Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Behind the Scenes of Dutched Up!

Dutched Up!: Rocking the Clogs Expat Style is the first published book I have been a part of, but I have of course read other expat anthologies (Tales from the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey (Seal Women's Travel) being one of the most memorable). What I had never thought about whilst reading these anthologies was how they came to be. Until I was involved in contributing to such a book. And then I got to thinking about what happened behind the scenes when these women came together to tell their stories. Were they written in isolation? Did they remain strangers? Or did the book create a group of women who were bound by what they had written? Did they stay in touch during the years following the book's publication?

In any case, I do know a little of what happened behind the scenes when 27 expat women bloggers in the Netherlands came together to write a book. And that's the basis of my latest article for expatsHaarlem:

"In April 2013, I received an email from a stranger. The gist of the message was whether I wanted to be part of a book about expat life in the Netherlands. I, of course, said yes.

That stranger turned out to be Olga Mecking, who you may also know as The European Mama – and she was – in all seriousness, together with Lynn Morrison (aka The Nomad Mom Diary and also the brainchild behind the project), putting an expat anthology together. 
What did I want to write about? they asked. Marriage, babies and friendship, as it turned out. And coincidentally, those three themes have run through the creation of this book over the last eighteen months."

You can read the rest over at expatsHaarlem.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Our British Dutch Christmas

This time of year is oozing with nostalgia, with childhood memories and traditions. However, I am an expat and recreating my childhood Christmases is easier said than done when you no longer live in the same country as the one you grew up in. Passing on the traditions that made up my festive days as a small girl to my three little Dutch boys needs a little more thought than it would if we were all living in England.

Take nativity plays for example. The annual battle over who would get to play Mary and Joseph. The work behind the scenes to create the perfect outfit to be one of the many angels or shepherds on stage. All engraved in my memory. There are lovely little photos of my brother and me in our nativity plays. But there are no nativity plays here in the Netherlands. At least not at any of the schools I know about. On the one hand, thank goodness - I cannot even begin to imagine getting three costumes sorted in a period that is already the very definition of madness, however, how sweet it would be to see my three sons on stage being a part of a nativity play.

Aside from nativity plays, Christmas carol concerts are also missing from our Dutch Christmases. As a child the whole school headed over to the church to sing Christmas carols. Some parents attended and it was the sign that Christmas was nearly here. Don't get me wrong, there are carol concerts (certainly not extremely common) but they are not related to my children's school.

Instead my two eldest boys have a Christmas dinner in school. They put on a shirt and tie and do their hair (Dutch style with gel....). Their classrooms are turned into magical twinkling spaces with candles and Christmas lights and desks become tables decked with colour and self made placemats. We parents provide a menu of hapjes that has been put together by the children themselves. At the end of their meal they sing a song for us. They have a lovely evening, and it has become a custom of their Christmas. My youngest has a Christmas breakfast at the peuterspeelzaal - his first one this year.

However, the food, putting a stocking out on Christmas Eve for Father Christmas to fill, the delivery of presents under the tree to be found on Christmas morning - that's all the traditions of my childhood, being passed on to my children.

Over the years I have been in the Netherlands, putting together a traditional British Christmas dinner has got easier. In years gone by the only way to recreate the Christmas meals of my youth was by visiting expat shops. These days Albert Heijn sells large turkeys, special to order at this time of year, parsnips have become more readily available and even cranberries are an accepted part of the festive period. However, I still need my beloved expat shop for Christmas pudding, brandy butter, mincemeat to make mince pies and proper, full size Christmas crackers, crap joke, paper hat and all.

There are compromises, and adaptations when it comes to Christmas and our mixed culture home. Our Christmas Day looks different to what is going on behind closed doors in the Dutch streets around us. And that is exactly what makes our Christmas so special - we have taken what is important to us and made it our own. It's our very own British Dutch Christmas.

Do you try to recreate the Christmases from your childhood? Are you passing on Christmas traditions to your children? Or does your Christmas look completely different these days because of where you are living?

