Monday, February 27, 2012

Why expatriate?

expatriate lifeEvery trip back to the US renews the question:  Why live in the Netherlands?  For some, it seems like I am turning my back on my heritage and my culture; others think I’ve simply been seduced by the romance of living abroad.  Always, there’s the question of where it ends and what comes next: expatriate life in the Netherlands is neither stable nor sustainable.

On the long flights back and forth between there and here, bored with the movies and sipping red wine, I think abut the ‘why’, I wonder about the ‘where to’.  Sometimes, I think I understand a little.

There’s certainly the opportunity.  After six years, the Netherlands is where my colleagues and resources are, it’s where I know how to get things done and where I can do them well.  I’m running a couple of businesses, hiring a few people, designing several products, entering global markets.  It’s exciting and fulfilling, I’m in a flow of technologies, markets, and deals that I can orchestrate to improve people’s lives and create social value.  I would have to back up six years and start over if I tried to do that somewhere else.

The flip side is the challenge.  Every day I’m faced with events, people, processes that need to be understood in order to get things done.  Sometimes it’s a simple thing, where to shop for a mousetrap (the pet store) or obtain an uittreksel (the Gemeente).  Sometimes it’s larger: learning Dutch or doing taxes.  But every day I figure out how to do things, and I learn, build confidence, master something most people don’t know how to do.  Surmounting challenges is a source of pride and optimism: it  feels good to develop and succeed.

Then there’s the passion.  There’s no question that living abroad has  romance, whether you compare yourself to Hemingway or Gauguin.  I call it ‘Living remarkably’, sunrise over the Maas, an afternoon at the museum, biertje and jazz in the evening.  It’s taking the little ferry with my bike across the river, driving to Luxemburg on a whim, sailing in the Archipelago near Stockholm.  It’s swapping stories and tips over koffie in the summer, sharing Carnival colors in the winter.  It’s amazing.

And finally there’s the stuff.  Six years ago, I packed up 13 boxes of things and moved them to the Netherlands.  Those artifacts, books and clothes, now augmented with pictures and souvenirs, form a familiar setting that is warm and recognizable when I return to it.  To be sure, it’s things, not people: I can’t call it home without those close to me.  But it’s a neighborhood where I know the shops and services, an apartment with my things, and a rattle-trap bicycle that is always there, chained along the riverfront, when I return.

I don’t know where or how it ends, but I do know certainly why I like the life and why I return.

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