Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Happy New Year

I would like to wish you all a fabulous time seeing in the New Year, and wish you all the very best for a healthy and happy 2014. And remember…..

Friday, 27 December 2013

Top Three Posts of 2013: Highly Sensitive Children & Introverts

2013: A year of reaching out and being amazed
by the response
Photo Credit: Sanja Gjenero
As the year draws to a close it's always nice to reflect and think about the last twelve months before moving on to the next year ahead. And so it is too with blogging. It's a great idea to take a peek at the stats and see what has worked, what has pulled people in to the blog…. and for this blog there's a clear and definite popular trend - highly sensitive children and the theme of being an introvert.

  1. Parenting a Highly Sensitive Child
  2. Being Introvert, Being Me
  3. Understanding Highly Sensitive Children

2013 is the year that I started writing about the idea of highly sensitive children (HSC), mainly because it has been a difficult year for our family with regard to schooling for my eldest son, because he is a HSC. I started talking about it, and people started responding in their droves on Twitter, Facebook and on this blog. It was a huge relief to know we weren't the crazy ones, and that we are certainly not alone. It has been an eye opening year, with the creation of a Facebook group for parents of HSC which has been an amazing support during the last few months, not only for me, but for other parents too who find themselves having to make difficult decisions with little support from family and schools - because there is so little understanding for what being highly sensitive actually means. I have also collated HS links and made a page on this blog - that will also be expanded a great deal next year.

Time has been short the last few months, but it's something I will write lots more about  in 2014, to share my own experiences with other parents who are going through the same situation.

As a very short summary, we changed primary schools in September and it was the best decision we could have made. The change has been life changing for us all. My son has found his place, his teachers could not be more understanding and because of that he's a happy little boy again. He does of course have his overload moments still, but don't we all? However, life is very different today than it was a year ago!

A big heartfelt thank you to all of you who have reached out this year, not just on this topic but on all the posts that have been written this year!!

Monday, 23 December 2013

Mysteries of the Netherlands

Why oh why does icing sugar only come in small pots in the Netherlands, pots that I associate with sprinkling on pancakes? Why doesn't the texture match that of the big bags of icing sugar you can buy in England? Seriously, what is that about? The Dutch like to bake, in fact their sweet delicacies line bakeries across the land. So why is there such a lack of baking products in the supermarkets?

Photo Credit: Michal Zacharzewski
Like bicarbonate of soda. Expat forums are alight with questions about where you can buy bicarbonate of soda. Answers usually involve the cleaning section of specific supermarkets, eco shops or expat shops. Why? Why do I have to stock up on this in England in order to make gingerbread when I am back in the Netherlands? What do the Dutch use instead?

And why is lamb so rare and expensive here in the Netherlands but when you go to an English supermarket much of the lamb is imported from…wait for it….. yes, the Netherlands. Same with bacon. And parsnips. I have to scour the country at Christmas time for parsnips yet when I'm in the vegetable section in Tesco in Cornwall the parsnips there are imported from the land of the Dutch. What the hell is that about?

And don't get me started about garam masala.

And why can you only buy oven gloves in sets of one here. I have two hands. In England oven gloves come sewn together to cover both hands. One of my hands is not made of asbestos. Obviously the answer is buy two… but why don't they come as a package deal? What am I missing?

I'm not complaining…. I'm just wondering. Honest…….

What other absent items mystify you about the Netherlands?

Friday, 20 December 2013

Making December Memories

During December our family does a daily advent activity. This year we made envelopes from scratch and then decorated them with all things Christmassy and I added a chocolate coin and a card with a fun activity to do on it. 

Every day the children take it in turns to open an envelope. Every day we do something to connect as a family. This evening is Christmas movie night with special treats to eat. On Christmas Eve there will be a box for the boys to unwrap filled with things to keep us busy that evening - a DVD, new pjs and hot chocolate and popcorn. 

We've been to a Christmas market, walked the streets with homemade lamps, donated food for special Christmas packages to help less fortunate families, coloured Christmas pictures in, made a special gift for opa, decorated the Christmas tree. A Christmas family tradition in the making, and lots of memories to cherish when the kids are all grown up. 

We included the Dutch Pakjesavond celebration in the advent activities

One night we sat out in the garden, with the burner going, sipping Gluhwein
(us, not the kids) and eating Christmas biscuits
One night was Christmas story night - the room lit only by candlelight
We decorated the Christmas tree, and made lamps for a night time walk
Do you have a special way of counting down to Christmas? How do you celebrate this wonderful month with your children?

*I regularly share photos and updates on the Expat Life with a Double Buggy Facebook page so if you are on Facebook pop over and like the page and stop by and say hi!*

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Smitten by Britain: Guest Posts about British Culture

Christmas, British style over on
Smitten by Britain
No matter how long I live in the Netherlands I will always be a Brit. By that I don't mean the obvious fact that I remain a British passport holder, or that my birth country obviously doesn't change. I mean that culturally I'll always be British. It's ingrained. The core of me is British and moving overseas doesn't change that. I can speak Dutch day in, day out but I'm British. I could even surrender my British nationality for a Dutch one but the reality would be that I would still be more British than I am Dutch.

