For the longest time, the term expat seemed really odd to be. I don’t know why, but I imagined it to be a cheeseburger joint down the street. Hey Jimmy, want to go down to EXPAT, grab some burgers and beers? You know… ba-da-bing ba-da-boom? It’s probably because I’m crazy, but I wouldn’t be surprised if an EXPAT burger chain started taking over the globe – all I ask is for a 1% stake. Please?
Joking aside, being an expat is an experience few people will know. I recently had the pleasure of talking with Karen and Jacob about their recent Facebook status change Hey everyone, we’re expats now! to understand what it’s like to leave everything behind and start anew in a land unknown. Let’s see if they plan on opening an EXPAT burger joint in Amsterdam.
When I lived in New York, I happily worked a lot of overtime and extra jobs if it meant having extra money for doing things that I wanted to do (like travel), even at the cost of not having much of a social life or doing work that didn’t engage me fully.
Up Up and a Bear: Please tell me a little bit about yourself, your background, where you are now and what you’re doing.
Jacob: I grew up in Eastern Kentucky, which isn’t very glamorous. I’ve always been very school-focused since I was determined to move somewhere else and get a good job. That was how everyone said you were supposed to do that. At some point I decided to go for academia. Along the way, I worked as a carpenter a few summers, interned as a civil engineer, and then picked up computer science before settling on math. I think I always just wanted to solve problems and I didn’t realize there was a career for just that. I finished my Ph.D. last year and got a postdoc here at Amsterdam. Other than that, I really enjoy music (playing and listening), outdoor activities (hiking and rock climbing) and just traveling in general.
Karen: I am originally from New York City. I’ve also worked a lot of odd jobs, including working as a barista at an Italian café. I’ve found the social sciences quite fascinating, which lead me to graduate school in the social sciences. I finished my Masters degree and thought, what now!? Jacob had gotten the job offer in Amsterdam after less than a year of us dating, and I had to make a decision if I’d come with or move elsewhere. After carefully considering my options, I decided to come with. Within a month, I found my current job in Marketing.
Up Up and a Bear: Wow! The brainpower here is palpable. Jacob, I like how you just “picked up computer science” like it were some kind of toy. I understand that you’ve only recently become expats, moving to Amsterdam to begin your new life here. What was going through your mind when you first seriously considered doing this?
Jacob: What was going through my mind was “Oh my god, I got a job offer!” Location was a secondary consideration at that point. The market for postdocs in math is very competitive and I was overjoyed to have found not just a job, but at a good university with people I’d want to collaborate with. When I came for the interview in Amsterdam, Karen made me promise that I would take some time before deciding if they offered me a job. I totally failed on that promise. Then afterwards it hit me that I was moving to Amsterdam. And that was exciting.
Karen: I thought it was crazy. I was at a major crossroads towards the end of grad school while applying for jobs out West. I felt a bit lost as I was just trying to figure out a lot of HUGE questions: what kind of career will I enjoy, which specialty areas am I competitive in, what city should I move to, and which cities are more cat-friendly? I was getting quite nervous while Jacob applied for jobs every night all over the world, not knowing if our relationship could withstand us being in separate cities. Around the time that he was going to the interviews, we had really hard discussions about whether I’d be willing to consider coming with him, which he didn’t expect. However, I did the research and I felt like there was a small possibility I could find a great job. I felt absolutely CRAZY committing to move with him six months ahead of the actual move, especially considering we were moving to Europe with a cat. I had NO guarantee of finding work, I didn’t speak fluent Dutch, and we’ve only dated a year at that point. Not surprisingly, my family wondered about how sound this decision was.
living/working abroad has taught me that you can travel and do incredible things while still working full-time
Up Up and a Bear: Karen, we have a cat too! And we love him dearly. I’m glad you considered him one of your HUGE questions. I can’t even imagine having those tough discussions about the possibility of splitting up because of the move. But I’m glad you guys had though conversations. Communication is so important for something like this. And I’m sure you were both excited and nervous. What was the final straw that broke the camel’s back and made you decide to move here?
