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When Non-Expats Visit

Two weeks ago, my brother and his family visited from the US.

All four are intrepid travelers, including overseas.

My brother and sister-in-law have even been to Amsterdam before for a quick visit, as part of a larger trip.

But this was the first time they’d come to visit us since we moved to The Hague (Den Haag) almost two years ago.

I love it when family and friends come to visit. In addition to catching up with what’s going on in each other’s lives (I’m talking beyond the surface stuff), such visits give everyone a chance to share insights about their lives.

What’s important to them these days. What consumes their time and energy. What they love (or don’t).

This is certainly true whether you live the next county over, or several states (or provinces) away. This kind of sharing becomes even more important to maintaining close relationships when the visit is to the different country (and culture) one of you now calls ‘home’. 

So rather than merely ‘seeing the sights’ as one usually does when visiting a new place, my brother’s family was also getting a chance to see what everyday life is like here. Not just seeing where we live, but how.

Checking out our daily routines, and learning how things differ from (and how they are similar to) life back ‘home’.

I almost felt as if we were smack in the middle of a wildlife show.

(Anyone recall Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom? No? Then perhaps the late Aussie Steve Irwin as ‘The  Crocodile Hunter’?? You get my point.)

Why did I feel that way? Because they were essentially observing us in ‘our natural habitat’.

We often forget the myriad little details and differences that make up our daily lives in a foreign land. Nothing like guests to awaken us to how far we’ve come in the time away.

A few examples that popped up:

Far greater reliance on taking public transportation (trams, trains and so on), including where to board or disembark, how to pay, where to go to put more funds on the trusty OV chipkaart each person uses here in Nederland. One particularly amusing difference was the way in which we paid for parking, always by some form of machine or other before you left the parking lot or garage, and always requiring you to insert the receipt to activate the barrier gate arm holding you hostage. 

Near daily shopping (especially for food) in the city, thanks to smaller refrigerators and storage space. Each visiting family member made at least one trip to Albert Heijn with me to get a sense of the different foodstuffs available, narrower than expected aisles, tight squeezes with less personal physical space during shopping, and again, how we pay (usually with a debit-like pin card, or else with cash in Euros). Figuring out how to use a combination microwave/grill/oven basically the size of a loaf of bread.

A couple trips to the self-use recycling station a block and a half away to deal with accumulating bottles (a wee bit of wine was consumed during the visit, after all), newspapers and cardboard. My nephew thought it was fun to do; wait until you’ve done it several times a month and then we can discuss exactly how ‘fun’ it really is.

When we went on some road trips, they found confusing road signs (in Dutch), different traffic patterns, greater reliance on roundabouts, distance measured in kilometers, canals in the cities and towns and fields, always remembering to watch for cyclists whizzing by here in the country that boasts almost 17 million people and an even greater number of bicycles.

Celebrating my nephew’s birthday with his going out and selecting the cake (cupcakes, actually) that he was responsible for providing to the rest of us on his special day. In Dutch culture, the birthday boy/girl are expected to provide their cake or other celebratory treat, with no skimping or trying to duck out of it at home, school or the office. Instead of ‘Happy Birthday to You’, we sang ‘Lang Zal Je Leven‘ to him: different language, different words, different tune. Natuurlijk.

Toilets housed in water closets rather than the bathroom, where you shower or bathe. The tiny corner sinks, equipped only with cold water, in said WCs. Smaller washer and dryer for doing laundry, but thankfully a set that works well and in a relatively reasonable amount of time (compared to a certain English speaking island over yonder across the North Sea).

One (and only one) television, with only the basic cable connection. They got to hear/watch Dutch, French and German channels in addition to English. We introduced them to one of our favorite BBC detective shows, which aired an overly confusing episode in which no fewer than five (I would argue six, but was voted down) of the suspects looked exasperatingly similar. Even a scorecard wouldn’t have helped given that we couldn’t keep the various suspects straight long enough to give them names.

Many of the US series shown are a season (or more) behind. In no time they were enjoying tv-watching the way we now do: we don’t watch much, but when we do, it’s usually together. In the same room. Kind of quaint.

On the morning of their departure, after dropping them off at Schiphol airport I was driving south back to Den Haag. My thoughts turned to the many little actions, tasks, activities and customs I’d ended up explaining or demonstrating over the course of the visit.

Some I’d certainly expected to, but others took me by surprise because I’d become so accustomed to them in day-to-day living. They were ingrained, and no longer stood out.

As I gazed across the flat polder (land reclaimed from the sea) farmland dotted with baby lambs and calves grazing among the sheep and cows, and took in the magnificence of jewel hued fields of gorgeous hyacinths, tulips and other flowers, it came to me.

This was really home.

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