bag to prevent salmonella or how I cried when I fried our American Blu-Ray player (but we imported all these Elmo DVDs. . .they fell through my hands like sand as I confronted V)  Few people can relate to the exhilaration I feel from making new friends, hosting old ones, getting around Delft, Amsterdam and Leiden without a map, or riddling off fun historical facts about the history of The Netherlands to anyone who will listen.  This is the definition of isolation I had not anticipated and I think that it is and will continue to be the biggest challenge.                         
  This past weekend, in anticipation of our visit, we excitedly spent Saturday shopping for souvenirs for our friends back home.  We talked to family and friends in Texas and Louisiana over the phone.  We watched College Gameday being hosted in Baton Rouge and V explained to Baby Girl that we’d be visiting that campus in just a few weeks.  We envisioned ourselves eating at Gloria’s and Whataburger.  We stayed up until 1:00 a.m. to see the LSU-Alabama game kick-off.   Sunday, we stayed inside while the raindrops fell and cuddled on the couch after the kids went to bed and watched a pro football game while the fireplace roared.  We thought of home constantly for 48 hours and planned for the one trip we will take this year where we actually kind of know what’s on the other end of the jet bridge.  We were comforted, happy, and felt a little more like ourselves.  As he readied himself for work this morning and I eyed the clouds looming outside my bedroom window debating, do I cycle the kids across town to Baby Girl’s school or should I drive, a small weight tugged at my heart.  I can do this.  I pumped myself up, or at least tried to. 
  My friend in Germany emailed me this past weekend.  She had been to the American grocery store on the American military base close to where she lives.  It was the first time she’d visited in the three years she’d lived there.  “I’m glad I didn’t go earlier,” she wrote, “or else I might have needed it more.” She asked if there was anything I needed and beyond dried black-eyed peas, I couldn’t really think of anything.  She had emailed me a picture of her haul in anticipation of her visit for Thanksgiving:  canned pumpkin, stovetop stuffing mix, canned cranberries, and fried onions to top off a green bean casserole.  I nearly flipped.  “Oh wow!”  I wrote back.  I didn’t even know how much I missed these things until I saw them.  “This is fantastic!  How exciting and thanks so much!” 
  I’m wondering how I will feel during my trip to the U.S. and feel once I come back to Leiden.  A fellow Expat warned me months ago, “You’re probably going to be sad.  Just be prepared for that.”  I have spent months comparing The Netherlands to America but now that we are going home, I can’t help but wonder how does American look with my Netherlands glasses on?  Visiting two states in ten days will be exciting and rewarding.  As the cultural orientation stated before:  “During the span of your rotation, you start at A and will become B.  Your friends start at C and will become D.”  I’m anxious to learn about the C to D process.  I know 10 days isn’t enough to do it justice and it makes me sad.  So many friends have had babies, changed jobs, have started new relationships and have ended old ones since we’ve been here and I’m stressed with anticipation of seeing everyone and then having to disappear again.  I guess a little face-to-face time is better than nothing and if V and I have learned anything from keeping in touch with friends and family across the U.S., we also know that true friendship, once reconnected, seems like no time has passed.  
   Questions linger in my head:  Will I feel different or will I feel like my old self?  Will my friends seem different or the same?  What will Baby Girl remember?  What will she find exciting?  What will everyone think about Little Man who has grown from a tiny baby into an almost-toddler in our absence?  What have I learned through this experience that I may not even realize I have until I see everyone?  Have I learned or changed anything, or rather just treaded-water trying to keep my head above it all?  If so, what was the point? What values have been confirmed or compromised through the whole experience?  Throughout the past few months, the unexpected resulted in my confidence shaken, vulnerability targeted, misunderstood by many, yet grasping an understanding of others and a culture in a way I never thought possible.  What will I bring back ‘home’?  My longing for the U.S. haunts me, but what do I truly miss and what do I appreciate in my new life?  I don’t know if I will find the answers to all or any of the questions, but I guess we’ll find out.  At the very least, we still have another year to explore and find understanding in the journey we’re taking.  Go home.  Learn about the path from C to D.  Love, share, and reconnect.  Plant seeds for others to explore the A to B path. Our guest room is available, I’m a great tour guide, and will make you a tasty Farmer’s casserole in the morning.      


  1. Celeste,
    Have a wonderful trip back home! I look forward to hearing about how it felt to be back in the US.

  2. Whata journey you are all on, Celeste! You are a true inspiration. Your honesty is so fresh and real. Vinny and you should be proud of yourselves. Despite all the challenges, logistically, emotionally, physically ... You are embracing this journey, learning about yourselves and growing together. Not many people have the courage and determination that you have and I truly believe that you will come through all the richer.
    Just a note; I wholeheartedly agree that the US is utterly focused on the consumer and convenience. But isn't it funny that when I lived in C.A. that I was frustrated by the fact that I couldn't bike or catch a train or bus when ever I wanted to

  3. And hated the fact that if we wanted to get anywhere you had to drive, as there wasn,t another option in Orange County. As a European, the total dependence of cars drove really irritated me.

  4. There is something wrong with my computer as it will not allow me to edit what I have written, so sorry for my spelling and grammatical errors!

    Basically, I just wanted to say that this is a great blog. Jill