Monday, 20 October 2014

Why I've Had A Change of Heart About Public Toilets in the Netherlands

I was a relative newbie expat in the Netherlands when I first formed my opinion about paying to use a toilet when I was out and about.

During my three pregnancies I needed pockets full of change just to be able to leave the house. I moved from one public toilet to the next, leaving coins on white plates for the pleasure.

I felt like I was being robbed blind. Paying to use a toilet indeed.

All that changed when my eyes were opened to the joys of a free public toilet during my summer holidays in Cornwall, England.

"Rancid," said my husband, shaking his head, as he brought our son back out of a public toilet still crossing his legs and looking more and more visibly pained and upset.

I've ended up taking one or both of our toilet trained sons in to the ladies toilets on many occasions. British women, it seems, have higher levels of public toilet hygiene than British men, and a quick visit is doable as long as you don't touch anything. Ever. You need to master the art of hover weeing.

So I've learnt the hard way that I'd rather pay my 25 cents for a visit to a clean, fresh smelling toilet with an ample supply of toilet paper and soap than have a free wee in a stinky, pee covered cubicle with no sign of toilet paper or soap.

Oh, fourteen years ago I could never have imagined myself uttering these words but ..... the Dutch sooo know what they are doing when it comes to public toilets.

What do you think? Happy to pay for clean facilities? What is the norm where you live - is it free to pee or are a few coins usually needed to use public toilets?

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Kaaskop Piet and Stroopwafel Piet

The question of who will accompany Sinterklaas
this year has finally been answered.
This year, when Sinterklaas arrives with his Petes in Gouda we will not only see 'traditional' Petes but also stroopwafel and kaas Petes. Both products are very much related to Gouda itself.

Yep, you read that right, we will see Petes the colour of golden, yellow cheese and the brown colour of stroopwafels, with a chequered design like the surface of the yummy syrupy biscuits. I, for one, was a little surprised with the announcement made yesterday by Gouda's council. I couldn't have dreamt those changes up in even a drug or drink induced stupor but I am pretty sure my kids will love the idea.

But let's get to the crux of the matter. I do foresee a problem for those stroopwafel fanatics like my dad who may well be tempted to lick the faces of future Petes. It's going to be a struggle keeping the many stroopwafel fans under control I fear.

As for the cheese Petes, well, a whole other story. Kaaskop Piet. Which has caused a bit of a stir amongst some Dutch article commenters, stating that the Dutch already have a problem being known as cheese heads, and this certainly won't help.

However, these new Piet 'flavours' will make up only five percent of the total Piet collection on the 15th November in the great city of Gouda.

The debate gets crazier every year, but, as I said last year, change was on the cards. The changes are not enough for some. For others it's too much. It's a debate that will continue, and it's one that is still  causing a huge difference of opinion in Dutch society.

Me? I have no further words.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Mama, What's Wheelchair in Dutch?

Photo Credit: Karen
Life with bilingual children is filled with surprises and giggles, from watching with amazement as they pick up words in a new language and just run with them, to situations created outside the home when people expect a Dutch word but get an English one instead. Or vice versa. Like the time the kinderarts assistant thought my eldest son was casting doubt on Bert's (as in Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie) sexuality......

Last week Mr C, my four year old, both surprised me and made me laugh as he launched into a story in Dutch telling his dad about his day in school. His Dutch has always been much stronger than his English but I have noticed that speaking English is getting easier for him, especially after three intensive weeks in England over the summer.  In any case, he said,

"Een meisje was vandaag in een....." ("Today one of the girls was in a ....") and then he leaned over to me and whispered in my ear,

"Mama, what is a wheelchair in Dutch?"

"Rolstoel!" I whispered back.

"Oh yeah, zij was in een rolstoel," he finished.

"Waarom?" asked his dad. ("Why?")

"Geen idee," said Mr C.  ("No idea.")

Thursday, 9 October 2014

16 Must Have Items to Survive a Dutch Autumn

The weather this week confirms what we were all trying to deny: the arrival of autumn. We've been enjoying an Indian summer over the last few weeks, we were getting complacent about hauling those weatherproof jackets back out of our closets.

