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Sunday, 9 December 2012

Letters from the Netherlands: Half the Sky

Letters from the Netherlands: Half the Sky: I haven’t blogged for a while, because I’ve been thinking. Last time I wrote I was worried about a drip in the cellar, the Polish b...

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Half the Sky

I haven’t blogged for a while, because I’ve been thinking.

Last time I wrote I was worried about a drip in the cellar, the Polish builders (who we thought had abandoned us) came hurrying back to repair the drip, and while they were here repaired the small patch of condensation we noticed inside a light fitting. The cellar drip turned out to be nothing to worry about; however, the condensation was actually a hole in the pipes on the verge of turning into a flood.

I can’t stop thinking about how I was so consumed by the drip that I’d ignored the approaching flood. I think I may have spent most of my life worrying about the drip.

I want to see if I can change.

I also can’t stop thinking about a book I read called Half the Sky, a passionate call to arms against our era’s most pervasive human rights violation, by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting team, husband and wife Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. I admit to being a sucker for a bit of sensationalism; reading the luridness of other lives makes me appreciate the good fortune in my own.  I sleep well tucked up in my own bed knowing there are people out there like Kristof and WuDunn fighting for the rights of the oppressed. Or I used to.

All my life I’ve felt an admiration for the humanitarian campaigners in the world, admiration and a vague sense of guilt, could I do more, should I? I’ve given to charity when it hasn’t inconvenienced me too much, I watched Children in Need and laughed at all the ‘selfless’ celebrities, on Christmas eve I given to street collectors if it was easy enough to reach my loose change, I had a regular direct debit supporting unprivileged children I knew nothing about. Surely that’s enough, right?

Half the Sky is not a dramatic book. Luridness and sensationalism are not used as gimmicks, and in an odd call for balance and realism the authors ask that people don’t dramatize the facts they read within the book. That said, it won’t alter the truth that if you read this book (and I hope you do) the stories will turn your knuckles white as you grip your Kindle or paperback.

I thought I was too selfish to care, really care, about the injustices that still take place all over the world.  But this book won’t leave me alone, I finished reading it over a month ago and everyday its stories invade my reality; this detail in particular won’t go away:

There are approximately 27 million slaves alive today – more than at any point in history – and 56 percent are women. (

It isn’t just the humanitarian issues in the book that consume my thoughts it’s the secrets too: the secret of happiness, and the secret of The British, a secret that I at least didn’t know of before, and one which made me proud to have been born on that small complicated island.

If I post this, it means I’m committed to changing, to stop worrying about the drips in my life and start to caring about the floods.

I don't know what that change is yet, or how I'm going to do it. But, I do know that when I look back on the second half of my life, I don't just want to be proud of being British, I want to be proud of being me.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Letters from the Netherlands: Education the hard way

Letters from the Netherlands: Education the hard way: As most of my family and friends know I love acquiring new knowledge, which is probably why being an expat suits me so well – there is al...

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Education the hard way

As most of my family and friends know I love acquiring new knowledge, which is probably why being an expat suits me so well – there is always, always something I don’t know.
Add caption

I don’t have a photography memory, strong powers of concentration or even a particularly high IQ, what I do have is the ability to be excited by, thrilled even by finding or learning new facts the ways others might be by theme park rides. Right now, today, as I write this I’m at the top of the world’s highest roller-coaster. I’m trying to take in so much information that my heart barely stops beating before the rush of information arrives.

In the last few hours I learnt several new words, here are just four of them:
Ascriptions - the attributing of a relationship between something and somebody or something else
Carious- having caries, especially of the teeth
Interlocutor - a participant in a discussion or conversation.
Schematic- showing the basic form or layout of something (Really? It looks like it should mean something far more exciting like: a Jewish pudding or the science of toy racing cars)

I also found out that I was wrong to believe there are five vowels in English, there are five vowel letters in English but twenty vowel sounds – who knew? And bƱtʃƏ is the sound of butcher, rımƆ:s of remorse

Only a tiny drop, looks innocent right?

Another piece of education was that that water dripping out of a wall is a baaad thing, especially an inside wall. A bowl may catch the drips for the time being but sometime very soon we are going to have to open up the walls and locate the little dribbly bugger.

And the last thing I learnt today and the piece of information that sent me plummeting at neck breaking speed to the bottom of my own personal roller-coaster is that the friendly monthly estimates for your utility bills bare absolutely no relation to the actual amount you will have to pay after a year in the Nederlands. If it had only been double what we were quoted I might have been able to let life return to semi normal, as it is Mr Sunshine is wrapping his ill (again) self in a quilt to watch TV and I am writing this while, peering through the ice crystals growing on my eyelashes.
I just want it to stop!

Friday, 9 November 2012

Lemsip – Citrosan same difference

As an expat, sometime it feels as if all I notice are the differences from home. Some things however, are so similar that it jolts you into noticing.

