As I stray further and further away from the term ‘expat’ and closer and closer to the term ‘immigrant,’ I find I’m becoming too familiar in a land that was completely unfamiliar to me not so long ago.
Before I forget the challenges altogether I wanted to document, in a four part series, the amusement and frustration of living in a foreign country and apartment hunting abroad.
When I was told I’d be living in a hotel my first two weeks abroad, I pictured myself as Macaulay Culkin from Home Alone 2. I’d have a decent-sized room where I could watch endless TV on the weekends with free breakfast and no laundry. There was no 5-star suite or bountiful trays of candy, but in my imagination I was willing to forgo that luxury.
I clung to this fairytale vision because I didn’t want to think about how I was going to navigate the bus system, walk to the station in the dark (I wasn’t used to not having daylight until 9a), and be alone.
My work set up a nice spot for me in a sustainable hotel near the office that housed a horse ranch out back and a fancy French restaurant on the other side. It balanced out nicely.
I was a bit put off by the size of the room because as an American, I was still used to oversized amenities. It was also strange at first because the showers in the room were glass and whomever was on the bed could see directly through. And potentially watch you. Naked. This would have made for an awkward conversation if I was staying with a colleague, but thankfully that wasn’t the case.
But hey, free TV, breakfast and no laundry (just smelly clothes)!
Of course, this life of luxury was short-lived. As mentioned in the previous post I had to get a BSN in order to be considered registered in the Netherlands and that included finding permanent housing.
My company put me in touch with an agency in Utrecht who was pretty responsive and willing to put together a few places for me to have a quick gander. In the meantime, I was enjoying my time in the hotel and becoming good friends with the front desk agent (now dear friend) who also helped me navigate the bus and train system and understand how City Hall and bank accounts work. He also reminded me that I needn’t be afraid to walk alone at night because the Netherlands was not America – the worst and most common crimes were/are bike thievery and drug abuse.
I also frequented the French restaurant next door because it was convenient and they had delicious French onion soup – a comfort food that was found in a faraway land. I became friends with the waitress there and she even invited me for drinks.
It was during this time that I inherently knew that I was going to be okay. I could do this.
My apartment scouting was short-lived. The first apartment the agent took me to was a studio apartment in the centre of Utrecht. It lay about 100 metres from the Oude Gracht, a narrow waterway lined with tall, triangular-roofed houses. The apartment was nestled between a gym (I could see inside the weight room from my bedroom window) and a gay bar and adjacent to a church. I pictured myself frequenting the gym and hitting my rock hard abs in disbelief, and then going for a drink later at the bar and coming home to listen to a church choir.
All of that did happen except for the abs part. I stopped going to the gym after 3 months. Story of my life.
When I walked in I was greeted with a furnished apartment straight out of an IKEA catalogue (I swear I’ve seen it in a showroom before). It wasn’t my style – a modern red and white – but included a washing machine, fully working oven, new shower, and everything a temporary (I was still temporary at the time) expat could need over her 9 month span abroad. It also had a steep ladder that led to a cosy loft with mattress and built-in shelving. I fell in love. I always wanted a loft.
My mother meanwhile was horrified. She pictured broken ankles from the ladder and fires caused by my inability to use a gas stove. She also could not understand why the toilet was in the hallway.
Truth be told, neither could I but I just shrugged it off as “The Dutch” as if I knew what that actually meant.
I was too scared I wouldn’t find anything else at an affordable price and most importantly, I felt safe in a foreign city where I didn’t know what areas were considered ‘good’ versus ‘shady’.
“I’ll take it,” I said confidently. I immediately signed the renter’s agreement as my mother looked on, unsure I was making the right decision.
It was only later that I had asked my hotel friend about the neighbourhood and fortunately, it was in a terrific area.
My new flat
I moved in about 2 weeks later and immediately unpacked my one large suitcase and one medium suitcase. I silently gloated to myself that my entire life fit into two luggages.
I was one of those people, not a backpacker but someone in between.
During the move, I had the help of my boyfriend at the time who had come to visit shortly after my mother left and his presence provided a nice transition into building a home. Considering I had never lived alone before, let alone in a foreign country, I needed all the comfort I could get.
For the next year and a half, I did my best to make that apartment my home. The idea of home became more important to me as I went through loves and losses and from a temporary contract to a permanent one.
I brought back books from the States, began buying more clothes (I no longer fit my life into two suitcases); I bought lanterns, a water boiler, put up Space posters, and even bought a decorative throw pillow.
A lot happened in that apartment and even though it wasn’t totally decorated to my style, it ended up representing the transition from temporary worker to full-fledged expat.
And when I packed up my bags to say goodbye to that apartment in order to make a new flat in a new city my home (with my own furniture and decor), I was so glad I had said “I’ll take it” without deliberating too much.
In the end my mother was even sad to say goodbye to the apartment. During my time there I only had one sprained ankle and one fire (just kidding…about the fire).
Stay tuned for Part 3 of moving to a new country…