Settling in – How Long Before It Really Feels Like Home?

Before we dive in, please let me introduce myself.

My name is Jelena, and I’m a perfectionist in recovery. One of those who procrastinate because they won’t be able to do the thing well enough, so then it builds up the anxiety to the point when you then have anxiety because you’re late with finishing the thing (because you haven’t even started)

I’m also one of those gifted kids who was always told that good grades and achievements are just normal and expected, and not something to celebrate. So I can be quite strict with myself, and rarely celebrate my own wins (because I’m just doing what I’m supposed to, isn’t that right?) 

Nice to meet you!

If you’ve read the very first post on this blog, you know that I moved to the Netherlands two years ago. During that time, I have: done all the visa and registration paperwork myself, started a new job, learned Dutch to somewhere around level B2, bought, remodeled, and furnished an apartment, and then quit my job to start my own business. 

Sounds like I’m bragging? Not at all! This whole time, I’ve felt like we’re going too slow, and I’m achieving nothing. I should have already had so many friends here, or at least a social circle. I should have already made more contributions to my pension plan – if only I started on time. I still say very dumb things when I speak in Dutch, and I’m really not good at writing, so I’m lagging behind. 

Now you know why the intro from the beginning of this post was important. 

Only now, two years and some months later, do I feel like I’m actually doing a good job, like I’m in the right place at the right time. And I really wish I could go back in time, hug myself from two years ago, and tell her that she needs to give herself the space, instead of feeling guilty every step of the way. Thinking she’s doing an awful job, and letting everyone (including herself down). It probably wouldn’t really sink in back then – you need to go through the experience to truly know it. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve known the Netherlands is the right place for me pretty much within the first few months after moving. It was the ease of daily life that made it a slam-dunk. We can talk about the reasons you may or may not want to choose to move here some other time. If you’ve already chosen, or perhaps you’re here and are struggling to feel settled in, here’s a few things that helped me immensely. 

Knowing the language goes a long way

I started learning Dutch about six months before we moved. I had to prepare for the basic “inburgering” exam that you have to pass at your home country’s embassy before you apply for the visa. But, I also knew that I wouldn’t feel comfortable in an environment where I’m not sure if the other person is swearing at me, and I’m just smiling at them because I have no idea what they’re saying.

Now, my experience here is quite controversial, because most expats will tell you people don’t want to talk to them in Dutch, and they just switch to English the moment they hear a mistake. I’ve had quite the opposite happen to me. For example, a month into being here, I went to see my huisarts (chosen general practicioner), and the conversation went a little something like this:

  • Where are you from?
  • Serbia.
  • Do you speak Dutch?
  • Well, I’m learning.
  • Great, then you need to practice, we can go slow!

And so there I was, explaining a plethora of complex symptoms in very non-advanced Dutch. Halfway through the conversation, I had to switch to English, because my brain couldn’t handle it. But it was a token of things to come. Instead of switching to English, all the Dutchies I encounter are painfully patient and wait for me to put sentences together. It’s a blessing and curse, all in one. 

Don’t depend on things from your home country

I know so many expats who cannot wait for their next opportunity to go back to their home country so they could eat their favorite foods, engage in a hobby, get their hair cut, or even go to the doctor’s. It’s one thing to look forward to going back so you can see your friends and family – that part never gets entirely easy. 

But if you’re waiting for those couple of weeks to enjoy your life and relax, then it’s no wonder you’re struggling. 

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that there are people who move abroad so they could make a sufficient amount of money so they can support themselves or their families, or to escape poverty. They just work, have no fun, and live for the vacation time. If that is you, then I’m sorry you’re in that situation, and this advice is probably not applicable to you. 

I’ve found it immensely helpful to go to the hairdresser’s here every now and then. I’d go more often, but my brain cannot accept a cost of a 60 euro blowout every week. The first time I visited a hairdresser in the Netherlands was a year and half into living here, and the only way I tricked myself into doing it is by cutting my own hair first. Then I of course had to have it fixed, and it was a perfect excuse to make an appointment for the first time, while panicking about how I’ll do it in Dutch, and if someone there speaks English.

I hunt down the right ingredients so I can make my favorite dishes from Serbia as authentically as possible. The first few attempts normally really suck, but then I find the right combo, and it definitely hits all the spots. 

I can’t be a hypocrite, though – while I’ve found replacements for most things, there’s still nothing like the home-cured and smoked bacon that my dad makes!

Embrace that it’s hard

This is not a walk in the park. You’ve done a huge thing, and it’s not unusual that you’re having a hard time.

Both my therapist and my huisarts told me that moving to a different country is one of the most stressful events in one’s live (comparable to a divorce, or death of a loved one). I don’t know if I’m just bad at googling because I cannot find the source of that research now, but I do believe my therapist. 

I’ve been physically and emotionally exhausted. I’ve had serious changes in my menstrual cycle, mood swings, hormonal acne. I’ve had anxiety attacks and awful quality of sleep. I’ve had months when I felt the need to have a few glasses of wine every weekend, just to get the buzz on and not feel worried and stressed all the time.

You’re making a huge change. It’s okay that you feel bad. It’s okay that you have no idea what you’re doing. It’s normal that you’re struggling, this is not a simple project. You’re allowed to feel like 💩, so make sure to give yourself some slack. (this is me giving myself advice as well)

I won’t finish this post with a big, smart message, it’s not like I’m the wisest person you’ll meet. I’ll just say that – wherever you are in your journey, I hope you have support, and I hope you’re nice to yourself in the process. 

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