A little over a week ago we celebrated 5 years of living abroad. Five years ago we left our home in Attleboro to set off for a new adventure in Barcelona, Spain. An adventure that was supposed to last just 2 years. Tears streaming down my face as I looked one last time at the house that held so many memories for our family, as we left our neighborhood that had become extended family to us… I thought my life would never be the same again. And I was right.
I wasn’t prepared for what lay ahead. Nothing could have prepared me and there are still many moments when I look back and wonder how I survived it all. I’d never experienced life overseas. I never did a semester abroad or student exchange. Up until we went to look at apartments 6 weeks before we departed the US, I had never even been to Europe at all!
I was afraid. Afraid of the unknown. Afraid of not being able to communicate. Afraid of how to navigate in a city I was unfamiliar with. Afraid I wouldn’t be able to make any new friends. Afraid of so much. And it consumed me.
But I was excited as well. Excited for new adventures. Excited to give my children an opportunity that neither myself nor Josh had as children – a chance to live life a little differently than the rest. Excited to learn about new cultures and visit new places. That excitement consumed me as well.
And so I was conflicted. I felt not just saddened, but devastated, by all those we left behind, such as our family and friends who were our biggest supporters in this move. I didn’t want to be excited because I felt guilty about being excited when I had been so sad about leaving. It was a conflict that took a long time to resolve in my head. At the time, the best way to describe it for me was “survivor’s guilt”.
We touched down in Barcelona and I wasn’t just conflicted, but now overwhelmed. I knew that I’d need to (re) learn Spanish but there is a difference between knowing you need to do something and realizing that it is essential to survival. Going to the grocery store was a challenge (initially), figuring out how to get around the city, essentially everything was 10x harder to do there than it was at home and it frustrated me to no end which only caused more turmoil. And I missed home with an ache that would not go away.
Year 1 (January 2010-2011) was hard. I cried. Every day. For months. I missed home. I missed my family, my friends and my house. I missed the comfort of knowing where to find every day things and the “easiness” of life. That does not mean that life in the States was easy – I’m not saying that. But having comfort in the known makes it much easier than the great unknown – when things as simple as trying to figure out where to buy scotch tape or a muffin pan becomes a day long excursion, you long for the simplicity of the life you had before.
Aidan and I both struggled a lot. He was trying his best to jump in to his new life but was missing his old life terribly. He did much better than I ever would have anticipated. But school was a struggle for him (but that’s a whole other story) and it only made him all the more frustrated. I didn’t know how to help since I was struggling on my own – how can I help him when I can’t help myself? Thankfully both Josh and Liam took the change much better and you’d think that they made these kind of moves every day with how well they did! Josh’s new short commute meant being home more, something we all enjoyed.
But eventually, we made friends. We slowly started to make playdates. We kept working at our Spanish. It took some time, but around the 2nd half of that first year, life started to become more “normal” again or at least have some semblance of normalcy and routine. We had good Spain days and bad Spain days. I got to spend more time with Liam since he was home with me full time those first 9 months. Time that I never would have had with him had we stayed in the States. And it was because of Liam that I forced myself to explore the beautiful city around us. And when he started school that September, I suddenly had free time that I hadn’t had in more than 6 years – time to get to know the city, get to know people and re-focus on my work and career and more importantly, myself, after 6 years of being fully focused on those wonderful little people in my life. I joined the gym, a place that I would find amazing friends and a “home” to clear my mind of the daily grind.
We saw our first of many Catalan festivals that wowed and amazed us – things that we knew would never fly in the US. Fireworks, fire runs, candy being thrown with the velocity of a pro baseball player at a child’s head and yet we loved every moment of it. The differences were what made it all special. Carnaval, Sant Medir, Sant Jordi (my personal favorite), Sant Joan, La Merce and new Christmas traditions to name a few.
We had a few visitors, bringing a little piece of home to us and giving us the opportunity to share our new home with them. Josh’s parents, Michelle and the Walker family. But we also said goodbye to our precious Sailor Moon and to our great friend Shane – our lives forever changed from them being a part of them and never the same without them.
We started doing some traveling and I remember just leaving the city of Barcelona for the first time was a huge deal for myself and Josh. Looking back at what we’ve done over the last 5 years, it’s silly how panicked we were about just going 1/2 hour south to Sitges that day in March 2010. But at that time it was a huge deal and only the beginning. In year one we went to Valencia (Spain), Disneyland Paris, Rome, Carcassonne (France), Costa Brava (Spain), home to the US, Paris for just Josh and myself, Provence (France) and Lanzarote (Canary Islands) – a relatively quiet year by expat standards we found.
