The Non-Expat Expat: Not Fitting The Box

We’ve lived away from our birth country for 18 years and a lot’s happened in that time – we moved to the USA, raised a family, took American citizenship, relocated back to Europe and will move on again eventually. The first two moves were career driven (my husbands – I’ve accompanied him and reinvented myself each time), the last will be our choice – but not back to our ‘home’ country.

Throughout these years I’ve never considered myself an ‘expat’, although in the broadest sense we are. In my head ‘real’ expats are those who have a life of continual 3- to 4-year global contracts, who are on expat packages, spend the summers in their home countries and where most will return when their working lives are over. They are never in doubt who they are, where they belong, or where ‘home’ is.

There are also the ‘silver expats’ – retirees who after a life living (generally) in one country, opt for a retirement move to somewhere warmer and more relaxed. A last hoorah, a new adventure and a chance to break the mould. I salute them, but oftentimes the adventure ends when a partner dies, illness strikes or family reasons drive them ‘home’.

Then there are the travellers, those young souls (irrespective of age), who can’t resist seeing what’s over the next horizon, the eternally curious, eager to see what they can before ‘real life’ and social constraint try to pull them back into line.

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We’ve never fitted a particular box. Wherever we’ve lived has been home, we’ve never experienced life on an expat package – we’ve been local from day one – so no tax-free salaries or generous family travel allowances. We’ve bought homes, settled in and got on with life.

When we moved to the US we never intended to leave, but opportunities come up and you take them. We know our stay in the Netherlands won’t be permanent (cold weather, high taxation, population density), not when we have the choice of living in the whole of the US and Europe – not to mention the rest of the world.

The biggest impact of our choice to live overseas has been on our children rather than us. Something that wasn’t on our radar in the days before the Internet, social media and Google. At a time when books on global mobility weren’t researched let alone written. In some ways we feel we have been pioneers, but it’s been a huge regret (guilt?) we didn’t have the tools to help our children transition better. Our motives were good (better opportunities, life enhancing) but the costs have, at times, been high.

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Our eldest has moved back to our/ his birth country and this year marries his English Rose (he always said he would marry an English girl). He struggled/ struggles with transition and change. His younger sister – Little Miss America – has remained in the States, and is living and working the American Dream in Houston, sharing her life with a native (Italian/ Irish) New Yorker.

Our youngest son moved with us to the Netherlands, attended the American school in The Hague, and can see no point in staying in the same place when there’s a whole world out there. He’s currently studying at university in Vancouver, Canada, as far west as he could get from here.

Despite the distances between us we are an incredibly close, tight-knit family unit. Perhaps because we’ve had to rely on each other while adjusting to cultural and social change. The distances and time zones between us are accepted, we plan ahead for when we can get together, and Skype is a Godsend.

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For any young family having the chance to move overseas today, times are very different. The toolbox is well packed when it comes to helping and guiding your children through global transition. Most kids will adjust well, some need a little more help. The help is there in research, books and the Internet.

Today we have no concept of ‘home’ in a geographic sense. This used to worry me and I know it caused consternation for our families that we no longer felt, or identified ourselves as, ‘British’. I used to feel wholly American, now not so much. I find I can’t identify with any given nationality, but am most comfortable surrounded by people like me, who are from everywhere.

And this will be the future as more people interact globally, as more children grow up and are educated in international communities and see their place in the world as global citizens.

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The last 18 years have sometimes been incredibly challenging, but those challenges have been balanced by the positive, exciting experiences we’ve enjoyed and the amazing people who have been a part of our lives. We would never have seen the world from this perspective if we’d stayed ‘home’.

So what have those years taught us? After recently contributing to the HiFX expat tips page, I thought I would share with you a few thoughts:

People are more the same than different: Language and cultural/ social mores may be different but people the world over generally want the same things – to fall in love, raise a educate a family, have enough money to raise that family, and live in a safe and peaceful environment.

Learn the language: Even the basics will help you feel more connected and settled, bottom line it’s good manners in a host country.

Be open: Don’t have an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality. I hate hearing things like “they have no idea how to do things here”. Because things are done differently to they way you have done them, doesn’t mean they are ‘worse’ just different.

There will be down times: Wherever you are life will have its ups and downs, especially when you’re in transition to a new country/ culture. Acccept it as part of the adjustment process. Seek help if ‘feeling down’ or withdrawing from those around you persists for a long period.

Maintain a sense of humour: Laugh at yourself and with others, it’s the best form of communication. And your worst disasters make the best stories down the years.

Have fun: Having fun is what life – and your adventure – is all about. Fun people attract others. Being around positive energy makes everyone feel good and helps when life hits a few bumps in the road.

If you’re thinking about moving overseas, figure the worst that can happen and if you can deal with that, then go for it.

Nothing is permanent – except regret.

 

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Posted in Advice for New Arrivals in the Netherlands, Expat Experiences, The Netherlands | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Interview with Expatsblog – USA to the Netherlands

A while ago I was interviewed by Expatsblog for their great website which is full of resources for anyone moving from somewhere to, well, just about anywhere else.

Their website a phenomenal amount of information available on wherever it is you’ll be heading (a particular favourite of mine is Iceland) – written by people who have made the journey before you and can give a heads-ups on the pitfalls and unique information only a local would know.

With that in mind I thought it was time to post this article for anyone headed to the Netherlands this year.

New arrivals to the Netherlands may also be interested to read:

The Netherlands: The Good, The Bad and The Frustrating

Living in The Netherlands: What to Bring with You
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Where are you originally from?                                                                                         Born and raised in the UK, moved to New Orleans, USA, eventually becoming a  naturalised US citizen.

In which country and city are you living now?
The Hague, the Netherlands.

How long have you lived here and how long are you planning to stay?            We’ve been here since July 2006. Our stay will not be permanent but we have no date – as yet – for leaving. We’re expecting another 3/4 years but who knows?

Why did you move and what do you do?
The company my husband works for moved its head office from the USA to the Netherlands. We decided to take the opportunity to return to Europe for a while – we have parents in the UK and felt the need to be closer to them as they get older. It was also a wonderful chance for our youngest child, who had only experienced life in the USA, to spend some time in Europe. I’m a freelance editor and writer – all I need is a laptop, so where we live is not an issue.

How did the decision impact your family? Did you bring family with you?      This was the toughest challenge for us. Once my husband accepted the position in the Netherlands our eldest son announced he was leaving the USA and returned to the UK, while our daughter, in her sophomore year at a US college, decided to stay there. Our youngest son, then 13, came with us. (He has now moved on to university in Vancouver, Canada). For the first time our family were separated from each other, and it has been a huge learning curve as we’ve adjusted to the difficulties of the physical distance and differing time zones between us.

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How did you find the transition to living in a foreign country?
Relatively easy as both my husband and I had grown up in Europe and have a European/ international mindset. Our youngest son attended the American school here, which put us in contact with other foreign nationals (not only Americans) who were in the same situation as us. We’re both social people, happy to say ‘yes’ and know the world won’t end if we make complete fools of ourselves.

Where did you decide to live in the Netherlands? Was it easy making friends and meeting people? Do you mainly socialise with other expats?
The Hague has an expat population of around 50,000 and the city is home to 131+ international organisations, 316 international businesses, 102 embassies and 13 consulates. It has a diverse multi-cultural community whose working language is English. It is rare to meet anyone – local or expat – who doesn’t speak English. Meeting people has been incredibly easy but we socialise mainly with expats – mostly because our friends have been met through school/ work and tend to be international, including international Dutch.

What are the best things to do in the area; anything to recommend to future expats?
Whatever your interests, the Netherlands – and The Hague in particular – has a diversity of activities on offer. Theatres, museums, art galleries, concerts (every type) good restaurants and a real buzz with a café lifestyle and a lively nightlife. Situated close to the sea, there are miles of beaches, woodlands and public parks. Green space is highly valued and well maintained and, unsurprisingly, water plays a huge part in leisure activities. For an international city it feels safe and non-threatening – pedestrians and bikes have priority everywhere, and an exceptional public transport system of trams and trains. It’s a great place for singles, couples and families. It has more of a community feel than Amsterdam and the locals are tolerant and welcoming of the expat/ foreign community.

© Jane Dean Wassenaar

What do you enjoy most about living here?
Ease of global travel and travel within europe. Brussels is 2 hours, Paris 3 hours by train (5 by car) – I have a friend who regularly takes a day trip to the Louvre – and driving is fast and easy, once you leave the Netherlands. (The Dutch are strict on speed limits with speed cameras everywhere. The good news is you receive a speeding fine through the mail and pay it – there are no penalties on your Drivers’ licence.)

The Netherlands is at it’s most beautiful in spring – but we enjoy the four season climate and make the best of the sunshine when we see it! The winters can be fun too, especially if the canals freeze and everyone dusts off their ice-skates. We love that everyone rides bikes – it’s safe for the kids to bike to school and get around without having to rely on parents to ferry them everywhere. Teens here seem more mature as they are allowed to be independent from a younger age than many cultures, and it is safe for them to be out on their own. The Dutch are tolerant, and we love being part of an international/ multicultural community.

How does the cost of living compare to home?
Very expensive compared to the USA and UK. Housing costs are mind-boggling in both buying and rental markets. Clothing, electronics and eating out are expensive. However, this is all relative depending where you’ve moved from.

© Jane Dean, Wassenaar Bandstand

What negatives, if any, are there to living here?
The Netherlands is a densely populated country which can be a shock if you’re used to big open spaces. However, the Dutch cope with this extremely well – they respect each other’s privacy and personal space. High density living is balanced by well-planned public open space – parks, woodland, beaches – and well-designed housing.

Unfortunately the Dutch themselves can be very abrupt in their manner and can come across as rude. Sometimes they are plain rude! It’s something everyone who moves here has to adjust to. Lack of customer service is a real issue – 12 weeks for Internet connection in the summer months is not unusual. Customer satisfaction is not on the Dutch radar, ‘It is not possible’ being a well-known mantra, although things are changing as the recession bites.

When the weather is good and the sun shines the whole country takes to the bike paths, beaches, water – any outdoor space – and it can be overwhelming to be among so many people. The weather is a challenge if you move from somewhere warmer – if you love grey and rain, this could be the place for you. It doesn’t always do it for me.
The Dutch health philosophy may be difficult to adjust to if you move from the USA, but we have experienced the same standard of care as in the US and have had no issues.

If you could pick one piece of advice to anyone moving here, what would it be?            Maintain a sense of humour, keep smiling and embrace the good things the Netherlands has to offer – you will find them.

What has been the hardest aspect to your expat experience so far?
The scattering of our family around the globe and maintaining a close-knit unit when we’re separated by thousands of miles and several time zones. Losing friends has been hard too – many expats are here on 2/3 year assignments so friendships will be made only to end when the friend leaves. It can be hard always being the one left behind.

The language – although English is widely spoken all official documents/ paperwork is in Dutch. Phone the cable company/ phone company/ hospital/ plumber and you are likely to be faced with a menu selection in Dutch. You will find your way through this, but it can be tough when you’ve just arrived. The Hague has recently taken a decision to make all street signs Dutch and English, a small move but greatly appreciated.

© Jane Dean

When you finally return home, how do you think you’ll cope with repatriation?                                                                                                                            This will be interesting as home has always been where we are. Holding both US and UK (therefore European) passports offers us a huge choice of where we might ultimately live. We know the Netherlands, for a variety of reasons, is not our final destination. That may depend on where our children live. Or not.

What are your top 5 expat tips for anyone following in your footsteps?
1. Do your research, there is so much information on the Internet, use it. Don’t overlook the possible negative effects the move may have on your family and research this too. There are some superb books out there to help with cultural adjustment, particularly with a family.

2. Learn the basics of the language (it’s good manners), along with other local customs – it’ll help you to adjust more quickly.

3. NEVER refer to the Dutch (or any other host nation) as ‘they’ (as in ‘they have no idea how to do things here’). This makes me cringe. Because things may be done differently does not mean they are worse or better, only different.

4. Get out and socialise as soon as you can – the unpacking will wait.

5. Stay positive, be open to new experiences, embrace the journey and have FUN!

Tell us a bit about your own expat blog.
Wordgeyser began in 2010 as a way of making sense of my surroundings – not where we’ve been, what we’ve seen, but our experiences in settling into a different culture. The struggles of learning a new language, dealing with the health system, learning a new way of doing things, appreciating a different social philosophy.

Generally little is written about the harder side of expat life – dealing with death and illness of family and friends from a distance, sometimes feeling isolated and rootless, and losing your identity as a trailing spouse – I’ve tried to be honest and write about the good, bad and sad of international life while being upbeat and positive.

I hope the blog is more fun/ humorous than serious, (life in the Netherlands with a teenage boy and parenting our older two over time zones has resulted in a lot of useful material over the years, as have the complications of learning a new language) but life isn’t always perfect and pretending otherwise is not helpful or realistic.

I’ve been surprised how much our experiences have resonated with both long-term and newly arrived expats

How can you be contacted for further advice to future expats coming to your area?
Via email wordgeyser@gmail.com                                                                                                Twitter @wordgeyser                                                                                                                 Facebook http://www.facebook.com/Wordgeyser                                                                              LinkedIn

Wordgeyser has an ExpatsBlog.com listing here so add a review if you like! If you appreciated this interview with Jane, please also drop her a quick comment below.

© Jane Dean Wassenaar Beach, Netherlands

Posted in Advice for New Arrivals in the Netherlands, Dutch Culture, The Netherlands, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Older Parents: When to Step In

Good health is something I’ve generally taken for granted, my own and that of my family. We’ve been lucky over the years and despite some major issues with Missy, our daughter, last year, I’ve never thought of us as being anything other than blessedly ‘normal’. Anything that has occurred has been relatively routine and the patient at the time has recovered well.

We’ve been lucky that my parents have been healthy too. Now in their 80s, they have always lived life at full speed and people generally assume they are 15-20 years younger than they are – including the medical profession. Which augurs extremely well for the rest of us.

However, having such independent and capable parents has almost lulled us into a false sense of security. Any suggestion they might slow down, take things a little easier, are met with an icy silence and a change of subject. The word ‘stair lift’ was enough to freeze hell over.

Surviving an aggressive form of prostate cancer a few years ago left my father a little more tired, but certainly not frail or defeated. The recent news he was to have a new knee thrilled us all – being physically curtailed and dealing with chronic pain was seriously impacting his quality of life, to say nothing of my mother’s. A local anaesthetic, a five-day hospital stay and he’d be racing around like a man half his age.

We were also delighted his age was not a barrier for the procedure, that his doctors recognised he was a man whose life would be enhanced by this relatively simple operation. My father started the pre-op muscle-strengthening exercises immediately – he is nothing if not enthusiastic and committed to whatever he’s doing.

My going home to help out was not something that was needed, ‘Oh darling, we’ll be absolutely fine,’ my mother chatted airily, ‘he’ll be home before we know it. You know what he’s like, we’ll be absolutely fine.’ With our family vacation booked 10 days after his operation, it was working well for everyone. He’d be home and recovered before we left.

Except it didn’t go like clockwork.

When the local anaesthetic failed he was given a general anaesthetic. Although the procedure went well, he required a blood transfusion and rehydration with a drip afterwards. The drip caused his sodium levels to dilute, which mixed with heavy-duty pain meds and a double-dose of anaesthesia led to severe mental confusion.

Five days after the operation he suffered a fall. Late that evening, taken to the x-ray lab to assess any damage to his new knee, he refused to have the x-ray , started to get aggressive and threatening with the staff and subsequently refused all medication.

My mother phoned us early the next morning, a Sunday, to give us an update. Waking up from a deep sleep I realised my alert spouse was dealing with the call and ended it before I’d come round.

‘You can call her back in a minute when you’ve got yourself together,’ he said before I had a chance to say anything. ‘She’ll want to talk to you, but at least she’s got it all off her chest now. She’s fine, really.’ Except people don’t phone early on a Sunday morning if everything is fine and we both knew it.

‘Do you think I should go over? Today?’

We knew the week ahead was full for both of us. Missy arriving from Houston the next morning, him leaving for Dubai Tuesday, two dogs to put into kennels which we knew were already booked for the summer, and Missy and Harry scheduled to be working all week. To say nothing of our leaving for vacation on the Friday night. We looked at each other.

‘Let’s think this through before you phone your mum. I’ll go make a cup of tea and get the laptop fired up, we can figure something out. This kind of thing is what we do best. And one of the main reasons we moved back to Europe was to be closer for our parents when we were needed.’ He smiled, ran his fingers through his sleep-mussed hair and headed to the kitchen.

Fifteen minutes later I made the call to my mum. Holding herself together to speak to her son-in-law had been one thing, putting the phone down and facing the fear that something had gone seriously wrong with my father had reduced her to tears.

‘Mum, it’s me. Listen… I know what’s happened and I’m coming over… today. The flight’s booked, I’ll be there this afternoon, I’ll come to wherever you are. I can stay as long as you need me to, a couple of days, a week, whatever it takes. Okay?’ There was a gulping silence at the end of the phone and then a whispered, ‘Thank you.’ It was the first time my mother has accepted help without discussion or debate.

Seeing my father was a shock – the same can be said of him seeing me. That I was at his bedside obviously meant he was on his way ‘out’. He was confused, his speech incoherent, struggling to connect through the brain-fog. Over subsequent days, as the pain meds were replaced by paracetamol, the sodium levels restored and his head cleared, we began to understand where his mind had been after the operation.

In a pretty weird place it seems – Alice would have felt very much at home. Chatting with my mum the day after I arrived, he looked at her in fascination and suddenly announced, ‘I’m so sorry to interrupt darling, but I wanted you to know a snake just crawled across your face…’ It seems there was also a two foot long white caterpillar living in the bathroom, which moved across the floor whenever he went in, a mural of Roman centurions on the wall behind his bed, garlands of flowers wrapped on the curtain rails around his bed, birds flying across the opposite wall and he was blown away by the psychedelic uniforms worn by the nursing staff.

He was mortified, after recounting a terrifying dream he’d had about being kidnapped in the middle of the night, to discover that was when he had refused the x-ray and his medication, and accounted for the appalling language and threatening behaviour aimed at the nursing staff.

As the confusion cleared his own fears emerged, why wasn’t he at home, why was he still here? What was wrong? I held his hand one morning, sensing his frail mood and frustration that things hadn’t gone as he’d hoped.

‘I’m not scared of dying, y’know,’ he announced from nowhere, his restless fingers in mine. ‘I’d just rather not be there when it happens.’ I figured he’d turned a corner – his spirit had been dimmed for a while, but not diminished.

I was with my parents for only a few days, it was all that was needed. Perhaps just knowing someone else was there was enough.

We were lucky this trip has ended as successfully as it has – a Skype with my parents this past weekend has assured us of that – and I’m thankful for the silver lining: the reassurance and unspoken promise we will be there, that we will do whatever it takes to be with them when they need us. That despite parental assurances things are ‘okay’ we can read between the lines, that they don’t ever have to ask, it’s a given.

Posted in Expat Experiences, Family Life, Women and Female Related | Tagged , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Where has the year gone?

It is with shock and horror I realise how long it’s been since I last posted on Wordgeyser. I wish I could tell you I’ve been traveling the world, or training to be an astronaut ready for the manned space flight to Mars (the Captain and I did discuss it briefly), or some other mega life-changing opportunity. Or found a new passion, discovering a latent talent for painting or poetry or music.

Much has been happening here in the Netherlands this spring that warrants my sharing with those who have lived here, or who are planning to move here. The opening of the fabulous Rijksmuseum after a ten year refurbishment, the abdication of Queen Beatrix and accession of her son King Willem-Alexander. The awful cold, wet spring which saw the world renowned Keukenhof gardens open with so few flowers it was embarrassing – then a week or so later to see snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils and tulips all blooming at the same time.

Numerous little day-to-day details of life here in the Low Countries that should be recounted and shared. The seemingly large number of people leaving the Netherlands this summer – among them, sadly, many dear friends – and the new arrivals coming in. The return of our youngest after his first year at college and an update on our first year as empty nesters, the latest (canine) addition to our family. But no, the laptop keys have remained silent when it comes to blog content.

So what have I been up to? In many ways I’m hard pressed to remember. The spring has flown by (thankfully) in a cold, wet and grey mist, rather like my brain, which has been absorbed in my second favourite passion after writing – editing.

Editing suits my personality traits of attention to detail and getting things right. It’s not only a matter of the big picture, the pacing and flow, or correct grammar, it’s finding the perfect nuance, the best word to convey a meaning, emotion or idea, deleting the text that adds no value, removing ambiguity, refining the text to a clear, sharp focus. Helping the author take their ideas, thoughts and manuscript to the highest level possible – while maintaining their own voice and style.

The nearest I can get to describing the process is like being a midwife – while the author sits clutching a finished manuscript, terrified of handing it to someone else, terrified of setting it free into the world, yet knowing it’s going to happen one way or another. How painful that process is depends on the relationship of trust between the parent and the midwife.

It is a relationship of delicate balances. The author will often be unsure why an editor is needed: after all it is their book, their idea, their writing. By the time the book is presented to the world, the first published copy, crisp and new, held between unbelieving fingers, they wonder how it could have happened without one.

It’s a tough time for the editor too – having been on such an emotional and creative roller-coaster with another writer, lived and breathed their work for months at a time, suddenly it’s over. It’s done.

That wonderful sense of euphoria is exhilarating, accompanied by a sense of pride that another project is successfully completed, and someone else understands what an editor really does.

And yet… there is a certain sadness that the symbiotic relationship between writer and editor is over, as the writer moves into the next stage with their book – sales and marketing.

Like the midwife, there is always the next project, the next author. Each book is different, each relationship with an author is different. It’s enriching, exciting, and often exhausting – always with deadlines and dramas to navigate.

I’m lucky I get to work with book designers too, talented, gifted individuals who continue to thrill me with their ideas for covers and the look of internal pages. And then the production stage, when the switch from manuscript to PDF for print causes wonderful technical glitches.

During those long hours spent in the labor room, in the process of getting authors to breathe when they need to, and push when they are close to giving up, there seems little time for nurturing my own words. Yet nurturing them is essential – it is only through being comfortable with my own I can see the work of other writers clearly.

Now the time has come to redress the balance. I have set aside time over the summer for my own words, both blogging and in other places and it feels good to be back. There’s so much to catch up on, you won’t believe it…

 

 

 

Posted in Personal challenges, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Transitions: Life’s Waiting Rooms

The carpeted floor beneath my bare feet pitches gently and I realise the ship has left the placid calm of the harbour, cleared the rocky promontories encircling its entrance, and moved out into open water. The movement is almost imperceptible, a subtle sideways motion which rolls back on itself like the swing of a heavy pendulum.

Out of the cabin windows, through salt-clouded glass, the swell and roil of undulating waves – topped occasionally by a line of frayed surf – can be seen through the evening gloom. Towards the horizon the heavy sky and the restless waves meld into an indistinct mass where sea and sky disappear into a no man’s land of thickening darkness.

Droplets of rain hit the window and trail across the glass like crazed comets, driven by the force of the ship ploughing through an increasingly viscous sea.

Turning back into the cabin, the small halos of light from the lamps glow warmly through the chill of the air conditioning rattling quietly overhead – along pipes threaded throughout the ship like life-giving veins, recycled air pumping through the levels above and below us. Decks with trucks and buses, cars and motorbikes, engine rooms and kitchens, crew accommodations, shops and restaurants and the kennels where our dog is curled, comforted by the hum of  engines and lulled by the motion of the vessel into a snortling slumber.

Our cabin is on a corner of the ship, two windows fore and starboard, entered by a discreet door at the junction of two corridors on deck eight. We can hear the muffled public announcements over the tannoy in the corridor – it is not working in our cabin –distorted and incoherent: safety procedures in the event of an emergency; the opening time of the duty free shop; the movies being screened at the ship’s onboard movie theatre; that the ‘Fabulous Al’ will be playing the piano in the Starlight lounge, while the ‘Fabulous Karisma’ will be performing in the the bar lounge; that tonight’s crossing will, hopefully, not be too rough and we will be arriving in port on schedule in the morning.

We have already eaten at the restaurant. A table by the window covered with a starched white linen cloth and napkins, heavy drapes and potted palms – an attempt at fine dining in the most absurd of places. The wait staff nimble and attentive, a united nations of nationalities, eager to please. Perhaps they dreamed of travelling across oceans in glamorous vessels with the rich and famous, instead they ply their skills on the North Sea back and forth between Europe and the big island, hunched and brooding on its western edge. Our fingers link together across the tablecloth as we wait for our food to arrive.

Meal over, eaten while the ship slipped quietly from its berth and crept slowly towards to the harbour mouth, we strolled back to our cabin with its TV and tea making facilities, through the crowded decks of fellow travellers. Past the ball-pit of toddlers eager to hurl themselves into the dunes of coloured balls while weary parents stood and watched, through noisy groups of young boys in uniform, travelling to a soccer tournament, through the bar lounge where Karisma was performing her first set of the evening in a too-short tunic, stray blonde hairs attaching themselves to the sweat on her face as she played the saxophone. Down the endless corridors to our room. We closed the door and sighed.

This is a journey we make as often as we can, from the place and life we live now, to the place we were born, but left a long time and another continent ago. A place that continues to moves our hearts with nostalgia and longing, but to which we will never return. Yet there, on that island, live the people who mean the most to us, the people who have shaped us, know our history, to whom we never have to explain ourselves. Tight bonds, unseen but unbroken over time and distance.

And on this ship, moving between our life left and the one we live now, the transition between the two. Always transition – places, people, time, life. A constant restlessness, adjusting, recalculating, reinventing, accepting. Taking the best and leaving the rest, except we never do; we carry everything with us. The invisible baggage, the faded scars of old griefs etched finely on our hearts, rarely acknowledged, always hidden.

This tired old ship, slightly tawdry, worn at the edges and past its best, is our refuge between the two. A waiting room, a transitioning between one life and another, always a tin box moving somewhere – through the air, on a freeway, on the sea – a place to make the necessary emotional adjustments.

The inadequate cabin kettle finally reaches a boil and my husband makes each of us a mug of tea from the teabags and mugs carried with us. The shiny exotic foil-covered bags supplied by the ferry company lay ignored on their tray, along with the pristine cups and saucers stacked neatly together. Our tea and our mugs are a ritual we take with us.

He walks towards me, stumbling slightly as the ship lurches unexpectedly, our eyes connect as he hands me the mug and we smile.

Whatever life brings – travel, jobs, illness, death, family, children leaving to build their own nests – we create our own rituals, share and understand the transition. The two of us relying on each other, together.

Posted in Empty Nest, Expat Experiences, Inspiration and Reflection | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Living in the Netherlands: The Good, The Bad and The Frustrating.

I first wrote about moving to the Netherlands several years ago when I’d had time to settle in and get established, but was still new enough to the Dutch culture to see it through fresh eyes.

Since that original article I’ve moved into a a different phase of transition – of being fully established and immersed in the culture, while still being a foreigner. I’m aware of the cultural differences but no longer feel alien, frustrated or lost. A state of acceptance of living, working and operating in the Netherlands.

While our life has changed over the years here (our nest is now empty with children in the UK, USA and Canada), our family base remains the Netherlands, and is regarded as ‘home’ by all three offspring – despite two of them never having lived here (although our daughter did boomerang back to the nest to live and work for 6 months).

I hope this updated perspective is helpful!

The geographical location of the Netherlands:

The positives –

1. The weather – when it’s good, it’s fabulous. Warm, sunny, not too hot so walking, biking and spending time outdoors are an unexpected delight. As soon as the sun comes out so do the Dutch, so expect to share all public and open spaces with everyone else. Street cafes, bistros and bars fill streets and squares, and are a wonderful way to relax and people watch.

2. Woodland, parks, beaches and public spaces for walking and recreation are close by and easily accessed by public transport or bike.

3. Travel internationally (Schiphol Amsterdam airport has always been a favorite even before we moved here) and throughout Europe is easy and (relatively) stress free. This is helped with the Euro being used everywhere – except the UK, reasons are self evident if you read Learning the Lingo – Part 1. There’s lots to see and do in a relatively small space – knock yourself out with the art galleries, history, small towns and places of interest, nightlife in the larger cities and ease of travel into neighboring countries.

