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THEUNE: Life in a foreign country: It’s different, not bad

• Feb 12, 2019 at 3:00 PM

I’m living by a new motto: “It’s different, not bad.”

It’s important to call an experience what it is, and I’ve found that if I judge it too quickly, I won’t have given it the chance it needs to be good. Having this frame of mind has allowed me to more fully experience the realities of the Dutch ways.

If every single time something went a bit differently than expected was bad, well, I’d be having a bad time. But I’m not. I’m having the time of my life.

The differences exist throughout the day.

I start the day by waking up on the side of the queen-size bed and hit my head on a shelf. The space is small and I don’t have a concussion. There are no long-term effects to my accident.

The size and spacing of the home is different. Of course, this means there is less to clean. It’s become clear to our family that we’re spending much less time cleaning or picking up after ourselves. We’re spending much less time with the vacuum. We’re spending much less time scrubbing toilets and showers. Sure, the small space is different, but it’s not bad.

I then make my way to the kitchen to make some coffee and notice myself grinding beans to load into the espresso filter basket rather than pouring already-ground beans from a can into our paper filter. I then tamp them down with a weight, turn them into the group head and pour a single, strong and, yes, small cup of coffee. Sure, if I want to indulge on a Saturday morning by having three cups, it means repeating the process a few times — but it’s different, not bad.

When the espresso remains build up enough, we throw them into the compost bucket, which is taken every Friday. Every house has one.

And recycling? For recycling, a family has to work a little harder. There are central locations for neighborhoods to take their recycling in order for the local government to more easily collect it. Between a conscious effort to get each home to recycle as a community and to compost all biodegradable goods, the trash we throw on the curb is significantly reduced. We throw out a single bag, not an entire can, like we do in Spring Lake.

Sure, we have to be more thoughtful. We have to take the eggshells out to the compost bin just outside the door. Sure, we have to walk our recycling 100 yards down the street. But it results in less junk in the landfill. It’s different, but it’s not bad.

Finally, it’s time to get to work. Recently, I had to catch a 9:03 train to The Hague, which meant hitting the streets on my bike. (Really, it’s the only way to get around here. Walking would take a bit too long and driving is just too narrow for my sake. Plus, as a driver, I’d have to pay attention to all those cyclists.)

Cycling here can feel like Coast Guard Festival traffic when the lights are blinking on the sign indicating the drawbridge is going up soon: it’s fast and people are constantly positioning for their upcoming turns. After feeling scared initially, I’ve learned to embrace it. It’s fun to gain this newfound confidence, to feel more and more like a local each time I start pedaling.

Of course, once I park my bike in the largest bike garage in the Netherlands (I think it fits 13,000 bikes), I join thousands of people in the train depot. It’s incredibly efficient. In my dozen times on the trains, not one has been delayed. They have this mass transit down. In 45 minutes, I can go from central Netherlands to east and west borders. From my destination’s train station, I can take a minute’s walk to the bus station and catch a bus to get me close to my ultimate destination — at which point, I have to put in a couple of minutes of walking. It takes planning, it takes infrastructure. Transportation is quite different, but it’s not bad.

After a nice day of work in, say, Delft, our family unites for a meal out together. At every step of the meal, we find ourselves waiting: waiting for the water, waiting for the menus, waiting for the waiter to take our order, waiting for the food, waiting for the bill. Do you know what happens during all that waiting? Conversation. With our family’s “no phone at dinner” policy, we end up talking about the cool and unusual occurrences of the day. We get a moment, quite a few of them actually, to reflect on the day and think about the days ahead.

The speed of dinner is different, not bad.

When the day is finally done, and I’m ready for bed, I actually remember to duck below the shelf to avoid another bump.

With time, I’m learning. I’m learning how good all of these differences are. So, I want to encourage you to do the same: When you find yourself in a new situation, call it what it is: different, not bad.

About the writer: Spring Lake High School teacher David Theune received a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching grant from the U.S. Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. Through the grant, Theune and his family will spend five months living in the Netherlands and write about his adventure for the Tribune.

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