By Wakanyi Hoffman
On a cold day in December, we drove from the Netherlands to Austria. We had left the house at 6.30 am with the children still in their pajamas. The plan was to be in our rental cottage before dusk. So I packed thin, Dutch-style pancakes and a jar of strawberry jam, which would be easy to eat in the car.
It wasn’t long before strips of daylight begun peeking through the dark skies above us, signaling breakfast-time. But before I could witness the full colourful display of a rarely seen sunrise, the pancakes vanished, leaving only a trace of sticky red syrup dripping in between my fingers.
The children were playing a game of ‘spot my name’- this involves counting the number of times the first letter of their names appear on a license plate. Whenever a Dutch license plate was spotted, there would be an excited squeal, made simultaneously by all four children.
The familiarity of those NL plates brought a comfortable warmth in between us. It spread out evenly, like the surround system that amplified the Pentatonix Christmas playlist.
As the children’s excited chatter faded into the background, I adjusted my seat a few inches backwards and uncurled my toes to fit snugly beside a wicker basket. It was packed with mandarins, grapes and apples, which would later need to be replenished halfway through the long road trip. I closed my eyes, hoping to take a small nap.
But a few seconds later, a small finger poked my shoulder, beckoning me to turn sideways. “Mommy, look at that mountain!” To the 5 year old, who by now was accustomed to the monotonous, flat landscape in the Netherlands, it was a mountain. He was as sure about that as he was about accurately identifying letter ‘A’ for Austria.
It may not have been Mt. Kenya, or Mt. Kilimanjaro, both of which our little boy who, having spent 4 years in Kenya, could also accurately identify on a map of Africa. But it was a gently, sloping hill that sat above a little postcard German village.
At this point, the playlist had switched to Bing Cosby, belting out ‘Its beginning to look a lot like Christmas’. He was the curtain-raiser for an epiphany that I was about to experience, which happened shortly afterwards, when I overheard my oldest daughter translating German road signs into Dutch.
I realized then, that the Netherlands is finally beginning to feel a lot like home.
Crossing country borders
Joining a fleet of other Dutch-plated vans with families in search of snow and slopes, we were crossing country borders in a too-small 7-seater. It had taken the precision of a practicing Kon-Mari folding apprentice, to pack our ski gear in the crack between the back bench and the door.
Squeezed into the remaining small spaces between the bags, a sudden vibration shifted our vehicle slightly off-road. It was the powerful engine of a German-plated Lamborghini zooming past at a terrific speed along the autobahn.
My husband remarked, “We look really Dutch here on the far right lane.” I knew that he secretly wished to test the limits of our Peugeot, and maybe he did, when I finally got to take a nap.
A few hours later, the landscape begun changing again. As I passed around ham and cheese sandwiches for lunch, I noticed how the mountains had begun revealing shiny specs of snow that glistened in between tall, evergreen pine trees.
The evening sunset descended beyond the snow-capped mountains, marking our arrival on the Austrian Alps. As fully-fledged Dutch residents, we had just enjoyed one of the key benefits of our new status- the freedom of driving through the EU without needing different visa stamps on our passports.
Traveling through foreign lands
Much like the biblical magi, who are said to have traveled through foreign lands in search of a particular manger, we were also determined to find our rusty rental cottage. But by 4.00 pm, dark clouds had begun descending upon us. We struggled to keep our eyes peeled on the dimly-lit roads, looking out for Zillertal, the sign that would direct us to Stumm, a little village on a valley below the Alps.
I imagined how the magi must’ve kept trudging along a treacherous path through frozen mountain ranges, relying only on their impeccable astrological powers and a bright star on the horizon. It was warm inside the car and I appreciated our trusty GPS, which could accurately lead us to the cottage.
The kindness of strangers
However, we arrived an hour later than scheduled, having made one wrong turn up a steep hill. We found our host standing on the icy car park holding out a bottle of homemade schnapps for the parents, and a berry juice syrup for the children.
In her smiling eyes was a familiar kindness of strangers. She gathered the children into the warm house, while we brought in the luggage. Inside was a freshly trimmed Christmas tree in the middle of the kitchen, a request that had been emailed the day before our trip.
She had painstakingly strung tiny fairy lights that sparkled daintily in between the delicate branches, and hung straw handmade ornaments, which smelled of freshly packed hay.
Having fulfilled one Christmas wish, she would hop unsteadily over language and cultural barriers, to extend us an invitation on her dining table, inside the farm house that she shared with her husband and children.
Taking in the bare details of our lifestyle
Before going to bed, I looked around the cottage, taking in the details of our lives. The naturally-stained and bare wooden walls, the sparsely furnished spaces and the simplicity of the décor was representative of our version of a minimalist, nomadic home.
I sat at the kitchen bench with my feet tucked under a woolen blanket, its red and black tartan pattern similar to the Maasai shawl that I had packed for the car ride.
A collage of vivid memories of the four years that we had spent living next to a wildlife sanctuary in Kenya, appeared in full colour.
