Thursday, 17 April 2014

My Reverse Expat Bucket List

Instead of keeping track of all the things I still want to do in life, I loved Erika from America's idea of capturing all the experiences and achievements that she has already been fortunate enough to have.

And as a contra to some of the most recent posts I have written about the tougher aspects of expat life, I thought it would be nice to dwell on all the great things I have done, seen and achieved because of my expat life.

You can read more about how this idea evolved here. But I don't want to just throw my reverse expat bucket list out there - I want to read yours too, hence the idea of a blogging link up. You can find the link up button and a picture you can use at the end of this post.

So here goes. This is my reverse bucket list made possible because I became an expat and moved to the Netherlands.
  1. Be a mama to three beautiful Dutch boys
  2. Abandon your comfort zone and take a huge risk
  3. Expand your world
  4. Fit all your worldly possessions into a borrowed police trailer and take it from England to the Netherlands to make a new life
  5. Marry a Dutchman
  6. Get married at a mill (even if it is water and not wind)
  7. Live daily life in a second language
  8. Go through the classic culture shock curve and come out smiling
  9. Adapt to a new culture
  10. Appreciate your British culture
  11. Learn what is important in life by watching the Dutch masters of work life balance
  12. Have Dutch people speak Dutch back to you when you speak Dutch to them
  13. Have three bilingual children
  14. Have three dual nationality children
  15. Bring three children up in two cultures
  16. Visit four countries in one day 
  17. Find three ways to travel from the Netherlands to England
  18. Take a high speed train to Paris
  19. Visit a Christmas market in Germany
  20. Drive to Denmark and visit Legoland
  21. Drive to Euro Disney
  22. Visit Movie World in Germany by car
  23. Visit Muiderslot
  24. Visit Keukenhof at its most beautiful 
  25. See the Dutch flower fields up close and personal
  26. Visit the Zaanse Schans
  27. View the Netherlands from above in a very, very small plane.
    Fly it yourself for seven seconds before you freak out and give the control back to an experienced pilot
  28. Have a family photo session outside the Dutch parliament
  29. Get back on a bicycle after a twenty year abstention
  30. Plan for a home birth
  31. Plan to give birth without pain relief
  32. Have three children born in a Dutch hospital
  33. Welcome kraamzorg in to your home three times and realise just how lucky you are to have postnatal help
  34. Own a home abroad
  35. Cook a Dutch meal
  36. Eat a sweet pancake and call it dinner, not pudding
  37. Eat speculoos with abandonment
  38. Eat an orange tompouce
  39. Eat Indonesian food
  40. Renovate an old worker's house in The Hague
  41. Understand the terms and conditions of your mortgage written solely in Dutch
  42. Watch The Bridge spoken in original language with Dutch subtitles and understand what is going on
  43. Watch Borgen in Danish with Dutch subtitles and totally get it
  44. Watch a Dutch film and actually laugh at the funny bits
  45. Watch a musical in Dutch and sing along - quietly
  46. Read a book you are not familiar with in Dutch and be able to follow the plot
  47. Listen to Dutch music
  48. See Dutch musicians in concert and sing along - quietly
  49. Meet inspirational people from all corners of the world, including from countries you barely knew the existence 
  50. Love the diversity of culture in your life
  51. Make Dutch friends
  52. Be brave and quite your job in the corporate world and start a career you are passionate about, one that makes your heart sing 
  53. Take a distance learning course in journalism
  54. Start a blog about expat life
  55. Write expat articles
  56. Write for Smitten by Britain
  57. Have an idea for a book
  58. Interview the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest from both the north and south sides
  59. Celebrate Queen's Night in The Hague
  60. Celebrate Queen's Day in Amsterdam
  61. Celebrate Sinterklaas
  62. Celebrate new year's eve in the Netherlands
  63. See a Chinese New Year celebration in The Hague
  64. Celebrate Bonfire Night in Amsterdam
  65. See the preparations made for a Nuclear Security Summit
  66. Stand two feet away from the Dutch Prime Minister
  67. Stand so close to a Dutch Crown Prince you could almost touch him, a risk not worth taking because of the inconspicuous security he has near him
  68. See behind the scenes at a Dutch hospital
  69. Get whisked away to hospital in a Dutch ambulance
  70. Go on natural ice - a frozen pond or canal
  71. Hang a birthday calendar in the smallest room of your house instead of writing birthdays out year after year
  72. Learn it is better to pay to use a clean toilet than to visit a dirty one for free
  73. Use a cheese slicer without losing a finger, or a part thereof
  74. Go to a Dutch birthday circle and survive to tell the tale
  75. Watch a football tournament with English and Dutch teams in the Amsterdam Arena 
  76. See a football team you care about make it to the World Cup Final
  77. Help out in a Dutch classroom for a morning and be proud that the children actually know what you are saying to them in Dutch
  78. See Bruce Springsteen in concert in Feyenoord's stadium


