When we last visited Meghann in Amsterdam, I made her promise to show us around her new home once she moved to Saba. (Quick geography primer: Saba is a Caribbean island and the smallest special municipality of the Netherlands. It consists largely of the potentially active volcano, Mount Scenery, which at 2,910 feet, is the highest point within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. There is no crime, little traffic, and a close-knit local community. It sounds like Heaven, doesn’t it?)
I couldn’t wait to hear all about how they adjusted, get a first-hand peek into what homes look like on the island, and how it feels to live on a volcano! With 2,000 other people! (Are the city dwellers out there choking right now?! Hah!)
I’m so excited to share Meghann with you all again. Welcome, Meghann!
Except for my family — my husband, Koen, and our kids Tipp and Loula — just about everything has changed from my last appearance on Design Mom!
We went from city living in a densely populated, super flat country where there were more bikes than people and where sweaters are worn for more than half the year, to a sparsely populated volcano in the Caribbean particularly known for diving in its underwater world. Everything in life feels pretty new right now.
Even before we got married, we’d always thought we’d move abroad for our jobs for some time. We had travelled a lot, both before we met, together as a couple and also with our kids. In 2012, we even had the opportunity to live abroad for my job for six months. While I was starting to think that maybe I was fine just staying in Amsterdam for the rest of our lives, Koen was starting to get the itch to go. He was also ready for a new professional challenge.
At the time we were seriously starting to outgrow our little apartment, public health positions opened up in the Dutch Caribbean. I specifically mentioned to him at some point about a year ago, “We’ll never go to Saba, not even on holiday, so don’t bother applying there,” due to my fear of flying. But Koen got a call requesting that he apply to the Saba position. After a few days of discussing if I’d dare fly onto the island and what it might be like to live on a five square mile volcano with around 2,000 other people for three years, we decided he should go for it.
Why? Because we figured you don’t get these opportunities all the time. You don’t say no to this kind of thing. You try it, and go home early if it doesn’t work out. At least, that’s how we looked at it.
So, Saba now has a Public Health Department: Koen! Of course public health activities had been taking place on the island already, but there was not yet an actual department to coordinate those activities, to prioritize prevention, and to monitor and evaluate outbreaks, etc.
Koen no longer commutes 90 minutes each way to work. Instead, he has a scenic five-minute drive to drop the kids at school, and then another five minutes to work in The Bottom (which, you guessed it, is at the bottom of the island). It turned out to be kind of a dream job for my husband!
You’d be hard pressed to find something more opposite to Amsterdam than this place! Actually, Saba is different to any place I’ve ever been. It’s not at all what I think most people imagine when they think about Caribbean islands: white sand beaches, palm trees swaying, cocktails at beach shacks…
Saba is literally a volcano shooting out of the Caribbean sea. There is hardly a flat space to be found, save for the airport, which has the shortest commercial landing strip in the world! While we do have a lovely little beach with a nice playground and public restrooms, it is man-made. The only natural beach on the island only shows itself a few months out of the year, and this has not yet happened since I’ve been here.
The island, with its many eco-zones, is very green and speckled with white houses with green shutters and red roofs. I hear that Saba is even more beautiful underwater, but I’ve not yet had the chance – or dared! – to go diving to explore yet. As small as it is, I can be down at the beach on a hot day, watching a grey cloud come and engulf the upper part of the island, where it may be windy and raining. While the island has been inhabited off and on since around 1175 BC, and the first European settlers have been here since around 1640, the landscape is so mountainous and steep that engineers said it was not possible to build a road to connect the four villages. So up until the late 1950s, there was no road to connect the villages and everything had to be transported by foot and donkey. The first airplane arrived soon after.
Life is generally more relaxed here, mainly because of how small it is. Things move slowly, for better or for worse. Sabans are known for their friendliness. With only around 2,000 inhabitants, people’s faces quickly become familiar and crime is nearly nonexistent. You wave at everybody you pass in the car. We seem to have gotten used to this really quickly: when we were in St. Maarten for a bit of off-island time, we instinctively waved at everyone we passed! I won’t get into how completely different these islands are from each other, but it’s safe to say it’s not habit to wave there.
Up until now, there has apparently not been a need for addresses. I recently received a letter saying that everybody will receive an official address this year and street names will start going up. But, for the locals, I live in “Melanie’s house (or sometimes it’s called Benny’s house) up above Swinging Doors.”