4. Excellent public transport facilities in the Netherlands and internationally via the rail system – if you have a family they will eventually learn to ride bikes and use local public transport to get around. Once you accept it is safe and allow your kids the freedom to get around by themselves, you’ll be amazed how responsible and self-confident they become. And you won’t miss ferrying them around.

5. Dutch healthcare – is generally excellent and free, although there are processes to be followed. Keep an open mind. The default position of most Dutch doctors is for you to go away and take two paracetamol four times a day and come back in a few days if things don’t improve. Be polite but stand your ground. Change doctors until you find someone you can work with. There are international healthcare centres available if you don’t find a suitable local doctor.

The ‘negatives’ –

1. The weather – good days are not as common as rainy, gloomy, cold days. When 50 Shades of Gray was first published I thought was it an academic paper on the Dutch weather. If you can adjust quickly and accept ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing’ and get kitted out for the rain you’ll be a lot happier. Forget wearing heels – unless you want to break an ankle on the cobbled/ bricked streets rethink all footwear.

2. Population density – particularly if you’ve relocated from somewhere, well, less dense. In good weather the beaches, woods and recreational facilities are full of other people wanting to do the same as you. Traffic can be a nightmare, moreso when the weather is bad and bikes are abandoned in favor of cars. That said, urban areas are well planned, with lots of available green space. The Dutch are very used to living in smaller homes in close proximity to their neighbors, are are generally respectful of each other’s privacy. You wouldn’t expect to buy or rent a detached, spacious home in New York, London, or any other capital city and the same applies here. Housing costs are expensive.

3. Travel – can be a nightmare at holiday times as the Dutch enjoy travelling more than most and Schiphol is horrendous at every public holiday. Travelling by car at peak periods can be a recipe for divorce. Throughout the summer months the roads south through Belgium and France are clogged until way past Paris.

4. Driving – beware speed cameras, police, perpetual road works, bikes, pedestrians, dogs and the ‘cars coming from the right have priority’ rule. Patience is a requirement and road rage is rare. Bikes and pedestrians always have priority. If in doubt give way to everyone.

The Dutch Culture:

The positives –

1. Being able to bike everywhere and the fact bikes have priority over cars.

2. Freedom for teens to be independent in a safe environment (they bike or take public transport everywhere). Be aware the drinking age for teens (currently) is 16 for beer and wine, and 18 for spirits. This may be changed soon to 18 for all alcohol. If you come from a country where the legal drinking age is older, this may be an issue. My only comment would be that you don’t see hordes of teens drunk in the streets, and the majority learn to drink responsibly. Hopefully by the time they head for college/ university alcohol is not the lure it is for many kids having just left home.

3. Small ‘mom and pop’ shops offering diversity for shopping and getting into the habit of shopping almost daily for groceries and fresh bread.

4. Range of seasonal fresh produce.

5. Abundance of inexpensive flowers year round. (A real treat in the winter.)

6. Extremely dog friendly – they’re welcome in most bars, cafes, some shops and allowed off-leash in parks and public areas during the year.

7. Fabulous bread – forget the diet.

The ‘negatives’ –

1. The big one – Bureaucracy. The Dutch love their paperwork and it always has to be present and correct. I can say no more, the mere thought brings on a headache.

2. The perceived rudeness of the Dutch –  seen by the Dutch as being ‘blunt’, or calling ‘a spade a spade’. I have experienced bluntness here that anywhere else would be considered breathtakingly rude. I attribute this behaviour to the weather (months smothered under a blanket of gray), but my Dutch friends disagree, shrug their shoulders and admit they could well be the rudest people in Europe. The Dutch in general are not courteous, or thoughtful, or interested, do not smile and for them to engage in frivolous activity tantamount to complete decadence. There are, however, wonderful Dutch people who are the exception to this rule, and are apologetic for the behavior of their less polite nationals.

3. Small ‘mom and pop’ shops and lack of larger supermarkets with fully stacked shelves. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve needed something basic, only to be faced with empty shelves. It can happen any day of the week at any time. And no Sunday opening except for occasional stores in larger cities. Can be very frustrating. That said, the selection of produce and availability of foreign foods has increased tremendously since we first arrived.

4. Lack of customer service – the words, ‘It is not possible’ accompanied by an almost Gallic shrug and air of complete indifference is commonplace and a national mantra. Customer service is not regarded as a priority, although in the present economic climate things are changing.

5. This is connected to point 4 – it takes forever to get anything done. A twelve-week wait for Internet connection during the summer months is common. The Dutch do not rush, ever. Go with the flow, it’s the only way to remain sane.

One thing we do agree on as a family is that the experience of living here has been interesting, and shown us a different lifestyle with a more balanced work/ life ratio, which can only be beneficial. However, this can be VERY frustrating in the workplace when everything finishes at 5 p.m. despite timeframes and deadlines. Things get done in their own time and at their own pace. Many have tried to change the Dutch work culture – none have succeeded.

In these days of global warming we figure if we stay here long enough the weather, and therefore the attitude of the Dutch, may improve, and the Netherlands will be the perfect place to live.

Guess we’ll have to wait and see …

Planning a move to the Netherlands? There are some things you do need to bring with you which you may need urgently before you’ve had time to adjust to available Dutch alternatives. You may find this article useful!

Living in The Netherlands: What to Bring with You

Posted in Advice for New Arrivals in the Netherlands, Dutch Culture, Expat Experiences, Family Life | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

A Sense of Place: Genetics and Travel

doors of opportunityHave you ever traveled somewhere and felt instantly at home? Or arrived in a new place and felt a sense of disconnection you couldn’t put your finger on? I’m sure we all have, but why does it happen?

I’ve arrived in a new place with an open mind, eager for new experiences only to discover it felt ‘wrong’, and despite my best efforts never felt connected or completely happy there. I’ve landed in other places with the same open attitude, breathed in the air and knew instantly I was ‘home’.

Why does that happen if we have the same expectations each time we set out on a new adventure? It’s something that’s played around the edges of my head for a long time.

Home has always been important to me, not only geographically but physically too, the four walls inside which we create a safe haven from the outside world. Sometimes those four walls have been a ‘home’, other times merely a place to live. Interestingly the geographical locations I’ve felt connected to are the places where we’ve also created a ‘home’.

My spouse and I recently got to discussing the connection of family across generations and tracing genealogical roots. A current, popular trend which has resulted in a slew of television programmes recently, where celebrities and ordinary people trace their families trees – to discover who they are, where they’ve come from and traced similarities in lives lived in different times and places. Do I watch these programmes? Absolutely.

I’m fascinated by repeated patterns of familial behaviour and, as the journey continues back in time, how emotionally connected celebrities and ordinary people become to their previously unknown ancestors.

For me this is entirely understandable. It’s been a fleeting thought in my head for years that perhaps the very point of our human existence is to ensure the survival of DNA, not us – an argument I won’t get into here as it involves, religion, philosophy, science and all that good stuff. As I said, it was merely a fleeting, fanciful thought.

Until I got to thinking about the ‘travel’ gene. I’ve also seen it referred to as the ‘Expat gene’ – the gene that makes some people leave their tribe to see what’s over the next mountain. It seems people with this need to head for the nearest horizon have a similar/ shared genetic make up with a higher instance of the novelty/ thrill seeking gene (the D4-7 allele).

In 2005 National Geographic, IBM and the Waitt Family Foundation charity got together to privately fund the five-year Genographic project, with the aim of taking over 100,000 DNA samples worldwide with the resulting informationa availble to scientists studying human migration. The project continues with over 500,000 participants in over 140 countries. Check it out if you haven’t already, it’s fascinating.

Being an armchair philosopher it makes complete sense (to me) that in the same way our physical information is carried in our genes and passed from one generation to the next, why not carry environmental information too? A recognition of places.

I’m not necessarily talking about ancestors and places from thousands of years ago, but perhaps only a few generations back.

Arriving for the first time in Vancouver a few years ago, I was hit by an immediate sense of recognition, an intense feeling for a place I’d never previously visited. In our subsequent trips the feeling has remained the same, a feeling of coming home. The fact an ancestral great-great-aunt ran off to Canada and ultimately retired to Vancouver is a perfect explanation of why that happened – for me at least. Unscientific maybe but it has a wonderful symmetry.

I’ve experienced that same jolt of recognition in other places and remained connected to them throughout my life. Places where I’ve lived and had no connection? It’s as if I was never there. Not because I was unhappy but because the place didn’t feel ‘right’, wasn’t important, didn’t touch me in any way. Perhaps because there was no genetic history?

Fanciful perhaps, but it’s been a long, drawn-out winter and the mind can wander off in strange directions in the endless wait for longer days and bluer skies.

Except in our imaginations there is a greater freedom where the mind can soar without inhibition or restriction. A great place to be on a cold winter’s day. I wonder if there’s an imagination gene…

BBC  – Genographic survey

BBC  – Crusaders’ left Genetic Legacy

Posted in Expat Experiences, Family Life, Inspiration and Reflection, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Dutch Delights: The Magic of Winter Days

© Jane DeanThe first snow day of the winter and in its wake the dreary, endless days of the Dutch fall are forgotten. Day after day of leaden skies, like a dirty, heavy, sodden blanket thrown over the country, dripping constantly, suffocating and claustrophobic. The woods, my usual haven, have been quagmires of tar–like mud, black and sticky, the water table only an inch or two below the surface of the ground. Horses in the fields have drooped their heads in weariness and resignation, sheep huddled into corners protecting each other from the ceaseless weeping from an unforgiving sky.

All that changed yesterday afternoon. We’d felt the delicate shift in the wind, hurtling down across Europe from the wastes of Siberia and the northern lands. A sharpness and smell that whispers, ‘winter is coming’. Not the date marked on our calendars, but the natural winter of bitter winds singing of desolate places far from here.

DSC04663It is strange to sit in our warm, cosy homes surrounded by air from arctic places where few of us will ever venture. Its smell is distinct – the scent of clean, dried-outdoors laundry brought in from the cold. The purest air we’ll breathe unless we are lucky enough to stand at its source.

The first flurries started as I drove out of The Hague, the dark band of snow following me home, and fell in heavy, deep flakes through the afternoon. We slept with the drapes open last night, to watch the flakes dancing and pirouetting against the spotlights of the street lamps, illuminating their performance as they fell earthward.

This morning, in the dark dregs of the night, before the tinge of daybreak gloomed over the horizon and with snow banked up on the window frames, we watched as the first traffic began to move cautiously and hesitantly in this new world. Opening the window, an icy ridge of snow fell inward, a blast of scented air hurtled behind it scouring the room, and the muted world outside was quiet under its bedding.

© Jane DeanThe snow continued to fall and in the greyness of dawning light the monochrome beauty of winter was on display, sky and earth merged into a snowy mass. And the light, oh the light, reflected upward, illuminating dark corners not seen since the end days of the summer.

The snow has stopped now, the sky covered with a different grey from those of the past months. A broad shade of mid-grey, heavy with snow still to fall, a delicate duvet filled with feathers, ready to rip itself open and cover us with beauty.

I’ve been feeling the child-like anticipation build all night, recalling of a line from James Joyce (The Dubliners) ‘ …and snow was general all over Ireland’ thrilled by the layers of meaning within it, its depth and weight soft like snow.

It is not a regular occurrence in our lives to experience snow and its memories are rare and precious.

At age three trapped by an icy slope in the back garden, the feeling of panic as I slid downhill backwards and away from the safety of the backdoor; aged seven, ice-skating on the lake by the local university, during a winter whose date is cited as one of the worst.

© Jane DeanIn my teens, one of the passengers getting off a city bus to push it up a hill, later a group of us cycling across another frozen lake.

As an adult learning to drive on snow and ice on a deserted lane in the grounds of a country house; the glory of the Yorkshire moors and driving through extreme snow and weather in labour with my daughter; snow on Christmas Day 2005 in New Orleans (a harbinger of momentous times to come as it turned out) – moments captured in my snow globe of memories.

The reality, of course is very different from these magical expectations. As cars and trucks struggled on ungritted/ unsalted roads today, my spouse took an hour to reach the A12 in The Hague, normally a 10 minute drive. Two hours later the A12 ahead of him en route to Rotterdam was closed and he reported in from Zoetermeer, to the east.

© Jane DeanHe was, however, incredibly cheerful and enjoying himself immensely, safe from the calamity he would undoubtedly have encountered in his own road-hugging vehicle – he was warm and snug in mine, our default disaster vehicle, big high and all-wheel drive.

Here at base camp I discovered a pair of Harry’s outgrown snowboarding pants from 10th grade when he was, for a moment, around the same height as me, which – incredibly – fit (okay, so I had to breathe in a bit and the legs were too long) and a Finnish snow jacket discarded by our eldest some years ago. Donned with those, several scarves, a hat and heavy duty walking boats, the Archster and I ventured out.

The day didn’t disappoint.

Snow deeper than expected (24cm/ 9 inches of pure, dry, powdery snow – I measured it) its fleecy blanket muting all sound. In the quiet of the woods, with unmarked banks of snow huddled around trees and draped over fallen logs, the appearance of a wardrobe wouldn’t have been out of place.

© Jane DeanAs the belt of snow passed through, the winter sky was exposed, an unobscured view upwards for miles, the early morning sky washed with a watery hue the colour of fresh apricots – no rosy pinks and tinges of soft violet in these wintery months. And the light was extraordinary, as it always is with snow, awakening the senses, kick-starting the brain

I know tomorrow the snow will have turned a greasy grey, dropping from trees in wet dollops, unable to soak away into the already saturated ground. The daylight will be turned in on itself, back to the normal winter gloom, which is why I am so grateful for today.

We need days of unexpected delights, to feel a child-like enchantment in the simple and pure, to feel joy, if only for a moment, in the glorious display of nature, often lost in urban lives.

Today will be added to my snow globe, put back on its shelf, ready to be turned and shaken on other days, in future times. I shall sit within it, amongst the memories, watch the snow fall and catch snowflakes on my tongue, in places far from here.

© Jane Dean

For the record, these are all colour photos, not black and white!

Posted in Advice for New Arrivals in the Netherlands, Expat Experiences, Inspiration and Reflection, The Netherlands | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

Frank and Fearless: Facing 2013

The end days of the year, the cusp of the past with the future, when most people are out of their normal routine and daily structure. Add school holidays, more family socialising, a change in diet and it’s no wonder everyone is slightly out of kilter.

In recent years I’ve used this time for a personal debrief, or introspection if you will. A rationalising of the year gone by. What made me feel happy, excited, sad, isolated or lonely. Acknowledging things I’d been afraid of, how I faced those fears (or not) and what I would have done differently with the benefit of hindsight.

It’s always a salutary experience, not one I enjoy, but useful none the less.

I choose the beginning of a new year precisely because life is not in a normal routine. It allows a clarity of thought not available in the normal rush of daily life, when it’s all too easy to brush the internal whisper of sadness or discontent under the carpet. Then we shrug off the hesitant questioning of our inner voice with the forced cheeriness of, ‘I really must pull myself together and get out of this funk!’ And the inner voice is stilled.

Yet it is this voice which understands our true selves, which listens to the rhythm of our emotions, senses the fear and longing our conscious self is oblivious to, or refuses to acknowledge. It is our strongest tool but one we often leave discarded, unused, at the bottom of the toolbox. So much easier to smile, get on with it, busy ourselves with anything, everything to drown the sound of that voice trying to connect with us.

This year the annual debrief has been delayed a week or so by circumstance, causing an unexpected anxiety and agitation. Obviously the voice inside is missing its once-a-year chance to be really heard.

As life has returned to a normal routine I’ve discovered I’m looking forward to this personal scrutiny outside the slightly anti-climatic days of Christmas and the forced jollity of New Year. A scrutiny under the light of regular life, surrounded by the familiar, rather than the distraction of fairy lights, mince pies and additional amounts of alcohol, ‘because its Christmas’.

The past year has had unexpected challenges, sadnesses, a hefty dollop of self-doubt and an underlying awareness that life is not where we want it to be. No surprises there, on a par with most people the world over.

What I have learned, rather than merely paid court to, is that in any given situation we can only do our best with the information and tools we have available at the time. Beating ourselves up with the value of hindsight is not helpful or healthy. Accepting we might do things differently should we deal with the same situation in the future does not mean we failed first time round.

That sense of failure – personally, professionally, socially – can be debilitating, draining, and is often unjustified. Seeking balance in life, juggling spinning plates on poles needing continual attention, leaves us exhausted. It’s difficult to feel a moment of joy when the fear of a crashing plate keeps us focused in a different direction.

Fear. The four-letter word that keeps us paralysed, stops us living a joyful life.

What’s the worst that can happen if a plate does topple from its perch? Most likely as a plate wobbles we react before it falls – instinctively and without conscious thought.

Worse case, it takes down all the other poles and plates as it falls. Catastrophic, but then you don’t have to worry about keeping those plates spinning anymore.

And here’s the problem – if you have experienced catastrophe you understand it is random, unexpected and there are very few precautions you can take to protect yourself or your loved ones.

Death, divorce, illness, loss of job, home, identity – all can hit an individual or family without warning. Worse still, because it’s happened once does not mean you are immune to it happening a second or third time. It is easy to set your default position to ‘disaster’ mode, expecting the worst in any situation, ever more vigilant with those plates, oblivious to the world around you. The world of fun and laughter, sharing and caring. It is not so easy to take a step back and re-evaluate rationally if you are in this situation.

Luckily, most of us are not, and for that I am grateful. It’s hard enough keeping on track when life is normal. So how to recognise when your life has drifted slightly off road?

Listen to that inner voice, feel how your body moves, how your thoughts zap around your head. Intuition.

It takes practice to keep an emotional diary, to recognise feelings of disconnection as more than nerves or anxiety. In my case, a particular sense of dread before a meeting/ event is an intuitive understanding I will come away from it feeling empty, sad and out of sync with others there.

This could be because it’s something I no longer feel is fulfilling or interesting, it could be because the other attendees are not on the same wavelength as me, or my viewpoint has shifted from theirs. A normal evolution through life.

For years I would stumble on involved in activities, friendships, family and social situations, which, afterwards, left me feeling isolated and lonely. The solution? Surround yourself with people who are more in tune to your way of thinking.

Easy isn’t it?

Yep, okay, so we all know it’s not. But unless we make changes, however small, we continue to feel lonely, inept and wrapped in failure. In can take years before we connect our inner voice with our conscious one, the one that says, ‘this is not good for you’, ‘you need to say no’, ‘it’s okay to be you’.

To effect change you must accept change – tough, even if it’s something you want. Making changes, rather than having it forced on you, is empowering and freeing. Walking away from one thing to experience something else is what makes us feel alive and curious.

Yesterday I listened to a news report concerning the death, at 110, of Reg Dean (no relation), Britain’s oldest man, who was lively and curious to the end, despite physical fragility. He believed in listening to others, having a ready smile and generally being lazy. As he formed the Dalesmen Male Voice Choir and took up painting in his 80s I don’t believe he was.

Perhaps because he took the time to listen to others and engage in his passions he learnt a universal truth – being ourselves isn’t selfish, it allows us to engage with the world around us and help others where we can.

We can only face life’s adversities when we are strong and resilient and we can only do that by accepting we are not perfect, living life to the full and listening to our inner voice.

The world didn’t end in 2012, and it’s unlikely it will in 2013, time to get out there and make the most of it.

Here’s to a happy, healthy and fearless 2013 for all of us!

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Unexpected Goodbyes: Part of the Package

We all know the poem about friends who are there for a reason, a season or a lifetime – how often do we see it forwarded on emails? It’s something we relate to and instinctively understand.

Friendships in a global environment are made quickly, and personal information exchanged rapidly, because neither friend knows how long they will be around. Such friendships are intense, quickly established and vital to health and well-being in places far from home. They burn brightly, but their light is often dimmed when one or the other moves on. It is the nature of these friendships.

Yet in the pressure cooker of international life there are some friends whose value can be appreciated over time. Like you, they stay longer than the usual expat term, are semi-permanent fixtures. The friendship is able to develop gently, normally, as it would in ‘real life’. The slow-cooker friend, whose richness and flavour intensifies with the simmering.

They do not share themselves immediately, gradually revealing intimacies as the friendship matures. In time we share information about lives, families, hopes and fears. Sometimes we need their compassion, their strength and sound advice and they are there, ever giving. We hope we give an equal measure in return. Not because the friendship demands it, but because helping a real friend is something you do as naturally as breathing. The three things we humans find hardest to say are, I’m sorry, I need help and I love you. It’s not hard to say those words to this friend.

 Yesterday my slow-cooker friend broke the news she is leaving. Unexpected, out of the blue. In ten weeks. So little time for her to organise her life, to plan her leaving and goodbyes well.

Three of us sat over a cup of tea, two of us shell-shocked. Of course we were/ are supportive, excited on her behalf, thrilled at the new adventures she has to look forward to and want to be a part of that excitement. I’m amazed we managed to get through the afternoon without tears or drama, but it was not appropriate. Our friend needed our strength, our support, not our tears.

The tears have come today, quiet, heart-rending tears in the quiet of an empty house.

Another friendship a casualty of the life we have fallen into. Grief at the loss of a friendship, which will have to adjust to distance and time zones – Skype, Facebook and phone calls instead of shared rooms on girls weekends, a quick coffee on the spur of the moment, tea at the gym after a class (hers not mine). Discussing shared meals, recipes, family traumas. And laughter.

And it’s okay to have these moments. An acknowledgement of loss, of understanding that friendships and people matter to us, make us who we are. Sometimes the pain can be so intense it stops us reaching out again, not wanting to be hurt, not wanting to feel.

But that would be to devalue those important friendships, to have taken nothing from them. We owe it to those friends to remain open and giving, a testament to the friendship we’ve shared, a paying forward.

But it’s bloody hard.

With slow-cooker friends you’ve taken the time and patience to build something solid, and your heart is tricked into thinking they will be there forever. And they will be, but in a different way.

And there’s nothing wrong with taking some alone time to reflect on what what has been and mourn the loss, knowing on her final day they’ll be smiles and tears as we wave her off, with an appreciation of the time we’ve shared together in a country that’s not our home.

Posted in Expat Experiences, Family Life, Inspiration and Reflection, Personal challenges, Women and Female Related | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

Presidential Politics: Who Holds the Real Power?

The circus is over, the votes are in and everyone in the USA, and governments around the world – who appreciate the impact of the election on global politics – will know where they stand for the next four years.

Maybe.

Whilst it’s important to have a charismatic figurehead to stand on the world stage and be taken seriously, let’s not be under any illusion that the figurehead personally runs the nation – and that’s what voters forget in the hype and hysteria of election time.

I expected Obama to win – for a variety of reasons – but what has interested me, and kept me up late last night, was watching all the results role in.

The Presidential race is not the sole item on ballot papers in the election. Never forget the country is made up of states with their own identities, histories and cultures, and those states vote for Senators, Representatives and state Governors to represent them, along with proposed state legislature, including gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana.

Votes for Congress may have more impact on how the USA moves forward than the political colour of the presidential mantle. As of today the Republicans hold the balance of power in the House of Representatives with 228 of the 435 seats, while in the Senate the Democrats hold 52 of the 100 seats.

The race for state Governors shows more Republican Governors elected than Democrats.

The Presidential vote, state by state, makes interesting reading too. Those states won by the Democrats were won with 50-67% of the vote. Those by the Republicans with 54-69% of the vote – Utah, unsurprisingly, with the highest percentage, 73%.

Not quite the Democratic landslide some of the media would have us believe.

What is clear is the American people are pretty much split between the parties, that the election could have gone either way. Simply, most Americans want the same things despite their political philosophies – freedom of the individual, free speech, medical and welfare systems that are fair and not abused, sound laws and good housekeeping. The rest is rhetoric.

The real job of running the country will be undertaken by hardworking individuals in Congress, and at the ground-roots level of each state, keeping the wheels of the country on track. Checks and balances, the linchpin of American democracy.

It is these individuals with whom the people have a bond of trust, who quietly get on with the job and are committed to making their country a better place to live, work and raise a family.

Many able candidates don’t stand for Presidential office because they have no wish to put their families under the spotlight, aware the baying packs of news hounds will ferret out any negative behaviour and plaster it across the world. There are many prospective candidates in the country who have gained the admiration and respect of the people, but who will not put themselves through the hoops a Presidential race demands.

Colin Powell is a man I would vote for, whatever his politics, but he walked away in 1998. It is people of his calibre, with real leadership skills, quiet dignity, solid values and love of country who are the backbone of America.

Which is why I believe the man at the top isn’t the most important person in the USA, although the position he holds most definitely is.

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Hurricane Sandy: Facing the Aftermath

In the past days the world has looked towards New York and the northeastern seaboard of the USA and watched with awe as mother nature flexed her muscles and reminded us there is no place on earth where she cannot cause devastation, loss of life and damage to property.

I know what it is to evacuate from a hurricane (three times in seven years), how it feels to track a huge storm across the Atlantic, watch it intensify, grow and worse, know your home and community is in the direct firing line. And get hit.

I watched Sandy’s progress, deeply aware of what was happening in ordinary homes in the northeast, emotions running high, adrenalin pumping, not knowing how bad things might get. The inevitable wondering if it’s all media hype, whether it would be as bad as they said – and if it was, whether there would be time to prepare.

Time flows differently in times of crisis, too fast then way too slow. Keeping pace with its variances exhausting and stressful. All that before the storm arrives. For those who can leave, what to take with them, for those who stay the rising fear of, ‘How bad…?’.

Then the hours and hours of noise – howling wind, thunder, lightening, flying debris, loss of power, explosions, rising water, all in the dark.  The only way to find out what is happening by radio. For hours there is silence, nothing to report as everyone hunkers down till the storm passes through. And then it’s over.

Except it’s not. It’s only the beginning.

As the first pictures come out from the news stations and reports from intrepid reporters on an adrenalin high – eyes too bright, voices loud, body movements jerky like marionettes on amphetamines – the brutality and level of the destruction is there for all to see.

What you don’t get on your TV, computer or phone screen is the smell of destruction – the putrid sweetness of death and decay, the cloying stench of rotting faeces mixed with trash festering in the flood waters entering homes and businesses. Its scent thick, heavy, catching in your throat, sitting  on your tongue while bile rises in your throat.

For days adrenalin will keep people focused as they face the worst and start the clean up. You’ll recognise them by their 1000-yard stare – a look of shock, disbelief, incomprehension – not knowing where to start, what to do next. They’ll pick through what they have left, and weep until there are no more tears.

The emergency services will do their best in overwhelming circumstances, supported by agencies from other states arriving to help because they know how easily the roles could be reversed.

There is no more wonderful sight than fleeing a hurricane and watching lines and lines of white Entergy trucks heading in the opposite direction, to be in place when a storm has passed through, to be there to start the rebuild in the worst hit areas.

Seeing other white vans with their distinctive red cross, driven and manned by people whose only concern is to help anyone in need. With their ready smiles, hot food and ability to look in the eyes of others with compassion and caring. Whose gentle touch on the arm, or comforting squeeze of a hand will give more hope to the lost and confused than any rhetoric by politicians.

The young men and women of the National Guard who will do what they can; distribute food and water where it’s needed with a military precision comforting in its structure when all around is chaos. As the days pass and a new normal emerges from the turmoil, the biggest challenge is still ahead.

Dealing with the insurance companies.

Even now, seven years after Katrina, the mention of them brings an immediate physical and emotional response, a mix of nausea and prickling heat spreading from chest to scalp, mixed with rage and an immediate need to destroy something.

This anger is not for me, but the people around me who were broken by the inhumanity, intimidation and bullying of insurance companies. Companies who took money for years, but when it came down to it, wriggled and writhed and did everything they could to get off the hook.

‘You have flood insurance? Well, your house may have flooded but it was caused by the storm, so you need to claim on your Home Owners Insurance.”

‘You have Home Owners insurance? Sorry, but the damage to your home was caused by rising water so you need to claim on your Flood Insurance.’

‘No flood insurance on your home because you aren’t in a designated flood zone? Oh, that’s a shame. Seems like you’re screwed.’

Getting through to them at all a nightmare, assuming you have access to a landline that works, or a working cell phone in areas where signal masts are down. It will be forever before an insurance adjuster will come, but until then do not remove anything, keep all damaged items in your back yard for the adjuster to see.

