Grand Theft Auto : The Bureaucracy Begins

. . . a continuation from previously, when I entered our secure garage to find my car gone . . .

There was an awful blank moment when the enormity of the empty space hit me like a train. Where was the bloody car? Being big on personal responsibility my first reaction was ‘where the heck have I put it?’

According to my family anytime they can’t find anything it’s because I’ve moved it.

I stood dazed, wanting to laugh. How could I forget where I’d put a car. Had I parked it at the front of the building? Had I sleep-walked during the night? What the . . . I decided to check out other options as if the disappearance of a hulking heap of metal were no more than a mislaid set of keys.

Going back to the elevator I met Kees coming the other way. I obviously looked distracted as he gave me his concerned look.

“Kees, I think I’ve lost my car!” His concern turned to panic. We went up in the elevator, checked the front of our building and returned to the garage together.

On seeing the empty space where a vehicle should have been he went into overdrive. He headed off to check the CCTV cameras with me in hot pursuit, explaining in pidgin Dutch it had been there yesterday around 5.00pm and no, I hadn’t been out since. Had I?

We sat in his office fast forwarding the security footage from the previous day, following the jerky hurried comings and goings of my neighbours. While it was playing the cold realisation started to take hold that this was not a mental blip on my part, or a prank by one of our offspring.

As the footage rolled the day moved into evening and the lights in the garages dimmed, activated by motion sensors after dark. At 11.30 the lights whooshed on and there, as if from nowhere, were three men. Not furtive, adrenaline fuelled or criminal looking, just casual and laid back as if they had every right to be there. In silence we watched them amble up the garages. Within ten minutes my car was driven out of the building, the men inside, right past the CCTV camera – a perfect head shot of all three.

Stunned doesn’t cover it. I’d stopped laughing by this stage; here was the proof it was nothing to do with me. My heart sank because you know how much hassle this is going to be. Leaving Kees to phone the police I headed home to pick up the paperwork to take to the local constabulary. Except some of it was missing, left in my vehicle after I’d taken the originals to the garage a few weeks back. Don’t say anything.

My car had been there only a few weeks before for it’s APK, (equivalent to an MOT in England and in the USA it would be a comprehensive Brake Tag including emissions checks etc). We’d had four new tyres fitted and a complete valet service.

I phoned my Dutch friend and colleague Regina to cancel our meeting and she advised me not to expect the police to do much. She was outraged that my car was the one that had been taken.

‘”Of all the cars they could have stolen in your garages they steal an old one!”

I hadn’t thought beyond phoning our insurance broker to ask what I was supposed to do. Unable to contact them by phone I sent an email with the subject line ‘Help – stolen vehicle!’  I figured that would grab their attention. I also assumed that wherever you were in the world the first thing any insurance company would want would be a police report.

I’ve had some serious dealings with insurance companies, mere mention of them can induce a stomach churning need to vomit. Never mention ‘Katrina’ and ‘Allstate’ in the same sentence.

Our local police station is well known to me having visited it twice in the past year to report bikes stolen from Harry. We won’t go there right now. Nor are police stations a complete novelty having raised three exuberant teens. It was quite nice to be greeted, by name, by the same policewoman I’d seen previously. There’s something to be said for living in a small town.

On this occasion Kees had insisted  on driving me there and dealing with the paperwork, he’d even come equipped with his CCTV footage on a memory stick. He was taking the whole situation very personally. I was fading fast trying to concentrate on heavily accented Dutch with vocabulary definitely not included in my Dutch classes. In between flashing what paperwork I had to the policewoman, the insurance broker was phoning giving updates on what I needed to do, what we were covered for.

It took an hour and a half to complete the paperwork with people waiting behind us and only the one officer on the desk. I was not popular. Well, no surprises there.

Returning home and downing a medicinal brandy (come on give me a break) I made a call to Franck. No, the Captains car would not be ready for at least five days. They’d still not located the tracker then. I explained my predicament, sought his help and the knight in shinning armour that he is, sighed heavily and told me a car would be available for my use that afternoon.

There is definitely a benefit to having my name on the registration documents of both our vehicles. It gives me real credibility in the world of car dealerships and repair shops. I am treated with a respect and deference not experienced elsewhere. I sometimes wonder if they think the Captain is a kept man, that he’s married to an independently wealthy woman.

The reality is, my name is on the documents because there was only me in the country to sign the papers at the time of purchase. And a good thing too, as I was now the responsible party who had to deal with this mess.

Regina offered to drive me to the garage to collect the car in the hope we could still manage an hour or two of work later in the aftrenoon. By now she was convinced it was an inside job at the garage.  I tried not to think about that, I wanted to be sick. A personal aspect was creeping in and I didn’t like it.

It was a long and tiring day. Things like this happen regularly when the Captain goes out of town, I think it amuses the Gods to keep me on my toes. So my car is gone. The consensus is it was stolen to order, although Regina is not convinced. She still thinks it’s a garage scam. Sorry Francke.

The neighbours are in shock and have upped security. It appears the thieves, or thugs as I prefer to call them, broke into our garages through a locked fire door which has now been ‘sorted out’.

I’m a great believer in silver linings. Our neighbours are taking the time to talk to me, are solicitous and kind. It’s very disconcerting, rather like finding yourself in a parallel universe. I’m driving a basic Jeep reminding me how much I love vehicles with solid knobs and switches instead of fancy electrics which are always going wrong.

Most of all I’m relieved the Captain’s car was not in the garage that night; they would have taken it. He’s left it unlocked the past few weeks because of the problem with the alarm. And with no tracker and no security certificate the insurance wouldn’t have paid out. Trust me, I’ve had some experience.

The biggest hurdle of all is still to come, meeting with the insurance agent. He’s called, set up an appointment and I have no idea what to expect, how things will go. And we have a language issue. I missed the Dutch class dealing with deductibles and ‘like for like’ policies.

It’ll be an interesting meeting. Will let you know how it goes.

Posted in Dutch Culture, Dutch Laws, Taxes and Bureaucracy, Expat Experiences | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Grand Theft Auto : And Not The Computer Game

I know many of you will be wondering where I’ve been, why there have been no entertaining posts to read and absorb over morning coffee for most of the past week. My apologies; I take my coffee duties seriously and promise to get back on track.

