Monday, 31 March 2014

10 Hard Expat Lessons Learnt on the Way to A Happy Life Abroad

No matter how idyllic expat life looks, there are lessons to be learnt
 It is impossible to be an expat for thirteen and a half years and not learn something. I have watched expats around me, and learnt from them. I have learnt some things the hard way, but looking back I wouldn't have it any other way. Every experience has helped mould me and the expat life I lead today. I have reached a point of happiness, contentment and satisfaction with the life I have carved out overseas with my husband and three sons. But there is no denying there have been bumps in the road leading to the present day. There have been tough, tough days. But each bump is a lesson learnt. Here are ten bumps.....

1. Habits can be broken. When you move to a new country the things you are used to doing, and the way you do them,  may no longer be acceptable, possible or feasible. It means changing what you do and how you do it.

2. Necessities can become unnecessary. All those foodstuffs you thought you could never live without? Turns out you can - with a little weaning and cold turkey. That particular shop you loved? When it's gone the world doesn't stop turning. You may miss things for a while, but eventually you move on. You learn to live without.

3. Every negative feeling has an end. Expats go through culture shock, even experienced expats who have done it all before in different countries. It's a lot easier going through a hard, negative period when you know those feelings will come to an end. It is part of the expat package.

4. Your way is not always the right way. The people in your host country may do things a little differently. They may turn everything you know on your head. And sometimes you find a better way of doing things.

5. For everything there is an alternative or a substitute. Can't get something you deem essential? Ask around and the natives or seasoned expats will have a secret ingredient as a replacement for you.

6. Adapt or wither. You cannot move to a new country and expect life to carry on as it was. And truth be told, if that is what you want why move in the first place? If you don't change your mindset, embrace change and adapt to your environment you will lose a little piece of yourself every day until you realise you have withered away to a shadow of your former self. Tough lesson, but true.

7. Go local. Learn the local language. Being able to confidently communicate with the local people helps you adapt, feel at home and find your way around your new environment. It makes everything a little less daunting and the idea of leaving the house a little less scary. Learn about the history and culture of the new land you call home, even if it is a temporary home. If you know why things are the way they are it helps you accept the things that may be wildly different from life as you knew it. Learn about the politics of your new home.

8. Explore. There is a whole new world around you. Seeing new sights is uplifting.

9. Make friends with the locals, they are your best tour guide, information source and linguist aides. Make friends with other expats, they are the voice of experience and they know what you are going through.

10. Expat life is not a holiday. Normal life continues at home or away with all its ups and downs. Moving overseas does not mean there is no more drama in your life, or that you can escape what happens back 'home'. Sometimes it can actually make problems worse as solving issues back in your home country is harder. Expat life is not an escape from life.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Same Sex Marriage Through the Eyes of a Seven Year Old

My seven year old explained to me that he was making a flower in school, teamed up with a classmate. Another boy came over to them in the classroom and told them their flower looked more like a tree and my son told me this made him cross. After a discussion about the important thing being how he felt about his flower, he said he hoped I would like it. I assured him I would, and his classmate's mother would like his flower too.

"He's got two mothers. No father, but two mothers," he said very matter of factly. He then stated, more talking to himself than me, that he didn't know if his friend saw his father. 

"Maybe his mum didn't love his dad anymore," he said. I waited for his questions, which I could see forming in his whirring head.

"Are girls allowed to marry girls?" He asked.

I told him that it's allowed here in the Netherlands, as is two men marrying. But, I told him, in some countries it is not allowed legally. 

"Where is it not allowed?" he asked.

"Some States in America. Some African countries." I replied. 

"How did they allow it here?" he asked.

"The leaders of the country got together and made it legal." I said.

"Ah, ok. But why do people marry?" he asked. 

I gave him my best 'when people love each other' speech. And he trundled upstairs satisfied with his new knowledge on marriage around the world.

Wouldn't the world be a better place if we all saw things like same sex marriage through the eyes of a child? No judgement, no whys. Just acceptance. 

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

5 Lessons I Have Learnt from the Dutch

This is the fourth and last title in this month's expat blogging link up - it has been so much fun and I have loved reading about expat life through the eyes of fabulous bloggers across the globe - but it's not quite over yet. Here is the last one - 5 lessons the Dutch have taught me.

