All fucked up and nowhere to go (except this excellent country)

by Janelle Hanchett

Hi. I haven’t written in a while because I’m all fucked up in my head.

I’m not unhappy. At least I don’t think I am. Depends on when you ask. 4am is sketchy as hell. That’s when I enjoy a little this was the biggest mistake of my life but it doesn’t matter anyway because life is a death march through pain.

Of course, I’ve been enjoying those mental exercises at 4am for the past 25 years, so, maybe irrelevant.


I have no idea which way is up or down and the other day I stood in front of a door that I thought was the entrance to a shop and when it wouldn’t open, I just walked away. I couldn’t handle looking for the actual entrance. I almost called Mac to help me. TO HELP ME.


I miss Ava so much I could puke. Some dude ran into me in my car and he was in a Vespa. It’s a long story but I’m pretty sure it was my fault. All of us were okay. A vaguely drunk Dutch woman from across the street saw it happen and came out and stroked my arm a lot. Now I’m afraid to drive.

Did you know the word in English for sparkling water is different in every goddamn country? Water with gas, sparkling water, club soda. Why do I know this? Because I’m an alcoholic and order a lot of club sparkling bubbly water with gas.

The fun part is that every time you go somewhere new and say it wrong, they look at you like you’re a fucking native English speaker how do you not know what this is called?


Do I sound like I’ve lost it? I have. I have. Okay? I have. 

I miss forests. I like the idea of going to Germany for those. I miss the Pacific ocean. I love being not in a country where Donald Trump is President. I miss knowing where all the good shit is.  IT SURE IS COOL MY KIDS AREN’T GONNA GET SHOT IN SCHOOL.

I miss my best friend. There’s no flip side to that.

I just miss her. And my parents. And Ava. Did I mention that?


“Are you happy there?” That’s what everyone asks me. 

At 3pm, when I walk down our road of brick houses, each one with a little striped awning, to pick up my kids from the bus stop, and as soon as they get off they ask if we can get an ice cream or go to the outdoor market across the street (if it’s a Thursday) to get Turkish bread and cashew hummus, and cookies from the Lithuanian grandma, I’m “happy.”

When my family rides along on our bikes and I see Arlo sitting on Rocket’s bike and I hear his little voice chattering away at his big brother – one sentence jamming into the next, hands flailing in animation – and Rocket responding occasionally, sometimes pretending he’s about to fall to make Arlo roar in laughter, until we pull into the big square under the big old church in the cobblestone center of town, I’m definitely “happy.”

When I get off the train in Amsterdam, when I shake my head in wonder at where I live, when I type “Bruges, Belgium” into Airbnb for a weekend trip, when I hear my daughter say “There are no lockdowns here,” when my kids tell me they stood on desks to build block towers to the ceiling at school, when I watch them play every afternoon because there’s no homework until you’re 12, when I realize I’ve lived here three months and have not yet seen a homeless person – well, fuck.

When I see Mac come home on a Wednesday at 1pm so he can take Arlo to play football in the park.

When I see him making lunches in the morning.

When I see him not commuting four hours a day.

When I see three Dutch kids somehow attached to a bike ridden by a Dad at 2pm on a Tuesday (because dads take time off to be with their kids here (“Papadag!”).

Well fuck. I love it here.


It isn’t a matter of happiness, though, is it? Happiness is bullshit. We chase it like hungry animals, some fleeting thing always just around the bend. We all know this. It’s a cliché at this point.

What do we get, really, when shit is good? Contentment? Serenity? Freedom? Peace?

Do I have that?

Yes, which is partly why I’m fucked up. Because I have so much more of it here, it’s disturbing.

How can you simply rejoice in the realization that your kids are safer in this country than your own?

How can you just delight in the fact that your husband has been returned to a freedom over his life because the Dutch understand work-life balance and health insurance is affordable?

