For a long time, I really dreaded settling down. I loved the heady rush of landing somewhere new, and the sudden sensory assault from all directions–new smells, new sights, new sounds, new tastes; even the feel of the wind different on my skin. I have moving down to an art, even if it still stresses me out every time. I’ve rented quite a few houses sight-unseen from the other side of the world. I can look on Google maps street view and figure out all sorts of things, from where the nearest fruit/vegetable stand is to what kind of green space is available for kids to play nearby, as well as necessities like public transport and commute to work and school. I still find the first glimpse of a new landscape intoxicating. I revel in the first few months of living somewhere new, when you notice all the things that are startlingly different, and feel alive in a whole new (but familiar) way.
Why would anyone give all this up for some prosaic notion of “stability”? I wondered that for a long time, because I couldn’t really imagine doing it myself, even as I simultaneously glimpsed some elusive promised land always just one move away. Tony and I spent the first ten or so years of our marriage wildly gallivanting about the world. On our family website we have a page called “Home Sweet Home” that sequentially lists (and has photos of) every house we have ever lived in together. The total number of homes is one short of two dozen. That’s right, we recently celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary, and during that time we have lived in 23 different houses.
Sometime around five years ago I started to feel an uncharacteristic urge to put down some roots. I’m not sure if it was more of a negative impulse of feeling tired out from all the moving, or if I really positively wanted to feel connected to a place. Part of it definitely had to do with our kids getting older, and us feeling like we wanted them to be able to settle down and make some lasting friendships. The only problem was, I was at the time living in my least favourite place that I have ever lived. I know for some people Florida is kind of a dream destination, but I hated it. That made it all the more paradoxical that we ended up staying there for three whole years, which at the time was a record for us. No matter how much I wanted to settle down, it was never going to be in Florida.
Which only upped the stakes when we were choosing where to move next, since “next” was quickly morphing in our heads into “last”. In a sense, Amsterdam was always meant to be a more-or-less permanent move (see? I still have a hard time emotionally committing to this). We put our previously homeschooled kids straight in school: not an international school, but a local one, where they immediately started learning Dutch. Tony and I were soon working in local jobs. But still, nobody could have been more surprised than me when it became suddenly apparent that we were about to buy a house. That was the moment it all became real, and I questioned my life decisions all over again, because it felt so weird to be doing something this dramatically permanent.
Since then, I think I’ve sort of gotten used to becoming local. And it feels good, in a way I never thought it would. I don’t just know how to find everything on any shopping list I might care to make; I also know tons of fun spots in the area, have a feel for local and national politics (and even get to vote for the first time next week!), and have amassed quite a varied and interesting network of people I know here. Amsterdam is as international and transient as any major city, so some of those people I know end up moving on to other places. I guess I know that staying is right for me at the moment, because I surprise myself by not feeling jealous at all, and mainly pitying all the packing they’re going to need to do.
Is this my version of a mid-life crisis? Maybe. Although we still can’t bring ourselves to actually picture staying here forever. The thing we say lately is that once the kids have graduated and left the house we will buy a fixer-upper in Italy and do some kind of “Under the Tuscan Sun”-type thing.
In the meantime, though, one of the pleasures of being relatively permanent is all of the things I haven’t had to do and re-do in the past couple of years. To wit:
- Insurance (health, pet, etc.)
- Registering with a new doctor, dentist, vet, etc.
- Finding my new favourite grocery store
- Getting a social security number
- Scouting neighbourhoods and househunting
- Registering at a new address and updating all forwarding
- Packing my house
- Unpacking my house
- Setting up utilities, internet, etc.
- Spending days or weeks at internet cafés because I don’t have internet in my house yet
- Amassing the right household cleaning products
- Sourcing various bits of furniture, even in furnished places
- Figuring out mysterious appliances in different languages
- Changing up all my recipes to fit the ingredients and cooking methods available here
- Buying an entire new wardrobe for a new climate and culture and still getting some things wrong, resulting in being too cold, too hot, too wet, too underdressed, or otherwise unprepared
- Making all new friends, or not making new friends and having no friends
- Figuring out a new public transit system
- Daily cultural misunderstandings
- Figuring out a new school system (for all the crazy stress the transition to Dutch middle school has caused me two kids in a row, at least I understand how it works)
- Repeated visits to immigration offices to ensure we are legally resident
- Setting up a bank account
- Getting new phone contracts
That’s just off the top of my head. There are surely things I am forgetting, and that’s kind of the bliss of it. What am I doing anyway, with all this free time? I’m not sure. I have certainly managed to read a lot more books lately than in some previous years. But mainly I feel more and more connected to the intricacies of history and society here, in a way that makes me realise that my experiences in other places lacked a little in depth what they had in breadth. We are always giving up something. I don’t know Tunisia or Ireland or Chile or the Philippines or any of my places in Italy the same way I already know Amsterdam, although I’ve left pieces of myself behind in all those places.
There’s something about having been such an inveterate leaver that makes me appreciate staying all the more. I used to think I would be giving up unique life experiences by not moving on periodically to somewhere new, but now I realise that settling down somewhere–at least for awhile–is its own kind of unique life experience, attainable in no other way.