Tuesday, 18 November 2014

A Dutch Guide to (not) Buying Expensive Items

My husband went to the apotheek last week and came back with yet another story that made me giggle. A woman in front of him asked the apotheeker if she would give her a sample of an expensive brand of face cream. The woman behind the counter handed her a sample.

"Could I have a couple please?" the customer asked.

Why spend it when you don't need to?
Photo Credit: Uros Kotnik
"Mevrouw, that's not really the idea. The idea is to try it and then come back and buy the product," explained the apotheeker.

"Yes, but the face cream is so expensive!" she replied.

Two traits the Dutch are associated with beautifully illustrated in one perfect reply. Gratis? Yes, please. Subtlety? No thanks. 

Sunday, 16 November 2014

My Sunday Photo: Celebration

This week's photo sums up the highlight of the week - becoming a published author. My husband thought that was worth of a champagne celebration. Who was I to argue?


Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Dutched Up! Rocking the Clogs Expat Style

It's here! It's available! Dutched Up! Isn't it beautiful?

What is Dutched Up!? I hear you cry. Dutched Up! is the next book you should read. It's a beautifully written, heartfelt, honest anthology written by women expat bloggers in the Netherlands who have been through the ups and the downs of expat life - and lived to tell their tales. 

I'm one of those women. And I'm so excited I could burst. But I'm trying to be very British and modest about it all. I would like to fling open a window here and scream, "I'm an author. I'm in a book." But I won't because that's really not very British at all. But believe me, I am VERY excited. 

Anyway, as I was saying. This book is about expat life in the Netherlands. From giving birth to doing the shopping, from doctors to marriage, the ins and outs of expat life in the land of the Dutch are covered by those that live here, who have married here, given birth Dutch style, grown to love their kraamzorg here, made wonderful friends here and who have come to know everything there is to know about bitterballen and paracetamol.

If you're an expat in the Netherlands, you need this book. If you are thinking about becoming an expat in the Netherlands, you need this book. If you have any vague Dutch connection at all, you need this book. In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb and say, if you read books, you need this book.

At the moment it is available for Kindle on Amazon, and you can get your mitts on by clicking on the  lovely link below: 

Watch this space for more ways to get your hands on this book in the near future - including a "hold in your hands real book". 

Monday, 10 November 2014

An Expat Blogger's Reality: My Untypical Expat Life

 I was struck recently how one expat blogger's sense of reality differs so starkly from another and it reinforced for myself that I cannot write posts or show you photos and pass them off as 'typical of expat life here in the Netherlands'.

The train of thought started when I saw photos on my Facebook timeline. The snaps were taken in the Netherlands and posted with the word 'typical' in the title of the post.

A typical Dutch view. A typical school. A typical Dutch house. A typical Dutch person.  Typical? What does that even mean?

The 'typical Dutch view from my window' on my timeline was beautiful, but not one I could identify with. It didn't look like the scene that greets me when I open my blinds each morning. It isn't the view that most Dutch people wake up to. Yet, if you don't live here in the Netherlands, how would you know that?

So, I was hit by the fact that one expat blogger's reality is personal, often unique. Their photos and blog posts are an insight in to their reality. But not mine. And not yours. Another expat's photos do not depict my expat reality. Their photos are not representative of the view outside my kitchen window. They are not representative of the rooms inside my house. They do not represent the street I do my shopping in. The Netherlands may be small but there is still a world of difference between one expat blogger's life and another's.

If I live in a mansion in Wassenaar my sense of 'this is what life in the Netherlands is like' is very different to the one I have living here in my modest eengezinswoning in Zoetermeer. If I live in the middle of Amsterdam, my daily life looks very different to the one I would have if I lived on the island of Texel. All Dutch. All different.

What's my point? My point is there is no typical expat life. My point is that if you are researching what expat life would be like for you, don't read expat blog posts and look at photos of someone else's expat life and assume that is how expat life is for everyone living in the Netherlands, or how it would be for you.

Expats, wherever they are located, are different. We expat bloggers shouldn't even attempt to paint a sweeping, generalised picture of expat life. Each post we write, each picture we share, represents our own personal expat life, not the expat life of the thousands of other expats who have made the Netherlands their home.

So in future, I'll be sure to make it clear I write about my expat life. I share photos of the reality that is my expat life. It's not typical. It won't be the same as yours. Nor is it the same as any of the other fabulous expat bloggers in this little country.

