Throw Off The Bowlines

NorthSouthEastWest: Expat Dispatches

It's the middle of November so you know what that means: it's time for our monthly virtual four-way blogfest!

North: Linda in The Netherlands at Adventures in Expatland

South: Russell in Australia at In Search of A Life Less Ordinary 

East: Me. Here.

West: Maria in Canada at I Was An Expat Wife

This month's theme? What is the one item each of us can't imagine living expat life without. So have a seat, get comfortable and come around the world with us as we explore four different items from four different perspectives:

At In Search of a Life Less Ordinary, Maria shares what matters most to her;

At Adventures in Expat Land, I demonstrates why paper beats rock and scissors every time;

At I Was an Expat Wife, Russell ponders whether it's possible to be too attached to his chosen item

and here at Expatria Baby, Linda's all for throwing off the bowlines.



Throw Off The Bowlines

by Linda A. Janssen


I'll let you in on a little secret. 

Each month when we put together our virtual NSEW blog, a different member selects the theme. This month's choice, 'the item I can't imagine living expat life without', was mine. I can't speak for the others, but I can tell you that when I selected this theme I didn't have anything in mind.

I know, it seems strange that you wouldn't pick a topic that you already knew what you'd write about. As it is, there's enough of sitting down to the page and finding your muse in the writing life.

But I didn't. I liked the concept and the fact that I didn't have an immediate answer in mind. I wanted to see where it would take me.

For days I thought about it. Poked memories and prodded brain cells. Sifted through ideas and sorted through possibilities. 

I came close with a couple.

First up was a corkscrew. 

We'd brought our good, heavy duty metal corkscrew with us. One we'd had for at least a half dozen years, probably more. Then it broke.

No worries, I thought breezily. How hard can it be to find a metal corkscrew in The Netherlands?

Harder than you might think.

The next time I was running errands, I picked up the familiar metal corkscrew at the home and kitchen store. Case closed.

Except that when I took it from its packaging, I immediately knew something was not right. Turning it over and over in my hands, it weighed a fraction of the heft I should have felt.

How could that be? Surely the Dutch wouldn't design and produce a metal tool that would likely snap under extreme pressure? (If you've seen the twisted angles at which Husband occasionally employs the corkscrew, you'll understand why I was worried about that happening.)

That evening when Husband picked up the new corkscrew to open a bottle of red wine, he didn't mince words.

'Why did you buy this corkscrew? It's like a toy!' he exclaimed, a quizzical look painted on his face. 'It's going to break after a few uses.'

Sure enough, that's exactly what happened two weeks later. When trying to pull the rabbit ears down gently, a move I'd easily perfected ages (and I mean ages) ago when employed as a cute young bartender in a Chinese restaurant, it snapped and one of the ears broke off. With the cork still wedged in the bottle, of course.

But I was prepared. On a recent trip to the hardware store, I'd spied what looked to be a maximum strength corkscrew in the corner, tucked behind other odds and ends. 

A return trip to the hardware store ensured we were now in possession of the requisite reinforced corkscrew. Why the corkscrew itself even looked thicker, and the package was heavier in my hands than the previous one.

Except that it wasn't, and it wasn't. Seems that much of the additional weight lay in the extra-thick plastic packaging. And the corkscrew? The extra girth must have been metal-covered flimsy whatever.

Who goes to all that trouble to make an item appear to be better than it truly is? Why not just, oh, I don't know, MAKE THE ITEM BETTER??

But I'm not going to write about the corkscrew. Important? Yes. Can't imagine living without? Not quite.

Another item I seriously considered as integral to this expat experience was a Dutch-English dictionary. Not just any old dictionary, but a used one I'd ordered online a few months before Son, Daughter and I moved to The Hague to join Husband here two and a half years ago.

He'd gone ahead of us six months earlier, leaving me back in the US to orchestrate major decluttering and downsizing before getting all of the things fixed, adjusted, corrected or otherwise taken care of on what seemed at the time a never-ending 'to do' list. All in pursuit of getting our house and yard ready to put on the market.

Did I mention selecting, procuring and overseeing the exterior house painting and installation of new carpeting? Occasional trips to the dump/refuse center to get rid of the detritus that seems to accumulate in the attic and garage? Earmarking a few special items for family and friends, then setting aside a considerable number of others for a yard sale? Eventually selling both cars and closing out various accounts and utilities and the like?

All while holding down a job, playing single parent to two kids with continuously changing emotions about leaving their friends behind, and caring for our two dogs and two cats.

If you've ever tried to sell property, especially in a tight market, you will know that the place must be beyond immaculate when it goes on the market. When people walk in to view the house, they expect it to be pristine.

Which meant five weeks of being at the beck and call of our real estate agent. 

I had it down to a science: rush home from the office and do exactly what needed to be done, in precise order, in 42 minutes so that the prospective buyers would forget that someone actually lived in the house and see instead a tableau against which to manifest their own dreams of how happy they would be if they would only choose to live there.

Then I'd wrestle the two dogs into my car and go elsewhere for a couple of hours while the house was shown. And do it all over again the next day, and perhaps the next and so on until the house was finally sold.

It felt as if we were living in a museum while simultaneously reliving every single day, like in that great comic classic Bill Murray movie 'Ground Hog Day'. 

My focus was so securely on wrapping up our previous life that I didn't have time to dream of what our new life might be. Ordering that used Dutch-English dictionary from Amazon late one night represented crossing a momentous threshhold: from the now to the what might be that lay ahead. 

Significant? Absolutely. Can't live without it? No. So in the end, I decided that the dictionary isn't what I can't imagine living expat life without.

So what, you ask, is it? What is so absolutely essential? What item matters most? What has meant the most to me over the past thirty months, that I would make sure to take with us when we eventually pack up and leave here, bound for who knows where?

The sense of adventure. 

The feeling of digging down deep and learning what a place is really like. What makes it tick. What makes this place so quintessentially Dutch. 

We're not apt to still be here five years from now, and I want to walk away knowing that I did and saw and experienced as much of it as I possibly could. The good and the less good, and yes, even the just plain odd.

Even when I encounter something I don't love, or feel homesick for aspects of my old life, or am just feeling out of sorts. Even when I feel as though I've stretched enough, that to stretch any further I'll snap.

Mark Twain said it so well:

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines! Sail away from safe harbors. Catch the trade winds. Explore. Dream. Discover.



So let me share another secret: anyone can move overseas and make a new life. You don't have to even want to do so, although it certainly helps. We've all encountered people like that, just passing time in a place that isn't what they thought it would be, isn't where they want to be.

You can set up a home and make it your own, make a few friends, find a job or work that fills your time, enjoy it (or not), go through the motions, and bide your time until your stay here is up and you either go home or go on to the next place.

But to really grab life with both hands and pull it so close that you're nose-to-nose with it?  To stop testing the water with your big toe and just go ahead and jump in, thrashing and splashing and hoping you'll make it back to the surface? To wring every last drop out of it?

That, my friends, takes a sense of adventure. Right up until the very end.