I had decades of indoctrination before I moved to the Netherlands. So whilst I won't scream and shout about it (I am British after all) I am delighted to be able to write monthly for Smitten by Britain and share posts about British culture, as I see it now as an expat.

My latest post is about Christmas (what else at this stage in December?) and the relationship that the British have with the television during the festive period. It wasn't until I moved to the Netherlands that I realised Christmas specials and spending Christmas in front of the TV with a glass (or bottle) of alcohol in hand wasn't a worldwide thing. It's truly British. Head over to Smitten by Britain to find out why.

And if you missed last month's offering I explained why rain is so very British. In October I talked about being British in a lift…. it's harder than you could imagine as a non-Brit.

Friday, 13 December 2013

It's Starting to Look a Lot Like Christmas at Keukenhof Castle

On Wednesday,  we took a trip to Keukenhof Castle for the annual Christmas Fair held there. The kerstmarkt is a treat for the ears because aside from Christmas music playing over the speakers, there are choirs performing at intervals. There's also something special for the nose with the delicious scent of Gluhwein and artisanal bread wafting around and for those still needing Christmas gift purchases there are various stalls selling jewellery, decorations and ornaments, clothes and bags as well as food.

We were drawn in by a stall selling cheese, bread and wine - all in one little tent. The boys had a field day sampling different cheeses and various types of bread (a heartfelt apology to the owner who would have had to fill up almost every bowl once my sons had left; the image of locusts springs to mind) - and they were more than happy later to help devour the loaves and cheese we chose to take home. Tip of the day - try the Toscanse bread - heavenly!

For the kids the 'Coca Cola Santa' is on site with a large truck, there's a merry go round, a few animals (including the tallest goat I have ever seen, presumably Dutch) and music especially for the children at certain times. And of course no Dutch Christmas fair would be complete without a skating rink, and all three boys took the opportunity to do a few rounds on the ice, with varying degrees of success. With many laughs and bruised bottoms to show for their efforts we called it a day and headed back to the car, guided back by the beautifully lit trees.

The kerstmarkt continues over the weekend (until 22.00 tonight and tomorrow) so if you are starting to get into the Christmas spirit Lisse is a good place to head to - Gluhwein, christmas carols, twinkling lights and ice skating - what more do you need to get Christmas going? I'll leave you with a few images…

The big man himself is there, with the big truck.

The Dutch on ice - as natural as cycling
As dusk falls, it's time for the lights to take centre stage

Beautiful lights create an amazing atmosphere once the sun sets

Monday, 9 December 2013

Breaking the Dutch Birthday Circle

Birthdays are best with no circles in sight
(c) Amanda van Mulligen
Growing up in England my birthday celebrations evolved from children's parties at home with traditional party games like pass the parcel, musical chairs, pin the tail on the donkey and musical statues. As I got older I remember birthday parties turning into birthday treats. I went with a few friends to a musical in a London theatre (James and the Giant Peach is one such memory) or the cinema. As my teenage years went by such trips turned into two separate celebrations - a family dinner and drinks with friends. Combining the two worlds during a birthday was never on the cards. Until I came to the Netherlands.

My initiation into the Dutch birthday circle happened soon after moving to the Netherlands in 2000. I barely spoke Dutch. I knew none of the guests. I had no prior warning of a Dutch birthday celebration. I was unprepared. Clueless. I was a Dutch birthday circle virgin. I was naive. Easy pickings. Like a lamb to the slaughter.

Guests arrived and everyone started kissing and congratulating me. It wasn't my birthday. I was startled. Why were all these strangers kissing me? Did they think they here to celebrate my birthday? My partner whispered,

"It's normal. It's because you're related to the birthday host so you get a congratulations too."

Although not strictly blood related I was apparently in the firing line by default because of my partner's direct bloodline. Unavoidably then I was to be kissed on the cheek three times by every single guest that came through the door.

In a state of utter confusion I was ushered to a chair. It was a chair in a circle in the living room. The living room normally looked like a regular living room. A sofa or two, a table, a TV and a fireplace. In honour of the birthday celebration the living room had been transformed into what I know now to be lovingly known by expats as the circle of death. This is a special birthday arrangement whereby all chairs in the house (as well as chairs borrowed from the neighbours, friends and family) are placed in a tight circle. The phrase 'packed like sardines' actually originated after a wordsmith's attendance at a Dutch birthday circle. The idea is that once you are seated you do not move. Not one inch for the entire afternoon/evening/night.

That means late arrivals clambered over the circle to get to me to give me the obligatory congratulatory kisses that I neither understood nor wanted. And there was no escape from the birthday circle. Extraction from the circle was impossible. I could picture how it felt to be a small child thrown in a swimming pool without armbands. Terrifying. Suffocating. Bewildering.

