Home is where your heart is, whether you like it or not.

This summer I was lucky enough to spend five weeks back in my home state of Minnesota. It was the first time I had returned since I moved to Amsterdam more than a year ago, and I definitely made the most of it. I spent quality time with my family, many days catching up with friends, and every free minute relaxing on one of the many gorgeous lakes Minnesota is known for. It was great to be back.

Before I left Amsterdam, I was incredibly excited for my return, but also a bit worried. The last time I experienced a big homecoming was after spending 18 months away. During that time I had lived and taught in South Korea, volunteered in Thailand, and traveled extensively throughout Southeast Asia and Europe. I remember how excited I had been to return to the place that had been so comfortable for me for most of my life, and how shocked I was with the reverse culture shock that greeted me. I felt like a foreigner in my own country and, well, I didn't like it.

So this time, I mentally prepared. I anticipated a similar feeling and was ready for it to knock me off my feet. I'm not sure if it was my preparation that worked or the fact that I psyched myself out more than necessary, but that feeling I anxiously awaited never came. On the contrary, it felt great to be back in Minnesota. I was surprised by how natural everything felt and I was elated to surround myself with the people who have played such important roles in my life for as long as I can remember.

Though something did feel different. Each time I would see someone for the first time, they'd ask me how it was to be home. "It's great!" I'd say, but I felt a bit like I was lying. While it was great to be back, it didn't necessarily feel like I was home. Sure Minnesota is a comfortable place for me to be, and I certainly do feel at home in my parents' house, but it's not necessarily my home anymore. No, I thought, my home is my apartment in Amsterdam - that cozy little flat in which I live with my husband and our cute little feline. And as much as I loved every minute of my Minnesotan summer, I often found myself feeling homesick for my life in Amsterdam.

The five weeks passed, simultaneously slowly and quickly as time seems to do, and before I knew it I was on my way back to Amsterdam. I was sad to leave Minnesota, excited to return to Amsterdam, content with all the memories I had made, and completely unprepared for what was to come.

Almost immediately after I returned, I was completely, totally, unbelievably overcome with homesickness (I realize that this sentence is redundant, but that's the only way I can describe just how I felt). What's worse, I was utterly confused as to how I could be so completely, totally, unbelievably overcome with homesickness for a place that didn't even really feel like my home just a few weeks ago. Yes, part of me was glad to be back with my husband and our cute little feline, but I was also beside myself with loneliness for those I had left behind. I was consumed by feelings of sadness, and there was just no consoling me or working through my feelings logically. I spent about two days laying on the couch, trying to distract myself from myself, and suffering from what I can only describe as heartbreak.

And that's when it clicked. Through my jet-lagged fog and tear-bleary eyes, a time old saying popped into my head.

"Home is where your heart is."

Never had words spoken so truly or hurt so deeply. Home is most definitely where your heart is, and in my case (and the case of many expatriates, I'm sure), my heart was split right down the middle between two. I realized then that Minnesota most certainly is, and always will be, my home. Though I may not live there, my heart is there with my dear family and my irreplaceable friends, and that is enough to make it my home. But Amsterdam is also my home, as my heart is present here in this city and in the beautiful life I'm creating with my husband.

So what does that mean for a girl with a heart split down the middle? Well, I can't really say. I usually like to end my posts with a little lesson that I've learned from my experience, but this one isn't so clear yet. I know that I'm lucky to have such a full heart, but when your heart is torn, it's harder to feel the luckiness. I'm sure with time I'll be able to balance the two homes with more grace, but until then, I'm going to have to keep juggling.


An Amsterdamiversary

While tomorrow will be my official Amsterdamiversary (or, in layman's terms, one year since I arrived in Amsterdam), today marks a full year since I hugged my parents goodbye and boarded a plane on a one-way ticket. As often seems the case when I reflect on time, part of me can't believe it was only a year ago that I moved to this foreign land while the other part feels like I've been here forever. This year has been full of ups and downs, exciting developments as well as setbacks, and a whole lot of growth. I surely can't say that I've loved every minute, but I'm learning to be grateful for each one because things are finally starting to feel like they're falling into place.

