Xplainer's Blog

November 10, 2010

Going ‘home’

Filed under: Expat, Memory — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — xplainer @ 10:41 pm

Body of waterMost global travellers will have thought about ‘going home’ one day, even if they have decided to live abroad. But is repatriation tinged with a longing to belong, as much as moving abroad is tinged with a longing for a better life?
For any global traveller, repatriation won’t be a new theme as it basically means ‘going home’. ‘Which is where?’ some of you might ask, with good reason.

Homeland: watery associations

We all have an idea of home, which could be tangible like the place you were born and brought up in, or a culture you have lived in–a sense of belonging which is more related to the people rather than the land. A documentary I watched recently–Water-The great mystery–suggests that memory is held through water, and we carry the blueprint of the water of our birthplace. As the narrator in the documentary says: “Modern science maintains that the water structure of each person’s body is identical to the structure of the water in the place where they were born, therefore our internal connection to the place of our birth is preserved throughout out life, and that means that the concept of homeland has not only a lofty poetical meaning but also a quite specific physical content.”


But whether this poetical feeling has physical or psychic roots, it still exists and is often felt as a deep longing or saudade, a word in Portuguese which gets close to describing this feeling.


Of course you will always ‘miss’ something, from time to time; an occasional feeling that can suddenly creep up on you, or linger. Is this perpetual urge to travel, a moving from place to place, an addiction to this ‘longing’, a way of escaping growing up, a seeking out of an ancestral homeland—perhaps through the subliminal pull of an H2O molecule, a wish to embrace new cultures and broaden horizons (most people confess to this), or is it simply a vestigial instinct developed in the time of the hunters and gatherers when moving on to greener pastures made literal sense.

As veteran expat Elise Krentzel put it upon finally heading ‘home’ to the US after living abroad for several years: “Having tried most of my life to belong, I finally found out what belonging really means. …. To be longing to belong has left me on the outside of what I sought. Now I am being. There is no longing. That is what fitting in means.”

So basically, the source of contentment is within you and you don’t really need to change country to find that.

Running away

So you have decided to move back home anyhow, for whatever reasons, but check that your reasons for going back are realistic. For instance, you move back perhaps because you are tired of having to speak a language you fear you will never master, you are tired of being an ‘alien’, tired of having less flexibility in the job market, tired of the dating scene, food, culture. In this case you are probably running, which isn’t necessarily a negative thing.
Think of why you left ‘home’ in the first place? If any of the reasons are similar, then you are likely running back to the same thing. On the other hand, leaving may be the best thing you can do. After all, the move may just not have worked out for whatever reason, and prolonging the stay may not be a productive thing to do.

Starting over

Repatriates mostly seem to agree that going home is like starting over— the people you left behind will have moved on or even away, places will have changed, things simply won’t be like you remember them. You will be out of touch, just like you were when you moved to a new country, but you will also be able to appreciate things more and see them with fresh eyes. The rolling hills of the Scottish landscape will be a feast if you are repatriating from the Netherlands or the site of sea beating against the rocks may be paradise if you are moving to Cornwall from Madrid. Things you took for granted before; how helpful people might be, or smiley or reserved compared to where you were, can be a welcome awakening.

Danielle Latman who recently repatriated to the US from the Netherlands says: “After returning to the US, everything seemed so much bigger than in the Netherlands! Even in New York City, where I’m from, the streets were wider, houses and apartment buildings were bigger, even the cars were bigger. The Netherlands is a very crowded country with narrow buildings and streets… it was kind of nice and relaxing to feel a bit more room around me.”

Reverse culture shock

Although reverse culture shock is commonly experienced by repatriates, not everyone seems to be hard hit. As Expatica reader, Valerie, who returned to the UK after living 20 years in various countries in Europe says: “The fear of feeling lost and alienated when returning to your roots is something I have heard mentioned many times, and indeed it scared me rather when I myself decided to return to the UK with my three children.” She then raves about how wonderful things turned out. “It is great! I truly never expected to feel so settled again so quickly. People have been more welcoming that I could possibly have hoped for….I only regret that it took so long to make this decision, but hey, I’m here now, living in one of the most beautiful countries of the world, surrounded by warm and friendly people who share my roots, and once more able to enjoy all the essentially English things I had almost forgotten about.”

But it isn’t always that easy, as Danielle Latman finds out:

“It can take time to adjust to the differences in language, customs, etc. Also, prepare to answer the same questions over and over again! Family, friends and acquaintances will want to know what living there was like, how it is to be back, your comparison of the two countries… try to be patient with them too! It can help to develop stock responses so you don’t have to think about it too much.”