As a word of advice, if you haven’t seen an adjuster in several weeks, phone the insurance company and tell them you will be getting rid of damaged items. When they tell you you can’t without voiding your insurance cover, advise them they will be sued when the snakes, rats and other wildlife that have moved into the debris bite a child or the family pet. Amazing how they back down.

Take as many photos as you can before you throw anything away. It was four months before we saw an insurance adjuster (the seventh assigned to us, the previous six resigned before they reached our name on their list). We handed him a comprehensive file containing the before and after photos of our home, inside and out, photos of every damaged item laid out on our yard and their replacement value. It was another three months before we received anything from our insurance companies.

We were the lucky ones.

Day after day we encountered people shattered by the experience of dealing with the aftermath of the storm. The old, sick, confused and destroyed, dealing with an experience they had not been prepared for. Suicide, depression, self-medication with alcohol/ drugs, illness – all unexpected side effects of Katrina. Six months after the storm the local Times Picayune newspaper was filled with page after page of obituaries – cancers, heart attacks unexplained illnesses. All casualties of Katrina as surely as if they’d died the day of the storm.

I hope the lessons of Katrina have been learnt and put in place to help the people of the northeast USA. That politicians walk the walk, not only talk it. But most of all, that this time the insurance companies do what is right. That this has happened in New York will hopefully mean a faster resolution and better accountability by those in power than the situation in the southern States in 2005.

With the presidential election only days away and the eyes of the country watching the response of the candidates, I hope so.

The articles below are a personal account of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath – 

After the Storm – Phoenix Rising 2005  Aftermath and Beyond

New Orleans – Proud to Have Called Her Home

The Days Before the Storm – Friday 26 August 2005,

The Days before the Storm – Saturday 27 August 2005, 

The Day Before the Storm – Sunday 28 August 2005, Leaving

The Day of the Storm – Monday 29 August 2005, Houston

 

Posted in Hurricane Katrina, Politics and Social Comment, USA | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Role Models: Why Ordinary People are Mine

Last week saw the celebration for the birthday of a special lady. Someone who has recently survived breast cancer and who dealt with the prospect of chemotherapy and a double mastectomy with dignity and grace.

There will have been quiet moments when she raged against the fates that dealt her this hand, when she must have wondered if she’d survive to watch her children grow, marry and have families of their own. Whether she would have the strength to face the battle each day as the treatment became more gruelling.

From the beginning she saw the cancer as her next ‘project’. She researched, read, prepared herself for battle, determined this was something she would take charge of and ultimately overcome.

A battle made more complex because she is living outside her home country.

She discussed her treatment options in Dutch and English and, although she speaks both, did not have the comfort of any discussion in her mother tongue.

Her birthday lunch wasn’t so much a celebration at her having reached a significant age, which she has, but a triumphant acknowledgement she has beaten cancer and come out the other side, strong, resilient and radiant.

I am constantly humbled by the number of people I’ve known who refuse to be defined by the heart breaking things that have happened to them or members of their families. They have shown incredible reserves of strength, resilience and bravery, and kept battling when they had nothing else to give. Because they had to, because there was no alternative.

I have watched friends cope with blows so hard you wonder if they will recover, have cried for the pain they have suffered and will continue to endure.

They are the ones in the front line – we are mere observers who, in the darkest hours, wonder if we would be as strong in the same circumstances and secretly thank the fates we have not been tested… although we also hear the quiet whispers that remind us, Ahh, not yet, but no one knows what’s around the corner, who might be next…

Life is random. We do the best we can. We want to help others through bad times in the unspoken acknowledgement it could be any of us. And those who have suffered the cruellest of blows know they are not immune from something equally devastating happening again.

It is people like these, women and men, who have walked with loss, darkness, fear and despair, who, for me, define what it is to be a role model. Forget the cult of celebrity, fame and reality TV, the one-dimensional wannabe superstars hyped by the media as important and newsworthy.

Give me real people, who lead by example and good conscience. Who do not have a sense of entitlement but cope with what life gives them the best way they can, though they may want to throw in the towel and turn their faces to the wall.

Real people quietly coping with death, illness, abuse, divorce, losing a job, or carrying an intolerable burden – their courage and quiet fortitude humbles me.

To the quiet heroes who live among us, who teach us to be our best during the darkest times, thank you.

Posted in Dutch Culture, Expat Experiences, Family Life, Inspiration and Reflection, Personal challenges, Women and Female Related | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Empty Nest Syndrome: It’s Not All About the Kids Leaving

I promised myself I wouldn’t write anything further on the empty nest syndrome. Not because there’s nothing to write about, but because it’s an emotive subject for many, with parents on either side of the fence and the majority just getting through.

Regular readers will know our youngest child left home to start university in Vancouver at the end of August. Four thousand seven hundred and ninety three miles away by plane. I’ve written articles about the preparing for the empty nest, and one about the reality of the empty nest when we returned from taking him to Canada.

That was all I was going to say on the subject until today.

This weekend my other half raised the Empty Nest subject. He’s been spending a fair bit of time reading up and pondering the sage words of writers everywhere and he’s a tad miffed.

The empty nest is something we’ve been preparing for over several years. Like any other life transition (birth, death, marriage, divorce, moving, job loss, retirement) changes take a period of adjustment before we can feel comfortable and come to terms with them.

It seems there are writers from the school of ‘pulling-yourself-together’ who believe good preparation, awareness and throwing yourself into a new pastime are all that’s required to alleviate the unsettled feelings of those whose children have left home, and who are readjusting back to being a couple.

Interestingly, according to my spouse, most of these epistles have been written by parents who still have one or two children in the family home. Some believe there is no such thing as the Empty Nest Syndrome, that it is a myth perpetrated by the feeble-minded and over-emotional who obviously have nothing in life to distract them from something as natural and normal as children leaving home.

Really?

We have friends of all ages, from all walks of life and all cultures who are approaching or in the throes of experiencing an empty nest. They are savvy, switched-on, energetic, aware and fulfilled people. Those parents not in paid employment are involved in unpaid work offering their services to school boards, charities, organisations or following their passions.

They are re-inventing themselves, pursuing new interests and no longer worry about their offspring with the same intensity (it’s hard to worry about little Johnny when you can’t see what he’s up to). There is the freedom of having your house back – no longer concerned about being inappropriately dressed with teenagers in the house, no withering looks or rolled eyes at behaviours not expected in those over the age of 20, to say nothing of a clean house and less laundry. And yet…

It is not as simple as taking up a new hobby, decorating the house or heading off with your backpack. Nor is it about the children not being there – for many,  ‘the children’ have been gradually weaning themselves from the familial breast for several years.

It is rather more to do with the parents themselves and who they perceive themselves to be now their roles must be re-defined. There is an acute awareness that up to this point life has been lived looking forwards, striving, building, consolidating. Now it is possible to pause, take time to reflect and look back, perhaps for the first time. And face the possibility that your life hasn’t been as fulfilling/ successful/ productive as you’d assumed it would be when you were twenty. The reality there may be more to look back on than there is to look forward to. A sobering thought.

For many couples this is the point where they wonder how these changes will impact their marriage.

Ah yes, the marriage. The secret concern of everyone. Even the most loving couples have moments of panic when they wonder what will remain once the children have left and the hurly burly and chaos of family life is no longer there to cover any cracks. Is the spark that drew them together still there or is it time to draw a line, re-evalute and go in separate directions – to find the personal happiness/ fulfillment that has withered under the responsibility of parenthood.

Who knows? The seas are unchartered, the marital boat is a little battered and knocked but now it’s truth time. Do you go forward together or apart? Is one partner even aware this may be an issue for the other?

My husband must be the most widely read spouse on anything related to the menopause, the empty nest and marital breakdown in the over 50s. If he spouts any more statistics about the number of women who initiate divorce after the children leave home, he may find himself amongst them.

I know how lucky I am to have a life partner who makes it his business to be aware of possible bumps in the road ahead so, should the worst happen, we’ll be as prepared as we can be to face them. From checking the weather when travelling, to understanding that some days his wife will wonder how the hell she ended up in a foreign country, alone except for the dog, while he travels and our adult children are scattered over the globe. And have the sense to talk when it’s needed and leave her be when it’s not.

We are not naive enough to think we are immune from marital breakdown, we talk about what each of us expects/ wants to achieve in the remainder of our lives. Things we’d like to do together and things we want do alone. We’d like to share the future together but, speaking for myself, I’d rather my spouse follow his dreams than feel shackled in a relationship where he can’t. I believe he feels the same. Hopefully we can steer the boat together.

It is not a bad thing for a couple to evaluate their relationship, and each other, at this stage of life and this point in the marriage. The majority do. But holding up a mirror to a marriage can be tough.

Because they’ve been (and remain) successful parents doesn’t mean they have what’s needed to maintain a healthy, successful marriage which will work for both of them in the future. One, or both, may not want to expend the necessary emotional energy on getting a marriage back on track. They may wish, for a variety of reasons, to go it alone. To charter a course from here can be challenging and distressing, even if it’s what both want, more so if only one party wants to leave the marriage.

So much for the Empty Nest being a myth – it is a very real, significant life stage which needs careful handling for many. Each marriage, family and life circumstances are different, there is no right or wrong way to work through it.

The good news is that having spent time sitting in the boat, feeling a little adrift, those who have made the journey before report high levels of life satisfaction, even if they have to weather a few storms to get there. Like everything else, it’s part of the journey.

And for the record several of my friends have found 50 Shades of Grey a great way to initiate conversation with their spouse…

Previous articles on preparing for the empty nest and children leaving home:

College Bound Kids?: You’re not on your own

College Bound Kids?: The Practical Stuff for Heading Overseas

College Bound Kids?: Changing Family Dynamics 

College Bound Kids?: After They’ve Gone

Walking the Walk: The Reality of the Empty Nest

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Forced to Fly: Expat Survival Guide

Click photo for YouTube trailer

The second edition of Jo Parfitt’s Forced To Fly is the much anticipated, updated anthology of expat experiences – finding humour in the strangest of circumstances and unusual places – and is a great read on many levels.

The book is in two distinct parts. The first, serious advice to anyone contemplating living overseas, from how to cope with culture shock, how to be happy, building emotional resilience to relocating and ten top tips for a smooth flight. All of it sound, practical, proven advice for anyone embarking on an overseas move, whether it’s their first or their fifth.

(Like childbirth, the pain of an expat relocation is long forgotten before the prospect of the next move is on the horizon, and it helps to have a reference like this on hand for when the next posting drops from out of the blue, as it always does.)

Part Two is where you’ll find the funny, real-life experiences, blunders and faux pas of expats – from arrival, settling in, to saying goodbye. Again. This second edition contains more than twenty new essays from writers such as Jack Scott, (whose Perking the Pansies is currently listed for the Polari First Book prize), Apple Gidley (Expat Life Slice by Slice), Debbie Fletcher (Bitten by Spain),  Niamh Ni Bhroin (The Singing Warrior), Carrie Sanderson and published poet Sareen McClay. Bloggers AdventuresInExpatland, DisparateHuisvrouw, IWasAnExpatWife, Expatcalidocious and my own Wordgeyser, make their cyber contributions to bring the expat experience to life. All nationalities with unique experiences from around the globe.

What you’ll take from this book is the realisation that humour is the most essential thing in the expat tool box – it will help overcome trials, tribulations and traumas we could never have imagined in our former lives. Laughter, and knowing others have walked the path before us and survived, is empowering and allows us not to take our problems, or ourselves, too seriously.

Yesterday afternoon as I sat in front of a Dutch Motor Accident Claim Form, (in Dutch, obviously) wondering where the heck to start to fill it in, and in dire need of either alcohol (for medicinal purposes) or a cigarette (I don’t smoke), I picked up Forced to Fly.

A stiff cup of tea and several chapters later, spirits lifted and equilibrium restored, I was once again awed by the men and women who face life’s international challenges with wit, candour and the ability to find laughter anywhere and in anything, however bleak.

Click photo for Amazon info

Publication date 5 OCTOBER  2012

Price £9.99/€12/$15.75

Summertime Publishing

ISBN 978-1904881416 (print);

ISBN 978-1-909193093 (kindle)

298 pp, paperback

 
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An Inconvenient Posting: Everyone’s Had One

In its broadest sense an expat is defined as someone living outside his/ her birth country. There are various reasons for expats living overseas; some by choice, others following a company remit.

For the latter, personal preference or convenience can be a matter of luck when information on a new posting arrives, often out of the blue and conflicting with personal/ family situations. Even if the stars align and a move dovetails with the needs of everyone in the family (country, schooling, job opportunities) every expat knows that sometimes a posting can turn out to have unexpected and unwanted hiccups.

For Laura J Stephens and her family, a move to Houston was an adventure, a positive for everyone. After an expat posting to Asia, followed by a stint in her home country where she trained as a psychotherapist, she believed a move to Houston would be straightforward, or as straightforward as these moves can be.

She couldn’t have been more wrong.

As she struggled with a loss of identity, she found herself adrift and lost in a new country. Slowly sinking into depression she was unable to confide her confusion and sense of loss to her expat peers, afraid of appearing negative or weak. She wanted to discover the underlying causes for her depression, why here? why now? and find her way back – to herself, her family and her marriage.

How many therapists would admit to not coping and losing their hold on life, let alone write a book about it? Laura has done just that with wit, candour, humour and honesty, in the hopes of shining a light on this ‘brushed under the carpet’ aspect of expat life.

It will resonate with anyone struggling with loss (of identity, of home, of family), feelings of hopelessness, away from home, loved ones and familiar faces. Her insights throughout the book will be light bulb moments for many, and her journey to recovery offers hope to anyone lost in the inertia of depression.

Although principally a memoir, the book contains a comprehensive self-help section with tips on building emotional resilience while on the move, recognising depression and the ‘Do’s and Don’ts’ of a depressive episode – written by the  therapist who has been there.

The book has one of the best sections I’ve seen for recommended resources, both online and in print. I would recommend this book to anyone facing a move – read it before you need it; it is excellent lifestyle advice for any expat.

Although Laura’s depression occurred during an expat move, the book will strike a chord with anyone who has found themselves adrift in new surroundings, unable to move forward and engage in life around them.

It is brave, inspiring and beautifully written, reading more like a novel than a memoir. Laura could be you or I – none of us know what’s around the corner, when we’ll have our own ‘inconvenient posting’.

 

  • Paperback: 310 pages
  • Publisher: Summertime Publishing (30 Sep 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1904881807
  • ISBN-13: 978-1904881803
  • Available in paperback and Kindle  www.Amazon.co.uk/ http://www.Amazon.com

 

 

 

website:  www.Laura J Stephens.com

Twitter: @LauraJStephens

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/AnInconvenientPosting

 

 

Posted in Expat Experiences, Expat Related Book Reviews, Family Life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Walking the Walk: The Reality of the Empty Nest

Having written a four-part series on the challenges of a child heading off for college, (see below for links) I’m now having to put that sage advice to the test. A few weeks back my husband and I headed off to Vancouver, Canada, to hand the future education of our youngest son into the hands of the University of British Columbia.

It’s been seven years since we last undertook this emotional journey, and then it was a mere two-hour drive up Interstate 10 to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in August 2005. Settling Missy into Louisiana State University, along (it seemed) with most of her graduating class, was relatively easy with little stress. She was, after all, sharing an apartment with friends she had known for the previous four years.

For us, the biggest challenge of that move came a week later when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and life for everyone in our family changed in ways we couldn’t have predicted.

Last week’s experience was a different universe. A nine and a half hour flight from the place we currently call home, a different continent and a nine-hour time difference – and our youngest child. The final fledgling spreading his wings, teetering on the edge of our empty nest.

A different scenario perhaps, but an eerily similar backdrop.

This year as the Katrina anniversary approached, we watched another storm snake its way towards Louisiana and relived the tension and uncertainty of the first. A small storm, nothing like the ferocity of Katrina. An echo of what had been, and how far life has moved on for everyone in our family since.

Our time in Vancouver has been bitter-sweet, as these life stages often are.

For Harry, the journey couldn’t come soon enough, he had checked out of his old life weeks ago. With a distant mind-set and a far away glaze to his eyes, it’s a look I’ve seen time after time in the eyes of expat friends as they’ve moved away and transitioned to a new life. I’ll admit it was a shock the first time I saw the same expression on his face and recognised it for what it was. He had mentally moved on before he had left, tough and unsettling for those left behind.

He was chafing at the bit to start his new life, to grab every opportunity and find his feet in the exciting world of independence and adulthood. A life separate from parents, family and high school. Separation from the pack and standing on his own two feet.

We wouldn’t want it any other way.

Except emotions have surfaced we do not recognise and which we are both struggling to put a name to. It’s unnerving and has left us feeling off-kilter and slightly adrift.

The physical, geographical and practical logistics have gone like clockwork – sort of –  Harry is unpacked, in dorms and having the time of his life.

What has shaken us is how unexpectedly different the emotional response to this experience has been, compared to that of our previous two children. Even they, neither of whom has lived at home for years, have been deeply affected by the thought their little brother will no longer be living under the family roof.

Our eldest, engaged and in the honeymoon period of home ownership (trips to the hardware store and garden centre) has been in touch daily to, ‘see how things are going’ not only for his brother, but for us too (oh how we longed for such maturity when he was in his teens!). Missy has also been in daily contact and Skyping mid-week (unheard off) to check on sibling/ parental progress.

The concern of our two eldest has not helped our heroic attempts to remain emotionally calm and stable – who knew they had turned into such caring and sensitive adults?

Both of us feel we’re on an emotional roller coaster – excited one minute, stricken the next. It is a grief, not only for the loss of the child who is leaving to strike out on his own, but for ourselves, and the end family life as we have known it. In my case for the last twenty-eight years. The days of raising, nurturing and parenting the children under our roof are over.

It is not the soul-destroying agony and pain of true loss, but a melancholy grief non the less. For the end of a huge part of our lives, for the acceptance of our own aging and opportunities missed, and a gentle envy of the possibilities open to Harry.

The world is a different place to the one we knew at his age – in many ways tougher and more challenging, in others a colourful kaleidoscope of opportunities with doors waiting to be opened, walked through and adventures to be experienced.

Like many parents on the same journey we know things will settle down and life will realign itself into a new sense of normal, and we’ll enjoy this phases of life, together, as a couple.

However, there are still quiet moments of deep sadness at time having passed too quickly, of life flying past at an alarming speed. But then I have wonderful memories – good times, laughter, treasured moments, and feel overwhelmed with how lucky we are. Life is an incredible journey and there will always be doorways to dance through if we open our eyes to see them, whatever stage of life we’re at.

As a great philosopher once said,

Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” ― Dr. Seuss

 

Links to previous articles on the empty nest and children leaving home:

College Bound Kids?: You’re not on your own

College Bound Kids?: The Practical Stuff for Heading Overseas

College Bound Kids?: Changing Family Dynamics 

College Bound Kids?: After They’ve Gone

 

 

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College Bound Kids?: After They’ve Gone

Part 4 in a series of 4

So they’ve finally headed off into the big wide world. Whether you’ve taken them yourself or because of circumstances that responsibility has been passed to another family member, the time comes you find yourself sitting in a neat, empty bedroom, staring at the walls wondering how it all happened so quickly.

The previous weeks of frenetic activity with you making sure everything needed was bought and packed, all paperwork in place, last minute phone calls and arrangements made, the final things said that needed to be said and those long dreaded goodbyes endured.

And here you are, in the quiet after the whirlwind wondering where the time has gone, wishing you’d had a few more days. The sense of anti-climax and sadness can be overwhelming. A deep searing in your gut that life has changed and you have no sense of when it will feel normal again. Knowing you have to create a new normal when part of the family is longer living under the same roof, and the house will not hear their laughter or be filled with their energy for several months. It can be a daunting prospect.

Remaining siblings will feel strange too; not sure whether to celebrate being the eldest, maybe only child in the house, or feel sad because everyone else seems to be. They want life to go on the same as it always has and may feel unsettled because of the subdued mood of parents.

You’ll be anxiously waiting for the first phone call/ text/ FB message or Skype. How often contact is made in the first week or so will have been discussed before they left, but don’t expect them to stick rigidly to any schedules you came up with.

Orientation weeks as we know are hectic, full-on meeting new people, sharing experiences so phone calls can be tough to fit in. That’s when the wonder that is Facebook comes into it’s own. You can leave a short message, let them know you’re there when they’re ready to get in touch. If you’re friends on FB you’ll be able to see posts they’ve made to their friends and get a feel for how they’re doing.

When they do finally get in contact always be upbeat and positive, if they know the conversation’s going to be an inquisition it will put them off calling. “How lovely to hear from you, how’s it going?” will put your child far more at ease than, “Why haven’t you called? Tell me every detail.”

If you have boys it can be tough to get information out of them at the best of times and calls from them may be short. Don’t worry, this is normal. A wise man once told me that you have only seven words to connect or get an idea across to a boy, after that they switch off. Use those seven words wisely. Boys seem more comfortable writing than talking so FB and email may be a better option than phone or Skype.

They’re much better at communicating feelings through something else rather than directly. My eldest son would always phone and ask about a recipe or the best way to tackle a domestic issue before being comfortable to talk about how things were really going. We figured it was his way of feeling the renewed family connection and intimacy, a kind of neutral place between his new life and his family.

Girls can be the same but generally they are far more communicative and willing to share information about new friends, how life is going, how they are feeling. There will be continual drama and ups and downs until new routines are established and settled into.

However self-assured your child is they will need support during the early weeks. Wouldn’t you if you found yourself in their position? Relatively few of us who are parents now spent our college years overseas from our families. Don’t over do the contact, a quick email/message, just a few lines is all they need to feel the security and safety of family.

There may even be times when your child tells you it isn’t working and he/ she wants to come home. How do you differentiate between first semester nerves and a real issue of wrong course, wrong college, the slide into depression?

Only you know your child.

We had a similar situation when we left our daughter in the USA. She was already established in her sophomore year in college when we moved overseas, and after a great start the reality we were 4000 miles away hit home. When she broke down and told us she could no longer cope it took hours of talking to work through a difficult situation, made more frustrating with a seven hour time difference. We treated her feelings as serious and valid. We asked how tough her life really was and whether she needed a flight home booked in the next 24 hours.

The fact we validated her fears seemed to calm them.  Together we planned she would continue for a week or so to see how things went, see if having shared her feelings with us had helped. After a few weeks she decided to continue till the end of the fall semester giving us time to investigate other college options in Europe if she chose to follow us.

Treating her as an adult, offering alternatives, asking her opinion, letting her see we were taking her seriously was the best thing we could have done. By the end of the semester she felt her best option was to stay where she was; she’d settled, made some new friends, got to grips with her course and realised she didn’t want the upheaval of moving somewhere new. Her decision.

It always amazes me when people are surprised some kids don’t settle at college. When you think how many thousands leave their homes, families and move overseas each year, I’m amazed at how many do settle successfully. But many don’t for a variety of reasons, and it’s something not really talked about, as if your child has failed, or you’ve failed as a parent. Everything is hidden under a tight smile and a bright, “Yes, she/ he’s doing fine, loving every minute!”

Not every school is right for every child; going to a small school in the middle of nowhere after living in an international city might cause a problem, courses are sometimes not what student or parent thought they would be. It’s not the end of the world to change school, course or have a complete rethink as to what is best for your child. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.

Your child will have easy access to alcohol and drugs irrespective of the legal drinking age. A depressed or struggling child is at risk from both if she/ he is having difficulty adjusting to his/ her new life. I won’t bombard you with statistics, the information is out there if you need it but this is a very real danger. Only you will be able to pick up the signs and nuances that all might not be well. Your child may not want to admit they are struggling, may not want to disappoint you, maybe trying to be adult and deal with his/her own problems.

I was once told, by yet another wise man, that if your instinct tells you something is wrong, it usually is. That from a professional. If you have serious concerns fly out and see your child, factor unexpected costs like these into the college budget before you start.

No-one ever said this would be an easy transition for you or them. The first year is tough as both of you forge a new relationship, move forward into unknown waters. Whatever unexpected paths your journey takes keep an open mind and an open heart. If you need help from professionals go find it – it’s out there. There are more resources for expats today than there have ever been.

To all those parents, packing suitcases, saying tearful goodbyes, feeling a deep well of sadness inside, there are moms and dads who’ve taken this journey before you, willing you on, knowing you’ll be fine.

Honestly.

 

Previous articles in this series

Part 3  College Bound Kids?: Changing Family Dynamics

Part 2  College Bound Kids?: The Practical Stuff for Heading Overseas

Part 1  College Bound Kids?: You’re Not on Your Own

Just for fun  College Bound Kids?: So You Think They’re Smart?

❉ I’d like to recommend every parent and student checks out these two exceptional and vital resources for expat/ TCK college bound kids. If you read nothing else read these :

The Global Nomad’s Guide to University , Tina Quick, Foreword by Ruth van Reken

  • Paperback: 300 pages
  • Publisher: Summertime (June 1, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1904881211
  • ISBN-13: 978-1904881216


International Family Transitions Website :

comprehensive service/website that specializes in helping students who have been living outside their passport countries (Third Culture Kids) successfully manage their transition to college/university whether they are returning to their home country or going on to another host country. IFT also provides resources to those who support TCKs and other international students on the receiving end.

Did you know that Third Culture Kids (TCKs)…

  • commonly report feeling different from their home-country peers?
  • are likely to struggle with issues of identity and belonging?
  • most commonly complain about not fitting in with their peers at college?
  • often times suffer adjustment issues leading to isolation, loneliness and depression?
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College Bound Kids?: Changing Family Dynamics

Part 3 in a series of 4

Whether a child is leaving home for college or because they choose to, parental emotions will run high. From the first time you held them to the day you wave them goodbye you will have been responsible for their care and well-being, you’ll have worried and wept, laughed with joy, burst with pride and loved like you never knew you could.

Now suddenly your role is changing.

It will have been changing for several years. Subtly, quietly, without you noticing, those gentle whispers of change have merged and melded into the fabric of family life without you being aware of them. In a quiet moment you catch sight of yourself in the mirror and wonder at the older, wiser person looking back, saddened by how quickly the years have flown by, never thinking the day would come they wouldn’t be living under your roof.

No more checking on them while they sleep, breathing them in as you kiss them a gentle goodnight. No more laying awake waiting for them coming in from a late night. No more front door flying open at the end of the school day, bags and belongings strewn across the floor, tousled hair and cheeky grins and the eternal question, ‘Mom, what’s for dinner?’

Okay, we need to get a grip here.

You are not the first mother in the world to have a child leave home, thousands of generations have done this before ours.

We are the lucky ones. If we live in a first world country, more of our children will have reached adulthood than at any time in history. In our great-grandmother’s day her life expectancy and the mortality rate of her children makes grim reading. Anyone growing up in the 1940/50s lived with the economic and social aftermath of two world wars, a depression and two generations of young men obliterated.

Even in my (short, obviously) lifetime the advances in communication have been staggering. At college I would walk a block from my shared student house to the public phone, stand in line for at least 30 minutes in the dark, in biting winds, snow and ice to make a call home. After three minutes of feeding coins into the machine the restless line waiting outside would start to twitch and snarl making it clear my time was up.

There were no cell phones, no internet – how did we manage?

Today, if you needed to, wherever your family are in the world you can speak to them in seconds, see their face on a computer screen and in an emergency get to their side as fast as a plane can get you there. No weeks at sea crossing an ocean, letters taking months and if you were lucky a crackling faint telephone call on a special occasion.

Admittedly in the past your child would have been moving to the next hut, village or town, but the way communications work for us our children are just as close when we need to see them or hear their voice.

Remember when they were born and you held them in your arms, gazing into those intense deep blue pools of need looking back at you? You wondered how this had happened, how you’d become a parent and how the hell you were going to be up for the job?

Well you were, you’ve done it. You’ve done it by instinct, talking, reading, observing.

From birth to kindergarten, elementary school and high school you’ve parented, set an example, been a role model. You’ve learned to adapt, multi-task, go with the flow. Children leaving home is just the next stitch in life’s rich tapestry. The next phase.

Like everything that’s gone before it’s not a bad thing, just different, and for the first time in years you may feel uncertain, not in control, hesitant about how to make this next challenge a positive one for all of you. So what’s new? You do that in every other aspect of your life.

