An interview with American expat, blogger, and mother of three Farrah Ritter… currently living in the Netherlands but soon to be setting off on her next overseas adventure!
Where do you live now, and where did you move from?
Oisterwijk, Netherlands from Michigan/South Carolina USA.
Is this the first time you’ve been an expat? If not, where have you lived before? If so, what was the leaving process like?
Yes! It was harrowing I have to admit. The most overwhelming thing was getting rid of the ‘stuff’ which has since been something that I am proud to say we’ve managed to keep to a minimum. Renting out and eventually selling the house was seamless. Packing up for three babies (they were 2, 2 & 3 at the time) was fairly easy. Movers came in to take what we wanted out of the house – so that wasn’t bad. To help us document it, we did an episode of House Hunters International and I still remember feeling pretty emotional when we were saying goodbye to the nursery. Everyone knows that show is mostly staged, but for us the timing was VERY accurate and filmed right before leaving and then in the Netherlands a month after we moved in. We were exhausted from so much of the work of leaving – I remember being too tired to care about doing my hair and makeup for the show!
How do you spend your time? Do you work?
Not outside of the home. Like I said, I have 3 young boys and they’re plenty.
What do you miss most from home?
How easy it can be to find something (online, at a store) that I need. Second would be medical/dental care – and our pediatrician. Such a thing exists only in a hospital here so it needs to be an emergency to see one.
What do you appreciate the most in your adopted country?
The appreciation for quality of life. Perfect example – in our village, ‘take away’ coffee has never been able to catch on because people LIKE sitting and drinking their coffee at home, in a cafe or with a friend. There is no rush rush rush with a paper cup in your hand gulping down as much as you can just to keep going. There’s time enough to enjoy the day and drink coffee in peace.
You can be whoever you want to be in this new life. No one has known you before. You are free to change your habits, make new friends and start a new life. Embrace that rather than trying to cling to what was. You’ll miss it otherwise.
How did you make new friends in your new home?
Mostly through the local school. I have met many moms, clicking with many and happy with my social circle. There isn’t an International school here and I’m so glad that we made the choice to put the boys in this community/neighborhood school since we’ve made such great friends. Additionally, I’ve met a few people through my blog which has been strange but also quite nice.
Have you started learning the language? Any tips on the best way to do it?
No. This is my biggest regret! I took a few lessons before we left the States – but because English is so widely spoken it was too easy for me to take the lazy way out. I’ve learned enough to get by – but my kids speak and prefer Dutch to English. It’s their secret brother language they like to keep from Mom.
My tip would be to take lessons before you leave the States, use apps like Duolingo (I practice Spanish on that), and make local (NOT OTHER EXPAT ONLY) friends once you arrive. Ask them to help you practice! Not to let you cheat.
Do you obviously stand out as being foreign? What’s your experience with this?
Not really. We’re pretty low key and the kids speak flawless Dutch with the perfect accents so when we’re out and about no one would even notice. I’ve gradually adopted more and more of the Dutch fashion sense (as has my husband) and we can read Dutch on signs and menus so we do not have to ask for help. Maybe we did a little in the beginning, but no one ever made me feel like we were outsiders. I do believe that the community over time has grown a bit weary of people not from here because there is a refugee camp on the outside of town and some of them do cause problems. This is unfortunate because it gives everyone a bad name who comes from somewhere else to live here – however it’s the kind of issue that’s so complicated I don’t even know where to begin with addressing it.
If you have children, what are your observations on Third Culture Kids?
Start ‘em young and know they’re more resilient and stronger than you think! I literally had to just take my kids to school and walk away. It was the craziest thing I had ever done to them at that age – but it ended up being fantastic because the language immersion was exactly what set our assignment off on the right foot.
In a way, my struggle is to keep them grounded with being Americans – one of my kids insists he is a ‘Dutchican’, and forcing them to speak English only at the dinner table is indeed a struggle. But at this point, nearly five years in, they’re extremely open to others, up for an unknown adventure and pretty hard to impress with a holiday 🙂 .
Any tips for beating home sickness?
Don’t get it! Can’t say I have ever felt it. The only time I struggled with not being home was when my best friend had to battle Stage 4 cancer with chemo, radiation and surgeries. I really wished I was there to support her – but I couldn’t leave my kids and husband.
I’ve heard that Facebook groups are helpful for expats with homesickness – sharing common problems, getting together, etc. But I wasn’t happy where we left, so it wasn’t hard for me to not miss it.
What’s the most common question you are asked about being an expat?
HOW CAN I BECOME AN EXPAT TOO??!! Honestly, I get this question quite a bit and I don’t know how to respond. My husband and I planned on doing this before we were married, strategized his change in companies, and actively sought out promotions within the company to ensure an opportunity. We are 100% partners in this (I might even be pushier in staying abroad) and did our research well.
How does the cost of living compare to where you were before?
We lived in the South of the US, so things were fairly inexpensive. Here, I find that yes, gas and food might be pricier but we buy much less ‘stuff’ so in turn have managed our finances really well. We have paid off all of our credit cards, have one old (paid for) car, and primarily budget our ‘fun money’ for holidays. We spend what we can afford – people don’t live on credit here. It’s such a simple concept – don’t live beyond your means! We have less space to put ‘toys’ and to be honest if we’re just going to move again why do I want to accumulate more things? Financially, leaving the US was the best thing we could do.
Anything that really surprised you as being particularly cheap or expensive?
Flying! We travel a lot. There’s nothing weird about booking a trip to Venice with a week’s notice if I see a last-minute fare for under €20. I do research on accommodation and we don’t go the luxury route – we go the Dutch route and thus can vacation more, for longer, with less money.
Are you settled here now? Or do you plan to move on one day?
Well, we’re currently at Stage 1 of the next assignment process. The contract my husband has here (which we have extended twice) has maxed out and we have no other opportunity here. The timing is probably right though because ‘that itch’ to face another challenge has absolutely surfaced. I don’t have a job anymore (I used to be a high school teacher) and so my mental stimulation is figuring things out, having a challenge, learning new things. At this point we aren’t ready to settle down and while the kids are still young we can do it. I feel that they should have an American high school experience – so that is kind of my deadline for when we have to return to the US.
Would you share something embarrassing that happened to you as an expat (but that makes you smile when you look back)?
So many little things. I was terrified to drive – I thought for sure people assumed I was an American behind the wheel (? how?) and I didn’t even pump my own gas (I made my husband do it). I was overwhelmed by grocery shopping and to this day rely on the home delivery (which, is really awesome) because it’s become such a habit. I use my silly American idioms and my Dutch friend thinks I’m crazy but nothing bothers me. I laugh at how paranoid I was in the beginning, but it was all for nothing. This has been a perfect first assignment. Not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad one!
And finally, if you could give one piece of advice to someone considering moving to where you live, what would it be?
Please, please, please, don’t seek out and only try to surround yourself with other expats – specifically Americans if you’re American. You’re not going to integrate and it will end up feeling like a completely foreign experience where you are the outsider the entire time. Try the local school, don’t feel you have to go to the International one. We belonged to an expat club for the first year – but as time went on we attended meetings less and less and didn’t need it. You can be whoever you want to be in this new life. No one has known you before. You are free to change your habits, make new friends and start a new life. Embrace that rather than trying to cling to what was. You’ll miss it otherwise.
Keep in touch!
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