When in Rome

28 November 2013

November for a lot of Americans is the time to reflect on life’s blessings and to take a moment together on the fourth Thursday of the month with friends and family to give thanks. As an American expat living in the Netherlands, I’ve had to readjust my expectations of this beloved, controversial holiday.

Nonetheless, November will always hold a significant moment in our life for a very personal reason. It marks the anniversary date of a very special, once-in-a-lifetime moment where my Dutch husband swept me off my feet. When I first came to the Netherlands,  my husband’s friends were quick to joke that I fell in love with the wrong Dutch guy. For one, he is short (5’10”) in comparison to the stereotypical gigantic Dutch bloke. He has black wavy hair, olive skin tone and dark brown eyes. He also doesn’t abide by the rules of going Dutch – the Dutch etiquette of paying for your own dinner when you go out on date. But they were all utterly wrong – I fell in love with just the right Dutch guy for me.

Rome epics 1photo courtesy of Jennifer Skog, styling by Maria Chang

Four Novembers ago, my ultra-romantic then fiancée decided to plan a romantic surprise for me. This was before the current trend of surprise, epic flash mob proposals going viral on the internet these days. He planned a surprise engagement session in Rome with San Francisco-based photographer Jennifer Skog and stylist Maria Chang.

From what I recall, one November morning, my fiancée told me to pack my bags and told me that he was going to take me away for a romantic getaway. I distinctly remember being excited – after all, I would find any excuse to get away from the depressing cold Dutch winter and I loved exploring more of Europe. En route to the airport, he handed me a present letting me know where we were headed – Lonely Planet’s Rome. He wanted to take me on my very own Roman Holiday. Waiting for us at the airport in Rome was a formal limousine driver holding a sign with my husband’s last name on it. He drove us straight to a hotel literally at the steps of the Pantheon.

Rome epic 2

photo courtesy of Jennifer Skog, styling by Maria Chang

The following evening, after a beautiful day roaming around the Vatican, he told me that we had a very special dinner date. I casually ignored his subtle hints and simply looked forward to the fancy dinner ahead. It was there at the restaurant that he revealed his secret with a his classic mischievous boyish grin, saying only that he flew in two people just for me. I was breathless, thinking that he had flown in my untraveled parents and had expected them to find the restaurant alone.

A couple of moments later, in walked Jennifer and Maria. It was the biggest surprise of my life (pre-baby) and I just couldn’t believe it. Even Jennifer and Maria were perplexed that my fiancée was able to pull it off without me knowing, or having any suspicion at all with what was going on behind the scenes. He literally flew them from San Francisco to Rome to make me feel like a princess for the day. And of course, they also brought along a special outfit for me just for the photoshoot.

(For a glimpse of that magical moment, you can watch the video below.)

ROME COUTURE SHOOT | Rina & Bram from Maria Chang on Vimeo.

What Jennifer Skog and Maria Chang didn’t know when they met me that beautiful November evening was that I was really not at a good place in my life. I was utterly in love with the man of my dreams, but I was drowning in culture shock and suffering from lapses of regret, disillusionment, and anger. I was thrown into the deep end, the kind where I had to be around alleen maar nette mensen. If I were to be completely honest, I was probably also suffering from depression. I was, after all, doing what most self-absorbed twenty something women tended to do – have a delusional myopic, narcissistic perspective rather seeing the bigger picture. For someone too caught up in her own insecurities about living in the Netherlands, it wasn’t too hard to plan something right underneath her nose and catch her in utter surprise.

It takes a lot of bravado to choose love, to follow someone across the world and to take a blind leap of faith that this was the man that God had in mind for you. The rest of the world, especially the status conscious world where I came from, isn’t too forgiving to those who chose a different life. I grew up believing wholeheartedly that I wasn’t a princess and I only had my brains and sheer grit to earn myself a better life. Life, as I was somehow deluded into believing, was supposed to be a straight trajectory to a certain standard of success, where the idea of self-worth was inextricably linked to visible accomplishments.

Rome epic 2photo courtesy of Jennifer Skog, styling by Maria Chang

But…meeting my husband profoundly changed me and I hungered for more than wandering around life wearing paychecks like necklaces and bracelets. I longed to live a more authentic, genuine life with someone who took my breath away and inspires me to be a better person. Wanting and actually being are two different mindsets and it took me a lot longer to fully transition to a liberating paradigm shift of a more authentic self.

We still look fondly at that special November day in Rome. What made it also magical was Jennifer and Maria were just as excited as we were. These talented ladies also share a spark that my husband has – the kind that’s passionate, crazy about life and who wear their hearts on their sleeves. What makes them amazing (aside from  talent and creativity) and stand-out from the crowd is their openness, their unabashed honesty and their willingness to simply love. Their hearts were into making that day special for us and they unknowingly helped me find my inner confidence. While it did take four years for me to finally express my sincerest gratitude to Maria and Jen, I hope that they’re reading this and know how much these two ladies mean to me. If you’re a bride-to-be looking for a photographer and stylist, I would recommend these two in a heartbeat. And yes, they’re worth every penny being flown anywhere you happen to be getting married or proposed to.

Epic 2photo courtesy of Jennifer Skog, styling by Maria Chang

Life is messy and filled with lots of ups, downs and curve-balls.  Somewhere along the way, I really did loose my voice. Or more accurately, I stopped giving myself permission to use my voice. My husband taught me how to really live life, of not being afraid to embrace all of it – the sorrows, disappointments, heartaches, laughter, joy and the love.

Happily ever after consists of the mundane, daily grind of real daily life. It’s about finding a partner in your life that calls you gorgeous even though you feel like a hot mess.  It’s about being able to sleep in almost every morning while he happily spends time with his son, the sacred hour(s) when it’s just him and his boy. It’s about saying yes to his wildly ambitious dreams of success and having the courage to take a backseat to a career to take care of the family. It’s about embracing life in Dutch suburbia, of not letting the social isolation wear me down and accepting that right now, at this moment, this is the place where we need to be. It’s about finding the joy in what ever life has set out for us and finding fulfillment of motherhood and being an entrepreneur’s wife.


rome engagement shoot

photo courtesy of Jennifer Skog, styling by Maria Chang

And sometimes in life, there’s a time when a special someone takes you on a Roman holiday and takes your breath away.

p.s. If you’re interested in seeing more photos from our Rome engagement shoot, you can view them on Jennifer Skog’s website.


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