Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Pre and Post Expat Life: My Life Part I & II

The words of Nelson Mandela's sum up perfectly a feeling that I grappled with for the first time a few years ago whilst visiting England in the summertime.

I was taking a trip down memory lane with my sons, touring round the places I used to live, and the schools I once attended. It struck me that there was a distinctive gap between my past and my present. I struggle to get both parts to correlate.

Reconciling my 'British past' with my 'expat in the Netherlands' present is a task far beyond me. 

With the gift of hindsight I know now that moving to the Netherlands meant the start of 'My Life Part II'. I have contact with family and friends that played a large role in 'My Life Part I' but few of those actually know what it is like to be living out 'My Life Part II', what my daily life in the Netherlands is like. And the other way round; my Dutch family and friends have no connection to my British past. 

There are no links to the life that lies behind me. There is no red thread holding it all together. 

At certain times, like the occasional trips down memory lane when I am back in England, 'My Life Part I' and 'My Life Part II' collide. My Dutch children and Dutch husband are sat in the car driving around the roads and landmarks of my past. They see my childhood memories for themselves (if they manage to stay awake that is). But the two parts of my life are so different it is hard to comprehend how they make up the same life. They are world's apart. Or countries apart in any case. The colliding of the two parts happens so infrequently it is hard to grasp how it fits together. It's like a flawed jigsaw puzzle.

For a number of years now, whenever I am back in England, I entertain doubts about whether I could live permanently in my birth country again. I have changed. It's no longer feels like home. I feel more foreign in England than I do in the Netherlands. 

When I first moved to the Netherlands every trip I took back to England was heart wrenching. At the end of every visit back then I resented having to get on the return flight back to Schiphol. I had to force myself to go back to the Netherlands and leave what felt like my home.

These days when we are making the return trip from England to the Netherlands I feel safe in the knowledge that I am returning home. A Dutch border agent, sitting in his cramped booth at Schiphol airport in his smart blue uniform, put a huge smile on my face when he checked my passport as I re-entered Dutch territory. He looked up at me, matched my face to my passport photo, smiled and said "Welkom thuis." Welcome home indeed.

My home had moved.

My anchor had moved.

I was aware of the transition as it took place - my sense of home shifting from England to the Netherlands right before my eyes. We were driving on the M25 motorway around London making our way back to Harwich's ferry terminal after a visit to my father and instead of feeling laden with sadness at leaving my family I had the consolation that at least we were heading home.

Back to my safe haven.

Back to 'My Life Part II'.

Over to You: Do you feel like there is a pre and a post expat you? Can you reconcile the two parts?

Sunday, 25 January 2015

My Sunday Photo: The Tank Wall

The Netherlands is littered with reminders that this small, liberal nation was once an occupied one. One such place is in the Panbos in Katwijk where the Atlantic Wall stands proud and strong. It is part of a defensive structure that was built by the Germans to stop advancing Allied Forces. What is also impressive is the formation of the tank wall that was built as part of the Atlantic wall defences.

It is like standing looking at lots of giant size pieces of a Toblerone bar - constructed to stop Allied tanks from coming into the Netherlands from the beaches. It's a sobering sight as you meander through the woods.


Wednesday, 21 January 2015

5 Ways to Encourage a Child to Write in a Second Language

My three boys are bilingual, speaking Dutch as their mother tongue and English as their second language. It struck me recently that even though we talk and read in English at home every day my eldest hardly gets any writing practice in his second language. So I'm making an all out concerted effort to change that and I have been thinking of ways that he'll find interesting to encourage him to pick up a pen to write in English.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Book Review: Expat Life Slice by Slice by Apple Gidley

Apple Gidley is a TCK, a globe wanderer, and therefore perfectly positioned to be the author of a book about all aspects of expat life. And with such an inviting name, how could she not ensure there was eloquent synergy between the author's name and the book title?


In Expat Life Slice by Slice Apple covers the spectrum of a life spent abroad in thirteen bite size pieces, from giving birth overseas to caring for ageing parents, from looking after pets to raising children, and from friendship to food. And then she brings the cycle full circle by ending with retirement and repatriation, about returning to a 'home' that is unfamiliar. She openly recounts how returning to a former life, one you haven't lived for many years, is tough, as difficult as taking that initial step to an expat life in the first place. However, Apple tells us, the magnitude of repatriation is all too commonly dismissed. It's something I can imagine, but am yet to go through.

She also relays how expat life was before the internet, something that I guess is unthinkable to expats today. She talks about groups that served as her lifeline time after time. She writes about the strains of parenting overseas and education choices, of leaving children behind. She discusses cultures and customs that are hard to stomach.

Apple guides the reader through a well-lived expat life with sometimes incredibly heart wrenching personal anecdotes from her own escapades overseas. In 1980 she lived in the Netherlands, and her daughter Kate was born in Emmen.