After dropping the Captain at Schiphol (Amsterdam) airport earlier in the week I returned home a little distracted as, for the first time in recorded history, my spouse had headed overseas without his mobile phone. With no time to retrieve it he had headed off phone-less to Singapore.

Driving my car into our secure underground garage (the Dutch are incredibly gifted at making use of all available space) using a personally coded swipe card, I was mentally planning how to get the Captain’s phone to him by the quickest possible route. I recall thinking how glad I was the Captain’s car, his pride and joy, was not going to be sat in the garage all week.

The reason is interesting, so bear with me.

We are in the process of changing the insurance company for our cars. The new company requires a certificate proving a security tracking system is in place and working in the Captain’s car.

His car was equipped with a tracking device some years ago but it now appears that despite having paid an exorbitant amount to have it installed, plus a yearly service fee every year since, it has never been fitted. Allegedly. Nor has a tracking certificate has ever been issued; it seems we have been driving on voidable insurance for years.

Which is why the Captain’s car is off at the dealership, but the clock is ticking down to current insurance expiring and no new cover available for either car until the problem is resolved. The security company insist the garage is at fault, the garage blame the security company. We’re keeping out of it but the last we heard there may have been a system installed after all but no one can find it. Whatever.

Which is why I swung my car so easily into our garage without having to avoid damaging the Captain’s low-slung, silver machine. Sliding out of my vehicle I made sure to remote lock it – twice – and check the door handle because I’m verging on OCD when it comes to keys and door locks. Other things too, if I’m honest.

The following morning it was a hectic start getting Harry off to school (OCD again, he can look after himself but I stress about the time on his behalf ) and walk the dog before a 9.30 meeting.

Running a tad late, arms full with computer bag, purse, several other bags and the end of a leash connected to a bouncing dog, I headed for our garage. I managed a hasty and breathless good morning as I passed Kees, the concierge for our building. He is a kind, caring man who speaks as much English as I do Dutch. We get by.

I was breathless, not because Kees has that effect on me, but because I was being dragged by my canine, excited to be heading out. We arrived at our garage, opened the side door and tumbled inside reaching for the light switch.

The interior is not the envy of our neighbours.

It resembles the back room of a church hall where items are stored before a jumble sale. It is filled to capacity with over-sized storage boxes full of paraphernalia which may come in useful – one day.

Excess garden furniture is stacked precariously, ready for the garden at our next house. Because there will be another house. One day. Crates of empty beer bottles from Harry’s lizard lounge party back in June still wait to be returned, gathering dust and cobwebs.

Several shelves are full of catering equipment ready for the next party – warming trays, seven dozen boxed wine glasses, unopened packs of plastic cups and paper plates – all bought with us from the USA and rarely used here. Boxes of Christmas decorations. A large plastic storage box each for the older kids who have nowhere (yet) to store their childhood belongings.

Three sets of golf clubs, including one ruined and damaged set in a mouldy bag wrecked after Hurricane Katrina which the Captain has been unable to bring himself to throw out. A jumble of bikes and bike related items, a full-size inflatable dinghy with paddles, two plastic and one traditional wooden sledge. A spare coffee table I plan to re-stain. The dog-bed belonging to our dear departed Sable and a broken vacuum cleaner. Remember that?

Let’s face it, most of it is junk. But junk with an emotional attachment which is a lethal combination. It means getting rid of it will be a Herculean task. There have been occasions we’ve tried, half-heartedly to ‘have a clear out’ with little success. So there it all sits, jammed and packed around the edges of our concrete box making the parking of vehicles a nightmare.

In the bright glare of the solitary naked light bulb the detritus of our life was plain to see. What was glaringly obvious after a few seconds of mental computation was that something was missing from the picture.

My car.

To be continued . . . 

Posted in Dutch Culture, Dutch Laws, Taxes and Bureaucracy, Expat Experiences | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Creativity and Talent: Don’t Dismiss The X factor

One thing I rarely admit to, certainly not publicly, is that I love what many people regard as scraping-the-barrel TV; American Idol and now the USA version of the X-factor.

Recording the programme I fast forward through the dross, which I acknowledge is about 80% of the total content. The ritual humiliation of sad individuals who should know better makes my skin crawl and I won’t be a party to it.

Yet I continue to watch the 20% because every so often there’s a story or a person who walks out onto that stage and I feel my skin prickle, heart start to pound and the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. There’s a sense of witnessing a pivotal and defining point in someone’s life that makes me feel privileged and, I’m not ashamed to say, a little moved.

Last night was a rare evening when I could indulge in my ‘trash TV’. It may not have been the live performance but that’s okay.

I often wonder how the judges sit through the auditions when most of them are so bad. Then something sensational happens. When the world’s top record executive, L.A. Reid, and the most successful talent scout in the known universe, Simon Cowell, sit up and take notice you know you’re in the presence of something special.

These are men who don’t have time to waste, who are in this to sign up the next big deal. Watching their facial expressions is priceless. You can see dollar signs flashing across their eyes like spinning wheels on a slot machine when someone can perform. Occasionally those wheels stop spinning, three XXX’s line up and they know they’ve hit the jackpot.

There are cynics who sneer and look down their noses at such nonsense but I think they miss the point. Entertainment shows are often the only way performers get the chance to sing in front of people with power in the music industry.

Hopefuls stand in line for hours, tagged with an audition number, waiting with the wannabees, the deluded, the fame hungry and the money oriented who see only the dollars. And there are a lot at stake, $5 million to be exact. And a starring role in a Pepsi commercial that will air at this year’s Super Bowl.

Once in a while, the magic happens. An unassuming someone walks on to the stage who’s passion and drive to sing has bought them to this moment. The chance to stand centre stage and share their gift with a jaded, skeptical and scathing audience, four of whom can change their life with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

There is a definite something that sets these people apart. Generally they are not arrogant, most times they are modest and humble. They are driven by something deep in their core, something they cannot ignore. Their talent doesn’t drive them, it defines them. Watch a performance and you see the essence of the singer in the emotional interpretation of the lyrics. Raw, exposed-to-the-soul emotion.