And then everyone started talking to each other. Across the circle. Without moving from their seat, ignoring their unknown neighbour to talk to the familiar person on the other side of the large circle. Everyone talking through each other, loudly.  In a language I had little comprehension of. And then, just as I thought I couldn't possibly have any more fun than I was already having, people started shouting at me from the other side of the circle. In Dutch. Loudly. I had never before prayed so hard for a Star Trek type transporter to suddenly appear and take me back to my own world. A world where birthdays are not celebrated in circles at home.

Protecting my sons from the dreaded circle with themed
birthday parties and little people only as guests
(c) Amanda van Mulligen
Needless to say these days I do everything I can to avoid the birthday circle ever making an appearance in our house. I don't want to subject my children to the same ordeal I went through, causing trauma that may fade but never completely disappear. But it's hard. There is something in the Dutch genes that compels them to move chairs into circles when they come together in a group. It is a force so powerful it can only be overcome by hiding chairs entirely. It's extreme but it's the only thing I can do to help my sons grow up in a world free of Dutch birthday circles.

*This post was written for and published by Multicultural Kid Blogs in honour of the one year anniversary.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

A Guide to Pakjesavond in the Netherlands (aka 5 December)

Today is pakjesavond in the Netherlands which is the evening that St Nicholas' birthday is celebrated. It literally means parcel or present evening. What it means in reality is an evening of gezelligheid. It's an evening when friends and family get together, eat together, exchange gifts and play games together.

Pakjesavond with young children in the house is very different to a pakjesavond with older children or adults around. With a six, three and two year old in house I'll share what our pakjesavond looks like.

A 'pizzarette'
(affiliate link)
First we eat together: sometimes we gourmet or fondue with us all around the table, last year I made pancakes and tied them up to look like Sinterklaas's sack and this year we have invested in a pizzarette. It is basically a pizza oven for on the dining table and everyone creates their own small pizza and then puts it under the pizza dome to cook. I have a feeling my kids will love this! The essence of the pakjesavond mealtime is fun and together.

Once we have finished eating we sit together in the living room and sing Sinterklaas songs, as loud as we can. The harder we sing, the more likely it is that Sinterklaas and his Piets will pay us a visit. There is a loud knocking on the door, which is then opened slightly, enough for a gloved hand to sneak through and throw kruidnoten, taai taai, pepernoten and sweets - all traditional Dutch Sinterklaas lekkernijen. Then the door closes (our children stop screaming and crying and realise that the floor is covered in sweet things for them to eat) and the children scurry around and collect anything edible from the floor and stuff their faces with as much as they can. Then the penny clicks that Sinterklaas has been and they rush to the hall to find a sack of presents for them.

We spend the rest of the evening opening presents and playing with new things until little ones are rubbing their eyes and complaining of stomach ache and it is clearly time for bed.

So here's a summary of what you need for a pakjesavond with small children:

1. Presents
2. A sack – to put all the presents in
3. A knowledge of Sinterklaasliedjes (songs) – for the children to sing to encourage St. Nicholas and his entourage to visit their house
4. A friendly neighbour or a fast moving parent (or you can even hire a Sinterklaas or Piet) – to play Sint's helper Piet
5. A door or a door bell– for Sint’s helper to knock on/ ring
6. A black glove – for Piet to wear on the hand that will appear through the door
7. Pepernoten, kruidnoten and other sweets designed to give any child a sugar injection – for Piet to throw through a crack in the door with his gloved hand

Traditional Dutch Sinterklaas biscuits - kruidnoten
You can of course make your own kruidnoten - there's a simple, great recipe and explanation about typically Dutch ingredients right here.

If the children are older, or the company is entirely made up of adults the evening looks very different. It works a little more like Secret Santa so everyone is responsible for the present of one person. The present is then a small gift, a surprise, which is hidden in something homemade, instead of simply being wrapped.

It can be as elaborate as you can imagine, or as simple as you can make it. An example is this ski piste (see link) with a present firmly encased in the middle, needing a lot of force to get the present out. Or a disco ball perhaps.

School children are usually assigned to make them for each other in the higher groups of primary school - the more creative the better, and the more difficult it is to get the present out the funnier.

There is often an accompanying rhyme or poem written by the gift givers, joke presents and a game to accompany the gift giving which involves rolling a die. Instructions include things like swapping presents with your neighbour (hence the chance to end up with the joke present that no one wants) or performing a task if you throw a certain number. The games are as creative and as varied as you want to make them!

The essential element of pakjesavond, the thing that holds it together, just like Christmas, is the company you spend the evening with. It is about being together, having fun and sharing each other's company. It's about family and friends, however you celebrate it. Happy birthday St Nicholas!

Monday, 2 December 2013

5 December - It's a Dutch Thing

When I first moved to the Netherlands in 2000, the annual celebration on the 5th December baffled me. Year after year, in search of enlightenment I bombarded my Dutchie with questions.

Thirteen years after witnessing Sinterklaas and his helpers for the first time, I get it. I really do. In 2007 we celebrated it for the first time as a family, because we had a child. Every year since then our celebration has got bigger and better. We have three children that find this time of year magical. Truly magical, and that is what the onlookers on the outside don't see - the children's joy and excitement. It is absolutely a children's festival.

