Monday, 29 September 2014

New Expat Blog Link Up: All About October

There's no running away from it as I look outside my home office window to be greeted only by rain and grey sky. Summer is over here in the Netherlands. Well and truly. Autumn is here. That is what the closing in of October means to me. Autumn. The calm before winter shows up.

I make it sound like it's a bad thing, but really I don't feel that way. I love autumn in the Netherlands, just like I loved autumn back in England. But what does a Dutch October look like? What happens in October? What do I like about October in the Netherlands? What bubbles on Dutch stoves in October? What celebrations take place in October?

The answer to these questions, and many more, will be revealed next week in my blog post "All About October in the Netherlands".

And as a bonus all you amazing expat bloggers out there can link up a post about October in the place you call home. Share with us what you like, what you don't like, what sets October apart from other months in your adopted homeland.

Are you in? The blog link up will go live on Wednesday 1st October and will be open the whole month. Can't wait to learn about October around the globe!

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Through the Keyhole - An Expat Brit Lives Here

Photo Credit: Bill Davenport
As a British expat in the Netherlands I stick out like a sore thumb. Just by opening my mouth I am easy to pick out as different from the locals. (See Stuart's fabulous Invading Holland post "Oh, You're English" if you want to know a little bit more about what I mean). But most of the time it doesn't feel like it's entirely a bad thing. Not at all.

What seems like many moons ago I wrote a guest post for Meghan's wonderful Bringing Up Brits site about how my three sons, who are Dutch through and through, stand out a little from other Dutch boys because their mother is British. It got me thinking about how I stand out as British when Dutch people come to our house.

Magazine Rack: At any given time our magazine rack has old copies of some British magazine or other that friends have kindly donated to me, or that have been picked up on our travels. There was a time when it was hard for any Dutch guest to find something they could read but over the years the tables have turned. 

Music: Many of the CDs I own wouldn't have made their way into the average Dutch home. I'm talking about the very British music that never really made a name over here, those bands and singers I mention that make my husband screw his face up in confusion.

Food: My food cupboards and fridge contain jars of Colman's Mustard, boxes of Paxo stuffing, Marmite, Branston pickle, Hayward's pickled onions, mint sauce, Ambrosia pudding rice and custard and Bisto. These are not every day items from the local Dutch supermarket. They are expat shop specials, or brought lovingly over by visitors from England or hoarded in a squirrel like manner whenever I am back in England for transport back to my Dutch kitchen cupboards. 

Recipe books: You can't beat a good apple crumble, Yorkshire puddings or scone recipe so my kitchen shelves are filled with the type of recipe book you won't find in a Dutch bookshop. My shelves were once lined with weaning books and recipe books written by Gina Ford and Annabel Karmel. Most Dutch people looked blankly at me if I mentioned those baby and child (food and nutrition) specialists. Contrary to the rest of the Dutch population, my Jamie Oliver books are in English. I also have lots of curry recipe books. You can take a Brit out of Britain and all that.........

Affilate link: The Magic Faraway Tree Collection by Enid Blyton
Capturing childhood memories!

Books: The books I own are mainly in English. I read to relax, and I relax better in my mother tongue. That's not to say I don't read books in Dutch because I do, but the truth is most of my book collection is in English. and I used to be best friends until they changed their free delivery policy. Now my best friend is The Book Depository. And it's not just my book collection that is in English; my three boys also have an extensive collection of books in English to make sure their English keeps improving, and that they know British nursery rhymes and classic stories. My eldest and I have just read "The Magic Faraway Tree" series together - and it was hands down his favourite book ever - so far. I read the very same series as a child so it was a wonderful experience to read the three Enid Blyton books with my own son. We've just started "The Wishing Chair".

Affiliate Link to

DVDs: Way back when we first moved in together my husband and I amalgamated our DVD collection. We got rid of the duplicates but interestingly enough many of the Dutch DVDs survived the cull because they have Dutch subtitles and British DVDs don't. However, our DVD shelves are still lined with many a notable British film title.

