I moved to Amsterdam in December 2000, after a year of travelling back and forth between there and various parts of the U.S., the land of my birth. I went for a very clear reason: to be with the man I loved. In fact, all the big moves I’ve made in my life have been for very clear reasons: from the time I left my mother’s house, and then my father’s, to leaving my college town, to moving to New York, where I met my Amsterdam reason. Whether for work or personal reasons, the one thing all these moves had in common was that the reasons I undertook them were clear.
Until my recent move to Scotland. Until a few days ago.
Not only has this been the first time it has taken me so long to make the decision to move, it was also the first time it has ever been so hard to lay out the pros and cons of it. In fact, I was so unclear, that it wasn’t until I actually made the move and started looking back on the 5 years leading up to it, that I saw how truly difficult sorting out my decision had been. I knew I had to come here, at least for a while, but I couldn’t figure out why.
The decision to move to New York is a perfect example of this. Although I’d been hearing for some time that if I wanted a career in show business, I’d eventually have to spend some time in L.A. or NYC, the decision to do so wasn’t a pressing one throughout my 20’s. Sure, I would’ve liked to have been able to give up my day job, but I was dancing and acting, writing and directing, enough to keep me busy and happy. The real need to make the move didn’t come until the summer I spent as a fulltime professional actress, in company with other professionals, and got a real taste for it. It made me finally ask myself: why wasn’t I in New York, what was I afraid of? Once I had asked that question, and answered it (which is another story for another time), my next move was obvious. By the time that summer was over, and I was back home in California, New York was on my spring agenda. It was clearly time to move on.
Moving out of New York was a bit more complicated… for a while. Until it suddenly wasn’t.
When I moved to New York, one of my mentors told me that if I hadn’t ‘made it’ within five years, to get out. He said it would take five years to work my career and the city enough to know whether the combination was going to be a success, and that if it wasn’t, I should get out before it began to eat my soul (or words to that effect). At the 5 year mark, my heart and soul rather scored with the city’s teeth marks, I was, finally and happily, a year into a great job. It was clear that staying was the right thing to do. But four years later, when that job had played itself out, and was eating up my life, I was making plans for an adjustment. Then I met my future husband, and it was suddenly and glaringly obvious that I hadn’t factored any room into my New York life for another person to be a part of it. Work had taken up all the space in my tiny but beloved apartment and my busy busy career, and a simple adjustment wasn’t going to fix things. It was time to move on.
When the relationship-eventual-marriage I went to the Netherlands for broke up, the question everyone kept asking was “are you going back to the states?” But back was never something I’ve done well. How can I go back, when there is so still much to see out in front of me? And to be honest, there was a bit of pride involved: it would’ve felt like so much failure, going back because of the divorce. I’d hared off into the unknown, risked my career on love, and lost. My tail would’ve been tucked so tightly between my legs I would’ve had trouble sitting on the plane. No, if I were going to leave the Netherlands, it would be to go to something, not to run from something as minor as heartbreak. (Or so I told myself then. I have since learned, thanks to the second break-up, to no longer belittle the devastating effect heartbreak can have on me.) Besides, by the time of the divorce, my career – and community – was just getting it’s own legs again. When, a year or so later, it looked like I’d found love again, staying was made that much sweeter. So I did…
But during the years since that first relationship, something kept itching under my skin. As much as I loved my work, and the community I did that work for and with… I felt a growing agitation. A recurring dissatisfaction. I could feel it affecting the way I dealt with bureaucrats and buren alike. It was seeping into the way I got out of bed in the morning. The way I handled difficulties at work and at home. Finally, after much prodding – as if it were an undiagnosed wound, not serious enough to stop the patient, only to slow her down – it started to reveal itself as a simple fact: I had loved the man I came to the Netherlands for, but when he was no longer in the picture… I felt no separate passion for the country that love had brought me to. And try as I might, I never would.
I’m actually quite fond of Amsterdam, sometimes deeply so. After all it’s a gorgeous city, isn’t it? I will cherish memories of my afternoon walks alone along the Amstel, and my adventures with friends in the city center, all my life. My love for the community I was a part of, my friends and my ‘tribe’, was – and remains – deep and strong. But there was something not quite right about my living in the Netherlands. There’s nothing wrong with the Netherlands. Nothing that isn’t wrong with many countries and cultures, that is. And there’s a lot that’s right about it, too. But finally, after 13 years, I realized that it was simply and irrevocably wrong for me. But the why of it, and what to do about it, was harder. Especially after those 13 years of trying to make it right.