Sinterklaas is now a part of life, and  I feel qualified enough to  answer my own questions that I once had about Sinterklaas and the festivity of 5 December:

You Dutch celebrate both Sinterklaas and Christmas. How does that work exactly?

Sinterklaas and Christmas, whilst sharing the same origins, are just not the same thing. That's why there are two different celebrations. The Dutch do not have two Christmases (contrary to the suppositions of a certain supposed UN representative recently). They celebrate Sinterklaas and Christmas.

What do you tell the children - Sinterklaas comes at the beginning of December from Spain on the steamboat with his horse, and then the Kerstman comes at the end of the month with his sleigh and reindeer?

The Dutch don't need to explain the appearance of the kerstman twenty days after Sinterklaas because most Dutch families do not have Father Christmas bringing presents on the 25th December - presents are exchanged in some cases but they are openly from each other. They aren't left in the dead of night under the Christmas tree by a jolly figure in red. My husband had never received a present on Christmas Day until I moved to the Netherlands. That's how different the idea of Christmas has been here. The kerstman is known as the Coca Cola santa here. My lucky kids have both figures visiting them because they have a British mother - and that is easy enough to explain.

How does buying two lots of presents in December fit with the Dutch reputation of stinginess being careful with money?

As already mentioned, presents aren't necessarily the norm here at Christmas and certainly not on the grand scale it is in Britain and the United States for example. Besides that the presents on the 5th December are brought over from Spain on the boat by Sinterklaas and the Pieten, even though the Hema and C1000 logos are clear for all to see on chocolate letters and presents… something that did not escape my then five year old last year…..

What do you mean you want me to put a carrot in my shoe?

No biggie, I'm fine with putting a carrot in my shoe these days as long as the horse gets the carrot out without slobbering in my shoe.

Why do you throw sweets at your children?
To be fair there are other times of the year when I feel like throwing things at the kids (not just my kids). Getting it all out of your system once a year with sweets is quite ingenious.

Seriously though, you do need to think about where your children will be when the 'gloved hand' comes around the door and throws sweets into the room on Pakjesavond. Two years ago we narrowly avoided a hospital run when a 'Piet' lobbed goodies into our living room, into the play pen my then two month old baby was lying in. Three screaming kids (two petrified, one injured) is not the best way to spend an evening.

St Nicholaas is actually from Turkey but travels from Spain in a boat to the Netherlands every year - how does that work?

Okay, hands up, this is one of the things I still can't explain - the whole 'he comes from Spain on a boat' thing is a mystery to me. I have no idea. Nobody I have spoken to has a proper explanation, other than it's a great holiday home destination. It just is so.

Where can I find an online Sinterklaas poem generator?
Google it.

So, let me get this right. Good girls get chocolate letters and pepernoten and bad girls get a free trip to Spain?

I have since learnt that NO ONE gets to go to Spain. Years of trying my hardest to get on the naughty list to get put in a sack for a free holiday to Spain. It's a bloody myth. The idea terrifies the kids though and gets them to do what you want for two or three weeks of the year whilst Sinterklaas is in town.

Sint’s slaves helpers are black because of the soot in the chimneys? Really?

The least said about this the better I think. This year has seen the biggest uproar yet to Zwarte Piet and I wouldn't be wholly surprised if we see a few changes over the coming years.

What do you mean I can't finish off this Sint paper and use it to wrap Christmas presents?

As I said, I get it now. It's not the same thing. That would be like wrapping Easter eggs in Christmas paper.

Any more questions anyone?

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

What I Learnt Taking Part in NaNoWriMo

Regular readers will know that during November I've been taking part in NaNoWriMo - in essence writing a 50000 word novel. And I'm pleased to say that I did it! I signed up on a whim thanks to Nomad Mom Diary, and even though I was determined to give it a go, I wasn't wholly convinced I would get 50000 words together on the topic of my expat life. The elation when the word count ticked over from 49999 wasn't as high as I had imagined it would be back on November 1st. For two reasons.

Firstly, there is lots more writing to do and it still needs an awful lot of editing and crafting to create a novel that I would be happy for any one of you to read. Despite working for many hours, it really is a long way from being a finished product. Some of you have asked 'when will we get to read it?'. I'm guessing about 2020…..

Secondly, the 50900 words I have written so far were hard. Not as in a struggle to get words on paper, but an emotional struggle to relive events of the past and get them written. My life has been pretty uneventful, nothing out of the ordinary, no extreme events that warrant a best selling book. I had a happy childhood, I went to university, spent a year in Toulouse, messed around for a bit retrying to deicide what I wanted to do with my life, decided on a career in Human Resources, met a Dutch man and moved to the Netherlands and had three sons. That's it in a nutshell.