Expat Life with a Double Buggy


Monday, 14 April 2014

Translation Help From My Three Year Old

My two youngest were making Easter chicks and my three year old wanted to give the chick a nice hairdo with some pipe cleaners. We didn't have quite the colour he wanted but he made do with a brown and orange striped look.

Photo Credit: Valerie Like
I told him we needed to get some more pipe cleaners.

"What are they called again in Dutch?" I asked him.

"What are they in English?" he asked.

"Pipe cleaners." I said.

"Right. Then buis cleaners. No, no, no. Buis schoonmakers." He replied proudly. Literal, direct translation. Brilliant. I love how his mind works.

The actual word, in case you are wondering, seems to be (after much searching, grilling of Dutch husband and bizarre conversations) pijpenragers or maybe ragers voor knutselen. Anyone know better? And now the search for a shop that actually sells them is on......

UPDATE: Available from HEMA and called dikke chenille..... my public service duty for April done - you're welcome! With thanks to Irene....

Friday, 11 April 2014

What Picture do we Paint of Ourselves Living Life in a Second Language?

What picture do you paint of yourself living life
in a second language?
Can your true self ever really shine through if you are constantly communicating in a language that is not your mother tongue? It's a question that I've given a lot of thought to during my time living overseas. I've even written on this topic before. (See "How do you say me?" on Expat Harem). I'm not talking about expats who spend a couple of years in a country and then move on, but those of us that have moved overseas to be with a partner for example, who don't have an end date to their overseas assignment. Those of us who live our daily lives in a foreign language.

Think about it. The situations where not speaking the local language fluently can give someone the wrong impression about you are infinite. Someone tells you of a bereavement but you don't have the words to tell them how sorry you are, you cannot express the depth of your sympathy in their language. You can't comfort them in the way you would like, the vocabulary just isn't there, like it would be in your mother tongue. Do you come across as uncaring or cold, whilst actually your heart aches for them?

You can't tell your favourite anecdote with the descriptive words and detail you'd like, the one that reveals so much about you. You can't get that punch line out, tell that joke in a way that shares so accurately your sense of humour. Do you seem distant and humourless whilst the truth is you'd love to be able to share a little more of yourself and you're actually amusing to be around?

I'm pretty sure that I sometimes (read often) come across as a bit of a klutz to my in-laws. There are times I cannot get the right Dutch words to my tongue in time during a conversation and the result must be that I seem disinterested or that I have no opinion. The truth is I have an opinion on most things, but I can't always express them in an intelligent manner in Dutch. When I add something in the midst of a conversation with my Dutch family it sounds like a five year old suddenly piped up and said something. I've been here so long in the Netherlands now I wonder how much of an allowance they make for me. How much of my awkward communication do they put down to me speaking in a language not my own, and how much do they attribute to who I am, or their view of who I am.

How, in our interactions with others, do we reveal the real us? It is of course not just verbal. We show a lot through our body language (which incidentally can also be a cultural nest of vipers) and the actions we undertake. Putting your arms around someone can say much more than any words at a difficult time. There are ways to show feelings without having the words at our command. However, I do believe that you need a certain level language ability in order to let the real you shine through, to share your depth and let another person in to your inner world.

It's the reason why my husband and I end up having dual language conversations when the subject matter is complicated or emotionally highly charged - so that we can truly explain how we feel without stumbling around looking for words in a second language, a process that waters our emotions and feelings down, unconciously making some things seem more trivial to the other than the reality.

It's the reason why professionals recommend that any coaching or therapy you have is done in your mother tongue.