As the audience roar and applaud this star in the making, the performers are often overcome by emotion. They have allowed their talent to explode into the world and soar, often for the first time. For them it is a deeply personal, almost spiritual, revelation. It is rare to witness another person so exposed and it touches something very primal in all of us.

I am awed by the talent of ordinary individuals who have taken a leap of faith and been true to themselves. It’s a huge pleasure to share their journey from that first ‘yes’ through the final stages of the competition, watching them grow, face challenges and become comfortable with their gift. There is a point when the competition becomes irrelevant and their talent has transcended the confines of a television show.

Last night I was blown away.

Stacy Francis is a 42-year-old who spent her twenties being told by an abusive partner she was useless and too old to achieve anything. She hasn’t had the breaks. I wondered cynically, along with the rest of the audience, if it’s because she couldn’t sing. Then she said something that made my skin prickle, ‘ I don’t want to die with this music in me‘ and you knew she was special. Check out her audition.

I thought so much talent would be enough for one programme. Until Chris Rene turned up. A 28-year old man with a troubled past and a young son, a trash collector recently out of rehab wanting to turn his life around. Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard it all before. yawn, yawn. Except he said something which touched a chord,

There’s always a chance and always a choice. Life is too precious to waste’. Wise words from someone who knows the darkness of a bad place.

Telling the judges he would sing his own composition a restless, irritated ripple went round the auditorium, and knowing looks were exchanged between the judges. This guy was going to bomb. A wannabee with an unrealistic view of his talent.

Until he opened his mouth. Then you knew he was special, very special.  Watch it here.

I’ll be watching watch Stacy and Chris over the coming weeks. Both have experienced setbacks in life but have chosen to fight back and believe in themselves when no one else would.

Artistic talent is uniquely human. Throughout our history it has possessed and driven individuals to the highest pinnacles of achievement and the deepest depths of depression and despair. It can be enriching, edifying and beautiful but has a dark destructive side.

Creativity in others intrigues and inspires me; whether it’s watching a production of Shakespeare, looking at a great painting, reading a well written novel or listening to a contestant on the X-factor. If it excites, engages and moves me then it works, whatever medium that creativity is expressed in.

Looks like  X-factor is going to be a hell of a series and I’ll be along for the ride.

Posted in Family Life, Personal challenges, USA | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Dutch News Round Up : Are They Serious?

Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in Vries

Image via Wikipedia

It’s a fabulous Friday, the sun is shining, I’m in a frivolous mood and feeling flippant. And no, I haven’t been enjoying a liquid lunch. For a change I thought it might be fun to comment on a few snippets of this week’s Dutch news.

The Tale of the Budget Hacker

I’m sorry but I think it’s hilarious. The Dutch government has been highly embarrassed this week by their 2012 spending plans being published online. It seems some smart person simply changed the date on last year’s budget website URL from 2010 to 2011 and discovered the budget waiting for publication. Duh.

The person responsible has been described as ‘a hacker’. Come on. This was someone using their initiative who got lucky. The plans were only leaked a day earlier than intended, four days ahead of the opening of parliament and Queen’s speech. The idea being that MP’s would have time to prepare for the political debates on the finer points of the budget later next week.

The Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, was reported as saying ‘ the leak is extremely irritating and unfortunate.’ I bet. It seems next year documents will not be available until the day parliament opens. Assuming someone thinks to block the 2012 budget website until publication.

Tales of Fishing Poles

It seems the Poles are in trouble again. They’ve been fishing for carp and pike and not throwing them back. Perhaps, like me, they regard throwing the fish back as a bit of a waste of time. Seems they’ve been eating the fish. Who’d have thought it? And that the Poles are partial to carp and pike. It’s amazing what you learn.

A spokesman for Sportsvisserij (the national fishing organisation) said ‘They have other (different?) ethics and culture.’ Obviously. They assume fish are to be eaten. As I did but I’m learning. Apparently extra wardens are being used by local fishing clubs and publishing information in Polish to encourage Polish fisherman to throw fish back. Good luck with that one.

Banning the Burka

Today the Dutch cabinet will agree to ban the burka at their regular meeting. Women wearing one in public are to be fined €380. This follows bans in France and Belgium. What surprises me is that the normally tolerant-of-all things Dutch have an opinion and are taking a stand on this.

Putting aside my own views it seems a huge statement for the government to make when it’s believed there less than 100 women in the country who actually wear a burka. Most Islamic women wear headscarves and very pretty they look too. Given the unpredictability of the Dutch weather it seems very sensible. Come to think of it, most of the women in head scarves probably aren’t muslim at all, just sensible huisvrouws.

I’ve only ever seen one women here in a full burka and she was taking a short stroll outside the Iranian embassy residence and I’m pretty sure she’d have diplomatic immunity.

Obviously a strong political move on the part of the government. Nothing at all to with the execution of a Dutch national in Iran back in January then??

Royal Family Website.

Scanning through the doom and gloom of the (leaked) government budget, tucked away between the budget deficit, rising unemployment and tough times ahead for the nation was an item that caught my eye. €300,000 for a new Royal Family website. Come on guys, what joker thought this was a good idea?  I can’t imagine Queen Beatrix will be impressed.

Or did ‘the hacker’ just type it in for a bit of a giggle when he pressed the publish button? I’d like to think so. At least that would show a sense of humour and have nothing to do with insensitive government thinking. And was it also a joke that €300 billion has been set aside for the European emergency fund?

Emergency fund? They’re obviously expecting one heck of an emergency. Apologies, my lighter mood has evaporated. Perhaps we’ll forget the news for now. For quite a while if the doom merchants are correct.

Normal blogging will be resumed . . .

Posted in Dutch Culture, Dutch Laws, Taxes and Bureaucracy | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Pylons and Pianos Unrelated?: Not as Much as You’d Think

Sometimes you read an article or catch something on TV that stops you in your tracks and makes you wonder about life. I had two experiences like that yesterday which (on a small scale) blew me away.