Photo Credit: Pear38
As I was writing some parts of those 50000 words doubts took over - was there really a book here to write? But I kept going, because even if there is nothing I have written over the course of November that is worthy of gracing the pages of a published book it was actually a therapeutic exercise. I have realised that there are some events in my forty years of life that have happened which I haven't put to rest, I haven't given it 'closure' as the Americans put so well. Taking part in NaNoWriMo forced me to confront some ghosts, brought emotions to the forefront that I didn't realise I still had about things I have been through. I felt anger, hurt, sadness, regret, happiness and joy whilst writing. I have had tears streaming down my face whilst typing. Life is very much about the details and not what you can wrap up in a nutshell. It's about the emotions. It's about the relationships.

Some of what I have written will never see the light of day - that would be unfair to loved ones - but the act of writing about some things was enough reward in itself in some cases. Writing about some events made me feel like it had just happened, all over again, and I found myself feeling furious at some people in my life. It really has been a tough writing journey. And it made me think over and over about the words from writer Jo Parfitt about your best writing coming from writing from a place of pain. Truer words have not been uttered! Raw emotion makes for good writing.

My memory databanks have been working overtime during November. One memory has sparked another and I have been amazed by the depth at which some things were buried. NaNoWriMo pulled them all out to the surface, things I haven't thought about for years.

I have also been incredibly grateful during this last month for the journals I have written over the years. There are gaps in my memories, or things were not as I remember them. Or I have long forgotten the details. Rereading my journals helped me get right back inside the moments of my past. I have relived happy and sad times through my journal writing. It spurred me on to get back to writing in my journals more in the present. I have been seriously neglecting them over the last year and I have vowed to correct that. Every day there are moments worth writing about - things that seem so mundane and uninteresting yet in five years time they will be confined only to our memories. Our routines change, our daily lives evolve with the months and we won't remember how our days looked when we look back in a year. Yes, seems like I am back to that theme of capturing the moments…..

Monday, 25 November 2013

NoGuPoMo: Not Every Culture Forces their Kids to Share

The end of NaNoWriMo is nigh for sure....whilst I finish my novel off (yeah, I know I'm fooling no one...) I'm delighted to share this week's guest post from Mama Mzungu, aka Kim, an expat who left the US to live in Kenya. You can find out more about her story over on her blog. I'll leave you to read her great cultural post about sharing…..I would love to hear what you think about this - I found out that I'm parenting Kenyan style…..

"Mo-oommm...  But it's not fair!!!" whines every pre-schooler from Fresno to Philadelphia.

"Well, sorry dear, life is not always fair."  replies every harried mother, settling the issue at least in her mind.
Asking children to share is cultural
Photo Credit: Anissa Thompson
But the thing is, despite their proclamations, American parents work tremendously hard to try and make life as fair as possible for children.  They break up fights and force apologies.  They enforce the "take turns" policy.  They repeatedly implore their little charges to "share nicely," and they dole out consequences when someone is being too selfish. They ask "who had it first?"

I suppose this would be my modus operandi as well.  Though with only one kid there were less opportunities to enforce this system of fairness.  And by the time I went from having one child requiring entertainment to two children requiring a referee, I had been living in Kenya for the better part of two years, where such a regime of benign rights-based interventions does not so much exist.  So, I've, somewhat subconsciously, adopted the Kenyan system, which is this: Everyone defers to the noisiest (generally youngest) child.

When we first moved to Kenya and Caleb ran around with a mixed-aged group of friends, I observed this in practice.  Caleb and another child would want the same toy, and Rukia (his care giver) would almost always ask the other kid to give Caleb the toy.

It made me cringe.  I assumed she forced the other children to give him the toys because well... the toys were his... and I somewhere I suppose I feared that she deferred to his whims because he was the lone mzungu child.  When this happened I would always intervene, telling Caleb his friends were "guests" and we needed to give them a turn with the toy too. I'd force him to give the other child the toy.

This invariably resulted in a full scale temper tantrum.  After being told by Rukia that he could have the toy, I'd undo that, making it worse.  Everyone would stop and stare at his meltdown, and my lesson in sharing and being a good host would get drowned out by the screaming. I was left feeling like I did something wrong, but had at least imparted an important lesson that I hoped would eventually sink in.  I had restored life to a more "fair" balance, even if I created more chaos.

But my reaction was out of step with the culture.  For Kenyans, it seemed that preventing the chaos was what was most important. The child who is the least able to weather the disappointment of losing a toy, the one who is least capable of understanding mine/yours/who had it first, basically the youngest, is the one who wins. Because when he wins there's less noise for everyone.

Kenyans, by asking children to put others before themselves learn, not that they have rights, but that they have a responsibility to keeping the peace for the group.

What I had failed to realize was that Caleb was getting his way because he was the youngest child in his group of playmates.  When a child younger than Caleb entered his group of friends, even he was asked to defer to the littlest playmate.

To Americans, this probably seems supremely unfair, but it's really just a different set of rules and, amazingly, the older kids simply learn to sublimate their own needs.  And that's probably not such a bad thing to learn how to do.

Now that Emmet has grown to the age in which he has toy preferences, a strong will, and an impressive

set of lungs, we've asked Caleb to generally defer to the baby.  I know that this is VERY much against American sibling rivalry advise, which says that if you don't want the older child to resent the baby, you can't always let the baby win.  But so far - and probably because the culture reinforces this different set of rules - Caleb is with the program.