How do you purely celebrate that when just beneath it is the reality that a return to America is probably an end to it again. How do you feel the loosening of some knot in your guts because this new country allows children to be children and expects you to do the same, and you realize how much impossibility you held in yourself, how much impossibility was yours to somehow achieve as mother. The craziest thing is I didn’t even realize it was there until it was gone.

the homework the reading “norms” the “safety of children” the forms the healthy food the endless march to get to the top of a dying middle class the eye toward retirement for freedom

I almost cried when George came home and told me they made apple pie in school and got candy for a kid’s birthday. It was just the type of thing that would appall and “deeply concern” so many mothers in my old town. Sugar! At school! Standing on desks! Candy!

It’s just, like, not that big of a deal here. Nobody cares. No wonder Dutch kids are the happiest in the world. And it isn’t that there are no rules. That doesn’t make kids happy.

My kids’ school is incredibly strict about sugar in lunches. As in, it’s not allowed at all. So, you know, they’re like reasonable.

Moderation. Weird.


There’s no need to complicate this. I’m disrupted. That’s all this is. I’m finding my way in a new reality.

I have to admit though I absolutely didn’t know what it would feel like to have my world contract to a tiny square.

I lived in northern California my whole life. My parents lived there. My grandparents too. My great-grandparents arrived there after making their way out of the Philippines and the East Coast and Southern United States. So, while my body resided in a single town outside of Sacramento, familiar land stretched beneath my feet all the way to the middle of California, to the Nevada border, to Humboldt County on the way to Oregon. To the sun dropping into the Pacific Ocean.

It isn’t about knowing all the mountains and trees and lakes and roads. California’s too big for that. It’s about knowing a place from as far back as you can remember. It’s about imagining the boundaries of your home, the dirt you love, places you know in your bones from memory and history. Living your whole life in the same place feels like circles expanding so far beyond yourself, one after another, boundaries of familiarity wherever you go.

And in your mind, you can see it, how far your friends and family and feet stretch around you. It seems to hold you there in the center with old, massive hands.

It feels like safety.

Apparently it’s no small thing to let it all go.

I knew I wouldn’t get out of this without some sort of reckoning. Nothing comes for free. Nothing is that simple.

There’s so much left behind.


My brother left for ten years for college and medical school. But I, I don’t leave. And if I leave, I certainly don’t get somewhere new and find a mirror to the insanity of my former life. I certainly don’t feel the relief of a saner, more humane and pragmatic society next to the reality that it isn’t mine.

How much new can the heart and brain hold? Where the fuck am I?

One foot at home, aching. Aching. FUCKING ACHING.

One foot here.

I didn’t come here seeking happiness. I came here seeking a life more aligned with freedom of profession and time, with family, with choice, with something beyond endless work for survival then hopefully a retirement and something more than a big house to celebrate on my deathbed. I came here for a fuller life right now, a slowing down, a different kind of safety circling us.

The fact that I found it is somehow excruciating.

Haarlem Central

Haarlem from the other side of the central church AKA We Live on a Movie Set

stepping out of the train station in Amsterdam I see this and it’s never not startling. not sure why. BECAUSE IT’S THE TRAIN STATION IN AMSTERDAM AND I LIVE HERE SOMEHOW

Dam Square in Amsterdam, of course

the ice cream shop in question

the Haarlem central square where we hang out a lot

“futbal” is a thing we do now and by “we” i mean everyone else but me

Hi. I have three writing workshops starting next year.


We’ve got WRITE ANYWAY, for the writer sick of her own mental shit (fear, mostly). And the RENEGADE WRITERS’ GROUP, for the writer ready to get a first draft done. And finally, FROM MEMORY TO MEMOIR, which will bring you from memories of your life to actual story, or help you shape and enhance a memoir draft you’re wondering what to do with. Email me questions or to set up installment plans (which I offer for all of these).

Oh and my book didn’t write itself. And you can totally still buy it!

(Please do. I owe people money.)

44 Comments | Posted in I guess we're moving to the Netherlands | September 30, 2019
  • Kristine

    Sending love your way. I have just made a huge mid-life, family-changing, be outside more, slow-the-fuck-down move too. And sometimes it’s just so much. I figure love helps.

  • Hilary

    I love this. It makes me want to do something brave. And reminds me that there’s no magic bullet for creating the perfect (outer or inner) life. Thank you. THANK YOU.

