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.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

The July 2015 Expat Life Linky

It's that time again folks! It's time to link up your most thought provoking, funny or informative new expat blog post or give an old classic a bit of a polish to set it in the limelight once more.

Last month's link up was the biggest to date and I hope that we can keep growing this #ExpatLifeLinky together - please keep spreading the word and sharing your favourites on social media.

Here are my top picks from June's linkup, in no particular order.

If you missed any of the other posts, or linked up but didin't get around to commenting on some other posts then you can find all the posts from last month here or check out the Pinterest board for an overview.

So, now time to turn our attention to July. Ready? 

It's simple:
  1. Add the linky badge (below) to your expat related post (old or new), 
  2. Link up your post below
  3. Leave at least one comment on any of the posts linked this month and sharing is also very welcome using #ExpatLifeLinky on social media

It's as simple as that. Please do not dump links and run. Tell your expat blogging friends. Spread the word on social media. The more the merrier!

Expat Life with a Double Buggy

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. 

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.

Did I stop to think about what I was heading to? Did I stop to imagine what life in the Netherlands as a Brit would be like?

Of course I did. The decision to move wasn't made on a whim, and I knew there would be some adjustments on my part. I had a new language to learn (which I started doing as soon as I met my Dutch partner) and I had a job to find in a country where I didn't speak the language. We also had to find somewhere to live together for the long term. I knew I would miss my family and friends. A lot. A heartachingly lot.

When I look back, that's quite a lot to do and a lot of change to go through in the space of a few months. I see that now, but then it was just a list of things to get sorted to get our Dutch life together on track. I went abroad with my eyes open. But I didn't see the whole picture.

What I didn't think about was the constant feeling of not being able to make yourself wholly understood wherever you went. I didn't know there was such a gap between 'speaking Dutch' and 'speaking Dutch to a level which meant natives let you speak Dutch'. I had no idea I would feel so humiliated every time I asked for something as simple as a stamp in Dutch and get an answer back in English. I didn't know it would be years before that stopped happening, before I reached the "congratulations, your Dutch is at a reasonable enough level for me to actually respond in Dutch to you" level.

I hadn't thought about the every day, normal life challenges that I would face - like doing grocery shopping. Knowing that varkensvlees is pork is the easy part, knowing what cut of meat you are buying and what you are supposed to do with it when you get it home is something else indeed. I never dreamed I would face that moment in the supermarket when you think you may actually have just picked up meat from the fridge that was destined for a dog bowl, and not for human consumption.

I didn't know how many tears I would shed whilst watching the BBC because it reminded me of a home I no longer had, but had not yet recreated on the other side of the North Sea.

I had no idea how many times I would utter "you'd never see this in England' or "why can't the Dutch just do it like the English?" and that even the little things would frustrate me.

I had given no thought to how it would feel to have nothing familiar around me: Roads were different; shops were different; houses were different; voices were foreign and unrecognisable to my ears; there were suddenly bikes everywhere; there were canals everywhere I looked. Everything was different. Much of it was beautiful, but still different.

I hadn't considered how far out of my comfort zone I would be thrown. I wasn't even in the same country as my comfort zone.

I could never have known that the urge to give it all up in the Netherlands and head back to England would at times be overwhelming, that it would take everything I had not to run back.

I hadn't thought about the fact that moving in with the future mother and sister in law after living alone in my own place may well be difficult, no matter how lovely they were to me or how amazingly kind it was that they gave me a temporary home and made me feel welcome. It's always hard to take a step backwards.

I did not know that expat life meant taking a seat, getting strapped in and heading off on an emotional rollercoaster that doesn't just turn your entire life upside down, but which makes you violently scream at someone to let you off, that makes you scratch desperately at the safety belt which automatically closed around your neck, that safety harness which no one has the power to release until the ride is over and you have come to a grinding halt.

I wasn't told about the tears I would shed. I hadn't realised I would be fearful about what the future held for me. I didn't know I would doubt every move I had made on the way to this new 'home'.

No one told me I would go through culture shock. Nobody warned me that it is an inevitable part of expat life. Nobody told me it would be debilitating. Nobody told me it would pass. No one thought to mention I would come through it, I would work my way through the culture shock tunnel and there would eventually be light.