The problem is that we are currently back in the US, where babies are expected to understand, or at least play along, with the take turns/who had it first policy.  Forgetting for a moment where I was, I recently asked Emmet's cousin to give up a toy Emmet was crying for.  His mom, carefully reminded me that her son had been playing with it first.

And that's when it hit me:  Here in the US we really do see each child, and even baby, as having particular individual rights. When those rights are violated we work to restore order and fairness.  We hope that our children learn to share, but they certainly learn that some justice is owed them.  Kenyans, by asking children to put others before themselves learn, not that they have rights, but that they have a responsibility to keeping the peace for the group.

I don't think one way is necessarily better than the other, but, like all parenting practices, they make sense given their context.  But, I have to say, having experienced both, the Kenyan way is definitely less noisy.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Relocation Advice from a 3 Year Old

Photo Credit: Chris Schauflinger
My three year old declared today that we need a new house. I asked him why he thought that and his response was simply,

"Sometimes our house is a mess."

Obviously that's not true. Not all the time.

Okay, admittedly sometimes our house is a mess. It's clean (thanks to weekly help) but it can be a big mess. Usually between the hours of seven in the morning and seven in the evening when there are three messy munchkins up and about.

So, anyway, to escape the mess (which I add he is at least a third responsible for if not more) his solution was to get a new house.

Then he added,

"We can take our house apart and then take it to France and put it back together again."

So, from what I gather, if we lived in France our house wouldn't be a mess, and it's not our house per se he takes offence to.

So there you have it, my three year old relocation specialist. We expats have been making things much harder for ourselves than we need to. Remember these wise words next time you have to relocate.

Lou Messugo

Monday, 18 November 2013

NoGuPoMo: Capturing Moments That Count

Over half way of NaNoWriMo now....... can't stop writing....so I'll put you in the very capable hands of The European Mama for today's guest post.

I have a confession: I am not a big fan of today’s Carpe Diem philosophy.

I know my children will grow up fast, I see it right before my eyes. I know that moments with them are precious. I know how my son’s head smells, how beautiful my little girl’s eyes are and how quick my big girl is on her feet. I notice all that and more. After all, I am their mom - and a highly sensitive person (HSP).

But what the Carpe Diem is telling me, is: “You’re not doing enough! You’re not “there” enough!”, or “You don’t have enough time, and you’re not using it properly!”. Carpe Diem, while claiming to be a philosophy that is all about slowing down, is in truth about “not enough”, as Brene Brown would say. It is about scarcity. It is about pursuing an ideal that doesn’t exist.

Because it tells us that each moment is precious, and that is not the case. As a child, I would say: “This day should be crossed out of the calendar. Like it never existed.” I still feel like this about some days. The days where I didn’t get enough sleep and my body shuts down on me. The days that are so loud from temper tantrums and cries that my ears and my head hurt. I get my share of such days, too. After all, I'm a mom, and a HSP. What is my philosophy, then?

I love taking pictures. And maybe photography is a good metaphor for the way I see life. Because I know that especially with my digital SD card, I can take thousands of pictures, but not all pictures are worth taking. Not all pictures we take are worth keeping.

Some of these pictures can be improved. They aren’t perfect but there is something particularly interesting about them, and they can be made into something exquisite. But the truth is that so many the pictures we take are bad, especially if like me we’re amateurs.

Some bad days can be improved, but others are just bad. For me, turning a bad day around makes just as much sense as going shopping when I hardly have money for food. I’d rather wait them out and wait for a better time. I refuse to spend my time and energy on a day that isn’t worth it.

I don’t want to freeze time. I love the changes I see in my children and revel in them. I love when they can do and talk more and more. I love seeing my wonderful children slowly but steadily changing into wonderful adults. I’ve never regretted my children getting older because while our relationship will change, I know that it will still be there. I will still be their mom.

No, I don’t want to freeze time. I want to capture moments that matter.

 You can find The European Mama on Instagram and on Facebook

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Blog Giveaway: The Amsterdam Dungeon

If you can be in Amsterdam at any time before 31st March 2014 and are looking for a bit of a thrill in your life, then I have just the giveaway for you - a family ticket (four persons) for the Amsterdam Dungeon.

The Amsterdam Dungeon experience is an 80 minute journey into the darker side of Amsterdam's history. By way of live actor shows, special effects, story telling and a roller coaster ride, all of your senses will be on high alert for the funny, scary experience that shares 500 years of history with you. You can read much, much more over on the website about the details but I am assured there is both screaming and laughing involved.