What’s new are the emotions you’re experiencing, the sense of life being slightly out of kilter, sudden moments of unexplained tearfulness as you support your child on their great adventure. Those emotions are not something you can check off, they’re different for everyone because each family and the dynamics within it are unique. The intensity and variety of emotion will depend whether it’s a first child, middle child, last child, or only child leaving home.

If you’ve done it once  you may be better prepared this time but it will still be different – now you’ll have two children to parent by email or ‘fill-in-the-blank’.

Then there are the siblings who will be watching the process wondering, with the self-absorption of teens, how the situation will impact them. Will the parental spotlight be turned in their direction and other mortifying thoughts.

Like any life transition involving loss and grief (death, divorce, moving house, moving country, bankruptcy, illness) there are stages to go through before change is accepted. Knowing this will make your feelings easier to handle – what you feel is normal.

First child to leave home : If this is your first child to go the transition will be slightly easier because in many ways life at home will go on as it always has, except without one of you there for an extended period of time. You’ll still be involved with school and out of school activities with younger children. Eventually the day comes and only one remains in the nest and it’s their final year in school.

I’m going to say something now which may cause gasps of horror and sharp intakes of breath.

Give your child space to breathe in their final year.

Don’t make a big deal out of everything being the last… school trip, social, concert, birthday at home. I hold my hands up with the rest, but unless it’s done with humour your child is going to get stressed.

Some schools like to make a huge deal out of the final year, marking it with activities and special events. This is great for those who want to get involved, it doesn’t mean you have to. I’ve seen moms get so wrapped up with their child’s last year that they’re left bereft and lost when it’s over, when the school gates are closed to them and they’ve not given any thought to what they want to do.

Last or only child leaving home : If its your only or last child to leave the impact will be harder. The empty nest.

Along with that comes the inevitable realisation that the years of raising the family are finally over. It can be a tough time even if you’ve planned for it, which in an ideal world you should have.

I’d recommend anyone facing an empty nest to start planning your new phase of life at least two years before it happens. You can spend a year thinking about it, a year planning how to implement it. Do not get too distracted or involved with the social aspects of your child’s last year at school, you’ll have enough to deal with keeping them on track with studying and college applications. There will always be enough moms to help out at school who won’t be saying goodbye to their last or only child.

If you’re an expat spouse the chances are that between international moves, raising a family and problems with work visas you may not have worked for a while. But you will have done something because most expat women I know are a force to be reckoned with. Plan a new career, find a long forgotten interest you’d like to pursue, plan travels with your spouse, redecorate your home, take long walks but start to plan something, engage possibilities. Plans don’t have to be set in stone, be flexible, be open minded but keep looking forward.

What your child expects from you : However confident and excited your child may be, every child leaving home will be apprehensive, scared and unsure under the bravado. They don’t have the life experience to know it will be okay, but if they’ve undertaken international moves or lived outside their home culture they are, without a doubt, going to be far better prepared for college than 90% of the other students.

Prepared in some ways but not in others. Wherever they’ve lived in the world they’ve had the family round them, the stable rock in choppy seas. Bonds in expat families are often tighter and more intense because you’ve had to rely on each other for support each time you’ve moved. This time they will be on their own.

How you respond and react in this situation can make a huge impact. As the clock ticks to them leaving here’s a reminder of a few things you might want to think about at the last minute,

■ your child will be need to know that life at home will be carrying on as normal in their absence, it’s their bedrock.

■ don’t mope around or cry the entire week before they leave, they don’t need the guilt trip and your other kids will be unimpressed.

■ let them know you love them and will miss them but that you’re excited for them and can’t wait to hear about their new adventures.

■ if they’re getting stressed and unsure of what they’re doing, stay calm, let them know if college/choice of course has been a mistake then it’s not the end of the world. They need reassurance and calm counselling. They need a parent.

■ if they are feeling apprehensive, scared and confused, let them know its okay to feel this way. Make it clear you will support them whatever, that they can talk to you about anything without judgement. They are adults and yours is now a supporting role.

■ for most kids these last minute nerves are just that; once they have left and throw themselves into college life they will settle well.

■ for some children those feelings of apprehension and negativity may not be quite so easy to shake off. Don’t dismiss them.

■ there are many kids each year who have problems adjusting to life away from home, adjusting to college, adjusting to change. If a child verbalises these fears validate them. Make it very clear if things don’t work out there are other options, they won’t have disappointed you, or let you down, that their well-being is your priority.

■ talk about and plan for their trip back home, book it as soon as they have their college schedule. It will give all off you something to look forward to in the early days of adjustment.

■ slip a copy of Tina Quick’s A Global Nomad’s Guide to University in their suitcase.

At the end of the day you can only do your best and trust those parental instincts which have guided you this far. It doesn’t matter how other parents, families and students are coping with the changes ahead, what matters is you and your family.

Your family will always be there whatever happens. It’s evolving, as it always has, a little more painfully than in the past, but evolving none the less. You can do this and will do it well, just as you did when you first became a parent.
The next post in this series will cover the leaving and early days of transition. What to do if your child is struggling and how your family adapts to the change.

Part 4  College Bound Kids?: After They’ve Gone

Part 2  College Bound Kids?: The Practical Stuff for Heading Overseas

Part 1  College Bound Kids?: You’re Not on Your Own

Just for fun  College Bound Kids?: So You Think They’re Smart?

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College Bound Kids?: The Practical Stuff for Heading Overseas

Part 2 in a series of 4

It was a pretty big can of worms I opened with my first post on college bound kids.

I had no idea all those cool, calm and collected mom’s packing their kids up for college were as emotionally fragile as I’ve been in the same situation in the past.

As comments were posted and emails arrived, it became obvious I’d have to write more than one post on this subject – it’s such a multi-faceted topic. The project started as an item about expat parents sending children overseas to college and I’ve written from that perspective, although much of it can be applied to any child leaving home.

After due thought there’ll will be posts to come on –

●Practical Tips: creating a framework to help you and your child work together to adapt to the changes. Change doesn’t have to be bad – it can be empowering and invigorating for the whole family

●Communication and keeping in contact across time zones: the pros and cons of keeping connected via Skype, Facebook, messenger, SMS email and phone

●How to be the perfect parent for your college student: or how not to be clingy, dependent and drive your child away. Handling your emotions through the transition. The impact of your reaction on younger children and the change in family dynamics when the eldest leaves home

●Pastoral care: what you can do to help them settle and cope with homesickness. How to spot the signs of a struggling child and what to do if it happens

Here’s today’s, so grab a coffee and get comfortable.

●PRACTICAL IDEAS FOR YOU AND YOUR CHILD

PASSPORTS: If your child is heading back to your home country this is not an issue. However, if they are studying in a country where they are considered a foreigner, register them immediately with the embassy/ consulate of their passport country. Should bad things happen you’ll be glad you did. (Think the evacuation of Saigon.) If your child has dual nationality, register all passports with the appropriate embassy.

FINANCIAL:

Banking: Wherever your child is, you/ they will be setting up a new bank account in their name.

One thing we did in the US, which none of us regret, is opened a new account for our daughter with me being a signatory/ name on that account. I could sign-in online and see my accounts and hers, she could only see her own. I could transfer funds directly to her regularly or when needed. Instead of transferring funds from overseas (which can take days even doing it yourself online) being named on her account meant funds could be transferred immediately.

If you or your child are uncomfortable with this arrangement for privacy reasons then your child can set up another account for their sole use. Even post-college, our daughter is reluctant to close that linked college account. It served it’s purpose on numerous occasions and she still likes to have that security in place. The system has been a god send for us when emergencies happened – an empty airport in the middle of the night without a credit card, stranded somewhere without cash.

The advantage of doing this is your child will never have large amounts of money in their account at any one time, so will budget better. In theory. You can can stalk their account if you want but that really isn’t playing the trust game.

Credit Cards: This is a tough one. Most parents, including us, have given our kids use of our credit card for emergencies only. Make sure you define ‘emergency’ before handing the card over. Even if you do this, there are many grey areas to navigate and there will be arguments – because the first time you are aware there has been an emergency will be when it appears on your credit card statement.

Buying a keg of beer because the first two are empty is not an emergency, although it may seem like it at the time. Paying for a Caribbean holiday for themselves and their housemates – the booking required someone’s credit card – is not an emergency. Nor are those adorable shoes/ jeans/ computer gadgets. On a serious note if irrational spending does start to happen it could be a sign of deeper problems.

They will need a credit card and I recommend you get one in their name (not yours) with a small limit ($500ish) so when they lose it or feel the need to spend the damage is limited. Most banks will do this, although few advertise it, especially if you act as guarantor – less expensive than them using your card believe me – and they will be able to build up their own good credit. Hopefully.

LEGAL DOCUMENTS: Do not, under any circumstances, send your child off with originals of anything, although they may need documentation while they’re away including  birth certificates, passport details, visa documents etc.

Those of you who are regular readers know I am obsessive at scanning family documents. It saves so much time and stress. Scan all documents you think your child might need – the afore mentioned birth certificates, passport, visa documents, medical card, social security/ national insurance card, essential college paperwork, family contact details (including grandparents, close family friends etc) documents for car insurance, renters insurance, anything at YOU think they might need.

Burn it to a disk and make sure they get that information on their computers before they leave – if they don’t have a lap-top give them photo copies and make sure you have everything on your computer to email to them when they’ve lost the photocopies. Which they will.

Kindle for downloading documents I’d like to add something which wasn’t included when this post was first published. It was sent by Martha Gonzalez for which I’d like to extend my grateful thanks. It’s something I know about because I’ve used it for work related PDFs but never thought to appy to students. In her own words,

‘This summer when my daughter went to South Africa alone, she took my Kindle. I converted her travel documents to pdf (flight documents, travel insurance and copy of passport) then sent it to my kindle at my address @kindle.com. If you have 3G and want to avoid charges and force the Kindle to use the wireless connection use @free.kindle.com or just transfer by USB. The Kindle had a folder with all her important travel documents. I had her password protect the Kindle for extra security. It made for a neat backup beyond the folded paper copies.’

This is brilliant for Kindle users, thanks Martha.

RENTERS INSURANCE: Get it. It’s relatively inexpensive and worth it should the worst happen. Take photos of anything valuable they will be taking with them – lap tops, cameras, expensive items required for course study. Add photos to the  ‘Legal Documents’ disc. If the worst happens you have proof of ownership and the exact model etc.

SAFETY AND SECURITY: this will probably be more relevant to parents of girls but increasingly boys need to be aware of their security.

You will have talked ad infinitum about the dangers of alcohol, not leaving a drink unattended, drinking beer from a bottle and keeping your thumb on the top to avoid it being drugged – do you want your daughter to be ladylike or safe? – never leaving a girlfriend to get home on her own, always having a designated member of the group sober to make sure they all get home safe and unmolested, having a signal between them so if one is getting unwarranted attention from a member of the opposite/ same sex someone else can politely intervene.

Talk about safe sex – again. This should have been on your radar way before now. Whatever your family attitude to pre-marital sex and sexual behaviour, your child is going to be living and breathing intense hormones for the next 3/4 years. How do you ensure they’re protected without them feeling you think they have no morals, self-respect or self control? Give them condoms, tell them someone has to be sexually responsible and if their friends ever need to use protection it will be there. Talk to them adult to adult. Do you want to be a grandparent yet?

Get the contact details of at least two of their new friends so in an emergency when your child’s phone is switched off/ no battery you can get hold of them. Another good tip our family have used since high school is to have a series of code words to use on the phone or via email so if they are in a potentially risky situation they can let us know.

‘If Bethany calls tell her I can’t make the party Saturday’ can translate as ‘I’m being held at knifepoint and about to be raped’. They may be in a situation with friends they want to get away from, ‘ Did I leave my black jacket at home, I really need it?’ could be your cue to think of a reason for him/ her to get out of a situation where they feel uncomfortable.

Enough to absorb for one day. You’ve had information from all sides – school, college, friends and probably your own parents, all of it useful and valid.

How you apply that knowledge depends on the relationship between you and your child. Trust your instincts. What worked for another family may not work for yours. Read everything you can, take what works for you and ignore the rest – including this.

If you feel up to it the next topic will be ‘Communication and keeping in contact across time zones: the pros and cons of keeping connected via Skype, Facebook, messenger, SMS email and phone.’

And boy do we have some stories on that one…

Other articles in this series:

Part 4  College Bound Kids?: After They’ve Gone

Part 3  College Bound Kids?: Changing Family Dynamics

Part 1  College Bound Kids?: You’re Not on Your Own

Just for fun  College Bound Kids?: So You Think They’re Smart?

 

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College Bound Kids? You’re Not On Your Own…

Part 1 in a series of 4 

What a strange time of year. So far summer has been non-existent in The Hague and yet in a few weeks school will be back for the fall semester. Expat families will be returning from their summer travels to their home countries and life will get back into a regular routine.

For some families there is an even bigger hurdle to navigate than in previous years – a child going to university. For an expat family that hurdle can loom larger and more terrifying than most.

Your child’s last year at school has flown by at warp speed, college and university applications submitted, extended essays finished, exams endured, long anticipated results arrived and final choices made. You are thrilled, proud and supportive of those choices.

Until you wake up at 3 o’clock one morning realising the impact their leaving will have on you.

For 18 years you’ve watched over, worried, raised and loved beyond reason this bundle of endless energy. You’ve watched them grow from helpless infants, demanding toddlers, and feisty challenging teens into mature young adults ready to take on the world. And suddenly you realise after all these years they’ll no longer be living under your roof.

Of course you knew this would happen one day, wanted it to happen, eager to release the fledgling from the nest confident in the knowledge you’ve done your best, that they are ready.

You’ve replayed the scene endlessly in your head, the final farewell as you wave them off into the sunset, proud smile, encouraging words and absolutely no tears.

Only right now, at three in the morning, you’re not so sure.

How can they be ready to leave home when they can’t hold a thought in their heads for more than two seconds? Will they wash, do laundry or even remember what day it is without you? Will they phone/email home? How the heck will you know what they’re doing?

These haunting thoughts arriving in the quiet, dark hours will enact every nightmare scenario your fevered imagine can conjure, and they never end well.

For the expat family these nightmares are worse – factor in universities overseas, different country, continent, time zones and cultures and those night terrors reach epic proportions.

Do you take your child to college, allow him/her to fly alone? Do both parents go? Usually not if it’s overseas, as there are often younger children in the family who need to be looked after. If only one parent, which one? Stupid question – every mom knows the answer to that. And every mom is the very worst person to undertake the task.

Our youngest child, Harry, will be leaving the nest this year but has made it clear he intends to fly off to university on the other side of the world. On his own… In his dreams.

Despite the bravado, the promises you’ve made to yourself, the goodbyes will not go as you planned. Emotions will not be ones you’ve experienced before, they’ll feel weird and unfamiliar, there will be no rule book. You may feel better than you expected to, (for a while), you may feel worse, you may feel nothing at all.

The reality is this experience is different for everyone. It depends whether it’s your first child leaving or your third, (for the record, Harry is our third), whether they’re sons or daughters, how far away they’ll be and your relationship with them. Easy words I know, but true.

When my eldest left home he was a two-hour drive away. He was ready to leave and had been telling us just how ready for the previous two years. Fights with his siblings were monumental, mood swings left us walking on egg-shells. He didn’t want us to take him to college but we did, with his siblings too. He couldn’t wait for us to unpack his stuff and leave.

Driving home, all of us subdued, (including his sister who had been checking off the days to his leaving with undisguised delight), he called asking if we were okay. We realised the previous two years of being the worst parents in the universe was his way of breaking the emotional bonds. He didn’t realise those bonds would always be there, whatever. My dear, eldest son is now more family orientated than I could have imagined, worries about every member of the family, phones home regularly and misses us like crazy.

Our experience with our daughter was different. As she started university we knew we would be leaving America the following year to move to Europe. She chose to stay in the place she had grown up, with childhood friends and their families around her. A sensible, sound, well-thought out decision. Until the day of reckoning.

She left our home heading to Florida for a break with friends, as we packed up to leave. There were tears, of course there were, but she was happy with her decision and drove off with me and her brothers standing in the road waving goodbye.

I was aware of a pitiful keening wail and realised it was coming from me, from a deep core inside. A deep pain of grief and sorrow I didn’t know was there. Or hadn’t acknowledged. There is a huge difference between what we know with our head and what is happening in our hearts. The reality of getting on a plane and leaving her 4000 miles behind hit like a thunderbolt.

At the time, and for a long time afterwards, it was a raw wound, patched and bandaged but always there. Neither she nor we were prepared for the separation and difficulty of communicating across time zones. It has been a difficult passage for us, but we have come out the other side and she has no regrets about her decision to stay.

Now graduated from college and in the workplace, the short annual vacations have brought it home how little time she can spend with family. And what the consequences will be in the future should she marry and have children. She is currently looking to transfer with her company to Europe to be closer to family. Like many expat children growing up outside their birth countries, family bonds can be unusually close – they’ve had to rely on immediate family for support, rather than the extended family and friends they would have had around them in their birth country.

And this year will be the last time we empty our nest. Harry is ready, so are we. Not in a bad way, but because it is how things are, how things should be. We are better prepared as parents for the trials and tribulations ahead, better equipped to know when to step in and be parents, when to let them figure it out for themselves.

The issue for us is that while our middle child is heading 4000 miles east to Europe (fingers crossed), Harry has elected to study at UBC in Vancouver, Canada – 4787 miles to our west. A nine hour flight and a nine hour difference in time zones.

We have been working on ways of dealing with the situation which, hopefully, will ease the way for each of us to feel happy, secure and connected. How to handle communicating over time zones, dealing with money, credit cards and student loans, use of social media, keeping them safe, and most importantly how often and when he’ll come home.

These things sound glib and straight forward, but through experience we’ve discovered they’re not. Each family has to find their own way, plot their course through uncharted territory, often feeling alone, perhaps dealing with a child who is finding it hard to settle away from home.

When I sat and thought about it, I realised our family had an awful lot of practical and emotional experience at dealing with these issues, learned the hard way through trial and error. Things I wish I’d known with my older two, that would have made the transition of leaving home less stressful and painful for all of us.

If you’re interested I’d like to share those insights and suggestions over the next few posts. Anyone up for the ride?

Articles in the series:

Part 4  College Bound Kids?: After They’ve Gone

Part 3  College Bound Kids?: Changing Family Dynamics

Part 2  College Bound Kids?: The Practical Stuff for Heading Overseas

Just for fun  College Bound Kids?: So You Think They’re Smart?

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Living in The Netherlands: What to Bring with You

I was recently asked what would be an essential item to bring to the Netherlands if I was moving here. A loaded question – one I didn’t want to answer without serious consideration.

Much depends on where you’re coming from, whether this is your first overseas move and what stage of life you’re at. Single, with a partner, married no kids, married with young kids, married with teens, married with an empty nest, divorced. Whether you’re moving with your job, your spouse’s job, or passing through. Are you approaching the move with excitement, trepidation or exhaustion? Serious things to consider when you’re asked to hand out advice.

I’ve put together some pointers, guidelines if you like, of things I found useful/ wish I’d known/ understood before we moved here.

1. Check out as much as you can before you get here, contact anyone you know who knows/ has known/ might know someone who is living or has lived here. Yes, I know it’s obvious but in the panic of moving, time is scarce. If you have kids their new school will be a phenomenal place to start.

Let google be your new best friend. There are clubs and societies who are welcoming and helpful – make contact now and you’ll have friends waiting for you when you get here. Read blogs about life here.

Check out The American School of The Hague (ASH) which runs incredible transitions programmes/ adult education courses not limited only to parents at the school. If you no longer have children living with you, or have left them behind in college, ASH has a Next Stage group (informally known as the empty nesters), open to people in the community who have a need – locals and expats alike.

2. Many companies are reducing or have stopped air freight for employees relocating to a new country. If they haven’t, use it wisely. I can only suggest what has worked for us. Everything we put in was to give an immediate sense of the familiar in a strange new place. Children’s bedding and second favorite toy. Family photos to put around a new home or these days a loaded digital frame. Favorite cooking pot and a few can’t-live-without utensils. Favorite food items – candy, cookies, favourite soap / shower gel. A few fridge magnets. A favorite game. It’s amazing how inventive you can get and how these insignificant things mean the most in the first transitional days.

I split our family photos into air, sea and carry-on so in the event of a disaster all would not be lost (it has happened to people we know).

3.  Scan and burn a disc of all family documents (passports, birth/marriage/divorce certificates, Social Security cards, insurance documents, names and contact details of banks/lawyers/removal company, even your Christmas card list) anything you think might be needed. Put one disc in air freight, one in sea freight and one as a carry-on. We found this invaluable years after moving; when a family member suddenly needs a copy of passport / birth certificate we can zap one by email.

4. If you know where you will be living set up landline phone/internet/cable TV before you arrive if possible. Over the summer it can sometimes take 12 WEEKS to get connected. Find places with free wi-fi in the interim.

5. Buy a pay-as-you-go cell phone the second you get off the plane. It can often take a while to set up a contract phone especially if you have no initial address (the Dutch love their paperwork). It’s a good idea to have one so you have an emergency contact for school, removal people, new friends. It’ll make you feel more independent and the phone shops will set the language programs to English for you. If you decide to get a contract phone the pay-as-you-go will be essential for your guests to use when they start to visit.

6. If you use prescribed medications get a 6-12 month supply from your current GP, especially for children. Antibiotics are only prescribed here if you are on the point of death, so if you know you will need them discuss this with your current doctor and bring some over. Bring your favorite painkillers – Tylenol, Ibuprofen, migraine medications, whatever. Of course you can buy similar products here but all dosage instructions will be in Dutch – a stress you don’t need at 3am with a sick child. Ladies – certain over the counter items bought in other countries are by prescription only here. If you tend to get yeast infections bring some Monostat or equivalent with you, the same with birth control pills. It will make life less stressful until you can get established and settled.

7. The Netherlands is expensive relative to most countries, particularly the US. Bring children’s clothes if you can, shoes and most importantly underwear. Seriously. That applies to adults too. Unless you are tall and willowy getting clothes here to fit may be an issue. The shoulders may fit, but the body will be too long, as will sleeves and legs. It may take time to find your way around the clothes stores so save yourself the stress. Bring rain gear with you, including waterproof trousers – you will need them and it will be cheaper where you are. Umbrellas? Bring several.

8. Driving here after the US can be intimidating. Take time to learn the rules. You will not be allowed to chat on a cell phone and drive – it is not physically possible as all energy will be focused on watching for bikes. Assume everyone but you has priority, including bikes and pedestrians, and you won’t go far wrong. Unless marked, traffic coming from your right has priority – scary the first time a car pulls out at speed in front of you. Every summer there seem to be countless accidents as new people are caught out.

9. A pre-lit Christmas tree, transformer and your Christmas decorations. Come the dark days of December you’ll get so much pleasure knowing you have a tree ready to put up. I bought one in July, so it can be done. Much cheaper than here and stress free (so long as you buy a transformer). After a few years you might decide to ‘go native’ but for the first Christmas this is so worth it.

10. Bring a ready smile and a positive attitude, even if you’re ready to murder your spouse, the children or anyone in a five-mile radius. This can make or break your stay here. I know you know this but it doesn’t hurt to mention it again. There will be bad days but eventually you’ll realise the good outnumber the bad and before you know it the Netherlands has become ‘home’.

Welcome to The Netherlands – hope you enjoy your stay!

Posted in Advice for New Arrivals in the Netherlands, Dutch Culture, Expat Experiences, Family Life, The Netherlands | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

IB Diploma: The Only Way Forward for Global Education

Throughout the world thousands of students are waiting for the results of their IB (International Baccalaureate) examinations sat in May and June. They are the culmination of two years of blood, sweat, tears, sleepless nights and some hard partying once the final papers were completed.

Many who elect to take the IB curriculum are international students living outside their home countries, being educated in international schools, which may not have the same teaching curriculum or educational philosophy of their own countries.

There are also IB students living in their home countries who chose to study for the IB Diploma believing it offers a broader educational program and better university preparation than equivalent exams in their own country. This is particularly valid if these students hope to attend an overseas university.

What the IB Diploma offers is a course of study and examination recognised by universities and educational institutions worldwide. In theory.

Let me say, I’m an out and out advocate of the IB philosophy and have had experience of the UK ‘A’ level system and the USA High School Diploma and AP (Advanced Placement) exams.

In simple terms the ‘A’ Level system usually includes study of 3 or 4 elected subjects over a two year period, the results of which will get you into a UK (and often overseas) university.

The US High School Diploma consists of four years graded study in a variety of subjects, which must include 4 years of specified subjects (including Math andEnglish) as well as elected subjects. Grades for all four years are collated to give a final Grade Point Average forming part of the university application process along with SAT or ACT scores. In the final year students may also sit Advanced Placement exams in certain subjects – successful grades will allow the student to gain a university credit in the subject.

The IB Diploma students follow a different track studying six subjects, five chosen from – literature (in the student’s native language), a foreign language, a science, mathematics, a humanity or social science, along with an art or another choice from the initial five groups. Three of these subjects will be studied at Higher Level, the remainder at Standard Level. (Higher level subjects may be accepted as a college credit at some universities).

All students must complete three further requirements in addition to course subjects to challenge and broaden the educational experience:

- a four thousand word extended essay on a subject of their choice

- Theory of Knowledge course critically examining different ways of knowing (perception, emotion, language and reason) and different kinds of knowledge (scientific, perception, emotion, language and reason)

Creativity, action, service (CAS) – students must engage in 1) arts activities and demonstrate creativity, 2) take action by participating in sports, local and international projects and expeditions and 3) participate in community and social service activities. Students are expected to be involved in CAS activities for the equivalent of at least three hours each week during the two years of the program – 150 hours.

Three diverse systems of testing whether our students are academically ready for a university education. And this is where the problems start.

If a US student wishes to attend a university in the UK or vice versa, there seems to be no cohesive system of what any university will require in terms of grades. Some institutions  seem to recognise only their own national qualifications, having an automatic knee-jerk reaction to any exam not fitting their ‘norm’. No matter that a ‘foreign’ examination may produce a more rounded and better prepared university student.

The IB Diploma offers the best option for a global, diverse education giving the best preparation for university of any educational system I’ve experienced, so why is it not being recognized as such by some academics? Particularly when some universities and colleges do see the value of an IB education and encourage IB students to apply to their intuitions?

Generally they discover IB students are better able to adjust to university than their US and UK educated counterparts, better prepared to study and be self-motivated.

It’s time for educators everywhere to have an international standard by which to judge students from all over the globe – the IB is in place and proven, why is it taking so long for some of the world’s universities to accept and embrace it?

The 2012 IB results are published today – we have a vested interest, our son is one of those students who will be logging on for his results…

Posted in England and Things English, Expat Experiences, Family Life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Light Bulb Moments: Recognizing the ‘Monkey Mind’

Ever heard the expression ‘monkey mind’? For those of you rolling your eyes in disbelief that once again I’m behind on things, please bear with me. I only came across this recently, in the process of editing a book. I had no clue what it meant and asked for clarification from the author, believing if I’d not heard of the expression, it was possible there may be another ostrich out there.

The past six months, more than I realized, life has not been ‘normal’; no regular routine, running to catch up, very little time that hasn’t been filled with mental over activity.

When life is cruising along in a regular pattern, when the weekly schedule holds no surprises, my mind is free. As thoughts fly in and out of my head I jot them down, use them in my writing, and find the process calming – the same serenity as a session of yoga, a long walk on the beach. When a page of writing is complete it brings a tremendous sense of achievement and harmony with the world.

The past few months life has not been calm. Flying backwards and forwards across the Atlantic to be with a seriously sick daughter, fighting to find doctors willing and able to help her took its toll. The last trip away the grandparents were hauled from their busy lives to man the bridge while I headed to Houston and the Captain headed to Manila – a trip he could not cancel. Harry was in the Middle if his IB exams, the culmination of his school career.

I arrived home the same day as Harry’s Senior Prom, an event I had expected to miss, a wonderful occasion held at the world famous Kurhaus, situated on the beach in Scheveningen, the coastal part of The Hague. A week later and his Graduation, a significant moment in the life of our family followed by the senior class trip to Crete. Knowing how ‘flat’ we’d feel, the Captain and I headed for a week in France, followed by a long weekend in Scotland with close American friends who’d flown in from North Carolina.