Lemsips the same whereever you are
This week for instance I am recovering, well recovered really, from a nasty bout of flu. Which, as it happens sounded remarkable similar to the bouts of flu my family in the UK have been struggling with, and unless this super bug is carried by an equally super sneeze that can travel 300 crow miles (exactly, I checked) it’s not the same bug. The symptoms; however, sounded so similar that my son asked if I’d caught from my brother, who apparently had passed it on to everyone else, but barring a super strong virus with a seven week incubation period it seemed unlikely.

I don’t know how other people like to nurse a virus, personally I like plenty of biscuits, indulgent TV, microwave meals (for Mr Sunshine) and Lemsip. Luckily for me Mr Sunshine was a nurse in a past life and leaped like a gazelle to provide my cure-alls. Mr Sunshine is as caring as a nurse as I am an indifferent one.  He fought the same virus for several weeks and I had to wonder if I recovered so quickly because he’d taken such good care of me. Would he have recovered in a week if I’d been as caring? It was thoughts like this that sent off my constant companion, guilt, into overdrive.

Guilt is my guilty secret, it’s the sin I indulge in whenever I let my guard down, like a nail biter whose fingers rise unbidden to her mouth while watching TV or sat in the waiting room of a Doctors surgery. The nail biter isn’t aware she’s chewing her fingers until they start to bleed or someone close knocks her hand from her mouth. Well, that’s what it’s like when you make friends with guilt. You are aware it does no good, benifits no one and makes you look ugly but once you start it’s really hard to stop.

Guilt can consume, and spill over into the ridiculous.

My gift
Monday night, feeling too ill to manage the final flight of stairs I slept in the guest bedroom, I fell asleep alone with: throat pastilles, tissues and an empty mug of Dutch Lemsip by the bed. I woke around 5am staring into two bright eyes - Alfies. Sometime during the night he pushed open the stiff door, sneaked onto the bed and rested his head on the pillow. As my eyes began to focus in the half-light, I noticed that between me and Alfie was some rather odd shapes. I felt a lump in my sore throat as I realised that during the night our sweet little dog must have rounded up all his favourite toys from different corners of the house and delivered them silently (even the horrid orange squeaky ball) onto the bed, where he waited patiently for me to wake up and appreciate his gift.

Even the dog is a better nurse than me!

My attempt at the Hairy Bikers pies.. hummm something else
that's not changing fast - my cooking skills

Some things will never change

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Moving house and friendly slugs

It’s been a long time, too long in fact, six whole weeks since I last posted. Anyone would think we’d just moved house.
Just kidding

So much has happened in the last few weeks that I don’t know where or how to start. Should it be with our makelaar (special adviser) with his film star looks, temperamental phone call returning service, and ability to secure us our dream house? Or, perhaps with the Dutch bank and the notaries and their fascination with Andy’s imminent demise?

Nah, that’s all too much for my return post, I think I should start by telling you about our new home.

Bye bye apartment
Three weeks ago we packed up our lives once more into cardboard, had a serious chat with Alfie about behaving and waited by the phone for news of the keys.

Alfie promised to be good (he lied by the way)

Twenty days ago, three strong, selfless men turned up at our apartment at noon with no more incentive than a pint with Mr Sunshine and carried our lives into the hire van, a thankless task really as they had to do the same in reverse a few hours later.

Our new home

They left after several hours with our not only with our gratitude and promise of dinner, but the realisation of the amazing friendships we've made since we became expats. Back home in the UK, it is only family who would give so much without expecting anything in return. Only family would break their backs humping box after box of our useless processions, smile at Mr Sunshine’s off the wall removal techniques or restack my attempts at filling the removal van without even a sigh. But of course our families are miles away and these three lovely men stepped in to fill the void. Thank you Martin, Robbie and Jack you make the world a much nicer place for a couple of middle aged expats like us.

Arriving at our new home was more than a little unnerving. The words ‘what have we done’ danced around my brain more than once as I: gaped at the wreck of a garden, made friends with the giant slug who makes his way into the kitchen via the gap under the door,

Spot the slug

built up courage to descend the vertical, narrow stairs, 
not good with vertigo


found yet another patch of damp
Rising damp?

and listened to the burrowing of the woodworm. 
Same sound as money going down a drain

The heating doesn't work properly, neither does the spare bedroom light, the doors don't close and all the windows come with built in drafts. Corners have been cut at every conceivable point and the builder only speaks Dutch and Polish. But we love it.

Some people may make house buying decisions based on practicality and finance - we’re working on that.  We made the decision based on nearness to dog walks and pubs, space for an office, guest bedroom and extra toilet. For me personally, I can’t speak for Mr Sunshine, I love and I mean really love that fact this house has almost no right angled walls, everything is slightly twisted, off centre, asymmetrical, unbalanced, it feels like a home from a fairy-tale where beauty is found in flaws and the imperfect.

