Monday, 27 July 2015

Where to Meet People When You Are The New Expat on the Block

There's no getting away from it - this is moving season. The time of year when expats leave and expat arrive. A time for hellos and goodbyes.

Moving to a new country, away from family and friends, away from a life you have built up takes a lot of courage. It can be thrilling, there is no doubt about that; meeting new people, creating a new career, experiencing new cultures and learning a new language. It can also be extremely daunting. And very lonely.

Making new friends when you arrive in a new place is usually first on the to do list after unpacking, scouting the area and getting the children settled. But how? 

There are a number of ways to meet new people who are in the same boat and they all involve getting 'out there'. Think outside the box and you are likely to meet people with the same interests.

One expat friend of mine combined one of her passions with the desire to get to know new people - she joined a book club.  Another friend, not long after becoming a mother, set up a toddler group in her host country Belgium.

I have personally found other English speaking mothers where I live using expatriate forums and even a Dutch site for 'stay at home' mums - so looking in unexpected places can yield unexpected results.

Author, Jo Parfitt, swears by networking. She told me once in an interview that one of the first thing she does when she moves to a new country is join a professional network, like Connecting Women, which is a Hague based organisation.

Here are a few more ideas for expanding that social or business network when you land on new shores (with Dutch specific links):
  • Join a Parent & Toddler group, and if you cannot find one then start up your own 
  • Join a parenting group - like Amsterdam Mamas which is an amazing group for advice, activities and information or seek out parenting events (like those hosted by Passionate Parenting)
  • Women's Professional Networks
  • Spouse networks (like the Global Outpost services of Shell)
  • Voluntary work (Access is a good place to start in The Hague or Amsterdam)
  • Book clubs, reading groups or writer's circles (Check out The American Book Center in the Hague and Amsterdam)
  • Maternity classes (Access offer English language prenatal courses)
  • Sports clubs
  • Expat forums
  • Expat groups (see the list of clubs and groups on Expatica)
  • Take a language course
  • Get involved at your children's school with after school activities
  • Indulge your hobby - join a choir, writing group or a photography or art group
  • Sign up for an evening class 
  • Local libraries have ''story time'' sessions for the children - a win win. Junior is happy and you meet other parents in the area
To close, there's a chapter on making friends as an expat in the Netherlands in the book Dutched Up!: Rocking the Clogs Expat Style including my take on making friends as an expat which is namely this: it takes time to make good friends and it usually happens when you stop trying.

Monday, 20 July 2015

The 9 Steps to a Perfect Dutch Birthday Circle Party

The dreaded Dutch birthday circle was the topic of a recent exchange on Twitter. It's often the topic of conversation in the expat corridors of the Netherlands. And there's a good reason for it.

For the buitenlanders among us the Dutch birthday party can be excruciatingly painful, tedious or downright baffling. Often all three. Once experienced it's hard to get over. But let's start at the beginning. Here's what happens.

1. Plan the Party

As with any party preparation anywhere in the world, planning for a Dutch begins in advance with a shopping list that looks like this:

The host may (or may not) order a cake at the local bakers. However, the day itself is when the work really begins.

2. Organise the Chairs

First things first. All chairs within the confines of the host’s house, and any that can be pilfered from friends, neighbours and nearby relatives, need to be meticulously arranged in a circle in the woonkamer. Space is limited in 99% of birthday party cases so the chairs need to be squeezed close together so that everyone has a chair but so that guests are not physically sitting on each other. The result is that the party-goers have to scramble over each other to get in and out of the circle. I have no idea if there is a special birthday party ruler that exists for this purpose or if Dutch people just feel by instinct when the seating is the right level of gezelligheid.

3. Clean Only Necessary Areas

Secondly, the living room needs to be cleaned from top to toe; this is after all the showcase for the rest of the house. Believe me, upstairs is not as clean, tidy and orderly as the room the birthday gathering is hosted in.

4. Brew Coffee

The next task on the to-do list is to brew gallons of coffee ready for the entrance of the guests. A lot of coffee is needed for a Dutch birthday party so it's best to start brewing a few hours before the first guests arrive. 

5. Pucker Up

Tardiness on such an occasion will not go unnoticed because as you arrive you give the birthday boy or girl three kisses on the cheek and utter ‘Gefeliciteerd met je verjaardag’. It is impossible to sneak in quietly. You must then parade around the room kissing other guests in the circle that you know. A polite nod of the head and a handshake is sufficient for unfamiliar faces. If you are not related to the jarige Job you may then take your place in the circle - which in itself is no mean feat (see step 2). 

However, if you are related to the birthday boy/girl then your work is not yet done. Each guest will now also kiss you and congratulate you on the birthday of your mother-in-law/father-in-law/husband/son etc. Then you may sit down.  However choose your place in the circle wisely. Your place in the circle is of the utmost strategic importance if you do not want to be clambering over your neighbour every time someone arrives - and the kissing ritual begins once more.

6. Open Birthday Gifts

Birthday gifts are ceremoniously given a public opening. Again, there is more circle scrambling with the exchange of more kisses, this time given as a thank you. All this happens just as you have managed to crawl over various distant relatives back to your seat on the far side of the circle.