I feel like I may have written something similar to those last two sentences before, and I did mean them at the time, but new developments have me feeling them even stronger now. While I've been substitute teaching for the past five months or so, I haven't been called in very regularly until the last month and a half during which I've been working every day (you may have noticed I've been extra busy by the lack of blog posts, my sincerest apologies for that). Being back in a school has been great, but it's also been very taxing to teach different students every day, and often switching classes once, twice, or even thrice a day. I've learned so much about the students, the curriculum, and gotten to know many of the teachers, but I've lacked any real connection to a specific classroom. Lately, I've felt that every shred of energy I can muster was channeled into teaching, building relationships, and trying to further my position within my school's community. But today, as I signed a contract to be a homeroom teacher of a shared pre-Kindergarten class next year, I can say that my hard work paid off.

The timing of my Amsterdamiversary is actually quite fitting because today also happens to be the last day of school for me. It really felt like I was closing a chapter as I said goodbye to my students and colleagues, walked out of the school as a substitute-only for the last time, and watched the school fade into the background from the train window. And as I reflected back on my first year during the commute home, I felt content about all that has happened, proud of what I've accomplished, yet I also recognized how lost I've felt at times. But mostly, as with the end of any school year, I felt relieved that it was all over.

So tomorrow, as summer break begins, I will enter my second year in Amsterdam with enthusiasm for what lies ahead, gratitude that it begins with more direction than the last, and the motivation to keep making what I want of this life. I hope you'll join me for the ride!


Time to get naked.

There is something magical about those warm weather days that signify the beginning of summer. The sun blazes in the sky, toasting your skin and summoning drops of sweat to the surface. The air is fragrant with scents of flowers and barbecue smoke intermingling ever so deliciously. Parks are full of families laughing over a picnic lunch, lovers tangled on a blanket in the shade, dogs frolicking in the great wide open, and, if you're in Amsterdam or another large northern European city, a whole lot of naked children.

In Amsterdam, summer is a season in which I've come to expect to see the naked bums of children every time I enter a park and bare breasts every time I visit one of Holland's beaches. To which I say,

"I love it all. Bring on the nudity!"

I've come to find that the countries I've lived in outside of the States (alright, there are only two, but I know these two are representative of many more) embrace nudity a hell of a lot more than we do in the good old U S of A. This is not to say that the kind folks in South Korea indulge in nakedness the way people do in the Netherlands, but in both of these countries there exist places where it is widely accepted to take all your clothes off around other people. 

In South Korea they have jimjilbangs. Jimjilbangs are public bath houses where, separated by gender, people go to soak in hot tubs, revitalize in cold baths, and scrub their bodies clean. In the jimjilbang, you can find people of all ages embracing nudity together and doing whatever it is they need to do for hygienic and pampering purposes. 

I'll admit that my first experience at a jimjilbang wasn't comfortable from the get-go. I was still quite new to Korea and, thanks to a weekend trip that included a disgusting guesthouse bathroom and a Buddhist temple with no available shower, found myself in a situation where a jimjilbang was the only chance for a shower. Further, my travel buddies were also my co-workers, which made it just a bit more awkward. So yes, I was a bit apprehensive at first. I mean, I'm pretty sure the last time I had donned my birthday suit in front of a room of people was for middle school swimming. And even then, I didn't. No, at the ripe young age 14, I think just about every one of us changed awkwardly while trying to keep most of our goods hidden under our towels.

But here I was, getting naked with my colleagues, and surprise, surprise! It wasn't that scary. Once we let our guards (and our pants) down and entered the room with all the other naked ladies, all the nervousness slipped away. We were all equally vulnerable, and we were all equally powerful. After that, I made it a point to visit other jimjilbangs during my time in Seoul. First of all, it's quite difficult to say no to a nice hot tub, sauna, cold bath, and scrub down. It's also quite freeing and refreshing to be in a room where everyone feels comfortable in their own skin.

In the Netherlands they take it a step further with co-ed saunas. After becoming accustomed to the jimjilbang, going to a co-ed sauna wasn't too much of a shock. Yes, there are different bits and pieces present, but once again you are all equally vulnerable or equally powerful depending on how you want to look at it. What was a shock, however, was being naked around so many people of the opposite gender and never once feeling like I was being checked-out or sized-up. I have the same experience when I go topless at a beach here. When nudity is the norm, the lingering eyes aren't looking so hard to uncover the forbidden fruit. As refreshing as the jimjilbangs were, this is even better.

