Happy Birthday

I’ve written before about having two homes and after almost 3 years of life (back) in the Netherlands, we are settling in here and overall doing well.  The girls are enjoying school in groep 2 & 4 and I’m so proud of their bilingual abilities.  As I write, the sun is shining and the sky is blue, which always makes everything seem better.  I’ve found freelance work that I find both challenging and rewarding, teaching marketing and ebusiness at The Hague University.  I am likely to start studying towards a Masters in September with a view to working as a lecturer long term (you need a Masters to get a fixed contract).  We’ve been in our “new house” for a year now and it’s a beautiful area to live, right on the border between Delft and The Hague, two beautiful cities. Driving here has become something easy I do nearly every day instead of the terrifying ordeal it was when I first moved here…and I haven’t fallen off my bike in more than 2 years!

This morning, I gave an interview to a writer for a magazine in Sydney about moving overseas to be with a partner, which should be published in the next few months.  In this hour-long Skype conversation I felt mixed emotions when sharing our story.  I was proud of how far I’ve come since we’ve moved here, personally and professionally.  There are so many challenges I’ve faced that I’ve somehow overcome.  When she asked if it’s changed me for the better, I can say “absolutely”.

Reflecting on the “usual” question she asked about what I miss the most, it is – of course – family and friends.   There are other things, but they are far outweighed by this number 1 priority.  When she talked about homesickness, an image of beautiful sunny beaches and delicious juicy mangoes comes to mind, but mostly, it’s the faces of my family.  Homesickness is a strange thing.  You can be totally fine and then it will hit you at really random times.  Sometimes you’ll be sad for an hour, sometimes for days, sometimes longer.   Consistently though, I find that birthdays and holidays are the most difficult.  Tomorrow is my mum’s birthday and I wish I could turn up with a big bunch of flowers, a hug and her grandchildren.  Early next month, it’s my dad’s 75th birthday and I’d love to be there.  I was considering it, however it falls during school term and I’ve already been strictly told (due to the “leerplicht” rules making it illegal for me to take my children out of school) that a trip at this time would not be allowed.  I did consider risking a fine, or I’ve heard, possibly even being stopped at the airport, but it just seemed too hard.  Other commitments like my work and the costs of the flights have also meant I need to accept this isn’t going to happen.   In August, it’s my 40th birthday.  Again, I’ll be celebrating this without my family.

One thing I feel bad about is that I always plan weeks in advance to write a card and plan a perfect present for my family’s birthdays.  However I then end up being literally paralysed and don’t do it.  It just seems too hard and threatens to unleash a carefully built dam of emotions.

I’m feeling the same way about planning our next trip back to Australia.  At the moment, the plan is to go next July/August for around 5 weeks, during the girl’s school summer holiday.  That will make it 18 months between trips which in some ways isn’t long at all and in others seems forever.  I’ve opened the flight website many times but somehow just can’t get any further.  Entering dates and looking at availability and costs and weighing what I want against what seems possible is overwhelming.   I’d much rather go at Christmas time to escape the bleak, long, European winter, and spend Christmas with my family.  We managed this for the last 2 years, getting permission from the school for an additional 2 weeks holiday to add to the 2 weeks regular Christmas school holidays but I was told last year it was the “last time”.  I can go on my own, but then have to spend Christmas without my children.  So again, leerplicht, cost and tough decisions means I’ll probably be spending Christmas 2015 here in the cold.   I’m trying to look on the bright side – an old-fashioned church service with my family-in-laws, Christmas markets, gluwijn, and maybe even snow.  However I already know that Christmas Day is going to be tough and am bracing myself for this.

Bizarrely I had a bit of an unexpected emotion on a local holiday here recently – Koningsdag.  For months, I’d been looking forward to getting dressed in orange with my kids and hitting the markets for bargains. When it came though, I had quite an intense feeling which is difficult to describe.  The best way I can do so is to say I felt like my children and husband were a real part of this Dutch holiday, while I was an outsider.  The crowds of orange overwhelmed me and I felt physically sick.  Perhaps it was also as I had been battling a cold but I did realise that I have felt like that before on other Dutch holidays.  Like the “Centreparks” type getaway that so many Dutch people, including my husband and kids just LOVE, but for me is not my idea of a fun holiday at all.  I know it’s most likely “in my head” and I am working on just getting out and enjoying holidays but I’ve discovered that life in a culture other than one you grew up with often comes with a range of strong emotions you often don’t have names for.

Birthdays in the Netherlands are also a bit of a joke for expats – I love how Stu from the “Invading Holland” blog has come up with a “Dutch Circle Party Guide“.  But again it hits home that even celebrating your own birthday here means YOU have to buy everyone cake and be the hostess.  So for my 40th, I’m hesitating on how to celebrate.  I really don’t want to do the Dutch Circle Party so I guess being summer, I could do a backyard Aussie BBQ!   Again though, I’m really going to miss having my family there.  I’m planning my girls 6th and 8th birthday parties and have realised my parents are not likely to see them in person at this age at all – they will be already 7 and 9 by the time we next visit.

This post feels at the moment like a self-pitying ramble, it was different when I was planning it in my head.  I guess I wanted to say that I feel for all of you out there in a similar situation.  Having family in two countries and living between cultures is always hard, but it seems birthdays and holidays are the most difficult.  Is that the case for you?  I know this is also true when loved ones pass away as well.  This morning, I found myself telling the journalist that one of the ways I cope with tough times is by sharing how I feel, often via this blog.   I’ve always loved having messages from readers saying they understand and have been through the same thing and survived!  So here’s to surviving birthdays,  holidays and any random time you are away from and missing family.  Perhaps in the future, I can then move past surviving and really enjoy it.  Next year, I’ll tackle Koningsdag again in orange and with a Heineken (or two or three) and do my best to have FUN!

Another thing that helps in tough times is to focus on what you’re grateful for.  I am always so very grateful to have my little family here with me, happy and healthy.  There is also technology to talk to my parents, they even bought an iPad so we can use FaceTime now and my mum’s getting really good at sharing photos on Facebook.  They are travelling a lot around Australia and I love hearing about their adventures.

Oh and if you have any awesome long-distance gift ideas, I’d love to hear them!