We landed home in time for The Hague launch of Apple Gidley’s fabulous book, Expat Life, Slice by Slice. I’d worked with Apple on her book, a wonderful, fun experience and although she lives in Houston we’d not been able to get together despite my frequent trips. To meet her in the flesh was to meet the delightful person I thought she was. It doesn’t always happen like that.

Throughout these months I was continuing to work, meeting deadlines, burying my head in manuscripts. And learning how much paperwork it needs to get your child to college – application for a Study Permit for Canada (‘lost’ by the Dutch post office on the way to the Canadian embassy in Vienna), application for Dutch Study Grants, in Dutch, filling in the USA FAFSA forms, something every US college-bound student is acquainted with.

Life has been hectic, demanding and, despite everything, fun. My notebook was full of all the things I wanted to write about but there wasn’t time. The outcome of Missy’s operations, the mixed feelings of facing an empty nest, the wonderful experiences we had in France and Scotland (our host in France, a former female barrister at the Old Bailey in London, the gearbox dying on the périphérique in Paris during rush hour, the Captain reversing into a tree despite rear sensors, being invited into the kitchen of a pâtisserie owner who spoke no English but we managed to chat for half an hour in French – something we haven’t achieved in the Netherlands in six years).

I wanted to share these wonderful stories of kindness, generosity of spirit and the excitement of knowing that as Harry can’t wait to see his new horizons, there are new horizons out there for the Captain and I and we can’t wait to get started. It’s energising and exhilarating, a time of positive transition and the feeling of a small delicate seedling getting ready to burst into life.

Could I write about it? Oh I tried, but the brain was incapable of linking two thoughts together, words would be jumbled on the page with no meaning. Conversations with the Captain would stop half way through a sentence with me straining every brain-cell to remember what I was talking about. I felt tired from the moment I got up until I fell into bed exhausted. No energy for exercise or pleasure in walking the dog, the things I knew would make me feel better. Everything became stressful.

Nights were no better, falling asleep only to wake in the early hours with a brain in overdrive.  Random thoughts zapping backwards and forwards with no relationship to each other, thoughts flashing like neon lights hurtling out of control – like a ride on ‘Space Mountain’ but all inside your head.

Eventually my head would go to its default place – mentally rearranging furniture in homes I’ve lived in. I know every nook and cranny of every house, the colours of the walls, the curtains, the cupboards, the gardens, right back to childhood. And every piece of furniture I’ve ever owned, when it was bought and where it went in each house. In the long hours of restless nights I rearrange the furniture in each house in an attempt to get to sleep. A therapist would have a field day.

What I have learned over the years is that this may indicate my brain needs a break.

I will admit I have wondered if these unsettled, restless feelings are related to our youngest fledging leaving the nest, but in my heart of hearts I know that while there are transitions ahead I want to embrace them; I want Harry to have that sense of awe, the joy of beginning new things, the blank page waiting to be written on. I’m thrilled for him, envious too that he has so much ahead. But so do the Captain and I, and we can’t wait.

So it was I came across the ‘monkey mind’ and asked the author to clarify for those readers, like myself, for whom it is a new expression. When the response came back, the light bulb went on. Monkey mind is a Buddhist term meaning ‘unsettled, restless, capricious, uncontrollable’.

I’m delighted to report I am not on the verge of a mental breakdown, early onset Alzheimers, or falling apart because I have a child leaving home, I am merely suffering from ‘monkey mind’. It is a huge relief to know there are strategies for dealing with this condition, it can be cured and life will return to normal.

In the meantime life won’t fall apart if I can’t blog three times a week, turn down a work assignment, switch off my computer or kick back and read a beach book or two.

Like my computer, there are times I need to shut down and reboot.

Posted in Expat Experiences, Family Life, Personal challenges, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

James Brownhill: Moving Forward

A year ago James Stephen Brownhill was tragically killed, alongside his climbing partner and friend, David Evans, during an ascent of Mont Blanc. A peak previously climbed  along with others on different continents.

A year in which everyone who knew James has had to adjust to life without him. Adjust, not accept or come to terms with, but find an equilibrium to balance this devastating shift in the universe, a realisation that life, or rather the living of it, is not fair, or kind or guaranteed.

We’ve all experienced that silent gnawing fear which grips each of us when a child is late home, travelling, spreading their wings. The ‘what ifs’ of every danger and we pray silently they make good choices, heed the advice we’ve tried to instil from infancy. Most times those fears are allayed with the turn of the key in the front door, the car pulling into the driveway, a phone call to say they’ve arrived.

For James’ parents the key didn’t turn, the car didn’t arrive and the phone call, when it came, was the stuff of nightmares.

They had talked with him about the risks, the ‘what ifs’ of the passions he lived for. He understood more than them what those risks were and did everything he could to ensure his safely and the safety of others who climbed with him. For him, not following his passion was not an option.

The last year is not one his family wanted to endure, a year of birthdays, anniversaries, special days without him, without his energy and warmth. But endure it they have, through dark days and longer nights of heartache.

Many would have turned their faces to the wall and given up, and there have been times when that seemed an option. But they didn’t. To honour his memory they established the James Brownhill Memorial Fund which,

aims to encourage and foster a higher level of safety, good practice and sustainability within university climbing clubs. This fund will award volunteers with bursaries to undertake courses to consolidate and develop safe climbing practice, for teaching new and inexperienced climbers in individual and group situations…through this fund we hope to preserve a passion and attitude to safe climbing that James consistantly upheld. “

In the past year there hasn’t been a week without some fund raising event or act of support in his memory, involving over 1,500 people. More than 2000 JBMF Christmas and greetings cards have been sold, designed using photographs taken by James and his family. The fund has already awarded 13 bursaries and will be able to fund 150 more.

The fund has been a labour of love, trying to make sense of the unthinkable, keeping the memory of a beloved son, brother, boyfriend, nephew and grandson alive whilst hopefully helping others.

A year of grief, pain, getting through and moving forward in slow motion. The anguish and disbelief are no less today than when they were given the devastating news. They are slowly, very, very slowly learning to adjust to the reality of their loss.

This weekend finds the families of both James and David in Chamonix, laying a memorial stone in their memory.

All of us who knew James, whose lives he touched in so many ways, will be there in spirit. To quietly remember a fine young man and acknowledge the indomitable spirit of the family he has left behind.

For more information about the James Brownhill Memorial Fund, fund raising activities, media coverage, general information and latest news on events check out

http://www.facebook.com/jamesbrownhillfund

http://www.jbmf.co.uk

Contact:  jbmfund@gmail.com

 

 

Posted in Family Life, Inspiration and Reflection, Personal challenges | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Flying Solo with KLM

KLM's 747-406 PH-BFW - nose

KLM’s 747-406 PH-BFW – nose (Photo credit: caribb)

The past three months I’ve been bouncing backwards and forwards across the Altlantic every few weeks or so. Before I have time to adjust to being back in one time zone I’m hurtled into the other, a seven-hour time difference with only the ten-hour flight to make the mental and physical adjustment.

I don’t have a problem with long flights, and flying on my own isn’t an issue; I enjoy it. But then I do appreciate how lucky I am. With the Captain trailing across the world he has built up a high-level flying status, which I can share. This gives me access to airline lounges (free food, drink, wifi and a quiet place to rest), priority boarding and luggage, immigration and security fast-tracking. Believe me, I know how lucky I am.

For someone who has never been comfortable with the concept of flying (which I appreciate has more to do with my issue of not being in control) and who has always believed her life will end in one of these transport devices, flying has not been easy.

Not so long ago I would spend hours in the air wide awake, white knuckles gripping the seat arms, watching every passenger for signs of suspicious behaviour. After I had counted how many rows of seats to each emergency exit, of course. When that changed I’m not entirely sure, perhaps when I was no longer travelling alone with three children on long haul flights. The stress of figuring how to get three children out of the plane in an emergency was exhausting and invariably brought on a migraine.

These days travelling solo relives me of that responsibility and with the additional luxury of using the hard earned facilities provided by the Captain’s KLM platinum status, flying is a positively relaxing experience.

However, unlike our daughter, who turns up for a flight and immediately gets upgraded to business class, this is something that has never happened to me. When travelling with the Captain, yes, on a couple of occasions, but on my own, never. To all intents and purposes I am invisible, which suits me fine. So long as I can go about my business, do what I need to do, I’m happy.

It’s everyone else that makes it interesting.

As soon as I attempt to check in at business class (an entitlement whatever ‘class’ I’m travelling in) invariably a light blue uniform will step in front of me with a tight smile and attempt to direct me to the long line snaking out the airport door where the regular people stand. These days I carry on walking, waving my ticket as I pass, with the same dismissive glance used by the business class male of the species.

Entry to the lounges is the same. Someone will jump up from behind a desk to imperiously suggest ‘madam’ may have wandered into the wrong place. No madam hasn’t thank you. Boarding the plane as priority has the same response.

Until my recent, regular forays to Houston I’d hate having to run the gauntlet of the sky blue army, whose radiant charms and rapt attention would be tuned in and turned on at the sight of any middle aged, overweight, belligerent male to the exclusion of everyone else.

The last three trips have been interesting. I don’t ask for much on a flight, actually nothing except a regular serving of hot tea (with milk) whenever beverages are served, and to be left to hunker down under a blanket with earplugs and eye mask for most of the flight.

How hard can tea be? Very, if the looks, sighs and general air of exasperation are anything to go by, while a neighbouring traveller of the male gender can stop a stewardess every five minutes for something and be met with simpering smiles and an ingratiating, ‘Of course sir’.

(The same male, sitting next to me, whose frame was so large it spilled halfway onto my seat, leaving me to spend ten hours bent away from him on my left, whilst avoiding being hit by stewardess with their food carts on my right.)

This air of distain crosses all airlines and genders of flight staff, and I don’t know why that should be. The only time I have been on the radar of any airline staff was during a flight from Vancouver to London with British Airways. For reasons we never discovered we were upgraded to first class. The service was awesome, nothing was too much trouble, the staff chatted and smiled at me, not only the Captain.

The reason for this was discovered halfway through the flight. The stewardess notifying me my seat number had been randomly selected by BA to complete a questionnaire on the level of service offered by cabin staff during the flight.

That said, it can still be a wonderful surprise when a genuine, warm hearted airline employee is in charge. The comfort of my last flight was in the capable hands of a female chief stewardess. She was not young, simpering or distracted.

She was took pride in her job and understood her customers were a priority. She was friendly and respectful to everyone, even those passengers who dared to travel with children. Nothing was too much trouble and even those belligerent males softened in the presence of her motherly administrations. Some were actually purring.

Be under no illusions, she was no pushover and that cabin ran like a well-oiled machine the whole flight. Even the younger cabin staff fell into line and seemed more calm and professional. The experience was a breath of fresh air.

And tea? No problem, whenever I needed it, with milk.

I’m so hoping she’s on my flight back to the Netherlands. KLM need more staff like her.

Posted in Dutch Culture, Expat Experiences, Family Life, The Netherlands, Travel, Women and Female Related | Tagged , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Queen’s Day: The Quieter Side

I’ve decided to share the quieter side of Queen’s Day, Koninginnedag,  a day to celebrate the birthday of the former Queen, Juliana. The present Queen, Beatrix, spends the day with members of the Royal family, visiting towns throughout the Netherlands. It’s an official holiday with locals congregating in their towns and the one day in the year when anyone can sell things in the streets without a licence. It’s very usual to see children selling their toys (only to replace them with everyone else’s), teenagers busking, and everyone having a relaxing time. In Amsterdam hundreds of thousands of visitors and revellers flock to the city to enjoy free outdoor concerts and events.

Last night, Queen’s Night, is party time here in the  Netherlands when anyone with any life in their soul was partying. Think Mardi Gras without the floats and beads, and instead of the Mardi Gras colours of purple, gold and green, the Netherlands in resplendent in orange. Although the national flag is horizontal bands of red, white and blue, when it comes to national celebration and football, orange is the colour of choice.

Today is glorious, blue sky, gentle sunshine and warm breezes. We walked into our local town and rather than post photos of Amsterdam, which can be found anywhere on the web, I’d like to share our day.

Lang Straat, Wassenaar

Langstraat, Wassenaar

You may think our decision to spend a quiet day is the result of late night partying, having a great time, socialising with friends. You’re absolutely right.

Our wretched start to the day was the result of the above. But not our partying, socialising and having a good time. Having arrived back from Houston early yesterday morning, with no sleep on the plane or during yesterday, I was desperate to crawl into bed and sleep solidly for twelve or so blissful hours.

I have mentioned in a previous post that Harry, our youngest son, has two nights of the year when he parties and lets off steam. The last, at Halloween, when he dressed as a police officer, is well documented. Last night, the last Queen’s Night he’ll probably celebrate here, as he heads to university in Vancouver in a few months, he was determined to have a good time.

I won’t go into details, but we were woken at 3am by a girlfriend of Harry’s who thought him too inebriated to walk home. It seems (we learned later) a friend of Harry’s, the same friend who had been the cause of the debacle at Halloween, had passed out in The Hague, requiring  assistance in returning home. A taxi was hailed – abandoning the bikes they’d travelled in on – several taxis in fact, none of whom would take drunk passengers.

They finally got the culprit home after paying a taxi driver a King’s ransom to ferry them, at which point Harry, in the cooler and more rarified atmosphere of our small town, suddenly felt the heady mix of alcohol and fresh air and promptly ‘fell asleep’. This necessitated the phone call to our house at 3am, along with several text messages informing us Harry had better stay where he was as he was looking a little green around the gills.

Needless to say we were awake at the crack of dawn (sheep have arrived in the field by us who feel the need to start bleating at first light) in pretty grizzly moods. Our walk to Wassenaar to check out the activities did restore our mood, along with text messages to Harry to get up and get moving.

He has been back to The Hague to retrieve his bike, which has, of course, been stolen, the third in two years…

Posted in Dutch Culture, Expat Experiences, The Netherlands | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

PVC: The Journey Continues

This week finds me back in Houston in time for Lizzy’s surgery to relieve Pelvic Vascular Congestion. (I chronicled her journey to here a couple of posts back).

I have to admit this trip was not as hopeful as my previous one, when I believed Lizzy would finally find the solution to end her pain and regain her life. This time I left the Netherlands accompanied by a dark shadow which sat beside me and was my companion for the flight. I’d learned things didn’t always go as you hoped, that not every ending had a ‘happy ever after’.

I’d talked about it with Lizzy’s older brother the day before my flight and he chided me gently for my pessimism.

“Mom, it’s a routine procedure, they know what the problem is, they know how to fix it. Result!” Only I didn’t share his optimism and I didn’t know why.

Lizzy met me at the airport and it was wonderful to see her again. She looked healthy and happy, excited to have the procedure which would be the end of years of debilitating pain. She even joked at how healthy and radiant she looked, “It’s a real problem mom, how can anybody believe there’s anything wrong with me when I look this good!” Flicking her glossy ponytail over her shoulder, blue eyes twinkling and with that huge, heartbreakingly white smile, I couldn’t argue.

We arrived at the hospital at our allotted 7am time, waited, filled endless paperwork, waited, were taken to day surgery, waited – you get the picture.

The doctor came to talk with us both, ran through the procedure, expressed his optimism. It was clear he was excited to help a patient regain her life, move forward. I liked his attitude and directness. There seemed to be a genuine caring and love for his vocation.

Lizzy was wheeled off with me trotting alongside and taken into a room where we believed she was having a final x-ray and I was sent off to a waiting room. I didn’t see her again for four hours. Not being able to say goodbye and wish her luck rankled and increased anxiety levels, and I knew it was the same for her. I found out later she’d been on her own for an hour, with nurses milling around, focusing on the procedure to come, no one was with her. Not good for stress levels.

The procedure generally takes an hour. It seems the valves in Lizzy’s veins no longer work/have collapsed which allows the blood to flow into her pelvic area unchecked,  leading to a ‘pooling’ in her pelvis causing engorged veins and pain (ovarian vein reflux). How has is happened that the valves have failed? There are ‘multi factoral causes’ or in laymen’s terms, no one has a clue. It’s happened gradually and can be genetic, hereditary or ‘fill in the gap’.

The intention was to enter the veins via her neck or groin, follow them to the pelvic area and insert coils where the valves should be and voilà. Lizzy would not be under a general anaesthetic, rather heavily sedated as you would be for a caesarean. Unfortunately Lizzy’s stress levels and the adrenaline pumping through her system were making it difficult to get her sufficiently sedated. Several times she felt the procedure, was entirely conscious and in pain, much to the distress of the doctor. She had four times more sedative than any other patient has required. Not bad for a petite 5′ 4” lightweight weighing only 110llbs.

Sitting in the waiting room, freezing in the air conditioning, the minutes ticked by. It was taking too long. A nurse updated me a couple of times, then after a couple a few hours said things were still ‘in process’ and I should go and eat. The cafeteria was large, with a mix of medical staff in scrubs and anxious looking visitors like me, waiting for news. Eating was the last thing I wanted to do, but found something manageable and a quiet corner to sit in. It was the first time I felt tears prickling my eyes.

I put it down to jet lag and frustration, but let’s face it, it was basic primal fear.

Back in the waiting room it was another half hour before I was fetched to see Lizzy, laying pale and defeated, wrapped in pale cream blankets on the gurney, tears pooling out of her eyes and making damp splodges on the blankets as they ran down her face. Nurses were quietly bustling about, clearing things away, the mood was sombre.

The doctor was ashen and exhausted and it was hard to focus on his words. It seems they’d tried accessing the veins by both neck and groin, unprecedented as it’s usually one or the other. They couldn’t reach the valves by either entry point, they were so twisted and tortuous it was impossible to follow them without causing damage. I saw the video and appreciate how hard they had tried, what a huge problem they faced. Again we heard the words, “There’s nothing we can do.”

“But she’s only 25,” I was embarrassed by the emotional hoarseness of my voice, the way it cracked, the way my face started to crumble. I felt the warmth of a hand on my arm, the nurse in charge, a huge black woman whose eyes reflected my pain and gave me strength.

The doctor and I talked. Lizzy had mentally checked out of the room, and taken herself to another place. We talked options. Very few. We talked other doctors, other cities, other countries. We agreed to a follow up consultation in a couple of days when everyone had had time to gather their thoughts. Looking into the doctor’s eyes I had no doubt he would do his best.

Lizzy went to a dark place, only to be expected after a traumatic surgery, too many drugs for a body her size and the worst possible outcome. But she’s a fighter too, even when she thinks she isn’t and believes she has nothing left.

We’ve had the consultation and there are positives. As the doctor said, “We have a diagnosis, we have a reason, and we know that something MUST be done, we just need to find the right person to help.”

He has spent three days talking with colleagues and looking at the problem ‘outside the box’ which has opened up other specialties who might help. He’s looking for  a surgeon who has the skill set to operate on the veins from the outside through regular surgery. He thinks he’s found one, has discussed the case with her and she’s prepared to meet with us.

If that doesn’t work we try another route. We’re already looking at other doctors in other countries with the help of wonderful friends in the US and Europe and Lizzy’s step-sister, a doctor in the UK. We will get Lizzy through this, there is no other option.

Everyone experiences bad times in one way or another, it’s how life is. And even in the darkest moments there are small chinks of light and goodness which keep you going, keep you strong, give you hope. Those chinks are always the kindness and caring of others, sometimes from those close to us, sometimes from strangers. The warmth of the light, the faith shinning from it, keeps us going, feeds our soul.

It lets us know we are never alone, even in the darkest times.

Posted in Expat Experiences, Family Life, Personal challenges, Politics and Social Comment, Women and Female Related | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Fly Away Home

Like many, I’m fascinated by the lives of other people, how patterns weave themselves through the generations, how shared DNA links us to people we can never meet.

How many times in our own lives have things happened and we’ve sad, ‘Well, who would have thought we’d end up here… this would ever have happened to us?’

Memoirs are generally the domain of the rich and famous, whose public faces grace the tabloids or covers of celebrity magazines. The thing is, while I am interested the the great and the mighty, I’m far more interested in the humble and ordinary whose lives are filled with equal drama, excitement and tragedy.

Maggie Myklebust is one of those people.

She’s the same as the rest of us, taking what life throws her way, dealing with it the best she can. What makes her different is this humble, self-effacing woman decided to write about her life. And what a journey it’s been.

Her story melds with that of her great-grandparents who left a small Nordic island to follow the American Dream. She was born and raised in New Jersey, growing up American but with stories of the ‘old days’ and regular visits back to the home country when she was growing up – where she first fell in love.

Fast-forward a few years (I don’t want to spoil the story) and she’s married to her high school boyfriend, had three children in rapid succession and finds herself trapped in an abusive marriage.

Escaping the marriage she flees back to her roots. What follows is the stuff of good fiction, except it’s real life, with real people. A second marriage to the love of her life, one stepchild, two more children, one of whom is diagnosed autistic. The chance to travel and live back in the States for a while, a period in the Netherlands, and finally back to Norway.

It’s more than a record of a physical journey. It’s about finding yourself and your place in the world, accepting what’s happened in your life, coming to terms with it and finding peace. Finding ‘home’ wherever that may be. In Maggie’s case ‘home’ turned out to be the strangest twist of all.

What shines through this book is the honesty in the writing. She doesn’t gloss over her mistakes or the decisions she’s made. She takes full responsibility for herself and her actions. It’s a testament to who she is that she has maintained a good relationship with her parents and own children. She’s taken life on the chin, rolled with the punches and survived.

For a regular girl from New Jersey, it’s been a heck of a ride.

Fly Away Home, Maggie Myklebust

Format: Available in Paperback and Kindle (File Size 768 KB)

Print Length: 304 pages

Publisher: Summertime Publishing (3 April 2012)

Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.

Language English

ISBN-10: 1904881734

ISBN-13: 978-1904881735

Follow Maggie’s blog at

www.flyawayhomebook.com

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PVC: Raising Awareness of a Chronic Female Condition

I have no wish to publically discuss my family’s health, yet a family member, let’s call her Lizzy, has been dealing with a little known health issue we had no idea existed, which impacts the lives of countless woman worldwide.

Her journey to diagnosis has taken nine long years, through chronic pain and a medical profession largely unaware of this condition. Having walked alongside her as she has sought help from a variety of specialists (Ob/Gyn, stomach, urologist, oncologist, cardiologist, hepatologist, nephrologist, psychologists) and enduring countless tests and procedures (CAT scans, pelvic/vaginal scans, endoscopies, colonoscopies, stomach/pelvic and vaginal biopsies, MRIs) we know what a frustrating and soul destroying road this can be.

One by one specialists were left scratching their heads and decided if they couldn’t find what was wrong, then it didn’t exist. Whatever was going on was obviously in the disturbed head of this neurotic, overwrought, mentally fragile female, who then endured analysis from mental health professionals. Enough to do your head in. Eventually she escaped the clutches of the mindbenders whose efforts she came to despise.

‘I’m sick to death of these people! They don’t get it – if I’m feeling a bit down it’s because I’m in constant pain and scared I’m never going to get better. I’m not depressed, I don’t have parent or sibling issues, I just HURT! I’m happy, I love my life – except for this, I just want the pain to go away.’

It started around the age of sixteen, heavy periods incapacitating her for days with pain throughout the entire pelvic region  She refused to stay in bed for something she believed to be a normal part of life, struggling into school and collapsing into bed the minute she got home. Around ovulation she would experience intense ovarian pain.

At eighteen her first gynaecologist ran a baseline of tests and attempted to sooth her with platitudes about ‘getting used to changes in your body’ and ‘letting things settle down’. To her credit she said little at the time, agreed to go on the Pill to help with the bleeding, and agreed to her first scans.

Life continued for the next few years with her situation getting slowly worse. There seemed to be a correlation between her menstrual cycle and painful, incapacitating episodes when she was bedridden. Initially small cysts were found on her ovaries and for some years it was believed their becoming enlarged was the cause of her pain. Until a few years ago, when someone had the presence of mind to schedule a pelvic scan when she was admitted to the ER. It was discovered the cysts were not enlarged nor did she have appendicitis, kidney infections or stones.

Lizzy saw a psychiatrist for a while. Asked by her student health GP to give a short background to her life she found herself on the couch before she knew it. Born in the UK, our family had moved to New Orleans USA, and as of now we live in the Netherlands and she remains in the US.

What she had difficulty in getting across to the professional was that she was happy, with a loving family, and it was her choice to remain at college in the US, where she’d grown up, had a support group of peers and family friends, felt at home, and wanted to spend her life. It’s more than many students have, who live away from home. The psychiatrist, sadly, was someone who had never lived outside her home state, never travelled and could not relate to the life our family led.

She gave up on her therapist, ‘That woman is doing my head in, she’s enough to make me depressed!’ and stopped taking the anti-depressant medication prescribed, believing the side effects were clouding the real issue of her health, which she firmly believed, as did we, was physical. By now our regular gynaecologist had categorised her as ‘neurotic’ and she was told on several occasions by practice nurses that she was merely ovulating, and needed to deal with it, the same as everyone else.

Dealing with pain was one thing, the attitude of a series of doctors, including a cardiologist brought in after a malfunctioning machine in ER gave a false reading, and a urologist when she started vomiting constantly, another. After one doctor accused her of using ER visits to elicit additional narcotic painkillers, we wondered how long anyone could endure this situation without a breakdown.

At the same time she was continuing her college studies, played out against a backdrop of normal student life, sharing a house with girlfriends and the attendant drama that involved, the ending of one relationship and start of another, all of which seemed to put strain on a frail and, by now, undernourished body. Her trips back to family were usually spent sleeping, being nurtured and talking.

She felt family were the only ones who understood, because we knew her and accepted she was physically ill, not mentally unstable, although we were becoming increasingly alarmed by her mental state, with bouts of crying and depressive thoughts. She was tired and exhausted from explaining her situation to a growing number of new doctors she didn’t know and had no relationship with. Often at a consultation she would dissolve in tears, exhausted. We were worried.

She lost over a semester of school through ill health, finally graduating in December 2010. Her visit to us that Christmas she was emaciated, on heavy pain medication and a shadow of the vibrant, lively, fun loving girl we knew. She insisted on returning to the US, a graduate with no job and rapidly declining health.

In February last year decisions were made, she needed support and help, we needed to bring her home. But we were not dealing with a teenager, rather a fiercely independent woman in her twenties. Initially there were tears trauma, yelling, screaming, disbelief – you can imagine. Then acceptance, understanding and finally a release of pent up fear, anxiety and stress. In a week she was packed out of her in apartment in America and on a plane back to family in the Netherlands.

Six-months later she was a different woman. Although the pain was constant it was manageable with medication when necessary, a good diet and a healthy lifestyle. After a few months she began an internship with a company in the Netherlands and ultimately secured a permanent position with them, based in their Houston office. During training here, she spent time in Singapore and we watched her blossom into the confident, self-assured woman we knew. She left for her new position in Houston happy, healthy, excited about her future and eager to get back to the States.

Fast forward six months and the picture is starting to crack. Despite loving her job, her apartment and comfortable being ‘home’ the health issues resurfaced. The vicious circle of anxiety, pain and having to find new doctors, in a new city and explaining herself to new people, made everything worse. Finding her feet, hiding her ‘illness’ from work colleagues, and returning home exhausted at the end of the day left little time to socialise and make new friends. It became a downward spiral.

She found a new gynaecologist in Houston and underwent a series of more tests, scans and x-rays for the doctor to get up to date information. The new diagnosis was possibly endometriosis, something explored and dismissed years previously. A laparoscopy was scheduled.

I flew to Houston at the end of February, met with her doctor, discussed her case, options, prognosis. I desperately wanted Lizzy to have her life back. The night before the procedure we discussed the possibility having an ovary removed and infertility generally, should that be an outcome. Lizzy was pragmatic and realistic, her biggest fear was they would find nothing, that she would be condemned to a life of debilitating pain with no-one believing it was real.

The gynaecologist was confident, hopeful, optimistic. I would wait while the surgery was performed, she would come and discuss it with me as soon as it was over, possibly an hour or more. When she reappeared less then half an hour later my hart sank – the procedure hadn’t taken long enough. They hadn’t found anything.

‘We know what’s wrong but we can’t do anything about it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with her reproductive system. No endometriosis, no blocked tubes, nothing.’ The gynaecologist continued to stare at the photographic evidence in front of her, taken during the laparoscopy. ‘This is the problem, here.’ She indicated a balloon-like mass directly above the uterus.