Board Games: Our games collection gives me away too. The British version of word board games is always different to the Dutch version by way of the compilation of letters. For example the Dutch scrabble version contains 2 'J' tiles, whereas the British version contains 1. Playing Scrabble in Dutch with my British version and vice versa adds an extra challenge to the game which isn't wholly necessary. And of course British childhood classics like 'Snakes n Ladders' is unknown in the Netherlands (although I have seen versions of the game popping up quite regularly in recent years).

Bags: Giving a guest a carrier bag from Tesco, Marks & Spencers or John Lewis rather than an Albert Heijn or C1000 plastic bag to take items home in seems almost exotic. There's nothing like a Tesco carrier bag to say, "I'm foreign."

Look around you in your home - what gives you away as an expat to local eyes?

Monday, 22 September 2014

Rembrandt and Kiki - The New Kids on the Block

Rembrandt and Kiki are red-headed twins who are moving to the Netherlands. Their mother is Dutch and their father is English so they both speak two languages. These bilingual twins are mischievous and love a good adventure. I have a feeling my sons will be getting to know Kiki and Rembrandt quite well. Oh, and these 'new in town' twins are completely fictitious.

They are the brainchild of British expat Jane Archer-Wilms and Dutch national Marlies Veenhof who have colluded to create a series of books aimed at helping children improve their Dutch and/or English language skills. I caught up with them to ask them about the book series, their future plans and life before Rembrandt and Kiki.

Jane Archer-Wilms & Marlies Veenhof
Firstly, I wanted to know how they met. It turns out, like so many blossoming friendships, the two women met on a school playground, not as childhood friends but as mothers. They explain further,

"Our children go to the same Dutch primary school and we were both pregnant with our third child at the same time.... playground chat turned to regular meeting up and the friendship grew from there."

The next logical step was to write a series of books together. Right? Well, not quite but the idea was born from the desire to balance motherhood with work they could do around their children. Jane had recently stopped working at the British school in the Netherlands and Marlies was working one day a week as a primary school teacher to be able to focus more on their expanding families. Both women admit they found the idea of full time motherhood daunting and wanted a happy medium between parenting and putting the skills they had gained from years as teachers to good use. One afternoon, whilst at a children's playground, the idea of creating a bilingual book came to life.

And what do they hope to achieve with their bilingual books? Well, that's easy. Jane explains,

"World-wide fame and a seven figure salary..... Or we would settle for knowing that we have created something that children love but that also serves a purpose."

And where do the names Rembrandt and Kiki from? I naturally assumed Marlies had a hand in the choosing of the name Rembrandt but I couldn't have been more wrong. Whilst Marlies chose the name Kiki, a character that incidentally reminds her of herself as a child, Rembrandt turns out to be Jane's choice of name. It is not only a typically Dutch name, but one that Jane loves, so much so that she had the name on the list of potential names for her own sons. Her husband vetoed it but she's happy she got to name at least one boy Rembrandt in the end.

Choosing names for the book's main characters was not only the fun they had whilst creating the books. Marlies elaborates,

"For us, writing the books is the most fun. Trying to think how children think, and what they would find funny is fantastic. The translations can take weeks, as we want to stay true to both languages without compromising the story-line. It is also so exciting to see the illustrations when Sarah (Wills, illustrator) sends them through – it all comes so much to life then."

And for all budding children's book authors out there, Jane and Marlies reveal exclusively here on this blog the secret to finding a brilliant, quirky illustrator that matches perfectly with the ideas you had for your characters and their adventures,

"We were very cutting-edge in our illustrator-seeking strategy..... we used Google! Sarah is a professional children’s illustrator from Cornwall in England, and we loved her website and quirky drawing style. We approached her with our ideas for Rembrandt and Kiki, and after she sent us a few sketches, we knew we had found our illustrator."

Whilst the humour in the Rembrandt and Kiki books is aimed at children aged from four to eight, Jane states that the books are also useful for children of other ages.

"They can be read to younger children, and older children learning Dutch or English for the first time will find them accessible too. The children don’t need to be able to read; if the parents are not bilingual, they can use the free audiobooks on the website (in Dutch and English)," she says.

The books have not only been created with both English speakers and Dutch children in mind, but their parents too, as Jane further explains.