It's the reason why so many expats complain making friends with the locals is hard. How deep can a friendship be when one of you is always communicating in a language that is learned?

That's not to say a relationship or friendship conducted in two languages doesn't work. Far from it. We are living proof that they do work. We develop our own way of communicating with each other. It works. But it takes time, it takes understanding, it means making allowances and giving the benefit of the doubt. All of which are not givens when you are meeting new people, developing new relationships, trying to let others who know nothing about you see a glimpse of your personality, when what they hear is someone tripping over their words in a  language that they clearly have not made their own.

Does it matter whether people here in the Netherlands ever know me as I was back in my passport country? Is there a pre-expat me and an expat me? Am I a different person when I talk in Dutch? Is the English-speaking me the real version of me? I don't know.

What I do know for sure is that I am more reserved in Dutch than in English because my Dutch vocabulary doesn't stretch as far as my English. I have less to say in a Dutch crowd than in an English group. There is currently a gap between the two personas. And I wonder if it will ever change. And I know that it does matter, at least to me.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The Farewells That are Forever aka When Expat Life Sucks

As you read this I am back in Britain attending a funeral. It is one of the hardest aspects of expat life - being away from family and loved ones at times of sickness and bereavement. I'm lucky that I can be back in England within hours. I know many expats have it much tougher (like my brother in the US) when they need to be back in their passport country, the place that is still home to those we care so much about.  Words I wrote last week ring in my ears,

"Normal life continues at home or away with all its ups and downs. Moving overseas does not mean there is no more drama in your life, or that you can escape what happens back 'home'. Sometimes it can actually make problems worse as solving issues back in your home country is harder. Expat life is not an escape from life."

When something bad happens that makes me want to go back to my birth country, it is never a question of just jumping in a car and heading off. Not like it would be if I still lived in England. Life as an expat means it's not straightforward to be there for loved ones the moment you are needed. It takes time. It takes planning. Travel needs to be booked. Emergency funds are needed. Logistics take over.

On top of that loved ones back 'home' inevitably say things like,  "don't feel like you have to come back" or "no one is expecting you to fly over for the funeral" or stronger still, "don't come, there's nothing you can do anyway." They are genuinely trying to make life easier, take a decision out of your hands. But I know in my heart if I can be there then I will. Expected or not. Easy or not.

Because on one occasion I couldn't be there, and it haunts me still seven years later.

This time I've headed back alone. My children need normal life here in the Netherlands to carry on. They don't need to be at a funeral. That sentiment is not expat related, it's just a parenting choice. Last week, as a couple my husband and I needed to think ahead, to juggle, to scamper around in order to make it work so I could get a flight back to England, stay overnight in Wales and fly back to the Netherlands the following day.

Whilst I was making plans last week so I could be in Wales today it struck me that there will only be more of these moments in the future. None of us are getting any younger.

I have been back to England on one previous occasion for a funeral and that time too I flew back alone. The news was out of the blue. It came as a hard hitting punch. It was heartbreaking to be there at the graveside but I wanted to be there for my family, to show I cared, even though I had been no part of the pain they had been through in the months and weeks before the end. Being there without my husband and my own little family was tough but it was no tougher an experience than not being present at my gran's funeral seven years ago. The absence that haunts me still, seven years later.

My first son has just been born, I was an emotional wreck, he had no passport, I was breastfeeding waiting for my milk to come in properly. And then I learnt that my gran has passed away. I had seen her in hospital a few months prior to her death; she'd had a stroke. It broke my heart to see her so different to the grandmother she had been to me growing up. Whilst I held her hand as she sat in her hospital bed I knew it was a possibility that I would not see her again. But I hoped. And as the new year rolled in the news did seem to be getting more positive. There was a glimmer of light, a hope of at least a part recovery. But the light went out. And I couldn't be at her funeral. Logistics. Timing. Expat stuff.

So I know in my heart, if I can be there, I will. The alternative is harder to bear.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Expat Bloggers Link Up: My Reverse Expat Bucket List

I have had two massive nudges in the last week to acknowledge my expat achievements and appreciate just how far I have come since I moved to the Netherlands in 2000.