‘I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s blood. A mass of engorged blood vessels. And she’s experiencing pain from the veins themselves. She has at least twice the blood flow she should have in her pelvis. I’ve never seen anything like it,’ she repeated.

The words, ‘We can’t do anything about it’ hung in the air condemning one of our family to a life of debilitating pain affecting every aspect of her work, social and, let’s be frank, sexual life.

‘A hysterectomy might help,’ she mused, ‘although no one perform that operation on someone so young, and there are no guarantees it would help.’

It seems there are blood vessels in her stomach which engorge during the day, through gravity, and react to changing hormone levels.  This mass expands with blood causing intense pressure throughout the pelvic area. There is effectively a whole other organ in there.

The official term is Pelvic Vascular Congestion (PVC), varicose veins in the pelvis if you will. The text-book patient will generally be older, have experienced multiple pregnancies and whose condition may disappear after menopause, following a lifetime of chronic pain. It is not something on the radar as a possible diagnosis for young women who have not been pregnant.

After the initial post-operative consultation, and one a few weeks later, the options for treatment appeared limited. A hormone shot to reduce fluctuating hormone levels, which may or may not work, and can only be used as a relatively short term measure with constant checks on bone density. Antidepressants to help ‘cope’ and painkillers. We have contacted pain management clinics who will only take patients requiring short-term help with pain (car crash victims, back surgery etc), not people in chronic pain. Excuse me?

We are not a family to be told ‘no’ and sit back and accept it, not until every avenue has been explored and exhausted.

What became blindingly obvious was we had a gynaecologist treating a vascular issue. Once we made that mind-shift a whole new world of google opportunities opened up. Google PVC and you get the text-book case, delve further and there are ways to treat this condition (which, like breast cancer can also effect a small number of men). In simple terms the blood flow to the engorged area is reduced with a vascular embolization.

Energised by a chink of hope, the battle went on. Between us we sought help, advice, guidance from anyone we knew. We knew we needed to find a Vascular Interventional Radiologist, again a field of expertise generally unheard of, it seems, in mainstream medicine.

Lizzy had her first appointment with her VIR specialist last week. Despite the gloomy prognosis from her gynaecologist, the VIR has offered hope. He has been diagnosing and operating on patients with her condition for eleven years – including young women who have never been pregnant. Nor is there is any evidence the procedure interferes with future fertility.

Lizzy was overwhelmed by the kindness and understanding of nursing staff and a doctor who believed her, didn’t think she was crazy, and offered the possibility of a life without chronic pain. The sad thing is, this story is not unique, nor is her condition as rare as we were led to believe.

While PVC generally impacts older, post-pregnancy women, the reality is many young women are suffering. The VIR sees them every day, battling with pain and being told by other medical professionals they are mentally unstable, attention seekers, hysterics and written off as neurotic.

The journey for our family continues with vascular surgery scheduled in the next few weeks.

We have shared this story to expand awareness of PVC. For many women the constant battle to find help and obtain adequate pain relief is exhausting, and often too much cope with. I’m sure there are women are out there who have given up, living shadowy half-lives, getting through as best they can, popping any pill to dull the pain, beyond hope and eventually coming to believe it is all ‘in their heads’.

If you have a mother, sister, aunt, niece, daughter, granddaughter, daughter-in-law or girl-friend dealing with chronic pelvic pain on a daily basis and have exhausted every other possible cause, maybe PVC could be worth investigating.

If writing this article helps one other woman out there to regain her life then it will have been worth it.

Will let you know how the surgery goes.

Please note: this has been written to spread awareness of PVC in a personal way, and is in not intended as an in depth article on the subject. Below are a few websites to start you on your search if you have an interest

www.savannahvascular.com/home.cfm/page/Articles/article/20/Pelvic_Congestion_Syndrome:_An_Often_Missed_Diagnosis.html

www.hopkinsmedicine.org/vascular/conditions/pelvic/

www.pelvicpain.org/news/pdfs/vol4_no2.pdf

 

 

Posted in Expat Experiences, Family Life, Personal challenges, Politics and Social Comment, Women and Female Related | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Expat Life: Slice by Slice

March saw Apple Gidley in Washington DC, in her capacity as Board Director of Families in Global Transition, who held their annual conference in the US capital. It was also the month her much anticipated book Expat Life: Slice by Slice was published.

The daughter of seasoned expats, she has spent her life transitioning between cultures, marrying a global spouse, following his career around the world and raising two global nomads in the process. Read her professional resume and it’s both inspiring and intimidating.

Over the next few weeks, when many of the FIGT delegates might be forgiven for taking a few days to kick back and unwind, Apple will be returning to Houston, the place she now calls home, to promote and focus on her book.

By anyone’s reckoning she is an authority on expat life, with her first posting to Nigeria at a month old, followed by twenty-five more through twelve countries, over the past 50 years. You’d think the challenges and upheavals she experienced would leave her exhausted and drained, ready to grab a G&T and put her feet up under a palm tree on a sun drenched terrace, somewhere in the mythical world of expatland.

Not this lady.

Throughout her travels Apple has taken her position as an expat in a foreign country seriously. She was a third culture kid before anyone knew they existed, instilled with cultural awareness by parents who took their roles and responsibilities seriously too.

Apple describes her childhood as growing up, “in the cooling embers of colonialism.” She describes the people who looked after her family, and helped raise her, with appreciation, acknowledging how privileged her life was compared to theirs. Mixed with this she had an innate awareness she had no right to interfere or change the way these people lived to make them fit her cultural expectations.

Marriage and children saw her expat life continue with the joys, challenges and sadness it inevitably brings. She rose to those challenges in the only way she knew how, head on with courage and optimism. She’s definitely ‘old school’.

These days, with the immediacy of global communication, the world of the modern expat has changed beyond recognition. What hasn’t changed are the human issues of loss of identity for the ‘trailing’ spouse, staying connected with family and friends, global parenting, caring for elderly parents, dealing with death, retirement and the biggest of them all, Where is home?

 Apple’s book is a wonderful blend of sage advice gleaned through years of experience, mixed with wonderfully descriptive stories from all periods of her life. From memories of the heat of exotic (and not so exotic) locations in Asia, Australia, Europe, America and Africa, creating her own identity along the way, this book is a wonderful resource. What Apple felt and experienced as an expat teen helped guide her as she raised her own. Watching her own parents adjust to living in settled retirement after a lifetime of travel, gave her insights as to how she would deal with the same situation.

This is not an ABC survival guide for expats, it’s a well-thought out, well written, thought-provoking book on what it means to be an expat. It’s written with wit, humour, insight and deep pathos. There are a couple of times you will reach for the kleenex.

Most of all it’s a wonderful source of inspiration and encouragement for first time expats and a reassurance for those more seasoned travellers amongst us. You will survive, obstacles will be overcome and new challenges are on every horizon.

It’s a wonderful life.

Expat Life: Slice by Slice, Apple Gidley

Price £11.99/€12.99/$15.99

Summertime Publishing

ISBN 978-1-904881-71-1 (print);

ISBN 978-1-904881-72-8 (kindle)

314 pp, paperback

 

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The Expat Good Samaritan: Cultural Attitudes to Caring

Whether you’re a serial expat moving from country to country with the huge machine of a global company, working in a foreign country under your own steam or emigrate from one country to another, there will be times when disaster strikes and life unravels for a while.

How you respond to any given crisis, and how those around you respond, can differ depending where you are and who you’re with.

Let me explain.

Many years ago, living in the southern United States, our paediatricians (a husband and wife team) suffered two devastating losses. Before we arrived they had endured the loss of a beloved son, born with a heart defeat who, despite transplants, died in infancy. One can only imagine their grief, yet both returned to their profession of healing sick children.

By the time we arrived they had a second, healthy son, life was good and I knew them professionally, no more. Then cruelly tragedy struck again when their second son was killed in an accident. The community was stunned.

The response was immediate, organised and inclusive of everyone. A knock on the front door one morning announced a rotund southern lady on my doorstep in her floral Sunday best, resplendent with clipboard and beaming smile. It seems she was signing everyone up to help this grieving family. Food was today’s priority and although the family lived on our side of town they were not neighbours, rather they lived a couple of subdivisions away.

“Ah subdivision has a rotah for meals which yule sign up for, if you could jus’ fill in your name, and what yule be preparin’, an’ what day yule be deliverin’ it thaat would be mighty fine. Yule need to have it round to them by four o’clock in the afternoon.”

My response was to ask about dietary requirements while my head went into overload – I had no idea what to prepare for a southern couple devastated by loss, and not likely to be eating much. I’d just got off the boat and our family cuisine was English not southern American.

The ample bosomed lady was equally caught off-guard by words like ‘food allergies’, ‘food intolerances’ and ‘personal preferences’ – the thought of non-southern cuisine did not compute at all. She left the doorstep deeply confused without a sign-up.

I called my friends to seek advice on my obvious cultural faux pas.

I felt deeply for this family, thought about them daily and couldn’t imagine the pain they were enduring, but couldn’t see how preparing a meal would be any help at all. They didn’t know me outside their office and to me, my response to their loss was better expressed with a verbal acknowledgement, direct eye contact and a touch on the arm when I saw them. I admit to being horrified at the intrusion into their lives by people they barely knew.

My friends were equally horrified by my response.

Taking food round in a crisis, any crisis, was just what you did, period. They were incredulous that this could be seen as intrusive, but I wasn’t alone in my thoughts. There were friends who had the same misgivings (if you will), who had been raised in a more private culture, where families closed ranks in times of trouble. What I struggled with was organised caring rather than personal, heartfelt connections.

(For the record, in this case huge volumes of food were passed to the homeless shelter so at least it helped someone).

Over the years I’ve watched as close friends, neighbours and acquaintances have dealt with tragedy and disaster. With friends you know instinctively what and how help will be needed, you know the spouse and children well, often parents and in-laws too; you understand how they operate. With neighbours you’re on the spot, practical help with the house, rides to appointments or as an emergency contact in the middle of the night.

I flounder and go to pieces when someone I know, but don’t know well, has a crisis. An offer of help, in whatever way it’s needed, is always there but at that point, for me, it’s up to the individual to tell me what they need. I make the assumption that if they have close family and friends they will in the frontline and let me know what gaps need filling.

As time has gone on I realise that culture and cultural responses to crisis plays a huge role in how we respond as individuals.

Earlier this month I flew out to Houston, as Missy, a new resident in the city, in a new job and only just starting to make new friends, needed surgery. As her mother I was going to be there come what may, but I also wanted to be there because she had not had chance to build the support group of friends she needed at time like this.

An intensely private individual, she had no wish to share her life and health issues either at work or with the few social acquaintances she had made. She knew no one sufficiently well to ask them to attend a doctors appointment with her, despite me having a circle of girlfriends close by itching to get over there and help her.

While I was in town I met up with an old, dear friend I’d met here in the Netherlands. She drove two hours to see me, check that Sarah was indeed as well as I’d said and took me out to lunch so we could talk privately. A health professional herself she gave sound advice, encouragement and suggestions on how to move forward.

She also shared her experiences, only last year, after back surgery. With her children no longer at home she and her husband had the post surgery plan organised. He would leave for work (she certainly didn’t want a spouse hovering around all day) with everything she needed laid out at the correct height, in the correct order. She got up when she could, at her own pace.

She’d kept her surgery private from the small group of acquaintances she had in her town. Word, of course, got out and one morning, during my friend’s slow and painful recovery, one turned up on her doorstep for a visit. That she was holding a lasagne big enough to feed a family of ten (my friend is a vegetarian) was, in her eyes, reason enough to sweep into the house and be offered refreshments and small talk. My poor friend ended up making cups of tea and scrabbling for cookies whilst in excruciating pain. After three hours she could bear it no more and asked the woman to leave. She has since had to write a grovelling letter of apology to the whole group, who were affronted by her breath-taking rudeness.

Whenever I hear of a family going through a difficult time I try and imagine the response I’d feel comfortable with in their situation. It’s a difficult line to walk between respecting a family’s privacy and wading in and taking over their lives. Sometimes even the most private family can suffer such devastating trauma they do need someone to come in and take over; in my world that position is the prerogative very close friends and family. The kind that will fly half way across the world without needing to be asked.

It seems whatever our personal response to the crisis of others, we are all human and care deeply for one another – it’s how we show it that causes confusion.

I would, however, like to make it absolutely clear – if you need me I’ll be there, do whatever you need me to do, just don’t ask me to cook, it’s something you will end up regretting…

Posted in Expat Experiences, Family Life, Inspiration and Reflection, Personal challenges | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Global Tax : Inescapable and Unrelenting

It’s February and there’s that sinking feeling in my stomach. Not the winter blues, instead the gargantuan beast from hell, the preparation of the annual tax returns. You can’t forget about it, or pretend it’s not happening, stick fingers in your ears and hope it will pass you by.

This is serious stuff, and like many people here in the Netherlands, we have to file returns with both the Dutch Tax authorities – the Belastingdienst – and the United States Department of Revenue – the IRS. They provide the hoops, we jump through them.

If we’re lucky and all goes well, the paperwork is completed and we pay any due balances to whoever demands it (who’s going to argue?). Worse case scenario we face a revenue audit by either country and go to purgatory. There is no get out of jail free card.

Before I go further I must stress the Captain and I are of the school that is upright, honest and likes to sleep at night. Life is stressful enough without trying to pull a fast one over a bunch of accountants. Our affairs are simple and straight forward, we are ordinary folk.

Unfortunately, as far as every revenue service in the world is concerned we are all secretly running mafia-like laundering operations worldwide, with off-shore accounts in tropical locations. Please. We’re not going to take on the revenue services, we’re too exhausted from dealing with the insurance company over our stolen car.

Generally speaking the Dutch have a wonderful system of taxing foreigners; you are only taxed on what you earn in this country, which seems really fair to me. The USA, on the other hand, wants details of everything anywhere in the world, whether you reside in the states or not.

The American hoops seem a lot bigger and more intense or perhaps it’s just me. Filing, late filing, extensions, a gazillion forms, late payment penalties, interest penalties, these are all things that sink me into a gloom of despond. The aim every year is to get ahead of the game so we deal with as few of these hoops as possible. We have a life.

We experienced how these hoops can take over your life our first year here and it’s a dark place neither of us want to revisit.

Arriving in the Netherlands we met with representatives from a company of international accountants. Delights. They would guide us through the ruthless waters of international tax, advising us on the best way to navigate between the Dutch and USA systems with as little stress as possible. We would pay them an exorbitant fee, but would be free from stress and the ravages of worry.

It was an interesting first meeting. Obviously our tax affairs were so simple the grey men didn’t feel the need for discussion.

The Delightful accountants took months to prepare our return, weeks to respond to an email and if you phoned no-one had a clue who you were. The information on the Dutch return is required to complete the USA return. We were months behind our schedule.

Finally Delights got back to us; the return was ready. There was no review, no recommendations. Their job was done. There had been no consultation with their own Delightful US tax expert, something we naively expected to be part of the process. Jacques, their US tax consultant, was operating out of Belgium and it was very difficult for him to be reached down there. Allegedly

Interestingly enough I had no problem getting hold of him. His advice was sound and professional. I can’t repeat what he said due to libel laws, but we took his advice and engaged a competent accountancy company.

The Captain nor I want a repeat of that dreadful time; the spectre of that first year haunts us still, despite having wonderful tax specialists now. The issues from incorrect information submitted on our return by Delights were finally resolved with the Dutch authorities two years later.

The feeling we’re wandering around inside a cloud – the one without a silver lining –  descends on us at the beginning of every fiscal year. This year we were under starters orders early. With Harry heading off to pastures new in September, (the USA or Canada) it is imperative we get everything filed on time so Harry can submitt college related paperwork with actual figures, rather than estimates.

We know from old that dealing with US institutions from an overseas address is another minefield, the only point of reference for them is a currently filed tax return, hence our concern.

All was going well. Our accountants on standby, ready to start but no sign of end of year statements from our bank. This particular bank is an old Dutch institution, they’re still in shock we were allowed to bank with them. Let’s call them Van Randstadt, they have no online banking in English, not the case with our hip and ‘friendly to foreigners’ regular bank, the one rescued by the Royal Bank of Scotland.

I called Van Randstadt at a loss as to why we had heard nothing from them. The excitement was tangible.

Mevrouw, it is because this year we are not sending statements, we are producing a booklet! For each of our clients! With all your information in! It will all be in one place, so much better!’  You could feel the smugness and glee oozing down the line.

I explained my dilemma to the banker who was non-plussed. I needed some figures now, not in March (two months behind their usual time).

‘But Mevrouw you will have to wait, we can not access the computers in Den Bosch from here in Den Haag.’ A mere sixty miles across the country.

‘I’m sorry?’

‘It is because of the booklets. Once the information has been sent over to Den Bosch we cannot access it until the booklets have been mailed…we are expecting them to be mailed sometime in the next three weeks. Perhaps.’

‘Well, okay, but can’t you pull the balances from our accounts and give them to me verbally? Please? That’ll work until we have the hard copies.’  Waves of disbelief and shock exploded from the earpiece,

“I can not do that mevrouw, the information will only be 98% accurate!’  he spluttered in horror and headed off for a lie down.

Several phone calls later, in the hope of tracking down our personal banker (it seems he has left, as much of a surprise to his colleagues as to us) proved fruitless. Emails requesting the information were deflected and the only replies we had were ‘It is not possible…you must wait for the booklet.’

In the end, angry and embittered (extreme I know, but this past year we have been drowning in a sea of disinterest and indifference), there was no alternative but to navigate the complex site map of Van Randstadt’s online banking website.

It took five minutes.

Whilst this is good news on the one hand, I cannot see why this information couldn’t have been forthcoming  earlier. Good customer service? Not in my world.

Finally today, a month behind schedule, with a huge sigh of relief and a lightness of spirit, our documentation has winged it’s way from hard drive via email to our tax wizards.

Fingers crossed…another year over…

Posted in Dutch Laws, Taxes and Bureaucracy, Expat Experiences, The Netherlands, USA | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Managing Expectations: The Dutch Health Service

Before we start I’d like to make it absolutely clear that on arrival in any foreign country, whether to live, work or take a vacation my expectation of the local health care systems is always neutral. This avoids confusion should the service not live up to expectations based on previous experiences elsewhere.

Having lived in the Netherlands for a while we are in tune with the philosophy of medical practices here and understand how things work. It took a period of adjustment when we first moved, from the American way of doing things to the continental european one; not better or worse merely different. And understanding that while private funds drives the medical industry of one, social medicine, and therefore the taxpayer, funds the other.

Over the years we have dealt with a wonderful GP who’s attitudes are open, helpful and understanding, and who is happy to discuss options and choices. We understand this is not always the case. Our rare forays into medical care outside the local surgery have always been positive, staff and doctors at the local hospitals kind, polite and caring.

The past few months have seen me spend a little more time observing the Dutch health service at close quarters than I’m used to. The reasons are immaterial; I am not yet at that stage in life where I’m happy to discuss the state of my health with anyone in earshot.

A few weeks back I was dispatched with requisite paperwork for a scopie, the cute sounding proceedure known elsewhere as an endoscopy. Making the appointment I enquired, quite reasonably I thought, what type of sedation was offered for the procedure. Like any normal hypochondriac I had read everything there was to read about an endoscopy on google. Silence crackled down the phone line,

Mevrouw, you will not need sedation for this procedure. Our nurses are very skilful. We do not give sedation, it is not necessary.” Not according to the information I have.

“If you already have prescribed drugs, like valium, you may take one before you come but it is not necessary.” She sniffed in derision as if such an option was for the pathetic and feeble. I assumed from her attitude I was being overly cautious and perhaps the scopie would be a new fangled piece of apparatus rather like the tiny fibre-optic strands you see on lights.

The scopie was not a fine strand of fibre optic elegance, it was a hosepipe with the camera attached heading to explore the far reaches of my stomach. Fortunately I was allowed a small amout of oral anaethetic for my throat.

The nurse was encouraging with her quiet words and gentle stroking of my arm, but the patient response was an overwhelming urge to lash out and hit her, reminiscent of the delivery suite in the presence of midwife telling you to breathe normally.

It was decided to take a couple of biopsies, and was soothingly told with a smile normally bestowed on a child under the age of three, “Mevrouw, you shouldn’t feel anything at all, but if you do it will be nothing more than a slight tugging sensation.” She lied. That or the  Dutch have infinitely thicker stomach linings than me.

In the aftermath, while tubes were pulled out and the doctor was finishing his report, I asked the nurses why it was that patients weren’t sedated, as was the normal practise in the US and the UK – I’d done the research. I wondered if it was a cultural thing and was asking for the sake of interest you understand. The nurse was happy to explain,

“We used to allow patients a small sedative, mevrouw, but patients would not do as they were told during the procedure, so it had to be stopped.”

A slight disconnect there between what is best care for the patient and most convenient for the medical staff.

Hot on the heels of that experience I was sent to another facility for a CT scan. A different experience for different reasons.

I was escorted into the scan room  by a 12 year-old male nurse.  He indicated a small changing room,

“If you could please remove all your top clothing, mevrouw and come through to the table when you are ready. ” Excuse me? Where was the hospital gown, the swathe of green fabric to hide my modesty and save the young innocent in front of me from lasting psychological damage?

I’m sorry, I do not wander around half naked in public like my continental cousins. Back in the day Cosmopolitan magazine advised any woman over the age of 30 not to expose certain body parts and I’m fine with that.

Seeing my hesitant look the young man advised me I could, perhaps, leave an item of clothing on but would have to remove ‘the undergarment’  because of the metal fastening. I was for keeping my large, woolly and warm sweater on, but we compromised with my camisole top.

Fortunately I was wearing my best knickers as, once on the table, was requested, “Please remove your jeans to below your buttocks mevrouw.” Not easy on a hospital table.

Before I’d recovered from that manoeuvre the consumption of a gallon or so of water was required, quite challenging when laying on your back propped up on one elbow. The nurse was most helpful, holding the white plastic cup and bendy straw, while another colleague struggled to insert an intravenous needle into the other arm bent behind me over the far side of the table.

Thanking the nurse for his skill in straw management I rolled back and found myself looking into the eyes of Dr Dreamy (Grey’s Anatomy fans will know who I mean) who’d appeared from nowhere next to the intravenous drip and looked to be 25 at the most. He peered down on me with a twinkling smile, tousled hair and a faint tan,

” Good afternoon Mrs Dean, I will be conducting the scan today, there is nothing to worry about.” He was Dutch but his English was flawless, I struggled to pick up any nuance of an accent, and decided he must have lived or studied in the UK. Before I had the chance to ask him he waved a small phial of liquid in front of me and said, “Now I’m just going to put this in the drip, it’s just a little something to relax the bowels.” There’s not a lot you can say after that.

For both these appointments I did have expectations whether I realised it or not. The first being the scopie procedure would be pain free, and the second that the CT scan would not involve wandering around half naked in front of young men. I should have been better prepared with the knowledge and experience I already had of the Dutch health service, and wouldn’t have been left feeling as rattled and unsettled as I was.

Although with hindsight the latter may have had far more to do with the youth and gorgeousness of the Dutch medical staff than the procedures themselves…

 

 

 

Posted in Dutch Culture, Expat Experiences | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Versatility: Something We All Need

It seems I am Versatile.

A startling and unexpected revelation to someone who has spent much of the past month deliberately under the radar. This is the time of year when awards are awarded (think the Baftas and the Oscars), as much in the bloggosphere as any other creative arena.

Being under said radar and happily ignorant of all things cyber, this honour, bestowed by fellow bloggers, has forced my head above the parapet, woken me from a dreamlike inertia and dropped me back with a reluctant thud into Blogland. I am to nominate bloggers who I think are interesting and versatile. I read all of them regularly.

So here goes, lower the lights and drumroll please…

Wordgeyser nominees for Versatile Blogger 2011

Adventures in Expatland – Linda, a fellow American expat here in the Netherlands, who writes on all things expat and then some. This is a woman who challenges everyone she meets to be their best, makes you think, makes you aware. And she can write. Really well.

The Unexpected Traveller - Thirty something single guy travelling the world with work and living between Brussels and Malta. Doesn’t matter what he blogs about, you read it because he writes it.

Gidday from the UK – Kym a 40-something aussie living in the UK. Great style and she makes me laugh. Nuff said.

Drie Culturen (Three Cultures) – a blog about all things TCK (Third Culture Kid) written by a TCK who arrived in the Netherlands via Africa. Fun and informative.

Perking The Pansies  – Jack and Liam, a middle-aged, married gay couple move their lives from middle class London to Turkey. ‘Jack’ chronicles their exploits on his blog and now in a best-selling book of the same name. Hilarious, and exquisitely written

What About Your saucepans? – British expat Lindsay’s life in the Dominican Republic – check it out as this woman will be going places with her upcoming book.

Expatcalidocious  – Reina is a Dutch repatriate, the child of Hungarian/Dutch expats, now raising her own TCK. Accounts of her early life travelling with her parents are priceless.

In Search Of A Life Less Ordinary – Russel Ward is a Brit, who with his wife Sarah headed for Canada (Vancouver then Ottawa) and now lives in Sydney. A writers’ writer.

Find My New Normal - losing a child at 36 weeks, this anonymous American in London chronicles the journey forward from loss – she draws you in because her writing is real and compelling.

Postcards from Across the Pond
Mike Harling, the American giving Bill Bryson a run for his money in the south of England. He brightens my day. His books make me laugh.

Adventures in Integration an aussie drawn to the Netherlands by a Dutch Adonis who she wisely married. They now have a baby. What is it about me and aussie’s?

I was an Expat Wife – repatriated Canadian Maria on expat life.

Expatlogue – Aisha, writing in Canada via Ireland and the UK.

So there it is, the blogs and bloggers who make me think and brighten my day – with thanks to each of them.

Check some of them out for yourself – enjoy!

Posted in Inspiration and Reflection, Personal challenges, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Mental Sabbatical: A Time to Step Back

After the New Year and a return to the Netherlands from visiting friends and family, I did something inconceivable only a few months previously. I decided to take a step back from life, review it and decide whether anything needed to change.

So what prompted this rather radical way of making new year’s resolutions? I’m not entirely sure, but it was evident to both the Captain and myself that while life was good, something in it was not, leaving us feeling unsettled and out of sorts.

We recognised some of this malaise was fallout from our continuing battle (still ongoing) to get money from the insurance company for a vehicle theft back in September. On New Years morning, laid in bed at our friends’ home, drinking our morning tea and looking out over a quintessential English village, I asked my seemingly relaxed and laid back spouse what he was thinking.

” I was wondering how hard it would be to plant a bomb in the building of the insurance company.” This was not a light-hearted or throwaway line delivered with a wry smile, this was the comment from a man who had had enough. I was deeply shocked; of the two of us it is me who is more likely to get enraged, while he is calm, measured and annoyingly reasonable. Yet here we were, on a short break away from everyday niggles and annoyances, and he was thinking about the insurance company.

Travelling home I started thinking. We all have to deal with life issues which drain us of energy and joy. We carry emotional baggage for years without realising we’re doing it; old hurts, angers, disappointments, abandoned dreams, lost chances, bad choices, guilt and shame over past behaviours, never feeling good enough.

My emotional baggage is carried on my back in a huge wicker basket – the type normally used for storing logs or children’s toys or laundry – held in place with leather shoulder straps. Because it’s on my back I don’t see it, but as I wander along things get tossed over my shoulder into the darn thing, as you would old and worn socks into a laundry basket. I may not be thinking about what’s in there, but life stuff gets heavier and heavier without us realising it. Not important stuff, you understand, rather the day-to-day grinding of life’s wheels.

There’s never time to stop and empty it; we make sure there’s never a spare moment in our busy lives. Far easier to ignore it and carry on. But when a spouse is fantasising about blowing up buildings something has to give. And the drain of carrying the basket has been annoying of late.

Easing off the shoulder straps and tipping it out, seeing the contents spill in every direction across the floor, it was enlightening.

Holding the basket upside down, banging it on the floor to dislodge small items snagged in the wicker, I was amazed by the clutter of bits and pieces clattering out, all broken off from things relegated to the trash decades ago. There were several dusty, battered fragments which had been part of my life, but weren’t part of it now, needing to be collected up and swept away.

