Goodbye to All That

By Pia de Jong

My family and I lived in the United States of America for ten years. I vividly remember the hot summer day we arrived. The taxi driver, an elegant man in his sixties picked us up at Newark Airport.

Isn’t it strange the things we notice in the first moment of being somewhere new? The air-conditioning in the car that covered me in goosebumps in the dog days of summer. The driver humming along with Aretha Franklin’s “I Say a Little Prayer” on the radio. Our children in the back, pointing enthusiastically at Lady Liberty, pick-up trucks, and huge empty malls along the road. Their high-pitched voices scarcely drowning out the meowing of the two cats we brought with us.

An hour later, the driver opened the door for us in front of our new home. He touched his cap, then said in a soft voice: “Here it is, ma’am. Good luck.” I looked around.  The driveway itself embodied every American cliché I could think of. The white picket fence, the round metal mailbox, the patch of dirt with the house number – 97 – planted between some bushes and a wilting geranium. And, of course, the basket ball net attached to the garage door. It was like I was standing in a quintessentially American movie still.

As I watched the car disappear around the corner, I realized my life would never be the same. Our three teenaged kids were impatient to start their new lives. There was so much to explore: schools, soccer clubs, friends, and most exciting of all, new puppies.

Summer went, then came fall with its array of colors and the balmy warmth of an Indian summer, followed by Halloween and Thanksgiving. Days full of surprises, new habits, and new people to befriend.

Even though America nowadays is not unknown in Europe – as it was in the days of Alistair Cooke, the Englishman who reported his famous Letter from American in the 1950s – our life was full of wonder; the stuff one hopes for when moving. During those exciting years abroad, I shared my adventures with the readers of the Dutch newspaper, NRC Handelsblad. They wrote me back in return.

Most of them were ex-expats: Dutch people who once spent time in the United States and recognized my experiences. They delighted in reliving the back-to-school-days, the hassle of the DMV, and the taste of cheeses made in a factory. They remembered their children singing “My Country ’tis of Thee”, and how they turned into soccer parents, waiting endlessly in cars. They recall how nice Americans are, how welcoming to newcomers and unbelievably generous; but also, how they frowned about the bluntness, bordering on rudeness, of the Dutchies.

But nothing lasts forever. One of those crisp winter days, we took the last mail out of the mailbox, closed the door of the house, and waved one more time to our friends before we set out for the airport. A road we had travelled often in those years, it now held few surprises for us anymore. In the back of the car our dogs and cats looked bewildered. I felt grateful. A bit teary too. The next morning, we landed at Schiphol Airport. Home at last.

But, as it soon turned out, I was in unchartered waters again. Ten years away is a long time. The country had changed, and so had I. I now was one of the ex-expats. As T.S. Eliot wrote in Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

 

Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer and columnist. She wrote several novels: Her debut Lange dagen, a coming of age novel, won the Gouden Uil award. Saving Charlotte, A Mother and the Power of Intuition, is a memoir about the year her baby daughter battled leukemia. Pia wrote for the Princeton Echo, US 1, the Washington Post, Het Financieele Dagblad, and documented her life in Princeton N.J. for NRC Handelsblad. Her columns have published in Flessenpost  and Pia’s Amerika. You can contact Pia via her website. Illustrations are by her daughter Charlotte Dijkgraaf, who studies at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy.