“I’m not going to date anyone for the next five years,” I said, packing clothes into my suitcase.
I was eighteen, fresh out of high school, and about to fly to the Netherlands for my gap year. Just a few weeks earlier, I’d broken up with my high school boyfriend, and I was in no mood for romance.
My mom laughed. “You’re not going to date?” she said. “That’s what everyone says right before they fall in love.”
“You’re wrong! I need to focus on me. I’m not dating anyone until I graduate from college.”
But she was right. Two days later, I met Ken.
Ken was my cousin’s best friend. For gap year, I was staying with my aunt and uncle in the Netherlands. On the day I arrived, my cousin wanted to show me around the city. Coincidentally, Ken was in the city too, and my cousin invited him along. I tried to hide my annoyance — I had just gotten off of a red-eye flight and didn’t want to meet someone new.
But when Ken walked up to us, he took me by surprise. I expected someone like the boys I knew back home: cocky, loud, and a little too impressed with himself. But Ken was quiet and thoughtful. I liked his dark eyes and the way he nodded when I talked. He asked about my family and my travel plans. For the first time in the weeks since my breakup, I didn’t feel quite so bitter.
Not that it mattered. I wasn’t going to date anyone, I reminded myself.
As the months went by, Ken and I saw each other in passing whenever he visited the house. I slowly fell in love with the Netherlands and dreamed of one day moving back. My parents were Dutch, and we had immigrated to the United States when I was two; as a dual citizen of the Netherlands and the US, I would have the freedom to live in either country after I graduated. But that was years away, and for now, my time in the Netherlands was running out.
Just a few weeks before I was set to fly back to America, Ken was visiting. By now, it had been a few months since my break up and feeling a little spontaneous, I decided to ignore my no-date promise for just one evening. I asked him if he’d like to get dinner and a movie; we ended up talking for so long at dinner that we missed the movie by an hour and a half. From then on, we were inseparable. We went to museums and bookstores, had picnics on rusty old canal boats, and handed out flowers to strangers on the street.
“I don’t want to talk about the future,” I told Ken the day before my flight back home. “Let’s just enjoy right now.”
“Okay,” he said. “But I want you to know that I’m a very loyal person, and I feel very loyal to you.”
His words hit me. In that moment, I knew: this was it. For all my promises not to date or fall in love, I had met my match.
Ken and I continued dating after I flew back to America. We met each other’s parents, and they got to know us not just in person, but by hearing us giggle over Skype at all hours of the night. As the months passed, we visited each other as often as we could, once or twice a year. We messaged constantly, joked about everything, and looked forward to “one day,” after I graduated and could move to the Netherlands like I’d planned.
This promise, I kept. Four and a half years later, I was graduating and preparing to move abroad. In January 2017, one month after I finished college, I packed a large suitcase and flew to meet Ken in my new home country.
The first few weeks were wonderful. After years of long distance, we were finally in one place, building a life together. It felt like a dream. But slowly, as the honeymoon phase passed and normal life resumed its course, the challenges of moving my life to another country started to show. Working from home, I struggled to meet new people and make friends. I missed my family and the small conveniences of American life that I’d always taken for granted. The romantic dates we’d had during our college visits turned into daily chores and trips to file immigration paperwork at city hall.
I wasn’t unhappy, but I wasn’t happy, either. I started to feel stuck.
That October, ten months after my move, I flew back to the US for a friend’s wedding. On that trip, I met up with my closest friends and realized something: the aimlessness I’d felt in the Netherlands wasn’t tied to the country itself, or to Ken. It was something that all my friends were experiencing post-graduation. We all felt lost and a little lonely. The difference was, I was lost, lonely, and living abroad. If the problem wasn’t Holland, the power lay with me.
So when I returned to the Netherlands after the wedding, I made a change. I started saying yes to new events and experiences around the city. I reached out to new people: friends-of-friends who lived in the Netherlands, people I met in Facebook groups, or other expats who showed up at meetups. I took a salsa class, which allowed me to not only meet new people but also express myself in a new way. And as I created a richer life for myself outside of my relationship with Ken, our relationship grew, too.
I might have been wrong about dating, but had been right about one thing all those years before: I did need to focus on myself. For years, my plans to move to the Netherlands had been fixated on fulfilling an aspect of our relationship. But when I stopped prioritizing my own life after moving, I suffered — and my relationship suffered with it.
Next week will be one year from the day I moved to the Netherlands. I’m happy to say that I finally feel that the life I have here is my own. I have friends, routines, and goals both with Ken and away from him. I had never expected that moving to the Netherlands would be so challenging, or so fulfilling — but then again, I’d never expected that I’d fall in love and move here in the first place.
Life and love have a funny way of surprising you.