Yes, there were a lot of little reasons for my dissatisfaction, though they may not have felt little sometimes. The break with my second relationship, the loss of my business… a growing feeling that I wasn’t, and would never be, a good candidate for the ‘doe maar gewoon’  culture. I missed my sister in California and my friends in New York. But all of these issues – challenging as they were – were manageable. I might one day find a new relationship, rebuild my business. I could accept that I would never become really really Dutch, and that that was okay. And I could visit my sister and friends stateside more often, once I’d rebuilt my business and my travel fund. Like I said, all manageable.
So why leave? Why move on, rather than simply manage all of the above?
There’s a lot written about the expat life. There are a lot of us, after all. One of the recurring themes is ‘how to know when it’s time to move on.” Well, in retrospect, I’d say that finding yourself reading a lot of those articles is a clear indicator. I won’t go into the others, you can google them for yourself. There are as many reasons to stay, or to go, as there are expats, and experts on the subject of expats.
Because I have left, of course. I write this from a temporary abode, on loan until I find a permanent place to plant my life in this, my new country of residence. And I know now, that it is the absolute right thing to have done, coming here. But why it was the right decision wasn’t clear until a few days ago, when I stood on the rise of a hill, looked out over the land… and met a part of myself I’d set aside for too long.
The clouds had broken overhead, and the blue and white of the sky was far above me – the ‘big sky’ effect. The wind was trying to push me over, and the smells and sounds of the place were seeping into my senses like a warm bath. I stretched my arms out…. and felt myself expanding into my surroundings.
And that’s why it is time for me to move on. The work, the language, the health care, these are all plusses. But none of these are enough to make me leave my friends and adopted family, and my Dutch home behind. To leave my cats in the care of a stranger while I search for a new home for them in a new country. To trade the uncertainty of the Dutch job market for the uncertainty of the British one.
But those moments of expanding, literally in my life, yes, but also in some other, more difficult to define way on the hilltops, yes, those are reasons enough. Maybe they’re the only good reasons, after all. For this expat, and this move, that is.
When I look back on all my moves, this need for expanding myself, my life, runs like a thread through all of them. Walking away (or being pushed away) from the small and damaging life my mother had fit herself into, and was trying to push me into. Moving on from my father’s racial and sexually orientated boundaries about who my friends and lovers were allowed to be. Moving toward a theatre company that could teach me things, a city that would offer me a career doing the things I had learned. Finally, moving to yet another city and the relationship that waited for me there, where I would be forced to learn to balance those learned things with a life inclusive of other things too.
My time in Amsterdam taught me to make room in my life for living. I couldn’t leave that city because of the things that made me unhappy while living there, because of all the things it had given me that made me happy, too. That’s why the decision to move on took so many years, and didn’t actually turn into a clear decision until a few days ago on that hill. But now I’m certain that, at this point my life, and in addition to whatever else a place offers, whatever else it can teach me, or ways it can help me expand my career or personal life… I have to live in a place that will give me that other kind of expansion, that moment of reaching outside of my own skin, that I felt on that hillside.
For all the right and wrong (for me, maybe not for you) things about the Netherlands, for all the fondness I have for her capital city and for many of her people and customs, it can never give me that. Because it simply doesn’t have the geography. Yes, sometimes it can be that simple…eventually.
I was born and raised at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. My sisters and I treated those mountains, forests, and lakes like our own personal backyard. We ran loose in the bordering desert, climbed the trees in meadows now filled with housing tracts. It got into my soul, it did something to me. Something deep and abiding.
Except for brief vacations or long weekends, I set that part of me aside for many years in the name of career, or love, or both. It was the right thing to do, at the time, and I’m grateful for all of the messy, painful, joyous times in life and work that decision gave me. But finally, in the temporary (I hope) absence of both career and relationship, the noise of my life is quiet enough to hear that call again. To feel, clearly, the need for the high places and the shadowed trails, for those moments when I can stretch out my arms and expand into the natural world around me. To make those moments a part of my day-to-day life.
I’m not advocating that everyone drop what they’re doing and head for the hills. It’s not everybody’s thing, after all. And not everyone will find themselves in that moment when the lack of work, or the absence of someone waiting at home, makes it possible, or even essential, for them to pick up and go. I certainly hope not; it wasn’t a pleasant few months, to tell the truth. And I have no clue as to how to mix this resuscitated need for the high places with my ongoing need to earn a living in the arts. But it’s clearly time for me to try. It’s as clear as the sound of birdcall on a silent forest path.
And that’s why this expat has stopped reading the articles advising me to make a checklist of the pros and cons of moving on. I don’t need them anymore. I’m clear about why I’m here now, and not there, anymore. Call it the evolution of me. I don’t know where it will lead, I just know that I have to be here to get there. And that’s why I’ve moved on.
Will you stay? Or will you move on? Where do you need to be? Away from all the experts, and all the advice: what’s your reason for needing to be there?
North Queensferry, Fife
1 October 2013