1. Work Life Balance: I've said it before and I'll say it again - the Dutch are work life balance masters. Leisure time is just that, and work time is kept to what is needed to get the job done. Many women work part time, and many parents arrange working hours around their home and family life. Watching the Dutch reminds me just what things are important in life. When the Dutch have free time they are out and about with their family, making the most of good weather, leisure facilities and the chance to be together. Just wander out on a sunny Sunday afternoon to see what I mean or a beautiful summer afternoon on any day of the week - the sun shines, the Dutch leave work early and head to the beach or a terrace. There isn't a 24/7 culture here, and whilst that was one of the things I needed to get used to when I first moved here, it's now one of the things I love. Not everything is open late, or on a Sunday - it forces us to slow down, relax and think of leisure time instead of errands and the demands of daily life.

2. Family Matters: The Dutch in general are very family orientated (some of my own in-laws are a huge exception to that) but I have learnt from those families around me, from society's attitude, and from cultural tendencies that the Dutch visibly and noticeably cherish their parents and their children.  Grandparents play a big role in the lives of their grandchildren and are a familiar sight on the school playground, actively busy in the daily comings and goings of their children's children. It makes me more aware of what my children's British grandparents miss out on on a daily basis and though I can't change the physical and logistical aspects of living abroad I can make sure that my children cherish their family abroad by keeping them connected, ensuring they feature heavily in the conversations we have at home and keeping them in mind.

Water into land? No problem.
3. Adapt: The Netherlanders are like chameleons. If it's cold and icy they get out their ice skates, leaving work early to head to the nearest frozen body of water (see point number 1). Kids are taken to school on sledges if the snow prevents bicycle use. In the height of sunny weather, the Dutch beaches and terraces are thronging with people. The Dutch people know they can't travel far with Dutch so as a nation are excellent linguists, switching from Dutch to English, German or French at the drop of a hat. No serious hills in the Netherlands means a national winter evacuation to winter resorts to quench the Dutch thirst for winter sports. The Dutch manage with what they have, and if they don't have it they go find it somewhere else. And if they really can't find it they make it. Like land they can actually live on for example.

4. Say What You Mean: The Dutch do not beat around the bush. If there is something on their mind, they let you know about it. It's not meant to be insulting, though for many expats that is the way it comes across - it is more about saving time and being honest. Blunt. Abrupt. Brash. It is in complete contrast to my British culture where politeness means softening a difficult message as much as possible, making it seem like less of a blow. What actually happens is that the message is lost in lots of frilly, woolly talk and the receiver of news is often a little confused about what the message means, particularly non-British conversation participants. So which is kinder? I can't say that I have become as blunt as a Dutchman, but I am working on being more direct with my words and I do appreciate knowing where I stand.

5. Birthday Efficiency: Every year I watched my dad scribble all the family birthdays onto a new calendar as a new year dawned. The Dutch have a solution - the birthday calendar hanging in the smallest room of the house. I no longer transfer birthdays onto a calendar on the first of January, instead there is a birthday calendar hanging in the downstairs toilet with all the birthdays known to us. I never need to touch it, except occasionally to add a new acquaintance or put a line through those whose birthday no longer matters (yes, I am ruthless - wrong me and your name is scribbled out on the birthday calendar). More time on New Year's Day to spend with family (see point 1).

Expat Life with a Double Buggy

Monday, 24 March 2014

Gratis? Don't Mind If I Do!

A couple of weeks back I wrote about the things I have learnt being married to a Dutchman. One of those lessons was this:
"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."
I like to be able to back up what I write with evidence and what follows is a perfect example. The Dutch supermarket chain, Albert Heijn, teamed up with the Voedingscentrum for a campaign to reduce food wastage. So, with every purchase of rice or pasta shoppers were able to take home an eetmaatje, basically a plastic measuring beaker with the correct portion size of different types of pasta and rice for a certain number of people. It's a great idea and with the first purchase of a bag of pasta my husband bought an eetmaatje home. I use it every time I cook pasta or rice now - it's a very handy kitchen accessory indeed. 