And that is why the world of expat blogging is a fun one to be a part of - we're all expats but we're all different. We're all leading untypical expat lives - and don't let anyone convince you otherwise.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

5 Reasons Everyone Should be an Expat at Least Once in Their Lives

If you're not an expat, you should be. At least for a while.

When I was a teenager, I planned to be an expat. A translator living in France to be exact. Then my great expat plan took a back seat, maybe even got shelved,  whilst I worked out a career and all that grown up stuff. Then, as is often the case, expat life just kind of happened whilst I was making plans for my non-expat future.

Though it was never part of the original plan to wind up in the Netherlands, that's where the turn in the road led, and I followed it. I'm glad I did. Aside from my beautiful family, I gained a whole new life.

Expat life changes things. It changes you. Whether you plan it or not, whether your stay overseas is a temporary move, or one meant for a lifetime, being an expat is enriching. It's life changing. And that's why I think everyone should do it, at least once in their life.

If you're still not convinced, here are five reasons why.

1. You Meet Amazing People

When you move to a new country you, by default, meet new people, people different from the ones in your social circle back home. You meet people who speak a different language, who are from a different culture, who have a different background.

Friendships grow with people from all walks of life, people who make your expat life colorful and enriching. Without even trying you learn about other countries, other cultures, other attitudes and traditions.

Of course, let's be real, you'll also meet arseholes; unfortunately they live abroad too - but thankfully they are in the minority. Avoid them and you'll do just fine.

2. You Immerse Yourself in New Cultures

When you move abroad you try new foods, you take part in new traditions and learn new customs. You are party to new ideas, new ways of doing things. You listen to new music. You see different political and economic systems in practice. You celebrate new holidays. You see the arts and heritage of a country first hand.

If you are lucky you even learn a new language.

You learn about a country's past, and you learn what traits a nation treasures, what ignites a nation's pride. You notice the details, things you don't read about in school books, or learn about in travel books.

If you open your eyes, you'll see a little piece of the world through someone else's eyes.

3. You Fall in Love with Your Birth Country 

When you become an expat,
you see your birth country in a new light
What is that saying? Absence makes the heart grow fonder? Well it's true. Nothing gets you looking at your birth country with rose colored spectacles quicker than leaving it. I never really understood what it was that made me British until I left Britain, and then it all became incredibly evident. It turns out, you can take a Brit out of Britain but you'll never take the Brit out of the girl.

You start to appreciate all those things that make up your national identity, and realise that your home country culture, customs and traditions really have moulded you.

You notice the things that are dear to you from your own culture (for example, I never realised how attached to Bonfire night celebrations I was until I left England and 5th November just became a regular day) and which customs seem ridiculous and disposable.

When you become an expat, you fall in love with your birth country, including all those funny little quirks and odd habits that you never get a second thought to when you were living there.

4. You Realise it's People, Not Things, That Really Matter

Living overseas, even temporarily, forces you to re-evaluate everything; to look at what you actually need and what you want in life. It's a clean slate, a chance to start anew and dump the baggage you no longer need to carry with you - both physical and mental baggage.

You start assessing what you miss from your 'old' life, what you actually need to move forward and what it is in life that really makes you happy.

You focus a little less on the material and more on the emotional aspect of life. You focus on the truly important things in life. You appreciate the true worth of those friends and family that were on your doorstep before you moved, and you sincerely value the worth of new friendships.

Relationships matter more than material goods when you have to start over. You realise it's people, not things, that really make the difference in life.

5. You Meet the Better Part of Yourself

When you leave everything familiar behind and set your feet down on new territory, you soon learn what you are capable of.

You uproot your life and replant it in, what seems at first, a hostile environment. You do everything to make sure it thrives. Because you must.

You learn to think differently, to think outside the box. The rules you once knew have been discarded and it takes time to learn the new rules - so you'll improvise. Maybe you'll get creative with your career, or amaze yourself with how determined you can be, or how passionate you feel about realising a goal.

You notice both huge and subtle differences and learn to be more open and flexible, because you have little choice. You become more accepting of change, because you have to be. You go through an unconscious self-improvement course and come out the other side stronger, more aware of yourself and your capabilities.

As an expat, you'll get to know yourself a little better, and you'll meet the better, more courageous part of yourself.