Kinda suits us.

Looking good in his new office

One of our new walks

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Apologies to the staff and regulars

Moving house is what expats do, it goes with the territory and ‘if’ that’s true, then I was born to be an expat.

I moved four times while living with my parents (that I’m aware of), while the boys were growing up I moved five times and this will be my seventh move since knowing Mr Sunshine. That’s sixteen moves in total, an average of once every three years. Statistics state that moving house is up there in the top most stressful things that you can happen in a person’s life, along with death or separation from a partner.

I’m not a big follower of statistic, yet it might explain why I’ve been acting a bit strange lately -stress can do funny things to a person.

I’ve made numerous ‘to do’ lists with links to web site and special notes. Sounds efficient? Nope, not really, do I actually need to list Esprit (clothes shop) in my 'must inform before we move' list.

I started finding things in odd places too, Sunday morning my ironing board developed Bambi legs. When investigating this cute wobble of my normally sturdy friend, I noticed I’d placed one of its legs in a bowl of yogurt. I can only assume the bowl of yogurt was on the floor because it didn’t fit in with any of my to do lists for that day and so had been removed from sight.
Yep.. ironing board and yoghurt combo

The yogurt wasn’t the only odd event but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back on Sunday. I needed to relax, calm down, chill out, loosen up (get pissed). However Mr Sunshine works on Mondays so drinkies in the Grote Markt were out of the question. Until – I had an invitation for coffee.

The coffee never materialised but the wine did, again and again and again. I don’t remember much but apparently I had a great time.

To the staff and regulars at the Cafe de Baron I would like to apologise for boring everyone with more stories of the Hairy Bikers Diet. I would also like to apologise for the dancing (hopefully not alone), wine assures me I have rhythm (Mr Sunshine assures me I have not). Finally would like to apologise for any confusion, while I’m sure in time we might all become great friends, it might not be quite so instantaneous as I indicated on Sunday. The invitation to Christmas lunch was perhaps a bit forward of me and as Mr Sunshine reminds me, we will be in the UK then so perhaps it will be a little far for everyone to travel.

Not sure what I'm thinking but I'm
obviously very pleased with myself
If this is what moving house does to me, it needs to be my last move for a while. This will be my fifth house since February 2010 and I need it to stop now. 

Is it just me or is Alfie smiling?

Monday, 24 September 2012

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Sometimes life gets in the way

I’m not impressed with my blogging output lately, even Mr Sunshine has commented/moaned.

The holidays are over and it’s time to get back in my routine.

The thing is I can’t get into a routine because life just keeps taking over. For example we’re still sticking to the Hairy Bikers Diet, 7 Kilos I’ve lost so far.  Honestly it feels like a miracle, I'm stunned. I keep doing a double take every time I walk past the mirror in the nude (too much information?). Where did the tummy go? I just read that back to myself and heard Arnold Schwarzenegger rusty catchphrase booming 'I'll be back' . The only downside to the Hairy Bikers diet is it takes time, buying fresh ingredients and cooking everything from scratch is a challenge for the culinary handicapped like me.
I'll be back 

On top of my special needs manoeuvres in the kitchen, my new Open University courses began this week. Last year I started a 60 point introduction at level one, this week begins 120 points a level two taking it to full time study (Creative Writing and Worlds of English). As usual whenever I start something new, a little bit of OCD worms its way into my personality. So I’m trying to limit my time I check the new forums to once an hour (it’s tough), I have pushed ahead to week 3 on the tasks and the beautiful crisp new books are already littered with post it notes and highlighter marks.


There is one more thing I’ve been getting a little bit OCD about. Do you know the feeling when you want something to happen, something so good that it must be too good to be true, and something you’re scared to talk about in case it gets jinxes.

Pretty garden?
Well, last week we made an offer on a house. It’s the second house we've made an offer on, our makelaar Lennert (Special adviser for expats too stupid to understand Dutch after a year) said there was a reason we didn’t get the first house. He was right because ten days later our dream house turned up. The first day it went on the market 51 people rang for viewings, I was the eighth caller. By the time we viewed the house at 2pm the next day they already had three offers.

So what was so special about this house: the kitchen is badly designed, the garden full of dilapidated buildings topped with asbestos, the top floor is a death trap with a coffin sized hole that drops eight feet to the next floor.

Asbestos filled rotting outhouse
It’s perfect and it’s cheap!

I don’t care about badly designed kitchens as long as I have one, we can work on the garden and turn it into an Alfie friendly paradise. The death trip is a bit of an issue though but I’m trying not to think about that.
That's me in the corner, wondering how to open the oven that crammed in to the triangular kitchen.

So, the thing I’m afraid to whisper is – they accepted our offer!