The more I find myself in situations where nudity is accepted, the more I wish I had grown up with this as the norm. Take, for example, the time my sister and I were in Iceland visiting a hot-spring pool. As we entered the changing room, I once again found myself surrounded by nude females of all ages. I couldn't help but notice the teenagers in this locker room, chatting it up comfortably while they stood around nude, and compare it to the very opposite experience of my middle school swimming days. It made me wonder how differently I would perceive my body had I grown up in a place where seeing other people naked - young, old and every age in between - was a frequent occurrence. Would I feel more beautiful? Would I be less critical?

How would I feel about my body if, instead of being taught to hide it out of modesty, it was commonplace to bare it in front of others? Would I feel more confident? Would I feel more powerful?

How different would my body image be if what I saw daily were the nude bodies of real women in addition to (because I'm afraid we just can't get away from them) the air-brushed-within-an-inch-of-their-lives super models that dominate advertisements and magazines?

What if this openness to nudity started when I was no older than a toddler running in the park?

So this, my readers, is why I'm all for nude saunas, topless beaches and naked baby bums in the park. Not because it's eye candy (though who doesn't love a cute baby's bottom?), but because I believe embracing the body in its natural form can only be a step in the right direction.


Photo credits:
Naked Hula Hoop by Todd Morris (CC-BY-20)


March Grateful & A Guide To Starting Your Own Gratitude Project

"Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive, I have precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others; to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can."

-Dalai Lama XIV

The first part of this quote from His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has guided my grateful project. Each morning for the past three months, I've woken up feeling fortunate to be alive and filled with purpose to express my gratitude throughout the day. This month, as I compile my graphic calendar for the month of March, I can't believe that I'm already and only a quarter of the way through my project. I say already because it amazes me how fast the time has gone and how habitual this project has become. I say only because I am humbled when I think of how much I have benefitted from this project in such a short amount of time, and can't help but anticipate what the future holds.

The end of this quote, paired with the thrill I feel from this project, inspires me to pay it forward by encouraging others to participate in their own gratitude project. To do so, I've come up with six steps that I believe will act as a guide. I hope you'll read them and consider starting a project of your own, for as I've experienced firsthand, the more you give gratitude, the more the universe will send good things your way. So, without further ado, I give you:

A Guide To Starting Your Own Gratitude Project

1.) Make a plan. Make a commitment.

While documenting gratitude through daily photographs works wonders for me, maybe you'd rather make a weekly phone call to tell someone you're grateful for them or write a few sentences in a journal three days a week. However you decide to express your gratitude, take the time to make a clear plan. Equally as important, take a moment to make a commitment to yourself and your project. You may also want to mark your calendar, ask a friend or partner to hold you accountable, or set a reminder on your phone to be sure to carry out your actions. A little outside help never hurts.

2.) Begin.

This step, though seemingly obvious, may just be the most difficult. No more "I'll start eating healthy tomorrow" or "I'll put money into the savings account next month" excuses. As soon as you finish your plan and make the commitment, start your project. And start right away! Let the gratitude begin.

3.) Be present. Be aware. Be open.

Once you've started your gratitude project, you'll probably notice that you don't feel gratitude only on the days or times your plan dictates. Instead, the feeling of gratitude will strike when the bus pulls up right as you get to the stop, when the earthy scent of fresh vegetables overwhelms you at the market, or as you're drying off with a clean, warm towel. Be aware of these moments. Be present in these moments. The more you acknowledge gratitude, the more the universe gives you things to be grateful for. Open yourself up to the possibilities.

4.) Stick with it.

I guarantee that, especially at the beginning of your project, there will be days you don't want to do it and moments you feel like you're forcing it. Do it anyways. Maybe you're feeling crabby (you are human after all). That's fine. Give yourself time to pout, and then move on and give some gratitude. You'll find that you're glad you did it, and it will probably lift your spirits as well.

