All in a day’s work

This morning I went on a short bike ride through the French Alps, scaled a few rock-climbing routes, then packed my bags and walked to my office in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Well, that’s how I remember it.

What really happened was that I walked to my local rock-climbing gym and spent 5 minutes on a stationary bike with a 10 inch video screen that simulates different stages of the Tour de France. Just 5 minutes is all it took for me to be transported back to Europe, onto beautiful scenic mountain highways, uncluttered by billboards and telephone wires. When my warm-up was over, I stopped pedaling and the virtual reality bike tour was over. In its place was a brightly colored scenic landscape photo of a French village down in the valley.

Photo courtesy: Alpine Charms

This isn’t a story about longing for vacation or greener pastures. It’s a story about how difficult it is to be yourself when you are surrounded by people who have no idea who you are.

One year ago, my wife and I moved back to the US after spending 3 years living in The Netherlands. It started out as a 2 year stint for me to get a Masters Degree. Things were going well, so I stayed on for one more year and worked for a Dutch NGO that was doing really exciting global health work in Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, and Nigeria.

The transition from full-time work to full-time Masters Student at age 30 was not easy. I was the second-oldest student in my program, and the only student older than me was a Brazilian pulmonologist, so she was already quite accomplished. When I looked at my resume, I didn’t see a clear path to global health. All I saw was a number of fits and starts.

At first, it bothered me that my classmates were so much younger than me, and seemed to have already figured out what they wanted to do with their lives. But I was so grateful for the opportunity to live and study in Europe. It was something I dreamed of but never thought possible. So every day when I rode my bike to class I just reminded myself that I am so lucky to be here, and I resolved to make the most of this opportunity.

The first year passed so quickly. Before we knew it, we had moved from an old, dilapidated building in Amstelveen to a gleaming new student housing complex just a few minutes’ walk from the Amstel River. This was the view that we saw every morning:

Eerste Ringdijkstraat, Amsterdam

Well, not every morning…

During that year, I rode my bike 60–90 minutes per day. From home to the University, from the University to work, and from work back home. At night, Katie and I would walk along the Amstel River and admire buildings that were built before the USA was even a country. Sometimes we longed to stay there forever. Other times we were so homesick we couldn’t stand it.

We were far from home, but we weren’t alone. We had close friends who had known Katie’s family since 1976. Forty years of friendship, multiple visits to the US, and multiple opportunities to host Katie’s family on their visits to The Netherlands. We would go over to their apartment, have dinner, share stories of my joys and struggles with my University and my job, stories of Katie’s visits to the International School in The Hague, and laugh until there were tears in our eyes.

Before we knew it, three years had passed and our time in Europe was over. We sold our household items on Marktplaats, the Dutch version of Craigs List. We gave our trusty Dutch bikes away to our friends. We said our goodbyes and moved to Boston for Katie to start her Masters Degree.

Now it’s the end of July and we’ve been here for almost a year. I spent 9 months searching for a job in the global health sector and I finally found one two months ago. I am getting into the rhythm and finding my way around Boston, but it still doesn’t feel like home. It sounds maudlin to say, but I feel incomplete here. I have a lot of achievements and accomplishments from Amsterdam that I am proud of, but they seem invisible and incomprehensible now. And sometimes they don’t even seem real. They are like souvenirs that were left behind on the train. Fond memories that are tinged with regret.

Moving is a painful experience. The pain is masked with opportunity and optimism, but it’s still there, beneath the surface.

Moving forces you to reevaluate who you are and what you believe about yourself.

Moving puts distance between who you were and who you will become.

If I want my boss to be impressed that I have an interdisciplinary masters degree from a Dutch University, then I need to work harder to explain what made it so unique and valuable. If I want my coworkers to care that my first peer-reviewed article will be published next week, then they will need to know how hard I fought for it. If I want my friends to understand what it’s like to move 10 times in 5 years, then I have to be the one to tell them.

I don’t know what to make of it all. I don’t know if my experiences in Europe will ever impact my day-to-day life here in the US. I don’t know if my network of European friendships will stay strong or will slowly fade away. But I do know that I can’t wait for the good people of Boston to come knocking on my door and invite me to come round for a beer. I’m going to have to invest time and effort into getting to know others and giving them an opportunity to get to know me.