It’s been through it building inspection already and passed despite a touch of woodworm in the cellar. As I write this I’m waiting for an email to say we got the mortgage and then if everything falls into place we’ll have the house by the 12th of October.

So life is exciting, busy and every so very often getting in the way.

I wasn't kidding about the coffin shaped death trap

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Sunday, 2 September 2012

The Hairy Dieters Cook Book.

I think Si and Dave would look right
dandy wearing these.

In praise of the Hairy Bikers.

Now some of you might think a cook book, and a diet cook book at that has no place in a blog about expats – but you’d be wrong. It might not be important for all expats, especially those who have managed not to gain an entire ring of lard. Those of us who have, and by those I mean me and Mr Sunshine. Well we have come to look on The Hairy Bikers (known to some as Dave Myers and Si King) as something akin to saviours. It’s not motorbike helmets I see them pulling over their heads but the great helms worn by knights in the middle ages. Take it a step further and those huge two wheeled beasts they ride could be replaced by four strong long silky legs. The Hairy Bikers perched on pure white stallions galloping past the windmills and across the flat lands of the Nederlands charging to our rescue (try and picture it without smiling!).

Personally, I can’t speak for Mr Sunshine, I haven’t had this big a crush since a group of tartan clad youths exploded in my life singing Shang-a-lang and tempting me to take a brief but passionate interest in roller skating.
My first crush - I had the trousers - yep I had the trousers!

I’ve wandered off the point, which was I believe the ring of lard we gained as expats. Of course there are no excuses; the lard is there because we put too much in our mouths, despite the fact I have zero culinary skills and have spent the last year cooking on a camping stove. People gain weight for all kinds of reasons; I should know I’ve tried them all: comfort eating, too much booze, chocolate addictions, boredom, pretending to eat healthily. As expat however we had another reason – we (Mr Sunshine and I) craved the familiar. All around the expat is the unfamiliar, the language, culture, street signs, is there any wonder we started to hanker after familiar tastes. Yet no matter how I tried the food just tasted odd. We’d need a bottle of wine to ‘take the taste away’ or Mr Sunshine would plead for a takeaway treat (we needed many treats each week). I can’t list the times Mr Sunshine dry retched his final mouthful of one of my meals and said ‘It’s not your fault honey; it’s the supermarket/meat/saucepan/gravy mix’.

He doesn’t say that anymore.

Minted peas and feta omelette
The Hairy Dieters have revolutionised our lives.

That may sound dramatic, but its true and we needed a bit of a revolution. I’ve discovered there is nothing wrong with the food in the supermarkets, the meats are just fine and there was never anything wrong with my saucepans. I now make weekly meal plans, I draw up shopping list, freeze extra portions. The bicycles are no longer covered in dust, Andy’s shirts are way too big and I’ve lost 5 kilos.

With the help of the Northern hairy lads we sit down to delicious food every day. Is there any wonder I have a bit of a Hairy crush going on? I can get into my pre expat jeans, our food bill has halved and best of all, I have daily compliments on my new found culinary skills from Mr Sunshine, an all-round win-win situation!

It's no good licking your lips Alfie, this omelette's not for sharing.

Actually not quite all-round win-win.  Our little hairy meal hoover, Alfie has been looking quite glum recently.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Letters from the Netherlands: Missing Ingredients

Letters from the Netherlands: Missing Ingredients: I’ve been a quiet blogger recently, but haven’t heard many complaints so I’m hoping it is because you’ve all been busy too. Here we a...

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Missing Ingredients

I’ve been a quiet blogger recently, but haven’t heard many complaints so I’m hoping it is because you’ve all been busy too.

Here we are, starting our second year as expats. We’ve long past the honeymoon phase, the irritation and confusion phase lingered a while, now it’s time to embrace the assimilation phase of our life in the Nederlands.

My Hairy Bikers Diet Book
I’ve started cooking, okay, not actually part of the assimilation process, but it does go some way towards helping to make our time here feel more stable. It helps that the cooking is all from the Hairy Bikers Diet Cook Book and the meals taste delicious. Even better with the help of the two Northern hairy lads I’ve lost about 10lbs (Yea). I’m still cooking with a now battered camping stove and a slow cooker, so it’s been a challenge. But that may be about to change!
My kitchen

To improve my chances of assimilation I’ve upgraded my bike (with the generous birthday money from my lovely mum). British bikes here just don’t cut the mustard. Flat tires, unstable frames and vibrating baskets contributed to me spending more time on the floor with bicycle wheels spinning in the air, than my middle aged dignity felt comfortable with. I’ve now a solid Dutch machine that screams - 


Apparently the Dutch can tell you’re British just by looking your clothes, those and the white knuckled hands clenching the handle bars. I’m not complaining, it means cars and other bikes give me a wide berth which is a good thing for all of us.

