Thursday, 27 February 2014

Celebrating Expat Life - Blog Link Up

Spring highlights the positive in
This is a heads up of a blog link up I am starting next week if anyone would like to join in. There will be a link tool on my post each week where you all can add your posts.

It's the first blog link up I have run, inspired by the Multicultural Kid Blogs carnival I put together on the topic of love. It was such fun to see other's views on the same topics and I figure celebrating expat life is another topic many of us have first hand experience of - and lots to say.

I have also been inspired by the flowers shooting out of the ground, the sun which keeps showing its face and the birds which are busy nesting - all the signs of spring are around and that is a reason to look at the positive side of life, of expat life. So without further ado, here are the four weekly prompts  for March.

"As spring hurtles towards us I think it's the perfect time to celebrate expat life - and the advantages of parenting as an expat. Our children are raised in a multicultural, multilingual environment - and that is worth celebrating!

Each week in March there will be a different prompt to look at life as an expat. Here are the titles I will use, (you'll need to adapt for the right nationality/language where relevant).

  • Wednesday 5th March: 5 Things I Love About My Expat Life
  • Wednesday 12th March: 5 Reasons I'm Glad my Children Are *Dutch & British*
  • Wednesday 19th March: 5 Reasons I'm Glad my Children Speak *Dutch & English*
  • Wednesday 26th March: 5 Lessons I Have Learnt from the *Dutch*"

Hope to see some of you linking up from 5th March.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Latest Smitten by Britain Post: A British Breakfast

Boiled eggs and toast. A harmless topic you would think. Alas not if you are a multicultural family it turns out.....
"Picture the scene: a typically Dutch dull, grey Sunday morning, sitting around the breakfast table with visitors from Britain. I chose this morning to soft boil some eggs, toast some bread and cut it up into strips as part of the morning feast."
Things were about to get messy and confusing..... Read the rest of my latest Smitten by Britain post to find out more.

Friday, 21 February 2014

I'm More British Outside of Britain

For the first twenty seven years of my life I lived (with the exception on one year in France) in England. There, I was one Brit in a sea of millions. Nothing about me to get excited about, I blended in with the British crowd.

And then I moved to the Netherlands and I was suddenly a Brit in a sea of Dutch people. I stuck out in the crowd; well actually I got lost in the crowd of tall Dutch people, but culturally I stuck out. I was the odd one out.

And I came to realise just what being British means. And how British I actually am.

I noticed it in the small things, I saw it in the big things. I saw it on a daily basis. Every time I opened my mouth to speak I was acutely aware of how British I am.

Every time I tutted as the queue that should have formed behind me descended in to a free for all, I realised my Britishness. Every time I stared daggers at the queue jumper in front of me, I realised I was embracing that part of me that makes me British.

Every time I cringed when a Dutchman actually said hello to me as he entered a lift, I felt British.

On every occasion I was greeted in the waiting room by a fellow patient in the Dutch doctor's surgery, I felt like an alien. A British alien.

Every fruitless search for Branston Pickle and crumpets and proper tea in my local Dutch supermarket left me feeling more British than ever, a despondent and homesick one at that. Luckily my stiff upper lip never let me feel down for too long.

Even a Dutch supermarket trolley can make
me feel British
Saying sorry as a Dutch shopper rammed me with her shopping trolley opened my eyes to my reflex British quirks.

Whenever I glared at a fellow train passenger whose music blares from his earphones, turning my head away at breakneck speed when the culprit turned to stare back at me,  all so they don't actually see me glaring, I knew there is a British part of me that will never fade, no longer how long I live outside of Britain.

Every time I walked away from the hairdressers looking remarkably the same as when I went in, nodding enthusiastically when asked if I like my new haircut, I knew my Britishness is all consuming.

And that big inner cheer I gave, the fist punch in the air in the empty room, when I heard that Marks & Spencers had finally reopened its doors in The Hague tells me the Britishness inside this girl is here to stay.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Dutch Speed Skaters Rule Supreme

The Dutch are proving unstoppable when it comes to collecting speed skating medals at the Sochi Winter Olympics this year. The runaway success of team NL has the world talking.

The media coverage around the globe started off positive, congratulatory and with a sense of amazement at the sight of an all orange podium. By the third all orange podium, the talk started to turn a little negative. And somewhere in between the media began printing stories and explanations for the Dutch success that were downright inaccurate and from the world of children's fairy stories.

