Running with the locals
The day after I moved to Holland I ran a half marathon in The Hague. It probably was not the most sensible decision I have ever made. The jetlag and stress of an international move combined with cold wind and heavy rain that day left me shivering and exhausted to the core.
Looking back, I realise jumping into that race so quickly after starting my new life abroad was my way of clinging onto my old self at a time when I felt like I was losing so much.
My personal story
I come from a mountain town in Colorado where outdoor sports are a way of life. I like to boast that my spin instructor was a five-time Ironman triathlon winner. Professional cyclists make up more of the road traffic than automobiles do.
Heck, my own sister competed in two Olympics. Point being, you never had to look hard or far to find a friend to join you on a bike ride or run.
Consequently, when I moved to the Netherlands from my endorphin-pumping utopia, it was like moving to a different planet. Do not get me wrong, the Dutch are a healthy lot, but walking through Albert Heijn in yoga pants and sneakers generated a few stares that made me wonder if I had somehow morphed into a little green alien.
It took me six more months to run my next half marathon, this time in Eindhoven. By then the new expat fog-goggles were beginning to clear and some semblance of my new life was coming into focus. This time around I was well rested and the sun shone high in the air on an unseasonably warm September day.
Walking to the starting line, I took notice of the thousand of runners around me who seemed to share in my passion for the sport. With a still small social network, I took a great deal of comfort in the camaraderie I felt jogging along side these fellow runners. I vowed to involve myself more with the local running community.
After a failed attempted at google searching for local running clubs, I waved a group of joggers down near my house one day while out on a run in the Bossche Broek. I felt a twinge of guilt interrupting their workouts but they enthusiastically stopped to answer all of my questions. A week later, I was meeting the Prins Hendrik Sportsclubc for a Saturday morning long run near my house in Vught.
Showing up that first day as the new person combined with not speaking the local language took me back to my first day of kindergarten. Intimidated and nervous, I wanted to run back to the comforts of my own home where I felt safe from the scary world.
No one seemed particularly interested in helping me find my way around and I ended up running with a group that did not match my ability level.
Determined as all expats learn to be when setbacks happen, the next week I assertively found my way to a long distance group with goals similar to mine. I was relieved to find this group was open, friendly and interested in my running background. Everyone gave me a warm welcome and now a few months later I am training for my first marathon with the club.
Expats socialise with expats
Expats tend to socialise within their own support group within the expats community. This makes perfect sense. We connect with others when we share common experiences, especially challenging ones. Yet limiting your social life to only include other foreigners can be, well, limiting.
What I found through my own journey in joining a local running group was that the more I open myself to new experiences and people, the more I grow and learn as an individual.
In fact, one of most interesting conversations I have had since moving to the Netherlands took place during a 17 kilometer run with a 70 year old Dutch man. His knowledge on the history of the area and stories about Holland during World War Two gave me chills. His own father died in a concentration camp. His story is one I will never forget and I would never have heard it if I had not joined that running club.
Image source: O.S.S. - Volo
While the tight-knit Dutch culture can sometimes feel impenetrable, it is true that interests fuel enthusiasm in people. In the absence of sharing a first language, connecting through hobbies is a great way to start meeting some locals. Whether it is a hockey club, sewing group or cooking class, when people are doing what they love to do the channels of communication open right up.
My closest friends in the Netherlands are fellow expats but many of them do not share my love for running. There are well over one hundred organised running clubs in the Netherlands and that is something else I like to boast about.
Even when the language barrier proves challenging, spending an hour or two each week jogging in the woods with others who enjoy discussing training plans, running injuries and personal best 10 km race times, allows me a chance to be my old self for a while.