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Santa v Sinterklaas: How We Explain it to Our Children

For some reason this year I have seen lots of questions from expats in the Netherlands about how to get their children to wrap their heads around the whole Sinterklaas versus Santa Claus thing. And when blogger Linda (Wetcreek) posed the question on my My Love Hate Relationship with Sinterklaas post, I thought I'd share how we have handled it.

The truth is that years ago, probably five or six when my son started to get a little about what was going on with Sinterklaas, my Dutch husband and I realised that the cultural clash we had when it came to the festive season actually mattered for our children.

My husband grew up celebrating Sinterklaas on the 5th December, and I grew up in complete British oblivion where 5 December was just another winter day. Until he met me, he had never had a present on Christmas Day. My Dutch in-laws changed the rules during my first Christmas in the Netherlands and there were presents under the tree - but for all of them it was a completely new concept that gifts were exchanged on the 25th December. Prior to my arrival Christmas was about a family meal.

So, from the start of our relationship it was clear that we had two very different experiences of Christmas - a Dutch celebration at the beginning of December which was alien to me, and meant nothing to me and a Christmas Day that was a much bigger affair for me than it ever was for my husband.

So I adapted, I embraced pakjesavond for my children (let's face it, if you have Dutch children there is no other way to approach 5 December) and we go completely Dutch.(This year I actually got to sit on Sinterklaas' lap - which may be taking the 'embracing' a little far - what do you think?) My husband led the way for a few years until I got the hang of it (the rules are there are no rules) and now I feel pretty confident that I could run the Sinterklaas show if I had to.

However, when it comes to Christmas, we do it British style. We hang stockings on our doors on Christmas Eve, and Father Christmas fills our stockings with little gifts and leaves presents for us under our Christmas tree.

Christmas is a bigger affair than Sinterklaas when it comes to presents, and the children know that Father Christmas will visit in a matter of weeks after pakjesavond. I guess we are lucky because so far I have never heard my children comparing their gift list to their friends - and I am pretty sure they do not feel hard done by on the 5th December. Better still, when my eldest laid in bed on the evening of the 5th December this year he uttered, "It's a shame pakjesavond is over." Then his eyes lit up, and he said, "But we have a visit from Father Christmas to look forward to!"

How do we explain it? Well, I'm British. My children are half Dutch, half British. Father Christmas comes to us (and not to other Dutch children) because my sons are half British. If anyone asks them about Christmas my sons happily reel off,

"Father Christmas comes to us because my mama is British." 

When my eldest was younger he asked if Sinterklaas knew Father Christmas, and we told him they are friends and colleagues. They share information about what children have been up to during the year - they help each other. He was happy with that. Two different figures, two different occasions.

End of Christmas story. I hope it's as easy for you..........

How do you explain cultural differences to your children during this festive period?

Monday, 8 December 2014

Journaling the Magic of an Expat December

As regular readers will know, I have long been an advocate of journaling, and in particular a fan of Gadanke journals. Now that December is underway, my Joy to the World Christmas journal is in daily use for the third year running. Can you imagine the fun we'll have in years to come when my three little boys are (I almost don't want to think about it) teenagers and we look back on the Christmas celebrations captured in the journals?

As expat adults we most likely celebrate the festive period a little differently now than when we were children. I know I do. We expats now live in a different country than the one we lived in as a child. Some of us have a family from a different cultural background to our own. We may even celebrate different holidays to the ones we did when whilst we were growing up.

We expats also go to great lengths to recreate the holidays we know and love when we are living overseas - even if it means scouring the land for an expat shop that stocks a jar of Robertson's mincemeat to make mince pies, begging family to send Christmas puddings through the post or being very creative with substitutes.

And the way we celebrate this year may well look very different next year, or in a few years time. So, I'm all for capturing moments, taking a snapshot of how things are now as a keepsake for the future.

I for one had never even heard of Sinterklaas and pakjesavond on the 5th December until 2000 when I moved to the Netherlands. Capturing my adult experiences of a childhood celebration that was not part of my childhood is something special.