Second time he bought rice and pasta he bought home a further three eetmaatjes

So now we have four eetmaatjes taking up space in a kitchen cupboard. I was happy with one. I can only use one at a time. One was enough. Genoeg. Plenty. But no, in the eyes of a Dutchman a free item is not one that should be left on a supermarket shelf, regardless of whether or not you actually need/can use/ want it. It's free. It is actually illegal to walk out of the shop without the free item when the free item is due to you. After all, free is free. 

As far as I'm concerned this should be on the tombstone of every Dutch person: 

Gratis? Don't mind if I do.......

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Nuclear Security Summit - Location, Location, Location

If you were to wander around some parts of The Hague at the moment, you could be forgiven for thinking that the political capital of the Netherlands is under siege. Thankfully, you'd be wrong. Well, sort of.

All the security measures in a large area around the World Forum are actually preemptive security measures for the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS)* which starts this Monday, the 24th March, and ends the following day.

So, in a way, The Hague is preparing itself for a siege of sorts: More than 50 countries are sending prominent delegates, as well as other international organisations who will attend in an observation role. 58 world leaders, 5000 delegates and 3000 journalists will be streaming into The Hague over the next two days and the eyes of the world will be on the Dutch city.

No wonder then that the security measures are debilitating for the local residents who suddenly find themselves in all effects cut off. Many roads are closed (some from Friday 21st already), public transport routes are disrupted, air space will be cleared above parts of the Netherlands, coastal waters will be a no-go zone within a kilometre of the Dutch shore, some beaches are off limits, as are some hotels, and there are barriers, cameras and (military) police and missiles lurking in places you don't even want to think about. (You can find all the current information linked to this article on the NSS website to keep up to date with traffic restrictions). But be assured, everything is being done to ensure that you, Joe Public, suffers the least inconvenience possible,

"The authorities are doing their utmost to ensure that any inconvenience to the public is kept to a minimum. Nevertheless, motorists travelling between Amsterdam, The Hague and Rotterdam should be prepared for severe disruptions. The same applies to the area around Wassenaar, Leiden, Katwijk, Noordwijk, the ‘Bollenstreek’ and Haarlemmermeer. 
At times of peak travel, there will be a ‘rush hour over and above the regular rush hour’. The director-general of Rijkswaterstaat Jan Hendrik Dronkers has said, ‘Our advice is not to go to this part of the Randstad on Monday 24 March and Tuesday 25 March, if you don’t absolutely have to. If possible, try to work from home or some other location.’"
Ah, disruption in the Bollenstreek -just as Keukenhof opens its doors to the public. Gratis tip - stay away from the opening weekend in Lisse and go next weekend instead. (Second gratis tip for the smart ones  - stay away next weekend too because the Keuekenhof will be busy with all the people who didn't go this weekend.)

Businesses and organisations around the World Forum have essentially been told to shut their doors to their employees from today, as well as all tourist and cultural attractions (think Omniversum and Museon) so if you were thinking of taking in the sights of the Hague I would think again.

The suggestion is that employees work from home but if you consider the organisations that are situated in the immediate vicinity of the World Forum Centre (Europol, OPCW) it would be worrying to think about some of them taking their work home with them. In short, for security reasons many of these employees are unable to work from home. If the weather plays ball maybe they could spend their days off work with a laptop on a beach. Oh no, wait, some beaches may be closed.

Cameras, screens, road signs, barriers - preparing for the
You get my point. It is disruption with a capital D. And then there is the cost. I read some Dutch comments on a recent online news article that assured me they were under the impression that the Netherlands is not bearing the financial costs for hosting this summit. After I wiped up the coffee I inadvertently spit out whilst laughing, I clicked on the link that one knowledgeable reader posted who's head is not up in the clouds to learn that the summit is costing..... drumroll......
"The budget to organise NSS 2014 is €24 million, excluding security costs...... 
The €24 million budget will cover the cost of the location, organisation, catering, technology, ICT and transport for delegates. It will be paid from the central government budget, more specifically from the Homogenous Budget for International Cooperation (HGIS, a sub-budget within the central government budget to promote cooperation and coordinate various ministries’ expenditure on foreign policy). A number of companies are also willing to act as sponsors in kind."
This is again taken direct from the NSS website, and of course is only half the story. €24 million does not take into account economic losses due to the inability of employees to get to work, lost revenue from attractions that are closed, the hours of traffic jams etc etc etc. There is no compensation for those, like my father in law who works for himself, who cannot work on Monday and Tuesday because of closed transport links. Oh, and of course the security costs are not included - which are immense! I am not sure The Hague has seen anything like it before.