So, now to the important part - how can you win this family ticket? Easy, here's how.
  1. Use the Rafflecopter form below to "Share an experience where actually you'd rather have been locked in a dungeon". Let me give you a couple of examples to help you - in my case I would rather have been in a dungeon than holding back contractions for 30 minutes when my first son was ready to be born because there was no hospital staff available to help deliver him. In my husband's case he might well rather be in a dungeon than visit a certain Scandinavian furniture store on a Sunday morning. This is the only mandatory action.
  2. Go like my Expat Life with a Double Buggy Facebook page to earn extra points.
  3. Tweet about this giveaway for extra points.
  4. The competition ends on Pakjesavond - 5 December to add an extra 'present' for one lucky winner just as Sinterklaas returns to Spain.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Want to meet The Amsterdam Torturer?
Make sure you're entered in the competition for a family ticket!

Friday, 15 November 2013

My 365 Grateful Project #19 - #21

Catching up fast with my 365 Grateful Project. Here's the next couple of moments I have stopped to focus on how grateful I am for them.

#19 Seeing your children get along, even if it is for a few minutes, is always a lovely thing for a parent. Watching my 2 year old trail after my 3 year old to copy his every move is mostly heartwarming to see. Until my 3 year old utters 'poop' and my 2 year old copies him that is….. This however was a nice moment to hold on to.

#20 Without sleep I don't operate. Like most people. However, sleep has been a hot topic in our house for around seven years now. Luckily, I realised whilst watching my little one drift off to dreamland, the sleep situation is better than it was, say, two years ago. If only he'd sleep so soundly in his own bed….

#21 Some days I am just so grateful that my trusty IPad lets me dig up a wealth of information and allows me to stay connected to loved ones. Friday was just that sort of day where the internet was a goldmine and gave me peace of mind. 

What are you grateful for right now?

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

The Happy Depressives of the Netherlands

If you are raising children then the Netherlands is the place to be. Year after year, the country rates high in global surveys and research about the happiness of children.

In April this year a United Nations report concluded that Dutch children are in fact the happiest in the world. That is an impressive title to have under your belt isn't it? Not only did the Netherlands top the list of countries, it was the only nation to rank in the top five in all elements of the study: material well-being, health and safety, education, behaviour and risks, and housing and environment.

And hold on to your hats, because it's not just Dutch children who are happy. Women in the Netherlands are happy too. Dutch women are independent, can choose who they marry, are free to make choices about work and the home and live in a liberal, free country. In short, women here in the Netherlands feel a high degree of control over their own lives. That is according to Ellen de Bruin who undertook extensive interviews and research to reach this conclusion.

Her conclusions, captured in an article for the New York Times, suggest that the idea that a Dutch woman feels no pressure to put on airs and graces, embrace glamour and bow to peer pressure contributes to an overall feeling of happiness.

Then we have the 2013 World Happiness Report where the Netherlands sits proudly at number four in the happiness league. The fourth happiest nation in the world people. Clap on the back for the happy Dutch people, scooping up imaginary happiness awards left, right and centre. 

But wait. There is some serious bubble bursting going on in a recent report that suggests that the Dutch are the most depressed in Europe. The report is based on the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010 and is one of the most comprehensive and prestigious carried out of its kind. There really is no knocking it. Everyone is suddenly talking about the depressive nature of the Dutch. Are the Dutch bi-polar?

To clarify, the definition (taken from the editor's summary of the PLOS report) of depression is:

Not so happy
"Depression—an overwhelming feeling of sadness and hopelessness that can last for months or years—can make people feel that life is no longer worth living. People affected by depression lose interest in the activities they used to enjoy and can also be affected by physical symptoms such as disturbed sleep."

Depression is something that is on the increase across the world and is receiving more and more attention as the consequences become fully appreciated. But why have the Dutch been singled out as being more depressive than other nations? How can a country that pulls in medals in the Happiness Olympics suddenly hold the title of the European Champions of Depression?

This conclusion is nothing new. There is a history of depression in the Netherlands. In 2007, the Dutch were the third most depressed in Europe. But it would seem that things have got worse not better.

Psychiatrist Jan Swinkels told the Volkskrant that we shouldn't place too much importance on the results of this research. He claims the Dutch are indeed a somber group but culture plays a big role and there is no more help needed here than in neighbouring countries.

I can add some personal experience to this discussion. A Dutch company doctor working in an international organisation explained once that in his experience it is usually the Dutch and other northern europeans who are the ones sitting at home on sick leave with a burn out because they struggle to deal with the more relaxed attitude to work of other European nationals. In other words there is a serious culture clash in the working environment. The countries he mentioned generally fare very well in the happiness research.

Is Dutch happiness so precarious that anything disrupting the usual balance causes a hurtling into depression? Do the Dutch have high expectations that cannot always be met? Is it as some suggest related to the gloomy weather in the Netherlands? This latest report suggests that the even gloomier, darker days in countries further north in Europe play an insignificant role in the depression levels so it is unlikely that this alone explains anything.

I don't have an answer, and so far I haven't seen anyone else offering a nice perfect fit answer. But of course it is possible to be both a happy nation and one with a slightly higher level of depression than surrounding countries, without being bipolar. Depression is a very individual state, as is happiness.

