When my family and I moved back to the States a little over a decade ago, we extended an open invitation to our niece and nephew to come any time. To visit, to study, to stay for however long they liked. After all, what better way to get a taste of the American culture yet still feel safe and familiar than with their half-American, half-Dutch family? They were young then, too young to make the overseas flight alone, but we repeated the offer often enough they knew we were serious.
And now, finally, one of them took us up on it. In January, our nephew Rik will be coming for an entire semester, as a high-school exchange student at The Galloway School.
Rik has his own list of reasons for wanting to come, but here are some of the selling points we’ve been spouting to him and his sister for the past decade:
- Stand out on college applications. In the Netherlands, getting into a good college is a heck of a lot easier than in the States, but depending on what study you choose to pursue, getting into the right program can be a challenge. No matter where Rik decides to apply for college, his semester in the States will put him head and shoulders above the rest — and in a country of giants, that’s saying something!
- Learn a new language. Dutch kids start foreign language studies in grade school, so English isn’t exactly a new language for Rik. He hears it all around him — on TV, on the radio, on the streets of Amsterdam — but anyone who’s taken a year or two of high school Spanish knows learning a language isn’t the same as speaking it. Rik will get the best of both worlds with us — total immersion at school, then come home to a place that feels and sounds more familiar.
- Gain a new perspective. The Dutch follow our culture, they adopt our fads, they are allies both politically and economically. But they also love to criticize us. Americans are too fat, too conservative, too loud, too materialistic. Hopefully, by spending time in the real America — and not the one he sees on TV — Rik will gain a more balanced and fair perspective of our culture.
- Explore the world. Okay, so Atlanta is not exactly the world, and Buckhead is a high-class bubble. But for a Dutch person, a trip to Starbucks or Whole Foods is a treat, and normal, everyday routines like carpool and a Super Target run are fascinating. He might not be exploring the world, but he will experience our American life.
- Embark on the adventure of a lifetime. I have no doubt this will be the adventure of a lifetime for Rik, both good and bad. Spending five months away from his parents, his sister, his friends will test him in ways he probably hasn’t yet considered. But I hope by spending those months with family, by having a cousin show him the way at school and introduce him to her friends, the experience will be overwhelmingly positive for all of us.
- Make lifelong connections. Long live social media — and I’m not even talking about Facebook and Twitter. When it comes to sharing fun snippets of your life, Snapchat and Vine are where it’s at. By the time Rik packs his bags and heads back to Holland, another hip new medium will have taken over cyberspace, but my point is, technology makes it easy for Rik to stay in touch with the friends he makes while in the States, friendships that will hopefully last him a lifetime.
What about you? Have you studied abroad or hosted a foreign exchange student? Any words of wisdom or advice for us as we prepare for the invasion of the not-so-mini Dutchman?
This summer, on our annual trek to visit family and friends in the Netherlands, we decided to stay in the heart of Amsterdam, in one of the many houseboats that line the canals. It’s tiny and it’s cramped and it’s noisy, but honestly, our little boat couldn’t be more perfect. The grocery store is around the corner, the bikes are at the front door, and the entire city is at our feet.
Here are a few things we’ve learned in the past week or so ::
- Geese are bullies. They will swim right up to your open window, stretch their beak wide, and honk, loudly and often. None of them will give me any indication of what they want. A bit of conversation? A giant hunk of bread? For us to get out of their canal? I don’t know. All I do know is that as water fowl go, they’re the ones most deserving of their place, stuffed and roasted, on a Christmas platter.
- A plaque on the living room wall kindly requests we not feed the canal birds — not even the adorable (and quiet) little mother ducks who swim by, a row of fuzzy babies trailing behind — in order to keep the canals free of rats. Um, say what? There are rats in our canal? That makes me almost feel sorry for the geese.
- When the sun is out, as it has been most of our time here so far, the people of Amsterdam take to the terraces, the streets, the canals. Some of the boats that putter by our houseboat are so old and rusty, so loaded down with passengers and crates of Heineken, it’s a minor miracle they’re still afloat. None of the riders seem to mind that it’s 50 degrees and windy or that their feet are standing in a few inches of water — though they probably wouldn’t look so happy if they knew about the rats.
- Folks in Amsterdam ride their bikes faster than me. Faster than the rest of the citizens of the Netherlands. Like, way faster. I’ll be pedaling and puffing down the Prinsengracht, working up a light sweat and zoom! A woman flies by, her bike loaded down with a couple of kids, giant grocery bags dangling from each handlebar, a folded-up stroller tucked under one arm, leaving me coughing in her dust. Seriously? I work out. I bust my butt at spinning. Still, I see a lot more FlyWheel in my future.
- Sound carries, and I mean carries, over water. I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say I know a lot more about our neighbors than their taste in music… and likely they about us.
Check out http://www.iamsterdam.com for more on this fabulous city.