7. Distribute the Crackers

It is now that the 'once small dry crackers but now small soggy crackers because filet americain was spread on them an hour ago' make their appearance. You are obliged to take one. And eat it. Smile and wave your hand about your ear to indicate that the cracker is lekker.

8. Distribute the Cake

If you are lucky the cake is now brought in to the room to choruses of “Lang zal ze leven” which is the Dutch equivalent of the Happy Birthday song. Lots of circle clambering and awkward passing of plates ensues.

Only once the cake is devoured may the alcohol flow (and I have heard about Dutch birthday parties that have failed to move to this latter stage of celebration, and to the expat’s horror, coffee and Spa are the only beverages making a post cake appearance - now if the time to leave if you find yourself at such a party as you know it will NOT get better). 

9. Chat Amongst Yourselves

You are required to talk to people in and around the circle, but without leaving your chair. It's an introvert's nightmare. It's living hell for expats still learning the local language. 

The more alcohol served obviously the rowdier the birthday circle becomes. It pinnacles with guests (still attached to their chairs in the circle) shouting across the circle to try to communicate with each other. Terrifying to say the least if you actually speak Dutch - too horrifying for words if you don't. 

If you are a Dutch birthday party virgin subject to tipsy Dutch strangers screaming from their chair on the other side of the room it can be traumatic. 

You have been warned.

Monday, 13 July 2015

8 Things the Dutch do Better than the English

I've been here a long time in the Netherlands now and I have learnt that there are some things that the Dutch do well. In fact there are a lot of things the Dutch do well.

Here are eight things that the Dutch could specifically teach the English a thing or two about......

1. How to Celebrate Defeat

The fact that the Dutch actually lost to the Spaniards in the World Cup 2010 final didn't make much of a difference to the after party. It was amazing. For one afternoon, everyone actually forgot that the Dutch football team had not brought the World Cup home. Even the Dutch media stood firmly behind celebrating the Dutch team's defeat. It's something that I am sure would never have happened in England; the media would have slaughtered the English team for losing the final and the English would have used the opportunity to revel in defeat - simply more fodder to moan about.

2. How to do a National Holiday

When the Dutch party on a national scale, the Dutch really party. The King's birthday (formerly the Queen's birthday which wasn't actually her birthday at all) is all the excuse the Dutch need to celebrate. The country turns orange, is adorned with flags and everyone takes to the streets. The English like to pace themselves, celebrating in this fashion perhaps once every 25 years coinciding with a jubilee of the British Queen. There was a knees up was in 1977 and then one in 2012 - I'm guessing there won't be one in 2037...... St. George's day, the national day of England, is still lacking any form of real celebration.

3. How to Tell It Like It is

The dutch don't hold back when it comes to speaking their mind. If they think it, they say it. Known for their bluntness, the Dutch make the English look like stuttering fools in the department of expressing their thoughts.

4. How to Balance Work and Family Life

The Dutch have got work life balance down to a fine art. Not that they are slackers. Not at all. It's just that whilst the English are contemplating life over their second cup of coffee at the breakfast table, the Dutch are already at their desks. And have been for hours. It means they can leave the office earlier and spend time with their families in the late afternoon/ early evening. The English have a long hours work culture - the longest work week in Europe in fact. Guess which nation scores well in every happiness survey going.....

5. How to Greet Strangers

From doctors' and dentists' waiting rooms to elevators, the Dutch don't hesitate to greet the entire waiting room or lift as they come in - loudly and confidently. The English on the other hand are masters of pretending that no other human being exists within a radius of half a kilometre. They put their heads down and stare at their feet. Should any sound pass their lips it is a bumbling mumble.

6. How to Give Flowers

The Dutch do flowers so much better than the English. In fact, the Dutch do flowers better than any other nation. They don't need an excuse or special occasion to adorn their houses with flowers. Dutch men don't need a reason to buy the women in their lives flowers. They are cheap and in abundance (the flowers, not the women). The Dutch have made a tourist industry (as well as an economy) out of flowers.  Many English men, however, still think they need to do something terribly wrong before they give their partners flowers - or wait for a special occasion.

7. How to Take the Work Out of Dinner Parties

When the Dutch host dinner parties they cleverly leave the cooking to their guests by getting the fondue or gourmet out. The English make hard work of making a three course meal they wouldn't attempt under normal circumstances.

8. How to do Post-Natal Care

Supplying a maternity nurse (kraamzorg) for the week after childbirth is part of the course in the Netherlands. It's one of the things I loved most about the birth process. Every mother is entitled to post-natal care that makes other nations green with jealousy. In England you are sent home from the hospital after a few days and left to discover the essentials of baby care for yourself. 

Mums' Days

Monday, 6 July 2015

Nobody Told Me Culture Shock Could Be So Debilitating

In September I will have been here in the Netherlands for fifteen years. Fifteen years. That's no mean feat, even if I do say so myself.

These days I struggle with my identity on an almost daily basis - I'm stuck somewhere in the middle between learning to be Dutch and naturally being British. It's a different struggle than the one I faced fifteen years ago.

I fell in love with a Dutchman, lost my job in England and decided the time was right for a change. When my then boyfriend said come live a Dutch life with me I didn't hesitate. I stopped my job search, sold my flat and packed up all my belongings in a borrowed police trailer.  Easy peasy. I became an expat - just like that.