Going home that first year was eye opening. We were all super excited about going and yet when we got there, I was so overwhelmed by not just our schedules but the go,go, go pace of life in the US. Could Spain have made an impact on me in just 8 short months? The kids loved being home though Liam already had very little recollection of living there, something that was hard for me to witness. By the end of our trip, I actually was ready to get back to Barcelona – something I never would have thought I would feel and was an ah ha kind of moment for me. Home was where my little family is, not my house.
Before we knew it, we had survived year one. In fact, we were thriving much better than we anticipated. So much so that 2 years has now become 3 1/2 years that we will live in Barcelona!!
Year 2 (2011-2012) was easier and we started to find our groove. We became more social, branching out and taking “risks”, not just with our daily lives but with our travel adventures. The kids were in their groove at school, building friendships that will last a lifetime. I was doing my best to do the same now that I had both kids in school full time. Perhaps I was spending a little too much time socializing rather than focusing on that business I was supposed to be growing. But it was an opportunity for me to truly embrace the life in Barcelona and year 2, for me, was one of my best.
We learned to embrace the culture around us. Learning to live a life a little more tranquila. We slowed down our pace. We learned to enjoy that all the stores were closed on Sundays and that our social calendars were far from full which meant more relaxed time together as a family. In fact, we realized that before our move we didn’t spend nearly enough time together as a family unit even though we would be together in groups of people. I’ll admit though, I never got used to, nor enjoyed siesta, though I did love the concept of it… it was just really inconvenient when you want to get your shopping done before the kids come home from school.
At the same time, we also realized how much we were changing as people and I began to worry about returning to the States for fear that I would no longer be happy with my “normal” life after experiencing this life less ordinary for so long. It was a feeling of being in limbo between two lives that to this day, 5 years later, that I still feel. But at the same time, looking back over year 2, it was a year where we found our comfort zone in Barcelona. I no longer was having constant breakdowns. The kids were (overall) happy. Josh loved his job. Everything and everyone was in a good place.
Aidan started to do sports. We went from 3 sports at age 5 in the US to just one sport, one day per week, a relief to not deal with the pressure we felt in the US. Since school didn’t finish til 4PM, after school time was spent doing homework and just relaxing and playing. As I mentioned, with the boys in school full time, I was spending more time out and about socially, but I was also taking Spanish classes, determined to learn the language in order to better integrate into society here. Things were going so well that we decided to extend our time in Spain by a year and a half, making our total there 3 1/2 years.
Year 2 found us in Lisbon (Portugal), Collioure (France, the first of many trips that would happen over the next few years), Amsterdam (who knew that we’d end up eventually living there???), Ibiza (Spain), and Venice (Italy) to start off the year.
We had more visitors in our second year than in our first. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing as I think we had become more familiar with our new home and as a result became better tour guides for our guests. We started off the year with Becky and Ray visiting, then Kyle and Kelly and the Holmes Family during the first half of the year. The summer was full of visitors and travel – first with the kids and I going back home for a few weeks and immediately after with Michelle coming to visit with her friend Kelly and her kids so that we could do a road trip through France and Italy, then our friend Roy came with his daughter Presli.
Once again, our trip home was interesting. We were between renters that year and so we stayed in our house for the first part of the trip as we got the house ready for our new tenants. Liam had absolutely no recollection of our house or where it was located in relation to the houses in our neighborhood. This was extremely hard for me to bear because this was the house where we made so many memories over the years. It’s one of the trade offs of giving the kids opportunities in life that would otherwise not have been given, that memories of their passport country would fade and even change over time. Worth it? It’s hard to say… like anything else, there are pros and cons.
Then Michelle and Kelly came and we were off to France and Italy by road trip, an adventure I don’t think any of us will soon forget! When we returned, a few days later we were off to start Josh’s VistaBreak with trips to Ireland and Greece.
But wait there’s more! Come fall we still had more trips planned with Josh and I spending our anniversary in both Andorra and Formentera (Spain) since we both had the same ideas of a trip to celebrate our 10 year anniversary. Then we spent a long weekend down in Southern Spain and Gibraltar. Finally we spent the end of the year exploring Christmas markets in France, Germany and Switzerland. Along the way we finally got to meet some friends in person that we’d known for the last few years only via Facebook and email. We celebrated the new year skiing in the French Pyrenees. As you can imagine, by the end of the year, we were pretty exhausted but feeling like we were really taking full advantage of every opportunity we had to exploring, knowing that 3 1/2 years will go by quickly and we’ll be back in the US again, making European travel more costly and time consuming (it’s hard to do just a quick 3 day trip to Paris with kids when it’s an 8 hour flight from Boston and 6 hour time difference).
