Sunday, September 21, 2014

A Year in Leiden: Effort and Beauty

In Jeanette Winterson's incredible novel, The Powerbook, one of her characters writes, 

“There's no such thing as effortless beauty - you should know that. There's no effort which is not beautiful - lifting a heavy stone or loving you. Loving you is like lifting a heavy stone. It would be easier not to do it and I'm not quite sure why I am doing it.”

As I’ve thought about how to sum up our experiences here in Leiden this year, this quote came to mind again and again. There has been a lot of effort over things that don’t seem important or deeply meaningful, but there’s also been so much beauty that the effort itself (perhaps only in the haze of hindsight) can seem beautiful.

A lot of stuff this past year was really hard. Family sorrows, world sorrows, academic struggles, unemployment, loneliness. Some of it has been usual moving/adjusting difficulties, (the effort of filling out job application after job application, setting up the various things with town hall, unpacking a house, getting to know your way around your new city) but some of it hasn’t been. Watching new friends make the move had made us realise our transition was unusually difficult. Some of our new friends waited for a shipment for weeks, we waited for months. Bank accounts--which took us four trips to the bank, an additional trip to town hall, a seven-email conversation, a missed form, a delay because of vacation time and over 5 weeks total--took other people just one appointment to the local branch. We had to move within three months of coming. We were without internet for three months. It’s normal for these things to be difficult, but it’s not normal for them to be this difficult. I’ve gone to expat meetups that turn into pity-parties. “I’ve been miserable here for thirty years” is not the encouragement you’re looking for when you confess you’re really struggling to not feel sad.

The Hyperbole and a Half comic about depression started feeling really appropriate. But I’m not miles deep in the sadness either. I cry about as easily as the toddlers I babysit, but I laugh as easily too. And no, I am not pregnant, I am just Clara-the-easily-moved. I think I’ve always been this way, but I usually have feet a bit more solidly in my comfort zone.
Leiden in the late afternoon, in December

So now that I’ve shared a little of the effort, let me share a little of its beauty.

Board game nights: when the Italians bring Bang and then are totally shocked when we already know how to play.

Learning to Speak Dutch: Watching familiar kids movies like “The Emperor’s New Grove” dubbed in Dutch, and having it be something we can actually understand!
In the Escher Museum

Breakfasts: We sit down to pancakes pretty much every morning.

Babysitting: I’ve been able to help two children grow and learn. When we came little J wasn’t even born yet, but now I’ve seen him crawl and take some of his first steps.

Nights at home: We’ve read books out loud together (Villette, Ella Enchanted, To Kill a Mockingbird, What's so Amazing about Grace , to name a few), and watched a lot of Sci-fi (Dr. Who, Stargate, and Firefly, most of which I had never seen, but loved).

Making my mom's Greek Easter bread
Traveling: One of the greatest joys here is just being able to say, “Hey Owen, want to go to Belgium this weekend?” and have the answer be “sure!”

Museums: We have been to so many that even new museums in new places are starting to feel like friends we're only just now getting to meet.

Violin Lessons: I’ve started teaching two children once a week, and it’s been a blast.
King's Day!

Most of a first year of marriage: So much learning how to communicate, learning to be a team, learning to take care of each other, laughing, dancing, learning to love each other and this world better every day.

The Gym: We joined a super cheap gym and love remembering how good it feels to challenge one’s body.

Taking Owen’s calculus class: I’m in it again this fall and at more than half way through the course my average is an A-. Last year I wouldn’t have thought it was possible.

The Keukenhof: If you missed that post it’s worth it to go back for the pictures.

Owen’s work at the University: It’s great. He really likes his colleagues, his duties, the atmosphere and feels like he’s accomplishing more in less time than he ever did in graduate school.

Biking: Has begun to feel so normal, I already feel how much I will miss the biking when we return to the states.

Making Friends: Nothing makes you feel more at home than this. 

Cultural celebrations: This week I saw a parade with the royalty in their golden carriages, various military groups in gorgeous formal attire and dozens of children dressed in traditional dutch clothing, complete with little hats, bonnets and wooden shoes.

Houseplants: our "boompje" (little tree) is now taller than me!

Learning together: Besides learning Dutch, and learning from all the museums we go to, over dinner or breakfast sometimes we take part in online courses, the best of which was Barbara Oakley’s Learning How to Learn. We’re looking forward to a lifetime of learning together.

Our plan had been to stay in Leiden two years, and if we stick with that plan we have less than 12 months before we’ll need to move on. Owen recently was given the word that the University will happily extend his contract for up to five years total, so we could stay here much longer than we had planned. We’re not sure what we think about that, and we have a few months to think it over, but it’s made us do a lot of thinking about our time here. Do we want to stay? Is it the right choice for both of us? It's a real adventure learning to trust God, and trust each tother, but we know one thing for sure. If it's for just this next year or if it's for longer, we love it here, and it’s getting better all the time.

I didn't include it in the list, but I will say it here. Visits have been some of the best parts. Some of you are already planning trips, and we can't wait to see you. But if you’ve been thinking of coming to Europe, we’d love to show you around. We’ll share a little of the effort and the beauty of life here in The Netherlands.  


  1. Thank you both so much for sharing your adventures with us. I would never have had the courage to move abroad at your age, and probably still couldn't do it today, but I appreciate you sharing your experiences with me.

  2. They really are fantastic guides to the Netherlands by this point.


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