Also important is to not give up once you start seeing and feeling results. Instead of stopping when the going gets good, keep pushing forward and let it get better.

5.) Share your gratitude.

One of the many rewarding aspects of my project is all the positive feedback I receive from sharing it. I can't imagine that any harm will come from connecting with others over gratitude, so give it a try and spread the gratitude. If your plan is to personally express your gratitude for others, well then you have the opportunity to share built right into your project. If your plan is to write in a gratitude journal, you could read it aloud to a friend or partner. Or if you're sitting next to a stranger on a park bench when you find yourself overcome with gratitude for the beautiful day you're enjoying, take a minute to connect with them and comment on how grateful you are for the wonderful weather. I suppose there's a chance they'll think you're crazy, but my guess is that they'll agree and smile along with you. You'll feel even more gratitude for having made them smile, and there's a chance you just spread gratitude to someone who really needs the reminder.

6.) Reflect

Once you've gotten into a rhythm, add a little reflection to the mix. I know you're already reflecting each time you give gratitude, but also take the time to look back on your project as a whole. I do this by compiling my calendar graphic at the end of each month. In doing so, I once again give gratitude for all the wonderful things that happened that month. And on days when I'm feeling down, I look back through my photos to remind myself just how many things I have to be grateful for. So, after you've made your gratitude phone call, take a minute to think about it, write about it, or just soak it up. If you're keeping a journal, flip back through the pages and re-read your entries. Giving gratitude is a process, and the more time you devote to your project, the more benefits you will receive.

Good luck, and keep giving!

Previous installments:


The Stolen Bike: A Rite of Passage

The expatriate life can be a tricky, emotional journey. If you're like me, with strong family and friend ties to the land from which you came, it often feels as if you're caught between two worlds. I seem to go back and forth between being ecstatic to live in Amsterdam and missing Minnesota to the point where my heart aches.

You see, on one hand, Amsterdam is most certainly my home. In late August 2013, I became an registered Amsterdammer (you may recall the post written excitedly after mijn verblijfsvergunning is ingewilligd). I've since planted roots by personalizing our flat, starting a job, and paying taxes here among other things. All the signs point to the fact that Amsterdam is my home, and most days I feel this way too.

On the other hand, I have moments when I wonder what exactly I'm doing here, and why I chose to move an ocean away from so many that I love (I'm pretty sure that just returning from a week in Florida with my family has something to do with these feelings rising to the surface). While I have become accustomed to the many differences between my old home and my new home, I don't necessarily feel that I fit in with Dutch culture and have realized that I'll never fully feel like a Dutch woman

Yes, being an expatriate has its ups and downs. And yesterday, I experienced a combination of both feelings in the event I'm now referring to as "The Stolen Bike: A Rite of Passage." As I'm sure you know, Amsterdam is full of bicycles. In fact, the data I find tells me that there are as many bikes as people, if not more, in Amsterdam proper. That said, I'm not sure why bicycle theft is such a problem since the research indicates everyone already has a bike, but unfortunately it is, and unfortunately I'm not immune to it.

My first bike in Amsterdam got me safely to my first wedding,
but ended up costing more money and causing more trouble than it was worth.

About two months ago, I purchased a brand new, shiny bike to replace the used bike that was starting to give me more trouble than it was worth. My goodness, how I loved my new ride. It was an omafiets (direct translation: grandma bicycle) which means that it had pedal brakes and no gears ... just an average yet beautiful street bike like the one your grandmother rode when she was young (or something like that). 

This empty space on the sidewalk is where my bike should be.

Imagine my disappointment when the husband and I walked down the stairs with a picnic in tow to find an empty sidewalk where my bike should have been. I was incredibly bummed. Not only were we no longer going to be able to ride to the Amstelpark and enjoy a picnic in the sun surrounded by budding flowers, but my beloved bicycle was gone. And probably forever.

It was then, well actually it was after a few tears were shed, that the husband tried to spin the event in a positive light (I think my gratitude project is having an effect on him as well). He shared the story of when his bike was stolen a few years back, he reminded me of our other friend's bike that was stolen a few months ago, and both stories then caused me to remember another friend who had her bike stolen this week. He helped me realize that as much as a stolen bike really, truly sucks, I have now gone through the Amsterdam rite of passage to become a true Amsterdammer. It's just too bad that I'm now an Amsterdammer without a bicycle.