"We have really tried to make the books as user-friendly as possible, in the sense that parents can read the story fully in English, fully in Dutch, in both languages page by page, or the children can listen to all the above combinations on the free audio book. The children can, if they cannot yet read, look at the pictures and find the Dutch and British flags hidden on each page. Each book has a theme to which the children can relate, and there is a vocabulary list at the back of the book which corresponds with highlighted (and often repeated) words throughout the story. In this way, parents can also use the books to develop their child’s vocabulary in the second language."

She goes on to explain that the series they are creating works in a number of ways,

"It’s a fantastic resource for English-speaking children living in The Netherlands. It works just as effectively though for Dutch children living abroad or Dutch children in The Netherlands; it stimulates the use of a second language, be it Dutch or English. The other group we have targeted is primary schools – both Dutch and international. There is a complete scheme of work available to accompany the books, so it’s a great resource for the teaching of English or Dutch in primary schools".

Marlies, with her primary school teacher hat on, recognised that many primary school teachers felt unprepared for the introduction of teaching English to groups 1 and 2 (four to six year olds) so this series is also a means to give teachers a fun and stimulating resource to teach the younger age groups. It's an age group that both Jane and Marlies consider to be important when it comes to learning a second language.

"We think introducing a second language in the early years of school is a fantastic idea, so long as it is achievable and enjoyable for the children. We think it’s a real gift to be given the chance to learn a second language from an early age. The earlier that a child is exposed to a second language, the easier and quicker that language is to learn (as are any subsequent languages). Of course many English-speaking families in The Netherlands are here for a limited time, and we understand completely that Dutch can be a hideous language to try and pick up, particularly if you have no Dutch connections and are not here for very long. Rembrandt & Kiki is an easy and fun way of introducing and maintaining the Dutch language. It is also perhaps lovely to keep as a memento from the country in which you have lived."

And they practice what they preach too. Jane has lived in the Netherlands since 2002, and speaks Dutch (stating that it gets even better after a few glasses of wine, at least to her own ears) and her three sons are bilingual too. She also has big plans to turn Marlies' children into bilinguals, though Marlies herself needs no help with her English having taught it as a foreign language to students in North East Thailand, as well as teaching basic language skills to children in orphanages in the evenings.

And what of the future? I asked Jane and Marlies where they plan to take Rembrandt and Kiki and it turns out they have visions of European travel for the bilingual twins.

"We have big plans! We are writing an initial series of five books (plus five schemes of work for primary schools), each covering a different theme and adventure for Rembrandt and Kiki. The first one that is available to buy now is Rembrandt & Kiki Move to The Netherlands. The second one coming out in November is Rembrandt & Kiki in the Museum, the third one is at the farm and so on. We hope to write lots more books after this initial series – covering themes such as Sinterklaas, the seasons, holidays and so on. Our big plan, however, is to translate the Rembrandt & Kiki series into other languages, to be used in exactly the same way – to further a second language in other countries as well as The Netherlands. English will always be the base language, but given time, we hope to see Rembrandt and Kiki in German, Danish and Spanish, to name but a few!"

In the short term, I asked them to fast forward a year. What achievement would have them popping champagne bottles in celebration?

"We will be 10kg lighter.... oh you mean with the books? We will hopefully have the first series of five books available in paperback and hardback, along with schemes of work, and we’ll be busy writing the next series. The books will stand proudly on our bookshelves and when asked what we do, we’ll say without hesitation that we are authors of children’s books."

Both deserving of the title "Author". For sure.
I don't think there is any doubt that they may already call themselves authors of children's books. Wouldn't you agree?

June 2016 Update: There are now 6 titles to choose from in the Rembrandt and Kiki series!

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Understanding A British "How Are You?"

We were once again in the dizzying climes of Cornwall, England over the summer and obviously we came in to contact with a lot of British people. This summer I consciously observed British behaviour (don't worry, nothing creepy, just a casual-in-passing kind of mental note when I saw a custom or habit more than once. You see the longer I live away from Britain the more neutral I can be when I go back. And, quite frankly, the more "British" British people seem to me.

Take "How are you?" as an example. An innocent question for sure, but one that turns out to be very British indeed.