By the end of year 2, we were all feeling pretty good about life in Barcelona. It was hard to remember back to how difficult things were just a year before though we continued to press forward and face any new challenges (and there were always many) head on. We were changing and the change was good. We were learning so much about ourselves and the world around us during these 2 years. We learned about perceptions of the US, perceptions about other countries and people and readjusted our thinking to one that is more global.
Year 3 (2012-2013) it really started to feel like home. So much so that we decided to extend… again. Now we’re looking at a full 5 years in Barcelona instead of our initial 2. Wow, how far we’ve come from those first months! As a result, we decided it was time to look for a bigger apartment and so we moved halfway through year 3 to a building just a matter of blocks from our first apartment, twice the size of our first one. Since this apartment had it’s own private garage and we were looking at another almost 3 years ahead of us, I decided it was time to get my Spanish driver’s license (the US one not transferable in Spain).
Forty hours of class, 2 written exams and 2 1/2 driving exams later I had my drivers license! And we had a car for the first time in almost 3 years. It’s funny how learning to live with less also lowers your expectations and needs for certain status items. I’m not sure if 3 years ago I would have been happy with a little VW Golf as my car – perhaps I was at a point where I was ready for an Audi (like Josh) or a BMW. But no, if I have learned anything during these first 3 years, it’s that I really just need the basics (though I’d like the basics with bluetooth please). I also found that we really didn’t use it all that much in the city – in 20 months with the car, we put barely 6000 miles on it but having the freedom that comes with a car was indeed a luxury.
In year 3, we learned that expat life comes with a price. That is the price of mass exodus. We had some friends come and go over the years, but year 3 was the year that everyone left. Ok, not everyone, that’s an exaggeration. But since moving abroad, we’ve found that our circle of friends is much smaller than what we had at home in the States, so when even a small portion of those people leave, it leaves a huge hole in your social network. That doesn’t mean that they won’t still be friends – they will (or so I hope!) but it means on an everyday basis, your support network has shrunk by a significant percentage. But it wasn’t just me dealing with this exodus, but Aidan. And that was incredibly hard for him. He had already had difficulty putting himself out there to build these new relationships and now to have a huge portion of them leaving was a massive struggle for him. And there was nothing I could do but tell him that truly, I understood what he was going thru because I was going thru the same thing and I think it was one of the hardest times of our years abroad. I don’t think it helped. Fast forward to year 5 in a new country and he’s choosing his relationships based on who is staying here for “x” amount of time and who is going to the same school as him next year (he moves on to secondary school in the fall) – he has come up with his own coping mechanisms to this “problem”.
Year 3 was a year of comfort and yet at the same time, new challenges. Not wanting to become too complacent, we continued to challenge ourselves with the language and trying to immerse ourselves into society. There were good days and bad days with that as can be expected. But they were happy days.
Year 3 was the year that Aidan finally decided that he liked, no loved, Barcelona. He decided that Barcelona is the place he wants to stay…forever. Unless he decides to move to NYC, London or Boston that is. That was a huge moment when he came to us and said “I like it here. I’m over my friends at home.” Now friends at home, please don’t take that the wrong way but out of the mouth of a 7 1/2 year old child – what he meant was that he was finally feeling settled and good about life in Barcelona and was no longer fearful of losing his friends back in the States. He was feeling confident in himself, something that he had been lacking for some time and it gave us great pleasure to see him feeling good about himself and his life in Spain.
For Liam, year 3 was the year that he had lived abroad longer than he had lived in the US. My Spanish Liam. To him, this life is just “normal”. As normal as it can be at least. Travel is all he has known in his life. To ask “where are we going next?” is just the way his life is. At the end of the school year, he also had to say goodbye to his best friend, something that was hard, but at the same time, didn’t have the same significance because he didn’t fully understand it yet (and he’s visited him twice since in NY).
And speaking of visiting, year 3 was no different than year 2 as far as being jam packed with places to visit. The kids have become seasoned travelers and it doesn’t phase them getting on a plane every few weeks for destinations unknown. As I’ve said before, it’s become their normal, especially after 3 years.
With a few of my friends leaving in 2012, we made it a point to do a few girls trips. We managed Andalucia and Scotland early in the year and then later in the year I went to Rome again with some other girlfriends. Rome was my second trip to Italy that year as early in the year, we took a trip to the Amalfi Coast which included a little trip to the ER for Liam who lost our dance off and end up with stitches. We also visited Capri and Pompeii on that trip. My cousin Meghan made her first visit to Spain in the spring time. We had a great time exploring the city and made an attempt at Collioure – it was a fail but we did it again the following year and had such great weather that it made up for the disaster of the first time! My brother got married in May and so I made a special trip to the US for the wedding. As it was in Minneapolis, our hotel happened to be across from the Mall of America and my mom and I made some good time of the shopping there. Josh didn’t appreciate that quite so much when I returned back with several suitcases (and then went to Boston with the kids a month later where I did more shopping).