So, to say that the summit has attracted attention (positive and negative) is an understatment. This information taken from the NSS website then is hardly surprising,

"Three-quarters of the Dutch public are aware that a major summit – the NSS 2014 – will be held in The Hague at the end of March. Awareness is even greater among people living in The Hague region (86%) and among residents of The Hague (94%). Most people are also aware that the summit is about nuclear terrorism (63% of the Dutch public, 68% of people living in The Hague region and 82% of residents of The Hague)."

One of the many strange security preparation
measures for the NSS in the World Forum
car park
Unless you are a hermit, it would be extremely difficult to miss that something major is going on in The Hague this weekend, and if you really were unaware you'll soon know about it when you spend your weekend sitting in a traffic jam. Or are carried off by military police because you stumbled into the wrong zone.....

Hosting an important global summit in the most densely populated country in Europe is no easy task. My condolences to those behind the scenes who have been planning this for the past goodness knows how long - deep breath, it is nearly over. I am guessing their families can take them straight to an asylum or a hospital on Wednesday.

If you happen to be one of the many adversely effected by the summit take heart from the benefits of hosting such a prestigious event (from the NSS website):

"What are the benefits of NSS 2014?
This question can be answered on several levels:
  • a safer world and therefore a safer Netherlands;
  • confirmation of the role we fulfil internationally;
  • positioning of the Netherlands in general and as a country of peace, justice and security in particular;
  • positioning of The Hague as an international city of peace and justice."

Makes it all better right?

*Disclaimer* I know the NSS is important. I know it's prestigious for the Netherlands to host the summit. I know it's great to welcome Obama to The Hague. I know my boys will love seeing the jet fighters zoom (do jet fighters zoom?) over our house a hundred times a day. I know my husband is not making much of a sacrifice being forced to stay at home for three days. I know. So don't post comments about how wonderful it all it. And how we should all count ourselves lucky. I know and I do. But really? The location sucks.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Boy Tooth Fairies Don't Mind Messy Bedrooms

"Have you tidied your bedroom? The tooth fairy is not coming in to your room when it's such a mess," I told my son who was clutching his front tooth in the palm of his hand.

"Does she need to walk in my room?" he asked in all seriousness.

"Yes," I stated stony eyed.

"But I thought she could fly," he said.

"Yes but...with such a mess she won't be able to find your tooth," I explained.

"Doesn't she know all kids put their teeth under their pillows? She doesn't need to look to find it," he retorted in a tone that suggested he thought the tooth fairy may not be the cleverest of fairies.

"But if she can't even see your bed because of all the stuff in front of it, she won't be able to find your tooth," I responded getting a little exasperated with the conversation, and a little frustrated by the lack of movement towards getting his bedroom spick and span.

"Can the tooth fairy be a boy?" was his follow up.

"Why?" I asked, knowing full well the direction my son was taking. "Because boys don't mind mess? Is that what you're thinking?"

"No, mama," he said sheepishly heading to his bedroom.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

5 Reasons I'm Glad my Children (Already) Speak Dutch & English

This is the third post in this month's expat blog link up about Celebrating Expat Life. You can link up your post on any of the titles so far this month at the bottom of this post - and read posts from fabulous expat bloggers across the globe.

You can read my 5 things I love about my expat life or the 5 reasons I'm glad my children are both Dutch and British in earlier posts.

This week here are my 5 reasons I'm glad that my young children are bilingual and can speak both English and Dutch, albeit the latter better than the former.

1. Aside from all the Benefits of Being Bilingual?: The positive elements of being raised bilingually are widely documented and study after study shows that the benefits are multiple. Speaking more than one language means more brain connections are made and in short bilingual speakers are a little smarter than mono linguists. Speaking multiple languages improves the ability to multitask, as the brain is switching between at least two different language structures. Memory improves. It has also been shown that being bilingual keeps dementia and Alzheimers longer at bay (that's what I told myself when I kept calling a banana an umbrella last week). I think those in themselves are pretty convincing reasons to be glad my sons are bilingual but if you don't believe me, how about from the mouth of a multilingual child, courtesy of Rita Rosenback?