Her stories are ones that make you smile, or shed a tear, or sit reading with your mouth open in astonishment. In short, Apple shares the real ups and downs of expat life, and also shows just how many types of and aspects to expat life there are.

At the end of each chapter, she shares a tip, or an overview about an element of expat life - a takeaway slice, as she puts it. Like this one:

"Does it really matter where children grow up as long as they feel secure, loved and listened to? The opportunity for young children to benefit linguistically from early exposure to different languages is surely of huge benefit in later life, as is early exposure to different cultures." 

I couldn't agree more. Expat Life Slice by Slice is a fascinating read, particularly if you are what I call a traditional expat, or accompanying partner, moving from one international assignment to another.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

My Sunday Photo: The Wondrous Panorama by Mesdag

It took fourteen years of living in the Netherlands before I finally went to see the Panorama Mesdag in The Hague. Don't make the same mistake! If you are in the area, go visit! Here's a snippet.


Sunday, 11 January 2015

My Sunday Photo: Fish Watching

Last week we popped to our local zoo, Blijdorp in Rotterdam (great zoo if you are local and haven't been). Some months it's like a second home as we have an annual pass, but last week was the first trip for a while. 

We spent about three days looking at the fish. Okay, obviously it wasn't three days but it was a loooong time. Something calming about the Oceanium part of Blijdorp isnt't there? We're back there in a few weeks for a special birthday boy treat, so watch this space........


Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The Year 2015: Finding My Place Again in the Snow Globe

2015. What will it bring? I actually just reread a post I write a year ago called "What does 2014 hold?" and I can honestly say that I could rewrite that post but change the names around a bit. 2015 will be a huge change for me personally, but not until October. October is the month that Mr O, the baby of the family (I need to stop calling him that - he's three for goodness sake), will turn four and then start at primary school too. In October 2015 I will have three school going children. For the first time in nearly nine years there will be no children at home during the school day (apart from lunchtime then). Just me. 

Part of me is dancing a very energetic happy dance at the thought. Part of me is a little mournful. How fast they grow. However, I have another nine months with my youngest at home before those child free hours are upon me. And I plan to make the most of them with him.

There are some other things I plan to do in 2015 too, and when I stumbled across this "Imagining the New Year" blog link up I decided to put those plans down on virtual paper. I also created a Pinterest board called the Year 2015 to keep me motivated. So here goes! Three main things to focus on in 2015.

1. Be More Comfortable in My Own Skin

The last eight years have been a collage of new motherhood, sleepless nights, pregnancies, breastfeeding, weaning, applauding firsts three times around - like crawling, talking and walking, nursery school starts, first school days, learning how to parent a highly sensitive child and parenting as a highly sensitive person and going through a huge career change. It's been an intense time.

From the moment we welcomed our first child to the world it was like a giant hand was shaking a snow globe around me - and it feels like it is only now that the snow is beginning to settle. Things feel stable around me. But I feel out of sorts. Like I have been left hanging a little off kilter in my snow globe world. I'm not quite where I should be. And this year I want to work on changing that.

I want to feel more comfortable being me again. That's both physically and mentally. More mindful eating. Eat breakfast (a small tweak that will apparently change my year). More physical movement, but something that works for me instead of another failed gym membership. A wardrobe overhaul. More sleep. More time with my husband, letting him know just how important he is. Our marriage was put on the back-burner whilst we learnt the parenting ropes. It was put low down on the priority list whilst we struggled with the ups and downs of parenthood. We have more time and the chance to change focus now.

2. Calm My Mind

I saw this gem about a woman's mind being like an internet browser with a whole host of pages open at the same time and it summed up perfectly for me how my mind is constantly busy. I'm always thinking about all the things that I 'need' to do. If the children are at school and my youngest is napping, I am always doing something - and that has been the way it has been since I became a mother. I remember a friend saying how wonderful her son's nap times were because she could read her magazines in peace and I was perplexed as to why I could never consider that to be something I could do without feeling guilty, without feeling I should be doing something else more 'worthwhile'.

A few weeks ago, in the height of the December madness, I sat down one morning, whilst all three children were in school, and I watched an episode of Downton Abbey. And I switched off. Ignored the nagging in my mind that I should be doing one of the things on my bullet journal list. Or cleaning some part of the house, which was quite frankly way overdue. I stuck two fingers up to my own thoughts, drank coffee and slobbered over watched the lovely Hugh Bonneville instead. I can count on one hand how many times I have taken this kind of time alone since my first son was born in 2007. And now I know I need to give myself permission to take time for myself. Just to do nothing. To switch off. To calm my mind. To read. To watch something. Just because.

2015 is a year I vow to invite less stress into my life. Instead, there will be more calm and I will have more patience - with myself, and with my children.

I plan to calm my mind with more creative journalling, by emptying my thoughts onto blank pages. I plan to breathe more consciously - be more mindful of my own breathing. To practice what I preach to my sons. To calm it down. To nurture my inner calm. To enjoy the little moments more instead of constantly planning for the bigger ones. A happiness jar will help with that.

