I caught my breath and wiped the sweat that was falling in large drops from my brow. I had just finished hefting seven suitcases up to the 4th floor walk-up apartment in the city of Groningen in the Netherlands where my wife Janet, daughter Elyse and I are beginning a one-year stay. To say that the pathway of my ascent is a ‘staircase’ would be a bit misleading; it actually more resembles an elevator shaft with three flights of stairs wedged in, going up in a straight line. In true Dutch fashion, the vertical “rise” of each step is longer than the horizontal “run” – giving one the sensation when approaching the staircase at the ground floor of tackling a section of El Capitan at Yosemite. Okay, I exaggerate a touch.
Coming from Kansas where the summer temperatures regularly hover in the 90s and occasionally tip triple digits, we relished the idea of moving to a cooler climate, especially our daughter. But on our arrival date of July 26th, the Netherlands, and much of Northern Europe, was in the grip of an epic heat wave. The mercury that first day hit 95 degrees. Back at the top of that staircase, and inside what was an already naturally warm attic apartment — without AC — we knew the next few days would be a challenge.
Since we couldn’t beat the heat in the apartment, we rappelled down the staircase and made our way out onto the stone streets of Groningen. The first order of business was self-preservation: Be sure you don’t get run over by someone on a bike! Checking our surroundings, we headed off into the city. We couldn’t believe we were here.
But I’ve gotten ahead of our story.
My wife Janet is a Professor at the Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas and our daughter Elyse, is a brilliant ballet dancer who just completed the 7th grade. (Future blog warning: I’ll be bragging on “my girls” regularly; they’re wonderful!) I myself am a pastor who in June wrapped up nearly nine years of ministry with the great folks of Blue Ridge Presbyterian Church in Raytown, Missouri (on the east side of Kansas City). I’m a “second career” pastor, and BRPC was my first call. It was at once a life-changing, faith stretching, challenging, joyful experience. I’ll never forget those dear people, and greatly appreciate all of their (ongoing) best wishes as we set off on this Dutch adventure. What will my next call be? More on that in a future post…
The seeds of our move to Groningen were planted nine years ago, just before I started at the church, when Janet had the opportunity to teach for a month at the University of Utrecht. Janet, Elyse and I, along with my mother-in-law Doris Thompson (you’ll meet her later), spent a month between Switzerland and France and then a second month in Utrecht as Janet was teaching at the University. That wonderful summer experience planted the idea for us to someday spend a year living abroad as a family. It was also in that summer of ‘09 that we fell in love with the Netherlands.
Leaving Kansas City this past June, as followers of my Facebook page already know, turned out to be a bit traumatic. Two days before we were to close on our house, we had a “water event” in our kitchen. We had sold our refrigerator and I noticed afterward that the disconnected water hookup for the ice maker had a slow leak. I attempted to tighten that faucet, but due to either my less-than-robust handyman skills or a faulty faucet, the valve exploded sending water shooting all over the kitchen. “This is not good,” I thought, as I tried to wrestle the faucet’s astounding, fire hose volume stream into a bucket. The end result was 5 days of “emergency water extraction” service. The fun part was explaining this all in an email to the buyers of our home who were moving from Spain and were still in Madrid at the time. Oh, and then there were those pesky plumbing fees.
But at last, we got on Interstate 70, heading east. Over the following four weeks, we would make stops in Cleveland to see family; Basking Ridge, NJ (where I preached at my dad’s last church, an immense joy and honor!); the Poconos for the Jackson family reunion; New York City to visit friends (including my 4 roommates from senior year at Michigan – Go Blue!!); Washington, D.C. and then the Shenandoah to see more friends; back to Cleveland for a respite; Cincinnati for Janet’s family reunion and then back to Cleveland again!
With our family & friends tour complete, we were ready to begin our trek over the Atlantic. Our route was to drive from Cleveland to Toronto via Niagara Falls, so Elyse could check that off her bucket list. It also extended the ‘water theme’ that we began in our kitchen in Kansas City! We then spent an overnight in Toronto, touring around the city the next day (photo below), and then prepared to head to the airport to catch Air Canada Flight #824 to Amsterdam.
The other sub-plot to our journey (aside from water) was WEIGHT — 50 lbs, to be precise – which is the official weight limit set by Air Canada and most international carriers for each bag that we were checking. We each were given one free bag to check – but if you exceeded the 50 lb. limit, Air Canada would assess a $100 baggage fee per overweight item. We had earlier explored shipping a 40 lb. box to the Netherlands via UPS using their slowest delivery option, but the jaw dropping quote for that service for one such parcel was $1,000. So we opted to check three bags and add a 4th for $100. Even so, our 4 bags, as much as we tried to squeeze the contents down, consistently weighed in a bit over 50 lbs. We opted to go to the airport to see how strictly they enforced the baggage limit, perhaps naively counting on the good natured reputation of our neighbors to the north. Carmen, an Air Canada baggage check-in agent, was our Godsend! Although our bags registered a touch over 50 lbs, she sent them all through on the baggage belt with a “have a good flight!” greeting.
With baggage all aboard, and tired from some 2,000 miles of travel plus all the work of selling a house, two cars and making countless other arrangements to be gone for a year, we leaned back as our Boeing 787 lifted off into the Toronto night. We each watched a movie, ate a late dinner, and then tried to get some sleep so we’d be prepared for our 10 a.m. arrival (4:00 a.m. our time) in Amsterdam.
And then I remembered a friend’s comment to me of how ironic it seemed, considering our water events in Kansas City, that we were moving to a country that was actually below sea level.