Jacob: The job offer. The job hunt for postdocs begins in October and many people don’t hear back until March or April. It’s typical to send out over a hundred applications and then there are the follow up emails and networking. All of which is happening while you are writing a dissertation and the whole process is grueling. When I had an offer that I couldn’t refuse in December, I took it on the spot.
Karen: It was realizing that I was qualified for jobs that I’d be happy to have realizing how much Jacob would support me. I started applying for jobs in the Netherlands very early on with the hopes of securing something before we moved. As I boosted my skills, I kept getting interviews and I realized that I could move to the Netherlands with Jacob and find a job that would help me advance my career. Similarly, I went through something difficult that fall/summer and Jacob was there for me 1000%. I’m a type-A person who plans for EVERY bad alternative, so I ended up thinking a lot about the stability of our relationship, how much he would support me in the worst times, and a very long list of questions. I came to the conclusion that this relationship wasn’t worth losing over something as stupid as distance and it was an incredible opportunity to live abroad that I didn’t want to miss out on. I’m so happy that I took the risk although I know it looked terrible to everyone else who cared about me at the time.
Up Up and a Bear: Again, I think you guys did an amazing job communicating. Finding a job is an incredibly difficult task, but having your relationship tested is even tougher! Well, I’m glad you were able to come out of that and be stronger than before. What were your initial expectations of life as an expat in general, and specifically being an expat in Amsterdam?
Jacob: In 2014, I spent two months in Italy as a visiting scholar at an institution (which is when Karen and I started dating incidentally). From that experience, I realized that living abroad isn’t necessarily that hard to adjust to (if you’re moving to another Western country). I figured it was just a question of adapting a bit on the day-to-day stuff.
Karen: I didn’t have any experience being an expat as the only time I lived outside the US was studying abroad in college, which is so different. I expected expat life to be hard based on everything I read (after scouring the internet for any/everything), especially when it came to your social circle/family. I had few expectations about the Netherlands specifically when it came to being an expat although I researched the hell out of everything – because I felt like I knew nothing. I expected the housing market to be not easy, but not difficult. The one thing I did expect was for the job market here in Amsterdam to be especially difficult.
I feel some sort of forward momentum and looking back will turn me into a pillar of salt. I guess it’s the wanderlust buried deep under my skin
Up Up and a Bear: It seemed like you were at very different ends of the spectrum there. Now that you’ve been professional expats for some time, were your initial expectations correct? What, if anything, was not what you expected, blew your mind, or made you pleasantly surprised?
Jacob: Actually, getting used to living in Amsterdam was much easier than I expected. In Italy I bought my groceries at markets partially due to how great the markets are and how under-stocked the grocery stores seemed. I was very pleased that grocery stores in Amsterdam were more similar to the ones in the U.S. that I was used to. I was surprised at how boring the Dutch food is, especially as someone who is allergic to dairy. I see Dutch food as being mostly sandwiches or croquettes, which is a fancy word for “deep fried thing.” I find croquettes borderline disgusting.
things have gone in a way I could never have predicted (Amsterdam!?) and I’m honestly happier than I’ve been.
Then there are shocking traditions, like the infamous Zwarte Piet, a holiday character that is portrayed with black face. I was also surprised how much it rains. It rains all the time, and it seems to be impossible to predict when it’s coming. It’s so hard to predict, there is an app just for telling you if it will rain in the next five minutes or not.
The best part of being an expat here is how easy it is to travel all over the Netherlands and Europe. So many weekends, we can just catch a train to see a new city, rent a car to drive to a different country, or even fly to a new country. Traveling for three hours can land you in the middle of a different country and culture. In the U.S., those kind of abrupt changes don’t exist.