  • Peggy

    Sending hugs and love your way. It’s a huge adjustment. You have to give yourself a little time to grieve the losses,then you will be able to be happier.

  • Kelly

    Fuck. So get it. Sending conflicted american hugs and half-baked coping mechanisms. Adjustment blows.

  • Cath

    As someone who also lives on a different continent to where I grew up, yes it’s fucking hard even when it seems like it ‘shouldn’t’ be. I feel all the feels at all the times. It does get easier, you’ll be a richer person for it blah blah blah yes all that but it’s a rough ride.

    Thank you for sharing the true experience you are having. You’ve got this. Now can I come too haha!

  • Ingrid J.

    Oh man. You’re exactly right – disruption. Holy cats – DISRUPTION! It’s the weirdest place to be, but it passes. And then it comes back. And then it passes again. You know, that spirally thing about emotions and psych and stuff? But oh jeez it can be sooooo damn uncomfortable! Sending caring and warmth and thanks (for your honest sharing) and love and gratitude and a teeny bit of comradely howling at the void (’cause it’s the void and what else are we supposed to do to the void?) … ❤️

  • Annette

    I feel a new Janelle Hanchett book coming on. Love your honesty and your courage to always face down all the feels.

  • Margie

    I’ve been in California for 19 years and I still yearn to go back to Central Illinois where things are familiar in my bones. I know more about N. Cal than I do about Illinois, but pretty much anyone I talk to for more than 5 minutes knows I’m from Illinois. I’m not even from Chicago, but every city I go to I compare to Chicago. My friend Maria’s dad missed his Greek village so much that he insisted on going back there to die, even though he’d been in the states for like 50 years. Also, he had to be buried in his village. It’s just in us.
    Yearning for home never goes away, but it becomes more manageable. This part is really hard, so give yourself miles (or km) of grace.

    • Tabitha

      Previous poster makes a great point…. your experience moving there would make a great book!!! I think so many of us in our 30’s with families have all fantasized about moving to a Scandinavian country. To escape trump. And the fucking hamster wheel of no time and no money and babies needing so much more then we can give them. Living vicariously through you so hard right now.
      -A Sacramento fan

  • Laura

    Disrupted. Such a good word for all this. I’ve reached my 4th year “away from home/normal” and the first year and a half was just that – standing around being bewildered – constantly texting my husband for support/help/grounding. Come home from work! I can’t cope! And then, it starts to get normal – you start to find your people/support networks… and yes – when things go wrong/shit happens, I want to run – I want to run straight back to England, and security (pah!!) and things I know… but then, I get to take in the awesomeness of nature
    that is the US West coast, and find my “ok” again. You are doing amazingly Janelle – and you will find your ocean and your forests.

  • Antoinette

    Oh man, oh man, oh man! That looks amazing!!!!!

  • Tammyhansen

    Breath, believe, then read a couple of headlines from back here in the US. That will make you feel infinitely better about having the cajones to leave. Things are not great here. My 17-year-old kid thinks if global warming doesn’t kill him, the imminent civil war will. It may be hard there, but it’s dismal here. Stick it out at least until the next election is over.

  • Lisa

    I just read your book. Don’t know why I waited so long. Actually, I do know. I was just busy with the business that you seemed to have escaped. I had twins in 2011 and I thought I would never make it past the first year of their lives and your blog helped me so much. Made me laugh and feel less so alone. Anyway, It looks beautiful there and I loved your book. But I didn’t buy it. I checked it out of the library so others can enjoy it too!
    Thanks for your writing, I look forward to it.

  • sabrina

    It won’t leave, the feeling. You will just learn to wear it lighter. I left NYC 11 years ago, have lived all over the world, and am now settled in Canada for a bit. I ACHE for NY. I still dream about it, have for the last decade. But I will not do that to my kids. I will not have them drill for a possible shooter. I will not have their childhood be about standardized testing. I will not have their lives start out by watching people wanting more and more and need bigger and bigger. I watch them, so free, so happy, so young and innocent! And that makes all my aching worth it. Because you only get one childhood.

