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September 11, 2011

Moving to Europe can be deceptive.  When you move to India or Japan or South Africa, you prepare yourself for a certain degree of culture shock.  Europe, by comparison, isn’t all that different from the states.  And it’s true, culture shock (especially in Amsterdam) is a bit of a strong word.  But there is also this constant awareness that everything is just… different.  Somethings are blatantly different, like the language for instance.  But who doesn’t see that coming.  The way you interact with one another on the street is different.  It’s pretty much impossible to passively meander without being hit by a tram, taxi, bicycle, bicycle with a wheel barrow attached, or a Porsche.  Everyone here know’s how to deal with that– when to cross the street, which lights mean what, when not to turn in front of traffic on your bike.  But for a new transplant, it’s a little overwhelming just trying to get to the market.

A rare moment where I look happy rather than terrified on my bike.

But there’s more subtle differences too– sandwiches, for instance.  I have about 4 years of sandwich making experience under my belt.  Not to mention the countless years on top of that making sandwiches for myself.  I fancy myself a bit of an expert in the peanut butter and jelly field.  The first day of getting the boys ready for school, though, I learned that rather than a sandwich, some fruit and veggies, and snack, kids in Holland get three different halves of a sandwich.  That’s it.  Proving that, for a Dutchman, bread and cheese (and maybe some sausage) is more than enough.

Table manners are different too.  Your knife, spoon, and fork are pretty much always in use, no matter what you’re eating.  The knife is meant for scooping and moving, not just cutting.  And both hands are always on the table, not just elbows.  It makes sense, actually, when you think about it. And when Marijke pointed out how funny she finds it that Americans will cut a bight of food, put their knife down, switch hands with the fork, and then put their spare hand in their lap– only to repeat this process continuously throughout the meal– I all of the sudden became very aware of my hands while I ate.

It’s these subtle, and not so subtle things, that can make you feel like you constantly have to be “on.”  I rarely feel like my brain can heave a heavy sigh and slouch back in an arm chair for a bit (because I imagine my brain living in a spacious cave… with only a squashy arm chair for furniture).  And feeling like that can be a bit exhausting.  In response, finding a bit of comfort in small things can make all the difference.


My biggest bit of comfort in this past week was the arrival of my long lost luggage.  One of my bags made it to Amsterdam but one dropped off the radar for a bit.  I honestly had reconciled that it was lost forever and was getting a long fine with what I had.  Having a legitimate excuse to go shoe shopping isn’t the worst things in the world.  But when the bag showed up on Thursday, and I sifted through the items I had tucked into it, my brain relaxed a bit. The few books I couldn’t do without were in there, along with a small piece of art that seems to follow me– and inspire me– with every big move I make.  There was my skin care products and full bottles of shampoos.  My hats and scarves, too.  It wasn’t anything big or entirely essential, but they were things that smelled like home and felt familiar.  When you’re constantly surrounded by the unfamiliar, that’s huge.

I’ve been seeking out parts of the city that evoke a sense of comfort too.  I record them in my mind in a file labeled “In Case of Homesickness.”  It’s right next to the armchair.  So far, the greatest place I’ve found is Two for Joy Cafe.  Finding flavored coffee in Europe is really difficult.  They don’t put syrups in their lattes and will look at you funny if you ask them too.  And don’t even think about getting your coffee iced.  That funny look will turn to one of mild disgust.  When I walked into Two for Joy and saw not only a menu in English, but a chalk board actually advertising syrups and iced coffee, I knew I’d be coming back.  A lot.  I try to save the “American coffee” for days when I’m really pining for it, but there’s more to come back for than good coffee.  There’s the salmon and cream cheese wraps (yes, one week in Europe and I’m cheating on my vegetarian self), the Ray Charles playlist that’s almost always on, and the squashy couches.  So not only can my brain relax into something squashy in it’s brain cave, but so can I.

There also may or may not be a rather handsome barista that works there.


I’d love to hear from fellow travelers, past and present.  What kind of small comforts do you keep around you?  And do you have any tips for combatting the homesickness that I’m sure to confront at some point?

PS- I hear care packages are filled with love and comfort.  Anyone reading this is welcome to send one my way at any time… especially if it’s filled with the skin care products I can only get in the states 😉

6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 11, 2011 4:59 pm

    You are seriously one of my heroes. That photo of you on your bike is possibly one of the greatest photos ever taken–it’s filled with sooooo much joy and it made me so happy for you:) Your writing is gorgeous and funny and inspiring. YOU are inspiring:) xoxo Sarah

  2. September 11, 2011 11:04 pm

    Sarah, you are such a wonderful writer. Reading this makes me feel so close to you. I am so proud of you. Please keep us up to date with your blog. It is wonderful!
    Love, Mom

  3. September 12, 2011 2:05 am

    I actually was disappointed in a way when I went to Scotland for several months – finding that the winter gloom and rainy weather were too similar to home anyway, and the terrain was geographically so familiar that I almost didn’t feel like I’d left in some ways. But I did, like you, find a cafe in Edinburgh that had the *good* coffee and made that my Third Space.

    When I was overseas, I was staying with strangers, but who were neighbors (and good friends) of a good friend of mine … so I never felt terribly lonely. Also, I was in my mid-30s by then and not disposed to loneliness in general, nor to homesickness (being somewhat of a gypsy anyway) but it is strange how I became sort of more ‘American’ while I was away than before. I’m not sure what I mean by that, except that I was clearly a foreigner and had this quality about reinforcing others’ expectations of what an American behaved like, or defied them, but either way it was odd to me to be representing my country.

    For many years, I had a Finnish friend here who constantly remarked on how I *did* use both hands with my cutlery – she pointed out the American way of eating just as you describe it, and honestly – I had never noticed other Americans using their cutlery in any particular way at all. I still don’t. But I do recognize now, thanks to my friend, that Americans have a way of doing things, and it’s only ubiquitous amongst other Americans.

    Being out of our element is good for us. It teaches us what it is like to be American – and therefore, it opens us up to the idea that the way others do things is *not* American.

  4. Susie June permalink
    September 13, 2011 1:37 am

    Oh Sarah, How I love reading your blogs. You are such a gifted writer and I long for the day that your first book will come out. I will be one of the first in line. What an incredible journey you are on and I thank you for sharing it with all of us. I can’t wait to hear what’s next.
    So what’s the barista’s name?

    love ya,

    • September 20, 2011 9:04 pm

      Thank you so much Susie! I love when you comment. Everything you say is so encouraging 🙂

      I have no idea what his name is! And we talk so much I feel like it’d be awkward if I asked now. Haha. I keep trying to over hear him tell someone else.


  1. Care « Flaneur

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