Monday, June 11, 2018

expat life : the truths about the first four months.

I'd love to write this post about how moving to a brand new country across the ocean has been pretty dang glorious.  How these first four months have opened my eyes to new cultural experiences and I've met tons of new friends and explored all of Amsterdam!  I wish I could tell you how glamorous it has been!  People keep telling me my photographs on Instagram look like it is "so amazing" here and that we're "adjusting well" and are "living the life."  Therefore, I'm faced with the fact that even well-meaning social media posts can warp reality.

I'd also like to believe this blog is about truth.  So, let me write the truths for you, friends! The beautiful truths and the hard truths about our first four months as ex-pats...

Let's begin with the hard. 

In February I started off super brave (my 'word for the year') and cast aside all my fears and moved here to the Netherlands, with Hubby and three little kiddos.  We lived in temporary hotel housing until our belongings arrived several weeks later on a ship and were delivered to our rental home.  The kids started a brand new school during that time, Finola's first time doing full-day.  It was exciting to ditch our huge 'Merican SUV and navigate the public transportation, stare out of our high-rise apartment at the Amsterdam skyline and sunrises, walk through the parks and get mauled by overly aggressive pigeons.  It all felt so cool and new!

Then we moved into our new house, a rental in the 'burbs.
Surrounded by boxes and blank walls, reality set in.

Welcome to starting your life over!  This isn't a vacation - this is your new normal.  (PS There is no family or friends around to help.  And your baby is teething like whoa and waking up every two hours.)

Immediately upon moving in we all got the flu.  Bad.  As in I personally was more sick than I'd been since childhood.  I lost eight pounds (of baby weight, mind I wasn't wasting away) and didn't leave our house at all for two weeks.  Five days of it Paul was in China on business and I was alone with the kids, in a depressed fog, trying to stay afloat in all areas of life while battling that virus.  The worst.

Finally the fog lifted and I set about trying to get our house in order and feeling like home.  We had chosen a fine rental house with plenty of space in a quiet, family-friendly neighborhood.  But I soon started to miss our beautiful Victorian back in Kentucky.  Lots.  (Right now three bachelors are living in it and enjoying all our renovations.  I think about it and die a bit inside.  Okay, I'm being dramatic...but also kinda truthful.) 

There was a lot of thought put into our renovation...and time spent.  Maybe too much?  I believe God wanted us away from that for a while. 

Yes, this move has made me question all aspects of life.   I have had moments of extreme loneliness., missing friends and relatives. I have had moments of feeling isolated and without purpose.   I will flip-flop between confidence and shyness, bravery and fear.  There are days of anger and wondering God's purpose in bringing us here -- and then other days the "why" is so obvious it is shocking.

I really do believe He has perfect timing, and from what I can tell this experience is meant to be both enriching and utterly humbling for me.  To grow us as a family and in our marriage.  To stretch us.  To show us what is important.  To open our eyes to that which we took for granted.

We have had plenty of stressful moments where I have literally said, in tears, "I don't think I can stay here.  It is too hard."  Then the next day I look out at the canals, or I take a run by the flower farms, or I get a text from a new friend, and I think, Maybe I'll make it through this after all. 

I think many ex-pats experience the same thing -- a hard first few months.  All of a sudden all you have is each other.  Which is so beautiful...and humbling.  And sometimes painfully hard.

Then you grow, and adjust, and begin to adapt to your new home.  Your heart opens enough to start breathing fully again and enjoying things.  And that is where I am at in this moment, four months in - finally breathing normally again.

Okay, so now let's talk about the beautiful truths, because there have been plenty of those, too! 
  • Riding a bike again for the first time since eighth grade!  I love, love, love cruising around on our bikes, both solo and as a family!  Paul and I have gone on several dates biking around to different locales and it was the most exhilarated I've felt in years!  I seriously feel like a kid again every time I am on my bike, zooming along the bike paths with the wind whipping through my hair.  We even biked to church on Sunday!  It's my favorite thing.
  • We've been able to travel as a family to Paris and Morocco.  Both trips were so different and complete treasures.  Paul and I have traveled internationally together before, and I've no doubt our romantic getaways would have continued.  But without this move I honestly don't think I'd have taken on Paris with three littles, or Morocco with a tiny baby.  (That's a hard no, honestly.)  Definitely looking forward to more family adventures here!  
  • I started running consistently again!  It is so nice running along the road beside beautiful canals, farms and fields.  Currently looking for a half marathon to register for, as I honestly believe being registered for a race is mental health necessity for me.  100% serious.  
  • The kids go to an awesome international school, have made some friends, and are adjusting just just fine.  Cormac does, however, miss all the rules and order of Catholic school.  (Not kidding.)  Finola, on the other hand, is thriving in the more Montessori-style of classroom.  
  • Whitman is growing like a little weed, sprouting teeth, crawling to everything he shouldn't, yelling loudly to get attention, making giant messes and all with a sweet grin that will make you forgive him in a heartbeat.  He might be my loudest and most persistent child yet.  God help us.
  • The weather has been lovely!  Springtime here, which may be an anomaly, has been warm and sunny and breezy.  
  • We live within an hour of the sea!  You don't know how good this is for my soul.  I've gone twice, and can't wait to visit more beachy spots this summer!
A lot to be thankful for, amidst the tough stuff and the heart work.