  • Kate

    Same. Thank you for putting it into words. It’s no small thing, moving for the safety of your children and a different perspective. That is worth it right there. I will always miss home too, but when I think about moving back I feel there is no way I can go back to that life.

  • Peggy

    so good to hear from you!

  • Marsha

    One of the things I found hardest was not knowing where to get things like plug extensions. Having to ask local friends about *every* *tiny* *thing.* But that does pass — I found it took me about two years to feel like the new continent was home. But now I do (and have a little tattoo to prove it) and, other than missing my mum EVERY DAY, I am so so so so much happier here. Truly, you couldn’t PAY me to live where I was (and I had mostly thought I liked it at the time).

    Good luck! And thank you for letting us live vicariously through all the glorious bits as well as telling us about the less so parts x

  • Alex

    Wherever you are, there you are.

  • Susan Barstow

    A fuller life right now. And oh my god, Arlo and his rainbow umbrella. So glad you’re writing again.

  • Karen Marshburn

    I’ve been thinking about you a lot recently and wondering how you’ll handle the fall and the possible lack of pumpkin patches. Are there pumpkin patches there? Can you visit double digits worth?

  • Shena

    You are forgiven, you are forgiven, you are forgiven. No one minds that you have found “it”. Enjoy your joy if you can and just keep posting photos and blog posts so we can live vicariously through you.

  • kerri l fronczak

    I was on your preview book team (whatever the hell we were called). Please oh please can I be on the team for the next one? You better be taking copious notes prepping all these adventures and insights for a new book 🙂

    Kudos to you for making such a tremendous leap. I can’t imagine how difficult it was or continues to be but damn if I’m not lapping it up living vicariously through you!

    Enjoy this nirvana. You deserve it.

  • Laura Wheatman Hill

    This is lovely and complicated. Thank you for your writing.

  • Anneke

    Hey Janelle, nice job putting the mess of cultural disruption and displacement into words. Painful and glorious and it never goes away. These peeks into your current life are helping me consider a move back home. Thanks for all the gorgeous realness.

  • Shenoa

    I’ve been waiting for your post on immigrating. I knew you would capture it so much better than I have been able to. Once again, your words are like an old song that my mind remembers with no effort.

    I’ve been living in Switzerland for 12 years, with a one year ‘trial’ back in Colorado with my young family. We went back to Colorado because of that ache. My ache to simply feel the land that held me through my young life – the piece of earth that just feels right.

    During that year, we struggled so hard. Exhausted and with no other choice, we returned to Switzerland after 12 months, well aware of the profound privilege of being able to leave. Life returned to normal (right) – meaning that we have a place to live, I don’t need to put groceries on credit cards, we have health care and I trust my children won’t get shot in school. I also know they can chose to go to college if they want and it will not be a financial burden on our family.

    After returning, I was in deep depression and nothing made sense to me. Everything was ‘just right’ and all I wanted was to joke around with cheerful Coloradans and hike in the Rockies.
    One year later I visited my family in Colorado and in one clear and searing moment on the highway, everything shifted. I truly felt how grateful I was to be in Switzerland and the acceptance of that feeling reverberated all the way through me and I will never forget it.

    It took 10 years of that dance for me. For some it takes less but the transition of moving overseas is no joke. The process of discovering who you are in an entirely different construct is agonising and glorious.

    You know what really helped me when I was first in Switzerland? I met with Expats. I felt like I was cheating and I’m not ‘that’ kind of immigrant that doesn’t integrate. But you know – I just needed the banter, the cultural references, the reminiscing and missing of home countries. Then I could feel the ground underneath my feet and walk forward. It was an important piece for me.

    Sending you and your family so much love.

  • Jessica

    This is normal. It sucks. It’s hard. It’s part of the process. And it’s totally normal.

    You remember the horror/beauty/upended world of becoming a mom? Moving to another country is just like that. You can’t understand it until it happens to you. Just like when you become a mom and everyone tells you to enjoy it and you are enjoying moments of it, but it’s also so hard, and disorienting and your feel like a baby yourself – that what it’s like when you move to a new country for the first time. Everyone wants these big experiences to be just one thing – but they are never one thing. They are beautiful and terrifying, heart-melting and lonely, freeing and disorienting.