However, in the blink of an eye the extended summer has faded and an unpredictable weather front has crept over the Netherlands with a mischievous smirk on its face. Most of us weren't quite ready for the onslaught of the rain, wind and sudden greyness.

It's that time of year known as "four seasons in one day", also known as autumn, fall or herfst. To survive it you need sixteen items.

1. Sunglasses - the sun is still bright and strong when it does actually make an appearance so you need eye protection (can also prove helpful as protection against errant leaves - see number 8).

2. A sense of humour - you have to be able to see the funny side of getting hailed on whilst wearing your sunglasses.

3. A rain coat - a waterproof version of outdoor wear is very much recommended at this time of year.

4. A rain hat - unless your rain coat has a built-in hood that actually remains on your head (unlike mine which was apparently designed with the Gruffalo's enormous head in mind) it is worth investing in a rather fetching rain hat. Okay, it may not be attractive, but the 'drowned rat with limp hair' look isn't so hot either.

5. Waterproof trousers - particularly if you don't like to be parted from your bicycle. You have probably gathered by now that there is nothing sexy about the Dutch autumn look - however, it is a dry look.

6. Two plastic carrier bags - unless you enjoy the sensation of a wet bum you will need one plastic bag to put over your bicycle seat and another big enough to put over your child's bike seat, should you have one.

7. A gale proof umbrella - if you have a choice between a bog-standard umbrella and a super-duper windproof monster version, opt for the latter. The Netherlands is a wasteland of decrepit, washed out broken umbrellas, torn apart by gale force winds and lashing rain. Make sure your umbrella is not the next victim.
Sure, the leaves look pretty. Wait until the wind blows and you get smacked in the face with them.

8. A scarf - the Dutch autumn wind blows cold and wild when the mood takes it. Not only will a scarf keep you warm, but wrapped properly around your face it is also a clever way to avoid getting a surprise smack in the face by wayward dry crispy leaves. Alternatively see essential item number 1.

9. Jumpers (or sweaters if you are American) - the temperature drops and it gets a bit nippy out there so an extra thick, woollen layer is sensible.

10. A summer jacket - some days the sun shines and it's actually quite warm so don't banish that summer jacket to the closet just yet.

11. Short sleeve T-shirts - some days it is so warm you'll start thinking you dreamt the hail, rain and wind of two days ago.

12. A winter coat - and then reality hits, the sun decides it's done for the year, tucks itself up behind a big blanket of clouds and sleeps until spring. Be prepared. Before you know it it really is time for the summer coat to retire for the year and you'll be needing that big, thick, snuggly coat.

Wellington boots or soggy socks - it's a choice you make.

13. Wellington boots - whether or not puddle jumping is your thing you will need some kind of waterproof boots before the year is out, unless walking around in soggy socks is your thing.

14. De-icer for the car - chilly mornings gradually arrive and what begins as a friendly layer of frost on your windscreen soon turns into a stubborn blanket of ice that ensures you start your mornings with some serious muscle ache.

Squirrels are not the only ones hoarding at this time of year - kids do it too.

15. A selection of plastic zip up bags - it's not just squirrels that are collecting stuff in autumn, kids do it too. They collect conkers, acorns, fir cones, leaves and general crap from the floor. You're going to want to put it all in a sealed off bag. Trust me.

16. A big rucksack - last but not least you will need a really big bag to put the other fifteen items in. Think the kind of bag you see crippling hikers and campers. Like I said, think of this period of the year as "four seasons in one day" and you can't go wrong.

I wish you all good luck with the decline to colder, wetter, darker days. See you all again in spring when I crawl out from under my rock!

Monday, 6 October 2014

Bilingual Children: How Rumours Start

When you are raising bilingual children there will undoubtedly be frustrations, but there will also be laughs.

When we are out and about people outside our home obviously expect to consistently hear Dutch from my sons once they have struck up conversation in Dutch. They are not expecting them to suddenly switch to English. But sometimes it happens.

The funniest moment so far was when a pediatric nurse cast serious aspersions on Bert’s sexuality, the grumpier of the Bert and Ernie duo.

My son, two at the time, had to go for an appointment at our local hospital. Whilst we waited for the nurse, he was busy with various toys scattered around the waiting room. He picked up an Ernie, of Sesame Street fame, and began to play.

