What the Coronavirus crisis is like for an expat in the Netherlands

American flag in the window in canal houses of Amsterdam, Netherlands

When the pandemic hit Europe, I was on a rare trip to Vienna.

Keen to explore a new country over an extended weekend, we set our sights on Austria. My boyfriend and I walked the whole city, photographing and tasting our way through. Visitors lined the streets, eager for centuries of history and class. They queued for sacher torte, the library, and the royal gardens. By chance, we’d opted for an Airbnb well outside the inner city limits. This meant we enjoyed our stay with a more local eye.

Mornings were slow and meant coffee on the patio, which overlooked a quiet street. The setting remained uninterrupted by noise save for the chorus of birds that woke us up with the sun. The rest of the day, we lounged in cafes, sipped on spritzes, and even made it to the palace. Our minds stayed occupied with brunch, how to make it to the next historical landmark, and when we should nap.

Day by day, the headlines began to take shape that a virus native to Wuhan, China had reached Italy. The news depicted a grim scene, and our proximity to Austria was alarming. But so it goes – it was too soon. Little did we know that this marked the start of something. A global crisis was making a slow, yet mighty trickle into our immediate sphere.

We’d never have guessed how hard and fast the virus would hit the Netherlands or the world for that matter. On the day we flew back to Amsterdam, Austria closed its borders with its southern neighbor. Later, the world. Only then did we start to realize the scale of what was coming.

Palace on a sunny day in Vienna, Austria with tourists

Isolation in all its color

To varying degrees – on March 16, the Netherlands began life in quarantine. My work encouraged us to stay at home the week before. I had my Thalys tickets to visit Brussels for the weekend, but my gut told me: that wasn’t happening. Soon, countries declared their own states of emergency, including Belgium. It wasn’t long before the entire globe followed suit.

people walking and biking on the road in a small village in holland

In the initial days, I envisioned a few weeks max of a new normal. I set up my makeshift IKEA desk and snapped photos of the odd arrangement. There was hardly room for my elbows to rest on the tabletop, but I enjoyed the coziness of working from home. Besides, by April, I was sure we’d return to work and life as we knew it.

bike lane along the road in the Netherlands with windmills in the background

Long live the roaring 20s

A few days into May and I’m amazed at how the time passed. It would be ignorant to claim that social isolation affects everyone in the same way. The emotional and societal changes we undergo during a time like this are drastic and unique.

To start, I am very thankful. I have a stable tech job, a great relationship, strong friendships, and a set living situation. Without which I would have floundered. Living so far away from what steadied me would have hit like a baseball bat.

close-up of an American flag in a window of a dutch row house on a canal in Amsterdam

In April, I was to move in with my boyfriend. Thankfully, we had found and signed the contract for the new apartment. Were we mid-search, I fear the plan would have derailed until COVID-19 was at bay. Now living in the same, new apartment, we’ve kept busy and together during a challenging time.

Escaping to (else)where

Two months in, I can say I’ve found a newfound sense of gratitude and kindness. In my immediate surroundings and in myself, there’s a slight tilt toward peace. Don’t doubt it – this feeling took weeks to reach.

I’m an American. I’ve lived abroad for three years, which is not long in the grand scheme, but it adds up to something. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the eccentricity and charm of Belgium beckoned. Within the course of four months, I managed to secure EU citizenship and a job in Brussels. Faster than my friends and relatives expected, I made the move.

I’m now based in Amsterdam. It will be two years in July.

In the first days that the coronavirus hit Europe, I called my family. After a very brief discussion, I decided to return home for the foreseeable future. I hit ‘purchase’ on my United flight back to Chicago. Twice, the transaction would not go through. I thought little of it and reasoned I’d try again first thing in the morning. Flight prices were dropping anyway in light of the crisis.

The next morning, I read the news: Trump had announced an instant travel ban to the U.S. Of course, I later learned that U.S. citizens were exempt, but the disconnectedness hit me hard. Two minutes upon waking, I lied in bed and cried. All things considered, I was appreciative for what I had. Many experience far worse.

There’s no denying: it’s a gut-wrenching feeling to have so little control over your life and what comes of it.

man looking down at the water on a broken pier in the Netherlands on an overcast day

Freedom taken for granted

Flash forward six weeks, and I’m thankful for even more. Not the least – the still-accessible, small villages of the Netherlands. It’s a luxury and one that we dove into this weekend. On most days, I detest cars. But in this long drive up the surrounding coastline of the Netherlands, I realized why they exist. Free from the effects of mass tourism, the earth is breathing. It’s a much-needed sigh of restorative relief.

Since the crisis hit, we’ve missed our friends, family, and old ways of daily life. Still, the challenge is relative. A few days ago, we watched Band of Brothers to remind us of our privilege. The series is especially powerful when you live next to the monumental Rijksmuseum.

Then again, the center of Amsterdam is magical in more ways than one.

woman biking in front of the Rijksmuseum on a sunny day in Amsterdam, the Netherlands

A nod to our ancestors

I write this post on Liberation Day, which commemorates the end of WWII in the Netherlands. The battle for the Netherlands against the Germans lasted all of five days.  In the early hours of May 10, 1940, the Dutch lost their hope of remaining neutral.The violence was largely concentrated in Rotterdam, but Nazi occupation was certain.

Though many times restored, the Rijksmuseum stood strong since the early 1800s. This small country went through a lot during those years, as did the rest of the globe. Here, 75 years later, we are less so violent but equally resigned to a new status quo. It’s inevitable to not feel a similitude with the human psyche of what happened during that time.

The loss of freedom, the unknown infringing on our safety – echoes times past.

We’re wildly fortunate to face this current crisis together. As one global population, we confront a common struggle. Though with variable circumstances, many of our predecessors could not say the same. For the strong, healthy, and financially-established, this period affords a rare pause. Here we accept life’s fragility.

It’s unclear how long we’ll fight this fight. For now, I’ll cherish the days as they come. Sipping coffee at my own pace, basking in long runs across silent streets, and catching some extra rays of peace in the slow lane.

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