On a final note, do you remember how this blog post began? "If you are raising children then the Netherlands is the place to be." Well, actually that wasn't strictly true. That statement applies to Dutch children. If you are an expat parent, you shouldn't live in the Netherlands. At least, that's the message from the latest report from the HSBC Expat Explorer's survey. When it comes to raising children overseas the Netherlands plummets to 19th place (of 24). That is not a good result. Not good at all. Not for the country that is used to picking up all those happiness awards.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

My 365 Grateful Project #15 to #18

Welcome to the next instalment of my 365 grateful project - a small (or large) moment a day I have gratitude for. You can read here why I started this project.

#15 probably needs a little explanation. We've decided it's time to dump the double pram (farewell, little Donkey) and buy a lighter, single buggy. So off we traipsed to Baby Park in Gouda to test out some prams. I was grateful that at least one of us had some technical expertise - fathoming out how to fold some of the prams needed the kind of technical thinking mind that I just don't have.

#16 some time back we bought my eldest son a halfhoogslaper and the idea was to put curtains around his bed so he could escape under there for some quiet time. However, I couldn't find anything suitable pre-made so luckily my husband's stepmother stepped in and made this cool spiderman set for him. He loves it! And I'm incredibly grateful that we know someone who has the seamstress skills that I lack. Me and sewing machines are not good friends…..

#17 When you are two geared up with new wellington boots, the rain is an adventure. A huge, knee high puddle kind of adventure.

#18 The best bits about motherhood really are about the little moments. This moment last week was one to cherish. Since my six year old has started reading and writing in school he takes any moment he can to show off his skills. His brothers are a captive audience when he announces he's going to read them a story.

Monday, 11 November 2013

NoGuPoMo: Expat Stresses by Your Expat Child

Whilst I scribble away furiously (or pound at my keyboard) here is another guest post. This week Your Expat Child writes about the stresses that expat life can bring, debunking the myth that expat life is one big holiday......

What stress can an expat possibly have?

I don’t assume that everyone who visits this site is excited and thrilled by an overseas move – searches that arrive here indicate that this is far from the case.

Moving overseas causes stress and anxiety even when you are excited about, and fully onboard with, the relocation. But if you don’t want to move to a particular country, or you feel you have to move abroad to keep your partner happy and in work, then the stress can become out of control.
Stresses can happen any time, any place, anywhere

Even if you’re already living overseas the stress of expat life can take its toll. Life and all its ups and downs carries on regardless of where you live. Perhaps your children aren’t coping in school for whatever reason, maybe you have aging parents thousands of miles away to worry about or you’re finding it impossible to find work of your own or even make friends.

Living overseas is not a holiday

Forget all those people who exclaim jealously that you’re living in so-called ‘paradise’ (ie anywhere other than your ‘home’ country!) and therefore can’t possibly have any ‘real’ problems. They are wrong. Expats have exactly the same problems as anyone else, big and small. Just because we live overseas it does not mean that we are on one endless holiday. Life goes on.

Just dealing with basic aspects of daily life in a different country can be difficult: What are the rules of driving at this junction? Am I allowed to park here? What is the postman saying to me? Is that milk or liquid yoghurt I’ve just put in my coffee because I can’t read the label? Of course, we soon get used to all these kinds of examples but it’s never at the same familiar level as dealing with stuff at home. There is a constant, low-level pressure at all times.

Difficulties are not location dependent

Illness and accidents can happen anywhere. These would be stressful enough in the home country. Negotiating a foreign healthcare system is hard work, however well-prepared you are – and that’s on top of the worry you’re already feeling.

Depression isn’t location dependent. It can happen to anyone regardless of where they’re living. It doesn’t matter if you live somewhere sunny and warm, with your own pool and home help. If the chemicals in your brain unbalance, you  become depressed: it’s got absolutely nothing to do with lifestyle.

Expat child stress

Not every child copes well with moving around, either. Of course, this depends on your child and your own situation. If you’ve emigrated permanently then it is unlikely to be as much of an issue than those who have to move countries every couple of years or so. This way of life appears to be easier when the child is very young, but once they’ve started school most kids prefer to stay put. Even if they seem to cope well, keep a close eye for issues that may arise. You know your child best. They may well appear resilient and fully able to cope, but problems may be developing under the surface that become more obvious as they grow. And then the teenage years hit!

Yes, yes, we know that we’re giving them a fantastic opportunity to see the world and experience other cultures. They have the chance to try activities, food and see places many others only dream of. But all a child really craves is stability and security. While they’re very young, you provide that for them. However, as they get older they look to their peers for this. Their friends become more important than you… and then they, or their friends, move away. Sometimes you have to put their needs above your dreams.

A friend of mine relocated every year or two throughout her childhood. She says it was OK when she was very young but became intolerable once she reached about 10 years old. She loathed always being the ‘new girl’ at school. She went from being a straight-A student to not working at all. She didn’t bother to make friends as she knew she would be leaving again soon. Now an adult, she is very settled, but it’s taken her a long time to reach contentment. She rarely, if ever, travels anywhere now and is a real ‘home-bird’.

Not all overseas relocations are ‘heaven on earth’!

You can find more advice, tips and insight from Your Expat Child on Facebook and Twitter.