Firstly Jessica de Rooij posted this comment on a recent post about the things I have learnt from the Dutch,
"Today I had this thought that I wanted to compliment all expat mamas because you must be very skilled to live in a foreign country: be an expat, mama and happy at the same time. Takes a huge effort."
Living overseas is indeed not as easy as it may seem to inexperienced non-traveled eyes.  Doing it as a parent throws up its challenges too - after all I am raising three children in a country that I did not grow up in. My childhood was spent in a different culture to the one my children are growing up in. My sons have Dutch nationality and speak Dutch as their first language. It is not a scenario I ever imagined whilst I was doing my growing up in Britain. And yet here I am. An expat. A mama. Happy. Thank you Jessica for a lovely reminder that expat parenting takes skill and effort.

My second nudge came in the form of a tweet I saw about The Reverse Bucket by Erika from America. Instead of dwelling on all the things she hasn't done, she compiled a list of all the things she has done. I love the idea. It is so easy to focus on what you haven't yet achieved and forget the victories and experiences you already have under your belt. Particularly when you have replanted yourself in a new country and have made/are making a new life for yourself.

A recent post I wrote about the 10 hard lessons I have learnt on the way to a happy life abroad resonated with many expats (it is by far my most read post, and with 1.9k Facebook likes as I write the most popular by a mile) and also made me stop and realise how far I have come since those early newbie expat days when I made the jump over the North Sea to the Netherlands. In other words my reverse expat bucket list should be huge. And so should yours.

And so it struck me that we expats should shout about our accomplishments. And the idea for another expat bloggers link up was born: My Reverse Expat Bucket List. On Thursday 17th April I will publish my post listing the things that I have achieved as an expat, the top experiences that I have gained since moving overseas - and I invite you to do the same and link up. You can write as short or long a list as you like, you can focus on one major accomplishment, you can list 200 - there are no rules except that you should shout as loud as you can about the amazing things you have done as an expat. Are you in?


Friday, 4 April 2014

The British Art of Queuing on Smitten By Britain

The British know how to queue. Fact. However, from what I read, I fear it may be a dying art. Fact or fiction? You tell me. My latest article on this all important British cultural topic is over on Smitten by Britain.
"I arrived first at the bus stop and stood in the place I deemed logical to start the queue for the bus. Others arrived. They stood in random places: a businessman set down his briefcase and busied himself with a newspaper; an early shopper placed her bags on the ground and played with her telephone; a student stood a few feet away with headphones blaring a tinny noise, ignoring the world around him."

- See more at: http://www.smittenbybritain.com/the-british-art-of-queuing

Thursday, 3 April 2014

The Highly Sensitive Child Book Review by Craftie Mum

If you are parenting a highly sensitive child then Elaine Aron's book called "The Highly Sensitive Child" is undoubtedly a must read. Catarina Queiroz of the blog Craftie Mum (http://craftiemum.com/) has just finished reading the book and kindly volunteered to share her thoughts on Aron's book.




  Reviewed by Catarina Queiroz

"Are you being encouraged to think there is a problem with your child for things like seeming shy and withdrawn, worrying excessively for her age, eating problems, frequent emotional outbursts and nightmares?

It may be that you are the parent of a child that is simply highly sensitive, an inherited trait that is shared by 15 to 20% of the world’s population, irrespective of gender. In her book, The Highly Sensitive Child, Elaine N. Aron explains what it means to be highly sensitive: in very broad terms, from birth you are wired to notice more in your environment than most people and deeply reflect before taking action.

Being highly sensitive is not a disorder nor a disadvantage since in terms of human evolution it is wise to have a large minority that reflects before acting, noticing potential danger and devising good strategies to avoid it, in contrast with the bold and outgoing majority.

Aron's book invites parents of Highly Sensitive Children (HSC) to take a fresh look at their child and start noticing the advantages of this innate temperament: like being intelligent, intuitive, creative, cautious and conscientious.

The motto the author proposes to these parents is: “To have an exceptional child you must be willing to have an exceptional child”. This means embracing your child’s wonderful sensitivity and exploring ways of helping your child thrive it in a world that belongs to the outgoing majority and promotes all forms of overstimulation. In this context, it’s important to keep in mind that enough down time and quiet is essential for a child that is highly sensitive to all stimuli from the outer world. If this need for quiet is respected, the HSC will thrive and not appear distressed at all.

