We've been in Amsterdam for almost two weeks and I feel more relaxed here than I've felt since we left Kauai almost four months ago. The sensation of having just taken a deep breath and exhaled came over me as soon as we arrived, which is saying something following 16 hours of flying and a 7-hour time zone change. I've been pondering why that is while I'm riding along the canals of this gorgeous city or running through its numerous parks and I think the reason is threefold.
First, people speak English! I know, I know, this is obvious, but I had underestimated how hard it was to be somewhere for seven weeks where very few people spoke English. Not only could we not speak to people, but we couldn't read any signs or menus or instructions. This meant that navigating cities was more difficult, we had to rely on Google Maps to get around, and Rob and I really didn't speak to anyone other than each other for most of our time there. Interacting with someone who spoke English felt like a huge treat - during our last week in Okinawa, we met a couple from Auckland with a daughter Blythe's age and spent time with them for several of our days there. I felt like I was hanging out with a girlfriend at home and it was awesome. In the Netherlands, even if someone doesn't speak English or a sign is written in Dutch, since the same alphabet is used I can often translate the sign and roughly understand, which is something I couldn't do in Japan.
Second, the food is familiar. I love sushi and noodles, both of which are widely available in Japan. That said, I do not want to eat either at every meal. This may sound odd, but we found it difficult to find healthy options for eating out aside from sushi -- and certainly this is a result of the language barrier as well. When we could cook for ourselves, food was easier to navigate, but we often were stymied by Japanese menus and not even knowing whether a shop was a restaurant or a different type of store front or whether there was anything we could order that didn't involve fish, rice, and noodles.
Third, Japanese culture was tricky to navigate. There are a lot of rules in Japan, many of which are not intuitive to visitors, particularly where a small child is involved. I worried about Blythe putting her feet/shoes in the wrong place and acting up in public (which Japanese children seem to never do). Even at the beach, we were reprimanded for bringing Blythe's small rubber duck into the pool (floaties are okay, ducks are not), for having her and her Kiwi friend Maddie in the ocean without clothes, and for walking up to the water slide before the prior person had slid down into the water (not even getting on the slide, just climbing the stairs).
I don't have any problem with rules - in fact, I generally love and follow them. But it was exhausting to always be thinking about whether we were following the rules or how many we were breaking without intending to do so. The other noticeable cultural difference was the way people live. We slept on futons on the floor and none of our homes had couches or chairs. Part of traveling is experiencing the way other people actually live, but it was hard to not have a place to sit and relax in the evening and none of us slept well.
All of this was exacerbated by the fact that we generally stood out in Japan. Blythe generated a lot of attention and thus so did our parenting. For the first week or so we were in Japan, I was intimidated by the other parents and children because they were always so well-behaved. It was mystifying. Over time, I noticed that whenever Blythe would get upset and Rob and I would give her a second to sort it out, someone would immediately jump in and try to "help". This often meant offering a candy or other sweet or speaking to her to try to calm her (note: it never works to try to calm an upset toddler by using a a foreign language and getting in her face, even if you are trying to be friendly). One woman even offered her an entire sandwich and seemed offended when I politely declined. My conclusion is that our approach of just letting Blythe sort out her feelings, even if it means she cries for a few seconds, is not common practice in public in Japan.
All of this should have been prefaced by the fact that we loved much of Japan and highly valued our experience and time there. We had some really magical moments there of exploring, connecting with people despite not speaking the same language, and seeing spectacular and unusual sights. Over a shorter period of time, I'm not sure any of these things would have stood out, but at the end of almost two months, we were exhausted and ready for familiar surroundings, good cheese, and couch time. Amsterdam has not disappointed and we seem to have caught a fantastic stretch of sunny, warm weather. We've been cooking healthy meals, visiting lots of playgrounds and paddling pools, and Blythe has even taken a few naps. I feel rejuvenated for the remainder of our travels and like I learned quite a bit about myself and my comfort zone when traveling a toddler. I admire people who easily move around every few days with kids in tow, particularly in more remote locations, but Rob and I have figured out what works for us - fewer moves, access to healthy food, a comfortable bed, and contact with other people with whom we have a common language. I'm hoping that writing this doesn't make me seem narrow-minded or judgmental -- it is meant to be an acknowledgement of my comfort zone and willingness to live outside of it. Have you ever wished you were more comfortable than you actually were or felt like even though you were somewhere fabulous or exotic, you might just prefer to be home?
I'll share more about our time in Amsterdam soon. We've biked all over the city, explored numerous parks, visited a paddling pool almost every day, had a picnic with a couple and their daughter who live in Amsterdam but who we meet on Urupukapuka Island in New Zealand, and had a three-day visit from our dear friends from Denver who now live in London. Summer in Europe has been good to us thus far.