Photo Credit: Valeer Vandenbosch
2. Making Language Learning Easier for Them: By learning two languages from birth I believe that they won't have to work as hard as I did to be able to speak different languages. I learnt French and German in school, and a minuscule amount of Italian and I had to work hard to do so. For my three sons English will be one less subject to worry about in school by the time they start formally learning English. It will be second nature to them and I hope they will find English lessons easy. I also believe it will pave the way should they wish to learn other languages.

3. Native Speakers: My three sons are learning a second language without having to do it formally in school - they start earlier than their classmates and have a native speaker at home to talk to, as well as other family members in England. They will continue to learn English in a natural setting, instead of only in the formal setting of a classroom. It can only help them when I think in terms of accent, pronunciation and the amount of practice they get.

4. Communication: Seeing that my husband is Dutch and I am British it was always an important point for us that our children should be able to communicate effectively with both sides of the family. That meant that learning English was a must if they wanted to be able to talk to my family, who are absolutely not linguists, and certainly no Dutch speakers. Watching their English develop, and hence their ability to talk to my family in England, is priceless, considering most of their peers would, as yet, be unable to carry out a conversation in English. It certainly helps them build a relationship with my British relatives and friends.

Photo Credit:
5. It's a Small World: I love that they know from an early age that the world extends beyond the borders of the country they live in. They are familiar with many British things because they speak English. Language and culture is a package and they are well aware of a world outside of the Netherlands from a very early age.

On a final note: I am also hoping that my three sons will play an important part in the education of the next generation of English speaking Dutch people. They'll be able to correct those typical Dutch mistakes that all children seem to be taught in school, and maybe, just maybe, there will be around 90 other children making their way in the world with the correct pronunciation of iron, a better understanding of the difference between England and Great Britain and knowing that the words teach and learn are not interchangeable.

Expat Life with a Double Buggy

Monday, 17 March 2014

Learning to Write Dutch Style

Photo Credit: Krzysztof Szkurlatowski
My son moved to group 3 last September of primary school. It's a tough year for the little ones as it's the year they learn to read and write and actually start having to do some work, instead of just playing.

So we dutifully trotted off to the information evening in school and the teacher went through the material and methods they use to teach the six and seven year old how to read and write. I discovered that my son is learning to write deftig style.

"What's that?" I whispered behind my hand to my husband.

"Erm.. it means posh," he answered.

"So he's learning to write posh?"


So there you have it. My eldest son is learning to write posh.

Friday, 14 March 2014

The Real Secret of Dutch Happiness

The Dutch fare very well in just about every happiness survey going. And I recently discovered why. I have learnt the secret. Dutch happiness comes in a jar.

I had resisted buying such 'troep' for many years, disgruntled enough that hagelslag made its unwelcome way into my kitchen cupboard. Then for some unknown reason, in honour of my son's friend coming to lunch, this jar jumped into my shopping basket.

And oh my god it's good. Too damn good to be eaten by children.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

5 Reasons I'm Glad my Children Are Dutch & British

Welcome to the second post in this month's Celebrating Expat Life Blog Link up series. The idea is to share the many positive things about living overseas, the great things about bringing your children up in a multicultural and multilingual environment and focus on the things that make your expat life great. You can grab the link button at the bottom of this post, as well as link your own post using the InLinkz link. If you tweet about this link up please use #ELWADBlinkup. 

Meanwhile, here are 5 things I love about the fact that my three sons are both Dutch and British nationals.

1. Bilingualism: All three sons speak Dutch and English. Giving a child that kind of head start in a country where English is the second language anyway is fabulous. My seven year old is in quite the unique position in his school class as he already speaks a second language well. I love the fact that my sons automatically rolls their 'r's when speaking Dutch and can actually pronounce English words that most Dutch people struggle with (like the word iron which is always pronounced wrong here). Bilingualism is one of the greatest advantages of being raised with two national identities or cultures. 