So I'll grow with the hard, and cling to the beautiful.

+ + + + + + + + +

Some random moments from our first four months...
bikes + canals forever and ever.
Riding the metro with Whit right after we arrived.  It was February and very, very cold + windy.

our temporary high-rise view in the land of tulips.  sunset and sunrise every day.

the new house.  notice the creepy fingers in the mail slot.

After the movers first delivered our stuff to the new place.  we are still getting settled even after four months.
on one of our many, many stroller walks to the grocery store - before I was brave enough to drive a car!

the metro stop near our house goes all the way to centraal station! 

This date night back in late March has been our only venture to the actual city center, thus far.  #reality

red light district - post-flu.  I remember how sick I had been just looking at this pic.
ducked into a random sushi place during our rainy date night.

a walk in the nearby forest in early spring.

I'm still trying to decorate our quirky home built in the 1970s.  

Twice a week I pick the kids up from school and we all ride the Metro home.  We are quite a crew!

Dutch beach vibes.

Enjoying a tapas fest in Amsterdam on Mother's Day.  

Brothers on a beach day!

hanging out on the grassy knoll with some neighbor friends.

beautiful spring canals.

Celebrated our very first 'King's Day'
Whit hanging on King's Day at the home of some new friends! 
I never tire of the wildflowers in our 'hood.
Finola getting artsy at school.  One of her art teachers is our landlord and she sends me pics! 

Proud of his artwork at school.
a windmill on our drive to the seaside.

red poppies at the metro stop near our house. 
IKEA with the three kids is an adventure in itself!

Cormac and his unending search for shells.

winter on the metro.

at one of the many parks near our house.  playground and duck pond around every corner.

After four months, the blondies are adjusting, too - and dare I say, thriving.
we have experienced a LOT of wiggly teeth, sprouting teeth and losing teeth since our arrival here.

Finola and I found our new date spot (to replace Target.)  Hello Hema! 
We eat a lot of sweets here.  #coping #dutchlovesweets

We have embraced the bike life.  Paul even takes all three at once!  #superdad

These two are now only one year apart in school instead of two.  It is as fun and full of drama as you'd imagine.

Family picnic at the Amsterdamse Bos (the forest). 

Mostly our lives are just everyday stuff like this, though.

Fresh flowers every week! My little splurge since moving here.

Yep, this kid is as happy as he seems in pics.

Finola celebrating birthday #5 with her class at school!
Date night on bikes!  My favorite thing now.

Walking trails along the neighborhood canals.
"Home is wherever I am with you."

Friday, May 11, 2018

how to enjoy paris - with three tiny children!

We decided  to embark on our ex-pat adventure to the Netherlands for a few key reasons, with one being that we wanted to travel more around Europe and beyond!

I sat talking with a mama at coffee when the kids first started school here.  She was a seasoned ex-pat with several kiddos of her own, and she had that fabulous, confident aura of wisdom about her.

So I asked, "Where would you recommend we take our kids first for a long weekend?"

"Paris!" was her immediate response, and she started rattling off all the amazing things that are kid-friendly in the City of Love.

I listened a bit doubtfully.  Paris? From what I remember on my high school German trip, it was kinda crazy, with a bunch of museums,  masses of tourists, and crazy drivers.  (Thankfully we were in a tour bus!)  However, I had once told Finola, my almost five-year-old, that I would take her to the Eiffel Tower and we would have a picture together there -- just here and I!  She loved the idea and we subsequently talked about it on a regular basis.

Now was our chance!

Despite my doubts, our first long weekend here - Easter! - we were hopping in our newly-acquired station wagon and driving across the border to France.

First, let me say, driving across Europe is a delight - if for the gas stations alone!  Forget dirty truck stops with Icee machines and an obligatory Subway or Mickey D's.  French gas stations are gourmet!  I was pleasantly surprised to find a hot food cafeteria, which sold fresh bread, IG-worthy desserts, and next to the checkout...bottles of wine!  Which they will uncork for you, but not want to have a wine stopper in your purse.  Just sayin'.  I threw away some perfectly good rosé.

And if you are judging me for drinking wine at a gas station while on a road trip with kids...then you probably don't have kids.  Or you don't have three kids.  Or your kids have devices which keep them quiet in the car.  And hey, I wasn't driving, so, I indulged.  Viva la France!

Without further adieu, here are a few mama tips for seriously enjoying Paris with your three small kids...