Nobody mentioned that one day my only struggle with expat life would be sitting in a place between learning to be Dutch and naturally being British. Nobody said that one day I would smile when the passport controller welcomed me home at Schiphol. Nobody told me that the Netherlands would one day truly feel like home.

Nobody told me. So I'm telling you. You will get through it. It will pass. And you will thrive on the other side. It's the bad part you have to go through to get to the best part of expat life, to get to the happy side of expat life. Culture shock is part of the expat journey, it's not a destination.

Seychelles Mama

Monday, 29 June 2015

5 Reasons We Love the Lost My Name Books: A Review and A Giveaway

Lost My Name is a wonderful gift book concept for children and the good news is that the company has just arrived in the Netherlands. Three 'Lost My Name' books dropped on our doormat** last week, two in English (The Little Girl/Boy Who Lost Her/His Name) and one in Dutch (Wat een Pech, Mijn Naam is Weg). We were not disappointed!

Here are 5 reasons we love the latest additions to our bookshelves.

1. The order process was easy. 

Very easy. Often with personalised books there is a list of questions that parents have to puzzle over and within a week of getting the book the information is out of date  (eg who is your child's best friend? What is their favourite colour?). This is not the case with the Lost My Name Books. You simply type in your child's name, click whether they are a boy or a girl and then specify which language you would like the book in. That's it*. What's more is that you can see exactly how the book will look before you confirm the order.

*And your address details and the slight matter of payment of course. Oh, and postage costs are nil. Nothing. Nada.

2. The story is mesmerising

In short a child awakes to find their name gone from their bedroom door. The story that unfolds through the book is the quest to find the letters that make up their name. And it is done in an enchanting way meeting all sorts of wonderful magical animals and creatures.

My 5-year-old son really enjoyed reeling through the letters we already had, and telling me which letters he still needed to complete his name. It was so lovely to see him pulled in to the story!

3. Each book is unique

Because the story is focussed on collecting the letters of a child's name each book is unique. Each of my sons (3, 5 and 8) have a Lost My Name book, and because we wisely named each of our children differently, each of their books is different which makes them feel pretty special!

In fact the books are so unique that you could order one in English and one in Dutch for the same child and they would be completely different stories.

Whilst reading the English version with my eldest son he posed an interesting question about how the book would be with my name, given how I have three 'A's in my name. Would I meet the same animal three times to collect 'A's?  I checked it out and the short answer is no I wouldn't. Three different creatures.

4. The illustrations are beautiful

Gorgeous in fact. I love the illustrations in the books, and so do my sons. I can't say anything else except how beautifully illustrated these books are. Stunningly beautiful. Even my artistic husband was highly impressed by the images in these books.

5. Fabulous quality

The books themselves are of a top notch quality - proper durable pages that will stand the test of daily bedtime reading.

Some additional random thoughts and observations

The 'Lost My Name' website states the target audience of the books at between 2 to 6 years but it certainly wasn't too babyish for my 8 year old (in English which is his second language) and personally I think this book makes a beautiful kraamkado.

The book is available in English (UK and US), Dutch, German, Italian, Spanish, French.

And one more thing - last but absolutely not least -
I have one personalised book to giveaway - and a discount of 15% for ten other readers
All you have to do is tell me underneath (and enter your details in Rafflecopter*) in the comments how you came up with the name for your child. I want to hear the funny, heartwarming and bizarre ways you came up with names. I would love to read about the near miss stories of how your child almost ended up with a name you would have regretted later. I want to hear the tales of how your child remained nameless for days, weeks, months (ok maybe just days) because you couldn't agree on a name. Were there dual language issues to consider? How did you finally decide on a name for your children?

In our case I loved the Dutch name Joost but my husband had previously had a dog called the same so had a strange association with the name. Furthermore, we worried about how the name Joost would be butchered by my British family and friends. In Dutch the 'J' is a soft 'J' and pronounced as a 'Y'. The double 'OO' is more an 'O' sound (but slightly longer) than the English 'OO' found in boot for example. In Britain I'm sure our son would have ended up being called Juiced. And that didn't appeal........ So Joost was scrapped.

So over to you........

a Rafflecopter giveaway

*Rafflecopter will not be used to randomly pick a winner but will facilitate contacting the chosen winners.