2. Their World is Bigger: When two nationalities, cultures or languages are familiar then the world opens up a little further to you. My sons will have more choices in front of them, ranging from study options to country of residence. Right now, whilst they are young they have more options than their peers when it comes to the little things. They already have the choice between a bedtime story in English or in Dutch. They can watch a movie in English or Dutch. They eat food their friends don't. They regularly visit England. They celebrate British holidays. They learn about how things are in England, yet the Netherlands is their home. When they are older they can play football for the Dutch elftal or the English national team - the choice is theirs. They can represent the Netherlands at the Olympics or join the British team. Two cultures, two languages, two nationalities - their world is automatically bigger.

3. Strong Roots: I love the fact that I can share British things with my children and show them how it is a part of who they are. I tell them about their British heritage and not only is it interesting to them, it is also good for them. Research has shown that, 
"The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned."
4. They Stand Out in A Dutch Crowd: Sometimes children don't want to stick out, but being part British in the Netherlands gives them a subtle way of standing out. Nothing outrageous, just a little trait that I think is a great talking point.

Hagelslag - that's chocolate sprinkles to you and me
Photo Credit: Ekki
5. Mixing it Up: The fact that I want to share British things with my children means we get to mix up two cultures in our house and thus we enjoy a hybrid culture. My sons will happily eat baked beans on toast but I wouldn't dream of trying that delicacy out on any of their friends because I am pretty sure it would be discarded at one glance. It's something that other Dutch children would not be eating at home. The same goes for boiled eggs and soldiers - a unique British breakfast that means nothing to Dutch children. At the same time my boys are also delighted to tuck into bread covered in hagelslag for breakfast. They are ecstatic at the idea of Sinterklaas coming to town, but they also get to enjoy a visit from Father Christmas - something that their Dutch friends don't experience. There are times when my three children are very typical little Dutch boys, there are times when at least my oldest could be British and there are days when they are a perfect mix of Dutch and British.

Choosing to live away from family throws up many challenges - from the moment you know you are pregnant abroad, to birth and far, far beyond - for more stories about parenting abroad check out our Kickstarter page for Knocked Up Abroad Again.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Expat Life: The Dark Side of Making Friends

The scars run deep
Photo Credit: Martin Boose
Many moons ago, when I was a much younger and naiver expat, I met a group of people that chilled me to the bone. The experience scarred me for life, and made me wary of expat groups.

I read a blog post yesterday which made me laugh. Just for a minute or two. Before the post reawakened sleeping memory cells I thought I had buried deep, and my harrowing experience blasted back into my mind. I felt for an instant whisked back to that bar, whisked back to an expat life I used to know.

When you're an expat, meeting new people is a priority. It can be the difference between sinking and swimming in a new land. Expats often gravitate towards other expats, and there's nothing wrong with that, but just because you have the commonality of living outside your home country it does not by any means mean you have anything else in common, or that you are destined to be life long buddies. Trust me, I know that the hard way.

It wasn't long after I moved to the Netherlands, and by long I mean it was a year or so after arrival, when I actually stopped being incredibly overwhelmed and wanted to meet other people who I thought would know how I felt and who would help me adjust to life overseas.

For a while I struggled with the feeling that whilst I am an expat I'm not the same as some other expats. At the time I worked with a lot of expats but they were expats who had no intention of putting down roots in the Netherlands, making friends with the locals or even learning to speak Dutch. After a few years in the Netherlands, they would be off again to another far flung destination. They were a different breed of expat, so certainly not in the same boat as me.

Making friends with the locals proved hard. Without a good command of Dutch I wasn't really destined for any Dutch speaking groups and so I felt a little in limbo, stuck between the expat world and the world where the locals circulated.

It should have been so much fun
Then I came across a group that seemed perfect. On paper. Like minded expats who were with local partners, who were carving out a new life for themselves here in the Netherlands. And after some deliberation I went to a get-together in a bar.

Oh, what an evening it was. The worst evening I have ever had in the Netherlands. Quite possibly the worst social occasion of my life.

I was sandwiched between Mrs Depressed and her Angry Daughter and Mrs I Don't Want to Be Here.  Mrs Depressed loved her partner but hated her life, hated Dutch food, hated that people wouldn't talk English to her everywhere she went, hated Dutch supermarkets, hated that she couldn't buy the things she could buy in her local Tesco in England, hated that Dutch people were blunt, hated that she had no friends, hated Dutch stairs, hated all the Dutch administration she had been subjected to. You get the picture.