The nurse appeared and to get him comfortable with her (some two year olds are not too happy when a stranger wants to poke and prod them) she asked about the cuddly toy he was holding,

Nou, wie is dat?” ("So, who's that?")

“Ernie,” replied my son looking at her as if she had landed from an alien planet.

En waar is Bert?,” she continued. ("And where is Bert?")

“Bert’s at home,” he replied, turning around to get back to the important business of playing with Ernie.

The nurse looked a little shocked and turned to us and asked,

Wat zegt hij nou?” ("What did he just say?")

Bert is thuis,” my husband said “maar dan in het Engels. Hij heeft een Bert knuffel thuis.” (Bert is at home, but then in English. He has a Bert toy at home.")

The nurse broke in to hysterics and the three of us looked at her as if maybe she needed an appointment in a different section of the hospital. Until she explained,

Ik dacht dat hij zei ‘Bert is een homo’.” ("I thought he said Bert is a 'homo'.")

It wasn't the first time I had heard that rumour, but in the sterile surroundings of a hospital examination room, it certainly broke the ice.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Expat Blog Link Up - All About October in the Netherlands

It's here. October. Autumn. The last quarter of the year. And of course a new expat blog link up - you can find all the details at the bottom of this post!

Here, the sun has almost vacated to greener pastures, leaving the Netherlands grey and rainy with a fair share of wind which swirls the fallen yellow and brown leaves across pavements and roads. It's the time of year when the council strategically places bladkorven along the streets (essentially cages for leaves) in an attempt to encourage residents to clean the streets of leaves hence saving our tax money for far more worthy expenses. Like cutting down all our trees next year and unnecessarily repaving pavements. Anyway, October means lots of leaves on the ground and lots of leaves blowing around slapping you in the face which is a source of hilarity for my children.

October also means it is time for the kabouters to make an appearance. In essence little gnomes who live in toadstools. It usually means that a parasol decorated with a red and white polka dotted cover appears in the infant classes in school. Little, plain wooden stools are transformed into toadstools.

That's when you know autumn is here.

It's also the time of year for Dutch brewed bokbier, beer perfect for sipping on those darker, romantic evenings in front of the fire, with the shadows of candle flames dancing gently around on the walls.

And then of course the Dutch supermarkets anticipate our need for more substantial meals to warm us up when the evenings start getting chillier. In short, we are being eased gently in to winter. Packets of dark green boerenkool appear in the weekly specials, as well as Unox sausages, and there are potatoes everywhere to make piles of stamppot. Or as a variation, ingredients for hutspot. If you are not yet familiar with these Dutch delicacies then have no fear, you soon will be (See number 7 in this list).

Soup is also very popular in the Netherlands at this time of year. Thick, vegetable filled soups with pink sausage bobbing on the surface like little rafts. The supermarket fridges are stacked with packets of every type of vegetable you could possibly imagine to put in a soup, already cut up and prepared for your homemade broth. Pea soup is also a local delicacy, served with chunky, brown bread and pink sausage floating on the top. For those of you paying attention you may have spotted a theme running through Dutch autumn and winter food.......

On the subject of food, the supply of Sinterklaas goodies starting escalating when we hit October, Kruidnoten have been in the supermarkets since the summer holidays ended but now the chocolate letters come out in force. I'm guessing this is so you can practice stuffing your face with sweets and chocolate before Sinterklaas and his merry helpers enter the country in November, by which time you have it mastered and are ready to celebrate their arrival in style. You are also five kilos heavier by the time November creeps up on you.

Pompoenen. No October post about the Netherlands would be complete without mentioning pumpkins. Growing up in England pumpkins meant Halloween to me. We annually carved a face in a pumpkin and voila, we were ready for Halloween. Here pumpkins appear well before the end of October. In fact, I spotted lots of eager households who had gone pumpkin crazy in September already. However, in October pumpkin fever really begins. Front porches, gardens and steps are adorned with orange, green and yellow pumpkins of all sizes and shapes. Pumpkins mean autumn.