Over to you: Why else should you become an expat? What has been the biggest advantage of your expat life? Do you think everyone is cut out for expat life?

Monday, 3 November 2014

6 Reasons I'm Happy I'm Raising Children in the Netherlands

I live in a country where children generally fare well in happiness surveys and Dutch children always rate much higher in the happiness stakes than British children ever do.

It's no coincidence that the Dutch shine through in reports such as the UN's World Happiness Report. From what I see around me, the Dutch work consciously to raise happy, healthy, independent children* and I consider myself lucky to be raising three children here.

So, for the record, here are my six reasons why I'm happy I'm raising my children in the Netherlands.

1. School Allows Children to be Children

Dutch children are allowed to concentrate on what they do best: they are given plenty of time for the important job of play. Even though the majority of Dutch children start school at the age of 4 (though not mandatory until age 5) the theme running through their days remains 'play'. They learn through play (spelenderwijs leren) and only when they start in group 3 (when they are 6 or 7) is there any pressure on them to formally start reading and writing. The foundation is laid in the earlier school years whilst there are no expectations of them. By the time they reach group 3 most children have learnt the basics of reading and writing in a playful, 'no pressure' manner.

My experience is that the focus in groups 1 and 2 of our little Dutch school is to help children work self sufficiently, to raise their social awareness, learn how to co-operate in a group, to look after and out for each other. These are the years that my children learn that there are rules and boundaries outside of their home too, in a classroom. But they learn this in a safe, respectful, playful way. 

My four year old has day and week tasks that consist of things like finger painting an autumn tree and building a hut with blocks. He proudly tells me how hard he has worked, how he has completed his week tasks and yet, in reality, he has spent the week creating and playing. Oh, and learning. 

Their future is not mapped out by the age of four.

My children will only start getting homework when they move to group 6. Yes, my eldest is asked to practice his times tables at home, and in group 1 and 2 he took bear home and (mama) had to write about what bear had done over the weekend, but hours of maths and language homework after school? No, not until he is nine or ten, and even then it is given in moderation. 

This gives my children time to do what they do best; they come home from school and play. Which brings me nicely to my second reason. 

2. An Outdoor Culture

The Dutch are outdoor people. And so are their children. If they are not cycling they are on steps, skateboards or roller skates. In winter they are on sledges or ice skates.

Children are encouraged to play on the streets in residential areas (where traffic signs indicate children are at play and the speed limit is severely reduced).

My children love being outdoors, love being active in all sorts of weather. It reminds me of my own childhood in Britain in the 1980s, when we entertained ourselves out on the street with nothing but our imaginations, or perhaps a ball and our bikes.

3. Child Friendly Society

We don't have to walk far in our neighborhood to stumble over yet another children's playground or park. They are all small scale but varied and numerous. If we really wanted to, we could visit a different playground on foot each day of the week. Neighbourhoods are designed with children in mind.

Similarly, many restaurants are child friendly and the amount of amusement parks, animal parks and children's attractions across the Netherlands is just staggering for such a small country. There's more than enough to entertain children of all ages.

4. A Sense of Community

Like many playgrounds, Dutch primary schools are also small scale, but numerous, and children usually attend a school close to home. School catchment areas are generally quite small (but not fixed - if you want to send your child to a school further away you may).

This means that school runs are generally done on foot or by bike, and when primary school children are older it gives them a sense of independence that children don't feel being ferried to school in big cars, the type you see clogging up the roads around the schools in England.

I like that the Dutch tend to keep things local. My children go to school with children they live near. After school children play together in the local playgrounds with their classmates. It gives a sense of community. Work together, play together.

5. Dutch State

The importance of family filters down from the politicians. There are various state benefits for families with children: subsidies for child care as well as child benefit payments. State education is free. The Dutch youth care system is wide and varying - and in most cases the services are free.

It starts from birth with help from kraamzorg and continues with visits to the consultatiebureau, which, love it or hate it, is undeniably a unique service for parents. The system may not be perfect, but whenever I have needed a helping hand as a parent I've had welcome support. Even though I am an expat with a small family support network, I feel like I have people to lean on if I need it, because of the Dutch youth system.

This could easily be the motto of the Dutch when it comes to raising children

6. Work Life Balance

Last but absolutely not least, the focus on striking a balance between working and family life is extensive. Putting the emphasis on family life is ingrained in Dutch society.