During the summer we were staying in one of eight cottages so there were plenty of other guests around too. On many a morning a fellow guest would walk by our cottage with a genuine smile, saying, "Good morning. How are you?" Friendly. Pleasant. A nice greeting to start the day. However, it was a fly-by question. By the time they had got to the end of the sentence they would actually be long gone, completely out of view around the corner or attending to their recycling in the barn. I realised it's a question requiring no answer. It's a way of saying, "Hope all is okay but if it isn't I don't need to hear about it."

In the eyes of a Brit there isn't anything much worse than casually asking 'How are you?" as a greeting and someone actually launching in to a long diatribe about their achey knees, how their day got off to a terrible start thanks to an exploding coffee machine and how the rest of the day isn't looking too bright either. Telling a Brit about your woes is just not done, even if they enquire about your health.

When a Brit asks you how you are you say fine. Nothing more. It's a rhetorical question. Don't share how you actually are. We're not actually that interested. It's us being polite.

Unless.... unless we are actually, genuinely interested and we are having a conversation with you. For example, we do care about how life is going for our friends, family and those with any significant relationship in our lives. On the contrary, if we don't actually know you, then the question is merely politeness.

Still not clear? Try this. If you, for example, are checking in to a hotel and the person behind the reception desk asks "How are you today?" you do not relay every detail of your horrific car journey along the M25 and what it has done to your nerves. You do not share the epic state of the pounding in your head, how tired you are and how you really just want to have a lie down before dinner. You say, "I'm fine thank you. How are you?" As a response you can expect a "Very well, thank you." Then you can check in. The hotel worker doesn't know you. He doesn't need or want to know the ins and outs of your personal life. This applies to shop workers, customer service workers and officials. In short, if you don't know a person you answer "How are you?" with "Fine, thank you."

However, if your British friend asks how you are after you landed in hospital after falling under a car (for example) then she genuinely wants to know how you are. Then it is perfectly acceptable to lay it on as thick as you like. Describe your injuries, the pain you suffered, how bloody awful you feel. She cares. She wants to know. If she addresses the same question to the stranger entirely wrapped in plaster-cast in the hospital bed next to you, their only acceptable answer is "Fine, thank you."

Easy right?

Monday, 15 September 2014

A Foolproof Way of Measuring My Dutch

It struck me over the weekend in a moment of pure brilliance that I have managed to establish a system that can accurately assess my level of Dutch. As many of you know I am British and my mother tongue is English but I spend most of my time navigating through life in Dutch. But it is by no means perfect. Not even close. Whilst reading a story in English to my seven year old son, it suddenly, out of the blue, struck me that getting a grip on what level my Dutch is actually at was easier than I thought.


Well, I can talk to my two year old in Dutch and he understands me perfectly. He doesn't correct me. He doesn't do what I ask either, because he is two and his way is better. So my Dutch language skills are better than that of a two year old. Actually he is nearly three. So, minor correction, my Dutch language skills are better than an almost three year old.

I can talk to my four year old in Dutch and he understands me. What I say quite often has no consequence, simply because he is four and he knows better. However, I do know he understands me and he also doesn't correct me. I do sometimes have to correct his de or het when he says something. It's not often mind because most of the time I am not actually sure if the noun should have de or het in front of it, so I let it slide. He also says "hij hebt..." a lot and I absolutely correct that because that is something I do know. And just so you know, should you ever hear him say that, he hasn't picked it up from me. In fact, we have no idea where he has picked up that from. Anyway, moving on. My Dutch language skills are definitely better than those of a four year old.

I can talk to my seven year old in Dutch and he understands me perfectly. But he does occasionally sometimes often have to correct me. (Well, actually he doesn't HAVE to correct me, but he does. Even though it agitates me. I'm his mother, for god's sake.) And sometimes I ask him for help with a word or two when I have to write something in Dutch and his father is not around, but in general my Dutch writing skills are better than his. (And I am well aware that he has only been reading and writing for a year but small victories and all that). Anyway, so my Dutch language skills differ little from those of a seven year old, but I do contend I have a superior vocabulary under my belt. But I fear time is not on my side.

And lastly, I can talk to my husband in Dutch and half way through the conversation I often feel like I have lost him, and his eyes are a little wild looking, as if he's not really hearing me. Then when I stop talking he reels out a list of words I used incorrectly, every noun that should have been de and not het and questions every word that I just actually made up on the spot which sounded a little Dutch at least to my ears.