Dutch visiting relatives en masse on their ice skates
(or back in the real world where the Dutch live: recreational
skating on a frozen lake)
I read one report that stated the Dutch have ice skating in their blood (as a foreigner here, I would tend to say that much is true) and that the natives of the Netherlands actually visit friends and families in the next village in winter by skating along the canals and waterways. Quaint, but totally untrue. Once upon a time that may well have been the case, but the Dutch, like all societies, have moved on. They now have cars, families that are dispersed, and houses in areas that are not surrounded on all sides by water, making such a social visit on ice skates an impossibility. Plus.. really? The idea has the Dutch tittering loudly. Very loudly. You can just imagine talk around the Dutch office coffee machines about Sven Kramer owing his success to those visits to his granny on ice skates.

Another report put the Dutch Olympic skating success down to the fact that ice skating at a competitive level is nothing new for the Dutch, with an Elfstedentocht being held every year up until 1997. Factually incorrect; without a good, long, hard freeze the race cannot take place and not every winter is that cold here. Research is king.
Not every Dutch winter looks like this

Yesterday, I heard that the Estonian press ran an article that stated that the Dutch give birth and then skate home from the hospital with their newborns. The mind boggles. Yes, ice skates are an essential element of every Dutch woman's winter hospital bag.

What the press is trying to say, by fabricating the Dutch relationship with ice skating, is that there is a history and a culture of skating in this low lying country. However, I am guessing (and I'm no Olympian so bear with me) that the Dutch speed skating success has much to do with natural talent combined with large dollops of hard work and immense training. The Dutch skaters, as a team, have peaked at the right time (an Olympics seems a pretty good place to secure personal bests in my opinion, but as I said I'm no Olympian) and their hard work has been translated into medals. Lots of shiny medals.

Skating historian, Marnix Koolhaas, has now added his few cents worth of opinion to the debate about the Dutch success stating that this medal collection is great for the Netherlands, but not so good for speed skating across the rest of the world. The Dutch have made the sport less attractive to other nations because of their domination of the sport. The Norwegians have pulled out of the 10,000km race because they know they can't win it. Again, I'm no Olympian, but that really doesn't seem to be in the spirit of the games. Imagine if all the competitors behaved like that? However, that is how it is, and is the reason for Marnix Koolhaas' statements.

It looks like the world is getting a little fed up of seeing the men and women in orange on the skating track.
"And the Wall Street Journal wrote: 'Everyone sick of watching the Dutch win speedskating medals, please raise your hand. Hmm. Seems like everyone who isn’t wearing orange underwear has a hand in the air.' " - Dutch News 17 February 2014
Bah humbug! Now, if you'll excuse me I have to prepare for watching a 10,000km race later today. HUP HOLLAND HUP!

Monday, 17 February 2014

20 Things I've Learnt Being Married to a Dutchman

There are many ways my life has been enriched by marrying a foreign man. The first few years together were a particularly interesting learning curve. And now that we have been together for just over 14 years the surprises are scattered more sparsely in our relationship, but every now and then my Dutch husband still throws me a curve ball and I add another piece of 'new knowledge' to my cultural database.

So, here are 20 things I have learnt as a result of meeting my Dutch husband:

1. I was informed very early on, in the first few weeks of my time in the Netherlands, that when I wash my hair and then blow dry it whilst brushing it incessantly, I look like 'de man die bakt' - Oboema Sesetokoe (who comes in with the branches over his shoulders in the video below). Yes, my husband has been a charmer since day one.

2. I reluctantly learned that pancakes constitute dinner even if they are slobbered in only icing sugar, white sugar and syrup. In my book that was pudding. I now stand corrected courtesy of the Dutch influence in my life.

3. If something is on offer at the supermarket we need it. This is a fact regardless of whether we actually do need it or not. If something free is offered (like buy one get one free, or an actual handout) then we take it, in fact we take lots. After all, Nederlanders houden van gratis.

5. There is a perfect sauce to accompany every meal. And that is quite something coming from a Brit.

6. There are worse things in life than paying to use a public toilet, except paying to use a dirty, badly stocked public toilet.
Please leave the toilet as you would like to find it -
especially if I'm paying to use it

7. Almost anything that could be deemed inedible elsewhere can be deep fried and made into a lekker snack in the Netherlandsfor which there is always the perfect sauce accompaniment (see number 5).

8. Queues are outdated and unnecessary.

9. There is more to mashed potato than meets the eye.

10. Customer service is a luxury you can learn to live without.

11. The economy may be nosediving but there is always money to burn at the end of the year for fireworks.

12. There's a very clear pecking order on the cycle paths where two wheeled vehicles are involved.

13. Politicians don't have to be over the age of sixty, grey haired and male.

16. Birthday celebrations can be terrifying.

17. Hot chocolate is not just a drink. Warme chocolate melk met slagroom sprinkled with flakes of chocolate on a cold, icy winter's day is actually a party in a cup.