Passing the no-return mark

When I moved to France from the UK, a friend told me that if I passed the three-year mark, I’d made it. He said, “you can always come back if you want to, don’t see going home as failure or defeat.” I remember thinking about this at moments when I felt like packing up and going somewhere else—never ‘home’ actually (I did see this as defeat at the time). I did leave France after seven years, for reasons I justify as principally economic.

Now I am happily living in the Netherlands, with two bilingual children and a German boyfriend, having understood that what is important is how good you feel about yourself, the people you surround yourself with, rather than which country you are living in. And just like water molecules moving together, you’ll attract other internationals like yourself, and simply the people you want to.


Photo credits: mikecpeck


April 13, 2010

French knickers

It was the January sales in Paris and I was on my way out shopping with my French boyfriend.

Didier had actually asked me if he could take me out shopping to buy me a pair of ‘sexy’ knickers and I seized the opportunity immediately.  Not only do I like nice underwear, but this was the first time since I’d met him, three years before, that he’d proposed shopping for clothes together.

“Come on cherie,” said Didier as we climbed up the metro steps at the ‘Opera’. He was smiling widely–as if he were enjoying the role of ‘sugar daddy’ despite the fact that this would be the first time he had bought me an item of clothing.

He was pushing me to play ‘material girl’ but I kept myself calm and focussed. Despite the light atmosphere, the role-play could suddenly turn nasty if boundaries weren’t navigated with care. I didn’t want to look like I really wanted him to spend any money on me…

His unpredictable mood turns prevented me from committing, and it was this lack of commitment that kept him drinking he said.

So I focussed on the task at hand, and tried to imagine what sort of knickers would make me feel ‘sexy’.  Nothing uncomfortable, I thought, or scratchy. Nothing cheap basically–I was going for style.

We climbed the wide staircase up to the lingerie department. It was packed and we could hardly see three metres in front of us. Thronging, purposeful women, and the odd man out, seemed to be totally at home in the confusion.

Focus, I told myself. A false move now and the whole spree could dissolve before any worthwhile investment had been made.

It was hard for us to get our bearings. Everything seemed to be located by label rather than purpose; bras, pants, chemises all mixed up at different counters. Then there were huge flat trays of last-of-lines –goods with price tags really slashed in the sale. But I knew from experience not to try to find a bra in one of these ‘sales skips’—you never find the right size—knickers were possible—so I started to rummage.

From the corner of my eye I could sense that Didier was getting stressed. His thin patience was running out along with the oxygen supply within the store.  I could smell whiffs of people’s lunch still lingering on their breath as they pressed past me.

Areas where the most desirable stuff was on sale were naturally the most hellish spots, but I managed to push my way through to an advantageous position.  I started examining a pair of elegant, grey, silk knickers.

“Look!” said Didier. His eyes signalled to a dummy’s torso wearing the kind of thing I had made a mental note to avoid. ‘Tarty’ red knickers made entirely of scratchy-when-worn lace and serving, in my opinion, no purpose at all except to put on for ten minutes of foreplay.

“No Didier,” I said adamantly, “that isn’t what I had in mind,”

“Oh come on cherie,” he quipped, “something sexy, with a hole.”

He was still smiling.

“Oh for goodness sake, I want something classy,” I said. “Elegant.”

I could see him whiten. It was the heat, the crowds, the idea that once again we didn’t quite have the same thing in mind.

Didier wanted to get out. He’d started to lose me amongst the wracks of underwear. Or I’d lost him by going about my business. But I was intent on purchasing something worthwhile from the occasion.

Then I saw them: a pair of classy all-lace black knickers in a snug-fitting cami -style. I picked up two sizes—they don’t look good if they’re too tight— and searched for Didier.

His grey face looked like it needed a beer. “Let me just try these on,” I soothed. I could see that he was about to back out and I wanted to keep him to his word. This would be the last time we’d hit the shops together–the way things were going anyhow.

His face fell on seeing the knickers.

“They’ll look sexy on,” I reassured as I went off to find a free fitting room.

One size fit great and I came out triumphant. Didier whipped them out of my hand.

“We’ll buy them,” he said.

“Wait,” I urged, “I’ll see how much they cost.”

“Come awn,” he said impatiently. His English had slipped into the American accent he reserved for moments when he was particularly inspired or pissed off.

Didier stood in the queue at the check-out for a good ten minutes and when his turn finally came he grimly handed the knickers over.

I could see what blood remained in his face drain out as I heard the girl say 175 euro. To give him credit, he hardly flinched as he reached for his credit card and then, plastic bag clutched to his chest he set out doggedly for the exit with me running behind him like some kind of criminal.

I’d pulled it off – we had something to show for the trip, but I knew that Didier had to get a drink down him, and quick.