Karen: I thought it would be REALLY hard to live there and it wasn’t as hard as I expected; although, the first two months were especially difficult after my work permit kept coming back with Jacob’s photo on it. The housing market in Amsterdam is pretty brutal and if you don’t have two incomes, it’s near impossible to find an apartment anywhere close to the city. Even if you have an appointment for a 10am viewing of an apartment the next day, people will sign the papers without EVER seeing the apartment the night before (I wish I were joking). Similarly, I was surprised by how strict the housing rules were, especially in regard to income requirements. In the U.S., I just wrote down my income on a rental form and as long as it seemed like I could afford it, few questions were asked. Here, they will verify everything and if you can’t back it up with a contract, you’re not getting the apartment. In terms of the job market, I feel like I got quite lucky as I found a job within a month of moving here, which is not typical. Typically, I’ve heard that it takes 2-4 months to land a job, so it surprised me how quickly I found a job that seemed to fit my skills quite well.
I’m so happy that I took the risk although I know it looked terrible to everyone else who cared about me at the time
I was surprised by how NICE it is working in the Netherlands. I’ve only worked in the US so I was amazed by all the benefits my job afforded me here in the Netherlands. When I was offered my job, they asked me if I was content with almost a month of vacation a year, which is fairly standard for professional jobs here. I started kind of stumbling over my words at that point, which the HR person interpreted this as me not being content with it. I actually told her that I wasn’t sure that I could use up all the days. Similarly, the quality/price of Dutch healthcare surprised me. For around 90 euros per month, you can get a very comprehensive healthcare plan, equivalent to the most expensive healthcare plan I’ve had in the US, where going to a family doctor is always free and the out of pocket costs cover most things. As we learned from Jacob’s horrific bike accident, the system worked miracles; a similar accident in the US would have put us in medical debt.
I feel some sort of forward momentum and looking back will turn me into a pillar of salt. I guess it’s the wanderlust buried deep under my skin
Lastly, I didn’t realize how cat-friendly the Netherlands was! A lot of bars/restaurants (especially in Amsterdam) have housecats to help with the mice and many apartments actually don’t have a no-pets clause. Even if there were, people often make an exception for a cat, which has never been the case for me in the US.
Up Up and a Bear: I’ve only been to the Amsterdam airport so can’t comment too much on anything else, but I find your analogy of the croquette hilarious! I’ve been told many times about the great benefits of living in Europe: vacation time, health care, and ease of access to other countries. Your experience seems to be aligned with those thoughts. That’s awesome to know! If you could go back in time to tell your former self about what you know now, what would that be?
Jacob: Just because bikes are everywhere and they have an incredibly bike-friendly infrastructure does not mean that they are not instruments of death. Get in the habit of always being careful while biking. Also, go ahead and buy an umbrella. A raincoat isn’t going to cut it.
Karen: I would tell myself to stop worrying so much about every terrible thing that could happen. Although I consider my stress thinking/researching a positive thing as that careful planning has saved us in numerous situations (including from starving over Christmas Day in Eastern Iceland where most stores were closed!). I’ve stressed so much about picking the right path for myself to ensure that things turn out as I want; however, things have gone in a way I could never have predicted (Amsterdam!?) and I’m honestly happier than I’ve been.
Up Up and a Bear: I’ve been in a horrible bicycle accident myself so I can totally relate! Bike versus car? Bike loses every time! And isn’t it crazy how things turn out? Having detailed plans is good, but being flexible and letting things come as they are is a good trait to have too. Now, I know that expat life has been romanticized so much, but there are some definite drawbacks – or maybe there aren’t any? What have you come to learn of these drawbacks? What are some not-so-great aspects of life as an expat?
Jacob: Being separated from my friends and family by an ocean. While the U.S. is huge and my friends and family are spread far apart, I would still regularly plan road trips and pack a lot of visiting in. That isn’t feasible any more. Some of my friends have managed to see me when they come to Europe, but often that is just luck. I haven’t seen my parents since we moved and I missed spending the holidays with them. It will probably be a year before I see them again.
The best part of being an expat here is how easy it is to travel all over the Netherlands and Europe.
