I lived in a Pencil. What better place for a writer to dwell. Actually, “The Pencil” I lived in is a modern apartment building in the center of Rotterdam, the Netherlands, designed by Dutch architect Piet Blom. How did a school librarian from Long Island wind up a writer in a pencil? It was an interesting journey.
I moved to Rotterdam in 1989 to teach at the American International School of Rotterdam as a school librarian and start a Gifted and Talented program in this kindergarten through eighth grade school for the children of foreigners living in the Netherlands. For a year and a half, I taught at the school and enjoyed the life of an expatriate. The Netherlands is an easy country for Americans to live in. Because it is a tiny country, the people learn other languages and most are able to speak English. The quality of life is great and transportation without a car is very convenient. Even 25 years ago, the Dutch were far ahead of the U.S. with high-speed railways and other public transportation. And, of course, you can ride a bicycle anywhere. I traveled all over the Netherlands and to Switzerland, Italy, France, Belgium and England.
Living in a foreign country is not the same as spending time there on vacation. You are still living everyday life: You do your laundry, grocery shop and attend to all the other domestic activities. My American friend Dale, who had been living in London for more than a decade, had warned me that you are much more sensitive and feel like you have a layer of skin missing. Ingegerd, my Swedish friend, said it was like hearing noise when you walk down the street when people spoke in their language and you could not understand a word. Living at different latitude also meant daylight until nearly midnight in the summer and a tunnel of darkness in winter’s early afternoons – something that took getting used to.
After a year and a half at the school, I knew it wasn’t the right fit for me and I decided to leave. At first the plan was for me to return to the States. But one day I had an epiphany. It was exactly one month after I returned from my spring break vacation to Italy. On Good Friday the 13th (of April, 1990), I was in the Vatican and had the unbelievable luck to be blessed by then Pope John Paul II, who recently became a saint. Now I was at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo for the second half of the major Vincent Van Gogh exhibit that marked the 100th anniversary of his death. As I walked through the gallery, my eyes welled up with tears. Was I moved by Vincent’s genius or did I feel sad that in a few short months my life in Europe would be over? It was in that house of art, nestled in a wooded nature preserve where animals roam freely, that I knew what I had to do.
As quickly as I made the decision to go off to work in Europe, I made the decision to stay and try to find another job. I just wasn’t ready to leave and I didn’t want to go back to work at my former job on Long Island. As unrealistic as it may have seemed for me, a 30-something “Amerikaanse,” to remain there alone without any source of income or permit to stay in the country, in my heart it seemed like the right thing to do. How could I leave this funny little country where people spoke a language that sounded like they were always having an argument and cows said “boo” not “moo”? I loved it. I loved my wonderfully odd flat. I loved the flowers at the Saturday Market. And I loved the herring I ate raw with onions.
I immediately began to market myself. I didn’t land a full-time job, but in a short amount of time I worked freelance and wrote for Windows on the Netherlands, a magazine for expatriates; Euro-Holland Magazine, The Netherlands Foreign Trade Agency publication; and U.S.A Trade Today, a publication of the American Embassy. I assisted a Dutch journalist on a book for The Economist magazine; worked as a copy editor for another English language publication, Destination Rotterdam, a magazine about the city with the world’s largest port; and did public relations and marketing for the English Stream of the Rotterdam City Schools.
I learned Dutch at an intensive night school class and also picked up vocabulary when I watched American programs on Dutch TV like “As the World Turns” and “The Bold and The Beautiful” that had Dutch subtitles. I read picture books at the public library next door that were Dutch translations of stories I knew.
The decision became an adventure. I learned how to live on practically nothing. I learned how to use my telephone voice to my advantage. I chatted with and interviewed former Vice President Walter Mondale at an American Chamber of Commerce luncheon on the eve of the Gulf War. I interviewed a baron who happened to be the chairman of the Dutch Stock Exchange, visited the Fort Knox of the Netherlands, The Dutch National Bank, on assignment and had a private tour of the Peace Palace in The Hague with the Rotterdam American Business Club.
And things came my way. Through my Destination Rotterdam job, I was given a “Tulip,” an IBM compatible computer, so I could write. One day there was a knock on my door and I let the Rotterdam Tunnel Information Center use my apartment on the 11th floor for a photo shoot of the city. In return the center let me use its laser printer. I interviewed the manager of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and got a ticket to see Yo-Yo Ma in concert.
I met other expatriates, Americans and other foreigners and celebrated Thanksgiving without a turkey with American members of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, who were my neighbors in Blom’s innovative Cube Houses ( Kubuswoning.)
I was doing what I wanted to do. But it was hard working freelance, waiting for the check that was always “in the mail.” Although I am a pretty independent person, it was difficult to be alone at times. I had quite a fright during the Gulf War in 1991 when I saw “Death to Bush. Death to Jews” scribbled on the front of my apartment building. When I called the Rotterdam Police, I had some suspicions about the culprit. I wondered if it had been the handiwork of an Egyptian student I had met with some friends in our neighborhood who told me, “It’s New York Jews like you that are the reasons for the problems in the Middle East.” Not too long after, I decided it was time to go back to the States.
And so I did. I had several school librarian job offers and chose one in Westchester. Looking back, I don’t see the occasional aloneness I felt when I was living what my friends called “the glamorous life abroad.” Even though I decided to return home and interrupt my career as a writer, I had a lot of good fortune. I now had a portfolio and clippings with my byline. Most of all, I had fulfilled my dream to write professionally and do public relations work. I still wonder if it had anything to do with living in a Pencil or that blessing by Pope John Paul II.
I thought my reentry might be difficult and that I would experience some culture shock after several years abroad. My Dutch friend Christine, who had lived in many countries, gave me the best advice: “It’s like you’ve been to the moon. Very few people have been there and don’t know what it is like.”
I always did love the moon and Christine knew what she was talking about.