Living in Wonderland

Every time I sit down to write, everything seems like a jumbled mess. In theory I am trying to break it up into separate experiences but how do I talk about x without talking about c, to get to y? Everything I do, see, hear, taste the whole experience is all interrelated so sometimes (all the time) it is difficult to organize it on paper. Also, I feel like everyone wants an American In Europe, Audrey Hepburn story and I’m afraid mine is all tears and anxiety and more like… Alice In Wonderland but she never wakes up. It’s interesting and colorful, but I’m often hella confused about what is going on around me.

For instance, I’m sitting on my garden balcony, staring at a functioning windmill, thinking “This is so beautiful. This is my real, every day life.” And I am listening to my neighbors, who are sitting in their gardens chatting, thinking to myself, “I wonder what they’re saying…I wonder what everyone is saying, actually.” And this is my real, every day life. It’s complex. There is so much beauty in this experience, swirled intricately with so much anxiety about the unfamiliar and not understood. Any minute a caterpillar might start talking to me, but I wouldn’t know because I don’t understand Dutch.

Not understanding what is going on around you is a blessing and a curse. I often feel a sense of relief that I have no idea what people are saying. They may or may not be talking about me and since I don’t know, it in no way affects my day. They also might be talking TO me (“Mevrouw! Mevrouw!” Oh me? I’m Mevrouw). Also taking three months to find Turmeric because it’s actually called Kurkuma here is somehow tear-inducingly frustrating. Because it’s not just the Kurkuma, it’s never JUST about the Kurkuma, is it?

When I made the decision to move here, I was adamant about NOT finding a tribe of Americans. I did not move to Europe to surround myself with Americans. I felt that wouldn’t be fully embracing the experience. Two years later I’m screaming, “WHERE MY AMERICANS AT?!” I’ll even take a Canadian, at this point. Because it is common knowledge here, apparently, that it is very difficult to fit into a Dutch tribe if you are not Dutch. I have spoken to Dutch people that agree and others that say it isn’t so. I have decided, after I attended a workshop, that there is validity in the argument that they’re just not that into us. Otherwise why would we need a workshop about it?

I did learn, however, that me craving American people is not just about Dutch versus expats relations but because my poor little brain is tired and just wants familiarity. A break from always having to think of the right words, translate, assimilate to customs and cultures. And if you know me you know that International Boyfriend and his offspring are Brits. In an episode of Parks & Recreation Tom Haverford says to a British man, “I speak English and THAT is not English.” And I FEEL that. We both speak English and we in no way speak the same language.

So basically, my brain never gets to come down and just be. Not in the Dutch world and not in the British home. Not in the market where nutrition labels are completely different (what is 100 grams anyway? This package isn’t even 100 grams so why is everything nutritionally per 100 grams?!). Or units of measurement (now eyeballs things and thinks, “That’s probably about 15 ounces, I guess. Whatever I’ll make it work.”) We have a lot of unused packages of things because I mistranslated. I can’t open a piece of mail without my Google Translate app open. Or wack frosting jobs on cupcakes because rather than translating I assumed it would be what appeared on the package photo (Fun fact: did you know that Brits say whack meaning “to throw it on”? I was not whacking frosting on cupcakes. The frosting job was wack as in ’90s term for not good. Look at me being all international now). Or leaving just about every town hall, bank, realtor thinking “We did not understand each other and I definitely did not get my questions answered.” I developed a complex because my entourage of Brits kept asking me, “Are you alright?” Do I not look alright? Is my resting bitch face becoming more serious? No, no. That’s just how they say “How are you?” Only took nearly two years to figure that one out. I tried an expat networking site but it didn’t take long for me to figure out that that is just where the international creepers go. Because who wouldn’t want to leave their local creepers for a more international variety?

In the Netherlands 90% of the population speaks at least two languages and 80% of them speak English. I often try to speak the bit of Dutch I have accumulated but the minute they hear you struggle, they switch to English. But then you can’t be their friend because you don’t speak Dutch. This is my experience. And when I have spoken to Dutch people about it they mostly agree that it’s true. In case you were thinking, “Well if so many of them speak English, how bad could it be?” Just because they speak English, it is not their native tongue so context, etc is missing a lot of times, and we are most definitely not saying the same things. I often leave just as confused as if they had just spoken Dutch to me slowly.

I am desperately trying to keep a small portion, in my brain’s judgement cortex, some hope that I will find my Dutch homegirl but I have also realized that declaring Americans dead to me here was probably a rookie move. Either way my overwhelming, everyday experiences of being an expat aren’t going to change. There will be many more grocery mistakes and frustrating language experiences. I have to accept the fact that my brain doesn’t get to turn off like other expat families who go home to familiarity in language and culture, that’s not me and it’s not going to be. So basically I’ll just be sitting here confused but admiring the windmills and farm animals with my high-quality but inexpensive wine and Gouda cheese while everyone around me carries on, painting the roses red or probably celebrating their unbirthdays but I don’t know, I don’t understand Dutch.

I would like to add a note: I am learning every day how to be a good expat in my host country. All of these experiences are just where I am at the moment. If you disagree with me or would love to point out a view that maybe I haven’t considered, PLEASE DO! Respectfully, of course.

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