Hot chocolate - it's a party in a cup

18. Paracetamol is the cure for everything, for at least two days.

19. Flowers are not just for Valentine's Day and saying sorry.

20. A couple that does not share the same cultural upbringing, or the same mother tongue, sometimes needs to work hard to understand each other and each others thought processes - but the pay off is worth every obstacle faced.

Flowers are not just for best
What have you leant from your multicultural relationships? I would love to hear the lessons you have learnt from mixing up cultures in your home.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Love Makes the World Go Round & Moves Us Around the World

Tomorrow is Valentine's Day, the day of love and romance, at least it is if you go in for all that cards, flowers and romantic dinners malarkey (can you tell I might be past all that, what with three children and a vague recollection of the last time my husband and I were out alone?) In any case, it seems the perfect timing for a Multicultural Kid Blogs carnival on the topic of love.

I remember my first (and last) love triangle like it was yesterday, rather than the thirty five years ago it actually was. It was early primary school, in Warrington in Cheshire in the North of England. My class was forced lovingly created Valentine's cards for each other. The recipient of each child's creation was a free choice and before we left school that Valentine's Day, our handcrafted cards were distributed amongst the class.

Horror of horrors I took two cards home with me. I was guilt ridden. Tears rolled. I felt awful for the boy who had given me a card but had not received one from me in return. I went home and immediately began making another card so I could give it to him the next school day. I was oblivious to the fact that he probably went home and thought nothing more of it. The unfairness of it all ruined Valentine's Day for that little five year old me. (Sensitive? Me?)

These days of course this situation is avoided with the idea of fairness and exclusiveness, as Aisha Ashraf tells in her piece about Valentine's cards in her children's school in Canada for Global Living Magazine. But in my day, you lived with the guilt and the disappointment, and surprise surprise I got over it and survived the many more Valentine's Days that followed.

Photo Credit: Nithya Ramanujam
So, back to love. Love is not the same around the world. It means different things to different people, to different cultures. Love takes different forms. Love is expressed in different ways, shown by different acts depending on the culture of where you live and who you are showing the love you feel to.

Varya writes about what love means to her and how she teaches her children to show love on her blog The Creative World of Varya. Rina Mae (Finding Dutchland) describes how her husband expressed his love for her in her blog post When in Rome. Jaime of Frogs and Snails and Puppy Dog Tails shows her children love through her 10 Simple Ways to Spend Quality Time with Young Kids. Leanna, of All Done Monkey, highlights that sometimes we have to be creative with how we show our love for someone else in her post Monkey Kisses and Dinosaur Hugs.

In the Netherlands, I love you is expressed by the words, "Ik hou van jou" (spoken as "ik how von yow") and Valentine's day is relatively low key. There are cards in the shops but that is about the extent of it. Are the Dutch a romantic lot? Not particularly. They certainly don't have a reputation for romance, in fact according to CNN's World's most romantic nationalities the Dutch don't even hit the top ten. The British don't feature either. You are in luck though, if romance is your thing, if you are with someone from Spain, Argentina, Italy, France or Brazil. Maria Babin, the Trilingual Mama, writes all about je t'aime in her post "Love Makes the World Go Around in Paris" and discovers it's not a phrase flung around in France's capital.

But is romance really about love? Of course not, at least I don't think so. There can be romance and no love. There can be love and no romance. Love is more solid. It's a foundation. Sara Ager (A Hotchpotch Hijabi in Italy) highlights that love can be most powerful when it's low key in her blog post, "10 Things I've Learnt About Love in the Real World".

"Love is what makes the world go round; love is what keeps us moving around the world."
Photo Credit: Ben Earwicker
Long lasting love isn't about fireworks and sparks, for me it's more about the solid foundation of a couple. The first building blocks of a family. Love is what makes the world go round; love is what keeps us moving around the world - growing our multicultural families. I'm an expat because of love. I live in the Netherlands because of love. I have a beautiful little family because of love.

I'm just one of many who has crossed both country and cultural boundaries for love.

Like Aisha Ashraf who reflects on her ten year wedding anniversary on her blog, with a beautiful piece called "What price a woman's heart?" She counts her blessings that her husband refused to adhere to religious, social and cultural expectations around marriage. She highlights that sometimes marriage has nothing to do with love.

