Friends ask me just how I ended up in Holland? Here is the full story of how I accidentally became an expat:
In 1970, the world is an interesting place. Through the eyes of a young, hippy, college-dropout in the United States, it is a horrendous place. In May, the second trial of Black Panther leader Bobby Seale commences in New Haven. I march in the front lines of a student demonstration demanding his release, wearing a gas mask and a Red Cross armband. The demonstration marks the start of nation-wide student strikes. My anger surges even higher when four demonstrating students at Kent State University are killed by National Guardsmen. Shortly afterwards, Nixon increases the war effort in Southeast Asia by attacking Cambodia. I’m tired of the craziness and ashamed to be an American.
Things are tense at home as well. After my mother forced me to separate from my lover, not approving of my choice, I have moved back home. But my mother and I fight bitterly and my stepfather and I ignore each other with icy coldness. My lover and I had planned to escape to Europe together. It seems a much better place to be than here. Childhood memories of my three-year sojourn with my parents in Paris, Frankfurt, and London fill me with romantic images of life in a saner world.
I cook up a plan and ask my stepfather for a 21st birthday present: a trip to Europe.
He grunts, “Where will you stay? What will you do if you run into trouble?”.
I blithely name a few friends whom I believe might live somewhere in Europe. To my surprise he agrees. A few months later, I’m on Icelandic Air, traveling to Luxemburg by way of Reykjavik, with a brand new backpack filled with summer clothes and 200 dollars in my pocket.
Am I aware at the time that this would be the beginning of a long journey, learning to forge my own life and heal my troubled family background, a journey I describe in depth in my autobiographical book, Passage of the Stork? Not really, I’m simply looking for adventure.
After some weeks of hitchhiking and youth hostel stays, I meet up with a friend who has just graduated from Dartmouth College and is picking up his graduation present in Germany: a brand-new, bright orange, Volkswagen station-wagon. Sleeping in the back of the car gives more freedom of movement than youth hostels. We travel down into Yugoslavia, where we take on two Dutch hitchhikers. They’re the ones who tell me about au-pair, a great way to spend some time in a foreign country.
“In our country, you can get an au-pair job at the MAI bureau.”
I jot the name down, secretly thinking that France would be more fun… or even Yugoslavia.
A chance meeting with a seismologist in Zagreb opens possibilities: his family lives in Skopje and his wife needs someone to take care of the children. We drive down to Skopje and meet up with him and his wife in a converted old monastery outside of town, where we sit on sheepskin-covered benches and they serve us sheepsmilk yoghurt in wooden bowls and crisp, flaky spinach pastries. His Communist Macedonian wife, who speaks no English, takes one look at my long, wavy hair, tie-dye mini-dress, and sandals. Her curt words to her husband need no translation:
So I continue on, up through Italy, Switzerland, and Germany. I bid farewell to my Dartmouth friend and count the money left in my pocket. There isn’t much left, but enough to get me to Amsterdam. The woman at the VVV (tourist information) in Amsterdam tells me that all the youth hostels and B&Bs are booked full.
“ Why don’t you go to Lisse? They have tulips there,” she smiles, neglecting to mention that it’s August and definitely not tulip season.
It sounds good to me, and she gives me instructions to take the train to Haarlem and then change to a bus.
As I leave the train at Haarlem, I glance around at the 19th century buildings, surrounding the plaza in front of the station. It looks nice and peaceful here, maybe I can stay the night. To my right is a VVV and I see the sign below it: MAI bureau.
“Yes” , the woman behind the counter says, “we just happen to have a request that came in yesterday. They have specifically asked for an American or Canadian girl.”
A meeting is set up for the next day and I sign myself in for a few nights at a B&B.
My prospective employer drives me out to their home in Aerdenhout, a well-to-do suburb in the wooded dunes close to the sea. She went to college in the States and is very pleased to have found me. When I tell my tale, she explains that her husband is a lawyer who spent a good part of the past year defending the students who had carried out a sit-down strike at the University of Amsterdam. I like this place! A few days later, I move into their 1940’s villa and start taking care of their three boys: aged five, seven, and nine.
Life is good, even though the boys are a handful. I dread finding spiders in my bed, left by the impish seven-year-old. But the family is kind and I have lots of free time. I often walk into nearby Haarlem to join friends at the Toneelschuur, a center for improvisational theatre. Both the children and my friends start teaching me Dutch.
My au-pair family teaches me to ride a bicycle. I immediately crash into a barbed-wire fence and need 11 stitches in my ring-finger. It puts me off riding bicycles for the rest of my life.
The weather starts growing chilly and the care-packages from home contain sensible clothing but nothing I would want to wear. I still have my plane ticket… A visit to the Icelandic Air office in Amsterdam leaves me without a ticket home but with money in my pocket. I buy a long dress in a psychedelic hot-pink print and an Afghan-style sheepskin coat.
As the six-month au-pair contract reaches its end, I feel a longing to become part of this world. A place where I perceive no persecution of minorities, no expensive war tearing the country apart, and, especially, no dominant stepfather trying to run my life. I move into Haarlem and find a job. A year later, I find a husband.
As I fill in the paperwork for the Dutch marriage contract, the civil servant asks casually, “Do you want to become a Dutch citizen?”
“Can I keep my American citizenship?”
When he affirms this, not knowing that the US has a conflicting policy, I answer, “Why not!”
“Then fill in this form and your passport will be ready in a few weeks.” [i]
My life in the Netherlands has begun. The real journey to self-realization and acceptance has just started. 45 years, two children, two divorces, and a long career later, I’m still in the Netherlands.
[i] This would be unthinkable now. The Dutch have adopted a much stricter policy on naturalization. And the US has changed their expatriate rulings.