Throughout the years I have written down a lot of my frustrations and attempts to adapt to my life as an expat in the Netherlands. Some of them I shared on my blog, others I kept in various notebooks around the house. I decided to share them with you, thinking that maybe they will be helpful.
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November 10th, 2015
From the total of five years I have been living in Amsterdam, the latest two were marked by an acute feeling of homesickness. Strangely enough, these were also the most fruitful years of my life here in terms of social connections, emotional and financial stability.
I did not miss Romania when I was struggling to make a living in my adopted country, when I had no job, no friends, and no idea of the Dutch way of life. I missed it when my life in Amsterdam was finally taking shape and I became so Dutch in behaviour, the Dutch people themselves were surprised I did not speak the same language.
So what happened? How come the more I immersed myself into the Dutch lifestyle, the more disconnected and discontent I felt? How come the more Dutch I became, the more alienated I felt? How come I refused to speak the language when my results at the Dutch course were so good?
What happened was that I could finally see through it all. Through the smiling-all-the-time and acting-politically-correct attitudes devoid of any vibration and involvement. Through the individualistic and self-absorbed people who hardly ever cared about anyone else, except for maybe their family and the few close friends they had since forever. Through the socializing for the sake of socializing, with no relationship building up. A few years since moving to Amsterdam and the masks have dropped. It became painfully clear it had all been an illusion. Lacking a genuine contact and involvement with the Dutch (the individuals, the society), my comfortable life in the Netherlands became spiceless and confusing.
I started to spend more time by myself. I focused on the few people and things that actually mattered in my life. And this is when it hit me. This is when I realized I was missing home.
The Eastern European way of life appeared to be the exact opposite of what was happening here, in Western Europe. The differences were massive. I was noticing them every day. In Romania, people smile and act friendly only if they mean it. If they don’t mean it, their fakeness requires some vigilance. In Romania, people speak up when there is something bothering them. The passengers on a bus will tell the driver to drive better if he fails to do so, because “it’s people he is driving around, not bags of potatoes.” In Romania, socialising will most likely lead to friendship. If someone asks you a question, they want to know all the details, they are not just socializing. If they don’t care about you, they will not bother – as simple and clear as that. Why did it all have to be so damn blurry in the Netherlands? It was awkward and it was confusing. Understanding how fundamentally different the Romanian and Dutch cultures were did not make the transition from one to the other any smoother. I was outraged on a daily basis.
But then came adaptation. In society, I was copying the Dutch. At home, I was depressed and full of rage. I feared I had changed for the worst. I feared I had dehumanized and become a robot myself. Worse, I realised there was no way out. I had to mind my own business to be socially acceptable, I had to be at the surface of things to be friendly, I had to be rude to survive. As long as I lived here, I had to comply.
Today I can say it feels good to live in a beautiful, clean, and functional city, in a country where I don’t need to worry about finances, where the employment laws protect the employee rather than the employer, where I can afford a comfortable apartment and a pretty good lifestyle. It feels even better to be part of, and contribute to, a society where the poor are taken care of and my rights as a citizen are respected and valued. It feels good to recycle plastic, glass, and paper, to have access to reliable public transport, to not need a car to move around the city and the country, to forget about traffic jams, broken roads, dilapidated buildings. The list could go on.
Still, what I am left with at the end of the day is a feeling of dissatisfaction.
How can that be? Is there something I am doing wrong?
I think the explanation is quite obvious. The most important thing in life is people. Human connection. And this is where Amsterdam has been constantly failing at in my case. I do not feel any connection. That is why I don’t speak Dutch. If I cannot connect to the Dutch, what is the point of speaking their language? To do grocery shopping? I can do that in English. To make dentist appointments? They speak English, too. To chit-chat with my Dutch neighbours in the elevator or with my Dutch colleagues at after-work drinks? What for if we are not going to build up a relationship?
I don’t feel comfortable admitting I miss home and the Eastern European lifestyle for fear I might be taken for someone who has failed to adapt to a new culture, in a country that has provided a lot. But I think I have adapted to the new culture well enough. I have adapted even when my values and nature told me differently. In time, I have learned to give up any expectations of grace. There is no such thing as grace in the Dutch emotional landscape. Most days I feel I have no more feelings, trying to keep up with the harshness by being harsh myself.
So I admit it: I miss home. I miss the place where being the way I am is not strange, is common.