That's not to say that the big round, carving sort of pumpkins don't appear because they do. It's a relatively recent phenomena but Dutch supermarkets have started stocking huge orange varieties with a black sticker depicting a face showing you how to carve the perfect scary, toothy grin. Closing October out with a spot of trick and treating is growing in popularity, but is certainly not yet at the same level as in the United States or Britain, not even close.

The Dutch are renowned (at least amongst the expats) for being sun worshippers. However, they are also incredibly adaptable and are perfectly capable of embracing the autumn months with almost as much enthusiasm as the summer months. Almost. One thing the Dutch do well is gezelligheid, and that is a word that perfectly sums up autumn in the Netherlands.

Here's wishing you all a gezellig, bokbier, potato, sausage and pumpkin filled October!

And now over to you - how does October look in the country you call home?

Expat Life with a Double Buggy

Monday, 29 September 2014

New Expat Blog Link Up: All About October

There's no running away from it as I look outside my home office window to be greeted only by rain and grey sky. Summer is over here in the Netherlands. Well and truly. Autumn is here. That is what the closing in of October means to me. Autumn. The calm before winter shows up.

I make it sound like it's a bad thing, but really I don't feel that way. I love autumn in the Netherlands, just like I loved autumn back in England. But what does a Dutch October look like? What happens in October? What do I like about October in the Netherlands? What bubbles on Dutch stoves in October? What celebrations take place in October?

The answer to these questions, and many more, will be revealed next week in my blog post "All About October in the Netherlands".

And as a bonus all you amazing expat bloggers out there can link up a post about October in the place you call home. Share with us what you like, what you don't like, what sets October apart from other months in your adopted homeland.

Are you in? The blog link up will go live on Wednesday 1st October and will be open the whole month. Can't wait to learn about October around the globe!

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Through the Keyhole - An Expat Brit Lives Here

Photo Credit: Bill Davenport
As a British expat in the Netherlands I stick out like a sore thumb. Just by opening my mouth I am easy to pick out as different from the locals. (See Stuart's fabulous Invading Holland post "Oh, You're English" if you want to know a little bit more about what I mean). But most of the time it doesn't feel like it's entirely a bad thing. Not at all.

What seems like many moons ago I wrote a guest post for Meghan's wonderful Bringing Up Brits site about how my three sons, who are Dutch through and through, stand out a little from other Dutch boys because their mother is British. It got me thinking about how I stand out as British when Dutch people come to our house.

Magazine Rack: At any given time our magazine rack has old copies of some British magazine or other that friends have kindly donated to me, or that have been picked up on our travels. There was a time when it was hard for any Dutch guest to find something they could read but over the years the tables have turned. 

Music: Many of the CDs I own wouldn't have made their way into the average Dutch home. I'm talking about the very British music that never really made a name over here, those bands and singers I mention that make my husband screw his face up in confusion.

Food: My food cupboards and fridge contain jars of Colman's Mustard, boxes of Paxo stuffing, Marmite, Branston pickle, Hayward's pickled onions, mint sauce, Ambrosia pudding rice and custard and Bisto. These are not every day items from the local Dutch supermarket. They are expat shop specials, or brought lovingly over by visitors from England or hoarded in a squirrel like manner whenever I am back in England for transport back to my Dutch kitchen cupboards. 

Recipe books: You can't beat a good apple crumble, Yorkshire puddings or scone recipe so my kitchen shelves are filled with the type of recipe book you won't find in a Dutch bookshop. My shelves were once lined with weaning books and recipe books written by Gina Ford and Annabel Karmel. Most Dutch people looked blankly at me if I mentioned those baby and child (food and nutrition) specialists. Contrary to the rest of the Dutch population, my Jamie Oliver books are in English. I also have lots of curry recipe books. You can take a Brit out of Britain and all that.........

Affilate link: The Magic Faraway Tree Collection by Enid Blyton
Capturing childhood memories!

Books: The books I own are mainly in English. I read to relax, and I relax better in my mother tongue. That's not to say I don't read books in Dutch because I do, but the truth is most of my book collection is in English. and I used to be best friends until they changed their free delivery policy. Now my best friend is The Book Depository. And it's not just my book collection that is in English; my three boys also have an extensive collection of books in English to make sure their English keeps improving, and that they know British nursery rhymes and classic stories. My eldest and I have just read "The Magic Faraway Tree" series together - and it was hands down his favourite book ever - so far. I read the very same series as a child so it was a wonderful experience to read the three Enid Blyton books with my own son. We've just started "The Wishing Chair".