The first was an item forwarded by a friend – I’m very lucky to have some smart, artistic friends who like to keep me on my toes, for which I’m very grateful. Left to my own devices I’d exist in a cultural desert.

Play me I’m Yours’ is an artwork by artist Luke Jerram in Tilberg, the Netherlands. This week, from 12-18 September 2011, 100 pianos will be scattered around Tilburg in parks and public places for anyone to use. Several are available for the public to decorate and personalise. How cool is that? Check out the website for more information and a map where the pianos are located.

Impressed that someone thought of the idea in the first place and town embraced the concept with enthusiasm,  I’m stunned none of the pianos have been vandalised or stolen. Holland is one of the few countries in the world where this could happen. It would not occur to the Dutch to steal or vandalise – unless it’s bikes, we’ve had three stolen – the pianos are there for the pleasure and enjoyment of everyone and are respected as such.

It’s a real enigma for me – the Dutch can be blunt, even rude on occasion, but they have a side to their cultural personality which is generous in spirit. See them at an Andre Rieu concert and you’ll understand what I mean.

The other thing grabbing my attention was a item on the BBC which intrigued me.

Have you ever given much thought to electricity pylons?

No, I didn’t think so. They are one of those things that are just, well, there. They scar the landscape and we block them out, accepting their existence as a necessity of modern life. We switch on our lights without thinking how the power is transported down the wires and into our homes.

Most of us anyway, although there are websites out there created and lovingly maintained by those who are passionate about electrical pylons. Who knew?

Recently the powers that be in the energy industry announced the pylons blotting the landscape of the UK for several generations need to be replaced. Back in May they launched a competition to find a more aesthetically pleasing alternative to the pylons which have marched across England’s green and pleasant land since the 1920’s.

The Pylon Design Competition aims to find a new, innovative design of pylon that will help carry electricity from power stations to communities. The competition is under the operation of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) for the Department of Energy and Climate (DECC) and National Grid.

I realise I’m a bit behind the times on this but the great thing about running to catch up is by the time I stumbled on this rather thrilling life enhancing project, the shortlist for designs has been compiled. Check it out at

These two topics may seem random and completely unrelated, but actually they’re not.

In their different ways (one cultural and artistic, the other scientific and commercial) both have found a way to enrich the lives of everyone, feeding the spirit and soul in each of us.

Despite the global economic downturn there are people out there who understand and appreciate that nurturing the human spirit is essential. It is these seemingly small and unimportant details in our daily lives which enhance the world around us. It’s what defines us as human. And that’s why I’m quietly blown away.




Posted in Dutch Culture, England and Things English, Inspiration and Reflection, The Netherlands | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Expat Tax: What the Dutch Really Think

Catching up on the Dutch news today I was stopped in my tracks by an item headed ‘Minister to stop 30% tax ruling . . .’  and didn’t read any further.

For those who don’t know (and why would you?) the Dutch tax office, the Belastingdienst, have what is known as the 30% Tax Ruling on income for certain foreigners working within the country.

To be eligible you have to meet the following criteria (unless fascinated by the subject you may wish to scroll through the italicised  information below, it is rather dull),

  • The employee works for an employer liable to withhold Dutch payroll tax on the employee’s salary.
  • Employer and employee have to agree in writing that the 30 percent ruling is applicable.
  • The employee has to be transferred from abroad to a Dutch employer or has to be recruited from abroad by a Dutch employer.
  • The employee has to have specific experience or expertise which is not, or is rarely available in the Netherlands, for example specialists in a specific line of business.
  • The application for the 30 percent ruling has to be done by both employer and employee. If the 30 percent ruling is applicable, the gross salary of the employee will be reduced by 30 percent. This will most likely also have implications for your potential unemployment or disability benefits since these benefits are based on taxable salary. Therefore the tax authorities require that both employer and employee are aware of these consequences. This agreement in writing can be done by means of a clause in your employment contract or as an addendum to the employment contract.It is only possible to claim the 30 percent ruling if you are transferred from abroad. You have to prove that you were residing in another country before you came to the Netherlands for this job. The employer has to state, by means of a letter of recommendation to the tax authorities, the reason why he/she hired the employee and what makes the employee so special for the company. The employer may be asked to prove that they did not succeed in finding an employee with comparable expertise in the Netherlands.The employee has to have specific skills that are scarce on the Dutch labour market. These specific skills are determined by several aspects such as salary, age, employment history, education and level of employment. None of these are conclusive; it is the combination of all aspects that will determine your specific skills.
  • You can exchange your drivers license without retaking a driving test.
The bottom line, if you’re not totally glazed over, is that to be eligible for the 30% ruling there are awful lot of hoops to jump through and lots of paperwork to fill in.
The reason for offering this incentive to foreign employees is because they incur more expenses than a Dutch employee; for example, the cost of living is higher here relative to many other places and employees may have double housing costs if they have to maintain a house back in their home country.
The Dutch being pragmatic and appreciating the mountain of paperwork it would involve, decided to abandon tax deductible allowances for foreigners to offset cost of living expenses. Instead they worked out that these additional costs amounted to 30% of salary and offered foreign nationals (who met the requirements) a 30% tax deduction on their gross salaries.

 The 30% ruling is technically a tax free reimbursement of expenses but its perception by locals is that expats have their tax liability reduced from 52% to 36% of gross salary. (The fact the Dutch nationals have a tiered percentage for taxes payable ranging from 33-52% depending on income level is rarely mentioned.) 
You still with me? 
The reason the authorities agree to such concessions is to attract big multinational/ global companies and organisations to the Netherlands, which by association enhances the international standing of the Netherlands.  It also offers employment opportunities to Dutch nationals within those same companies.
The tax office is happy not to have a mountain of complex paperwork, companies are happy because international employees might be attracted to working here and most Dutch people are happy as the disposable income of  foreigners goes back into the local economy.

However, many of the general populace in Holland don’t see it in that way.

What they see is wealthy foreigners who pay no tax at all. I know this because on several occasions it has been pointed out to me in very strong language, and with a certain amount of venom, that ‘you people’ come to Holland, pay no tax, don’t learn the language and are an abomination.

