How I Avoided Feeling Like a Foreigner

You'll feel like a foreigner as longs as you live out of a suitcase
Put your suitcase out of sight and out of mind. Planning to stay put might help you feel like less of a foreigner in your new country

The other day a friend was telling me about her first Dutch class a few years ago. On the first day of class, the teacher asked students to raise their hands if they had come to Holland for love. The majority of the hands in the classroom went up and the teacher was not at all surprised… that seems to be par for the course for a buitenlander (foreigner) here.

I too moved here for love. My husband is Dutch and we met through mutual friends on his holiday to the U.S. in September 2007. It was a flyby meeting, but apparently one that allowed each of us to make quite an impression on the other.

As my friend who introduced us tells it, we bugged her so much with questions about the other that she finally just gave each of us the other’s email address and told us to leave her alone! A few weeks later we began our online relationship via email and Skype. I felt as though I could tell him anything – and I pretty much did!

In November 2007, I got on a plane to Amsterdam to spend a weekend with him. Upon my return, I called my mom as soon as I could get cell phone reception… and told her I had met the man I was going to marry.

Hubs proposed four months later and it occurred to us that one of us was going to have to leave our home country. As he makes more money and immigrating to the Netherlands is easier than immigrating to the U.S. (believe it or not), we decided I would move to the Netherlands.

I knew it was going to be a big step and I wanted to be as prepared as possible. The last thing I wanted was to feel like a foreigner in my new home. While still in the States, I practiced riding my long-ago-neglected bike, and I had experienced cycling in the Netherlands on one or two of my last visits. My husband also taught and practiced with me the most basic of Dutch. I had also met several of his friends and struck a one-day-per-week babysitting deal with one of them. My first Dutch “job!”

But the thing I found most helpful was my tip on the International Women’s Contact Utrecht (IWCU). One of Hubs’s friends happens to be married to a Canadian who moved here 7 years ago and is very involved with the club. She was the one who had the brilliant idea to give us my first year’s membership to the club as a wedding gift. And on my last visit to the Netherlands before the wedding, she gifted me with a copy of their bimonthly newsletter.

On the flight back to the States, I read the thing from cover to cover! I loved reading about the other women in the club: why they came to the Netherlands, their tips and advice, what they love about the Netherlands as well as what they dislike, descriptions of upcoming events, pictures and write-ups from past events. For the first time since deciding to move to the Netherlands, I realized that I was not the only one. I was, in fact, one of very, very many. I felt like I could do this.

We got married, went on a week-long honeymoon to New York City, and stopped by my parents’ long enough to get my dog and say our goodbyes before flying to the Netherlands.

We arrived on a Sunday and I went to my first IWCU event the following Wednesday. Not only had they all “been there, done that,” but they were able to give me tips on where to look for a teaching job and where I could find performance opportunities in the theater. My new favorite hobby became meeting expats (particularly women) and learning why they came here, how long they’ve been living here, and what they think about life in the Netherlands.

This and my Facebook habit, led me to other expat groups in Utrecht and various expat publications like ACCESS Magazine, The Holland Times, Time Out Amsterdam, The Xpat Journal, and XM and Family-Matters Magazines.

They include all the wonderful things I love about the IWCU publication, but go further than that. I love the “news” articles that keep me up-to-date about what’s going on in the world, what’s going on around the country, and gives fabulous tips on places to go and things to see in the Netherlands. In early April, I took my parents to the Keukenhof – an indescribable wonder and something I don’t think I would have known about had it not been for an article I read.

From there, I added expat blogs to my reading list, particularly those located in the Netherlands. The best part is that, after reading these publications and blogs, I feel like I know so much more about the country I now live in and the people who live here.

At the time of this writing, we have been married for a little over four months and I have been living in the Netherlands for almost as long. I have more or less gotten a grip on the language, the culture, the people, and the whirlwind that has been my life for the past year has more or less settled. In short, I no longer feel like a foreigner.

I really love living in the Netherlands and keep telling people that if things continue to go the way they are going now, I don’t see myself wanting to move back to America. Both Netherlanders and internationals are, more often than not, surprised to hear me say that. Especially so soon.

I think the reason for my feeling this way is that I really jumped right into it, hit the ground running, and all those other clichés that mean I didn’t waste time. I immediately joined expat groups and subscribed to expat publications. I hadn’t even been in the Netherlands for three months before I started my first Dutch class. I read Dutch children’s books, use my Dutch whenever possible, attend a Dutch speaking group, and utilize Dutch language books, CDs, DVDs, podcasts, websites, etc. whenever possible. I’ve been driving with the crazy Dutch drivers and cyclers for over two months now and will be starting my driving lessons in the next month or so. I’m even hosting my own expat events and have built up some wonderful friendships here.

As soon as I got here, I hopped right on the fiets (bike) and started cycling my heart out. Oddly enough, though I never named any of my cars, I felt the need to christen my bike because I love it so much and it has such a personality that I felt it needed a name. And so now she will be forever known as “Bonnie.”

Bonnie and I have already had two crashes and almost knocked my husband into oncoming traffic (I swear it was an accident!). I can now cycle while holding an umbrella, wearing heels, talking and texting on my phone, carrying large, awkward items and loads of bags, and with my petrified-of-everything (bikes included) dog!

At the moment, I’m still waiting for my verblijfsvergunning (residence permit) and the coveted work permit that comes with it. But I am babysitting one day a week and talking to two international schools in Hilversum about starting an after-school musical theater program. The only thing I haven’t found is a good musical theater group, preferably in English. So if you know of one, do tell!

What steps have you taken to get past feeling like a foreigner in your host country? 

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