1.  Stay within walking distance of the Eiffel Tower.  We walked about 30 minutes to get there, taking in the charm of the Parisian streets, and stopping for crepes if we were hungry at the cafes that abound.  We have three kids - ages 6, 4, and 6 months - so thirty minutes was about our max.  We pushed the baby in the sit-n-stand and the older two took turns riding, too.  We also brought a baby carrier along to be able to mix things up!
One of the days stopped for crepes + coffee at Le Dome, a cafe super close the Eiffel Tower.
A mama-daughter 'cheers' to Paris!
2. When choosing a spot - rent a private Parisian apartment, rather than a hotel.  Find one with kid-friendly bedrooms and toys!  I much prefer having some personal space when traveling with kids, and when they have a separate bedroom everyone wins.  I mean everyone.  On every level.  Just sayin. ;)  I loved ours, as it was in the city and convenient to everything, and I felt for the weekend as though we were real Parisians.  Also, was no more expensive than getting a hotel in the same area.
we had a lovely terrace with city views.

our place was beyond adorable. you cannot get this charm at a hotel.
the blondies adored their bedroom.
Baby Whit probably enjoyed himself as well.
hubby did breakfast runs to the market each morning.
most of our meals were purchases at a little market across from the street.  oh, and we ordered pizza twice. #noshame
3. Go to the Eiffel Tower at dark!  Let the kids run around (you know, near you) while you and your love drink wine or champagne underneath it!  This happened for us at about 9pm. Just throw a reasonable bedtime out the window that night!  At 10pm the Tower started twinkling!   My advice is to bring your own bottle of wine (and that trusty bottle opener) or you'll spend 25 euros for a mediocre bottle of red.  Wine is inexpensive at the grocery shops along the walk there.

4. Spend an entire day hanging out around the Eiffel Tower.  (Do you sense a theme here?) With kids this is the way to go!  There are many super cute, fenced playgrounds that provide a beautiful view of the tower.  Pick up a baguette, some fancy cheeses, and an assortment of tapas at one of the supermarkets on your walk there.  Or there is the loveliest food stand with red metal tables right by the playground with the mini-carousel.  The pastries and sandwiches there are so, so delicious.  There is also hot mulled wine, and really good coffee.  You can sit and stare at the Eiffel Tower as you enjoy it all.  Your kids can act like fools and run around the lawns, which would normally make you crazy but cest la vie you are in Paris at a casual outside park and it is encouraged that they run and act like normal little kids.

5. Buy some cheap felt berets and then head to one of the two BIG carousels beneath the tower.  Buy a ticket and hop right on with your kiddos!  (There was no line when we went, even on a busy Saturday!)  One of my favorite moments was on that carousel, going around and around and looking up at the Tower.  It was pretty surreal.  I kept thinking, Is this real life, or an Audrey Hepburn movie?
6. Take a leisurely walk along the Seine River.  You could also take a river cruise if you've got the time.  We simply walked from the carousel to the ferris wheel, which wasn't that far (maybe took a half hour) and there was a lovely little playground along the way.  If you are walking on the same side of the Seine as the Eiffel Tower, towards the ferris wheel you can't miss it.
taking a break as we crossed the Seine.
7. Take a ride on the huge ferris wheel and see an amazing 360 degree view of Paris!  Our kiddos loved this!  The line was not that long, even for a Saturday on Easter weekend, and it provided a nice break from the walking.

I was legit terrified but did it for the kiddos!  
8. Visit the Louvre...even if you don't go inside at all.  The Louvre is totally worth the ticket price, and I've heard there are companies that do awesome private tours that cater to young children.  Had we had another day I may have booked it.  But we got to the Louvre at the end of a long day and pretty much all we did was walk around the glass pyramids and take some family pics.  Worth it!  The walk up to it is a lovely park with lots of sculptures, and when you get to the huge courtyard with the pyramids there is plenty of space for the kiddos to run, while listening to live music.
Our only family pic not taken with a selfie stick.  

9. Bring a selfie stick.  This is my favorite advice to give for traveling anywhere with tiny kids.  You're gonna want some family pics, obviously.  Sure, you can ask strangers to take them.  That could turn out completely fine.  But with tiny kids it is hard to get a good one in one or two shots.  Also, they love to see themselves in selfie mode, so you'll tend to get better smiles/expressions.  Also, you can take a billion photos and not feel like you are bothering anyone (except your family...but that's okay, they love you!)  Bonus tip : the best pics are when you yell "Everyone look silly!!!!!!"  but then you and your partner do NOT act silly but smile happily.  Your kids look adorable and will more likely be smiling, and you will not look annoyed because you're trying to coerce them into taking a nice family pic.  Win-Win.

10.  Embrace a laissez-faire attitude!  When traveling with littles, don't have a rigid schedule.  Keep it all very simple, and embrace all life's small pleasures.  Literally, my only agenda for this trip was to get our entire family up on the Eiffel Tower.  Guess what?  That didn't even happen.  We did, however, all make it to the Tower at night to see it twinkle.  They took pics of their mom and dad kissing and toasting with plastic cups of wine underneath it.  On the final night, the older two went with my husband while I stayed at our apartment with the baby.  They made it to the first level, walking up the stairs, despite a huge line and Finola almost having a meltdown before they got there.  We did all the other things mentioned above, at a very slow pace, and knowing that at any time the kids could decide it was time to grab an Uber home.

So was a weekend in Paris worth it with three littles?  YES.  Every moment.  Sweet memories were made, without any crazy drama from either parent.  Hurray!

That is what our kids will remember - that we were happy.

And maybe the Eiffel Tower, too.