Although the houses do have indoor plumbing, we do not have a public water system. All houses therefore have a cistern to collect rainwater, and our sewage goes into a sceptic tank. This means that water shortages are part of life, and it’s important to quickly get used to short showers where you only turn on the water to get wet and to rinse off. We’re in a drought this year, so we’ve had to purchase desalinated water a couple of times, which is brought on a truck with a huge tank in the bed and is pumped into the cistern. We now get excited to drink water from the faucet and take full five-minute showers when we’re off island. Party!
Being an island, everything has to be imported, making groceries super expensive. Wednesday – the day the main cargo ship arrives – is the busiest day of the week in the commercial center of Windwardside, and an important day for stocking up at the supermarket. If you can’t find something on Wednesday afternoon, it probably won’t be there for at least another week.
All in all, I think we’ve done a pretty good job acclimating. But, I must admit that it’s been quite a bit harder on me than I ever imagined. The nearly constant sea view and permanent warm weather are huge perks! But I also very dearly miss the life of the city, the multitude options of where to go (or to go nowhere at all), things to do and see, anonymity and, of course, my bike.
My husband has had an incredibly easy time! We moved here for his career. He works full time and he’s got a fabulous opportunity and challenge, so it makes sense that he’s not had any trouble adjusting. My daughter, Loula, is now five and has also had a pretty easy time adjusting. She seems to have perspective beyond her years. She also had only been in school for half a year before we moved and so had not yet built a real group of friends.
My son, Tipp, and I, on the other hand, have had a much more difficult time adjusting. I think that we’re both more sentimental in general. But we also both had stronger attachments to Amsterdam before we left. Although he’s only six years old, he already had a real steady group of friends in our neighborhood. And their moms had become my friends. You get the point.
The method of teaching is far more traditional here, and school finishes a couple hours earlier than in the Netherlands. My role has therefore become far more that of a stay-at-home mom who happens to have a small business rather than the other way around. I feel like I’m constantly being pulled different ways. While this often feels busy and unpleasant, I am thankful that I’ve been able to be there for my kids when they get home from school, particularly on the days that they’ve been homesick and need some extra hugs and a shoulder to cry on.
Luckily, we have met some really good people here and made some friends. We’ve created a set beach-day with a friend and her kids who are the same age as mine, which is something I look forward to every week. If I’m ever feeling down, those afternoons at the beach – snorkeling, watching the kids play in the water or dig in the sand – always perk me up.
My first friend followed my son’s school bus home one afternoon. No joke! Her son and my son are in the same class and wanted to play. She didn’t have my phone number, so she just followed the school bus home and knocked on the door. Ha!
I think it’s also been important for us to simply allow ourselves to miss our old home in Amsterdam. Yes, Saba is full of amazing beauty! But so is Amsterdam. I’ve kind of decided that it’s okay to grieve the loss of my beloved city, and that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the opportunity to live here.
What I absolutely love about this home is that we have a yard! And fruit! Our yard fully encircles our house. The kids have so much fun playing outside with their friends. We often have six to eight children running around, inside and outside of the house, over the cistern, along the cement wall. The best pineapple I’ve ever had came from my front yard, we’ve got a million bananas, and tons of mangos just waiting to be ripe enough for us to devour them. We’ve also got a few different herbs growing along one side of our house, as well as some beautiful flowers.
I love the vaulted ceilings throughout the majority of our home. My very favourite room in our house is our bedroom, with my workspace coming in at a close second. Our room is such a sanctuary of light and rest. There is nothing fancy to it. Just simple peace.
We will be able to stay in this home for the full three years of my husbands’ contract. It’s refreshing to know that you can stay put or change homes based on what suits us. I do sometimes catch myself thinking, “Do I really live here?” It’s light years away from anywhere I ever thought I’d live. But daily life definitely keeps me in check.
The most important things we brought with us are probably the items that hang on our walls, like paintings and special photos. I spent a good three or four days cleaning, unpacking, and arranging when we moved into this house. The kids were so excited when they saw all our photos and art hanging on our wall again! Funnily enough, they were also thrilled to see some super simple things, like mundane water glasses. “Look, mom! Our glasses are here! And our bowls! Wow!” Having their toys again, after about two months of only a backpack full of toys, was also quite a thrill.