That year we made the mistake of spending much of August in Barcelona. Bad idea. It’s hot. It’s empty. The only thing that was good about it was that I would sit on my balcony at night and the city was eerily quiet and I could see tons of stars (Josh did a lot of travel for work that August) and the Festa de Gracia. But we managed to get out of the city at the end of the month for a trip to Menorca. A good friend of mine is from there and his vacation overlapped ours, and he was kind enough to spend a few of those days taking us all around this beautiful island – one of our favorite trips over the years.
My friend Jeni also made the trip to visit us while she was in France for a family reunion. We met up with Kyle and Kelly in Munich for Oktoberfest. I don’t even know how to describe Oktoberfest other than exactly what you think it is – a massive beer festival with an insane amount of drunken tourists dressed up ridiculously in traditional lederhosen and dirndls. We were 4 of those people.
The fall was busy with more travel. We took the kids to England where we went to visit Legoland and the Cotswolds. What I wouldn’t give to someday walk the entire 100 miles of the Cotswolds. I just need to find a walking buddy (hint hint to anyone out there!). A few weeks later we found ourselves just a little further north in Belgium where we went to Brussels, Bruges and Ghent and ate a ridiculous amount of chocolate, waffles and fries! Then Josh and I took a trip to Budapest where we were able to meet up with a friend of ours from college. I took a semi solo trip to Madrid shortly after that. At the end of the year, Josh’s parents came for Christmas and stayed for a month. It was such a great time having them visit for an extended period of time where the kids (and Josh and I) got to spend some quality, not chaotic, time with them. While they were visiting, Josh and I took a quick trip to Andorra.
Year 4 (2013-2014) we were just in a total groove that made us all happy. Work for Josh was overall going well. I was learning to live life to the fullest. I was struggling with relationships both in Spain and back home, but at the same time, I recognized that Barcelona had become my life coach and was guiding me to find myself. The kids loved school and Barcelona and overall, all was good in the world.
We, of course, did some travel. It felt slightly scaled back from the last 2 years but all the same, was still pretty aggressive. Knowing that we still had a bit of time left in Europe took the pressure off a little bit. After 2 failed attempts, we finally made it to London! The kids loved it and Aidan has determined it’s on his short list of places to live. This kid who was a suburban kid for the first 5 1/2 years of his life had determined that it is big city life that, in fact, intrigues him the most. Over the spring break we went to Malta. I’ll be honest, beyond the swimming with dolphins, it wasn’t all that. And we wouldn’t go back. But we’re glad we went to check it out.
For my birthday in June, my two college besties came to visit. Even almost 2 years later, that trip still puts a smile on my face. Especially, believe it or not, our trip to Collioure where we managed to get hit by a BUS! But our attempts to figure things out, work together as a team and just laugh at the insanity of it all, it was just so awesome. I can’t wait for them to visit us in Amsterdam one of these days!
Before the kids and I were home in the summer for a few weeks, Michelle came out to visit again. Between her visit and Caryn and Urs, my June and July absolutely rocked. But come end of summer 2013, we made a decision that based on changes in Josh’s job, we were going to start looking into going back to the US a year early and that the upcoming school year would be our last. We were all sad about leaving early, especially now that Aidan actually liked it in Barcelona!! But at the same time, we were excited about getting back home to our family and friends there. We recognized that we were lucky to have the opportunities that we had that allowed us to stay almost 3 years longer than we originally planned to stay.
After the kids and I returned from the States, we immediately left for our family trip in Croatia. It was a fabulous trip and we really loved this underrated country. Unfortunately during our time there, our sweet boy, Jake, passed away. Almost 2 years later, his name still comes up every week. Actually I’m teary just writing about him, he’s so missed.
We returned from Croatia and shortly after, my cousin Meghan came for another visit. This one was even better than the first and I loved having her visiting with me and her trip coincided with La Merce and of course the Corre Foc (fire run) which I felt she absolutely had to experience. Her parents, my aunt and uncle, came in November for Thanksgiving. I loved that they came to see us too and we had such a great time exploring the city during a very unusually cold week in Barcelona. And while I loved having all my family and friends come to visit this year – it was a huge year for visitors, the ones that touched my heart the most was my parents. My mother has a huge fear of flying and my brother’s wedding the year before was only the 3rd time she had been on a plane…ever. So I knew what a huge undertaking it was for her to fly across the ocean to see me. And words cannot even come close to describing how much it meant to me that they did this and that we were able to show them our “new” home and also show them that we were living a good life, weren’t living in a 3rd world country and that we were all happy.
