Can Strangers Remind you how to Live?

The disarming, no-nonsense humanity of the Netherlands

Photo of Teylers Museum, Haarlem, Netherlands by Christian Fregnan on Unsplash

Imust be making the face — the one where the corners of the mouth lift up and the eyes sparkle — when two guys approach me and ask for directions. I reflexively stop before realizing I can’t help them out because I’ve just moved here but I’m happy to check on my smartphone. “No, thank you, we have phones but we thought it would be nicer to ask people.” I stand there, stunned speechless by the simplicity of their reasoning, an unexpected tribute to our shared humanness. I walk home to the place I don’t come from in a daze because life comes at you fast the moment you decided to embrace it instead of running away.

I lost years weighing my options, wondering whether time had come to surrender to death; depression had made life unbearable. Being curious and a contrarian convinced me to keep breathing, on the off chance the moment might pass. Since I didn’t have the means to hurry it along, it lasted half a decade during which I held my own hand until I began trying to bootstrap wellness. Or whatever approximation thereof I can manage on any given day, which always feel like too little, too late.

Dutch law gives me three months after arrival to sign up for health insurance before I get fined; I wonder if I can avoid collapsing before then.

Coming up for air between writing and editing, I look up and realize I have been holding my breath since I moved in on the last day of 2019. But for the few items I use regularly, I haven’t unpacked my suitcase yet, there is no table, there are no chairs, the list of missing essentials is growing.

And yet, I can’t help but wonder how much one can do without, how much one needs, how long one can delay the tasks inherent to basic life maintenance. At what point does it all this lack catch up with you and what happens when it does? It takes more than a move half-way across the world to figure life out and relearn how to be a human after spending so long trapped in my own head.

In July 2018, I wondered whether I could I rebuild a life word by word if I poured my heart into it and attempted to write up an alternative to what was. After spending a year living out of a suitcase in transit between two continents, this question led me to the North Holland.

Jet lag isn’t supposed to be permanent but my brain still hasn’t caught up with my body: When people ask me how old I am, I don’t know. Why do the five years during which I died have to count?

I spent so long in survival mode I have no clue what life entails anymore beside an endless flurry of words designed to assign it meaning. Writing is how I make sense of life, downloading ideas, thoughts, and emotions onto the page and organizing them into a coherent narrative.

I’m lost in translation between two continents vying for the name of home. Although I moved to the safe place that held me together throughout 2019, I am still compressed into myself. Unable to unfold the origami of anxiety within, I can barely contain the exhaustion cresting several times a day, my fealty to writing. Often, it spirits me away to all the places I’m not, making me nostalgic for things I haven’t lost yet, evidence depression is still lying in wait.

As the gentle glow from the street lights filters from the square into my bedroom in the early hours of the morning, awe washes over me. I am so far removed from everything that came before there are no known landmarks, only the crater left behind by the absence of human warmth.

I never knew something could go missing and its absence take up so much space it eclipsed everything else.

Whether I am in France with my family, in Portugal, or home in the Netherlands, I am in a constant state of surprise, its intensity varying throughout the day.

Evidence of human warmth backed by actual human warmth, a smile, a conversation, a hand to hold is the most discombobulating feeling of all. Much as I want nothing more than to make it a habit I can rely upon, I am terrified: This joy remains so alien to me I don’t know what to make of it.

So I make the face whenever I remember to take stock of my new reality instead of letting it puzzle me; after all, I did create it and I’m only getting started.

The journey back to life is a long one but the people you meet along the way will show you the way forward, even when they’re asking you for directions.

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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