Olga Mecking, The European Mama, shares her intercultural love story in her piece called, "And Not Because He’s German: My Take On Intercultural Relationships" and highlights that love looks past cultural differences to the man or woman beneath.

And of course sometimes we use the word love to describe our passion about other things in our lives; our interests, our careers, our hobbies. Thereza Howling writes about the importance of Loving What You Do on her blog A Path of Light. And I couldn't agree more - you should love what you do, and do what you love. The alternative is slowly withering away inside.

Whatever love means to you, however it is shown in your life there is little doubt that without it the world would be a greyer, lonelier, less passionate place to inhabit!

We would love to hear from you what love means to you and your family - how is love expressed in the country you call home? How do you say 'I love you' in the languages you speak? Have you made a life change for love - be it for a person, a job, a hobby?

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

200 - Thank You

A milestone was reached last weekend with the Expat Life with a Double Buggy Facebook page reaching 200 likes. Every page like is like a little smile - so thank you. If you're on Facebook but not a page liker then head over. I use the Facebook page to add a little more to the posts I write here, encourage likers to share opinions and comments in real time and love that it's more interactive than here on the blog. So if you are interested in reading more about expat life, the Netherlands, parenting overseas or all things British then add your like to the 200 over at: Look forward to seeing you over there!

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Almost Dutch - Winter Olympics Pride

Photo Credit: Thera
Sometimes a realisation blind sides me. An unexpected event can arouse surprising emotions; I suddenly consciously realise what an attachment I have for my adopted country. I am suddenly fully aware of how much I love where I live and how proud I am to be able to even pretend play at being Dutch. I have a sense of national pride for a country I wasn't born in.

Such a feeling struck me over the weekend. Watching three Dutch flags rising simultaneously on Saturday to the rousing sounds of Het Wilhelmus left me feeling fiercely proud.

I'm not Dutch but I guess I'm as close to being Dutch as I can be without actually surrendering my British citizenship (never gonna happen). And watching three successful sportsmen so joyfully perched on an Olympic podium makes me realise how close to feeling Dutch I am, and how I love where I ended up living, even if it wasn't ever part of the plan.

It's not the first time a sporting achievement has left me with a hint of a tear in my eyes or made me feel sentimental about my adopted homeland. The last time was in 2010 when the Dutch football team did the country proud by reaching the World Cup. I was so surprised about how pained losing made me feel that I wrote about my experience for The Telegraph.

This time around the all orange medal podium was the cause of my sentimental attachment to the Netherlands, courtesy of the winners of the 5000m speed skating event. Sven Kramers brings the gold back to his home country, whilst countryman Jan Blokhuijsen won the silver medal and Jorrit Bergsma the bronze. An impressive sight - three Dutchmen together on an Olympic podium. Made even more impressive by the fact that it was their own king who presented them with their medals. A proud moment for the Dutch indeed.

And it won't be the last time we see such a sight. Yesterday the gold, silver and bronze medals for the 500m men's speed skating were won by....wait for it... three Dutch men: Michel Mulder, Jan Smeekens and Ronald Mulder.

Another proud moment to come then. Even for this adopted Brit who has made the Netherlands her home.

Monday, 10 February 2014

British Flapjacks: A Treat to Accompany Afternoon Tea Anyone?

Wrapping long, golden strings of runny sugary sweetness around a cold, metal spoon stirred up flashbacks of childhood days spooning syrup onto a bowl of hot, gooey, steaming porridge on a winter's morning. It also brought back memories of making flapjacks with my mother who was (is...?) a champion flapjack maker.

I saw a post on Smitten by Britain with a flapjack recipe which made me jump up and instantly gather up my 2 and 3 year old sons and herd them to the kitchen. This week we've made flapjacks two different ways but throwing it all in the mixer together produced a better structure of flapjack than the 'melting butter, sugar and syrup together' method. I don't know why because the latter is how my mum always made them and they were delicious and structurally sound.....

In any case, if you fancy a little something sweet to go with your afternoon tea, I present flapjacks. A real British treat.

Flapjack Recipe
125g soft brown sugar
2 - 3 tbs golden syrup
125g butter
250 g oats (havermout in Dutch)

  • Put the sugar, syrup and butter in a mixer. Blast it until combined and add the oats and thoroughly mix. 
  • Spoon the mixture into a shallow, greased oven dish and cook for 20 to 30 minutes on 180c. 
  • Once it's brown around the edges take it out of the oven.
  • Leave it to cool for a few minutes or the flapjack will crumble in to a squillion crumbs but you can already carefully mark pieces with a sharp knife. 
  • Once the flapjacks have cooled slightly (and hardened a bit) you can cut and put on a cooling tray.
  • Eat with a lovely cup of steaming hot tea.

