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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.