So here I am, about to spend my afternoon looking for a new bike and reflecting to see if there is a lesson I can take away from this (a lesson besides the fact that it's probably a good idea to lock my bike to a rack instead of just to itself). What I'm finding is that no matter how comfortable I may feel some days, there are bound to be other days when I feel out of place. As happy as I am to be starting a marriage with the love of my life, there will always be part of me that misses my other loves across the ocean. The lows will continue to accompany the highs, but what matters most is how I choose to view the events that happen to me. So today, I choose to feel like a true Amsterdammer, to find a new set of wheels to take me where I need to go, and to enjoy my life as an expatriate.


An Experiment in Oil Pulling, Pt. III

I am now two full weeks into my experiment in oil pulling. Originally, I had set out to try oil pulling for two weeks, but I have decided to push forward and continue for at least two more. While I must admit that there's not too much new to talk about, I would like to say that I'm really enjoying this experiment. At first, I was a bit skeptical and thought that twenty minutes seemed like a really long time. Now, I've actually come to look forward to oil pulling! It fits nicely into my morning routine and something about it calms and relaxes me. Yes, the process itself is rewarding as are the benefits, so what's not to like?

My teeth are even whiter.
Yup, it's true. My teeth just keep getting whiter. So do the husband's. It's pretty great.

My complexion is improving. 
You may remember in my last post that I broke out during my first week of oil pulling. This hasn't completely subsided, but it has definitely improved. While I do find myself waking up to tiny blemishes (which is odd for me since I'm usually the girl who gets those big, under-the-skin ones if any ... gross), my pores and blackheads are reducing in size and number, and my complexion seems to be more even (read: not too many red areas). I feel like I've advanced through the cleansing phase and that it will only be uphill from here. Fingers crossed.

No migraines this week.
Not only have I not had any medication-requiring migraines, I haven't had a headache all week! I can't remember the last time I had a week like this, and it feels great.

Nothing to report!
I probably didn't need to include this graphic when there's nothing to report, but I wanted to anyways, just so I could type "Nothing to report!" Ok, moving on.

I also checked back in with Stephen and Bethany. Here's what they had to say about their experiments:

Stephen, age 28, is an acupuncturist living in Washington. Stephen is now on Day 13 and it's smooth sailing for him! His teeth continue to look better, he's noticed that his gums feel healthier, and his breath has improved. He did have a couple days of unexplained muscle soreness that he attributes to possible detoxification, but that has passed now. All in all, he plans to continue his one month challenge and feels that it's going well.

Bethany, age 29, is a stay-at-home mom and nanny living in Minnesota. Bethany has also noticed that her teeth are whiter and that her breath has improved. She also had a very positive experience after a night of too much fun. After waking up feeling terrible, she oil pulled for 10 minutes and felt a remarkable improvement in her condition. She also noticed that the consistency of the oil had changed a lot, so she couldn't complete the full 20 minutes. She thinks maybe the oil was working overtime to detoxify her that day. I had read that oil pulling can help with hangovers, and now we have some proof!

Lastly, I heard back from the dental hygienists I contacted to see if oil pulling is harmful to existing cavity fillings. While the hygienists reported that they hadn't experienced or found any research confirming any risks, one of my reader's (as you may recall) did have a bad experience. That said, continue at your own risk if you do have fillings.

Well, that's it for Part III of my experiment. Stay tuned for the next update, and happy pulling!

Previous installments:
Part I
Part II


An Experiment in Oil Pulling, Pt. II

Today marks a full week of my experiment in oil pulling. My reaction at this point? Mostly positive. (If you're thinking it seems like I just started on Monday, well, that's when I published the post about it, but I had already been at it for a few days. I'm tricky like that.)

The first few days were the hardest / weirdest, but I have now successfully worked it into my morning routine. I start right when I wake up, and then go about my morning activities like feeding the cat, making coffee (so it's ready the minute I finish oil pulling), taking a shower and getting ready. The first time I got in the shower while oil pulling was a huge shock. You see, I didn't realize that I'm a mouth breather in the shower (maybe we all are?), but after a few seconds of choking and gagging, all was well.