The joy on my children's faces as Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands on Pakjesboot 12 in November is something I want to capture for the years ahead when they no longer believe. The excitement during the build up to the big celebration on the 5th December is something I want to hold tight, remember in the years to come. So I use my Joy to the World journal to record our family celebration of Sinterklaas, and once he gets back on the boat to Spain, I switch to Christmas mode.

Christmas. A festive celebration I know how to do. Back on familiar ground. Every day in December we do something special as a lead up to the 25th, advent envelopes with activities in that mean something to us as family. And I keep the cards in the journal, as well as photos of the activities and little notes.

The wonderful thing about Gadanke journals is that there are smatterings of hints and prompts to get me thinking about all the senses and how Christmas impacts on them: the smell of Christmas pudding, the bangs from the Christmas crackers, the scrunching of wrapping paper, the feel of little arms wrapped around my neck as we read a Christmas story by candlelight.

Journaling is also a great creative outlet - giving me the time I need to just sit quietly and reflect. December is magical, and short of being able to bottle that magic, I capture it all with my Joy to the World journal instead. You know, I think December may well be my favourite month of the year!

Tip: These journals make amazing, thoughtful and original presents for loved ones, including your children.

Do you keep a journal? How do you capture memories to look back on in the years to come?

*All links to Gadanke are affiliate links, which means if you click through and become the owner of a beautiful Gadanke journal I earn a few pennies too.* 

Thursday, 4 December 2014

My Love Hate Relationship with Sinterklaas

Let's get one thing straight - fourteen years ago Sinterklaas was a non-entity in my life. For a few years after that I saw him coming and going, getting on with his business but leaving me in peace.

Then one day, when my eldest son was a couple of years old, Sinterklaas and his staf suddenly invaded my home. He came in uninvited and practically put his feet up on my sofa for weeks on end. And he's done it every year since.

A first I didn't have feelings for him one way or another. Then another of my children reached "I get Sinterklaas" age in my home and my eldest was fully initiated in primary school.

What that means, for those of you whose children are not yet of school going age, is this:
  • Sinterklaasjournaal every day. Every sodding day. Every day here at home and in school. The boys insisted on it - and we, as caring, loving parents, also had to know what was going on so we could throw ourselves in to the storyline (read: wind our own kids up by being in cahoots with the entire Dutch nation with one disaster or another to befall Sinterklaas, his boat, his horse or, horror of horrors, the presents).
  • A house full of Sinterklaas knutsels. The first year when my son brought home a Piet muts he'd made in the peuterspeelzaal I cooed and ahhhed, like all good mothers do. Six years later and more homemade Piet and Sinterklaas hats, drawings, sacks and paper shoes than any sane person would know what to do with I'm done. Spare me. My house is one big cluttered paper mess. The drawings are beautiful, everything they have made has been lovingly put together and crafted and oh, my boys are so proud. It melts my heart. But stop already. 
  • A house full of little people who are literally bouncing off and climbing up the walls in excitement. Not just for a day. Not even a week. But weeks. Plural. The moment the man in red arrives on Dutch shores the craziness begins. My house and every Dutch school classroom turns in to a sugar induced lunatic asylum with kids bouncing off each other counting down the days until they get their presents, and Sinterklaas clears off back to Spain leaving us to clear up his mess. 
  • It means singing. A lot of singing. Now, I'm all for a good sing song. I'll croon away with the best of them. But Sinterklaas songs get tedious sang at the top of a child's voice for weeks on end. There are many Sinterklaas songs but there are only three that stick in any child's mind. Sinterklaas bloody kapoentje. Zwarte Piet ging uit fietsen and Sinterklaas is jarig, zet hem op de pot. The last song is sung in a fit of uncontrollable giggles. And the worst thing is that whilst I am trying to ingrain beautiful Christmas carols in to my sons once Sinterklaas has toddled back off to Spain, they are still singing Sinterklaas bloody kapoentje. It's around May when they finally stop.
So that's how the Sinterklaas celebration looks when your children start primary school. Seriously, count your blessings if your offspring is yet to turn four. 