Now before you all assume such tirades were induced by some horrendous cultural faux pas on my part I’d just like to set the record straight. Most of the time I’m assumed to be Dutch by the locals and I try to blend in wherever I am. I’m very aware of the buttons not to push when around the Dutch.

The first time I was subjected to a public tirade/ humiliation on taxes was when I inadvertently look someone else’s parking spot. How that related to our income tax status I’m not sure. I was informed I’d taken the parking spot by a man, incandescent with rage, who hammered on my car window to tell me so. Not able to follow his torrent of obviously abusive Dutch I asked, in Dutch, if he spoke English. Ouch. Fuel to the flames.

That did end quite well though, as once I regained my composure and tracked him down in Albert Heijn (our local grocery store), I got the chance to put him right. Firstly I apologised for stealing his parking spot; I just hadn’t seen him. I also reminded him that new people were arriving in the Netherlands every day and couldn’t be expected to know the language in the first week. And my spouse did pay Dutch tax – and for the record USA tax too.

In the end the poor man ended up apologising to me, just to escape.

The second time it happened was in the Gemeente, (Town Hall) trying to exchange my daughter’s US driving license for a Dutch one. Was she here under the 30% rule? No, but her father was, would that help?

Wrong response. The normally calm, urbane gemeente expert-on-all-things-expat went ballistic along the same lines as the previous man. An impromptu rant about ‘did we know how much tax dutch people have to pay? Have you any idea? And you people pay **** all.’ Not quite true as I now know.

He was in pointy finger mode too, jabbing a rigid digit at my daughter and myself as if he’d like to see us burn in hell. A pointy finger in our house is considered an invitation for me to get up close and in the face of the perpetrator; in this case a utilitarian counter was between us and I couldn’t be bothered.

Most business people in the Netherlands understand the process of attracting big business who bring in well-educated, well qualified and let’s face it, relatively high earning individuals. They also understand that in the ‘where I’d most like to live in the world’ rankings, the Netherlands doesn’t really figure. Tempting companies with tax breaks who can then tempt employees here for a few years seems a win-win situation all round.

To see that headline this morning did make me sit up and take notice. Except I’d read it wrong, it was Minister to stop 30% tax ruling for low-earning expats’. A total enigma as, according to Dutch urban myth, there’s no such thing as a low earning expat.

I read on with interest.

It seems the junior tax minister, Frans Weekers, is considering 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. According to RTL news, ‘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. How this would be policed I have no idea, nor can I see the Germans or Belgians being impressed.

It seems the tax break costs the Dutch treasury €25m a year. I’m left wondering how much the economy is boosted by foreign workers being here in the first place, and how much difference it really will make to reduce the number of workers qualified to claim the break.

Seems to be a provocative statement driven by a political agenda rather than an economic one. But then what would I know, I’m just a foreigner.     


Posted in Advice for New Arrivals in the Netherlands, Dutch Culture, Dutch Laws, Taxes and Bureaucracy, Expat Experiences | Tagged , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

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

This was first posted when our middle child was in her freshman year at LSU. As the first reports trickle back of how this years new under-grads are faring, let this be a warning for parents… for the record, the daughter in question is now post college and a clean freak.

I hear the phone ringing and curse the one on my desk with a dead battery. Pressing the send button on the keyboard I dash through to the kitchen and grab the kitchen phone before it stops. Glancing at the number I smile; it’s Missy calling from the States. I press the answer key.

‘Hey Missy, I’ll call you back!’ She’s a student at LSU, and as I dial her number I’m thinking it’s a strange time of day for her to call. Two rings and she picks up.

‘Mom, I need to ask you a question real quick.’

I smile indulgently wondering what sage, motherly advice is required, what the crisis can be. A recipe emergency: what meat do I need for lasagna? A medical issue: can I take NyQuil and Tylenol at the same time? Or the correct answer to a trivia question, drunk-dialled at two in the morning her time – more often than not monarchy related – her girlfriends assume by being born with a British passport I’m on first name terms with the Royal family.

Okay sweetie, what is it?’

‘How often should you clean the toilet?’

Sometimes you’re stopped in your tracks as a ball hits you from left field and you’re struck dumb.

‘I’m sorry?’

Not an imaginative response but a good default one in the circumstances. Missy has been at university, sharing an apartment with three high school girlfriends, since August last year. It’s now the end of the spring semester.

‘How often do you think you should clean a toilet?’ I’m playing for time wondering where this is headed.

‘Well, that’s the thing Mom. We’ve decided to have a bit of a spring clean and kind of wondered how regularly the toilet should be cleaned. Just as a general thing.’

How can she NOT know the answer?  All her life she’s been warned to be careful, there’s bleach in the toilets or sinks. The Captain is always coming home complaining the house smells of Clorox. I’d even given her a lesson on how to clean the darn thing before she left home, although to be fair, she had looked rather underwhelmed at the time.

‘When did you last clean it?’ I hold my breath.

‘We’ve been having a think about that and we figure, oh, around the beginning of last September,’ oh…my…god… that’s over eight months ago, ‘and we’re a bit concerned about the maggots.’


‘Underneath the toilet seat and the carpet around the pedestal. We’re a bit worried about the bath too; it’s looking a bit grubby.’

Dear. God. I hope not literally.

‘Well… ‘

I can’t get the vision of a maggot infested bathroom out of my head and I’m panicking it’s going to be there for the rest of the day, possibly longer. I fight the urge to retch and I’m aghast at my daughter’s, and it has to said, her girlfriends, appalling lack of basic hygiene.

Outlining the minimum requirement of toilet and bathroom cleaning, calm advice is given along with information on suitable cleaning products, how to apply them, and how to deal with maggots, like it’s perfectly normal to have this conversation.

I decide to ask a few tentative questions about the rest of the apartment, in particular the kitchen and fridge.

Further dialogue follows, with several enlightened and drawn out ‘ohhhh’s and ‘wow, I never knew that’ from her end of the phone, and reassurances from mine – if they hadn’t already died from food poisoning or maggot attacks everything would probably be fine.

‘Aww Mom, you’re a lifesaver! None of the other girls dared phone their moms to ask in case they got yelled at.’ I can relate. ‘I’ll call you later, let you know how we do. Hey, I guess we should really get some latex gloves to deal with the maggot situation, yeh?’

