View of the Nieuwe Kerk from the Stadhuis
The Netherlands, The Place I Now Call ‘Home’
In December, after 8 ½ years in the Netherlands, I officially became a Dutch citizen. My naturalization ceremony took place in the 400-year-old historic Stadhuis of Delft, built on a site that had held the city hall for twice that long. I looked out across the bustling market square where Vermeer had lived and painted his masterpieces, toward the imposing tower of the 14th century New Church. My Dutch husband was by my side as the mayor of Delft presented me with a certificate declaring my Dutch citizenship, a wheel of local cheese, and a cheese slicer. If this didn’t make me feel legitimately Dutch, what could?
I first arrived in the Netherlands with my four children and now-ex in the rainy summer of 2014. We had just sold our house, purged heaps of belongings, and said goodbye to beloved relatives and friends. While we had lived in a beautiful spot in the States, there were many things that didn’t align with our values, and it had never fully felt like home. We left the United States determined to create a healthier life for our family, with a different culture to shape the lives of our children.
A New Perspective On Culture
That said, I didn’t have a lot of perspective on what precisely my culture was until I left it. In fact, I probably would have told you our lives were somewhat devoid of culture. In retrospect, I recognize that this was only because my native culture was so familiar that it became all but invisible to me, similar to how many people think that their own accent is the only way of speaking that is truly “neutral.”
After leaving, things began to become illuminated. Cultural norms that I had taken completely for granted often struck me as either bizarre, making me feel glad to have some distance and perspective from them, or as nostalgic and terribly missed. For instance, I all of a sudden realized how liberating and relaxing it was to not have to worry about the presence of firearms at the houses of my children’s friends or to have to decide whether an illness or injury was serious enough to warrant the expense of a doctor’s visit. Knowing that these ever had been concerns seemed suddenly grotesque.
Contrastingly, I greatly missed the warmth of strangers greeting each other on the street and chatting in supermarket lines, or of spontaneously making plans with friends or neighbors that didn’t involve searching for distant dates in agendas. In the Netherlands, I struggled to muster the proper amount of reserve so as not to seem distastefully enthusiastic or awkwardly over-friendly.
What I Missed Upon Moving From The U.S.
Most of all, I found I missed feeling anchored by familiar landscapes, history, stories, and music. While the quaint city centers, scenic canals, and bountiful blooms of the Netherlands are breathtaking and I hope I’ll never take them for granted, I missed untamed forests, the never-ending parade of wild animals in my back garden, and knowing the names of most of the plants I stumbled across. The history of the Netherlands is rich and fascinating, particularly here in Delft with Vermeer, Delfts Blauw, and the birth of Dutch democracy hailing from our town, but it didn’t feel like mine. Our first holiday season was particularly challenging, as we missed the traditional Christmas festivities that felt like integral parts of our celebration.
Language was another challenge. While I did my best to study Dutch, it came slowly. And while most people speak impressively fluent English, navigating a new country in another language was still intimidating. It’s hard to truly integrate when you’re surrounded by so many things that you can’t understand – signs, advertisements, phone recordings, television and radio, and the conversations of most people around you. And it is another level of challenge when your child becomes fluent in the language and has a whole mode of communication and social network of which you are not a part.
What Makes a Place “Home?”
Gradually, perspectives began to shift. We became increasingly accustomed to Dutch life and culture, and found ways to begin to put down roots. One of the fantastic things about the Netherlands is the ease of travel to other European points, and we took advantage of the location and ample vacation days to visit myriad places. Each time we returned, the familiarity of the Netherlands made it feel more and more like home. While the short, dark, and damp days of winter required some getting used to for our family, one day my daughter exclaimed as she came in home in the late afternoon darkness, “Isn’t it pretty to have it dark so early, so you can see all the houses lit up and feel so warm and cozy when you walk in the door?” And of course the short days of winter give way to the beautifully long, light days of summer, which seemed almost too magical to be true.
Over time, friendships blossomed and grew, and we developed a wonderful network of friends and chosen family here in the Netherlands. The children thrived with the freedom they enjoy here, far beyond what would ever be possible – or deemed acceptable – in the US. We loved exploring the world on foot, running errands by bike, and visiting places all over the country by train or bus. We relished everything from the street culture of farmer’s markets and terraces, treats such as stroopwafels and gevulde speculaas, and Dutch practicality with things as simple as being able to split a bill when dining out with a friend.
Here To Stay
While returning to the US for visits with family and friends was highly anticipated and always felt nourishing to our spirits, we all noticed with each successive visit that it no longer really felt like home. Over time, the US had slowly become the “foreign” country, and the Netherlands our home base. We continued to study Dutch and our language skills, while not amazing, improved enough to be able to understand and communicate more deeply, and to pass integration exams, clearing the way to stay here permanently. When my ex and I decided to part ways, neither of us considered going back.
And then, the final frontier: quite by surprise, I fell in love and married a Dutchie. Learning about the Netherlands and beyond from his point of view, being welcomed into his circle of family and friends, and being exposed to the Dutch language day and night have shifted and deepened my experience of living in this land. Most importantly, home is now wherever he is, and that is right here in our beautiful Delft.