During my recent trip to The Netherlands I connected with Memphian Marisa Wittmann who is currently residing in this small, character-rich country that is bordered by Germany, Belgium and the North Sea. Her family relocated here after her husband's position with FedEx presented an opportunity to live overseas.
. My conversation with her made me laugh, reflect and reminisce not only about my days of living as a young expat amongst the Dutch but also about my time as a transplant living in Memphis. I initially thought our exchange might be a blanket comparison of cultures and cuisine between the Mid-South and Holland (another name by which the country is known) but it became so much more. The longer we chatted the more I understood that what Marisa was experiencing is what I experienced, too, when I made Memphis my home seven years ago.
There are things she misses about living in Memphis that we may often take for granted. “The conveniences of shopping and the free, close parking that comes with it” is a gift when considering the exorbitant cost of parking (and ratio of cars to parking spaces) in a country whose population density is outranked only by Bangladesh, Taiwan, and South Korea. It perhaps explains why most in the cities ride bicycles and shop for necessities on a near-daily basis as opposed to a once or twice-weekly grocery run. It is an adjustment easily made, however, as bike paths and free parking for the bicycles are everywhere. With the ongoing efforts in Memphis to make the city more bike-friendly, I believe what is seen here serves as a perfect example of what can be achieved with successful implementation of appropriate infrastructure.
Marisa points out- and I agree- that both Southerners and the Dutch share “a certain casualness” about them. Unlike our friendly (yes, I do honestly believe most are friendly) neighbors to the northeast who always appear to be in a mad rush even when there is no firm appointment time to meet, I’ve always found that the culture in Memphis embraces a calmer, more laid-back approach which is refreshing and welcoming. The Dutch embrace this approach as well, particularly evident at restaurants: rather than being brought the check with a plate still half-full, you are asked repeatedly if you’d like another coffee after your table has been cleared. But beware- the Dutch don’t sugarcoat! Marisa’s personal anecdotes that reflect this truth made me laugh so hard my stomach began to hurt. And she is absolutely right. Even as a child living here I remember going through the process of learning that you say what you mean and ask for what you need. Don’t dance around a topic or fill a conversation with “fluff”. My poor husband, the classic southern gentleman, had to take me through a period of unlearning when we met and, in all fairness to him, I do prefer the balance he advocated I adopt. And speaking of unlearning…
When we are unexpectedly placed in an environment that lifts us out of a space of familiarity and forces us to function outside of the box, there is often an awakening that occurs within us. We look around and realize how much different everything is, for better or for worse. The question then becomes “do I focus on the better or the worse?” Therein lies the awakening because we have a choice, moving forward, to make the best of the situation in which we have been placed, taking the lessons acquired from it and applying it to our lives from that moment on. For Marisa, there has been much reflection on the beauty of her children attending a school where over 75 passport countries are represented and it's not uncommon to meet a child who speaks 3 or 4 languages. “The kids are so welcoming and inclusive because they have all been in this same position of being the new kid.” I related to her statement, remembering that when I moved to Memphis I met so many others who were also the “new kid on the block”, having relocated here for work or because their child was a patient at St. Jude. Coupled with the graciousness shown me by native Memphians, I felt welcomed in a city that treated me as a friend, not a stranger.
There is also an awareness of the separation and boundaries established here (in the Netherlands) between work life and family life, which is not always the case elsewhere. “Here (and all over Europe, really) time to enjoy life is the real commodity. Work time is for work, and personal time is for family.” Marisa says that in the short time she has lived here, there has been a shift in her own philosophies on what is most important in life. She has learned that “home” is where you define it to be and being “different” shapes you dramatically. Learning to live outside of the box changes perspectives and it has definitively changed hers. Moments of stillness while residing in a strange land have given Marisa the chance to look back over the years and focus on what matters most.
“I believe that my eyes have changed and my heart has changed… I think real hardship changes your
lens of life. My dad had a brain aneurysm in his mid-40s and lived a very sickly and poor quality of life for the next 7 years. From 11-18, my daily life was very abnormal. When you overcome, the cobwebs clear and you can more easily decipher real problems from self-inflated ones.”
“I believe that my eyes have changed and my heart has changed.”
Through my life experiences in Memphis, mine have too, Marisa.