There were other tangled memories and situations which did need unravelling, re-sorting and trashing. Many were issues resolved eons ago but I’d forgotten to remove them from my wicker hard-drive.

There was suddenly a huge amount of space in my newly emptied life-basket and I was wary of what went back in. I didn’t want to spend time and energy (a vital commodity at my stage of life) on things that no longer engaged or gave me pleasure or a sense of personal fulfilment. I didn’t want it brimming with ‘must dos’ or ‘ought tos’ or ‘should dos.’ I wanted to fill it will good things, memories and important people in my life

Last year I’d been offered wonderful opportunities to explore new and exciting ventures, meet new people, start new projects. It was exciting and stimulating, but I didn’t feel as excited or stimulated as I should. I wasn’t sure I wanted that part of my life back in my basket.

Which begged the question, “What do you want?” along with, “Life’s too short to spend it doing things you don’t want to, if you’re in a position to choose.” And I’m lucky, some things I can choose. Some I can’t. So how to differentiate between the two?

A Mental Sabbatical. Time to step back, reaffirm and realign life onto the track you want to follow. Change the things you can, come to terms with, and accept, those you can’t

It’s a lot tougher than it sounds. Stepping back from everything, and I mean everything, to discover what it is you want and more importantly what it is you don’t. Basic stuff, but how many of us do it? And what a revelation.

Things I thought were important, that I couldn’t live without, weren’t so important after all. Other things, seemingly inconsequential, have turned out to be essential to my mental well-being. An area of work I’d toyed with exploring has been the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done.

The biggest surprise has been the most obvious of all – we put unrealistic deadlines, goals and expectations on ourselves, which we would never expect of other people.

Returning from my Mental Sabbatical I can report it has been time well spent. Life does not shudder to a halt if you step back into the wings. Friends do not abandon you, the world does not fall apart. The quiet joy of time out, time to think things through, work them out at your own pace instead of charging through life, is a priceless experience. Finding balance is essential.

This morning I did something spontaneous for the first time in forever. After a freezing dog walk in the dunes, instead of charging off with my ‘to do’ list as planned, I drank tea with a girlfriend. We ended up heading to another girlfriends house to shovel snow from the canal in her garden, and ice skate – for the first time in 30 years.

People and memories; the most important things we have when everything else is stripped away.

Although I must dash, another deadline to meet…

Posted in Expat Experiences, Inspiration and Reflection, Personal challenges | Tagged , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

The End Day of the Year

The end days of the year; the hiatus between Christmas and the start of the new year.

Strange days with a dreamlike quality, slightly out of focus and removed from the reality of day-to-day routines. A sense of anti-climax after the hustle and bustle leading up to Christmas and the anticipation of seeing family and friends, of good times shared with loved ones.

These few days of calm before the New Year celebrations do not sit well with me. It’s a time out of time with a chance to relax and reflect, but with a sense of sadness and loss at another year passed so quickly. A balancing of the books; the positives and the negatives, highs and lows, frustrations and successes in a year that has been tough for many.

Reflecting over the last twelve months, 2011 will not go down on the balance sheet of life as outstanding. It’s had it’s share of  high spots (my father recovering from cancer, the engagement of our eldest son) but sadly those are outweighed against devastating losses.

Death has walked with several families we know this year. A shadowy spectre in our peripheral vision for many years, he has claimed centre stage, standing in the spotlight clear for all to see. For three friends the loss of parents, and for two families the loss of children, has had far reaching consequences as we deal with finding a new way of living without these wonderful people in our lives. Cancer continues to be an ongoing battle for others, who inspire us with their strength and courage every day.

Years like this make us reassess our expectations and values. What’s really important when you remove the gloss and tinsel are the solid foundations of family and friends. Of caring for, and nurturing, each other.

Our lives are enriched by the people in it, whose lives mesh with ours as the years pass by. We share their good times and bad, they share ours. Those are the only values that have any place when we prepare the balance sheet at the end of each year.

On this last day of the 2011, thanks to each of you who are part of my life, whether our lives touch briefly or are woven more deeply. To my husband and children without whom my life would have no value or meaning. To my family and friends who travel the path through life alongside us and enrich it every day. To those of you who take the time to read the words I write, you are part of the journey too.

On this end day of 2011, I’d like to wish each of you a 2012 full of hope, peace and love.

We’re going to need it – the world being about to end and all that . . .

Posted in Christmas, Thanksgiving and Holidays, Expat Experiences, Family Life, Inspiration and Reflection | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Hallmark Holidays and the Cyber Dilemma

The annual dilemma – the Christmas card list. To send or not to send. Who has made the list this year and who hasn’t. Send to local friends or only those outside a geographically defined area? Are acquaintances defined as friends and if you send one to them will they be embarrassed if you aren’t on their radar?

These days ecards, email and every social media on the planet, together with the notorious slowness of postal services across the globe, give us options beyond the much loved Christmas card for connecting with loved ones at Christmas.

It’s enough to have you reaching for the glühwein.

Growing up, everyone I knew lived in the same country (except for a dear great-aunt who eloped with her sister’s husband to Canada), mostly in the same town. Cards would be sent to everyone – family, friends, neighbours, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker and even the postman himself. He would be expecting his ‘Christmas Box’ too, usually in currency form. (A Christmas Box in the UK is a small gift, often money, as a festive ‘thank you’  to various people like the milkman and the trash collectors. Not to be confused with seasonal attire worn by cricketers.)

Those were the days when writing the Christmas cards really was a marathon, each lovingly covered in perfect handwriting with a personalised note and a brief update on the family, censored according to who the missive was sent to.

Aged relatives were not party to the more graphic details of our family life in case of cardiac arrest. Such detail was saved for dear friends who appreciated the annual antics of our off-spring, having regular traumas with their own.

Cards received would be lovingly appreciated and incorporated into the festive decor. Some years cards would be grouped by colour, some years by type – a selection of nativity scenes here, the more secular there. Cards from family and close friends would always make the cut for the oscar winning position on the mantel piece. Although there were times when an unexpected draft of air catapulted across the room, causing cards to hurl themselves into the fireplace with spectacular results.

Living in New Orléans each Christmas was enhanced by a visit to the Hallmark shop, where cards for every occasion could be purchased. Contained within them the perfect sentiments, expressing the exact nuance you needed in the seasonal messages, written in the finest ink across the creamy texture of the rigid, yet velvety, card.

I have been known to weep in Hallmark, finding words that touched the heart, warmed the spirit or said, so eloquently, the very thing I wanted to, but couldn’t find my own words for. I would leave the store having spent a fortune on the perfect card for the perfect person, exhausted, emotionally drained and financially much poorer.

There was my book – actually the back of my diary – where I would list the cards mailed out each year and check off those we received back. For years it was finely balanced, a soothing balm to my soul. I fully accept just how sad this is, but such balances in life affirm the rightness of things, so I make no apology for my slightly obsessive behaviour.

Cards would be sent to people I wouldn’t see from one Christmas to the next. The two women who gave birth at the same time as me, who I haven’t seen since we left the hospital clutching our respective bundles of joy. We remain connected by maternal ties and every year share an update on our eldest offspring and exchange news on subsequent children none of us have met. Teachers who were particularly kind to my children. Mothers of boyfriends I had in my teens. Neighbours I knew as a child who are now elderly and often alone.

That was then and this is now. The world has changed and us along with it. I have no Hallmark shop. Hallmark have cards I can buy here in the Netherlands, but not a great selection and most aren’t in English, so we have faced the need to adapt and move with the times. Finally.

There has also been the issue of posted mail which seems to take forever. Last year was the final straw, when several cards were returned via New York because they had ‘insufficient postage’. Oh no they didn’t – along with my Christmas card list I have a set of small scales, accurate to one gram, on which I weigh each card.

The returned cards caused much anguish. Would their intended recipients believe they had been culled from my Christmas card list and blacklist me from their own? Would they make allowances for ‘lost or returned mail’? Would they give a damn either way?

Christmas 2011 has been an attempt to get the balance right. I have abandoned hand written notes and returned to the computer generated Christmas letter, something I vowed never to do after 2006.  The problem was this well thought out plan to save time caused a fiscal one. The weight of each card and envelope required only one international stamp, insert the Christmas letter and the needle on the scales wobbled into the excess zone, where two stamps were necessary. (Note to self – buy smaller cards next year.)

Did everyone really have to have a letter? In the end I elected to save postage on some cards by emailing the letter. Is this an acceptable thing to do? Who knows, I was past caring.

My local friends in the Netherlands rarely exchange cards – by the time they’ve mailed buitenland (international), europa (countries within europe) the stress of mailing binnenland (inside the Netherlands) is too much. Cards are therefore not usually exchanged, although I love to give ones to my close friends.

This morning I met with three of them for coffee, we laughed, chatted, embraced and exchanged our cards. We may have the internet, Facebook, Twitter, texting and skype but nothing, nothing at all, beats time spent with friends opening our Christmas cards and creating real memories.

Four nationalities away from home creating traditions together. Can’t beat it.

 

 

Posted in Christmas, Thanksgiving and Holidays, England and Things English, Expat Experiences, Family Life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Dutch 30% Tax Rule and International Teachers

I’ve written about the Dutch 30% tax ruling before, a topic foremost in most expats’ minds during the annual tax period.

This year the topic gained the status of national debate when the junior tax minister, Frans Weekers, considered introducing an income threshold of €50,000 a year on the tax ruling, so that ‘wok chefs and pipefitters’ (his words) would no longer qualify. In other words to stop local European workers coming into the country whilst living over the border and spending their tax benefits elsewhere.

This included rules about where the tax beneficiaries should live ‘to stop cross-border workers from benefitting they would have to live 150km from the border’. Presumably 150km from the border into the Netherlands. A 150km exclusion zone for addresses beyond the Dutch borders. I’d like to see that policed.

While everyone focused on stopping local Europeans trying to play the system they forgot, in their zeal, that this would also include international teachers moving here from all over the world and who currently qualify for the tax advantage. They teach the children of the highly skilled workers the Dutch are trying to attract, along with foreign investment.

This new ruling was set to impact most international teachers in the country, having a devastating effect on teachers already here and recruitment in the future. Fortunately, this was not lost on the international schools and initiatives were immediately started to discuss the situation with the Dutch tax authorities.

The international schools, along with our own American School of The Hague, with the support of organizations and individuals, began a campaign to convince government officials of the negative impact of this proposed change.

It’s not difficult to see the problem. If there aren’t well qualified, committed teachers in the international schools, employees with families are not going to move here. Period.

Fortunately, the local mayors where international schools are situated, along with representatives from all major political parties, various government ministries (finance, foreign affairs, education and economic affairs), global companies and foreign investment agencies understood the problem immediately.

No schools, no expats, no money in the local economy. It’s not rocket science.

Unsurprisingly, an amendment to the proposed legislation was approved, reducing the planned levels of income so international teachers would qualify. However, the Dutch being, well, Dutch, decided to reduce the life of the tax break from 10 to 8 years (although current teachers will be allowed to retain the original 10 years).

It’s commendable the Dutch authorities reacted so positively once the impact of their proposals were fully outlined, but sad so many individuals and organisations (expat and Dutch) had to be mobilised to fight the legislation in the first place. Particularly when anyone can see what would happen to the economy without teachers.

The 30% tax ruling is an incentive to attract highly educated and qualified individuals. The priority for these people is good education for their children within the international systems. Pity someone didn’t think that through to start with.

However, a huge thank you to all those (national and international) who recognised the importance of this issue and did something about it. International teachers are a breed apart – motivated, committed and understanding of the nomadic lifestyle of the children they teach.

I’m particularly grateful for those teachers who teach here in Holland – if I was an international teacher you’d have to offer me some great incentives to teach here when there’s a whole world out there to choose from.

Give me palm trees and sunshine every time.

Posted in Advice for New Arrivals in the Netherlands, Dutch Laws, Taxes and Bureaucracy, Expat Experiences, Politics and Social Comment, The Netherlands | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Creative Detox: Using Writers’ Block to Refocus

Doors of opportunity

Doors of opportunity

I hold my hands up. I’ve been struggling with what I can only assume is writer’s block these past few weeks. Not in a hand wringing, anguished kind of way, rather an intellectual curiosity as to why the creative juices have not been flowing. Or not at the level they had been.

I know writers who go into meltdown when the muse goes AWOL without warning and for an unspecified duration. Books have been written on the subject presumably making a fortune for those who, smugly, still have the muse under control and at their fingertips.

This past few weeks has not been like that for me. Ideas that would normally see me rushing to the keyboard have left me bored and uninterested. Completely disengaged. Surely this state of affairs should have me pulling out my hair, frantic at the loss of what is as important to me as breathing. Alas no, nothing of the sort.

Of one thing I’m absolutely certain, this is only a temporary blip. I am confident enough to accept my limitations but also to have faith in what I know to be true. If I’m not writing then there’s a reason and my subconscious is desperately trying to send me a message.

I feel sorry for my subconscious.

Usually I’m quite turned in, instinctively understanding what’s going on underneath the surface. Rarely does the old SC have much to do. Something is seriously awry if the poor dear is behind a locked door hammering away and yelling like crazy and I’ve been oblivious. In a final attempt to get noticed she’s (definitely a she, no doubt about it) gone and pulled the plug on every creative nuance in my brain. Smart move really.

What may have put a spanner in her works, though, is that it hasn’t had the response she hoped for. I don’t feel despair or loss, rather I’ve enjoyed the disconnect and it’s given me time to reflect and refocus. Maybe this was her plan all along. Lord, she’s devious.

As regular readers know I’ve spent the past several months helping to set up an English speaking paper in The Hague, which has taken all my time and energy to the detriment of everything else. It’s been a glorious, frustrating, energizing and exhausting experience.

As the workload has become more organised, things are starting to gel. There have been arguments and frustrations as we’ve found our voice and niche. The lessons I’ve learned have been intriguing. Personal strengths and abilities have been tested and honed and new strengths have come to the fore, but most of all it’s been helping me fine tune the direction I really want to go in.

This was never meant to be a full-time or permanent commitment and now it’s getting established and can stand on its own feet I can step back a little – although I hope to keep a hand on the tiller for a while yet (I accept I have control issues).

Reading other writers has always inspired me, I’m intrigued by the different processes individual writers use to create a finished piece. How they chose to craft words, how they paint the pictures they do. I’ve been in a privileged position to observe this over the past months and the experience has intensified my love of words, their patterns, nuances and power.

Whilst my own writing and creativity has stalled, the payoff has been more time to let my mind wander, something essential to creativity in any field. It’s something we don’t allow ourselves the freedom to do in the hurly burly of our hectic lives, where there’s always another item on the ‘to do ‘ list.

Letting my mind wander is something I’m spectacularly good at.

Ask my family, they have (allegedly) entire conversations with me that I tune out. On especially good mind-wandering days I have been known to put items of clothing in the fridge, dirty laundry in the tumble dryer and regularly leave saucepans simmering on the stove and forget about them. Do I worry about early dementia? Not at all. I know exactly where my mind is at any given time, but can’t always guarantee it’s operating in the same reality as anyone elses.

So where is this lyrical waxing leading? The wandering mind, loosed from the ties of deadlines and ‘must dos’, has the freedom to head off in multiple directions at the same time. Confusing for family members who are intent on engaging in a rational conversation while the randomness is in full flow. Where’s James Joyce when you need a like minded spirit?

The results have been extraordinary. I have planned out two books, drawn pictures in my mind and replayed scenes in my imagination as if watching a movie. I know the time will come when the next step happens, the pictures in my head translate to words on the page. It will happen but I’m not quite ready yet

I’ve decided to balance my writing with editing, but instead of monthly deadlines with the stress and drama that inevitably entails, I have chosen to focus on larger projects where I can work one on one with authors, helping them make sense of their words and bringing order to their creative process. I know, without a doubt, this helps me to focus on my projects too. It’s something that stirs and excites me and I can’t wait to get started. Projects have started to line up and I can’t wait to see where this road leads.

Sometimes to move forward you have to let go – of people, preconceptions and patterns of behaviour. A de-cluttering of the mental processes is a normal, healthy and essential part of being creative and sane. Trust your instincts, have faith in your abilities and see this time for what it is –  a chance to find a new focus.

A positive not a negative.

Posted in Inspiration and Reflection, Personal challenges, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Thanksgiving: The Purest Holiday Of Them All

Growing up in Europe I’d never given much thought to Thanksgiving, except as an American holiday at the end of November. I knew it commemorated the pilgrims first year of survival in the New World and that was about it.

Until we immigrated to New Orleans, USA and our first Thanksgiving was a revelation.

In my superior British way, I assumed this was an American excuse for a fun time, shopping and good television. After all, this was a young, brash, in-your-face-country which couldn’t hold a candle to Europe when it came to tradition, spectacle, and sophisticated understatement.

Oh how I’d misjudged this purest of national celebrations.

We spent our first Thanksgiving with business colleagues of the Captain who’d generously invited us to share the day with them and their extended family. As Thanksgiving approached the nation went into overdrive and we sensed this was a bigger deal than we’d imagined.

Christmas trees were appearing everywhere (one notable local family had their 15 foot Christmas tree dressed and in their 2-story foyer at Halloween), along with exterior lights and decorations. The only comparable reference I had was Oxford Street in London, at the annual switching on of the Christmas lights. I was seriously worried about the ability of the national grid to handle the load. We hadn’t realised the Christmas season started at Thanksgiving.

Culture shocked we arrived at our hosts on Thanksgiving Day and were immediately assaulted by glorious aromas wafting from a crowded kitchen loud with boisterous chatter and good natured laughter. This was not a typical Deep South Thanksgiving (we later realised) but a New York Jewish one, with all the noise and chaos that entailed.

The women chatted in the heat of the kitchen, while the men passed considered opinions on the big game watching the pre-match analysis on the television. An assortment of children from toddlers to pre-teens were chasing round the good humoured adults, while the older teens had removed themselves to another room to play pool, laughing, joshing and flirting with each other.

By the time we sat down for dinner the last thing we wanted was food. From the moment we’d arrived there had been a constant supply of delicious appetizers to tempt every sense and we knew it would have been ungracious to refuse. By the time the meal was over everyone was ready to explode and lie in a darkened room until the nausea of over indulgence subsided.

We left pretty soon afterwards feeling, as only brits can, that our hosts may appreciate some time with their immediate family. In reality they probably thought we were rude and churlish for leaving before the end of the day, such is the warmth and welcoming nature of every American I’ve ever met.

From our current perspective as British naturalized Americans it has been wonderful to appreciate how deeply ingrained Thanksgiving is in the American psyche.

America is a welcoming nation; whatever your opinion on the global and national politics of the country its people have huge hearts and great generosity of spirit. They are curious, enthusiastic and embracing.

One day a year a melting pot of nationalities, cultures, colors and religions celebrate together. Of course it’s not easy, but America observes a tradition that transcends race, color, creed and politics, with everybody bringing something of their own to the table.

Literally.

Thanksgiving celebrates life and shared humanity. Whatever our backgrounds or ethnic origins we all want the best for our families and the freedom to live and worship in the way we choose. It has a purity at its core which is sometimes lost in the hurly burly of everyday life. It allows us to focus on family, friends and sharing food, acknowledging two of our most basic needs – companionship and sustenance.

So to our friends and family all over the globe, whatever country you’re in, whoever you’re sharing the day with, safe travels and have a happy, reflective, Thanksgiving.

Posted in Christmas, Thanksgiving and Holidays, Expat Experiences, Family Life, USA | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Dutch Car Insurance: Standing Up To Intimidation

I have just had a very interesting discussion with the insurance agent dealing with our stolen car. Whilst I would love to on move on to lighter topics of an uplifting nature, the wheels that are the insurance company  have ground to a halt.

It seems their wheels grind deeply and painfully in the hope that claimants give up, walk away and die quietly. If claimants refuse to keel over then other, well-oiled, heavy-duty wheels are dragged from storage and attached to the wagon that is the claims department.

There are subtle, whispered insinuations we arranged to have the car stolen for the insurance money, that we disabled the alarm, that we gave the thieves a key, that we are not Dutch therefore entirely suspect. The fact I have been telephoning regularly for several weeks checking on the progress of the claim is ‘suspicious’.

Our insurance broker has woken up to the fact our claim has been ongoing for ten weeks and has finally been galvanised into action. This afternoon found him incandescent with rage having attempted to deal with the insurance company himself. He has apologised for involving us with such shysters – they will not be using them for future customers.

He is currently writing an official complaint to the agent and every Director of T***** insurance with the help and backing of his legal team.

In the meantime I have been strangely calm and in the zone. It’s a while since I’ve been here and it’s very empowering. It’s the point where you separate yourself from the process and remove all emotion. The moment you stand up for yourself and refuse to be bullied by someone who feels he has some power over you.

There is an exquisite moment before you pick up the phone when you are sure of what you want to say, how you’re going to say it and you know with absolute certainty you are in control.

The message was conveyed without anger, rancour or hysteria using measured tones enunciated with precision. It’s not a voice I use often but it is a strong one, saved as a last resort.

Words are powerful tools whether written or spoken, they can destroy, damage, hurt and sometimes crucify. Used wisely they are the finest tools we have to communicate with each other, used by the wrong people and the results can be catastrophic. Being impeccable with your word is something I take very seriously.

Why this sudden change in tactics? Because the integrity of my spouse and myself has been questioned and that has crossed a line.

I have not had the resolution I would have liked from the insurance company today but I’m feeling good. Those insidious whispers and attempts to smear our reputation have been squarely challenged and the consequences of those ‘bully boy’ tactics made clear.

It was a heated exchange on his part, attempts to talk over ‘the little women’, shout, bluster, make smart remarks and finally silence. He knows it has gone beyond an insurance claim, there is no one to bully and social niceties are out of the window. The words spoken to him were not threats but statements of intent which will be carried through.

Knowing where you stand and being comfortable in that position is the most powerful and empowering place to be. It may not change the situation but the ground rules have been laid and we move on from here.

Posted in Dutch Culture, Dutch Laws, Taxes and Bureaucracy, Expat Experiences, Personal challenges | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Dutch Car Insurance: You’re On Your Own

We all have those times when negative energy seems to stick to us like glue, overshadowing everyday life with lethargy, leaving us dispirited and resentful without fully understanding why. It saps strength and creativity, sucking away fun and joy as easily as a Dementor removing your soul.

It doesn’t attack you head on in a violent assault, rather seeps through your bones absorbing all vitality and vivacity leaving an empty husk. Eyes which once saw the world as an exciting and vibrant playground now see it as jaded and tawdry.

There are various reasons why we can be reduced to despondent shells of our former selves; in my case it the relentless apathy of our Dutch car insurance company.

For nine long weeks, since the theft of our motor vehicle, we have endured their indifference. Happy enough to take exorbitant amounts of our money for years they have now reverted to type, looking for any possible loophole to blame us for the theft and void the insurance policy.

For the first three weeks of our loss we endured the interrogation and questioning of investigators and police, as did our insurance broker and regular garage. We were left in no doubt we were responsible for the situation we found ourselves in. It was only through the generosity and goodwill of the insurance company that our claim was being looked into at all.

At the end of three weeks there was a grudging attempt to value our missing vehicle should it not be found within a 30 day window. After 30 days the company would take ownership of the vehicle and we would receive the (under) valuation of the car. In their eyes the obvious motive for the theft of the car to start with.

On day 27, only three days to go to this cut-off point, at 4.59pm on a Friday afternoon, I received a phone call from our local police station to say our vehicle had been found. The police officer was beside himself with delight at the policing powers of the Dutch constabulary and a little surprised at my lukewarm response.

I had the same sick feeling in my stomach I experienced in 2005. Then I’d spent days adjusting to the fact we’d lost our home and belongings in Hurricane Katrina only to learn it was in fact still standing. Rather than jubilation you know, somewhere deep inside, that the process of rebuild and renewal will cost as much in the end as a total loss, if not financially at least emotionally.

That Friday afternoon, discovering my beloved car had been discovered in Brabant, used in three bank robberies and would be held by the police forensic team for at least two weeks, only added to my sense of doom and gloom. The prognosis was not good. I knew what would be involved during the weeks to come and sadly I have not been disappointed.

My car, when stolen, was in pristine condition having been serviced and detailed/valeted so the leather looked soft and welcoming and the carpets deep cleaned and spotless. Four beautifully blacked new tyres shone against the sparkling rims. It was like a new vehicle.

Only now some yobbos had raced it against police vehicles, wrecked the engine, damaged the leather interior. The back seat, torn and dirty, had been home to large concrete blocks, the driver’s seat ripped. The exterior was mud splattered and had been dragged along a wall or two on both sides, dinted and scraped.

We have endured adjusters, written and photographic reports, investigators, photographers, repairmen and are no nearer to resolution than we were six weeks ago. In the meantime my car has sat at the garage, alone, weary, sad and damaged. We have been advised not to have the car repaired as it will be impossible to sell, having its criminal record emblazoned on every car related computer screen in the land.

Our insurance company have been less than useless. After five weeks I managed to get a name and contact number for a company associate, who sounds as if he’s a member of the Moscow mafia. He only updates his caseload on a Friday afternoon when the rest of the world has gone home for the weekend. This ensures he has a quiet start to the following week, when it takes the rest of the world 2-3 days to catch up with emails from the previous Friday.

Dos he care about us? Absolutely not. Apathy and indifference are his middle names. During telephone exchanges he relishes telling me there is a real possibility the company will not pay out any money at all, that any decision, either way, is solely in his hands. At his discretion and depending on the phase of the moon.

I realised the situation was getting to me when I found myself, on Monday, considering the purchase of an AK47 on eBay. I had been fantasising about the violent demise of a faceless mafia wannabe. It was time to throw in the towel and hand all responsibility to my spouse.

One thing I haven’t mentioned, and don’t want to get started on here, is that although the Dutch pay lip service to equality, the reality is that some Dutch men can be chauvinistic in attitude and behaviour. Mafia Man is one of them. A moronic bully.

Gosh, did I really type that?

Mafia Man does not scare or intimidate me, but he does have the power to make my life more challenging than it already is. I have to bite the tongue that in different circumstances would demolish this Neanderthal to a babbling wreck with my acerbic put downs and rapier like ripostes.

Right now he holds all the cards and doesn’t he know it.

Tomorrow we should have a final decision. My spouse is well used to dealing with Neanderthals, the words ‘legal action’ and ‘dire consequences’ said calmly seemed to do the trick. The same words uttered by me didn’t seem to carry the same air of gravitas.

Keep your fingers crossed. I’m off to check my bid on eBay just as a back up . . .

Posted in Dutch Culture, Dutch Laws, Taxes and Bureaucracy, Family Life, Personal challenges | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Law and Order Dutch Style: Impersonating a Police Officer

Last weekend our youngest son experienced a rite of passage we had hoped he could have avoided, unlike his older siblings. With much high-fiving from them, he joined their ranks, having come into contact with the local constabulary during a night out.

Parental shame is not something we take on board. We realised a long time ago that parenting has moments of exquisite joy and even more moments of worry, concern and disbelief over the antics of our offspring.

Living in Holland the drinking age for wine and beer is 16, with hard liquor restricted to over 18’s. I have no issue with this. Holland is not full of drunken teens, rather they learn responsible drinking while still at home, unlike many of their american counterparts who head off to college and binge drink.

Harry does not drink often but the two party nights of the year for him are Queens Night in April (think Mardi Gras without the floats) and Halloween, at least that’s what he told us last Sunday sitting pale and fragile ‘fessing up about the night before. I have to say that’s probably accurate as he’s never returned home totally drunk or stayed over at a friend’s to hide it.

Halloween was a big night. A group of friends had hired the local club, The Dive, for a costume party with everyone on board to have a good time. Harry in his wisdom decided to go dressed as a Dutch police officer. He’d purchased a police-hat from the local costume shop – who knew we had one?- and had completed the outfit with a tight black shirt, extra skinny jeans, shades and the requisite handcuffs and cosh. Even as an adoring mother I could tell this was more The Village people than The Wire but what do I know?

A group were biking and meeting at Winston’s, a short walk from The Dive, for a quick pre-party game of beer pong. If you’ve never heard of this game you obviously don’t have teen or college age children – yet. It saves buying drinks at extortionate prices at clubs apparently.

