What It’s Really Like to Move Abroad After Graduation

When you leave your life behind to move to Europe after graduation, you get a lot of the same questions.

“What about your family?” (I’ll miss them, and we’ll be okay.)

“How long will you be gone?” (Indefinitely.)

And, my favorite: “Do you think it will be hard?”

I was never sure how people wanted me to answer that question. Of course it’s hard. The paperwork alone for moving abroad is extensive. Then you have things like health insurance and finding a new dentist, figuring out your first budget after graduation, finding new friends, and setting up your first apartment. I work for myself, so you can also add “figure out international tax law” to that list, right above to “get used to cooking every night” (unfortunately, there are no dining halls in my apartment complex). From the minute to the overwhelming, moving to the Netherlands has been a crash course in adulthood.

At the same time, I’m very happy, even now that the post-immigration glow is starting to fade. Right after I moved, everything felt magical and surreal. The feeling of having my own apartment with Ken was incredible. We had windows! Look at our balcony! We own our own plant! (His name is Francis.)

Taken in February, a month after moving.

Three months in, I’m less likely to point out all my belongings to you (but did I mention we own two trash cans? It’s very convenient). I still look dreamily out of the window every time I get on a train, but this life feels a little more real now, and a little more mine. I no longer feel like a stranger in my own office, nor do I feel absurd talking about “my office.” I no longer spontaneously buy colorful tea towels every time I go into the city, because Ken keeps insisting that we have a budget now, and I’d rather not use my fun-money for kitchenware.

Lenten lights.

I’m rambling a little — it’s been a while since I posted anything truly personal in this space, so I’m still getting used to it again. But I suspect, from the emails and comments that I get, that people are curious about what this process has been like, and what it’s really like to move to the Netherlands at the age of 23. So I thought I’d share the answers to some of the questions people are afraid to ask. Here’s what it’s really like to move abroad after graduation.

Why did you really move?

Here’s the honest answer: our home, when I was growing up, was a tiny Dutch bubble in my American town. Our family went to the Netherlands for summer break every year when I was a kid, so in some way while I was there, I felt like I was home. Combine that feeling with the need of a teenage girl to feel like she belongs, and you have a dream. I “missed” the Netherlands, even if I had never lived there.

When I was eighteen, I took a gap year and spent a few months living in the Netherlands with my aunt and uncle. I decided I wanted to move here after my college graduation; whether or not I would have stuck to that plan, I don’t know. And then I met Ken. We spent twelve days being love-struck teenagers together before I went back to the States, and then five years in a long distance relationship.

I made the choice to move here before I met Ken. But once he was in the picture, making that dream a reality became, logistically, a whole lot easier.

Ken in a café by the water.

Is there a language barrier? How good is your Dutch, really?

My parents are Dutch, so while I’ve spent almost my entire life in English-speaking countries, I was raised with bilingual fluency in Dutch and English. I won’t lie, though; my Dutch is not as good as my English, specifically where professional and academic conversations are concerned. The Dutch people around me insist that I have no accent and that my grammar is like that of a native, but where I’m really lacking is my vocabulary. (The other day, I was on the phone with the pharmacy and realized I couldn’t recall the Dutch word for prescription.)

All this to say: there’s not much a language barrier in day-to-day life, but when I have particularly complicated or involved conversations with people about my work, my field of study, or, apparently, medicine, I sometimes fall short. It’s not treated with any stigma or judgment, as far as I can tell; most people seem to find it a little charming, especially since my accent is barely noticeable. And my vocabulary is definitely growing as I continue reading Dutch books and news. But I find it a little embarrassing nonetheless.

Under the arch at the Rijksmuseum.

What’s the best part of living abroad?

I haven’t really experienced adulthood outside of the context of moving abroad, so for me, the best thing about living here is the same as the best thing about being out of college: after five years of long distance, Ken and I are finally together, not just on one continent or in one country, but in one apartment.

Before moving, I was worried about fights over the fulness of the dishwasher, or disagreements about where the couch should go. But, to my surprise (and petty delight, because so many people told me they would happen), those things haven’t come up at all. Most of the time, we’re on the same page; and when we’re not, we’re both mature enough not to be too stubborn.

Another “best part,” for me, is the ability to work for myself and set my own schedule. Blogging is a time-consuming job; though Sara Laughed has been a little dormant these past few weeks, I usually work 12 t0 15-hour days every day on my student help site College Compass, doing everything from writing to photography to graphic design to promotion. But the hours I pull are also a testament to how much I love this job, and I’ve never once wanted to quit.

What’s the worst part of living abroad?

I miss my friends so, so much. I have a group of friends at Wellesley who are my lifeline and bring out the very best (and most absurd) in me. No amount of Skype calls will change how much I love and miss them.

Also: finding and paying for my own dentist. Enough said.

What do you miss about America?

Craft superstores; being in the same time zone as most of my loved ones; having a driver’s license and the means to use it; the cheese fries at my favorite restaurant in my home town; the drive down the “scenic route” to my house, past the summer camp where I used to be a counselor. Stores that are open until 9 or 12 instead of 5:00 PM; the friendliness of strangers; being able to hug my dad whenever I want. Coffee with my mom in the mornings. Late-night drives with my little brother to Wawa. The feeling that I’m home.

What do you prefer about Holland?

Being able to bike or walk everywhere; the nearness of every city I want to go to; the ability to take a train and be in another country within an hour. The baked goods; the chocolate; the licorice (don’t judge, it’s amazing). Ken. My aunt. The nearness of nature: we live next to a park, and the sunrise over the trees every morning is amazing.  The sound of the bell at the train station, which takes me back to being seven and on summer break. The Saturday afternoons when Ken and I go out into the city for coffee and a bagel, and end up wandering the cobblestone streets to take pictures of doors and castles. The feeling that I’m home.

Do you think you’ll ever move back?

I don’t know. Ken and I both want to spend some time away from here; I have dreams for returning to Oxford for grad school, and he has dreams of returning to Silicon Valley for work. We do think we want to be here eventually, when we have a family, but even that is flexible, depending on changes in work. I’m open to what the future holds, but, God willing, I’ll be here a few more years at least before any new adventure.

That’s all I’ve got for now. But I’m feeling pretty open today, so if you have any questions about moving or life abroad, please feel free to ask in the comments!

Sara Laughed

Hey hey! I'm Sara, an American writer living in the Netherlands and working as a product manager.

  1. Bel says:

    I think I’ll move too, once I graduate. I’m planning to go to a country where I can’t speak the language. I want to learn a new language.

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