Sometimes profound love asks you to live in a country that you wouldn’t have chosen for yourself.
This is what happened to Marissa, an American expat, who not only found herself moving to the Netherlands, but also became a stepmom to her partner’s two boys – who actually live in Belgium.
It’s difficult enough trying to decide for yourself or as part of a couple whether you should stay or go.
The same dilemma becomes increasingly more complex when kids are in the picture. So without further ado, this is Marissa’s story and how she relates to the question: “Should I stay or go?” at this point in time.
You can also follow Marissa on her Instagram account.
Please introduce yourself to the readers – who are you and where has your journey taken you so far?
I was born and raised in the good ol’ Midwest (Cleveland, Ohio). I always knew I wanted to live somewhere else, somewhere warmer.
In high school I studied Spanish; I liked learning the language well enough, but it was the culture that was most alluring. I’d hang onto every word my teacher said about her time “studying abroad”. I wanted that.
Since I was decent at it, I continued with Spanish in college, and did eventually get my time to complete undergrad coursework abroad, in Mexico (twice! Both in 2010 and 2011).
I graduated with a degree in foreign language education and then returned to Cleveland, near where I grew up. I taught in the public school system for 2 years, but wanted out. I wanted to feel that exoticism again.
So I got myself back to Mexico (2014). This time, not as part of a study abroad program with several other students, but by myself.
I found my way, got a job, and was living and breathing the “gringa” life… until three months in when I met a charming (and handsome) Portuguese gentleman.
We made a bit of a romance there in Mexico, being two “expats” far away from our countries, our cultures, our homes. We found solace in each other. We had grand plans of exploring Central America and trekking down to Brazil. Though we didn’t have a dime.
And then reality crept in. Although we were falling in love and exploring this amazing country together, I can’t say it was “carefree” for the both of us. My guy was going through a divorce, and had two little ones back in Europe. Any money he made from the restaurant (he owned one there) he’d send back to them or save up for his ticket.
And here is where his story became mine, and mine his. He had to leave Mexico, and consequently, so did I: I could not continue to be there in that special place where we grew together, without him. That might be misconstrued as romantic, but in all honesty, it was an act of survival. I simply could not have gone on.
I remember vividly the day we left each other. Although we said we’d continue on in this relationship, the truth was, we didn’t know if we’d ever see each other again. And that broke me.
I moved back to Ohio yet again, my landing pad. I got a teaching job at an elementary school and my partner moved to the Netherlands–his kids were in Belgium. Close enough without fully returning to his “past life”.
We managed to endure the year of a long-distance relationship. And after the school year concluded, I was packing up my two suitcases, selling everything I owned, and heading for my transatlantic adventure.
I landed in the UK where my guy met me, and we took an overnight ferry to Rotterdam. I was finally in my new country: the Netherlands.
When I first arrived (in 2016), I was a Master’s student and completed a year in Tilburg, then finished up at the University of Amsterdam. I did a bit of work in digital marketing, and then ultimately landed a job at an American consulting firm doing content marketing and client operations–quite the corporate step away from a bright-eyed Spanish teacher working with kindergarteners.
What has your personal experience been with the question “should I stay or go?”
It is a challenging question because my life is tethered to another; and his life is tethered to yet two more. And so for me, this question is disturbing: I avoid thinking about it as I feel like I do not have control over that decision.
And if I contemplate it more, it makes me feel powerless. So, I try not to think of this question! But, for the sake of honest reflection, I’m participating in this exercise.
Not long after being in the Netherlands did I realize… I hate living in this damn country. It’s cold, it’s grey, it’s topographically uninteresting, there is virtually no nature, nothing is wild. It’s boring, the people are rigid, the food SUCKS.
I did the touristy things, we explored lots of different regions, not to mention, we’ve lived in 4 different cities… we’ve seen this place, and I’m over it. The windmills, the clogs, the tulips: saw them, cool. Check. Done. NEXT!
It was easy enough to decide to move here: the person I loved was confined to this place, and I wanted to be with him. So, I subjected myself to a voluntary confinement, if you will.
From the start, the Netherlands was (is) supposed to be temporary.
My boyfriend was (is) keen on moving to the United States–he’s also been bitten by the “immigrant bug” (Spain, Ireland, Bosnia, China, Belgium, Mexico…). Holland was (is) a landing pad. A stepping stone. A moment in time that my partner will be in his young childrens’ lives for long enough until he/they are ready to have less-regular contact.
“If I want to be in this man’s life, I need to stay. But my head and my heart are yearning to go.”
However, it’s not like my boyfriend wants to be here in Holland either; he is itching to embark on a new adventure, but he’s utterly stuck because of the children. He can’t think of a good solution to this conundrum either. As such, I am shackled by proxy to this geographical region.
I realize I’m not being entirely fair: this country has been good to my partner and I, and has afforded us opportunities that would be hard to come by in other countries due to language barriers, economic well being, etc. We have a house and are fairly settled.