Leaving Winston’s in full regalia the group set off to walk the short distance to The Dive.

There is a certain rivalry between the local Dutch teens and their international counterparts. This is not anti-foreignors in any way, it’s the usual teenage antler-butting between different groups which is experienced all over the world, whether it be over different High Schools, football teams, or whatever.

Teen youths will always find some reason to exchange views with other testosterone fuelled males. During the journey Harry, Winston and friends ran into a group of Dutch stags and the general mouthing off between the two resulted in Winston trying (difficult given his slighty woozy state) to land a punch on one of the rival group.

My son, being appropriately attired, felt this was his moment to calm what could, in his opinion, have developed into an international incident. He is a calm and measured soul who would be an incredible addition to the diplomatic corp were his heart not set on a musical career.

Being the only one in his group fluent in Dutch he stepped into the fray to calm an escalating situation. It seems, by all accounts (and there are several) he acquitted himself well and calmed the situation. Hands were being shaken and an invitation extended for the Dutch kids to go along to the party, just as the real constabulary arrived, having been called by concerned neighbours.

The police force of our small town have little to do on a weekend except keep an eye on the teens. The police station is small and friendly and I am on first name terms with the officers since the debacle of my car being stolen. We may even exchange Christmas cards this year.

It seems Ingrid was the officer in charge and Harry was very happy to let her know, in Dutch, that the situation was fully under control, he had dealt with it and they needn’t concern themselves further.

Ingrid’s response is not recorded but Harry vaguely recalls that she had difficulty saying anything, being speechless with laughter for reasons which eluded him. He thinks it was at this point his handcuffs – one fastened to his left wrist – got entangled with the cosh he was waving around emphatically in his right hand and his hat fell off. Even he realised he’d lost all credibility at that point.

Names and details were taken, stern warnings issued and the rival groups sent on their separate ways, with Harry and co heading for The Dive where they had a pretty good evening by all accounts. So good Harry was brought home on the back of a friend’s bike, having lost the keys for his own and not being in a fit state to cycle even if he had remembered where they were.

At the front door he realised his house key was also missing and, using his initiative, phoned the house to be let in. This woke his exhausted parents and the dog, who felt the need to start howling at the unwelcome disruption to his sleep. The neighbours were not impressed. Harry was upright and didn’t seem too worse for wear, except for the precise enunciation of every word, a slightly goofy smile and a slight weave as he walked.

He paid the next day, a ghostly spectre, pale and haunted, worried and anxious about his criminal record and whether he would ever be able to drink again, or eat for that matter. It took several days before he felt normal. Laying in a darkened room he had time to reflect that sometimes a good night out isn’t so good in the cold light of day with a hangover, delicate stomach and a tough week ahead at school.

The house keys turned up in his jacket pocket but his bike keys are still missing, his bike standing forlornly all week in Winston’s garden. We picked it up yesterday in our car. A week on and Harry elected not to leave the house this Saturday night but had a few friends over for a quiet evening in.

From a parental point of view a valuable lesson learned by our youngest. Next year he’ll be on his own to have to make his own decisions and if he makes mistakes now we’re here to pick him up.

I wish we could have been as laid back with our other two, who are both much older than Harry and, despite their early brushes with the law, have turned into wonderful caring, compassionate and law-abiding adults. Although when I think about them Harry’s slight indiscretion pales into insignificance. Let me tell you about the night Missy . . .

Posted in Dutch Culture, Expat Experiences, Family Life | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Facing Fears: Linda A. Janssen on the Launch of Turning Points

Linda A. Janssen is a dynamic women I respect as a writer. Linda has many ongoing projects the latest being Turning Points, launched this week, which she writes about below. Having read the book and already written one review I can recommend it as an inspiring book for anyone.

So, without further ado and a huge drumroll, please welcome Linda Janssen to Wordgeyser

Facing Fears

by Linda A. Janssen

Thanks so much to Wordgeyser for hosting this stop on my ‘virtual book tour’. I’m visiting  a dozen great blogs to share a little about the writing journey that has led to the publication of my first book.

It’s hard to believe that the day has come and gone, but the book I contributed to, Turning Points: 25 Inspiring Stories From Women Entrepreneurs Who Have Turned Their Careers and Their Lives Around, has launched.

It’s an uplifting collection of personal essays in which women from all around the world, living different lives and working in various fields, reach a pivotal moment or series of events that triggers the realization that life as they know it simply must change. Each woman shares her journey, what her personal turning point was, how she responded, what resources helped her institute change(s), and ultimately the lessons learned along the way.

Kate Cobb, a women’s business and executive coach (www.movingforwardyourway.com) and Brit now living in France, is our courageous editor. Our fearless publisher is the savvy Jo Parfitt (www.joparfitt.com) who runs Summertime Publishing.

I must confess that I continue to find the whole episode an interesting mixture of overwhelming, exhausting, humbling and just plain fun! The response has been amazing, with great support from so many.

At the head of the line has been my dear friend and wonderful writer Wordgeyser. I’m not surprised as she’s always been a fabulous source of support, inspiration and writing camaraderie. So when I started planning this blog tour, I knew exactly what I wanted to write here. In fact, she touched on it herself in this recent post Silver Linings: Two Sides to Every Coin 

Writing about the mixture of fear and excitement that goes along with becoming involved in something new and big and different, Wordgeyser wrote these sage words about why we decide to swallow our hesitations and jump in:

‘Because being brave enough to put yourelf out there, accepting you might fail and still doing it, takes far more guts than doing nothing at all. Trying something new, stretching yourself and failing is of more value than not trying at all.’

These words speak volumes to me. So much so that they are written on a little yellow Post-It note stuck to my laptop, there to inspire and encourage me each time I touch the keyboard.

I love writing. It gives me great pleasure. It drives me to destraction, yet I am driven to write.

But I’ll be completely candid: sometimes putting my thoughts, feelings and emotions on the written page is scary. It’s opening myself up to inspection, review and criticism. I have no idea if others will find something in my writing that they value, whether the words will resonate, or if anyone will even care. I certainly wrestled with these demons and more as I wrote my chapter for Turning Points.

Writers are similar in this regard. When it comes to baring our souls, Wordgeyser and I are kindred spirits. How do I know?

Because this is the quote by Eleanor Roosevelt that was already sticking to my laptop when I read Wordgeyser’s post on fear:

‘You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.’

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

If you’d like to find out more about our book, please take a look at the website         www.theturningpointsbook.com, or follow along on Facebook’s The Turning Points Book page or on Twitter @Turning_Points. A portion of all sales will benefit www.seedsfordevelopment.org.

Posted in Expat Related Book Reviews, Women and Female Related, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Through the looking Glass: Spinning Plates

Wondering where yours truly has disappeared off to, yet again? Or has the dismal absence of blog posts driven you to pastures new, assuming wordgeyser is finally wordless?

Well, dear friends, I have neither disappeared or been wordless. The words are flowing in every direction but here. When they’re not you’ll find me slumped with head on keyboard, fingers still twitching in line with a brain that can’t switch off, surrounded by scattered pages etched with notes, phone numbers, ideas and things I MUST NOT FORGET. The occasional sepia stained mug, half full of cold, discoloured tea will be discovered under pages worked on days ago, along with a plate sprinkled with dried crumbs from a snatched sandwich grabbed when a missed meal was remembered.

This is the sad reality of Citizen Kane, unkempt hair, mis-matched clothing, smeared spectacles and a wild-eyed stare. I admit to taking a break yesterday morning to examine the state of my fragile sensibilities, seriously stretched on every level.

Arriving to meet my dog walking buddies I discovered they had set off without me, my own fault for running late, but in reality an added bonus as I needed the resulting space and peace. The rain had kept the fair-weather walkers indoors so it was me and the Archster allowing a few moments of brief introspection.

I think I am mentally unstable. In fact I’m sure of it.

Sleep over the past weeks has been sporadic and short. The plates we all keep spinning are increasing to numbers where one of mine will drop and smash before I know it. Like a bedraggled harridan (lack of sleep is so aging) I am running from one to the other keeping them in motion.

I no longer look at the plates themselves, what’s on them, whether they are a priority or whether the problem they represent has already been dealt with. All energy is going on watching for the next wobble and racing to set them rotating safely on their poles once more.  Always hoping tomorrow will give me time to see if any of those darn plates can be removed from my life equation.

Sometimes life is like that, it gets out of balance.

It’s like a child’s see-saw when the weight is at one end and we’re up in the air at the other, in danger of being hurled into oblivion if more weight is added. We sit, legs dangling uselessly wondering how to resolve this dichotomy.

If this sounds a little like Alice through the looking-glass, welcome to my world. The white rabbit and I have much in common, he’s been in my thoughts a lot of late. He’d totally understand my plate problem.

The issue is, my plates are small, side plates really. Not the heavy lumbering weight of serving dishes or platters which take real skill to manipulate. One pole with a heavy platter balanced on the top buckling from its weight can take all your time, energy and emotional strength, but side plates? Hell these should be handleable, shouldn’t they?

There is not one thing happening in my life which is seriously important, or has life or death consequences. I am not fighting breast cancer,  grieving over the death of a child, nursing a dying parent or grieving a parent already lost, situations which friends are coping with as I type.

I’ve had a few heavy plates in my time and those I have handled quite well. I’m just useless at the small stuff. I know we shouldn’t sweat it but not sweating it is a huge skill which I’ve lost in recent weeks. Yesterday was a timely reminder to get back on track.

Feeling tearful at being ‘abandoned’ by friends and yelled at by a Dutch jogger, (the only other person I’d seen) the red mist descended. The poor jogger (male) obviously thought I was an easy and vulnerable target, sniffed out by the alpha male looking for weakness in the pack. Let’s just say he made my day, allowing me to release a torrent of anger not seen for a while. He might think twice before picking on a lone woman again. It also helped that the Archster can speak Rottweiler if his mistress is threatened.

Anger can be a positive thing, it wakes us up, gets us in touch with ourselves.

Although my energies have been divided into different projects of late, all exciting, new and challenging it’s meant other things have been gently eased aside. It’s easy to promise it will only be for a while but time slips past and days go by and nothing changes. Time to set new priorities.

I have missed being here. It is my touchstone. It gives me that sense of calm and completeness we all need to function well. It lets me evaluate what the big stuff really is. It is invaluable.

So I’m back. I can’t promise to be coherent, fun, or fascinating but I’m coming back. There’s so much to tell you – well, after tomorrow night’s launch party for The Underground is under our belts, and the paper out to the distributors by Monday, oh  . . . and . . . and  . . .

Posted in Inspiration and Reflection, Personal challenges, Writing | 7 Comments

Sunshine Soup: Global Nourishment from Jo Parfitt

So here it finally is, after a quarter of a century writing non-fiction books (27 published), Jo Parfitt has finally achieved the dream of putting her first fictional book on the shelves.

She is a whirlwind of energy and passion. A writer, mentor, consultant, world-wide speaker and publisher with 11 titles currently in the pipeline. Her own Forced to Fly is one of them, an updated second edition.

Jo is a confident succesful woman but her dream, her Holy Grail, has been to write a novel. Sunshine Soup: Nourishing The Global Soul is not the first fictional book she has nurtured. The first never saw the light of day despite finding a willing publisher. She has always seen fiction as the toughest option for a writer. This novel took four years of blood, sweat, tears, facing down fear and self-doubt.

I was lucky enough to attend her book launch here in The Hague a few weeks back. Surrounded by press, colleagues and friends she was not basking in the glow of a dream achieved but fretting about the things she should have changed, rather like a mother anxious over the first solo outing of a young child. She needn’t have worried, this child is well able to stand on its own two feet.

Following her own advice to budding writers Jo applied the golden rule to herself, ‘write about what you know’. After 25 years living outside her home country she understands expat life, the challenges, fears and limitations and writes about them with knowledge and understanding.

Her main character, Maya, leaves England to follow her husband to a new job in Dubai. Maya is excited, has encouraged her spouse to accept the position, looking forward to the challenges and opportunities ahead for the whole family.

The book begins on the last day in their old home, the packers have left and husband and wife share that moment every expat knows. Exhausted from the packing up and final goodbyes, the new, unknown and daunting life ahead, you take five minutes to wonder if you’ve done the right thing. Maya has given up her food business, family, friends, everything she has ever known to start this adventure. Something Jo herself has experienced many times.

Arriving in the blasting heat of Dubai we watch Maya flounder and struggle with culture shock and reel with horror when she sees ‘HOUSEWIFE. NOT ALLOWED TO WORK’ stamped in her passport and realises this is not how she thought things would be.

We watch her move from shell-shocked, innocent abroad to adjusted and settled as she finds her way through an alien culture to fulfillment and strength. How she gets from one to the other is what makes the book so appealing.

If you’re an expat you will recognise every character in Jo’s book, you will have met them. The ultra organised Barb, who is the other voice of the book, involved in anything and everything. From coffee mornings, committees, picking up anyone newly arrived and settling them in, Barb is the mother hen, hiding her personal loss and sadness from everyone.

Maya starts to find her feet through food and cooking, another great aspect to Sunshine Soup as the recipes referred to are included at the end of the book. (Having sampled these recipes as real food at the book launch, including Sunshine Soup, they are wonderful). She also begins to see the darker side of expat life, the enduring sense of loss – of friends, family and personal identity. Along with alcohol abuse and infidelity.

Maya finds a way of adjusting to her life as Jo herself did, through the internet. In her early years Jo published A Career in Your Suitcase (now in its third edition) which became a pioneering book in how to have a moveable career.

Even in her first novel Jo can’t resist giving us more than we expected, three books in one. A story anyone who has lived outside their home country can relate to, a cookery book, and practical advice woven throughout on how to life your overseas life successfully. Extra material too, for reading groups.

After twenty-five years Jo can finally add ‘writer of fiction’ to her repertoire, no mean achievement as any aspiring writer will know.

Sunshine Soup: Nourishing the Global Soul
Jo Parfitt.
Summertime Publishing
Paperback, 405 pages
Price € 10.00
www.joparfitt.com

Available at AMAZON in book and Kindle format


Posted in Expat Related Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Somewhere Between Anna Wintour and Citizen Kane

The next great adventure and literary project?

A concept and vision which first appeared on my horizon at the beginning of September. A dream graphic designer, Simone Branson, has nurtured since her late teens. The product of a British father and Dutch mother Simone grew up in The Hague, bi-lingual, with one foot in the international community, the other firmly entrenched in the Dutch.

On a visit to Italy in her late teens visiting her father who was working on a short assignment in Florence, she sat in the cafes and read the local English paper put together by the international community. A vibrant publication which got below the surface of Firenze setting a tone which made Simone feel connected with the culture and city around her.

The impact and impression of the paper stayed with her over the years, waiting patiently at the back of her mind as a dream she would fulfill – one day. This summer she decided now was the time. Why now?

From conversations I’ve had with Simone it is evident she adored and loved her parents, and loves her sister Kelly. Sadly their father died some years ago and last year the sisters lost their mother. Being mature, wise and incredibly perceptive I believe this was the catalyst for bringing her dream from the shadows into the light of day.

Simone decided to call her embryo publication The Underground. To my westernised ears this rang leftist, subversive bells (on telling one girlfriend she looked horrified and announced ‘you’ll never get a job with the CIA with that on your resume!’).

When Simone explained her reasoning there could be no other title.

Simone’s mother’s maiden name was Hedy Mol, ‘mol’ being the Dutch for ‘mole’. The concept of the paper is to dig below the surface of the wonderful city of The Hague, bringing information to the surface on its culture, history, art, design, past residents and present dynamic individuals who call The Hague home.  The paper is aimed at the English speaking international community, including the Dutch.

Although Simone has lived in The Hague all her life she is international in attitude and as open-minded as any expat living here on a three-year assignment. She has a passion to share her city with anyone who is interested. And there are many of us.

Any sane person would have taken at least six months to put this all together. Simone will have done it in two. To see someone grab their dream and ride that glorious wave of self-belief and absolute focus which froths at its pinnacle with doubt and fear is impossible to ignore. Who wouldn’t want to surf that wave, support someone so determined?

All of us have a point in our lives when we need cheerleaders, a fan club to tell us we can do it, whether it’s surviving a disaster, fulfilling a dream or fighting disease and addiction. Simone is not someone who is brash, over-confident or unrealistic. She is unassuming, warm and engaging. She is someone who has a dream and is determined to make it happen, now.

After talking with friends and business contacts Simone got in touch with Jo Parfitt, writer and mentor, to get connected with local writers. Which is how I got on board, along with some very talented people who saw that Simone’s dream was viable, with the potential to enrich and connect the international community with each other and the city.

My thought was to contribute solely through writing. Somehow I’ve ended up a co editor along with the redoubtable Reina van Nieuwkerk-Racz joined by a great team of writers including the very talented Linda A. Janssen, Andrea Paterson, Carolyn VinesEowyn Crisfield, Karen T. Slingenberg, Carrie Sanderson, Kathy Voyles to name but a few, along with resident poet Sareen McClay.

Everyday new writers are making contact, wanting to get involved and we’re thrilled so many people have faith and belief in this project. Today we saw the first pre-proof copy, the tangible results of what has taken so much time and energy these past two months. It’s good.

Next week the printers and in 13 days it will be distributed in The Hague, watch out for your copy!

Interested in writing for The Underground? Guidelines at www.theunderground.nl

Twitter @UndergroundTH

Posted in Expat Experiences, Inspiration and Reflection, Personal challenges, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Silver Linings: Two Sides to Every Coin

You may have noticed I’ve been AWOL over the past week, but maybe that’s an arrogance on my part. Perhaps other things have piqued your interest during my absence and you’ve moved on and engaged with other things.

Despite rumours that I have been buried under my duvet for the last few weeks, bemoaning the fate of my stolen car, nothing could be further from the truth. Whilst that particular incident was intensely annoying and took much time and effort from already drained batteries, I have moved on.

For those of you who have expressed grave concern about the loss of my vehicle (I’m deeply touched) a brief update. It is still missing. I have been interrogated by the insurance assessor; it took strong nerves and a couple of stiff brandies after he left to regain my mental and emotional equilibrium, but it is over. Sadly, our contact with the insurance company is not. They have interviewed our insurance broker, a gruff, tough, no messing kind of man who was left shaken and subdued. They have interviewed Franck and his staff at the garage who were left reeling. They have never known such investigative work over one stolen vehicle.

On my spouse’s return from the far east, three days early due to a typhoon in Manila – we seem to attract them – the matter was placed in his capable hands. Although that’s not strictly true. On his arrival home matters were firmly taken out of my hands and all automatic weapons and sharp implements removed from the house, with solicitous enquiries as to the state of my mental health.

After two days of trying to deal with our insurance claim and being given the run around by anyone he needed to speak to, he was as equally frazzled and wild eyed as I was. Interestingly, the Dutch tax authorities have already refunded our road tax from the day our car was stolen, which indicates to me they don’t think it’s coming back.

The insurance company have been in touch to discuss a possible payout, ‘if it’s decided we will except the claim’. No stress there then. We will also have to pay 25% more to cover any future vehicle with any insurance company. You couldn’t script it. We should know next week whether a ‘new’ car is on the cards or if it’ll be the omafiets from now on.

It has been a learning curve. We know more about the workings of class 3 and 4 car alarms and  the Dutch insurance industry than we ever wished to, but lessons have been learned.

The main one being that insurance companies are the same the world over.

Despite having paid the exorbitant premiums they demand, when the time comes they’ll try and wriggle off the hook any way they can. What the Dutch don’t know is we dealt with likes of the american Allstate and State Farm companies in 2005 and we don’t give up. Ever.

So if I have moved on from the stolen car, what has drawn me from my keyboard?

I have not mentioned this new project before, because it has happened very quickly, taken more time, energy and organisation than I envisaged. Rather than it being something I could work on, alongside other things I’m doing, it has swept through life like a whirlwind, forcing me down roads I didn’t know I wanted to travel, pushing me in directions I didn’t know were there.

It has been a thrilling, scary, fulfilling, challenging and exhausting ride. My colleagues and myself are hoping to achieve something in two months that any sane person would allow at least six months to develop. Never let it be said that any of us are afraid  to accept a challenge.

It’s now at the point where all the hard work, blood, sweat and occasional tears finally come to fruition. When it could go either way – huge success or public humiliation. As of now I have no idea which it will be. I’m not as scared as I would have been when I was younger.

I guess I’m old enough to know that the greatest successes are born out of failure, that life’s most worthwhile lessons are learned when we don’t succeed the first time. And public humiliation is not the dreadful spectre I thought it would be.

Why?

Because being brave enough to put yourself out there, accepting you might fail and still doing it, takes far more guts than doing nothing at all. Trying something new, stretching yourself and failing is of more value than not trying at all.

Let me tell you all about it…

Posted in Dutch Laws, Taxes and Bureaucracy, Personal challenges | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Lest We Forget: All War Crimes Should Be Punished

Twenty years ago war erupted in the former Yugoslavia. It was shocking, terrifying and reminded us the atrocities of World War II weren’t relegated to history as we’d hoped.

The war in the former Yugoslavia brought it home that neighbour will turn on neighbour and friend on friend, when the survival of each is threatened. For most of us born after WWII we believed the horror camps, the ethnic cleansing, the torture and brutality would never happen again. If there were outbreaks of war and violence they were generally in Africa, or Asia or the middle east, not in our backyard. It would never happen in Europe, not again.

But it did.

A nation was torn apart before our eyes on our television screens night after night. We watched paralysed with horror as war was once again fought on mainland Europe. Twenty years later we are dealing with the legacy, trying to exact punishment on the perpetrators of evil and help those who we would rather forget, because remembering is too painful.

Perhaps here in The Hague were are more aware than most of the ongoing work to track down the evil monsters who have walked free while their victims are forever scarred and tainted by the ravages of brutal regimes.

The Hague is home to both the United Nations International Court of Justice, which sits in the Peace Palace, and the International Criminal Court, which prosecutes individuals for genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression. It is the latter which interests me.

The International Criminal Court came into being on 1 July 2002. Only crimes committed after that date can be prosecuted, although the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was established by the UN Security council in Resolution 827 on 25 May 1993. This gave the ICTY jurisdiction over crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia since 1991.

Which is why Ratko Mladic is now residing in The Hague, captured earlier this year and bought here for trial.

It stirred bitter memories for many and raises the old, old question of whether war criminals be tried years after the atrocities have taken place and younger generations have little memory or knowledge of what has occurred.

It has to be a resounding yes. Criminals have to be accountable for their actions whenever they took place.

For any who would disagree please read the article below. I make no apologies for reproducing it here, in full, with permission from the author, Reina van Nieuwkerk
-Racz. She is a colleague and fellow writer (www.expatcalidocious.com) who I admire and respect. This article took courage to write and is tough to read.

I ask you to read it because we owe it to the innocent victims of all wars to be their voice, to speak out on their behalf.

Thank you for taking the time to do so.

Remembering the Women of Bosnia

During the Yugoslav War (1992-1995) I was living in the town of Pécs in southern Hungary, a mere 40 km from the Croatian border. At night we sometimes heard heavy artillery fire in the distance. The war was practically on our doorstep and Hungary was closely guarding its borders.

I was working as a Dutch language teacher at the Janus Pannonius University. In the evenings I gave private English and German lessons and also took on translation work to supplement a meager teacher’s salary. Through a colleague at the university I heard that German doctors working for Medecins sans Frontieres were commissioning translation work. They were running a provisional health care centre in Bosnia for Bosnian women refugees. They needed a request for extended funding translated from German into English. To validate their claim they included vivid descriptions of the atrocities that had been inflicted upon their patients.

To this day, recalling the horrific stories still sends chills down my spine.

Serbian soldiers would surround villages and systematically take all the women folk from their homes. Family members or friends trying to stop the soldiers were shot at point blank. Mothers, daughters and grandmothers were raped in front of family members forced to watch. Some women were taken to so-called rape camps and were continuously gang raped, tortured and humiliated sometimes for months on end. Others were set to work cleaning torture chambers in what once were local school buildings, kindergartens and hospitals turned into detention camps. There the women cleaned during the day and were continuously raped at night. Women and girls who became pregnant were allowed to leave once they were too far into the pregnancy to abort.

All of these Bosnian women were Muslims.

The rapes were a strategic part of the war campaign. The Serbs knew that a raped Muslim woman was likely to be shunned and ostracized by her family and would almost certainly be unmarriageable. The Serbs wanted to shred the intricate cultural fabric that held the Muslim communities together forcing them to leave or flee Bosnia ‘voluntarily’.

Women gave birth to ‘hate babies’ often blindfolded, unwilling to see the product of their horrendous ordeal. Some women did keep their babies, but the majority ended up in orphanages.

Wendy Roberts, a reporter for the BBC World News returned to Bosnia in 2005 and interviewed some of these brave women and spoke to two ‘hate babies’ now teenagers for a radio programme called Heart And Soul, ‘Bosnia’s War Babies’. Sadly, not one of the stories has a happy ending.

These were the women the German doctors, in 1993, were trying to help. The report stated that the majority of them were unable to talk about their ordeal. Some women had clearly been pregnant but flanked by taboos, frightened and humiliated they staunchly denied ever giving birth or having been raped. The psychological damage was colossal and without the help of this centre the woman would have nowhere else to turn.

I never made a copy of the original nor did I keep a copy of the translation. I deleted it from my computer. I wanted to delete it from my mind but the images are engraved in my memory. Nearly twenty years later I feel ashamed that my twenty six year old self had not had the incentive to do more with the information. I could have written about it, I should have, but I didn’t. Today I know better.

In 2008 the Serbian war criminal Radovan Karadžić was captured and extradited to the Netherlands and today stands trial for his war crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal of the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. I was jubilant, finally there would be some form of justice for the victims of the man known as The Beast of Bosnia.
This self proclaimed president of the newly found state of Srpska had ordered the genocide at Srebrenica, which at the time was a supposed “safe area” under UN protection, killing 8000 mainly men and boys. Under his command Serbian soldiers committed atrocities to Bosnians placed in detention centers and rape camps. Their aim was to cleanse Bosnia of non-Serbs.

This summer the last Yugoslav war criminal, Goran Hadžić, was finally arrested and is now detained in Scheveningen prison, a mere ten minutes drive from where I live today.
From 1991 till 1993 Hadžić and his rebel forces participated in ethnic cleansing in Croatia. He is accused, amongst other war crimes, of instigating the massacre of 260 people who had sought refuge in the local hospital in Vukovar and expelling 22,000 non-Serbs from their homes. Currently he is in pre-trial but when finally sentence is passed on this former general and self proclaimed president of the Republic of Serbian Krajina, it will be a triumphant feat, a sign to the civilized world that crimes against humanity will not go unpunished.

According to the ICTY official website there are fourteen war criminals currently on trial, three in re-trial, nineteen stand before the appeals chamber and seventy-nine have been tried (or died before sentence could be passed). A number of them have already sat out their jail sentences and have been released. As far as the International community is concerned justice has been served. But it’s cold comfort for the *20,000 rape victims of this atrocious and unnecessary war whose legal rights were brutally violated.

• A UN report stated that the likelihood that women who have been subject to sexual violence will ever receive compensation for their suffering was doubtful.

• Margot Wallström, the U.N. Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, stated that only 12 cases out of an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 have been prosecuted.

*Serb and Croatian women were also raped, however, Bosnian Muslim women were the main victims and according to the Investigating Commission of the European Union    20, o00 reported rapes took place between 1992-1995.
____________________________________

Links:
Association of Women Victims of War (Bosnian: Udruzenje Žene-Žrtve Rata)
A non-governmental organization based in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina that campaigns for the rights of woman rape victims during the Bosnian war (1992-1995).

Women for Women
Their programs in Bosnia and Herzegovina include direct financial aid, rights awareness classes, job-skills training and emotional support. The one-year program was developed for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s special challenges and demands, and includes training that helps women earn an income and support themselves.

War Child and the Bosnian war 15 years on
At the height of the Bosnian war, amid a hurricane of killing, rape and ‘ethnic cleansing’, a movement striving in the opposite direction responded in the most powerful way they knew: with rock’n’roll.

Bosnian Genocide
A blog dedicated to remembering the war. It is a collection of relevant newspaper articles that were written during and after the war.

Posted in Expat Experiences, Inspiration and Reflection, Politics and Social Comment, The Netherlands, Women and Female Related | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment