We’ve experienced quite a bit of dust in our lives lately.
It’s not a symptom of the season or the result of an extreme weather pattern. No dust outside, certainly not in these frigid temperatures, snow and ice of a North American winter.
It isn’t because we’re slovenly housekeepers, leaving things be until dust bunnies collect in corners, cobwebs string themselves in intricate patterns among furniture and walls, and items picked up leave their full outlines where they’ve resided.
Nor is it due to our house undergoing renovation, the kitchen or a bathroom being upgraded, some architectural feature being changed, another room being added on.In fact, the dust doesn’t have anything to do with our house at all. Physically, at least. It’s because the house itself is new – well, new to us, since it happens to be a few decades old – and we’re in the process of making it our home as a result of repatriation.
Whenever we introduce change into our lives, whether it’s substantial – new job, altered romantic status, expanded family, moving house and/or country – or something smaller in scale – new activity, taking a class, starting a fitness regimen, changing our diet – we usually do so with the understanding that there will be some level of dust involved.
Incorporating change in one aspect of our lives tends to have consequences in other areas. All of that switching one behavior for another, exchanging this habit for that, transitioning from here to there tends to kick up a lot of dust.
If the adjustment is small, we hardly notice it. Just a few dust motes floating through the air, barely perceptible unless we deliberately shine light on them. If the difference is more intensive, we’re apt to see a light coating of dust clinging to the nooks, crannies and exposed surfaces in our lives.
When the change is monumental, unexpected, overwhelming, or ongoing? We can find ourselves encountering the personal and/or professional equivalent of a volcanic eruption, wandering in a veritable wasteland, the ash-choked atmosphere rendering us soot-coated and gasping for breath.
If, when thinking of explosive volcanic activity, barren images from the lunar surface or far-flung planets come to mind, it is because the landscapes are eerily similar. In a word, alien.
A few months ago we were living in a cozy rijtjeshuis on a quiet straatje in the Netherlands, my husband working for an international organization and I happily ensconced in a burgeoning writing career with my first book about to be published. Our daughter was attending an international school with classmates from all over the world; our son was moving between two cultures, back in the US for a good part of the year at university while spending summers and longer holidays with us in The Hague.
I spoke Dutch as I made my way through the daily errands and grocery shopping: on good days the words flowed effortlessly off my tongue, on others my mind churned to make sense of what I was hearing, seeing or reading. Shifting sluggishly between languages, sometimes it all seemed a mush of unfamiliar vocabulary, incorrect verb tenses and misunderstood cultural context.
I could go days without getting behind the wheel of our car, instead walking, biking, or taking the tram. I banked and made purchases in person and online with a pin-and-encoded chip system; I bagged my own groceries, and understood Dutch societal rules for greeting, standing in queue, socializing, celebrating holidays, showing respect. We became accustomed to watching certain television shows in Dutch or other European languages, with or without subtitles, using a mix of words and visual cues to make sense of the plot. Sometimes I even dreamed in Dutch.
We missed loved ones back home, instead finding solace, camaraderie and ultimately friendship with an array of global souls and kindred spirits. If something seemed perplexing, I had only to pick up the phone and call a fellow expat or knock on the door of my Dutch neighbor. A kopje thee, a few deep breaths, an explanation with a little context and perspective thrown in, and suddenly all was right in the world.
We marked the passage of time not simply by the calendar and seasonal weather but by the growing or decreasing amount of daily sunlight and the different constellations in the nighttime northern sky, and by the decorations and foodstuffs on the street. We became familiar with patterns, frequency and types of rain, and of a gloriously soft, diffused light which inspired Dutch Masters like Vermeer and Rembrandt.
So here we are, back ‘home’, in a newish home in a new neighborhood. New neighbors, new acquaintances. Career adjustments for my husband and me (although still International in nature), a new school for our daughter. We’ve lived in this town before, but we’ve been away long enough and changed enough that differences seem far greater than what has remained the same. Former friends and colleagues have moved on with their lives as well; suddenly there seems too few interests in common to maintain ties with all but a few.
It rains less often, the sky tends toward a distinctive shade of Carolina blue, occasionally I still dream in Dutch, and I drive more than I’d like. We’re getting to know our neighbors, but it takes longer when you don’t have sidewalks on which to have daily encounter. I recognize my native English on the television, radio or in print, but I must confess I often can’t understand the partisan diatribes and extremism of opposing views. Sometimes it’s just as well there aren’t any subtitles.
As for the dust cloud which permeates our little world? I’ve come to appreciate it less for what it is than for what it represents: progress. There is no way around a transition (or transitions plural), only one direction and that is through the heart of it. All of this change and growth and life construction going on is necessary. It’s dirty work, but it must be done.
A writer and American 'expatriwait' recently repatriated from the Netherlands with her adult Third Culture Kid husband and children, Linda pens articles on expat/repat life, blogs at Adventures in Expat Land, and plots the next foray overseas. She is also author of The Emotionally Resilient Expat: Engage, Adapt and Thrive Across Cultures (Summertime Publishing) which is available on Amazon.
You may also follow Linda’s adventures on Twitter @in_expatland.
Read Linda's other Expat Focus articles here.