On the other hand….. who could not be charmed by the excitement of three little boys whose whole world for a couple of weeks a year revolves around a fantasy? The enthusiasm they have for Sinterklaas and his band of helpers is like nothing else. When my four year old is telling me what happened in the latest Sinterklaasjournaal he is literally jumping up and down whilst talking. Who can't love the innocence of uncontainable excitement? When do we, as adults, ever get to experience such enthusiasm? 

The thrill of pakjesavond for children is immeasurable, waiting for a knock on the door, a gloved hand around the door throwing sweets at them and then….. the grand finale, the moment they have waited weeks for - the sack of presents left in the hall. And it's not about what is in those sacks left behind. It's the magic that those many sacks scattered across the Netherlands represent. A magic that only a child gets. Only a child can experience. That feeling of being so excited you feel like you could burst. And that's what I love about Sinterklaas. That's why I contain my feelings of resentment when he bursts in to my home in November, puts his feet up on my sofa and makes himself cosy until the 6th of December. For my children, who after all is what Sinterklaas is all about. 

So, however and wherever you are celebrating pakjesavond tomorrow enjoy your evening. Enjoy the moments of joy and excitement of your children, enjoy the family time - but know that I'll be the first in line to wave the good man off on Saturday morning……..

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Perfect Gifts for Expats: Gadanke Journals

Sometimes you find a product you love so much you need to shout about it - and that's why I'm putting Gadanke journals in the spotlight. It's that time of the year when we're all looking for those perfect Christmas gifts and Gadanke products are very special indeed. Gadanke is an award winning handmade journal shop using eco-friendly materials. That's it in a nutshell, but there's oh so much more.

The Story Behind Gadanke

The story of how Gadanke came about is wonderful, the idea behind the journals is heart tingling and the journals themselves are awesome.

Here's the expat bit: Katie Clemons is the face behind Gadanke, (which comes from the German word for idea or thought). Whilst living in Berlin with her German husband she crafted her first journal.

And here's another awesome bit: Katie now lives in a converted airplane hangar in the Rocky Mountains in the US, having just moved out of a tire house. You can follow the couple's creation of and move into their dream home via Katie's Making This Home blog.

But what I like best of all is that Katie's journals are more than pieces of paper strung together so that she can make a living. To Katie, it's much, much more and that is so evident in the pieces she handcrafts. She doesn't just make and sell journals, she prompts journal owners to celebrate their story, to get memories down on paper, to record the past for the future. In her own words,

"I believe story is power. It enriches our lives, challenges us to dream bigger, and strengthens future generations."

The Inspiration That is Gadanke

Katie has a Facebook page where she regularly poses questions that often make me stop what I am doing to cast my mind back. Here's an example:

"You and I are 10 years old. It snowed 12", and now we've got the whole day to play. What should we do?"

Where do you go when you think about the answer to that question? I was instantly taken back to my childhood days with my younger brother wrapped up in winter coats, woolly hats, scarves and gloves, playing in the garden trying to make a snowman. We'd beg and forage for all the bits we could use for the snowman's eyes, nose, arms...... I hadn't been to that place for a long time! It was so great to pause and rewind to the past.

Gadanke Journals

Gadanke journals are made predominantly from recycled papers and contain not only writing prompts but embellishments such as tags, little envelopes or library cards, stickers or carnival tickets. The themed journals make the perfect gift for expats.

Take the "Love where we Live" journal. Many expats move from place to place and this journal helps expats capture the essence of the place they call home. Not just bricks and mortar but what makes the town you live in tick? How does it smell? What happens there? What does the room you play in look like? Capture it. Record it. Celebrate it. When your expat adventures are over you'll have a collection of stories and memories to treasure and share with your children and their children.

What Expat Stories Have you got to Share?

Stories about expat life cry out to be captured, as Katie so wonderfully sums up,

"As expats, we're venturing into this all-new territory. Even the simplest things like grabbing a few towels at the store becomes a challenge because first you have to figure out which store sells towels! You can have the funniest experiences as well as the most frustrating. I still remember my classmates in language class pronouncing my name "Kevin"! But how much of these stories would you and I remember if we didn't pause to document them? I think that it's so important for an expat to journal. Trust me. It helps you work through your experiences. It helps you celebrate them! So many former expats have told me, "I wish I'd written that down. I wish I could remember how I felt and what it was like."