Between my parents visit and my aunt and uncle, Josh and I made a quick trip to Florence, Italy for a few days where we had some of the best food we’ve ever eaten, totally relaxed and felt refreshed and ready to face our newly chaotic lives back in Barcelona (more on that shortly). We also made our first trip to visit our cousins in England – though this first visit was actually in Scotland where we met up (they kindly drove the 4 hours to meet us in Edinburgh). All the kids hit it off great and we are always plotting on how we can meet up with “the cousins” now. Josh was especially excited to see Stirling Castle where the movie Braveheart was based off.
Knowing it would be our last year in Barcelona, we booked a cruise in the Baltic Sea for that following summer. It would be our farewell Europe tour since we hadn’t had the chance to really explore much of Northern Europe. Who knew it would instead become our introduction to life in Northern Europe instead??? We arranged for the kids to go to summer camp for 3 weeks (Josh’s old camp up in Maine) so that we would have time to get the house ready for us to move back into.
However, as we know… the best laid plans are never meant to be. Just when we thought that we would be getting ready to move back to the US, a new opportunity was presented to Josh. It was supposed to be an interim position, lasting only 3-6 months, but it was a job he had wanted since the previous year. The only problem. It was in Amsterdam. Josh immediately began the weekly commute starting the first week of November. It was hard on all of us, and I mean all of us.
The kids had a tough time with Josh being away 5 days a week. At the same time, I found that this time brought them much closer. Josh was no longer the guy they just went to when mom said no, but he was someone they wanted to spend quality time with. Our weekends became split – one day for playdates, one day for family time since that was now limited for us. The tough time for me was not because I was in a foreign country alone 5 days a week with two young children – thankfully we’d been in Spain long enough that it felt like home and not a foreign country. Actually, it was that I had lost my support system with Josh gone. I already was limited with my support system with the exodus of many of my friends and having Josh gone made me realize how alone I felt in Barcelona. It was the time that I recognized that I was ready for us to move on. I had been incredibly happy (ok, overall very happy with a few bad Spain days thrown in for good measure) in Barcelona, but the time had come for us to go back home.
Only was home even an option any more? Josh LOVED his job in Amsterdam. But it was supposed to be temporary. Was there a chance they could offer him a full time permanent position? Only time would tell and until then we would live a life in limbo wondering when we would hear more and at the same time getting ready to move…somewhere… in a matter of months.
Trying to refocus our energy, which was hard, we had a few trips planned in the late fall where we would meet up with Josh instead of him traveling home to Barcelona. Our first was a trip to Paris for a surprise trip for the kids. When asked where he would like to go on a trip, Aidan had responded, surprisingly, with Paris. To make it fun for all (ie Liam), we added in another trip to DisneyParis as well. We will never need to go back to DisneyParis again – 2 trips in 5 years is more than enough…
If I had only known that the last quarter of 2013 was only the calm before the storm, I might have just stayed in Switzerland and escaped it all…
Given how year 4 was ending, it should come as no surprise that year 5 was the hardest so far but also a year filled with our biggest adventures to date. Year 5 is the year boys become men (ok, mine are still boys) and when it was time for me to put on my big girl boots and gear up for a year of chaos, frustration, confusion, fear and depression. It was not a good year. But then, they can’t all be good years, can they?
Looking back, year 1 was hard for a variety of reasons but year 5 was hard because our family became disjointed and disconnected. Josh was commuting weekly to Amsterdam which was incredibly hard on him emotionally and physically, but we didn’t know for months if it would, in fact, become our home or if we would be going back to the US as planned.
In fact, while Josh was offered the job permanently in the beginning of the year, it would be 5 months before we had a contract that confirmed to us that we were actually going to be moving to the Netherlands. Why 5 months? It’s a long drawn out story and while both he and I were very stressed during that time, it turns out that there were just that many details that needed to be worked out in order to make it logistically work.
There was a lot of tension in our house. You could cut it with a knife. I was resentful of Josh even though none of this limbo was his fault. But someone had to take the blame for my emotional state (god forbid it be me!) and it’s constant breakdown.
However, life doesn’t stop even when you are in limbo. Josh continued his weekly commute. I took care of the house, the kids, worked and started the preparations for moving and planned our last vacations before the big day happened (since at that time we still didn’t know where we were going). We decided this would be the year of some bigger trips – as our friend Rich always said, “go big or go home”. Since we didn’t know where we were going to end up, we decided to just go big 😉
The kids and I did a trip to Amsterdam to visit Josh in January. We figured it not only gave him an opportunity to not have to fly back home one weekend, but gave us the chance to see Amsterdam from a different perspective. Josh had been living there for 3 months at that point and was more familiar with it than your typical tourist. We also wanted to see if we could see ourselves living there – did we like it enough to make it our home? We had an amazing weekend and it’s amazing what “getting away” for a weekend can do to the tension in a household – Josh and I were better, the kids were happy and overall it was a great trip. And Aidan kept an open mind about the idea of moving there. Liam was still going with the flow but I don’t think he totally grasped how soon it was that we would be leaving Barcelona.