These same things really helped me to feel at home as well. In addition to, of course, all of the furniture in my workspace. That’s the only room that we furnished completely ourselves. We knew that homes are rented furnished in Saba, so we didn’t bring everything. But we did still bring enough to make sure that the essence of our home in Amsterdam would shine through here. So if you’re thinking you’ve seen this home before, great! That’s exactly what we’re going for!
We made sure to move here on a weekend so that the kids would go to school soon after we arrived. We didn’t want to be here too long and have the excitement build up so much before starting school. So we arrived on a Saturday, Monday happened to be a day off, and they started school, uniforms and all, on Tuesday. Luckily school went well from day one! The homesickness only started after a week or two.
On such a small island, word gets around quickly that there are new people in town. And at the same time, because we have four villages, it feels bigger than it is and there are plenty of people I’ve not yet seen or met.
Living on Saba has hugely improved my children’s English. While I have always spoken English to my children, they have always responded in Dutch. Oddly, they continue to speak to me in Dutch, but the local language is English. From listening to the kids speak with Shirley, our kitten, it seems she speaks English, too.
The population is also really diverse and mixed here. My children are no longer part of the majority race in their classroom. We have talked about and exposed our children to different cultures, races, and religious beliefs, and their school in Amsterdam was pretty mixed, so it’s not actually something they notice themselves, and I don’t have a specific lesson I hope they learn from that. But I do think it’s a good thing to not always be in the majority.
Resource-wise, the importance and scarcity of water is something they feel and live with every day. We have talked about this a lot in the past, mainly because of the area of work I was in (international development), but they’ve never had to worry about whether the water might literally dry up. Here, we do. Which is crazy for a child, particularly when they see that they are surrounded by water! But they’re doing a really good job of conserving.
While we miss our bikes, the parks and museums, and everything Amsterdam had to offer, there is also a plus-side to having very little external entertainment possibilities. There is more time for general discovery, gardening, hiking, fishing, trying out new recipes together, or hanging out at the beach, without feeling like you’re missing out on anything.
All in all, I hope this change helps my children to understand that discomfort can be a good thing, that we learn when we remove ourselves from our comfort zone. That’s not to say that we should never become comfortable, or that we should seek out discomfort, but that it’s not inherently bad and it can help us to become more confident in ourselves
Creating a new work structure has been a real challenge. Accepting that has also been a challenge! It strikes me as so odd that a new balance is so hard to find when the daily motions really are quite the same: get up, eat breakfast, shower, do the morning routine, kids to school, husband gone, sit down and work. Should be simple. But it just isn’t for me.
It’s taken some work for me to allow that of myself. I think I finally have. So while my business is doing really well on the one hand, I’ve definitely not been able to grow it in the way I think I could have had we not moved. And now we’re into summer holiday, which means that time to work is at an all time low.
However, there are new possibilities that are starting to show up that would probably not have been available to me in Amsterdam. In Amsterdam I was a small fish in a big pond. Here on Saba, it’s less likely to be lost in the masses. I’m starting to toy with the idea of working in a space outside of my home, perhaps one that could act as a bit of a shop. I feel like this would be a good place to test those waters.
I do think that a whole year to fully transition is probably what it will take. Now that I write that, I realize that we actually discussed that before we came. My lack of patience crept up on me and made me believe that I had to have everything completely under control. Happily, I’ve started to remember again that everything will never be completely under control; the chaos must simply be well managed.
The one thing that has surprised me most about myself and my family during this massive change is that we actually live here! That this is our life. In good moments and bad, I find it absolutely wild that I live here.
Also…what a team we are! I know it sounds super corny, but together we are strong and can support each other through difficult moments. This was not a surprise to me, but confirmation of what I already believed. There have been many moments filled with tears and missing friends and family, but we do all realize, particularly in our moments of doubt, that wherever we are together is home.
It was so lovely to hear from you, Meghann! I know you’re right: moves help us realize that wherever we are together is home sweet home. Also, the way you’ve described the island makes me and probably a few other readers want to visit, so maybe you’ll have more friends to someday add to that 2,000 population!
For those of you who’ve made a drastic move to a location completely opposite to your usual living setting, did this interview bring back some memories? Whether you went city to country, heavily-populated to just a few, I’d sure love to hear your stories!
P.S. – Are you living with your own kids in a unique way? Are you interested in sharing your home and experiences with us? Let me know! We love to be inspired! And it’s a lot of fun…I promise! Take a peek at all the homes in my Living With Kids series here.