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 so 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 moving to a new country and settling into a foreign lifestyle.
BSN – check. Registration – check. Bank account – check. Bus and train card – check. Apartment – check.
Now what? Oh right. Food, necessary household items…toilet paper.
I remember thinking that those items sounded like simple tasks, but I was spoiled having grown up in America and having lived in a hotel for two weeks and not venturing too far outside of the hotel, work, and City Hall radius. Where could I go if I could no longer rely on my neighbourhood Target to provide all my needs?
My first attempt at grocery shopping was a bit of a mess. I was confused as to why the local Albert Heijn called every kind of cheese ‘boerenkaas’ even though it clearly resembled Swiss cheese or why eggs were not in the refrigerator, and what the difference was between coffee cream and the cream that was in the refrigerator? Shouldn’t everything have been in the refrigerator?
I ended up with a loaf of bread, so-called ‘boerenkaas’, Celestial Seasonings tea (finally something I recognised), and pasta with pre-packaged tomato sauce. I could at least count on the pasta and pre-packaged tomato sauce to be similar.
Despite the lack of choices, I was overwhelmed by the foreign names of all the products and why there were so many differences between Dutch products and American products.
Lo and behold, my first education into the American food system. It turns out, it’s not a very good system – overly cautious, overly wasteful, and overly processed.
The woman behind the cash register was completely oblivious to my inner turmoil. As she was beginning to scan my items, my eyes began to well up slightly. I watched as more professional shoppers stuffed their backpacks with groceries. I had forgotten a reusable bag (or rather, didn’t know about it) and began to well up more so when I thought I didn’t have an alternative to transporting my food before realising that plastic bags were only 10 or 20 cents.
The woman asked me something in Dutch which I didn’t understand. I shook my head “no” because I didn’t know how to respond to the alternative. I eyed the screen and gave her the amount in cash because my Dutch bank card had still not arrived (it took four weeks – another hassle of moving abroad and changing addresses). She then signalled that it was a bank card only line (because apparently those existed) and I had to go to a line where they accepted cash as well. I sighed, asked for a plastic bag by pointing and making small noises, and submitted myself to a groundhog’s day by going into another line. The upside was that I was prepared with a plastic bag.
In a conversation with my new hotel friend, he offered to take me to the market. There he would teach me the names of fruits and vegetables and promised a much more affordable price than the local Albert Heijn. With him as my crutch, I felt more comfortable communicating what I wanted and began my fluency in speaking in Dutch food. This alternative allowed me to pay in cash, purchase a fresh stroopwaffel from one of the stands (my new favourite Dutch treat), dive into a crash course on the local food movement, and it served as a reminder to never forget my backpack.
The search for household items
While figuring out my way around a grocery store and around food in general, I was likewise busy with discovering where I could buy what and when (stores close at 5 or 6p?? And there’s only one night they are opened late??). My restaurant friend had taken me to Action and I immediately recognised it as the Kmart of the Netherlands.
It’s decent for quick items like toilet paper, but it’s not the best quality and I have no clue on its ethical standard.
However for someone who was struggling to keep her head above water, I was completely fine with shopping there until I had found other options (it took me two years to find the stores that were more aligned to my values). Similar to Kmart, Action had many of the items in one place but it didn’t solve for the fact that I couldn’t read the label of the laundry detergent and determine the difference between fabric softener and detergent (sometimes I still have this issue if I don’t read properly).
In my first two months abroad, I ended up shrinking my favourite sweater and dying another one pink.
I also couldn’t read directions on medications or understand their names (where was Advil when I needed it? What the heck was Paracetamol?), so when I returned to the States for a visit, I packed a bag full of tampons (I couldn’t trust Dutch tampons for no explicable reason), DayQuil, NyQuil, and Advil. I did my best to stick with my comforts. I trusted these brands (for no explicable reason) and relied on them, and had difficulty straying from that and learning about what products the Netherlands had to offer.
Later when I switched to Dutch insurance and was forced to have a general practitioner, I faced my fear of medication and began asking questions in the organic shops and the local over-the-counter pharmacy.
It’s been over two years in the making, but I can happily declare that I wear Dutch brand tampons, use Paracetamol, and know how to find the best organic Strepsils (throat lozenges).
Taking daily tasks for granted
It wasn’t until I moved abroad that I realised how many daily tasks I took for granted when I lived in country where I could effortlessly communicate and where all my choices were predefined by marketing and my upbringing. Something that could take 5 minutes to do in the US, such as picking up a pain reliever, would take 30 minutes in the Netherlands. I experienced this difficulty when I briefly lived in a dorm-environment in France, but I found it much harder to handle when I knew that these challenges would not vanish once I went home six weeks later. By not having this luxury I knew I had to work through them.
It’s been over two years since my ‘settling in’ experiences and to this day, I still have difficulty at times. As a creature of habit, I’ve fallen into routine and if I need to purchase something outside of my routine (prescribed medication for example), I find I falter and have no clue how to go about it.
Settling in a foreign country is an ongoing process and I’ve learned to never take the simplest of tasks for granted.
Stay tuned for Part 4 of moving to a new country…