Affiliate Link to

DVDs: Way back when we first moved in together my husband and I amalgamated our DVD collection. We got rid of the duplicates but interestingly enough many of the Dutch DVDs survived the cull because they have Dutch subtitles and British DVDs don't. However, our DVD shelves are still lined with many a notable British film title.

Board Games: Our games collection gives me away too. The British version of word board games is always different to the Dutch version by way of the compilation of letters. For example the Dutch scrabble version contains 2 'J' tiles, whereas the British version contains 1. Playing Scrabble in Dutch with my British version and vice versa adds an extra challenge to the game which isn't wholly necessary. And of course British childhood classics like 'Snakes n Ladders' is unknown in the Netherlands (although I have seen versions of the game popping up quite regularly in recent years).

Bags: Giving a guest a carrier bag from Tesco, Marks & Spencers or John Lewis rather than an Albert Heijn or C1000 plastic bag to take items home in seems almost exotic. There's nothing like a Tesco carrier bag to say, "I'm foreign."

Look around you in your home - what gives you away as an expat to local eyes?

Monday, 22 September 2014

Rembrandt and Kiki - The New Kids on the Block

Rembrandt and Kiki are red-headed twins who are moving to the Netherlands. Their mother is Dutch and their father is English so they both speak two languages. These bilingual twins are mischievous and love a good adventure. I have a feeling my sons will be getting to know Kiki and Rembrandt quite well. Oh, and these 'new in town' twins are completely fictitious.

Jane Archer-Wilms & Marlies Veenhof
They are the brainchild of British expat Jane Archer-Wilms and Dutch national Marlies Veenhof who have colluded to create a series of books aimed at helping children improve their Dutch and/or English language skills. I caught up with them to ask them about the book series, their future plans and life before Rembrandt and Kiki.

Firstly, I wanted to know how they met. It turns out, like so many blossoming friendships, the two women met on a school playground, not as childhood friends but as mothers. They explain further,

"Our children go to the same Dutch primary school and we were both pregnant with our third child at the same time.... playground chat turned to regular meeting up and the friendship grew from there."

The next logical step was to write a series of books together. Right? Well, not quite but the idea was born from the desire to balance motherhood with work they could do around their children. Jane had recently stopped working at the British school in the Netherlands and Marlies was working one day a week as a primary school teacher to be able to focus more on their expanding families. Both women admit they found the idea of full time motherhood daunting and wanted a happy medium between parenting and putting the skills they had gained from years as teachers to good use. One afternoon, whilst at a children's playground, the idea of creating a bilingual book came to life.

And what do they hope to achieve with their bilingual books? Well, that's easy. Jane explains,

"World-wide fame and a seven figure salary..... Or we would settle for knowing that we have created something that children love but that also serves a purpose."

And where do the names Rembrandt and Kiki from? I naturally assumed Marlies had a hand in the choosing of the name Rembrandt but I couldn't have been more wrong. Whilst Marlies chose the name Kiki, a character that incidentally reminds her of herself as a child, Rembrandt turns out to be Jane's choice of name. It is not only a typically Dutch name, but one that Jane loves, so much so that she had the name on the list of potential names for her own sons. Her husband vetoed it but she's happy she got to name at least one boy Rembrandt in the end.

Choosing names for the book's main characters was not only the fun they had whilst creating the books. Marlies elaborates,

"For us, writing the books is the most fun. Trying to think how children think, and what they would find funny is fantastic. The translations can take weeks, as we want to stay true to both languages without compromising the story-line. It is also so exciting to see the illustrations when Sarah (Wills, illustrator) sends them through – it all comes so much to life then."

And for all budding children's book authors out there, Jane and Marlies reveal exclusively here on this blog the secret to finding a brilliant, quirky illustrator that matches perfectly with the ideas you had for your characters and their adventures,

"We were very cutting-edge in our illustrator-seeking strategy..... we used Google! Sarah is a professional children’s illustrator from Cornwall in England, and we loved her website and quirky drawing style. We approached her with our ideas for Rembrandt and Kiki, and after she sent us a few sketches, we knew we had found our illustrator."