In February we decided that instead of heading south to go somewhere warm, we would head north. To Iceland. Along the way we stopped in Copenhagen. We hadn’t been there before and heard great things. I’ll be honest, I didn’t think Copenhagen was all that and a bag of chips. It was pretty but didn’t meet my expectations after hearing from others how great it was. Iceland on the other hand… it was otherworldly. It was like Lanzarote, only cold. It was volcanic, desolate, barren and yet, beautiful in a way that is hard to describe. Untouched by human hands, it was nature at it’s best and it’s worst.
Over those first months of the year, I struggled emotionally. Not knowing where we were going to be in a matter of months was very hard for me. Looking back, this was not the worst we had to face. But at the time, I couldn’t get out of my own way. I was depressed despite all the beauty around me that Barcelona had to offer. I didn’t want to leave the house unless I had to. But because I had no choice, I moved forward.
We went to England to visit with “the cousins”. Josh met us there. What an awesome, fun weekend! It’s one thing to travel to new places as a family of 4. It’s another when you are visiting with people you love and adore and just hang out and enjoy the relaxing atmosphere around you. When the kids can run and play in the countryside. We had so much fun, in fact, that while we were there, the cousins planned a trip to come visit us just one month later during the Easter break. Two doses of cousin fun in 2 months – seriously awesome!!!
We started applying to schools before we even had a contract – we couldn’t wait any longer. If we were going to be possibly moving to the Netherlands we needed to be prepared and we could waste any more time waiting. School was harder than we thought. Primarily because they were all either full or cost 20,000 euros a year per child. We finally found an international school in Almere, about 30 minutes east of Amsterdam. The good news is that it helped us to narrow down the area where we would be living since there was no school bus and I would need to drive the kids to and from school.
In the spring, just when the tension couldn’t get any thicker in our house, we were hit with more challenges and sad moments. The boys had their first experience with death. Not just one, but two teachers, at their school passed away within weeks of each other. One of them was Aidan’s co-teacher. The days and weeks that followed were incredibly difficult. Learning that not just elderly people die, but that the young can die too, learning about your own mortality and those you love – it’s a hard lesson for all, especially a 9 year old little boy. Already emotionally raw these days, this was a difficult time for us all. And it wasn’t over…
At this point we knew that we were moving for sure and we decided to have Aidan re-tested for his dyslexia. The results 3 years before had come back as “learning disability – undefined” and it was the school that had determined that he had dyslexia. Schools recommend retesting every 3 years and since we would need updated results no matter what country we were in, we moved forward with retesting. We needed confirmation before changing schools so that we could get him the extra learning support that he needed. And he did in fact have dyslexia and dyscalculia.
But since we were having Aidan tested, we also decided to move forward with having Liam tested. He had been struggling with his fine motor skills for the last 3 years and they were not improving despite having an OT and tutoring assistance during those years. We thought perhaps he had dyspraxia and ADD. We were not prepared for the results.
Liam has non verbal learning disorder (NLD). This is the first time I’ve written about it and I’m still ambivalent about putting it “out there”. Not because of any shame related to it – I love this little boy more and more every day no matter what. But more because disclosing it publicly is unfair to him since I am not giving him the voice to decide what is published and what is not. And it should be his decision on what is allowed to be online but this had a big impact on our year and to cover 5 years of “stuff” and not include one of the biggest challenges we’ve faced doesn’t seem right. Whether I go into it more at some point is up in the air, but know this – this is a disorder that affects his right brain hemisphere. It affects fine motor skills, gross motor skills, mathematics, organization, social skills and so much more. It’s a spectrum disorder and something that is going to be a lifelong challenge for him (and us as a family).
Regardless, this was a blow to Josh and myself. We are moving to a new country. We can’t change that. But will we be able to get the support that both of our children need, especially Liam? How would this move affect them both socially and academically? Can we do this? We really had no choice but to plow forward and hope for the best. That is the life of an expat – you can’t go backwards, only forwards.
The countdown was on for the move. Two months became one and then a matter of weeks. Kyle and Kelly came for one more visit (and are already booked to see us in Amsterdam this spring!). We went to England one more time as a belated birthday present to the kids to visit the Harry Potter Studios and then straight to Amsterdam to look at houses. The movers came. Before you know it, it was time to start saying goodbye.