I took the bag from him and pulled out the knickers to admire them, noticing with horror that he’d taken the wrong size.

Clicking into smooth operator, or calculatrice mode as Didier would have put it, I smiled in appreciation of the purchase and went with him into a bar.

I’d have to change them and change them now and but I knew that Didier shouldn’t know about it.

He ordered a beer while I stoically sipped a tea — I still had business to do—and then excused myself and left him happily there, antisocial but drinking.

Back to the store I went, navigating the crowds again until I got to the section where I’d last seen the knickers. Relief flickered deep within me when I saw that this last pair in my size still hadn’t been sold.

Then out I came out – all be dammed – with the pair of knickers I wanted – and they gave me pleasure for a long time until eventually I was forced to put them in the bucket due to a hole in a strategic place. Rather like the hole Didier had wished I’d bought them with in the first place I thought acidly.

I decided on that ‘knickers-day’ to go for it. To go for what I wanted, for my fix not his. To stop worrying about what he wanted, when his next drink would be coming, navigating his mood swings.

I decided that my whims, perhaps frivolous, but not dangerous, were just as important. Every day was not going to be a philosophical self-examination of whether I’d behaved in the right way with Didier – been patient, tolerant of his quirks. Didier, the veteran “who would stop drinking if I stayed with him forever.”

Who would take the risk?

February 26, 2010

Dating a Frenchman: RUN

Filed under: Dating, Expat, Living in France — Tags: , , , , , , — xplainer @ 6:48 pm

The R stands for romantic. That is so quintessentially French after all. But shall we look more closely at the word?

From the Chambers Dictionary: Relating to, or of the nature of inclining towards, or savouring of, romance especially feelings of love or the idea of sentimentalised love; fictitious; extravagant; wild; fantastic…

Well, from my experiences with French men I can agree with extravagant, wild, fantastic or rather ‘fantastique’, which when applied to writing is described in Wikipedia as literature and film that overlaps with science fiction, horror and fantasy. So, I will include the words horror and fantasy as well.

How well I recall my ‘engagement’ ring being flung dramatically over the balcony by my French lover (ehem—boyfriend, would-be husband).

My Anglo-Saxon side kicked in, and my how he hated that side of me: “Je peux pas supporter ton côté anglo-saxon,” every time we simply couldn’t agree and he was behaving like a dingbat— I got rational; and that was Anglo-saxon…more like ‘Girl Power!’ or ‘girl brain’ perhaps?

Quel horreur!” I come home after work and find Frenchman asleep in my flat (saw his dormant head on couch via letterbox) but cannot get in as he has the key– he is supposed to let me in and have cooked dinner – but has drunk too much and out for count. I shout and shout and shout. Eventually am obliged to go to girlfriend for next four hours…

On to the next letter; ‘U’ for unrealistic.

Let’s get married cherie, migrate to Costa-Rica and open a hotel, I can cook while you buy the food (which means getting up early and off to market to select the juicy ingredients for Frenchman to cook when he gets up at midday after consuming excess wine to help entertain guests in dining/ bar area while I keep the practical side of my brain running and deal with the hotel finances.

“I’m a poet too baby…”

“Comment tu est belle quand tu est fâché!”


Finally, we come to ‘N’. N for ‘nostalgia’: nostalgique.

“Cherie, comment tu me manques,” when I have just taken a weekend off to get some air from high intensity romantic boyfriend.

We separate after one fight too many. I encourage him to leave by throwing out his clothes onto landing of my flat (in dramatique français style) and he follows naked to retrieve them. I slam door.

“Cherie! Cherie! Ouvre la porte!”

Chambers Dictionary definition of nostalgia: homesickness; the desire to return to some earlier time in one’s life, or a fond remembrance of that time, usually tinged with sadness at its having passed.
Poignant: stinging, pricking, sharp, acutely painful, penetrating, pungent, piquant, moving, exciting?

Yeah, I guess.

And mix that all up with good food and loads of wine; there and you have your Frenchman.

RUN, like I said.

Je t’embrasse et gros bissous.

February 20, 2010

One way to jump the Woningnet list in the Netherlands

Filed under: Expat, Housing, Living in the Netherlands — Tags: , , , , — xplainer @ 2:13 pm

After subletting four flats within two years in the Netherlands, the Xplainer discovers how to skip through the Woningnet listing to top position—not without major life changes of course…

Few expats get the 30 percent ruling and certainly I wasn’t informed of this possibility when I alighted in Amsterdam and started working in an Anglo-Dutch corporation ten years ago. In fact, when I was offered the job I am convinced that I was chosen partly because I made it cheap for them for me to arrive.