The MOVE machine

Before I chose my Dutch MOVE machine, I had a trial with a traditional Dutch bike from De Klien Fietsen in Breda an amazing bike shop that I’ll tell you about another time. Anyway this bike was tough, so tough that I think it might have been meant for a female lumber jack. But I thought I could handle it. The steel frame and back pedal breaking system would be a piece of cake to me, after all I used to ride my bike as a child, once learnt never forgotten and all that.

Apparently you do forget.

So, Mr Sunshine and I have been talking. We love our apartment, but we don’t love the noise of the regular parties from the Café below – remember the Zombie party? After much deliberation we’ve decided to buy a small house. It’s scary stuff!

So I’m cooking, I’ve a Dutch bike, we’re buying a house, what’s left?

I know what’s left to complete the assimilation process, I’m just avoiding it. I need to learn Dutch. It’s no good hiding anymore, this year must become the year I learn to speak the language.

It’s my academic New Years resolution.

One last thing. Just in case you think all this assimilation is a step too far and I’m forgetting about the amazing country that supported me for almost half a century, the country that holds my beautiful family and long suffering friends. I haven't forgot - this week one of the ingredients in a Hairy Bikers recipe was cornflour - and wandering up and down the aisles of a Dutch supermarket was a slightly bow legged, slim-ish British woman, wearing bad clothes, wiping away tears with white knuckles.

Sometime all it takes is one missing ingredient.

with thanks to Mark Allison

Monday, 13 August 2012

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Finding Paradise in Turkey?

Is this Paradise?

Well I did it – I finally tore Mr Sunshine away from his desk in Breda and joined the millions of migrating homo-sapiens on the search for a fortnight in paradise.

How much easier would life be if we could truly migrate like the birds?

Mr Sunshine would wake up one day, look out of the bedroom window and know, just know. He would give me a special kind of nod and we would walk out onto the balcony, hop onto the railings and take off into the sky, gliding on thermal air currents towards warmer climates carrying no than the odd tick (birds carry ticks).

We’re not birds though and life is never that simple, especially when searching for paradise.

It’s just over a week ago since we pilled the back seat of the car with several suitcases (mainly Alfie’s) and drove off with the trusty Tom-tom set for the Channel tunnel - or so we thought.

The fun began as we tried to turn onto the motorway (E19) leading out of Breda. The road was blocked. You wouldn’t expect it to take 40 minutes to find another route out of Breda would you? You also wouldn’t expect two map loving adults to ignore the lack of signs for Caliais or Channel Tunnel for three hours. It was only as the kilometres to Paris started to countdown with alarming haste that one of the adults (me) started to experience doubts about the Tom-toms ability to delivery us to the Tunnel on time. As I whole heartily agree with the old adage ‘A workman should never blame his tools’ and I was the adult who programmed Tom-toms directions, it was with some trepidation that I informed the newly relaxed Mr Sunshine of our dilemma.

We did make it in time – just, despite missing the vet inspection point and created a rather angry tail back as we tried to drive through the checkpoints with a hairy illegal immigrant in the back.

The rest of our journey was not only dull but very LONG and we have promised ourselves that we will never, ever do that again.

Not paradise
A few days later we were ready for the real flight.  Trudging around Edinburgh airport at 6am looking for painkillers while Mr Sunshine kept his earplugs determinedly in place and his eyes glued to his kindle wasn’t the best start to our holidays, but we’ve had worse.  Thirteen (lucky for some) hours later when the non-air-conditioned coach pulled up outside our dream hotel I thought our holiday could truly begin. Walking up the steps to the reception the gentle strains of Drum and Base music felt like some kind of surreal joke and I chose it not to suggest Mr Sunshine remove his earplugs just yet.

To keep Mr Sunshine in the manner to which he’s become accustomed I’d ordered a room upgrade, a recommendation I’d read on Tripadvisor (Do not believe everything you read there), the room upgrade was a soulless bare room (think Travel Lodge with a balcony) looking out on to the large busy activity pool. Those of you that know us well will understand the slight feeling of doom that clouded our first night. That feeling of doom was justified; the next morning the activity pools loud speakers hissed and whined, then belched out an ear insulting cock a doodle do follow by five minutes of a bugle(or was it bungle) playing the army revelry at nine am.

The activity pool was awash with the entertainment team all dressed in red t-shirts, (too hot for red coats) who encouraged the guest to join in the fun.  We almost succeeded in avoiding any type of fun, until fuelled by several glasses of free wine we decided that bingo might be amusing. It almost was, until Mr Sunshine won and had to chase a Sue Pollard impersonator around the hotel for his prize. Still we couldn’t believe the prizes he won for a game of bingo: vouchers for a hat, keyring, a wet shave with added ear and nose hair removal, 45% discount on gems, CD, water ball trial, disco tour and – a paragliding session. We’ve never been that lucky, we were thrilled, until the next day when we tried to claim the vouchers and it turned out we weren’t lucky at all! No one, especially not the guest relations officer wanted to honour or even admit knowledge of the vouchers.
Mr Sunshine winning the bingo!