Goodbye to 4 1/2 years of memories. It’s hard to believe that saying goodbye to 4 1/2 years could be almost as hard as 34 years when we left the US, but it was. Friends that had become family. And since the kids had spent the majority of their formative years in Barcelona, the relationships they had weren’t of the temporary kind – they had to say goodbye to their friends yet again. It was a big ask of them and they took it really well and are still taking it well despite the occasional breakdown. And yet, we didn’t leave in tears. We left for vacation. In a way, it made the break a little easier – almost as if the plan was to come back, even though we weren’t.
So remember that cruise we planned last year? Well not ones to sit on our laurels, we now had the most chaotic summer planned in quite some time (only to come close to the summer of 2011 when we did the US, roadtrip to France/Italy and Josh’s vistabreak). We would leave Barcelona on the morning of July 1 and head straight to the cruise in Harwich, England that was departing later that day. For the next 12 nights we would spend cruising the Baltic with stops in Copenhagen, Tallinn, St. Petersburg, Helsinki, Stockholm and Visby. As soon as we arrived back in port, we would head straight to Heathrow. From there it was back home to the States for 5 weeks where the kids would still spend 3 weeks at summer camp while I packed up for our second move since we decided to bring some of our furniture that we left behind with us to Amsterdam. And with only a day to spare, we would arrive in our new home on August 17 with school slated to start on August 18. Yup, no rest for the weary.
But the chaos of that summer made the transition a little easier. Or so I thought. Ok, it made it easier up until we arrived here in the Netherlands. We were so busy that there wasn’t a lot of time to think about the impending transition to yet another new country. And in the back of my mind I was thinking “we’ve got this… how hard can it be the second time around?” And bonus, “they speak a lot of English there – this should be a piece of cake!”. Oh how wrong I was and how naive. Should we move to another country some day, I’ll (hopefully) be better prepared.
All the emotions of the last 9 months decided to escape my body at the exact same moment. I completely and totally broke down upon our arrival in Amsterdam as in completely and totally unable to function, sobbing with all my heart and just feeling so lost and trapped. It was raining, about 55F and the impending doom of what was about to happen could no longer be avoided. We had arrived. We were now living in the Netherlands. It happened. There’s no going back. And I freaked out. In a bad way. Poor Josh is all I can say. He suffered my wrath not just for days but for weeks… ok, months. And bonus, I was on my own from the first full day since Josh went to work and the kids had school. This was not a good moment for Josh and I. We’ll leave it at that. There were days in the first weeks where I found it hard to get out of bed in the morning and I had zero motivation to do anything, to meet anyone or get stuff done. Depression would be putting it lightly.
And yet, I got stuff done. I got up. I went running. I got the kids to school and took Josh to the train. I worked. I got the kids enrolled in sports, tried to coordinate playdates and essentially, tried to do everything that I waited so long on in Barcelona by throwing myself into it while at the same time, suffering internally. To add insult to injury (sorry for the pun), Josh dislocated his knee on our second night here, meaning I had to call the ambulance and meet the neighbors as I threw my children at them while I waited for the EMTs to arrive. It’s been a long 5 months for him (and for us) between the dislocated knee, surgery in October and his recovery. As of mid January, he’s still not at 100% and I still have to drive him to and from the train every day as his leg isn’t strong enough for his bike. But he’s getting there and the worst is behind us (oh god please let the worst be behind us!).
Eventually I recognized, similar to Barcelona, that I could either wallow in this self pity or I could take the bull by the horns and face these new challenges head on. This is where we are living for the foreseeable future and I could either embrace it or let it bring me further down. I’ve opted for the former. While I can’t say I’m truly happy yet (seriously it’s been raining for something like 8 days straight now), I’m in a good place now and I can see us having a very good life here. I feel like we’ve lived here for a lot longer than the 5 months that it’s been which says to me that we’ve done a really good job of integrating so far – we have a ways to go, but for 5 months I feel really really good about our progress in establishing some roots here. We live in a really beautiful place and on the days when I’m down, I remember how lucky we are to live somewhere so picturesque (and wet).
The kids are happy. They miss Barcelona terribly. And so as one of their Christmas gifts, we got them a trip to Barcelona during their February break. They are counting down the days til they get to visit with their friends there. They are recognizing that like with their friends in the US, location doesn’t always matter when you have a true friend. We’ve booked our trip home for this summer already though as I always say, I’m not going to make a lot of plans (this time I mean it!) so that I can actually enjoy the time at home rather than feeling spread so thin.
We ended 2014 on a really good note. Josh is happy with work, so very happy. The kids are happy in their new school and making new friends. I’m happy that 2014 is over 😉 We’re all happy. We made a trip to Tanzania as part our new pact to doing bigger, better and more adventurous trips in the future. It was a great way to end the year with a reminder of just how lucky we really are to have these opportunities for ourselves and for our children.