** Lost my Name approached me to review their books to coincide with their launch onto the Dutch market. Three books were provided to me at no cost. Aside from the free books I get no compensation for any sales made or by hosting this competition. All opinions are my own and because the books are so lovely I agreed to a giveaway. And that is the end of the small print....

Thursday, 25 June 2015

National Veteran's Day in the Netherlands

This Saturday is the annual Veteran's Day in the Netherlands, when those who have fought for our freedom come together in The Hague to be properly acknowledged and thanked.

The days starts in the presence of the Dutch King, Minister of Defence and Prime Minister in the Ridderzaal with medals presented shortly after in the Binnenhof.

The veterans then parade from the Dutch houses of parliament to the Malieveld where there is a fly-over, music, food and drink and children's activities (a climbing wall and a flight simulator for starters). Many military and peace-keeping organisations and museums are represented in some capacity or another. You can find the complete program for the day here.

There's always an amazing atmosphere and my three sons have such a great time - and if you go talk to some of the veterans too it makes the day even more amazing! Oh, and when else do you get to hang out with a King and a Prime Minister?

To give you an impression of the day, I'll leave you with some snaps from previous years.....

Monday, 22 June 2015

Passionate Parenting: The Summer Holiday and The Expat

My latest article for Passionate Parenting is about the summer holidays which are nearly upon us in the Netherlands. For those of us living expat lives, choosing a holiday destination usually presents us with a bit of a dilemma.... for those of you living overseas you probably already know what I mean without me spelling it out.

The world is a big place but we want to see our friends and family too. But there are ways to have your expat summer holiday cake, and eat it too. 6 ways to be precise.

You can read 6 Ways to Make Sure Your Summer Holiday Really is a Summer Holiday When You're an Expat over on Passionate Parenting.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Celebrating A Trio of Fathers

This year, contrary to last year, and more years than I care to think about before that, I will actually get to spend Father's Day with my dad. In fact, all going to plan, nearly all the dads in my immediate family's life will be together and that has never happened before.

Expat life is like that - it means being apart for days you should be together.

Last year we (my sons, my husband and I) had a beautiful Father's Day and I sat thinking how great it would be if next year it could be spent with my dad and my father -in-law too. And then life carried on until a few months ago when suddenly the idea I had last year sprang to mind.

I sent an email to my stepmother, who booked flights quicker than you can say, "Happy Father's Day" and the date was etched in stone on the calendar. And that day is now here.

We have a fun afternoon planned. Three dads. Three grandsons. Three sons. One family. One celebration of fatherhood. We'll be making the most of a unique occasion.

I am so pleased that we get to spend this day together.

Wishing all you fathers out there a wonderful day in the company of your families.


Wednesday, 17 June 2015

The June Expat Life Linky

Before we kick off - you may (or may not) have noticed that the schedule of this link up has changed a little. From now on it will be every third Wednesday of the month instead of every second. It was taking place a little too close to #MyExpatFamily so I have shifted it a little. That means it will be live on 15 July, 19 August, 16 September and 21 October so scribble those dates in your blogging calendar - I'll wait.

And now to business. Last month's link up was another month of varied and thought provoking expat related posts.

One of the linked posts that stood out for me was An Expat View of Immigration by Olive, Feta and Ouzo. It's such an important topic, and one that is so horrifying to watch unfold on the news, but this is not just television - this is real life, happening off our European shores.

My second pick is a post written by Mummy on my Mind about how different life would have been for her son had he been born in England and not Dubai. An interesting read and more praises for the beloved NHS!

And lastly, expat life from the inside looking in by Clara Wiggins which is a great post about adapting as an expat. What things do you experience now that you would consider crazy back in your passport country? What about your four year old walking to school by himself? Wait...what?

If you missed any of the other posts, or linked up but didin't get around to commenting on some other posts *cough cough* then you can find all the posts from last month here or check out the Pinterest board for an overview.

So, now to June's offerings. Over to you. Ready? 

It's simple:
  • Add the linky badge (below) to your expat related post (old or new), 
  • Link up your post below
  • Leave at least one comment on the post linked before you using the #ExpatLifeLinky

It's as simple as that. Please do not dump links and run. Tell your expat blogging friends. Spread the word on social media. It would be great to grow this link up!

Expat Life with a Double Buggy
I look forward to reading yet another great collection of expat blog posts!