Receiving a multitude of non claimable prizes

I’d like to say it got better after that and in some ways I can (if I don’t think too hard). It was lovely to spend a couple of evenings with the Walkers, the sun never stopped shinning and the Drum and Base music melted away during midday to be replaced by Barry Manilow and Phil Collins, but then you can’t have everything in Paradise.

I’m writing this midway into our holiday and Paradise has improved, we’ve changed rooms, thrown the vouchers away and found an adults only pool. Which is where we should be now, but Mr Sunshine is sat beside me working on a project he needs for next term, while I tap away here. We’ve already discussed our return journey and although never of us had said it out loud; I think we’d both quite like to go home now.

Perhaps that’s what holidays are really all about – to help you to realise that Paradise isn’t some far flung destination but the place you call home.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Letters from the Netherlands: End of Year Report

Letters from the Netherlands: End of Year Report: Being vicariously involved with education has a unexpected bonus – we get to have two new years! The first we share with the rest of the...

Sunday, 15 July 2012

End of Year Report

Being vicariously involved with education has a unexpected bonus – we get to have two new years! The first we share with the rest of the world on the 1st of January, the other is a kinda of vague, abstract time around about now.

It’s the end of the academic year, the school is closed, and the students have gone to celebrate successes or lick their wounds. But what about us, how did we survive our first year as expats and Andy’s first year as a lecturer.

Alfie’s end of year report

Alfie has settled in well during his first year in Breda, he’s a sociable and popular dog who has made friends easily. It’s been pleasing to see how readily he’s been accepted by the other dogs in his community.

Aflie may never be an A student and needs constant guidance and reassurance during his road management, human social skills and canine aptitude (sniffing) classes, however  this  is not unexpected considering his special needs.  He has however excelled in the language class, proving himself to be a able and talented student, communicating just as easily with his Dutch friends as he does his British.

There is one area of concern however,  which needs addressed with the utmost urgency. Despite a multitude of toys (educational of course), Alfie has developed a fetish for paper, he litters the apartment with scrunched up balls of paper. Hiding under the table has become his new hobby, although he’s not so difficult to find we just follow the trail of damp scraps of chewed up paper.

Despite this hiccup this has been a good first year for Alfie.

Mr Sunshine’s end of year report

Where do I start with Mr Sunshine?

It has been a year of ups and downs, socially he seems to have settled in well and been accepted by most of his peers.

Mr Sunshine’s language skills are somewhat lacking, but it’s good to note there has been selected improvement. He no longer answers every question in Dutch with ‘I am an English woman’, he’s progressed to ‘English’(engels) and an uncomfortable pleading look which has been a surprisingly effective method of communication. In the local cafes he is a popular figure, where his Dutch language skills have progressed even further and is often seen ordering a grote beer without sign language.

This has at times been a difficult year for Mr Sunshine, the sheer enormity of learning a completely new role, while balancing a colossal work load would have brought a lesser person to their knees, and there must have been times when he wondered if it was worth it. The looks of adoration he received from the students he chaperoned to the Brains Eden competition should have told him it was.  

Mr Sunshine spent four days in Cambridge supervising five bright young men who went on to win the top prize in the Brains Eden competition. As well as the normal supervisory role of a lecturer, Mr Sunshine undertook the role of surrogate parent for those four days, a role that surprisingly suits his caring if dour personality. Although his surrogate parental role must have been stretched almost to breaking point when one of his students asked him to pick up a tube of hair gel from the chemist, a purchase as uncomfortable and peculiar to my dour, bald, Scot as buying a multipack of Tampax.

As this school year draws to a close, I’m watching Mr Sunshine attempt to condense two decades worth of experience into three bursting Lever Arch files as he races to complete his Masters portfolio.  So far the combined weight of the portfolio will cost 98.00 Euros to post and he hasn’t finished!  He has 29 hours left (some of which must be spent sleeping) in which to finish before we start cancelling our holiday. He doesn’t think he can finish in time.

Next year will be different.

My end of year report.

So what do I think of my first year as an expat?

Last night I watched The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and those that have watched it will understand when I say on my first year here I feel like a member of that cast - a little bit past my best starting the adventure of a lifetime. There have been moments I’ve loved, moments when I’ve been terrified and moments when I’ve been humiliated, waking up naked in a hotel corridor comes to mind for one.

Would I do it again?

In a heartbeat, it’s changed who I am and for the better. Thirty years ago I lived in a padded house afraid of everything - flying, driving, going too far from home, scared of the dark, of strangers and worst of all I was afraid to make a fool of myself.  Today very little scares me and I’ve been a buffoon so many times I’m immune from shame.