Angry Daughter thought her mother's partner was nice but hated her life in the Netherlands and resented her mum for dragging her away from her home country. She longed too for the aisles of a Tesco supermarket.

Mrs I Don't Want to Be Here had a baby but was considering running away from both her baby and her husband because she hated everything and everyone that even remotely seemed Dutch.

I listened (and barely spoke) for a few hours to nothing but how terrible life was in the Netherlands. I seem to have caught an entire group of expats in a bad place on their culture shock curve, and they did nothing but egg each other on to see who could make the most negative comment about expat life in the Netherlands or anything Dutch.

By the time I escaped I felt violated, battered and bewildered. Why wasn't I experiencing life in the Netherlands as something so terrible and soul destroying? Was there something wrong with me that I actually liked life in the Netherlands? I had arrived at the meet feeling quite optimistic and perky. By the time I left I wanted to throw myself under a tram to ensure I NEVER experienced another evening like I had just had.

Needless to say it took me a long time to get the courage up to attend any gathering that comprised wholly of expats. I get that expat life can be tough, and it can help to talk about it over a good pint of Guinness, but there is a limit.

So now, I'm very careful about the groups I get involved it, and surround myself with positive, happy people, people who get that living in the Netherlands is a privilege and not a disaster.

How have your attempt to make friends as an expat gone? I would love to hear your success stories, and about those not so positive occasions.....

Friday, 7 March 2014

Please Mind the Hole

This has been the view from my front door this week.

You can't tell from this photo but the hole was deep enough to lose a small child in but I didn't dare get any closer to take an aerial picture for fear of being flattened by a digger. Suddenly on Tuesday a group of burly men clad in florescent orange jackets appeared and started pulling the paving slabs up from our street. A little baffled, we watched them as they moved their way down the street and parked themselves in front of our house, leaving no slab unturned as they charged like locusts through the street. Apparently it was a planned action that the council had forgotten to inform the residents about.

Anyway.....the next day the workmen removed the drain from the middle of the street. And then disappeared on yet another fag break/coffee break/lunch break leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the street.

I had already chuckled to myself about the lack of health and safety precautions. Then my husband stood at the kitchen window and called out to me laughing,

"Look at that! You wouldn't see that in Britain would you?"

No, no you wouldn't. 

Luckily they did fill the hole in with a new drain thingumajig before they packed up and went home later that day, presumably after fishing out small children, lost dogs and unfortunate cyclists.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

5 Things I Love About my Expat Life

Welcome to this first post in this month's Celebrating Expat Life Blog Link up series. The idea is to share the many positive things about living overseas, the great things about bringing your children up in a multicultural and multilingual environment and focus on the things that make your expat life great. You can grab the link button at the bottom of this post, as well as link your own post using the InLinkz link. If you tweet about this link up please use #ELWADBlinkup. Meanwhile, here's what I love about my expat life.

Expat life is no holiday, but if you're doing it right there are a mountain of positive things to get out of living overseas. Here are 5 things I love about my expat life.

1. I Have a New Comfort Zone
My comfort zone disappearing on the horizon
Moving abroad took me so far beyond the borders of my comfort zone they became a speck on the horizon. From the moment I stepped on the ferry in England to a new life in the Netherlands I couldn't see my comfort zone, even if I squinted really hard.  It turns out that that one way ferry ticket was also a ticket to a whole new comfort zone. All those things that were foreign a decade ago are now a huge part of what makes me feel safe, at home and content. I'm not sure if my safe circle expanded or moved entirely but I do know that my expat life revealed that I am more resilient and more capable than I had ever imagined. I have taken a risk with my career and made difficult personal choices because I feel stronger and braver for having made the move abroad. Being an expat has made me challenge myself more than I ever would have back on British soil.

2. Expat Life is Enriching
I love that so many new things came into my life when I became an expat: people, food, music,

sights, language, culture, travel experiences, books, films, traditions, celebrations. Being able to watch The Bridge in Swedish/Danish with Dutch subtitles and understand 100% of what is going on gives me a huge sense of satisfaction and pride. The people I meet are colourful and culturally different from me. And I love the fact that even after more than thirteen years of living in the Netherlands I still discover and learn new things on a regular basis. Being an expat gives a new spin on the humdrum of daily life.