I want to close some of these internet pages that are constantly open in my mind. Open one page at a time, deal with it and then close it down. More focus. Less energy wasted. Less chaos. More calm in my mind.

3. Explore My Home

A few years ago, I had a vision board and one of the items was about exploring the Netherlands. The plan was to see something new in the country I call home every month. And then two more children came along and the good intention fell by the wayside. This year, I am breathing new life into it.

Last weekend we headed to the Veluwe for a walk, instead of going to one of our usual walking destinations. My husband suggested it, and usually on the Sunday before the kids are due back at school after a holiday I would have dismissed the idea of venturing out a little further. This time I embraced the idea, let my husband lead the way and I just followed.

I'm planning a list of things I want to see in the Netherlands. I made a Dutch bucket list last year, but this is a real places to see list. What should be on it? What is a must see in the Netherlands?

And another little thing that I really want to get under my belt is driving. I wrote about this before and even made some progress taking lessons as a refresher, but then I fell down the stairs and was out of action for a while. This morning I drove a little in our car for the first time. Hopefully I'll keep building on that...... keep asking me!

So that's my 2015 plan in a nutshell.

What does 2015 hold for you? What one thing are you determined to do this year?

The List

Monday, 5 January 2015

Expat Life Means Throwing Your Plans Out the Window

It won't be news to anyone but life doesn't always turn out like you expect it to. If someone had told my seventeen year old self that I would end up living in the Netherlands with a Dutch husband and three children who are way more Dutch than they ever will be British, I would never have believed them. I would have been intrigued, but convinced? I don't think so.

Whilst I was making plans for my future, fresh out of university with a degree in European Studies, someone, somewhere was sniggering saying, "Well, I doubt you'll be needing any of that - maybe you should have tried learning Dutch. That's a language you will be using daily when you are 27." But how was I to know?

Expat life is planned for some, it sneaks up on others. Either way, it probably means life as you envisioned it doesn't quite become a reality. Expat life changes things - and sometimes that means a huge adjustment. Expat life can throw a spanner in the works. All the things you imagined for yourself in life can turn out so differently, in the blink of an expat eye.

It's a feeling I touched upon in a chapter I wrote about my Dutch wedding in the Dutched Up!: Rocking the Clogs Expat Style anthology. I had visions when I was younger of me trying on wedding dresses with my best friend at my side. I always figured my mother would also be a part of that build up to my wedding day. Together we'd be sipping bubbly while trawling through a range of dresses to find the perfect one for my big day.

My final choice of wedding dress
The reality was very different. Both my best friend and my mother were in England and I was here in the Netherlands. I actually put off looking for a dress for a while, and I guess it should have been one of the first things on my mind. At the time it wasn't a conscious decision to keep putting the visit to the bridal shop off, but looking back, I understand why I was more reluctant than I should have been to try wedding dresses on. It's the little things that suddenly slap you in the face and make you realise that expat life means sacrificing some things to gain others.

Having my first child was another reminder of how expat life changes things. In a non-expat life I had visions of my mother waiting outside the delivery room, eager to see her grandchild. I guess I figured I would have her to lean on, as the voice of experience, whilst I was pregnant in a different country. The reality was a million miles from the ideal. If I look back now I can't say whether there would have been more interest in my children from my mother had I not left England. It's a question I will never have the answer to, but I do know that my expat life changed our relationship for the worse. And I can't change that.

When you opt for an expat life things change. It is inevitable. I wouldn't change my decision to move overseas for all the tea in China, or all the fish 'n' chips back in England. But maybe, I could have been more prepared for the changes that expat life brings about. I don't mean the daily, practical things; I had envisaged those. I mean how expat life changes how the little things turn out, how it challenges the plans and visions you had for yourself, how it strains relationships with those left behind. How it puts turns in the road you hadn't seen coming.

To thrive as an expat I've needed to throw everything I saw for my future self out the window, and start with a clean slate. Make my plans from scratch. I've had to deal with the unexpected, and recover from being blindsided many times. Expat life means a pay off. That is the only certainty.

But I'm glad I've had the chance to find my way through my expat life. The journey was worth it.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

My Sunday Photo: Happy New Year Breakfast

To welcome 2015 in we had a special, feestelijk breakfast of pancakes. It's the little things that create childhood memories, I'm sure.


Thursday, 1 January 2015

Happy 2015: Nieuwjaars Duik

Nothing says Happy New Year like a New Year's Dive into cold water. And so it was with intrepidation that we set off to the Noord Aa in Zoetermeer. 

The band was playing. The orange hats were bobbing in anticipation. The clothes came off. The rescue workers took to the water. Pumped up music started playing. The warm up began. 

And my goodness it was cold. Cold with a capital C. Cold enough to freeze the .... you get the picture.

Next year we may even go in the water ourselves.....

Happy 2015 to all of you - may it be all you wish for.