I am in the Netherlands this week. It’s been about a year since I last visited my hometown – probably the longest ‘gap’ since I moved to the UK 15 years ago. Oliver hasn’t come with me this time, so I’m mostly speaking Dutch. After living abroad for so long, I do struggle on occasion to find the right words or phrases, something which I find incredibly irritating and embarrassing. My family and friends mainly find it hilarious – my mum laughs at me every time I come out with yet another clumsily Dutchified phrase or construction.
Like many other Dutch expats, I’ve turned into an ‘invisible immigrant’ over the years: someone who is so well integrated into their adopted country that it’s barely noticeable they grew up somewhere else. I don’t have much of an accent when I speak. I understand Cockney rhyming slang and I can distinguish a Geordie from a Scouser. I listen to the Archers and have been known to enjoy the odd chip butty. I enjoy this feeling of ‘belonging’ in the UK, but at the same time I would never deny or divorce myself from my Dutchness. When I’m here, I feel like a slightly different person than my usual Brighton self – more, well, Dutch I suppose.
A few years ago, I struggled with the notion that I had somehow drifted too far from my original identity and from my Dutch roots. In one of many fruitless attempts to find an alternative for what I already regarded as a not very satisfying career path, I decided to try and find work in Amsterdam so I could live there for a few years and ‘reconnect’. I remember going to a careers fair and hiding in the toilets crying because I felt so hopelessly out of place among all the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Dutch graduates. I failed miserably to sell myself to prospective employers, mainly because I didn’t really know what I wanted and because I felt so unsure of what I had to offer. I speak good English, I said. So does every other Dutch person, they countered.
Ironically, I was turned down for the one job I actually managed to get an interview for, as English-language web editor for a university, because they felt my English wasn’t good enough. They had their hearts set on employing a native speaker with some command of Dutch, not the other way round. They sent me some translation exercises after my interview and then informed me that I’d made too many mistakes. You can imagine how that made me feel – after that incident, I gave up on the idea of going to Amsterdam.
In the last few years I have also made peace with the fact that I am slightly ‘in between’ nationalities. It’s not like I have lost all ties with my homeland – all my family are here and I am lucky enough to still have a bunch of very good Dutch friends. I still read Dutch books and people tell me I haven’t acquired a weird foreign accent, even despite my occasional malapropisms. I can visit my hometown and walk across the market eating a raw herring with raw onions and feel very Dutch (I know it sounds rank – trust me, it tastes amazing). I can also go to the pub in Brighton with my mates and feel very English. It doesn’t have to be one thing to the detriment of another, it can be the best of both.
The last time I was here I was still in my old job, so inevitably people have been asking me how my break is going and whether I have made any decisions yet on What’s Next. It’s useful for me to be put on the spot and answer that question, because I’ve noticed myself slightly skirting around it in my own head. At the same time, I am ok with not really being able to offer a definite or ‘neat’ answer. I saw a close friend last night whose younger brother took a year out from working in the financial sector and just spent lots of time at home reading books. People kept asking him whether he had decided yet what to do next, whether he was looking for work, what he was doing with his time, etc. He found their questions slightly annoying – he was just having a great time not doing very much, which people found hard to understand. He’s now got a new job, incidentally, and feeling much happier than before. If I’m honest, I still don’t really know ‘what’s next’- it might be stupid and naive to feel that, in the words of Dickens’ Mr Micawber, ‘something will turn up’, but somehow I think it will. In the mean time, I’m going to go out and eat more herring.