Whilst the humour in the Rembrandt and Kiki books is aimed at children aged from four to eight, Jane states that the books are also useful for children of other ages.

"They can be read to younger children, and older children learning Dutch or English for the first time will find them accessible too. The children don’t need to be able to read; if the parents are not bilingual, they can use the free audiobooks on the website (in Dutch and English)," she says.

The books have not only been created with both English speakers and Dutch children in mind, but their parents too, as Jane further explains.

"We have really tried to make the books as user-friendly as possible, in the sense that parents can read the story fully in English, fully in Dutch, in both languages page by page, or the children can listen to all the above combinations on the free audio book. The children can, if they cannot yet read, look at the pictures and find the Dutch and British flags hidden on each page. Each book has a theme to which the children can relate, and there is a vocabulary list at the back of the book which corresponds with highlighted (and often repeated) words throughout the story. In this way, parents can also use the books to develop their child’s vocabulary in the second language."

She goes on to explain that the series they are creating works in a number of ways,

"It’s a fantastic resource for English-speaking children living in The Netherlands. It works just as effectively though for Dutch children living abroad or Dutch children in The Netherlands; it stimulates the use of a second language, be it Dutch or English. The other group we have targeted is primary schools – both Dutch and international. There is a complete scheme of work available to accompany the books, so it’s a great resource for the teaching of English or Dutch in primary schools".

Marlies, with her primary school teacher hat on, recognised that many primary school teachers felt unprepared for the introduction of teaching English to groups 1 and 2 (four to six year olds) so this series is also a means to give teachers a fun and stimulating resource to teach the younger age groups. It's an age group that both Jane and Marlies consider to be important when it comes to learning a second language.

"We think introducing a second language in the early years of school is a fantastic idea, so long as it is achievable and enjoyable for the children. We think it’s a real gift to be given the chance to learn a second language from an early age. The earlier that a child is exposed to a second language, the easier and quicker that language is to learn (as are any subsequent languages). Of course many English-speaking families in The Netherlands are here for a limited time, and we understand completely that Dutch can be a hideous language to try and pick up, particularly if you have no Dutch connections and are not here for very long. Rembrandt & Kiki is an easy and fun way of introducing and maintaining the Dutch language. It is also perhaps lovely to keep as a memento from the country in which you have lived."

And they practice what they preach too. Jane has lived in the Netherlands since 2002, and speaks Dutch (stating that it gets even better after a few glasses of wine, at least to her own ears) and her three sons are bilingual too. She also has big plans to turn Marlies' children into bilinguals, though Marlies herself needs no help with her English having taught it as a foreign language to students in North East Thailand, as well as teaching basic language skills to children in orphanages in the evenings.

And what of the future? I asked Jane and Marlies where they plan to take Rembrandt and Kiki and it turns out they have visions of European travel for the bilingual twins.

"We have big plans! We are writing an initial series of five books (plus five schemes of work for primary schools), each covering a different theme and adventure for Rembrandt and Kiki. The first one that is available to buy now is Rembrandt & Kiki Move to The Netherlands. The second one coming out in November is Rembrandt & Kiki in the Museum, the third one is at the farm and so on. We hope to write lots more books after this initial series – covering themes such as Sinterklaas, the seasons, holidays and so on. Our big plan, however, is to translate the Rembrandt & Kiki series into other languages, to be used in exactly the same way – to further a second language in other countries as well as The Netherlands. English will always be the base language, but given time, we hope to see Rembrandt and Kiki in German, Danish and Spanish, to name but a few!"

In the short term, I asked them to fast forward a year. What achievement would have them popping champagne bottles in celebration?

"We will be 10kg lighter.... oh you mean with the books? We will hopefully have the first series of five books available in paperback and hardback, along with schemes of work, and we’ll be busy writing the next series. The books will stand proudly on our bookshelves and when asked what we do, we’ll say without hesitation that we are authors of children’s books."

Both deserving of the title "Author". For sure.
I don't think there is any doubt that they may already call themselves authors of children's books. Wouldn't you agree?