Monday, February 25, 2013

An Expat in Amsterdam

Moving to Amsterdam has changed me. 

No part is untouched. All of me imprinted. 

I’ve learned to let it come. I’ve watched the shelf of self tilt, almost all of the things placed there (look! this is me!) fall, some crash, some crack, some slip to be swept away, and some don’t move at all. I am curious to see what stands when the shelf is still. 

Those strong remains will be me who writes. 

In a new country, married to a man from this country, my eyes have had a chemical peel, and I can see things. Beautiful things. The light is different, pavement different, letter boxes different, high-tops different. Smells different. Warm socks on, but feet are always cold. I see two men pass my window, and I recognize them as he from California and him from Florida. They are not. But my peeled eyes see, and say to my brain, ‘all is familiar.’ And the brain makes its branches longer, seeks to connect what I don’t know to what I do. 

And that takes a lot of energy. I sleep more. I write less. Everything takes twice as long. Shopping. Cooking. Navigating. Present-buying. I’m staring at the differences; my eyes noticing with the sharpness of a baby, and my brain seeking to connect, always straining to connect to what it already knows. 

Supermarket. Small. Shopping cart. Key in cart? Coin slot. Coin needed. Coin. Thick gold? Euro. 20 cent piece. Slide in, key out. Push the cart through rail into the entrance. Foreign words on jar labels, smaller isles, people pushing, faces set, eyes at the horizon. Seasick? No. Northern European. Not personal. These are the things that fill my mind. The nominal, the daily. 

Less comfortable, but more alive.  

The poet Denise Levertov speaks of such changes. Born British, Levertov was self-taught, botanical, musical.  She fell in love with an American poet and left England for America’s Black Mountain poetry and the likes of Kenneth Rexroth. She called herself a pilgrim in the country of art. She called herself rootless.
She catches her nutrition, her inspiration, like an orchid’s roots catching dirt on the back of the wind. 

Writing still takes discipline. There’s this romantic idea that writing depends on place. I will write well when I am. There. Anywhere. Just far away-there. Even in Amsterdam, the land of dykes and docks and canals and crooked houses and bikes, coffee shops and cafes, where inspiration is fully visible, writing still takes discipline.  

Most of my familiar goods were brought here by suitcase, and the word kilograms now has a worthy meaning, like hours or months do.  I saved some of those golden kilos for my Levertov poetry.  

They sit on a shelf in my home below the Dutch children’s books I hope to read soon. The snow falls outside, and inside I look at my computer. Rootless, I must write. It is a discipline I need, to help me make sense of this new world.

Born in Oklahoma and proud of her Midwestern roots, Erin van Santen-Hobbie obtained an MFA from Florida Atlantic University and currently lives in Amsterdam with her husband Frans. She is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys compiling soundtracks for the pieces she writes. In fact, she suggests that you listen to Annie Betancourt’s song “Birds of the Air,” from the album Three Hundred Songs while reading this blog post.


  1. Sounds like this will be wonderful writing base camp! Stay warm!

  2. As someone who deems to follow a similar path, I so enjoyed your post. :) e