I walk back to my desk shaking my head in disbelief. These are supposedly, bright intelligent girls. I log onto Amazon and express ship The Cleaning Bible: Kim and Aggie’s Complete Guide to Modern Household Management down to Baton Rouge.

As a last note :  Missy emailed later to say this was the GROSSEST thing she’d ever had to do, and due to the excessive fumes from the cleaning fluids they’d had to vacate the apartment for two days until it was safe to return. She was also amazed at the variety of mould it’s possible to get on different types of rotting food.

Posted in College Bound Kids, Empty Nest, Expat Experiences, Family Life, Personal challenges, USA, Women and Female Related | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Cultural Insensitivity 9/11: When Journalists should not have an Opinion

Monday morning, getting started on the week.

Catching up on emails and media coverage getting a feel for what’s happening in the world. I subscribe to blogs sent automatically by email. It’s a professional interest if you will, seeing what fellow writers are working on, their thoughts on world media.

Some mornings I’ll save them to read later over coffee, sometimes I dive right in. That’s what happened this morning. My colleague over at adventuresinexpatland has today written an article entitled 9/11 Cultural Insensitivity 101.

It is written in response to one published in the Sunday Times (UK) Culture Section by David James Smith, Remember the Fallen, about those who jumped from the Twin Towers to escape the fires. (I find the title repugnant on so many levels.) Mr Smith is actually a good writer but is no stranger to controversy having written about the James Bulger case, Nelson Mandela and race issues. He is honest that some of his writing is provocative, seeing it, ‘ …  as a grenade lobbed into the heart of middle England‘.

All well and good in general terms. It can be useful to give people an intellectual kick in the butt now and again, offer a different perspective.

Then there some subjects that are private, sacrosanct and worthy of respect. They are not newsworthy in the real sense of the word. They are things we instinctively regard as private, personal, that should not be intruded on unless there is a higher motive.

Linda Janssen at adventuresinexpatland is a smart, culturally aware, politically savvy woman. She never writes or speaks without fully understanding the impact her written or spoken words may have on those around her. She is a powerhouse of energy, pragmatic, razor-sharp.

Whilst part of me does not wish to publicise David James Smith’s article, I found Linda’s response to it more compelling and worthy than Smith’s original words and feel her voice should be heard to balance his views.

On 9/11 she was in the Pentagon where American Airlines Flight 77 hit. She worked in combatting terrorism. I think that gives her the authority to have an opinion. She has always maintained a dignified silence on 9/11, her respect and regard for lost colleagues and their broken families paramount.

That she felt compelled to respond to the Sunday Times article at all says much about her ethics and moral code.

I ask that you click on the link and read Linda’s article, I’m only sorry she had to write it in response to another.

And for the record, yes I have read Smith’s article.



Posted in Expat Experiences, Inspiration and Reflection, Politics and Social Comment, USA | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

S.A.D or Just Sad?: The Legacy of the Dutch Summer

I have bemoaned the non-arrival of the Dutch summer for well, the whole of the summer.

Much was promised in the warm, soft days of spring when we could venture outdoors sans sweaters and coats, absorb the warming sunlight through our exposed winter-swaddled skin, soak up all those vitamins our bodies had been starved of since last year. It was glorious. Perhaps this would be it, a repeat of the summer of 2006.

That’s when we arrived here, on 22 July, direct from the searing heat, drenching humidity and brutal sunlight of the sub-tropics.

The weather here in the Netherlands was incredible. Hot with low humidity, long, long days and a northern blue summer sky. Day after day was a photocopy of the one before, as a system of high pressure sat over us.

I was thrilled. My memories of childhood in England, although sprinkled with fleeting remembrances of long sunny, summer days, and one hot holiday in Cornwall where I got sunburned, they are equally balanced by rainy days, cold beaches and drenched coastal towns.

Except the summer of 1976 which was the first long, hot, drought-inducing summer I remember in England. It was also the first time I vacationed abroad to somewhere with guaranteed heat; the Mediterranean. Four of us headed to Ibiza (before it became party central for Europe) and I fell in love with the sky, the water and the bone soothing warmth.

The day before we returned home I sat alone on the beach, not a living thing in sight and watched the blinding sunlight dancing and dazzling on the crystal clear aquamarine sea. Warm sea; you could dive in and feel wonderful, free, unfettered, apart from life. The sky was a blue I’d never seen except in photographs or books.

My soul had fallen in love, my spirit soared.

Years later I experienced a different heat, one so drenched with moisture every breath you took felt like you were inhaling water. It took some adjusting to, but the light was spectacular, the sky a depth and hue that sometimes looked violet in its density. Big sky you could read like a book; colours so intense it was like van Gogh had let loose with his palette.

Blacks and greys and greens and purples, each hinting at a violent change in weather, but my favourites were always the blues and violets; they saturated the sky when it was hot, heat that made your head and skin throb and sweat slide slowly over your eyeballs and down your spine.

The beaches of the Florida panhandle were a four-hour drive from home, where the sea is incredible and sand the stuff of television advertising. Palm trees, soft breezes and stunning, vibrant, bright light. We visited often.

The summer of 2006 promised much for our new life back in Europe; if this was the result of global warming bring it on.

Nights were spent with windows thrown open, a light cotton sheet the only bed covering. It was wonderful. The fact our neighbours were constantly complaining about the heat should have been a clue this was not an entirely normal state of affairs.

I chose to be blind and wandered long afternoons through leafy cool woods in flip-flops and clothes I wore in more southerly climes. Evenings were long, warm, comfortable to sit outside. I was smitten.

For a while.

We have not experienced another summer like it in five years. It was an unprecedented summer, for all the right reasons. The summer of 2011 has been particularly abysmal. My family have been rolling their eyes at my constant complaints and, I must admit, there have been times when I wondered if it was me and merely reflective of my mood.

Those of you who are regular readers will remember our summer vacation to the warmth of a Canadian summer were hit by a double whammy; Canada was experiencing unseasonal low temperatures (perfect weather was reported as soon as we left) and the Captain was injured necessitating an early return, resulting in us spending much of the summer at home.