From the outside looking in, we’re doing OK. And that has kept us sane and complacent to “stay”. We hold on to the notion that we are building up for our family’s future, and we cling on for dear life to the idea that we stay because it’s what’s best for the children.
I DO understand that my not-so-positive attitude about the Netherlands has a lot to do with perspective and participation.
“If I just ‘chose to look at it differently’ or if I ‘threw myself into the culture’… sure, I might feel better about my obligation to stay here.”
But I’d also be denying myself the deep truth that I am hungry for more out of life, and I don’t see this life, in this place, as the existence that will satiate me.
Are there specific moments that especially trigger you to want to leave the Netherlands?
When I think about leaving the Netherlands, I romanticize that “anywhere will be better than here!” But of course, that will not entirely be true. To choose is to lose. Each destination will bring its own challenges among the apparent beauties.
The moments I’ve felt “leave” calling me…
Portugal – Last summer we took a road trip to Portugal to visit my partner’s family. The trip itself was wonderful. We were only there for a couple weeks but I couldn’t help but notice myself thinking “I feel more at home here than in the place I’ve been living for nearly 5 years.”
The people are warm and welcoming; there is a sense of family that I don’t get in the Netherlands. In Portugal, my partner has 3 brothers, and they are married and have kids. People nearby, all the time. There’s a lot of life around.
Not to mention the beautiful landscape. It’s a feast for the eyes. The air smells like earth, and there is an abundance of vegetation: eucalyptus trees, vineyards, fruit orchards for miles. The land itself has so much to offer and makes one feel more human. I feel as though I could be well there. It’s an option on the table.
“But of course, if we moved to Portugal, there would be hardships. There is a language barrier, which also exists for me here in the Netherlands with Dutch. However, with Portuguese, it feels more natural to me.”
I enjoy practicing and playing with the language, experimenting, testing out–and I have lots of people to speak with. I draw upon my existing Spanish to help me through, and I seem to pick it up better. There is nothing more satisfactory than the triumphant “ah-ha” moment that any language learner can empathize with: it just clicks.
In contrast, Dutch *to me* is so ugly and clunky. I can’t connect with it and I don’t like it.
Arizona – I went to visit my family this winter, for Christmas. Like Portugal, I was met with a scenic feast for the eyes, a luxury that I had been deprived of in the Netherlands. A beautiful mountain range nestles my family’s home.
It morphs and changes color depending on where you are in town, and what time of day it is. A living, breathing masterpiece, watching over us humans crawling about like ants.
Surrounding the mountains is an unmatched vastness: tones of red and rust, wild flora like Saguaro cacti and Stag-horn Cholla. The kind of plants that scare you; built for the extremes. Rough and tough, yet beautiful in their hardness.
So again, I find myself marveling at the landscape. The company wasn’t bad either.
“Being with my family was an absolute joy. There is something special about being around the people who helped shape you; who’ve accompanied you through your entire life and know every nook and cranny of your existence.”
There is no trying to force anything; no bureaucracy; no games, no politeness rules or superficial cordiality; we can just be.
And we know, without ever having to say it, that the people around the family dinner table are among the only ones in the world who actually care about us.
India – An opportunity recently crossed my partner’s professional path: moving to India for a short while to grow part of the business there.
Upon ideating further, our hearts and minds were filled with possibilities: we could move there for yet another stepping stone. A brand new culture, so foreign, so exotic. It was intriguing!
We both are so curious about India and would love to travel there, let alone try and live there for a period of time.
It was fun to contemplate the logistics, putting ourselves in the mindset to explore potential outcomes.
Ultimately, reality set in and we didn’t pursue this option, but just the energy that came with thinking about it gave us both a breath of fresh air.
Are there certain things, activities or moments that give you a sense of peace right now (even in the midst of a pandemic)?
Yes, of course. Although it’s been tough, I do enjoy “living in Europe” and am happy that I’ve had this experience. I’m learning about many different cultures and am dipping my toe in several languages as well.
Every moment I spend with my partner– the good and the bad–reinforces my decision to come here to be with him, to build a life with him. He’s my person. I can’t imagine going through life with anyone else, and if that means living for a while in a country we both don’t particularly like, so be it. We’re in it together, through and through.
I hope that he and I can look back on this time as a period of sacrifice that we both are making for his children, and that it counts. That this sacrifice is not in vain.
And right now, it seems like it does matter! Which is a great form of validation and puts us at peace; we are doing the right thing by staying here.
We see the kids every other weekend and so their father gets to be a regular part of their lives (even if it’s a small amount). All in all, they are growing up to be such great kids!
You can also follow Marissa on her Instagram account.
Katherine is a retired world traveller and former serial expat of 15 years. Based on her professional and personal experience as well as PhD research, she now helps expats, travellers and location independents decide whether to stay or go, whether to move back home or where to settle down.