You see, I told the company the truth; that I had a girl friend in the Netherlands who could put me up for the trial three months–something which nearly cost us our friendship. But then again, a young, single woman relocating to the Netherlands from Paris who didn’t demand any relocation costs (I had no idea that I could) and who had some free accommodation set up for the beginning stint must have seemed lucrative to Human Resources.

So nearly three months down the line, with my friendship feeling the strain as I navigated the psychological rapids of the comings and goings of my extremely attractive girlfriend’s many suitors, it was time for me to find a place of my own.

Now try doing that in Amsterdam on the free market on a three-day-a-week salary! Even if you get yourself on the Woningnet listing it’ll be ten years before you get a flat to view unless … but we’ll come to that later.

So my lovely friend, with whom I’d just spent Christmas and witnessed her hurling her latest boyfriend’s last effects down to his supplicating arms below her balcony, saw an advert stuck on the Albert Hein notice board.

It advertsed an apartment to let in a street with one of the least pronounceable street names I had come across since my arrival in Holland: Rombouthogerbeetsstraat.

First sublet

I gave her permission to contact the renter (I was back in the City of Light wondering why I’d moved to Holland in the first place). She announced that he was a whacky guy who was moving to Israel to live with his girlfriend for a year and wanted to sublet.

He turned out to be whacko.

I met him with his girlfriend, who seemed balanced enough, so I gave him the deposit and took the key reassured that he was in her safe hands for a year. Big mistake.

I moved into the dark, dingy and damp two-room (plus kitchen and toilet) first-floor apartment–any windows seemed to be North-facing; I could see the sunlight playing on the houses behind the kitchen window but never a ray managed to struggle through to my cramped kitchen.

The living room had no carpet–the exposed wooden floor needed sanding and varnishing and painting; which I duly did. It took me a month to sand it down and paint it terracotta. I covered the new surface with a Persian-look rug which immediately warmed up the space and even made it cosy. I totally cleaned up the place which had never felt the touh of a scouring sponge. Well, I was going to be there for year….

The following weekend I went to Paris. When I returned on Sunday night I found that all my effects from the small bedroom had been moved into the living room. The girlfriend of the charming individual who’d sublet me the flat had already had enough. Rejected, he’d returned to Amsterdam immediately and moved back into his apartment–without contacting me first by email or phone.

I had work the next day and was forced to spend the night in the apartment with him. Luckily he didn’t come in till the early hours of the morning.

We did speak, in the end. He was monosyllabic, but managed to convey that it was his house and he was back, despite my having paid that month’s rent and a deposit, which he never returned. After work the next day I scoured the notice boards. The police couldn’t have helped as I had no rights. I did go to ask them and they simply laughed.

Second sublet

Within a week I’d found another place–to sublet once again for six months. It was in the same street, but this time on the sunny side. Well in advance of my leaving date, I managed to find another house to sublet on the other side of town. I was promised a year this time.

Third sublet

It was even smaller than the first house I stayed in with a name that also didn’t trip off the tongue. Friends and family back home thought I was making it up: Sint Willibrordusdwarsstraat. I rented from a colleague at work, who was going back to the US for a year’s sabbatical. But she returned early. As the email to inform me of her sudden return winged its way through cyber-space, a determind spermatozoa was likely moving up my cervical canal. In fact, unbeknownst to me, it was on the way to solving my housing problem.

Fourth sublet

I discovered I was pregnant shortly after, and although I was with the daddy, he didn’t have a place where I could stay. So I sublet again; another two-roomer which even seemed slighter smaller than the rest I’d rented. I’d seen the room advertised locally and didn’t know the lady who was renting it out, but noted that the rent seemed absurdly high for place you could balance on a pinhead. The landlady must have been making a pretty profit, which she denied when I questioned her. So I decided to check up on what her house was worth without giving names away.

I went into the Dienst Woning offices and explained my situation and complained about how foreigners could so easily be exploited in the Netherlands through renting out on the free market. The Woningdienst lady listened with sympathy. She told me that the house wasn’t worth the rent I was paying and said that she could do nothing about it unless I officially reported the landlady–difficult when you are living in house your landlady has a key to.

Resigned, I turned round and started to walk away. Someone attracted my attention before I could leave the office. The lady at the counter was calling me back. I turned and moved towards her, confused.

“You are pregnant,” she shouted.

The room looked at me, eyes shifting to my bulging belly.

“I can get you a house immediately,” she said.

Photo credits: Michele Carloni

Hello world!

Filed under: Expat, Living in France, Living in the Netherlands, Memory — xplainer @ 2:03 pm

Launching myself into cyberspace is helping me to move through explaining my memories of past and present in public…  A trip through London, Paris, Amsterdam life with no going back…wherever that is…

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