3. Expat Life is a Cultural Adventure
My husband was raised in a different culture to me. He grew up with different traditions and customs, he listened to music that is unfamiliar to me, he celebrated holidays I had never heard of before I moved here in 2000, he went to school in a system that I have no first hand knowledge of. I watched TV programs that he never saw, my British education had a different emphasis than his Dutch schooling, I ate cereal each morning for breakfast as he tucked into his hagelslag. Life was very different for us as children and as a couple now we try to find a middle way through both our cultures and pass the best of British and the best of Dutch to our three sons.

4. Expat Life Gives Me the Best of Two Worlds
As an expat in the Netherlands I get to celebrate Dutch Sinterklaas and British Christmas. I live my life in two languages, in Dutch and English. I eat ginger nuts and speculaaskoekjes. I can whip up (or mash up) a stamppot at the drop of a hat or prepare an English trifle. I can get off the telephone having spoken to my dad in English and switch to Dutch to talk to my father-in-law. I appreciate a good Dutch Queen's Day celebration (soon to be King's Day) and could watch the British Queen's Jubilee celebrations with a sense of pride. There are many things that were no part of my life fourteen years ago which now make up my expat world - but I still get to keep many of the things that have been part of my life since childhood. I truly have the best of both worlds.

5. Expat Life Makes me Appreciate my Roots
Most of the people I have contact with on a daily basis are Dutch. I stand out like a sore thumb, even though I can communicate with them in (my imperfect) Dutch. There have been times when I have struggled with this, but that is no longer the case. The longer I live away from Britain, the more I understand what characteristics, habits and behaviour makes me British, and why I can never wholly blend in with the Dutch - even if you ignore the fact that most Dutch people tower over me. I have actually grown to be very proud of my British roots, and the Dutch love hearing about how things are done in Britain compared to their home country. I'm the only British expat living in my street. As far as I know I'm the only British parent at my son's school. Being British makes me stick out from the crowd, and I have grown to love that.

Expat Life with a Double Buggy

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Today's the Day for My Annual British Pancake

Today is pancake day, or Shrove Tuesday if you want to get technical. Growing up in Britain this was the only day of the year we really ate pancakes. And then as pudding, not as our main meal. It was a festive affair, and something to get excited about.

Every year, on this Tuesday we would sit in the kitchen watching my mum mix up a large batch of pancake batter and then ladle it into the hot pan. She'd quickly swirl the pan around so the batter entirely covered the bottom of the pan, and we'd watch the pancakes take form.

When one side was done, she'd toss them into the air. Occasionally they landed on the floor, but most of the time the pancakes ended safely back in the pan. As we got older we were allowed to try our hand at tossing pancakes, invariable ending in disaster. Then we'd be waiting on the sidelines ready for our mum to slide a pancake out of the pan onto the plates in our outstretched hands.

On the dining table there'd be white sugar and Jif lemon waiting for us. The pancake was only ready to eat once we'd sprinkled sugar over it, lashed it with drops of lemon juice and then rolled it up.

The origins of pancake day lie in getting rid of foodstuff to prepare for Lent. It's Fat Tuesday, mardi gras or carnival time, depending on where you live. For us as young children pancake day was the day before we gave something up for Lent. As we got older this stopped, and it just became a wonderful family tradition.

Essential ingredient for my annual British pancake
Photo Credit: Adam Eret
When I moved to the Netherlands I discovered that the Dutch are pancake crazy, but the pancakes here are not the same as my annual pancakes growing up. Dutch pancakes are much thicker, and the Dutch have dreamt up just about every feasible and unlikely topping you could imagine for a pancake. Delicious but nothing nostalgic about them. 

Pancakes are no longer a once-a-year affair for this expat Brit and pancake day will certainly not hold the same lure for my children as it did for my brother and me - I guess when you live in a country where it's acceptable to have pancake day any old day of the week an annual pancake feast will never have quite the same appeal.

In any case Happy Pancake Day - and if you fancy doing it British style today head over to Smitten by Britain for a pancake recipe