Last week, my daughter’s school held an information evening for the parents of rising high schoolers to explain how the next four years of course scheduling will work. Having already sent one child through the same school, I remembered enough from her older brother’s time there to know the process is long, and way more complicated than it seems. The Dutchman and I decided a refresher course wouldn’t be a bad idea.
After the presentation, when the time came for Q & A, a frizzy-haired woman a few rows up raised her hand. “My daughter is very talented in the visual arts, and I’m worried her schedule may lean a little too heavy in that direction.”
The Dutchman and I exchanged a look. Was there a question in there somewhere? The Principal handled her non-question like a pro.
A few moments later, her hand jutted into the air again. “Is there any way my daughter can exempt from the 9th and 10th grade English courses and go straight into the upper levels and APs?”
The Dutchman and I lifted a brow. Talented and brilliant, wow.
By now, people around us were exchanging looks, as well. I doubt any of them were surprised when the woman took the floor yet again.
“How do I go about getting my daughter in AP statistics her freshman year?” she said. “Because blah-blah-blah-blah-blah…”
This was the moment I stopped listening, and began wishing they served wine at these things. Honestly, lady with the frizzy hair, is your daughter truly that amazing or are you just trying to impress us? Because right now I’m kinda the opposite of impressed. I’m kinda feeling sorry for you both.
So let me tell you a little about my daughter. My daughter likes to paint and draw and sculpt, too, and some of her stuff isn’t half bad. My daughter is a voracious reader, but only if Dance Moms isn’t on TV and none of her friends are on Facebook. My daughter tolerates math and science but just barely, and thank God for her tutor because I’m not a big fan of those subjects, either. The grades my daughter brings home are perfectly adequate.
But she’s smart and funny and talented and pretty and kind. She’s well-adjusted and well-rounded. She sings, loudly and almost always on key, in the car and in the shower, and she can spike a mean volleyball. But most importantly, she’s happy.
And isn’t that what we should be bragging about?
Though I loved my years in the Netherlands, I never much liked being called an expatriate. Tax benefits aside, for me the word always carried a negative connotation, one of exiled, expelled patriots, as if by picking up and moving to another country, I was somehow less of an American.
If anything, the opposite was true. Most expats will tell you an experience abroad only heightens their feelings of nationalism. There’s nothing like being a stranger in a strange land to make you feel connected to the place you left behind.
My first few months in the Netherlands were confusing and intimidating and exhausting. The loneliness was brutal, the pangs of homesickness even worse. I missed my family and my friends and my comfortable, air-conditioned existence. I missed my car and big gulps and skyscrapers and walk-ins welcome. I didn’t just feel American, I felt uber-American, and very out of place in Holland.
But as the months turned into years and the years into a decade and more, I also became part Dutch, leaning to love the language, the culture, the people. Some of my favorite memories happened there. Some of my favorite people still live there. It took a long time and an enormous effort to put down roots in Dutch soil, but then suddenly, without my even noticing, they took hold and became firmly entrenched. There to stay, even if I’m not.
So what does that make me now? A Dutch expat? Maybe. Because when I heard the news that on April 30th Queen Beatrix will be passing the crown down to her son Willem Alexander, my reaction was to check ticket prices. The Netherlands hasn’t crowned a king in over a century, and the Dutch are already getting excited for this one. Especially considering this beer-loving future king earned the nickname “Prince Pils” in college. What a party his coronation will be!
And like any good Dutch expat, I won’t want to miss it.
Appropriate, I remember thinking, for the worlds largest drama queen.
But after preaching to my kids that I don’t care what their passion is as long as they find it, I couldn’t say no. When Isabella came to me with hers, I had to put up or shut up, as they say. So I did a little research, found a local group about to hold tryouts, and signed her up. Two weeks and a couple hundred dollars later, it was a done deal. Isabella had snagged a part in MZ Stageworks‘ rendition of Aladdin.
That first musical, she was cast in the chorus. In the next chorus, too, as well as the next one and the next one. Still, even without lines or solos, she was determined to keep trying. Even though she watched new kids come in and get better parts. Even though she looked like she felt, especially in the beginning, incredibly uncomfortable and nervous up there on the stage. She simply refused to quit.
Much of her determination, I have to say, is because of the fabulous MZ staff. Miss Merrideth and her colleagues are so incredibly loving and encouraging, they turn what is so often a competitive and catty profession into a positive experience for these kids.
But my daughter is also a Swaak, which means when she sinks her teeth into something, you might want to back up. If you get in her way, things for you could get dicey.
This past December, though, Isabella surprised me. It wasn’t that she got a big part, or that she walked onto that stage and owned it. For me, the surprise came as soon as she opened her mouth and belted out her first line. The girl can sing. The girl can sing. Who knew? Apparently, not her mother.
But this mother has never been more proud.