A friend of mine had a similar gagging reaction: "I gagged so much in the first 30 seconds. I couldn't do it." It's definitely a foreign feeling to have the oil in your mouth in its solid state, but once it melts into a liquid, I promise it gets easier. You can also try melting it first if that helps. The same friend said, "I think a tablespoon was too much to start with. I think tomorrow I'll try with a teaspoon and see how that goes..." I think the lesson we can take from this is to start small, people. You can always work your way up.

Now let's talk results. After one week, I've noticed a few things ... both good and bad.
Let's start with the good, shall we?

My teeth are whiter. 
Or at least I think they are. The husband says he can't confirm this as he didn't really pay attention to how white my teeth were before. Can you believe that?! Anyways, the husband is pulling with me, and I've noticed that his teeth are whiter. That must mean that mine are too, right?

My mouth feels healthier. 
Both the husband and I have noticed that our teeth feel cleaner, our breath feels fresher, and our gums feel healthier. I realize that these are all feelings and not necessarily things that we can prove, so we'll just have to wait until the next trip to the dentist for proof. The other night, however, I burnt my mouth pretty badly while eating dinner, and after oil pulling the next day, it felt absolutely fine.

My headaches have improved.
While I have still had one medicine-requiring migraine this week, I must say that I've seen an overall improvement in my headaches. Last Saturday, for instance, I had a glass of wine and two beers. In the morning, after oil pulling, I didn't have the dull headache that I usually do after three drinks. In fact, I haven't had any dull headaches this week, and I usually have at least one or two. I'll be very interested to see if this trend continues, and whether there is any more improvement.

My complexion is worse.
I was really hoping that I would have beautiful skin after a few days of oil pulling, but this hasn't happened yet. In fact, I've actually broken out in a few places. Not quite the results I was looking for, but we're still early on in the experiment.

I still have migraines.
While this isn't a bad reaction, it's not an improvement either. As I said before, I had a migraine this week. My two main triggers (dark beer and a change in hormone levels) were at play during the onset of this migraine, but it is clear that one week of oil pulling isn't enough to offset these triggers. This second factor could also be affecting my complexion.

May be harmful to cavity fillings.
This is not my experience (I'm 29 and I've never had a cavity, thankyouverymuch), but one of my readers reported that oil pulling was harmful to her existing fillings. I did some research on the good old interwebs, but couldn't find anything to support this. Because I don't want to recommend anything that could cause an increase in your dental bills, I have asked a few dental hygienists whether they can confirm this. I'll get back to you as soon as I know more details.

So there you have my first reactions to oil pulling. But it's not all about me, right? After receiving quite a few replies to my previous post, I decided to gather some outside opinions. Two of my friends, Stephen and Bethany, have also recently started their own experiments in oil pulling, and this is what they have to say.

Stephen, age 28, is an acupuncturist living in Washington. Stephen plans to oil pull every day for one month, with his main motivation being that he is considering recommending oil pulling to his patients. He is also doing it for general detox, to clear persistent sinus congestion, and to whiten his teeth. He fits oil pulling into his morning routine, and does it while making breakfast, checking emails, or taking a shower. After four days, he has been told by his girlfriend that his teeth are whiter. Other benefits are unclear, but he hopes to see more progress with time.

Bethany, age 29, is a stay-at-home mom and nanny living in Minnesota. After Bethany's first experience with oil pulling, she exclaimed "I love how my mouth felt afterwards!" Her main motivation for oil pulling is to improve her overall well-being. As much as she tries to eat nutritious, whole foods, she knows that there are always toxins to flush out, and hopes to do so through oil pulling. Bethany also pulls in the morning while making breakfast, folding laundry, and tidying up. She finds that it's much easier to pull for the full 20 minutes while keeping busy. After three days, she hasn't noticed any drastic changes, though the sore on the inside of her cheek that had been bothering her for the past week is now healed. "Coincidence, maybe," she noted, "but I really think the oil helped."

Well, that's it for Part II of my experiment. Stay tuned for the next update, and happy pulling!

Previous installment:
Part I