The weather has been rather wet, and last week, during a particularly untypical storm, you could have been forgiven for thinking it was November. That day I received an email from my spouse forwarding another from the American School website.

The website is rather like a cyber car boot sale, and totally ingenious.

With the high turnover of expats there are always people desperate to get rid of ‘stuff’ and the website offers a place to advertise and sell pretty much everything. Electrical transformers, vacuum cleaners, kitchen equipment, TV’s, washers, dryers, bikes, cars, furniture, garden furniture, anything and everything.

The Captain, obviously concerned about my mental state over the coming winter following the dismal summer, had spotted a S.A.D. lamp for sale, only used twice (in Holland?). Bought for €250 in the UK (much-needed there too) it was being sold for €40. I guess he figured it would be cheaper than therapy.

I phoned immediately and dropped everything to rush round to buy it from a delightful lady called Beth, who, it turned out, lived down the road. She’d purchased the lamp for a previous move to Moscow, unaware that the chilling cold of a Russian winter is often accompanied by a cloudless sky and sunshine from horizon to horizon. Her lamp was redundant.

I feel a bit of a wimp buying this lamp, but as all bright light bulbs are being banned by the EU, plus the news this week that it’s been the wettest (so in my book, worst) summer here since 1906, maybe it’s not such a bad idea after all.

I have to admit to feeling rather smug I was right about it being a bad summer, and that I’m now equipped to deal with the dark, gloomy days of fall and winter.

Will let you know how it goes –  although an Indian summer first would be rather nice . . .

Posted in Dutch Culture, Expat Experiences, The Netherlands | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

After the Storm: Phoenix Rising 2005

This is the fifth of a short series recounting what happened to our family over the weekend before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of America on Monday 29 August 2009, and the immediate aftermath. At that time our home was south of Slidell, Louisiana, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, a 35 minute drive from the French Quarter in New Orleans and less than a mile east of the Interstate 10 Twinspan Bridge crossing the lake. 

Debris near our home - Oak Harbour 3 9 2005There is a time for remembrance and a time for moving on.

Generally, living through a stressful life event, whether it is death, divorce, illness, job loss, bankruptcy or something similar there will be support. The event will be happening to you, or those in your immediate circle, then will ripple out to family, friends, acquaintances, neighbours and social groups.

In times of need these people will step up, offer support in any way they can until the crisis is over and you can stand steady on your feet again. You would do the same if the roles were reversed. It’s what we all do when we know a fellow human being is suffering, we hold out a hand and walk a while beside them.

Imagine an event so catastrophic it doesn’t only impact those close to you, it impacts everyone you know; family, friends, neighbors, social groups, your church, every single person in your town, your city, your Parish, your state and neighbouring states, who are all struggling to come to terms with the same event as you. Without power, water, or food in conditions so basic they are unprecedented in first or even second world countries. Over an area from Baton Rouge, Louisiana to Alabama and beyond.

What happened in New Orleans post Katrina was a man-made disaster; after the storm had passed through the damage in the city was manageable, what you would expect. The evening of Monday 29 August people were partying in the streets, some people had returned to their homes. What happened over the next few days was a disaster that was always going to happen.

Those events are well documented elsewhere and I have little to add here to what has already been written. I do have an awful lot to say, but here is not the time or place. For the same reason I will make no comment on FEMA or the federal government. However, my praises go to the Red Cross and the ordinary people of the USA and the rest of the world world who did what they could, whose help and caring did reach the people who needed it.

One sadness I have for the people of New Orleans is that the storm and aftermath affected everyone, but it was spun into a race issue and politics got involved. The black population of New Orleans was twice that of the white, still is today. I have a friend who, on a particularly bad day, announced that if he ever wrote a book on Katrina he would call it, White People Lived in New Orleans Too. Those inciting the race issue, mostly people with other agendas outside of the city, did little to help anyone, black or white.

Our Home after Katrina - bottom center

Beyond the city, beyond the failed levees, the damage was caused by the unleashed power of a perfect storm. Unprecedented. Decimating. Apocalyptic. Damage on a mind blowing scale that would take months to scratch below the surface. Debris collected and built into gargantuan, organised bonfires that burned and burned for months, fed by hundreds of truck loads of trash bought there 24 hours a day, their smoke seen on the horizon to the north of us. Barges filled with debris shipped to Nicaragua.

Swathes of houses gone, nothing left, ground scoured clear of every living blade of grass like the photos of Hiroshima. It was that bad.

For two days after the storm we believed our house, even the ground it was built on, had gone, absorbed back into Lake Pontchartrain. We had messages from people on the ground in Slidell that our subdivision was gone, that only water remained. We had seen helicopter footage on the news of the homes the other side of the Twinspan bridge from us, where even the concrete bases of the homes were gone.

The Twinspan bridge itself, where the water had flowed under the supports with such ferocity that entire sections were lifted out and carried away by the broiling mass.

We accepted everything had gone, clung to each other in the night, grieved the loss of our home and our life before the storm, unsure of the future. Terrified.

Late on Wednesday night of that week we discovered on a routine phone call to the older children in Baton Rouge, that Joe and a friend had left Baton Rouge to try and drive home, see the damage himself.

A young man in his early twenties heading into a locked-down zone under military control in an area where guns were the only law, where looters would be shot on sight, questions asked later. We couldn’t contact him – cell phones didn’t work from Baton Rouge to hundreds of miles to the east into Alabama and Florida. They were long hours of fear, panic, stress until 02.00am Thursday morning when a call finally came from Baton Rouge to say he was back.

The house was still there.

He’d got into Slidell on the back roads, avoiding the military check points, been held at gunpoint by neighbours guarding the entrance to our subdivision – he had to show them ID to get in.  He’d stood on the driveway to our house. The truck was still there.

The water had surged through from the lake, up to the roof line of the house, and back. The boards on the house had all held, except for the garage and one torn from the back of the house but the glass held. He’d not been inside, we had no idea of what was there.

