Five years ago, Marlon and I moved to Amsterdam with five suitcases, a cat, and 76 boxes of cargo. We had only a vague idea of what it would be like (cold, bikes, cheese, travel were a few notions) but we were ecstatic to leave Singapore, and nervous and thrilled to begin our new adventure.
This week we celebrated five years in Amsterdam. Life is so very different from when we first arrived. This is the journey so far.
We arrived on a gray January day. After opening bank accounts, getting our passports stamped, and seeing 12 apartments, we settled into a spacious two-bedroom in Oud Zuid, a neighborhood we knew nothing about, but which turned out to be quite posh and bore little resemblance to the rest of Amsterdam.
We painted our bedroom walls deep blue and our living room dove gray. We got a kick out of growing marijuana on our balcony, just because we could (five pots of pot, legally).
I had long, luxurious swathes of leisure time, in which I kept house, blogged diligently, took watercolor classes with elderly retirees in Haarlem, and ate a lot of Gouda cheese and stroopwafels.
I felt guilty about sightseeing while Marlon worked, so I explored moderately. The Jordaan and city center felt impossibly far; I stuck to de Pijp and Oud Zuid. I saved most of my exploration for weekends, when Marlon and I were together. We were out almost all the time.
I found an amazing hairdresser. I made friends through a Meetup group. I was very accommodating, eager to befriend fellow expats like myself, and went out with practically anyone—unless they were really, really weird.
I had a baby blue beach cruiser bike from Singapore that I didn’t use much. I preferred the tram.
Armed with our Schengen visas, we went travel-crazy. Geneva, Oslo, Paris, Brussels, the Algarve, Istanbul, Cappadocia, Rome, Cologne, the south of France.
I lived in a tourist/expat bubble, but it was a happy one. Bubbles often are.
That winter, the canals froze over and I went ice skating. I saw my first snow.
I became serious enough about blogging to attend my first bloggers’ conference: The Hive in Berlin, where I made deep, lasting friendships.
We traveled tirelessly: Prague, Slovenia, Venice, Tuscany, Iceland, Marbella, Granada, Budapest, Aachen and Monschau in Germany. But we began to travel more slowly. The first time we did a 14-day holiday (Tuscany) I was nervous about how long it felt. Now slow is the only way to go.
Marlon changed jobs. I discovered I was pregnant.
People told me I should enjoy the last time I would ever have so much free time to myself, so I did. (Best pregnancy advice ever.) I napped for hours. I cycled to Vondelpark almost daily, lay in the sun (it was a great summer), and read many, many books.
I went to the gym and did pregnancy yoga. I started cycling more. I drank lots of milk. I was a happy, glowing mama-to-be with the perfect easy pregnancy.
I was still living in a bubble, but this time I wasn’t alone in it.
Holy cow, what a year.
We bought an apartment. I remember waking up that first morning to our new street covered in snow. It was like a dream, my Amsterdam dream come true. I still can’t believe I live in a canal house.
Tala was born.
I spent the first seven months of Tala’s life as a stay-at-home mom, a period that was simultaneously blissful and tumultuous, single-minded yet fraught with confusion, full of discoveries, joys and paradoxes.
With our tiny baby flying for free, we managed to squeeze in trips to Berlin, Alicante, Santorini, Naxos, and Dusseldorf. But mostly this year was about exploring—and falling in love with—our neighborhood, Westerpark.
Motivated by Tala, I started Dutch lessons at the Volksuniversiteit. I tried hand lettering but just didn’t have the time to continue.
Marlon and I really, really struggled this year.
I discovered what an amazing father he is and how much he loves me. And somehow we managed to keep it together.
Tala turned one. We went to the park a lot; my fledging Dutch was put to the test by toddlers and their mothers.
I began to emerge from the hazy cocoon of mothering a newborn. I did my first solo shoot as a producer, in Zurich. Then I found a little more freedom, and racked up solo trips to Copenhagen, Milan and Vienna.
I started to get the hang of parenting. I began to figure out what kind of mom I was. With less time and energy to spare, I started to cut out the bullshit and felt less and less guilty about doing it.
I got my first Dutch client, a huge multinational that loved my work. My relationship with Amsterdam turned a corner.
We had three long family trips—Riga, Tuscany, and New York—and ended the year flat broke. It was sobering to realize that we just couldn’t travel the same way anymore.
This was the year I realized: shit’s getting real. It’s time to make it work. The bubble finally began to dissipate.
Tala turned 2. We struggled with her tantrums, night terrors, extreme attachment to Marlon. But the phases ebb and flow, and oh my, what a joy she’s become.
Last year was the least we’ve ever traveled as a family: just to Madrid, Croatia, and a small town called Goslar in Germany.
Blogging fell to the wayside as work started picking up. I directed shoots in Berlin and Barcelona, and invested in myself with a creative workshop in Cinque Terre. I felt I had to make daycare days count, and blogging seemed a frivolous (non-income generating) use of paid childcare hours.
For the first time in years, ambition stirred in me. I started wanting to achieve things again; it felt almost alien. I saw a coach, worked on my personal branding and my first-ever professional website and portfolio, and set mid-term and long-term goals for myself. I began hosting a weekly coworking group at home.
My amazing hairdresser moved away. My old neighborhood, Oud Zuid, now feels impossibly far. I don’t really leave Westerpark and the Jordaan unless I absolutely have to.
Tala loves being in the front seat of my bike, and it’s time to move her to a bigger rear seat, something I’m resisting. I now feel bike rage at tourists who walk in the bike lane. The tram feels mind-numbingly slow.
I still have my baby blue cruiser, chained to a post in front of my house, rusting to oblivion. I haven’t touched it in two years.
I feel, for the first time, that I have a really good set of friends here—parents and singles—who share my outlook, values and aspirations.
I’ve started meeting people through creative events and the local Instagram community, which help me feel even more connected to and lucky to live in Amsterdam.
The next step: to sign up for, and pass, the state exams for Dutch as a second language. So we can apply for Dutch passports. Like I said, shit’s getting real.
After five years in Amsterdam, I can finally say: this is home. Several times in the past few years, we’ve had to consider the possibility of leaving this city. Every year, the thought gets more and more painful. Life is here. And it’s good.
Thinking about the last five years has made me feel reflective. So, I’m in the mood to take questions, ponder, and share some more.
Ask me anything. What would you like to know about my five years in Amsterdam?