    I am what they call a “TCK” or third culture kid – yeah, that’s a thing, and there are books and blogs and speakers and so on about us. Now your kids are going to be one of us. There are a lot of us. And it is an incredible gift – I would give up having been a TCK, because it made me me. But . . . but . . . (and there’s always a but), it also cost me something. And this move has cost you something. And it’s okay to admit that. There will also be days, weeks, and months in which you wonder if it cost you too much.

    A wise friend recently told me that when you are going through transition, you should just throw away the “maybe I should have” lines in your head. For me, that line drags me into hell, and so I have to fight against it.

    Hard is not failure. The middle is always messy. Struggling doesn’t mean that you are doing it wrong. It just means that you are doing it anyway.

  • Jenny Elizabeth Johnson

    “Am I happy?”
    “In all honesty? No. But I am curious- I am curious in my sadness, and I am curious in my joy. I am everseeking, everfeeling. I am in awe of the beautiful moments life gives us, and I am in awe of the difficult ones. I am transfixed by grief, by growth. It is all so stunning, so rich, and I will never convince myself that I cannot be somber, cannot be hurt, cannot be overjoyed. I want to feel it all- I don’t want to cover it up or numb it. So no, I am not happy. I am open, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
    -Biana Sparacino

    These words came to my in a Facebook post today, and truly there it is, eh? I think we need to shift our expectations of ourselves (anger is bad, happiness is good). Maybe the reality of varying emotions and reactions and feelings is just fine.

    I daydream about moving to France ALL THE TIME. I actually wonder if I am okay in the brain. I try to think in French, I talk to myself in French (when I’m alone), and I envision that things would somehow be better, slower, the fabric of that land worked by farmers for centuries, something feels safer to me there, the land more wise. And I have already been displaced- I grew up in Texas and Kansas but have lived all of my adult life as an Oregonian. I wonder if any place will really feel like “home” to me. Your experience is so insightful, thank you for sharing.
    Love to you during this transition.
    (And I just left my daughter in Portland for college. I just drove away and left her there in her own life. IF I’M HAPPY FOR HER WHY AM I CRYING ALL THE TIME??!) Hugs from my mama heart to your’s. xo

  • Amie

    I left the States 20 years ago- came back a few times because of the deep missing friends & familiarities, but I always left again….life is just better in Europe. I‘ve now been in Germany for 13 years (& for all of the reasons you mention- it’s the same here as in Holland), with a half German child, German Partner & yeah- life is here now. It gets easier as time goes on & it’s an option to go home for a long visit. I find 4 weeks a good time- you get all the good stuff & then remember why you left & you can go again. America is great on so many levels, but it seems that the important ones are reserved for the wealthy. In many European countries, everyone benefits.

    • Lor

      “and then you remember why you left”, you are so right!

    • Palo

      This is oh so true

  • Lor

    A fuller life right now, that’s what you came for and you have it. Now, maybe having Ava with you or studying in the same country will help, in a few months, maybe? Fingers crossed.
    I have also moved a month ago, different situations, different countries, we mostly seized a professional opportunity to live a bit differently and experience this as a family while our kids still live with us. It’s a bit of everything: contentment, stress and feeling torn apart. I understand you so well.
    (You are so right about the sparkling water, what’s wrong with us europeans? In France it would be “eau gazeuse”… but some would say “eau pétillante” or “avec des bulles” ! :D)

  • Ashley Hanlon

    I think you are amazing. I love how you write and capture the dissonance perfectly. Somehow what you write always resonates with me, even though we are rarely going through the same things.
    Thank you for your honesty.

    It makes all us weirdos going through big changes feel less alone.

  • Linda

    Homesickness. It’s real, like Takotsubo Syndrome is a real broken heart that can kill you. Being away from your daughter! That alone is enough to scare lesser people right back to the stuff they knew.

    Somehow, home always calls us. It doesn’t matter at all what home actually was. It’s still home. It always will be. We can move to new places. We can declare, like my mother, “Home is where your furniture is!” Home is still calling. It gets softer until you barely hear it, but it’s there. You learn to ignore it. You embrace your new home. Squeeze every experience you can from it! Hoping your dissonance ends and your balance returns quickly!