From birth to young adulthood, Elaine N. Aron gives lots of useful strategies for parenting a HSC. There are 20 tips for teachers provided at the end, as well as some great resources in case the reader wants to investigate further.

Catarina advises you to sit, relax and read this book
Photo Credit: Tamlyn Rhodes
The Highly Sensitive Child is like a sigh of relief for parents that are constantly bombarded by society to conform and force their child to be like most outgoing children. The truth is that it’s ok to be sensitive and this trait is actually needed to create a balance in our busy, noisy and boisterous world. If you feel you may have a HSC at home, I recommend that you relax and read this book."


If you are parenting a highly sensitive child and want more information visit the Highly Sensitive Children page of this blog, or join the Happy Sensitive Kids closed Facebook group to talk to other parents of HSC.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

New Article: Forget Labels, Think Instruction Manuals


My latest article for Amsterdam Mamas is on the topic of labelling our children. I wrote it after a conversation I had with a mother of a highly sensitive child who was reluctant to discuss her child's character traits with her new school. It got me thinking about our own journey with my son and his schooling and I realised the effects of sticking a 'highly sensitive child' label on his head and how differently we approached it when we changed schools. It proved to be a successful formula.

"A mother of a highly sensitive child (HSC) who had just started primary school told of how her child was struggling in the classroom, resulting in tantrums and tears at home. The teacher was being less than understanding about her daughter’s need for quiet time to recharge, and failed to grasp just how overwhelming the school environment is for her daughter." 

You can read more over on Amsterdam Mamas. I would love to hear your thoughts over on Amsterdam Mamas.

Monday, 31 March 2014

10 Hard Expat Lessons Learnt on the Way to A Happy Life Abroad

No matter how idyllic expat life looks, there are lessons to be learnt
 It is impossible to be an expat for thirteen and a half years and not learn something. I have watched expats around me, and learnt from them. I have learnt some things the hard way, but looking back I wouldn't have it any other way. Every experience has helped mould me and the expat life I lead today. I have reached a point of happiness, contentment and satisfaction with the life I have carved out overseas with my husband and three sons. But there is no denying there have been bumps in the road leading to the present day. There have been tough, tough days. But each bump is a lesson learnt. Here are ten bumps.....

1. Habits can be broken. When you move to a new country the things you are used to doing, and the way you do them,  may no longer be acceptable, possible or feasible. It means changing what you do and how you do it.

2. Necessities can become unnecessary. All those foodstuffs you thought you could never live without? Turns out you can - with a little weaning and cold turkey. That particular shop you loved? When it's gone the world doesn't stop turning. You may miss things for a while, but eventually you move on. You learn to live without.

3. Every negative feeling has an end. Expats go through culture shock, even experienced expats who have done it all before in different countries. It's a lot easier going through a hard, negative period when you know those feelings will come to an end. It is part of the expat package.

4. Your way is not always the right way. The people in your host country may do things a little differently. They may turn everything you know on your head. And sometimes you find a better way of doing things.

5. For everything there is an alternative or a substitute. Can't get something you deem essential? Ask around and the natives or seasoned expats will have a secret ingredient as a replacement for you.

6. Adapt or wither. You cannot move to a new country and expect life to carry on as it was. And truth be told, if that is what you want why move in the first place? If you don't change your mindset, embrace change and adapt to your environment you will lose a little piece of yourself every day until you realise you have withered away to a shadow of your former self. Tough lesson, but true.

7. Go local. Learn the local language. Being able to confidently communicate with the local people helps you adapt, feel at home and find your way around your new environment. It makes everything a little less daunting and the idea of leaving the house a little less scary. Learn about the history and culture of the new land you call home, even if it is a temporary home. If you know why things are the way they are it helps you accept the things that may be wildly different from life as you knew it. Learn about the politics of your new home.

8. Explore. There is a whole new world around you. Seeing new sights is uplifting.

9. Make friends with the locals, they are your best tour guide, information source and linguist aides. Make friends with other expats, they are the voice of experience and they know what you are going through.

10. Expat life is not a holiday. Normal life continues at home or away with all its ups and downs. Moving overseas does not mean there is no more drama in your life, or that you can escape what happens back 'home'. Sometimes it can actually make problems worse as solving issues back in your home country is harder. Expat life is not an escape from life.