The end of our expat lifestyle
It had only been five months ago when a 40-foot container had arrived at our home, signaling the end of our expat lifestyle.
Within hours, the shippers would skillfully dismantle our household and pack our down-scaled belongings into labeled cardboard boxes. They fit compactly in half of the truck, which was a lot less than what we had originally arrived with from Thailand, four years prior.
In the days that followed, we would give up the privilege of witnessing a glorious African sunrise over the Nairobi National Park, which beckoned the start of each morning through our bedroom windows. Or the resident warthogs that greeted us along the driveway and a family of tree hyraxes that signaled bedtime with their nocturnal high-pitched call every night.
We would need to find new homes for the menagerie of farm animals that frolicked the 3-acre wilderness, in which stood our rustic A-framed house that overlooked Karen Blixen’s famed Ngong Hills.
All 17 chickens, 2 cats, 2 rabbits, a dog, and a small tortoise that we had rescued days before our departure, had become essential members of our family.
We would also be walking away from a handful of deep friendships and a close-knit community, a village that had helped to raise our children. Weekend family barbecues and children’s birthday parties had all become colorfully pin-tucked onto the kitchen board to mark our day-to-day activities.
When family members escorted us to the airport for a final goodbye, the children had all bravely concealed their tears, preoccupied with our rescue dog. He too would have to say goodbye to the only life that he had known, and travel for 7 hours nonstop from Nairobi to Schiphol, in a cage inside the aircraft’s underbelly.
We would arrive in the Netherlands on a sunny July morning, just in time for Noorderzon, Groningen’s famous summer festival.
A tribe of global nomads
There is a term spared for this extraordinary phenomenon by expats around the world. It is known as the ‘Summer Exodus‘. It occurs at the end of the last school term when most expatriate families relocate to new postings, or repatriate back to their home countries.
We have experienced both- the familiarity of being new expats and the uncertainties of going back home as repats. But this move signaled a whole new path.
To the Dutch government, we were labeled as ‘highly skilled migrants’. But I felt strongly that this new profile excluded major aspects of our perpetual nomadic lifestyle.
Somewhere across the ocean on that night flight, I battled with a list of descriptions to find a less ambiguous way of defining our mission. By the time we exited the aircraft, I had pledged my multicultural clan allegiance, to a tribe of global nomads.
The ability to embrace difference
Looking back, we have always been nomads. We do not have a permanent address and our tribe includes different folk scattered in countries all around the world.
This global village does not require its citizens to present a specific passport or to speak a common language. It also does not discriminate against age, colour, gender identification, or social, intellectual and financial mobility.
But the ability to embrace difference is the invisible code, written underneath the varied skin tones of its global citizens. This requires an intentional desire to read your world by challenging individualized norms and values and the source of any internalized biases.
This mysterious, symbiotic nature of our coexistence with difference is better clarified in a quote by John Hume when he says that,
‘All conflict is about difference, whether the difference is race, religion or nationality. Difference is an accident of birth and it should therefore never be the source of hatred or conflict. The answer to difference is to respect it. Therein lies a most fundamental principle of peace- Respect for diversity’.
Like tulips in a flower pot
I finally opened up the discussion with our children about why we are global nomads and not migrants, immigrants or expats. I said, “We are explorers of a world filled with beautiful discoveries.” Pointing to a flower vase by the window, our 8 year old daughter said, “Like those tulips in the flower pot!”
She is right about that. The world is a gigantic vessel filled with beautiful experiences- in language, in food, in cultural traditions, in song, in art, in technology and in all the stories that we tell.
As self-proclaimed global nomads, we like to expand our experiences by exploring new geographical landscapes that remind us of just how much bigger our global home really is. And even more humbling is the discovery of just how small we are as its inhabitants.
So far, our journey has revealed self-evident proof that no matter where in the world one was born, the human experience is tied to a common goal. We are all members of a rare species with the peculiar habit of continual self-improvement and adaptation, in the audacious hope of improving our survival rate on this planet.
Who we are as global nomads
On our last night in the cottage in Austria, I sat on the balcony overlooking a lit-up ski slope. It was my first time to see a night skier. I turned to my husband and asked, “Can you really ski at night?” He replied, “That’s how I learnt to ski.”
I could picture him as a fearless, young boy, whizzing down a slippery and icy Appalachian hill in the darkness. “Were you scared?” I asked. He couldn’t remember. But his blue eyes dazzled with vivid memories detailing the joy of gliding down without experiencing a major fall, all the way to the bottom, where his friends waited to trade their own versions of the same story.
This is who we are as global nomads. We trade versions of the same human adventure stories with those whose paths we cross. Some of these stories can sound frightening, like uprooting our four children’s lives out of 7 countries so far.
But as citizens of a culturally-diverse and global world, we relentlessly reject the toxic fear of ‘the other’ by accepting, and adapting to different ways of living at peace with everyone.