Your story matters. This adventure you're navigating through matters."

And I couldn't agree more.

I haven't even gotten round to mentioning the baby and wedding journals, kids' journals and the journal to help you find direction, to capture your travel adventures, the mother and son or daughter journals, to record recipes.... phew, you know what there are so many more why don't you head over to Gadanke and check it out for yourself.

*This post was first published on A Letter from the Netherlands in 2012 in a series about gift ideas that are perfect for expats, or that are created by expats.
Links to Gadanke are affiliate links.*

Monday, 1 December 2014

17 Must Have Items to Survive a Dutch Winter

Today marks the official start of winter. It's time to store autumn in your memory banks and get ready for the onslaught of colder, greyer, darker days. Some winters in the Netherlands are more, well, wintry than others. Last year was a rubbish winter. Surviving last winter was something everyone could do with their eyes closed. It was a shame because there is so much to love about this time of year in the Netherlands and this year, hopefully, the weather will let us see what the Dutch are really about when winter strikes.

If you want to get the most out of winter in the Netherlands you'll need these 17 items.

1. Ice Skates - as the temperatures drop the nation collectively blows the dust off their ice skates, sharpens their blades and heads to the nearest frozen puddle, pond, canal or lake to skate. It's an amazing sight for someone who did not grow up in this winter skating culture. It's not such an amazing sight for the locals to see those of us who did not grow up wearing ice skates every winter flailing around haphazardly on the ice......

For the Dutch skating is second nature and their love of ice skating is reflected in their many Winter olympic successes. How many gold medals did the British win in ice skating at the last Winter Olympics? I rest my case. That's why I stay on the sidelines and let the Dutch get on with it, but I encourage you to give it a go.

2. Eternal Hope - where there is ice in the Netherlands there is eternal hope. As the ice grows so do the hopes of a nation that this year will be the year that the Elfstedentocht takes place. Every year hopes are dashed, dreams are shattered as the ice melts. But it doesn't hurt to hope does it?

3. Sledge - if you don't have a sledge you are never going to be considered fully integrated, unless the reason why you don't have a sledge is because you are still cycling even when it snows and the pathways are covered in a thick layer of ice. Some do. I'm pretty sure they are a few sandwiches short of a picnic, but nonetheless you do still see cyclists skidding their way to work and school on two wheels on the ice. Otherwise, you need a sledge to take your children to school.

4. Winter Coat - I almost don't need to say it, but for those of you who come to the Netherlands from sunnier climes - you need a winter coat. A big thick one. See number 5.

5. Scarves and Gloves - it's a flat country, there's nothing to stop that cold, icy wind blowing over the land. There are no hills people - the wind tears over the land like a savage beast and nothing can stop it penetrating to your very core. Except a good pair of woollen mittens and a thick, homemade knitted scarf of course.

6. Umbrella - just like during the autumn months, it rains during winter too. The difference is that the rain is slightly colder as December zips by. A storm proof umbrella is probably a better recommendation for December actually, one of those funny shaped ones that promise never to blow inside out.

7. Potato Masher - winter means stamppot season. It means dinners come mashed. Stamppot is basically mashed potatoes with some kind of vegetable mashed through it, served with a bendy sausage and gravy, or jus as the Dutch more elegantly put it.

8. Hot Chocolate - if ever there was an excuse to drink lots of hot chocolate, Dutch winter is it. Going ice skating? Then treat yourself to a hot chocolate from a festive stall around the rink. Going walking? Stop in somewhere and have a hot chocolate to warm your cockles. Christmas market? Well. the day wouldn't be complete without a mug of hot chocolate. And by hot chocolate I actually mean Chocomel of course.

