Expats in Lockdown is a special series (hopefully with a short lifespan) – a collection of interviews with expats around the world and how we’re all dealing with the coronavirus outbreak as best as we can. None of us have an instruction manual for times like these, especially while living abroad. My mission with this series is therefore simple – to show you how similar our experiences can be despite living in different countries.
My second interview in this series is with Marissa from Expat Stepmom who is an American expat turned lovepat.
She first lived in hot and humid Mexico where she met her Portuguese boyfriend. Their love story led them to live in the Netherlands, closer to the boyfriend’s two kids who live part of the time in Belgium.
Since the Netherlands was not in any kind of lockdown when I talked to Marissa, we got to talking about differences in health care and in taking the situation seriously across countries and people close to her.
Having to deal with different mindsets around whether or not, and to what extent, we should be taking the pandemic seriously as far as daily life goes is something that many of you will probably relate to.
Katherine: So, Marissa, tell me how did you end up in the Netherlands?
Marissa: The Netherlands is my second expat country actually. I chose willingly and passionately to move to Mexico where I lived before, but I didn’t exactly pick the Netherlands out of all the options on the map. I mean I did, but I did it for love.
I first moved to Mexico to teach because I studied Spanish education in the States, and wanted to improve my language skills. I absolutely loved Mexico. I felt so at home: I liked the culture, the people, the food, the climate. I never ever pictured myself moving to the Netherlands where the weather is crap (laughs).
While I was in Mexico, I met my now partner, who is Portuguese and happened to have an ex-wife and two kids in Belgium. He told me from the start that he would eventually have to move back to Europe to be with his children.
So after about a year in Mexico, we endured a year of long-distance with me in the States and him in Europe. I was working as a school teacher, and after the end of the school year, I moved to the Netherlands in 2016 so we could start a life together.
Although he is Portuguese, he got a job in the Netherlands which is close enough to Belgium without being Belgium (laughs). It’s honestly a very good scenario for us as a couple because the Netherlands is so accommodating towards English speakers. I don’t think I would’ve had the same opportunities in Belgium. So I’m very grateful for that.
Katherine: What’s the hardest thing about living abroad for you?
Marissa: I think this is hard for most expats and immigrants: being far away from family and friends, but also not having an ease of communication.
Something that I don’t hear often enough is how the time zone difference makes it really hard to communicate organically. My parents are 9 time zones away from me! Chats always have to be planned, and I’d much prefer just picking up my phone and being able to call my mom whenever. But then I realize it’s 3am for her so that’s not a great time to talk (laughs). I don’t like feeling restricted by that, but it’s an inevitability.
Katherine: So let’s get into another hardship we’re all experiencing now. Do you remember the first time that the spread of coronavirus started to impact you?
Marissa: Oh I remember that very precisely. It was nearly end of February and the virus had already started to come to Europe. My mother had planned to visit from the States so I was becoming increasingly cautious of her travelling. At the time we didn’t have any known cases in the Netherlands, but she might be travelling with others who had it, being in crowded airports, having to put herself at risk just to get here, so that put me on edge.
Then, she texted me of Feb 27th saying that the Netherlands has their first case, and my heart dropped. Looking back, it’s kind of funny that she was the one who texted me about it, as she is an observer looking in.
Also around that time, my partner had gone on a work trip to the UK for three days and I promised to pick him up from the airport when he arrived back to the Netherlands. On my way to the airport, I’m listening to podcasts and just trying to familiarize myself with pandemics and what’s going on. I do think I get a little bit of a pleasure out of always checking and wanting to know what’s going on (laughs).
So once I was at the airport, the reality of the virus’s spread started to sink in: I felt like I was seeing the beginnings of an apocalypse movie. Some people were wearing masks and some people weren’t.
In my head I was thinking, “How many people might have this thing and don’t know it?” You just see all these masses of people walking around. And meanwhile you hear how contagious it is. It’s this invisible, microscopic thing that is provoking so much fear.
Since then I’ve been following the news every day and watching the numbers go up. I’m trying to not look at it because it stresses me out, but I can’t help it.
Katherine: The Netherlands isn’t in lockdown at the moment [note: on Sunday, 15th March]. What’s your perspective on what’s going on?
Marissa: I’m on edge and I’m worried, but I’m one of those people that maybe doesn’t need to be.
I work in a very small consultancy with just 5 people. I cycle to work so I don’t have to commute by train or anything. Almost everyone in the office is local as well so we have limited chances of being exposed to the virus.
But my partner for instance works in a bigger company in Tilburg, which is the epicenter of the virus in the Netherlands.