  • Rebecca

    I’ve been in Sydney 20 Years, I’m British. Had my two kids here, and a messy divorce etc Sometimes all I want to do is get back on a plane but then I’m in the ocean covered by the sun, so… You love your new country.. You’ll always miss home. I don’t think there is a right way. a right answer. Best advice I have had is ’embrace the country you are in’ and if you can yes a month trip back once in a while helps. Love the way you’ve written about this and the subsequent comments X

  • Renee Pedersen

    Janelle – You are leaving the USA for your kids and husband, plain and simple. You want a better life for all of them. You want a simpler and a safer life for the kids. You want a better life for your husband. A life where he’s in control of his work schedule, doing what he loves and spending more time with your kids. You, however, are just feeling the fallout of being away from family and friends. While family is so very important in our lives, you still have the most precious ones with you, by your side (except Ava who will be there soon). Until we get rid of the smuck and his posse that we have in the WH right now, you and your family are much safer where you are. Hang in there and keep telling us about your story. You will be fine. We are here to listen to you!

  • Trinh

    Your book is beautiful. I just finished it yesterday. The encounter between you and the young girl in the liquor store at the end sent me chill and made me cry. Very well written, and touching. (And I don’t even drink).

    Just curious, what made you choose Holland instead of other European countries?

  • Lisa

    You are doing the right thing. You made an incredibly brave choice to go to a place that is best for your family and they are benefitting from your sacrifices.

  • Alison

    Yes. It’s excruciating for all the reasons you said. And also? Because now you’re out of the rat race of living in America and your mind and body are processing all it cost you and your family to live there. So there must be some grief for that, too. Anyway, I hope you end up finding some sense of peace, happiness, and most of all, Home. Even if it takes a while.

  • Kristal

    I moved from Northern, BC Canada (which was never home to me, even after 30 years) to Florida, USA. Every time I see a palm tree or live oak dripping in Spanish moss I realize how special it is. But it is too hot, too Trumpy, and even with Obamacare too scary to get sick. My heart will always be with Vancouver Island. Sadly my pocketbook could never afford to go back. We are upending our lives a second time to move to Nova Scotia. The one thing I really loved when we went up to house hunt. The stores! I know once again where the best bargains are! And thanks to Trump’s tariffs a lot of things are actually cheaper in Canada again. I am going for almost island life with seasons. Hopefully the new place will feel more like home, truthfully as I pack the house up, it already feels more like home than Florida does!

  • Julene

    Thank you for being so honest and raw. You are seeing a world that you had hoped for and I’m so happy for that. I’m sorry that it’s so hard but I can only imagine being that far away. Please keep writing and telling us about the good, the bad and the ugly. I know I am loving all of it!

  • Claire

    Amazing post. I think it takes at least a year, if not two. It’s funny because I’m now at the opposite end, settling back into “home” life after so many years as an expat. Lots of love x

  • Laura

    I love this. I love everything you write, tbh. I wonder, because of your fierce love for your beloveds, I wonder if having something wonderful feel selfish. I wonder if you would not feel quite so conflicted if your flock were all in one place. If Ava were there, too. Your parents, your best friend…. If they were with you, it would all be right.


    I really love reading your blog and secretly dream of escaping to another country. Well done for following your bliss or maybe just escaping your misery/our misery.

  • Betsy Shaw

    “It’s about knowing a place from as far back as you can remember. It’s about imagining the boundaries of your home, the dirt you love, places you know in your bones from memory and history. Living your whole life in the same place feels like circles expanding so far beyond yourself, one after another, boundaries of familiarity wherever you go.
    And in your mind, you can see it, how far your friends and family and feet stretch around you. It seems to hold you there in the center with old, massive hands.”
    I felt this, exactly, when we lived in France for two years. I was sooooo effing happy to be away from my ridiculously strong and deep Vermont roots, from USA, yet experienced so much unnamed, inexplicable longing for something left behind and felt so, I don’t know, weak and kind of ashamed for feeling it. You nailed it with the passage above. Nailed it.

    It feels like safety.