I think my expression on the following photo sums up my first year in the Netherlands perfectly.

If I smile really hard, perhaps people won’t notice what a fool I am.

And the fact that I’ve posted the photo here proves I’m no longer quite so terrified of making a fool of myself

Letters from the Netherlands: The day becoming an expat made me Impotent.

Letters from the Netherlands: The day becoming an expat made me Impotent.:   This morning while being dragged round the park by Alfie I looked for my favourite little family. I don't know their name; all I k...

Letters from the Netherlands: Dutch bluntness and Facebook saviours

Letters from the Netherlands: Dutch bluntness and Facebook saviours: View from my window as I write this Last week I was asked to write another article for ExpatArrivals , this time in a more seriou...

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The day becoming an expat made me Impotent.

 This morning while being dragged round the park by Alfie I looked for my favourite little family. I don't know their name; all I know is the mother gave birth to four little ones a few weeks ago. The mother has webbed feet, a long white neck and looks like a cross between a goose and a duck - for all I know she could be neither

             I've tried taking pictures, but they waddle too fast for my camera, the mother like all mothers is protective of her little ones and keeps humans and the other wildlife away by lowering her head and releasing a powerful no-nonsense hiss (I remember my mum having a similar tactic). A few days ago looking for my goose/duck family I felt helpless when I spotted only three little ones, what had happened to the chick? A cat, fox, the other birds, it was such a shame because they had grown beyond the fluffy stage and were just beginning to widen their existence and toddle from under the mother's soft downy tummy.  Perhaps that was the problem.

This morning there were two chicks - I felt impotent.

My mind still with the missing chicks I left the park and started crossing the road. A shrill metal on metal crunch shattered the early morning quiet. A young woman – someone’s daughter - lay in the middle of the road. The driver of the small (thank God) car climbed out and ran to her side. I froze, staring at the bike's spinning back wheel. The young woman didn’t make a noise, she didn’t cry out, she just lay there leg trapped beneath the bike - inches from the car tyres.

The young women of course had no safety helmet; and had been cycling on the wrong side of the road. The car driver – no older than the cyclist had been about to pull out of a back street on to a main road. Neither had seen the other, neither had been looking. But it was the woman who apologised. Why is it always women who apologise?

Within seconds other cars began to pull over, people started dragging the young women to her feet, dusting her down and almost pushing her on her way. She looked embarrassed – I don’t know why.

Inside my still frozen body I was screaming – ‘don’t move her’.  

As a qualified first aider I know how to administer first aid, how to look for broken bones and signs of concussion or shock. In the UK I would have been the first by her side, fending off well-meaning passers-by while ringing 999. In the Netherlands I don’t even know the emergency number and rarely carry my phone anyway. But worse, how could I communicate with a road accident victim.

My ‘Het spijt me, Ik spreek Nederlands niet zo goed’ (I'm sorry, I speak Dutch not so well) didn’t feel quite so cute today.

I did nothing – I felt impotent.

The same way as I feel being hundreds of miles from people I love at home as they face yet more difficult challenges.  

And then there were three 

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Dutch bluntness and Facebook saviours

View from my window as I write this

Last week I was asked to write another article for ExpatArrivals, this time in a more serious tone on the Pros and Cons of living in the Netherlands. Easy I thought, I've been here nearly a year I already know all the pros and Cons. I was a little taken back when my contact suggested a deadline. A deadline for me? surely not, I'll finish it in a day or so. Well the deadline is the 18th of July, I've been working on it for four days and only have the bare bones of an article put together. I'm beginning to wonder if I've bitten off more than I can chew.

I’ve been researching, reading, checking out other internet sites, and  been out and about talking to other expats and locals armed with my mini notepad and pen. I’ve listened, smiled and once or twice I’ve felt the hairs rise on the back of my neck as my questions have been misunderstood.  I wasn’t asking how bad the British food or dress sense is – I know already. On the whole there have been some lovely enlightening moments when people have shared their positives about living in the Netherlands and very few negatives. The one negative that came up again and again, is that foreigners (buitenlanders to the natives) often get the wrong idea about Dutch bluntness.

Of course I heard of this Dutch bluntness, I even read about it in my Welcome to Holland book, many of the expats websites talked about it, some even called it rudeness. But I always assumed (I doing it again, making an ass of myself) that it was either a trait only found in the major cities or (and this is what I really thought) that the ‘rudeness’ experience by some expats was somehow a reflection of their own behaviour.

That was before!

Last Sunday while Andy was off with the Igad winning team in Cambridge making this fab game:
I was filling the lonely hours with Stephen King (great author but no substitute for human companionship), when somebody stuck their finger in our doorbell. Peering through the spyhole I saw my 80 year old neighbour. Her finger still stuck on the doorbell as I opened the door.

