Amsterdam Update - August 2015

David Small

I moved from Portland to Amsterdam 25 days ago. I'd never been here before. I knew nothing about the city and very little about the country. I don't have any friends here, and I don't speak the local language. I don't know why, but I hadn't really considered any of this before I left. I just kept pushing ahead toward this goal and one day, suddenly, there I was loading my overweight luggage into a checkered Radio Cab, leaving Portland, my home for six years, and my friends for a new job in a new country, unsure of my reasons but hungry for the unfamiliar.  

Well, it wasn't really that simple. I scrambled around like a crazy person my last week in PDX, selling my car, doing house repairs, saying goodbyes, cleaning, losing my wallet, preparing for renters, more goodbyes, more cleaning, then finding my wallet twenty minutes before the taxi arrived. In short, it was a bit of frantic mayhem toward the end, and I barely made it to the airport. 

Too much has happened this month to document well here, and I honestly can't write about Dutch people or Dutch culture because I haven't experienced it yet. The city is filled with expats and tourists. Nearly half the population aren't Dutch. And in summer swarms of tourists fill the city center. Maps out. Phones up. I feel like one of them, a foreigner in a sea of foreigners, except I have to work in the morning. I do laundry here. 

These updates are meant to be about Amsterdam, the city, but I wanted to offer some context as I talk about my new home. That it's not from the perspective of the young American abroad trying to find himself on a shoestring budget, but of the oh-shit-I'm-kind-of-grown-up-now thirtysomething who was in a rut and needed change.  

I've been an expat before, but it was different then. I moved to Barcelona in 2007 with only a suitcase, $3,200 from selling everything I owned, and the hopeful optimism of a 26-year-old escaping a suffocating job, a damaging relationship and a city that no longer felt like home (San Diego).

This Amsterdam move is different. I'm 34. I'm not escaping anything. I just left. Sitting in the PDX airport back in July, I realized I'd never really asked myself why. I suppose the opportunity to live in Europe again (this time with a “real” job) was just too good to pass up. Right? 

About that … I work for a large American company with offices around the world. In Portland, I managed a small team of copywriters, which wasn't the intended purpose of my writing life but after being broke and in debt most of my adulthood, I decided I was okay trading in my writing skills for the comforts of a good salary and job security, at least for a few years. The world would simply have to wait for my Great American Novel.

 In my new job I manage content production for our European websites. It’s my first non-writing job since college, and it requires no artistic creativity, which is the basis of my experiment: If I don’t spend all my creative energy writing for money, will I have energy to write for myself? This, of course, requires I have one of those office jobs I never understood. I know I’m busy, really busy, but I can’t explain to people exactly what I do all day. I can’t point at something and say “I did that.”

 So my company paid for me to move to Amsterdam. They packed and shipped all of my things, which are currently on a ship somewhere on the Atlantic. They paid for my first-class plane ticket, which cost half of what I earned my first year in Portland, and for my temporary apartment in a remodeled 17th century canal house. They hired relocation consultants and accountants and realtors to make all of this easy.

The Dutch make it easy too, encouraging international businesses to set up shop here with tax breaks and other incentives. My relocation aid drove me to an appointment at the Amsterdam Expat Center on my second day here to get my immigration documents in order. It's in a sleek office building next to one of the city's five train stations. Everything is new and polished and “European.” Bright green and orange walls. Fashionable and cheerful Dutch offered me coffee and snacks while I waited. They translated everything for me, with a smile. Imagine if Disney reinvented the American DMV. All this for "highly skilled migrants" coming to take Dutch jobs. But that's Amsterdam. I left with a boosted ego and a goodie bag with maps and pamphlets and a bike seat cover.   

This is all strange and new to me. This treatment. This assistance. This privilege. Honestly it makes me a bit uncomfortable. That said, I'm not taking any of it for granted. I'm sure I've earned it. I am grateful. "Relocating for work isn’t a big deal. It’s just something adults do," I tell myself, though I still struggle with that term—adult. I think it's something a lot of us struggle with, especially in Portland. Figuring out how to get older. In a way, our generation is rewriting the guidelines for life in your thirties. We don't know yet if we're getting it right, but we're certainly doing it differently. When my parents were my age, they had three children (ages 10, 11 and 12) and were twenty years from retirement. I'll be 35 in October. I’m single. I don’t expect to retire in twenty years. I also don't have half the responsibility they had.

At the moment, I'm sitting in a third-story window overlooking one of Amsterdam’s many canals. The sun fills my living room. Happy Dutch people and tourists pass by in boats below, drinking and taking pictures. Sometimes I wave and sometimes they wave back. I guess this is August in Amsterdam.