By Wakanyi Hoffman
This past summer, we moved to Groningen, the northernmost province in the Netherlands. It was an intentional move, one that involved questioning everything we believe in and stand for, as self-proclaimed global citizens.
A piece I wrote about the unique features of Groningen city was published here. It may have been partly inspired by the urge to embrace our choice and to own our drastic decision. But mostly, it was a way of saying ‘thank you’ to whatever cosmic energy that led us to the tip of this viking country, in a city that has stood timeless since its formation in the Middle Ages.
Later on, I wrote another piece detailing our answers to the question- ‘Why Groningen?’ We get asked that a lot. Even by Dutch friends that we have made here or elsewhere in our travels. Groningen is not particularly the big city living as Amsterdam, Rotterdam or The Hague, which are more popular with the expatriate community. It is much smaller and exudes a more relaxed atmosphere. The culture here is charmingly representative of a piece of medieval Europe, where children as young as 5 year olds still cycle to school on their own.
Groningen draws a large number of international students at the city’s 400-year-old university. A small number of international families working for multinational companies with offices here, also mingle comfortably with the local folk. The hardened facial features of the heavily-accented Northern Hollanders belie the gentle pride they express, in being the original inventors of a country that impressively sits below sea-level on reclaimed ocean sand.
But we are neither international students working on a PHD thesis, nor transient expats sent here by a large corporation. We decided to put a twist to our international life that has seen us setting homes in 7 countries on 3 continents, a lifestyle that was largely dictated to us by careers in the humanitarian industry.
We moved to the Netherlands as self-sponsored expatriates, on a mission to dictate this lifestyle on our own terms and to establish some of our roots in a place that only we could decide to call home. Our hearts are set on being a part of a small community, while our eyes reflect the global outlook of folk like us, not defined by culture or nationality, but by a global citizenship identity.
What this means is that we had to critically determine what values we embody as global citizens and whether or not we fit the profile. We had come to the conclusion that any citizenship, in its very basic nature can be restricting if not self-examined. It can dictate everything about a person from birth and can often direct every decision that one makes based on where one is from. It is also often the source of one’s internalized biases about other cultures.
We do not fit inside any of the politically-inspired global borderlines. Being an interracial couple means that we are neither American nor Kenyan, and thus embrace an amalgamated version of both our identities. Our children were born in different countries too, where they cannot claim those specific nationalities, but can associate themselves with the values of their individual birth countries. As they exist as Third Culture Kids (TCK), they are free to trace their cultural identity along the world’s country borders.
We could not call ourselves citizens of any particular country, but we could very easily identify with the citizenship of a shared planet as global citizens.
Once a global citizenship identity was fully accepted, we then strapped our backs with the responsibility that comes with being the custodian of an individual’s chosen ‘home’. But our ‘home’ is not a physical place. It is a virtual culmination of the places that we have been to and the cultures that we have interacted with, something we carry with us inside our hearts. Our values evolve constantly to reflect those that we have adapted to in addition to what we carry with us as a mixed-heritage family.
The biggest responsibility of a global citizen is to find impact in a world that has many unresolved challenges. Every country that we have lived in has had its share of social, political and environmental issues. But our transient existence in these places meant that we could not commit fully to being part of the solutions of local problems. This often left us feeling inept and slightly selfish- we would take what we needed to survive in these homes around the world, but questioned what we really gave back to our hosts.
The challenge of living a sustainable lifestyle that lessens our carbon footprint and showcases our efforts in finding solutions to local and global problems then became our focus. In this piece, I discuss more about how we begun questioning the impact that our chosen lifestyle might be having on the environment. That discussion led to us taking bold steps towards becoming a greener, nomadic home.
We stumbled upon Groningen through friends who were working at the university. They would speak of this little, quaint city set idyllically below the Wadden sea. This UNESCO World Heritage site attracts visitors and researchers to enjoy mud-flat walks to the centre of the ocean. But it wasn’t the sea that was calling. It was the possibility of starting afresh, of finding our spiritual home, where we could begin to reset our hearts and find our impact in a troubled world.
We do not take lightly the discussions on climate change and how that is rapidly jeopardizing the future of our children. We discuss these issues with our own children too, who are largely aware of this global crisis, thanks to environmental activists like Greta Thunberg.
We feel obligated to do something about the state of our own home by taking small measures such as reducing our plastic waste, eating less meat and living a minimalist lifestyle devoid of unnecessary purchases. We hope that these individual choices will inspire those we welcome for supper to think differently about their role too. That as fellow world citizens, we can all show commitment to restoring balance in the way that we coexist with nature.
An encounter with Jane Goodall at an airport also helped cement our desire to be part of the change that is needed. Jane challenged us to take one small step towards helping to save the planet. She did not dictate what that step needed to be and left it entirely up to us to decide the cause that felt most personal.
In order to take that one small step towards change, we needed to start afresh in a place where our values were aligned with our chosen lifestyle. We begun our research with a list of countries around the world that we could live in.
A flashback to a time when we got married would keep recurring. Of when my husband once jokingly said to me, “Someday we will need to live in Europe, in a country that has direct flights to both our home countries”. Every time we would transit through Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, one of us was bound to mention how perfectly situated the Netherlands was, being equidistant in terms of flying time to both Nairobi and to any major airport in the US.
Then something incredible happened. A job offer came up that had the possibility of not only working from home, but of also being based in the Netherlands. We took this as the cosmic sign that we had been anticipating and begun making the practical arrangements of a potential move.
We visited Groningen, Leiden and The Hague to determine where we felt most at home in this tiny country. There was a long list of pros and cons, an excel worksheet with entries comparing the expense of living in any of the cities. We would eventually settle on Groningen after a second visit.
The decision to move to groningen was at first based on finding places for our children at one international school. This was something difficult to achieve in both The Hague and Leiden. We were also drawn to a greener environment. The big city streets devoid of much greenery in The Hague and Leiden were in conflict with the lifestyle that we were subscribing to.
Jane’s words would echo on repeat, reminding us to take one small step, that which we knew we could make towards a realistic change. It would have been so much easier to move to a bigger city filled with other expats. But that would have only replicated the same lifestyle and continued to question our contribution towards the sustainability of our planet. We chose to take the road least taken. Or, at least, a road that would not lead to a ready-made home, or ready-made friends, but one that could challenge us to begin practicing what we were preaching.
We have had to think very consciously about every choice that we make in our life here in Groningen. We have chosen to not buy a car and embrace the biking culture that is what this city is famed for. We have also decided to take time in purchasing a home, and consider having green energy as a top priority when bidding on a home listing.
Size matters too. According to the engineering toolbox, the average person needs about 100-400 square feet of space to feel comfortable in an apartment. If we set our median at 300 (to include potential house guests), it translates to roughly 30 square metres per person in our family of six. It means finding a house with not more than a total of 180 square metres of living space. This figure will also determine our energy intake as well as the measures that we need to take to realistically reduce our carbon footprint.
We are not yet fully at home in Groningen. It is a lot like being in an airport transit, from where we can choose the next flight towards our destination. But we are determined to keep our eyes peeled on the right gate, taking one single step forward- one tiny, tick-able, target, towards becoming environmentally conscious global citizens.