A few weeks before I flew back to the Netherlands, I was already not feeling very well. I was overworked, stressed, and a bit directionless after the publication of my new book, Deze autist ging naar Japan. I had just hired Olga, mostly because that would look good; a business manager who doesn’t manage anyone, of course the Japanese immigration bureau thinks that’s odd. Olga does marketing for my books about one day a week. She lives in Japan and speaks English, German, Russian and Japanese. In short; the ideal employee. While I am very happy with what Olga does (at first I thought this endeavor was only going to cost me money, but it looks like her work is actually going to bring in some sales), hiring and managing her was yet another extra scoop on top of my already full plate.
At the time, I was busy with the English translation of Deze autist (which was also delayed, aargh!), various websites, my recently resumed photography work, and on top of that, all sorts of bureaucratic red tape that never seems to end in Japan. I had just extended my visa for another year, but I immediately began to worry about the next extension; I don’t think I’m going to make a profit this fiscal year, and of course the Japanese government wants to see that. I made excel sheets and concluded that my money was flying out in buckets. Accountants, lawyers, consultants… That’s because I can’t do anything myself in Japan. Or well, almost nothing. And when I can, it takes a lot of extra effort. I take lessons every week in the community center, but my Japanese is not yet of the caliber of reading contracts and canceling subscriptions. I had just painstakingly moved two of my websites to a Japanese host, and that already almost involved flying desks and cups of tea. (My online friend Ivy C Draws recently sent me a longsleeve with her iconic desk flip illustration, and that was really my signature look those weeks.)
What am I doing here?
“What am I even doing here?”, I cried to François, and later via FaceTime to Riemer. I was looking for a new direction, something to focus on, something to be happy about. But I also wanted to rest, to do nothing for a while. And that wasn’t possible. Because my business had to become more successful and to achieve that I had to sell twice as many books. So I had to blog, Instagram, create content. I had to do this, I had to do that. And in the meantime, nothing made me happy at all.
“But Japan used to make me happy,” I grumbled. Before I moved there, I’d go to my Sakura house with a laptop full of shoots to edit, or an assignment for a website. I’d work in the morning and go do something fun in the afternoon. Sometimes I watched documentaries in my room all day, and usually there were friends in the country I went out with. And if not, I would go out on my own. But perhaps more importantly, my trips to Japan were always like resets. It is no coincidence that I built several new websites for myself there. I once threw out my entire Instagram feed there, to start with a clean slate. I put the new Toeps Blog logo there on the website that was then still called Fashionmilk. I made plans and planted new seeds there.
Fast forward to 2023 and the immigration office lives rent-free in the back of my mind. And when I’m not getting employment contracts drawn up or my interim tax returns filled out, I’m fixing things for my home or office. Anything I want to do work-wise takes extra effort, and with wistfulness I look back to the days when I could just shout something on Twitter and I had sold another four photo shoots. (Am I looking back on that too rosy now? Uhm, yes.)
I regularly felt lonely in my self-purchased little office, and tried to solve that by being with François. I hoped to be able to work better there, and although I did at times, his apartment bothered me greatly. It’s quite a mess there, so to speak. Part of the problem is that there are still an awful lot of his ex’s things there, which she only takes with her very sparsely; because moving vans are expensive, and because she’s going to be moving somewhere else in a few months anyway, which also makes it a bit of a futile endeavor to take everything with her now. In addition, she is still often in his house, watching the cats, or just taking advantage of the facilities. While most people wouldn’t be okay with that, that part doesn’t bother me at all. But the purses, letters, tubes of cream, books, pens, clothes and know-what else of hers lying around make me uneasy.
It’s a little too easy to blame her for everything, because François is just as bad. It’s as if, with the breakup of their relationship, the two also let their home deteriorate – the dysfunction is visible and palpable. “I’m also just busy”, François says, and that’s true. He works full-time, and when he’s not working, he’s out and about, often with me. When he has a rare Sunday to himself, he doesn’t want to do anything at all – and I understand that.
Yet it bothered me. Because I would like to be there, but not like this. Not in a house where I can hardly move, where I get over-stimulated, not only by François’ cute ramblings, but also by the millions of visual stimuli from all the stuff around me. Cleaning things up myself was difficult – I didn’t know where things belonged, and each item had a detailed explanation: “No those cans can’t go in that bin, because the cats open them. No those envelopes can’t go, I want to reuse them. No this computer belongs to my cousin, who has had to come and pick it up for two years.” I soon felt the urge to never ask about anything ever again. Could it have gone the same way with his ex?, I wondered anxiously.
“I have an idea!”, I said, “I have this book by Marie Kondo in the Netherlands, you should read it!” François looked slightly doubtful, but agreed. I could picture it all: He was going to read that book, we were going to KonMari that house together and then I would finally be able to sit there relaxed. Yesterday I grabbed the book from Riemers bookcase, where it had been all along. I basically knew the theory by heart, but I decided to read it again anyway, to see what François would see. And so I read that bit about others. About how those who are so concerned about the messes of others probably have some work to do themselves. Ouch, that was spot on.
Because what the hell was I doing? I wanted to clear out François’ house because I didn’t want to be in my own. Because I wanted peace and quiet. And focus. Because I was always stressing, and he was going to be the comprehensive solution to all of that. Now François is good at calming me down, sure. But this is not up to him. If he’s going to clean up his house, I’m happy to help with that, but we’ll do it for him. Not for me. I have to organize my own life.
I have been in Holland for two days now and I feel the clouds clearing in my head. Last time, when I was here for my book launch, I had that too. I had a nice schedule, I saw friends, I had my hotel getaways and a breath of air. Now does that mean I better come back? That Japan just isn’t it for me, and that I feel more comfortable in the Netherlands after all? I was talking to Riemer about it yesterday, over lunch. Riemer has known me for almost nine years now, so he also knows how it used to be exactly the other way around. How my head cleared up in Japan, and how I was also feeling lonely in the Netherlands, because there weren’t so many visitors coming to my little room in The Hague either. I do realize that when I am in the Netherlands now, I am a kind of rare Pokémon that everyone wants to see.
Riemer suggested that by moving to Japan, I had turned the situation around. Where I used to stress in the Netherlands about daily worries, money, loneliness and idiots on the Internet, I now do that in Japan. And when I come to the Netherlands now, it’s often with a plan, an end date and plenty of room to think. Like climbing a high tower and looking down at myself.
I haven’t quite figured it out yet. What I want. What I’m doing. But I’m surely going back to Japan next month, hopefully with new insights, more energy, and the idea that I don’t have to know everything yet either. Marie Kondo already inspired me this morning to throw a few apps off my phone (Threads for example, because I came to the conclusion that I’m not at all interested in hot political takes from 500 people whose baby pictures I used to look at on Instagram), and to approach things with Olga a little differently (by giving her more freedom in her work). I’m just going to enjoy seeing everyone here in the Netherlands, have nice conversations, be inspired, and then with all that baggage I’ll return home later. And that home, that’s Japan. For now.