My neighbour is an ex teacher, who speaks beautiful English and likes to pat me on the head when I manage to say goedemorgen (goodmorning) with anything like a decent accent. This morning however she appeared to have forgotten my lack of Dutch, she was agitated and swaying from foot to foot.  

‘Komen, komen’ (come, come – I know that much) she said tugging my arm.

So I did. I grabbed my keys and followed her into the lift. Once it was clear I was following her she relaxed, and with a perplexing look proceeded to examine my lunchtime attire. Taking in the unbrushed hair, stained jeans, baggy top and knowing me - toothpaste stains on my lips. It was just like watching a light-bulb moment in a comic, as excitement replaced confusion in her eyes and a big Joker like grin spread across her face.

‘Ah you have a baby in you’ My neighbour said patting my tummy.

With the help of sign language I explained it wasn’t a baby 'in me' but the result of putting too much food in my mouth.

Me - apparently

Did she look embarrassed?

No - did she hell!

Instead I had a lecture on eating habits and riding bicycles (funny how her English came back then) and I slunk back to my apartment and put a self-pity quote on Facebook.

In the shadow of the Grote Kirk
It’s a sad fact of life that when a middle-aged non pregnant woman is congratulated on her impending baby. Nothing will ease the pain, nothing except perhaps friendship and wine. Facebook is most defiantly the expats friend, because within 20 minutes of my self-pity message came an invitation for just that. The remainder of the day and much of the night I spent in the shadow of the Grote Kerk (Breda’s beautiful church), enjoying the sun, or hiding from the rain, drinking the occasional glass of wine, talking, talking and a bit more talking.

There are times in an expats life when Facebook becomes a saviour. There a time in an expats life when family are the saviours.

There is a woman I know who lives in a little village on the outskirts of Worksop. At times I know I disappoint her, I’m not especially demonstrate and I don’t like to talk about emotions – in fact I’m down right prickly if cornered. But with the safety of the blog behind me I can speak freely and say - I wake up every single day grateful that she is my mum. There has not been a single day or event when she could have tried harder or done more. As a mum she is an enabler, an inspiration and impossible to emulate. If I had one wish – it would be that she would to put herself first, if only for a little while.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Letters from the Netherlands: UnoTelly review

A friend is for a reason, a season, or a lifetime

Picture by Mark Allison

           It’s a little over six months since I started this blog to try and draw my technophobic friend into my world and perhaps a little patronisingly (it’s true I was being patronising) drag her into the 21st century.  My pompous attempt at refreshing our long, long friendship over the internet might have on one brief moment succeeded, but since then there has been a lengthy reverberating silence.

It’s a little over six days since the same friend’s birthday, and every year I forget! Well not exactly forget, I always remember the next day and palm slap my forehead. I’m not sure why I do that, because we’re long past the stage of sending cards or presents. It’s just that I know her birth date so well, it is ingrained on my mind like my childhood telephone number (485464), it’s one of those numbers that will always, always be part of my memories.

It’s a little over six hours since Mr Sunshine woke with the dawn and set off with five students for a gaming competition in Cambridge and I lay unable to go back to sleep,  pondering friendship  - I’ve been pondering ever since.

A good friend once told me that people come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime. I remember feeling offended at the time assuming (making an ass of myself again) she meant I was only to be a friend for a season or maybe a reason, when I wanted to be a friend for a lifetime. There was no need to be offended, I know now our friendship was for a reason. We no longer communicate as we once did, but yesterday she sent me an email – she said she missed my smiling face - I miss her too.

Picture also by Mark Allison
I think I must have been very good in a past life, because I had some amazing friends over the years, better than I deserve actually! Just because I don’t see those friends anymore, doesn’t mean I don’t think about them – I do.  Sometimes I wish I could turn the clock back and tell them how much having them in my life meant to me, because for some it’s already too late.

But for my technophobic friend it’s not too late. It doesn’t matter that she doesn’t read the blogs; they are evolving and developing a life of their own. Just as we have done as friends, we’ve moved on, found new lives and new friendships. We no longer need to share every thought or dream, we already did that as twelve year olds making daisy chains on the lawn.  What we have is time, as her dad used to to say: ‘Everything in life is daft, except time – time is the only thing you can’t replace’,  well time is what we need, time to grow up, to mature and make the best of the life we’ve been given. But there is one thing for sure, when we’ve finished maturing, when responsibility and achievement no longer clammer to be heard – I’m going to find her. 
We are going to sit in her kitchen, wine in our teacups. She’ll still be slimmer than me, her hair will still be long and she’ll know my real age. She’ll remind me of the time I wrote pan-iced instead of panicked on an insurance claim. She’ll wear a flowered apron because she knows I like them and we’ll giggle and laugh until tears run down our cheeks, she’ll do her Monty Python impression of the ‘Knights who say Ni’, and we’ll talk about people no one but us remembers.

Happy Birthday my friend, sorry it’s late................