Karen: The biggest drawback is not seeing my family/friends and NOT being able to be there with them. This has been especially hard on my parents, who really miss me. I’m missing a close friend’s wedding this summer due to high travel costs. Even if I could go, Jacob couldn’t come with me. Similarly, my uncle died last year, which put me in a very hard situation where I felt the need to come back to go to the funeral. However, I knew that if I went back, I would have very limited time with my family: I would only have enough time to attend the funeral… Additionally, I just miss being able to spend time with friends in person. It’s not the same Skyping or chatting over Google. It will be 11 months since I last saw my parents when we see them later this year; his has been especially hard on my mom.
Just because bikes are everywhere and they have an incredibly bike-friendly infrastructure does not mean that they are not instruments of death
Up Up and a Bear: Isn’t it crazy how something as simple as being to see someone in person can have such a profound effect on our lives? I think we take so many things in life for granted and it’s only these experiences that make us realize how lucky we’ve had it. What do you miss most about the life you left behind? What don’t you miss?
Jacob: What I miss most is definitely the people I left behind. I don’t miss the car though, which is just a money pit. I also really miss Mexican food. I love Mexican food and it is very hard to get any here. And when you can, it’ll cost you. I also miss stores being open really late. When we chose our apartment, having an avondwinkel (evening store) nearby was very important to me. So many times I find myself craving something at some strange hour and I miss always being able to get what I need on a whim.
Karen: I’m with Jacob about missing people. I miss my friends and family so much. We’ve made some great friends here, but making new friends is not a replacement for your close friends. I also horribly miss Mexican food, so we end up seeking it out in the strangest places like Aachen, Germany. I don’t miss how car-dependent the US is. I don’t drive and it’s so refreshing to have access to GOOD public transit without needing to take Greyhounds. I ride my bike every day to work and 90% of the time, we take public transit when we’re not biking.
Up Up and a Bear: Man… It would be so incredibly amazing if our public transportation system in the US were as good that of Europe and Japan. I would abandon my car immediately! And I’m glad we have such a diverse selection of cuisines in the US – I can’t imagine not having any Mexican food close by. Now that you’ve had some time to absorb the expat life, how has this experience shaped or changed your thinking about life in general and your own life more specifically?
Jacob: I could have answered this with the last question, but it seems more appropriate here. I don’t miss America. I miss some people who happen to reside in America, but I don’t miss it as a place or the culture. I’ve begun to feel unanchored and I hope to keep living somewhere new without retracing my footsteps. The thought of even living in a state where I’ve previously lived seems unbearable. It’s like I feel some sort of forward momentum and looking back will turn me into a pillar of salt. I guess it’s the wanderlust buried deep under my skin, but it’s more than that. The past is a place of wonderful memories, but I really live for the future now. The leap to move abroad has turned my life into a barrel rolling forward, and that’s exciting! I’ve fully embraced this feeling.
Karen: Living abroad has definitely opened my eyes to the work/life balance. I never had that in the US. Here, it’s a priority. When I lived in New York, I happily worked a lot of overtime and extra jobs if it meant having extra money for doing things that I wanted to do (like travel), even at the cost of not having much of a social life or doing work that didn’t engage me fully. The work culture and challenge of my current job has opened my eyes to find that balance, which has never been a priority for me before this. However, I must say that having a partner definitely helps. Since I’ve started blogging, the balance is again tipping the other way but hopefully I can make it work.
More generally, living/working abroad has taught me that you can travel and do incredible things while still working full-time. I’ve been reading travel blogs for a while now and I always thought I had to quit it all OR do something specific to travel in order to travel, but that’s not true. I’ve been amazed how much we’ve seen in the first year of living in the Netherlands and I’m excited for the upcoming year for this exact reason!
Up Up and a Bear: Thank you so much for the insight and wisdom! It has been educational to learn from your experiences. I didn’t get to ask you about starting an EXPAT burger joint, but from what you’ve been hinting at, an EXPAT Mexican restaurant seems more appropriate.