Mountains, piles of red meat, and people who aren’t sure whether Amsterdam’s in Denmark – arriving in California, Antoine de Morree experienced a bit of a culture shock. But he soon started to feel even more American than the Americans…
GOODBYE EUROPE, HELLO USA!
“Where are you from?” I was sitting on a plane flying from Boston to Seattle to do interviews at different research laboratories for a postdoctoral position. Sitting next to me was a typical American man with a big cowboy hat, blue jeans, red shirt and white sneakers. “I am from the Netherlands,” I replied. “Wow,” he said, genuinely impressed. “Isn’t that the capital of Amsterdam?”
Since that conversation I have had many random conversations with passersby and learned a lot about how my home country is perceived. Not only is the country part of the capital, both are frequently to be found in Denmark. Copenhagen is also an important city, but certainly not the capital. And the Dutch speak Danish. Yet that may be wrong because we speak English really well, so maybe we speak English. There is also something called Flemish. But why the Belgians can converse with Dutch people from Denmark in a non-English language remains to be explained. All of this is really quite amusing, and it makes me realise how small The Netherlands is, compared to the rest of the world. And to be fair, I don’t have a clue about the capital of – for instance – South Dakota. I have since resorted to telling people that I am from Europe, which prevents confusion.
EUROPE TO CALIFORNIA
In January 2011 I moved to California to start my postdoctoral research training at Stanford University, in the heart of Silicon Valley. I had obtained a PhD in Human Genetics, and was ready for the next big step in my career. Stanford provides a lot of great opportunities for me. I can do top-notch research as well as learn about entrepreneurship.
I had lived abroad before. As part of my Masters training I had spent a year in Stockholm, Sweden. That was one of the defining periods in my life. Leaving everything behind and starting a new life had shaped me in ways I am still discovering. And ever since returning from that adventure I wanted to go abroad again, while I was still unbound by family, kids, finance or work. Sweden had been sufficiently close to the Netherlands, both culturally and geographically, to feel safe, yet sufficiently distant in that I did not know the language. This time, however, I thought I could handle a bigger challenge.
Right after I landed in San Francisco airport my brain was still in Dutch mode. So I went to set up my new life as if I were still back home, and it took some adjusting before I could shed this feeling. For instance, the Dutch move around on bicycles. Thus the first thing I bought was a bike. I soon realised however that in California you will not get very far on a bike, even when you are Dutch, and even when there are bicycle lanes everywhere including some highways. So I had to buy a car; my first car. My roommate was so kind as to drive me around visiting several dealers and after discussing with my parents I almost settled for a brand new, maintenance free Ford Focus. I negotiated the price down to $12,000, and it was the perfect, most sensible buy. Almost. Because suddenly it hit me. I would be in California for a limited time only. I would very likely move away. And while this car would be a great buy in The Netherlands, wasn’t this really an opportunity to live life like an American?
It certainly was, and after a second round of dealer visits I had narrowed the field down to two very American options. A double axle pick-up truck with built-in barbeque and cow horns on the front, and a yellow mustang convertible sports car. In the end I settled for the latter, more Californian car and left the other for whenever I decide to visit Texas. Now I drive around the Bay Area every day with the top down, wind in my hair, thinking what a great life I have.
I narrowed the field down to two very American options. A double axle pick-up truck with built-in barbeque and cow horns on the front, and a yellow mustang convertible sports car.
The beauty of California is that the weather is so great that I can drive my mustang almost every day. I had to get used to that. In the Netherlands it rains virtually every other day, so after having bought the mustang and not encountering rain at all I was feeling quite satisfied with the change. But come autumn things began to feel wrong. I could not quite put my finger on it, but something was off. There are no seasons. I noticed this when I travelled to Boston in November. Boston, just like The Netherlands, has these amazing autumn colours in the trees. Not Palo Alto where I live. Everything was the same as ever. Locals here are convinced that there are at least two seasons, the rain season and the dry season, but given that it doesn’t really rain from a Dutch perspective (in fact it could use some more rain) I hold that there is only one season: Palo Alto season.
THE MOUNTAINS VERSUS THE LOW LANDS
In The Netherlands there is one mountain. In fact it is a hill that is called a mountain. I had climbed that mountain as a kid. However, that did not prepare me for what California had in store. The first time I visited Yosemite National Park I was awed by the sheer size of the valley, the mountains, the falls and the views. And of course the giant Redwood and Sequoia trees in Mariposa. It all made me feel small. The trees are truly gigantic. Redwoods and Sequoias are local to California and form their own microenvironments. They are hundreds of years old, with trunks bigger than a car, and they just will not fit in a picture frame. There is something magnificent about big trees such that I never tire of seeing them. They are so out of proportion that I remain in awe every time. Yet although nature is obviously oversized in California, it took some time for me to realise how high things really are in those mountains. So when I agreed with a friend (also European) to hike to Half Dome (5,000 feet up, 6 miles long) we started in the early morning naively thinking we’d be back by dinner and have lunch half way. Fourteen hours later we were much wiser, and will probably not climb Half Dome again. But it was worth it.
Having mountains nearby also meant that I could take my first steps on skis. There are great skiing opportunities in Europe, but it is prohibitively expensive and far from my home, so I never went. But Lake Tahoe skiing area is practically in my backyard so I signed up for lessons. And after an excruciating training session among people who could not distinguish left from right, I was one of three who finished the graduation slopes. And I felt ready to attack the list of fluffy animal slopes that covered that side of the mountain. And here I discovered that going down is easy. And going fast is easier still. But stopping is not so easy, although very useful. I had no problem with the bunny slope but when I entered the squirrel run the nightmare scenario ensued. Three snowboarders ahead of me fell, blocking the way. I had not mastered the art of stopping without falling and this was no exception. I steered clear of the fallen boarders and shot off the slope and into the woods, flying past a tree with a sign that read “Gulch of Terror”. I made three terrific moves to avoid the trees in that gulch, but succumbed at the fourth and buried myself in a mound of snow, losing my skis in the process. It is not easy getting skis back on when your boots are covered with snow and ice, and by the time I managed I found that my friends had launched a small search and rescue operation fearing that I got lost in the Ditch of Doom – another one of those heinous trails through the forest. Next time I go skiing, I’ll try to carve my way through that one.
One of the great things about living abroad is that you get to live in the now. Time is finite because you might move away in the future. There is little room for thinking “I can always do that next week” because there may not be that many weeks. And because of that I try to adapt to the American way of life and to experience America as much as I can. I drive a gas-guzzling car, I eat tremendous amounts of red meat in the form of barbecued ribs or burgers, when I cook at home I grill my meat rather than prepare it in the kitchen, I go camping on long weekends, and I look forward to Super Bowl. One might say that I am living the American Dream. As a colleague recently said, “While I am American, it is Antoine who lives American”.
I have a lot left to learn, explore and experience in California. And my research is not yet finished. So I will stay for a few more years. Nevertheless, people keep asking me the million-dollar question: will I stay, or will I go back? I know how others want me to answer that question. My parents, sister, my friends back in The Netherlands, they of course want me to come back. My friends here, especially the ones that have obtained a green card, would like me to stay. I do not know what I want yet. I enjoy my life, and will live in the now for a while longer. And when the time comes to plan ahead again, I will see where life takes me. And perhaps it will take me away from here. Maybe I’ll say “Goodbye USA, Hello Europe”, and see how Europe answers.