I feel worried, but it seems as if the Dutch people are not, at least not in my small village.
Another thing that’s interesting about the Netherlands is that they haven’t cancelled schools, which is weird because all of the surrounding countries have. Apparently, the government is reluctant to do it because if everyone has to keep their kids at home, then no one would be able to go to work… concerns at present are economic ones. Everyone’s grappling with the work-from-home scenario.
From my perspective not everyone is taking it as seriously as I’d like them to.
If we look at the number of cases and rate of growth, we’re three weeks behind Italy. So why aren’t we learning from them? They were also lax in the beginning and now it’s a massive problem.
Europe is so close but everyone wants to do things in a different way. Why don’t we want to learn from our neighboring countries?
It’s not only these different countries, but also dealing with different people’s mindsets in my own life.
Katherine: Where has this difference in mindset come up for you personally?
Marissa: As I mentioned, in the last two weeks I’ve been on edge about my mother since she was supposed to travel here. At the last minute, kind of due to Trump’s message about banning travel from Europe, she became worried enough that she decided she wouldn’t come.
Of course I was really sad, but also relieved because I wouldn’t want her to come under these circumstances.
But it‘s weird because you have to merge people’s perceptions about the severity of this situation. The people that you’re interacting with, the people you share a life with – my partner, my step kids and their mother – we all have very different ideas about how serious this is. You have to mentally merge the mindsets of people in your circle.
For me, I’m a bit paranoid, but it’s bothersome that other people that I’m quite close with and live with aren’t as precautious as I am.
I don’t want to invoke fear and make everyone come to my level of uneasiness. I know I am over-stressed about this. But I do want to know that other people around me are being cautious and taking responsible decisions.
Katherine: I can relate to that. I have family in Estonia, UK and Switzerland, not to mention friends all over Europe. And it’s strange hearing very different opinions about how serious this is or isn’t. I try to respect their opinions because I can’t virtually force them to wash their hands or stay at home. I have no control over that. But it’s completely different when it’s your own home in question, as it is for you.
But what’s the hardest thing for you about the situation right now?
Marissa: I think it’s the healthcare system because I’m not from Europe. In the States you feel safe and comprehensively taken care of when you have a good health insurance. But here my perception is that the Dutch stereotype about being extremely laid back about health care is somewhat true.
When I first moved here, someone told me that if I ever have a serious problem, I should go to Belgium. In the Netherlands you have to be very persistent as a patient and demand that they take an x-ray or do some sort of test. They’re not very liberal about their services.
In some ways it’s refreshing because they believe that the body will heal itself if you just take care. They don’t like to give out a lot of medicine. In some ways it’s good, but I think in this scenario it’s quite scary.
I get worried that the government or the health care system is not taking this seriously enough and putting strict measures like our EU neighbors – the horror stories of overflowing hospitals and overwhelmed systems are scary. And then there’s a tiny fear that my host country would value a native over me.
Even though I’m not too worried about myself. I work out, I eat healthy and I think I have a generally good immune system, knock on wood!
Katherine: Have you changed your routines because of your concerns about the situation?
Marissa: Yes, so starting tomorrow me and my partner are both going to be working from home. And last week I was the only person in the office, my colleagues were on trips abroad. I decided that I just don’t want to be in the office or out in public. We’re totally set to work efficiently from home so that’s what we’re going to do until it starts to get a little bit better.
I had to really nudge my boyfriend though because it’s again about mindsets. I kept pleading with him not to go to the office since we have a perfectly good setup here. I think in bigger companies, and generally in the “corporate world”, there is this social pressure from work.
While it’s perfectly possible to work from home, everybody at his work seems to have this careerist mindset that if lockdown isn’t implemented or demanded, they still want to keep going to work to show that they are good employees and they work hard. I think during these times, that sentiment is quite silly. Especially for people who can efficiently work from home.
I don’t understand why employers are not explicitly making it more acceptable to work from home right now if you have symptoms or any doubts.
Otherwise, I have started going to the supermarket a little bit more with the mindset of slowly stocking up. Not panic buying – I don’t have a shelf full of toilet paper (laughs). But I am thinking that it wouldn’t be bad to have some extra canned food and everyday items to limit the amount of times we have to go out. I’ve also cancelled some upcoming events like a trip to the Anne Frank Museum and an Alumni event at the University of Amsterdam.
One day after our virtual talk, the Netherlands implemented a semi-lockdown.
Readers, how do you grapple with different mindsets around health care and the severity of the situation?
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.