As we finish up 5 years with our trip to a 3rd world country, we realized just how much we’ve learned through this experience, not just about ourselves but about the world around us. There is so much more beyond this list, but this is the gist of it!
- We are made of tough stuff but not only that, we’ve learned that often we have no choice but to rise to the occasion and press on – there is no looking back, but only looking forward. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
- We’ve redefined what home means to us. A house is just a building filled with stuff, it’s a family that makes it a home.
- Children really are resilient. People keep telling me that and I didn’t believe them but it’s true.
- Learn to live outside your comfort zone – that’s really living life to the fullest.
- As in any place, you need to advocate for yourself and for your childrens’ needs – this is even harder when living abroad and resources can be limited.
- Being away from family is hard – there is no sugar coating that one… just get used to it.
- But even though we are away, Skype, Facebook and Vonage have been lifesavers as far as being able to easily keep in touch. I don’t think I could have done this “journey” 10-15 years ago before those things were readily available.
- Travel is an addiction as you can see from all the trips listed above!
- Learn the local language. It’s not easy but showing at least an attempt at a language is greatly appreciated and you’ll find more often than not that people will be more apt to help you when they see you trying.
- Don’t be afraid to travel with kids. In fact, embrace it. But be realistic. If you are hoping to see 5 things in a city, recognize you will probably only see 3 of them so make sure to pick out your favorites before you go so you won’t be disappointed. Make sure to throw in a zoo, aquarium or park along the way and everyone will be happy.
- We’ve learned that we love both living in the city and the suburbs for totally different reasons. And while we are back in the suburbs again for now, we can see ourselves back in the city again some day too. I do miss getting to walk everywhere in the city and we’ve all conceded that we spend way too much time in the car these days.
- Life in Europe is very different from life in the US for a variety of reasons, but first and foremost from a safety perspective of our children. While we’d like to go back to the US some day (we do not have a formal timeframe at the moment), we know that we will look at that life very differently than we did pre life in Europe.
- Our children are truly third culture kids, a very unique and precious gift that we are lucky to have been able to give them. I can’t even begin to list all the wonderful attributes they have as a result of living abroad for the last 5 years but I can say that I think at this point, these traits are now engrained in them!
- Stay in touch with those at home, no matter how hard it might be and even if it feels very one sided. Remember, you are the one who left – life goes on back home and you aren’t there. I wasn’t very good about that initially and now I feel so out of touch that it almost feels weird to get back in touch. Don’t let that be you.
- Learn about the cultures where you live and where you travel – not only is it a courtesy, but you’ll find the locals will be much kinder and more helpful to you and you’ll fit in much better.
- Find your support system – whether through school, expat groups or work, find people you can connect with on different levels. They will become your family while you live abroad.
- Don’t give up. This is a huge one. There have been so many moments over the years when I’ve wanted to throw in the towel and call it a day. But pushing on and getting that challenging task done will not only make you feel like you can conquer the world but realize that getting there is a part of the journey.
- While I have had moments of doubt about our choice to live abroad, I have absolutely no regrets.
There is a quote that I found a few years ago that to me best describes what life is like for an expat:
Living abroad changed me to the core. As I’ve reread much of the last 5 years of this blog to write this entry, I’m realizing just how much. As I read, I’ve laughed and I’ve cried and I’ve thought OMG how did we deal with that??? And I thought… ahhh Spain… ahhh Netherlands countless times with a little chuckle. It’s all a part of the journey.
So what’s coming next? Well aside from getting ourselves fully immersed (or as close to as we can), we are trying to plan out our next year of travel. As I mentioned, I’m taking the kids to Barcelona during their February break to see their friends (and mine). I’m interested in seeing what it’s like for them to be visitors and how they react to seeing their friends. Our first summer back in the US, they were still so young that I suspect this is going to be a very different reaction but we shall see on that. In May we’re still up in the air on our travel as Josh now has an offsite work event right in the middle of the kids 2 week break. But during the first week we are excited for Kyle and Kelly to come visit!! Before you know it, summer will be here and we are heading home right after the 4th of July through to mid August. The boys will be going to Camp Wekeela again for 3 weeks and then we head back here for school to start in mid August (so depressing). And so that is our upcoming plan thus far…
Beyond the travel, I’m seeing some changes coming for this blog over the next several months. It’s still all in my head what direction I want to take this in, but since we are now living in the Netherlands, the title of the blog doesn’t really apply any more… plus I want to make it more of a multi national site rather than just focusing on where we are at this moment. So we’ll see where that goes – I’ll keep you posted on it 🙂
Finally, I want to thank all of you who have not just been following this blog for the last 5 years, but who have been our biggest supporters through thick and thin. As you know, we’ve had our challenges over the years but successes as well and we are so happy that we get to share them with you. Thank you for sticking by us and joining us on our adventures…