Bob's your Uncle - an afternoon treat.

Monday, 3 February 2014

To Learn Dutch or Not to Learn Dutch - That is the Question.

Should you have to speak Dutch to live in the Netherlands?
Photo Credit: Danagouws
A week ago, junior social affairs minister, Jetta Klijnsma, put a proposal on the table for temporary welfare cuts for those claimants living in the Netherlands who do not speak Dutch. It's not the first time this idea has been put on the political table, and each time the idea hits the headlines, there is controversy. It certainly opens up a debate. A fierce one at that.

In 2009, Utrecht council wrote to 1300 benefit claimants threatening that their benefits would be reduced if they did not attend a naturalisation course (inburgeringscursus), even though this group were Dutch passport holders and were not obliged to undertake a Dutch course.

In 2011 the council in The Hague put a stop to some benefits after recipients refused to take Dutch language courses. In 2012 85 people lost their right to benefits in The Hague when they failed to begin a language, despite repeated warnings about the consequences.

The theory is, according to councillor Norder in The Hague, that such measures provide an incentive to learn Dutch, and therefore enables participation in the Dutch labour market.

The proviso of receiving benefits from the government is that a claimant makes every effort to find work as soon as possible. Without any command of the country's language this job search is made much harder.

The Green party representative for The Hague, David Rietveld, questioned whether those following a Dutch course were then actually able to secure work, though he did say he had no problem with those people refusing to learn Dutch losing their benefits.

In 2012 the VVD wrote a proposal to this effect - anyone receiving benefits should have to prove that they have a command of the Dutch language, by means of an inburgeringsdiploma, or proof of eight years in the Dutch education system. Without this proof benefits would be reduced.

The latest proposal is a watered down version of the original coalition agreement which wanted to make Dutch language skills a compulsory part of eligibility for Dutch welfare benefits. However, this clashed with international law and had to be revised.

In his first King's speech last September King Willem Alexander announced that the Dutch welfare state is a thing of the past, and instead we need to think along the lines of a 'participation society'.

It is all part of the political pledge to make the Netherlands less of a welfare state and help welfare recipients become more employable. The Netherlands has traditionally been known as a country that looks after its citizens, in many cases, a little too well, and the changing political and economic landscape means changes are necessary. The generous welfare system can no longer be afforded.

As an expat, this is a topic which fascinates me. I'm a linguist, and have been since I started secondary school, so the idea of moving to country and refusing to learn the national language seems odd to me personally. I started learning Dutch before I moved here, in fact I started trying to understand at least the basics as soon as I met my Dutch partner.

When I moved to the Netherlands in 2000 my command of Dutch was basic. And that is an understatement but I kept at it. In the first few months in my new land I job hunted. It's no surprise that without a competent level of Dutch my options were limited to international companies with a working language of English, of which there are surprisingly many in the big cities.

However, with no reasonable command of English or Dutch there is no way I would have been able to find a job in 2000 when I arrived. Had I refused to learn Dutch at that time and therefore reduced my job opportunities significantly, would it have been reasonable to claim money from the Dutch government, from a system I had contributed nothing to? There seems to be only one fair answer to that.

If you search expat fora a common question from people thinking about moving here is, "Do I need to learn Dutch to live in the Netherlands?" And the answer is generally, "Not necessarily." This is because of the number of international organisations based in the country, plus the excellent linguistic skills of the Dutch population. But do those reasons make it right to move to a country and refuse to learn the local language?

I have my own opinions. I'm a linguist. I believe it is impossible to integrate into a society when you don't speak the local language. And no, it is not easy to operate in a second language. There are many personal and cultural situations that make learning Dutch (or any other language) an uphill battle but a flat out refusal to make any attempt to speak Dutch certainly doesn't make a fruitful life overseas particularly viable, in my opinion.

Should benefits be reduced for those refusing to take and then pass a Dutch language course? The answer to that is not a straightforward yes or no. I can perfectly understand the argument to reduce hand outs to those refusing to help themselves in the job market, or who point blank do nothing to help themselves be employable - and that is not just based on the ability to speak the national language. However, there are also some genuine situations where I can imagine it is extremely difficult to reach a competent level in a second language and thus withdrawing benefits would have dire consequences.

It remains a well-debated topic, not just here in the Netherlands, but around the world. Over to you - I would love to hear your thoughts.

Should those moving to the Netherlands make every effort to learn Dutch? Should welfare benefits be reduced for those refusing to learn a local language? Is the same debate raging in the country you call home?