More than a fair share of the working population works part-time, predominantly women, all with the aim of being around for their children and working around school hours. Again, love it or loathe it it is how it is. I happen to love it.

Parents, whatever their situation, need to find a work and family balance that works for them and the Dutch attitude and family culture means that parents have options.

Children have parents that, in general, have the opportunities and time to be present and involved.

It's Not Hagelslag, It's Attitude

So, my belief is that the happiness of Dutch children has nothing to do with hagelslag (sprinkles) on bread for breakfast as others have lightheartedly suggested, rather it stems from an attitude, a deep ingrained culture that focuses on children and allows them to make the most of childhood.

Dutch parents around me don't put pressure on their children to grow up fast. Instead, they give them permission to be children for as long as possible and not worry about their future at a young age. I recently read a few articles about American parents pressuring their children to excel in many fields from a young age, both in and out of school, children that have an after school activity schedule that would make most Dutch children's eyes water.

It's true that the Dutch have a reputation for being liberal, a bit too liberal on some matters in some culture's eyes, but what I see is an openness and a manner of carefully considered parenting that seems to work, which seems to foster independent children that feel listened to, that feel valued. Ones that are keen to tell researchers who care to ask that they are happy with their lot.

So, I for one intend to keep watching the parenting examples around me, and dish out good doses of Dutch parenting to my three sons. Hopefully, one day, when a UN researcher asks them questions for her World Happiness Report they'll be as positive in their answers as the children that have gone before them.

What do you think makes Dutch children fare so well in happiness studies?Does the parenting culture in your host country differ widely to that in your birth country? Is the local parenting culture where you live something you aspire to?

*It goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway, that Dutch society has it's share of problems, and that includes the lives of some children too. Some Dutch children live in poverty, some Dutch children live with absent parents, some Dutch children are deeply unhappy. I am in no way suggesting with this post that all Dutch children are ecstatically happy. However, there is a general culture related to parenting that I see every day around me. And that is the essence of this post.*
Seychelles Mama

Sunday, 2 November 2014

My Sunday Photo: 32 October

Yesterday, on the 1st November, Mr C, my four year old changed the calendar for us. I love his logic. Wouldn't that be easier?


And whilst we are on the topic of photos - (stay with me whilst I move smoothly *cough cough* to some self promotion) I would be eternally grateful if you would use the Facebook link below to 'like' my photo entry in a wonderful expat competition that could keep me in British food goodies for a year, something an expat gets very excited about! Thank you!! 

Saturday, 1 November 2014

AngloINFO's Home Comforts Photo Competition - I'm a Finalist!

Ooh, stop the presses, I have exciting news. I have been selected as one of the five finalists for AngloINFO's photo competition about ‪#‎homecomforts‬. For the winner it means a year of British shopping - I don't need to tell you what that means to an expat Brit now do I?

There are five pictures and it's now over to you, the lovely public, to vote so I would love some click happy fingers to follow the link below through and like my picture of my little soldier which reminds me of my childhood boiled egg and soldiers, the one my boys use to eat their British style breakfast.

Here's the link: all you need to do is click like. One time. Nothing else. It's that easy! Oh, and you have until Wednesday 5th November to vote.


Thank you :-)

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Dear Teacher, Sometimes You Need to Believe Without Seeing

What if I come and have lunch with you at home one day? Then I can see the meltdown for myself,” suggested my son’s teacher at the height of the school troubles.

The thing is she just didn’t get it. I couldn’t make her understand. My highly sensitive child won’t perform for just anyone. He needs to feel safe. He only lets his emotions go in a trusted environment, with people who love him unconditionally. His lunchtime meltdowns are reserved for me. Not for his teacher, not in her classroom, nor in our home.

Three hours at a time with thirty other children has its toll on my highly sensitive son. Let’s be honest, for many people some kind of minor breakdown would be on the cards after a day with thirty children. For a child with heightened senses a busy classroom is a minefield.

We use the metaphor of a bucket; every direct interaction my son has, every indirect interaction he witnesses, goes into his bucket. Every sight, sound, smell and action gets thrown in there unfiltered. With a classroom teeming with small children his bucket fills quickly. In no time it overflows.