From these conversations I deduce that my Dutch is nowhere near as good as a forty year old's command of Dutch.

So there you have it. The level of my Dutch language skills lies somewhere between that of a seven year old and that of someone who hasn't yet celebrated their fortieth birthday. A scientific approach it may not be, but my goodness it's accurate!

Based on my utterly amazing measurement system, what level is your second language currently at?

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Silent Sunday 14 September


Monday, 8 September 2014

That's Not Branston Pickle: The Dangers of Sandwich Making and Motherhood

The dangers of motherhood and sandwich making
Photo Credit: Pedro Simao
As a result of my blog post about all the things I never dreamed I would say before I became a parent I was reminded of a Branston pickle incident many years ago that I think I'm finally ready to share.

Picture the scene. My kitchen, just over seven years ago. My eldest son was just a few months old. He was a mere baby. Our little family comprised then only of the three of us. I was a new parent and I was sleep deprived. Bewildered. Operating on auto pilot. And I was making sandwiches for a long road trip we were about to make.

To be more precise, I was making cheese and Branston pickle sandwiches whilst my baby son lay in the play pen. Screaming. Screaming like he was being savagely attacked by rabid dogs. So I picked him up, gave him a cuddle and he stopped crying. I continued to make sandwiches with my one free hand, baby nestled in my other arm.

Drawing to the end of the 'tricky with one hand' sandwich packing process my husband took our son from me and I noticed I had pickle on my non-sandwich making arm. Strange, how on earth did that get there I wondered. So I licked it off my arm. It didn't taste much like pickle. I wrapped the last sandwich in cling film and cleared away.

"Ohhhhhhhhhh!" cried out my husband suddenly. "Nappy explosion!"

"Gadverdamme," I uttered. "That wasn't Branson pickle on my arm."

I know I'm not alone - go ahead, feel free to share your gross poop stories with us........

Monday, 1 September 2014

Setting the Counter to Zero: A Real Summer Break

Six weeks came and went and the children are now back in school. The summer holidays flew by but we wrung every drop of fun we could out of them before a new school year takes us in its grip.

We spent nearly four weeks in England, most of that in Cornwall. We saw planes, trains and stock cars. We spent time on sandy beaches, time in the countryside and time in stately houses. We witnessed jousting knights, scaled castle walls, collected glimmering shells, played in the rock pools and built dams on the beach. We ate fish and chips, bacons sandwiches, crumpets and enjoyed many an ice cream. The boys added countless words to their English vocabulary list and played with lots of British children. We had a fabulous summer holiday.

Then we had two weeks at home which we kept quiet and low key, particularly after a bad bout of man-flu hit the man of the house and put him in bed for the best part of a week. And today a new school year begins. And we are ready for it. We are refreshed. Ready for the routine. Ready to work again.

I have taken a break from the blog over the summer. In fact, I took a break from all things writing, except for journal entries and one article about school uniforms, or rather the lack of them in my life. Hopefully, none of you noticed as I worked my butt off in July to schedule weekly posts and keep new posts popping up. But it does mean I have a head full of ideas, blog posts and general musings. But all in good time.

One thing that hit me over the head hard this summer was that time is moving at an alarming pace. My eldest has started in group 4 today and with a new teacher and a new classroom my little HSC was a little stressed. In a month or so my youngest will turn three. One more year at home with me before he also starts school. My middle son continues finding his feet in group 1, but this school year in a smaller group than that of the last term of the last school year and hopefully with a little more continuity. In one way or another, they need my support to get through these first few weeks back at school.

Before the summer break I had started putting more time into this blog, taking on more monthly writing commitments and I took pleasure in watching the blog grow. But I plan to take my foot of the accelerator a little. Just a little. I'm a mama first. And I have enjoyed that feeling over the summer holiday. The calmness of no conflicts with my time - beating myself up about whether to spend time with my boys or to slip off and write a blog post. I'm not sure whether you will notice a difference here. Only time will tell. In any case, the summer holiday did us all a power of good. It provided the break we all needed. The counter was set to zero again.

I hope you have all had a great summer break too!