Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Expat Truths: Making Friends

Just over a month or so ago I shared my scary experience of meeting a group of extremely negative expats which stayed with me for a long time after (more than ten years and counting).

The response I got to that blog post ranged from,

"Didn't it occur to you that they maybe needed help?" to "I have had the exact same experience. Don't go there."

However, a common theme was that many of the expats who made a very welcome comment had been through a negative experience meeting other expats at some stage or another.

Sometimes friendships are meant to be - but most of the
time they need hard work.
Photo Credit: Shirley B
When you stop and think about it it's not such a crazy phenomena is it? Most friendships needs time to blossom. Sometimes you meet someone and you just know you're going to get on like a house on fire, but most of the time friendships needs time to grow. And there needs to be common ground, experiences and circumstances in common; something to relate to.

If you throw culture shock in to the mix then it may well be hard to even establish if there is common ground. If an experience is scarily negative and there is no second meeting then of course friendships are impossible to build up. Biting the bullet and trying it a second and a third time may have meant me, in time,  seeing the real women step out from behind the culture shock. But I'm an introvert who doesn't relish evenings out with lots of unknown faces. I'm also highly sensitive and soaking up the negative emotions of others wasn't high on my to do list -  I found it hard enough adjusting to my own expat life, let alone helping others out of their deep, dark culture shock holes. It took a lot for me to crawl out from under my safe stone and meet the group in the first place. I had no strength or desire to try again. That's the plain truth. So it stayed at one haunting meeting. Other readers of my first blog post pushed through the pain of the first meeting, some with happy endings, some ultimately giving up at a later stage.

Expat Truth: How easy it is to make friends as an expat depends on your own character traits and your emotional resilience. 

What also comes through in all the comments is that sharing a common language or nationality is not an automatic pass to blissful friendship. It makes sense too. You're not friends with every single person you know in your passport country just because you speak the same language. That's not what friendships are based on.

Making friends as a new expat often drives us to seek out people from the same country as we are from, people who speak the same language. But there is no guarantee of a pre-destined friendship just because we are, for example, all Brits together. Kelli summed it up with her comment,

"We're friends because we gave to be, not because it's someone we would really choose in 'real' life."
Expat Truth: A common language or nationality does not make a friendship.

Also notable in the comments was that making an effort with locals is highly rewarding. A mix of expat and local friends make for a balanced, varied social life that has a positive impact on expat life - but it takes effort, as Anne Canaveera points out,

"All of them [French expats] were saying they thought Irish people were not welcoming and they didn't make any Irish friends. Well the truth is they were working together, living together and going out together, so it would have been hard for an Irish person to feel part of a such a close group of French friends. Anyway, I told them I had Irish friends and didn't socialise with expats only. The answer was: Oh, but it's not the same for you! Maybe it's not the same because I made an effort?"
Meghan Fenn, an American expat living in Britain found that she needed perseverance to befriend the locals but the result was rewarding,
"I think it's hard making friends with the locals. You have to get to know how they go about making friends and the British sense of humour and way of doing things is very different to the American way. It took me a long time to get used to it. I still have the scars from a toddler group experience I had when my first child was a baby. It was horrific! I persisted though and made some good friends from that same group who rejected me initially. It took several years though." 

Expat Truth: Making the effort to make local friends is rewarding, even though it is tough.

Expat Truth: Making new friends as an expat can take years.

And finally, if you have a truly horrific social experience and start doubting why you moved in the first place take a step back, a deep breath and move on. Ace CB explains succinctly with her comment that there are types of negativity,
"You can have a realistic view of the negative whilst still having a decent attitude."
Most of us have had a negative experience trying to make friends overseas but we have lived to tell the tale (and write blog posts about it), and then gone on to meet a wonderful set of friends elsewhere.
Yes, there will always be negative aspects of expat life, things that don't feel right or as good as 'back home' but as Bronwyn Joy so elegantly puts it,
"Some types of negativity breed solutions, other types breed more negativity. And when you get stuck in the spiral it's hard to get everyone out again."
Expat Truth: The philosophy 'something is better than nothing' does not apply to negative friendships. Escape whilst you still can.

Some friendships demand a U turn
Photo Credit: Enrico Corno
Part of the secret of positive expat friendships is recognising the different types of negativity around you and getting out whilst you can. There'll be a new group of people around the corner that will be a better fit - if you keep looking and keep trying. Sometimes it may take years and if you're a long term expat, you have the time to get it right so that you can echo (crocheting goddess) Nerissa's inspirational words, 
"I have stepped back from the toxic relationships that being an expat often forces upon you. Now I can say that I honestly have a wonderful, tight knit circle of friends whom I love dearly and would be friends with no matter where on this planet I lived."
Which, at the end of the day, is what we are all looking for right?

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Easter is No Longer About Size

Easter growing up was about biiiig chocolate Easter eggs and the fun of hunting until we had found our stash of chocolate. These days I'm happier with much smaller eggs...and don't bother hiding them....They are not easy to come by for expats in the Netherlands but I had a recent trip back to England........Happy Easter!

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