Photo Credit: KD Kelly
But my son doesn’t want to be the centre of attention. Anything but. He lets that bucket flow over without a word, a sensory overload seeping over the sides of his bucket, forming puddles around his feet. He walks around silently in emotionally sodden shoes until he leaves the classroom, until his teacher leads him out onto the playground, until his eyes meet mine over a sea of children and parents. I can read in those eyes, in a split second, that his bucket is too heavy for him to carry. In the split second it takes to meet my eyes he knows it is safe to let go and his face contorts with anger and confusion, his eyes darken and a thundercloud appears over his head. But his teacher’s attention is long gone as he runs to me.

I put my arms around him and I feel the energy raging within his little body, stress with nowhere to go. Words stumble over each other to get out of his mouth, trying to sum up the whirlwind that has been his morning, trying to empty his overladen bucket.

We walk home. Either there are tears as we walk, or the beginnings of a meltdown. Or silence. But no matter how the short walk home has been I know that when I open the front door to our home, once he crosses that threshold to safety, he will fling the bucket he has spent the morning filling across our hallway.

He will scream, cry, lash out, fight my every move; nothing will be right. His jacket refuses to hang on his hook. He can’t get his shoelaces undone. His sandwich filling is wrong. The bread is cut wrong. His brother is making too much noise. His plate is the wrong colour.

For eighteen long, emotional, stressful months we search for solutions. We talk to his teachers. I share that he is highly sensitive. I share that he needs time out, he needs quiet time, a place to reset, to empty his bucket out before it fills to the top. But I face a brick wall.

His teachers say he doesn’t want quiet moments, doesn’t need time alone. They tell me he’s a good learner, that he’s their idea of a perfect child in the classroom: he listens; he follows instructions; he doesn’t make a fuss. They tell me he’s enjoying himself. They tell me he’s never had a tantrum in school, never kicked a chair in his classroom, never shouted at them or a classmate. They tell me they see no problem in school, it has nothing to do with them; it’s a problem our family needs to solve at home. We need to leave the scientifically unproven idea of highly sensitive children at home, and let him get on with it at school, where he’s the perfect student.

They refuse to scratch beyond the surface, to see beyond the fa├žade. They don’t see me dragging a screaming, crying little boy over the threshold of safety back into the world every day after lunch. They don’t see me coaxing a five-year-old boy out of the house for an afternoon at school. They don’t see the bruises on my shins from the kicks I get as I try to get shoes back on my distraught child to leave the house. They don’t see my tears, the conflict raging inside me. I want to keep him home but I can’t, not every day. They refuse to see the conflict raging inside my son.

By the time the battle is over and he’s back in school both our tears have faded, his anger has subsided.

I tell his teacher it has been a struggle to get him back there. I can see her rolling her eyes. Not literally of course, but I know she’d like to. And I walk back home, knowing I’ll do it all again in two hours because his bucket will fill unhindered during the afternoon.

He will come home overwhelmed because the new girl has been crying on her first day, because his friend fell over and hurt his arm, because the last piece of the puzzle he was doing did an impromptu vanishing trick, because the noise levels in class reached a new high, because he couldn’t get the teacher’s attention for help, because he hated the drawing he made.

He’ll come home overwhelmed because he’s highly sensitive and he doesn’t yet have the tools to filter out the things he doesn’t need to keep in his bucket. He needs help with it all. He needs support. He needs a reminder to seek out a quiet space. But for some reason I can’t get that for him in his classroom, where he spends most of his day.

Instead I get the offer of a lunch date at our house. Failing that maybe I could videotape one of his meltdowns for them. Because seeing is believing, right? Perhaps it would be better to accept the word of a mother, a mother at her wit’s end trying to help her son, a mother whose heart breaks every time she picks her son up from school because she sees his soul being destroyed little by little in a classroom that is a long way from being suitable for a highly sensitive child.

He’s in a different school now, one that understands that all children are individuals. That the boy at home and the boy in school is part of the same whole. His teacher understands that he needs time, space and quiet to empty his bucket. She believes without seeing. She supports him, without needing to see him at his worst. Sometimes seeing is believing, but other times it needs to be a matter of trust.

Photo Credit: Karolina Michalak

*Please note that as of 1 November 2014 I have launched a new blog called Happy Sensitive Kids,  for parents of highly sensitive children, or for those parenting children as highly sensitive people. Please visit Happy Sensitive Kids for more information sources and the blog - http://happysensitivekids.wordpress.com. You can also keep up to date on the accompanying Facebook page of the same name.*