9. Nerves of Steel - as I touched upon earlier (see number 3) there are some that continue to get around on two wheels even then there is a smattering of ice covering the cycle lanes. In my humble, unimportant opinion, you'd have to be bonkers to cycle on ice, but if you really want a gold integration star then go ahead. Ga je gang.

10. A Sweet Tooth - during the first week of December in the Netherlands you need a sweet tooth and a hardy stomach, and good diving and evasion skills. The first week of December is the home straight to the climax of the whole Sinterklaas gedoe which has been going on for many long weeks. There are kruidnoten, pepernoten and speculaas biscuits everywhere. And I mean everywhere. And it's not unusual to have the small round kruidnoten thrown at you by an assortment of Zwarte Pieten. (Though I have noticed this year the throwing has been minimal - has that been outlawed too?)

11. An Ability to Take Things with a Pinch of Salt - and talking of Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Pieten..... When you experience your first Sinterklaas it can be a bit of a shock for an expat. Take it for what it is. If you have children, throw yourself as enthusiastically as you can in to the story that takes on a national perspective and go with the flow. You ain't gonna change it - leave that to the locals.

Shoes, shoes everywhere, but not a pair to wear

12. Spare Shoes - and still on the topic of Sinterklaas and the Dutch traditions around him, you'll need lots and lots of spare shoes. Children can leave a shoe out at the supermarket, at school, at their sports club and of course at home. The good Sint and his helpers will then fill the shoes with a small present and lots of sweets and biscuits (see number 10).

13. A Love of Pea Soup - eating pea soup in the winter is not just obligatory, it's the law. It should be the deepest green you can imagine, have slices of sausages floating in it and be accompanied by roggebrood (that's rye bread to you and me).

14. Patience - if you use the Dutch public transport system in winter you will need oodles of patience whilst trains grind to a halt because the wrong kind of snow lays on the tracks. Or the wrong kind of ice. Or just ice. Or snow. Of any type really. Just be patient. Or give up waiting for a train/tram/bus and head home to collect a bike/sldege/ice skates (see items 1, 3 and 9).

15. Transport to Germany - winter means crossing the border to visit the German Christmas markets. There are some in the Netherlands too, but if you want authentic then head to our neighbour who really knows how to 'do' Christmas markets.

16. A Supply of Gluhwein - Gluhwein tries its best to outdo it's hot chocolate colleague during the winter months and can suddenly be found everywhere as soon as December rolls in. It's a real belly warmer once the temperatures drop so worth indulging in a tipple whenever you are out and about.

(Although I would never condone an excessive consumption of the delicately spiced mulled mixture; as the Dutch say, "Geniet, maar drink met mate", which for the first few months of my Dutch adventure I translated in my head as, "Enjoy, but drink with friends" even though my Dutch partner kept reminding me it meant don't be a 'pisshead', quashing my belief that I had already, instantly,  passed my first initiation in to Dutch Society.)

17. Candles - it's not that the Netherlands has electric power issues during the winter, but if you were an alien visiting for the first time you could be forgiven for thinking this is in fact the case. The Dutch love candles during the winter - in fact the whole season is all about gezelligheid. And it's wonderful. So get those wicks burning and get cosy for the duration. See you in the spring!

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Long Dutch Words - You Can't Make This Stuff Up

My latest article has just been published on expatsHaarlem on the topic of long Dutch words. The Dutch string words together (that have meaning on their own) to make uber words.

This is a great example:

Although of course it's not a word you would hear being uttered in day to day life, it is a real word. And in case you were wondering, it's a fruit cake with every kind of fruit imaginable in it - but listed individually.

As children my dad and Gran used to wow my brother and me by reciting the longest place name in Wales (they are both Welsh):


And no, I won't repeat that. (Thank goodness for copy and paste).

Thinking back on this made me curious to know what the longest place name in the Netherlands is. Turns out it is Gasselterboerveenschemond. Say that after a glass or two of wine.

For more Dutch scrabble tips, and to learn which word is officially the longest Dutch word (the fruit cake one above doesn't count) head on over to expatsHarleem:

I would love to know - what's the longest word in your mother tongue (or second language) and the longest place name in your home or host country?