The Byron’s house was there too, more damaged, but there. We woke them to share the news. There was no doubt in any of our minds we would go back as soon as possible to assess the damage. We’d already phoned the insurance companies the day after Katrina – at six in the morning our call was the first logged with Allstate Insurance.

We travelled back to New Orleans on Friday, the Captain, Steve, Elizabeth and I, in the Surburban loaded with extra cans of gas to make sure we could get back, and firearms from Dave’s arsenal. It took us ten hours to get there.

That route from Houston to Slidell was one we got to know well over the next few weeks, stopping halfway on each trip at Jennings, Louisiana to refuel and pick up food from the SuperWalmart.

The journey to Baton Rouge was light-hearted, upbeat to hide the anxiety. We passed through Baton Rouge and joined the Interstate 12, the direct route east cutting off the I10 loop as it dips south down and through New Orleans.

From Baton Rouge our mood changed and we didn’t say a word for the three hours it took to drive from there in bumper to bumper traffic. Three hours of driving through destruction that got worse and more violent the deeper we moved towards the centre of the storm.

The scale and nature of the destruction was beyond anything we could imagine. Worse than any disaster scenario Hollywood could try and recreate.

We were all unprepared for the physical and emotional reaction to what we witnessed. The trembling and shaking, the sensation of iced water trickling over us, the chills, the stomach churning nausea, fighting for every breath, remembering to breathe.

The nearer we got to home the more incomprehensible the devastation. To get through Slidell and down to the lake involved three military checkpoints, having to show ID with proof of residence at each. The military were tired and weary having just been deployed back from Afghanistan. They were war hardened, efficient and terrifying. No smiles, no empathy, just business. I make no judgement. We found out later these guys had been living in a war zone, here in our town, chasing down looters, protecting our belongings.

That first time seeing military in control of our small town where nothing ever happened was beyond shocking. As we neared the lake we wound our windows down for the second checkpoint and the blasting heat coiled into the vehicle bringing with it the sweet nauseating stench of death and decay, the real horror of what our lives had become.

The third check point and into our subdivision. Homes standing, all damaged, most where twenty-four feet of water had smashed its way through the homes and out the other side.

Our driveway, dreamlike surreal. Hard to think only five days before we’d driven away from it. The Captain got out and walked to his truck, standing as we’d left it, climbed in and the engine sparked first time. What were the odds. The Byron’s took the truck, went to check out their house and we were left.

We’d bought a tool box. The Captain unscrewed the plywood off the double front doors doors, unlocked them and we walked in.

Both of us broke down. I remember sobbing, hardly able to stand with jelly legs repeating, ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do this’ again and again like a mantra, the sobs changing to a quiet keening. We had come to terms with losing everything, now we had a mountain ahead of us we didn’t know how to climb. We clung to each other with the Captain having so much strength, soothing me and saying, ‘we can, we will’.

It was dark and gloomy except for the light from the door. The smell was unbelievable. Water had been in the house, had seeped in round the boards, come through the venting pipe on the tumble dryer, under the door from the garage to the utility room when water had poured through the smashed windows.

It was eerie and silent. Everything was where we had left it except for a doormat which had floated through from the family room and washed up the foyer. Everything was exactly the same except for the inches of dark slimy swamp mud deposited on every surface, left as the water slowly receded, slimy because in the heat and humidity it wasn’t going to dry out.

Already the dark green and black mould had reached our sixteen foot ceilings, tendrils reaching to cover anything they could. Water had wicked up the fabric on furniture and drapes. It was the same everywhere.

Christmas group in the atticWalking up the back staircase to the guest room  we opened the door to the attic. I think that was the biggest shock. Expecting darkness we were blinded by the sunlight and brightness of the sky. The roof, built with hurricane clips, had held but the chimney had been ripped out, leaving everything open to the elements. Perched on a storage box, upright where they’d been left, a two foot high Christmas decoration of a family group, standing sentinel over our home. I still have it, can’t let it go, a symbol of a family together despite the odds.

And rebuild we did. The house was gutted, drywall ripped out. We lived there while all the work was done, with roofers, builders, carpenters, painters and floormen, in the guest suite upstairs.

We were assigned seven different insurance adjusters over the months, most of whom quit their jobs before they got to us. In December 2005 we finally had a visit from an Allstate representative.

The first insurance money we received was February 2006. We were lucky, we were able to arrange finance for the rebuild, without it we would not have been able to start any repairs until after February.

It has been a long journey I wouldn’t have chosen but feel privileged to have been on. It taught me much about humanity, inner strength and belief in yourself. It also took me to some of the lowest points in my life. For a time this humanist/ agnostic carried an Anglican rosary with her wherever she went, feeling it as a touchstone through the day, gliding it through her fingers at night asking any higher being out there to help those who couldn’t help themselves.

I prayed for joe who worked for the Army Corps of Engineers from dawn till dusk and beyond, seven days a week for months in some of the most devastated areas of New Orleans and the Mississippi coast, for the Captain who left in October 2005 to start building a new life for us in europe*, for Missy trying to continue a normal college life in Baton Rouge and Harry who was too young to see the things he’d seen, for our yardman Stephen who took his own life, for the lost, the lonely and the displaced.

We were the lucky ones, something we were, and are, thankful for every day.

*On 21 July 2006, Joe, Harry and I drove away from our home, flying to join the Captain in the Netherlands, Missy remained at LSU. Today Joe lives in Leyland England with his fiance, Missy lives in Houston, USA, Harry is a freshman at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. The Captain and I remain in the Netherlands – for now.

Posted in Hurricane Katrina | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Day of the Storm: Monday 29 August 2005

This is the fourth and continuing part of a short series recounting what happened to our family over the weekend before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of America on Monday 29 August 2009, and the immediate aftermath. At that time our home was south of Slidell, Louisiana, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, a 35 minute drive from the French Quarter in New Orleans and less than a mile east of the Interstate 10 Twinspan Bridge crossing the lake. Our story continues,

What to say about that Monday?

The events unravelling would impact my family, my friends, my town, my city in ways no-one could have predicted, for longer than any of us would have imagined.

It was good we didn’t know then because we may have turned our faces to the wall and given up, the path too steep , the load too heavy for any of us to bear.

As it was, Monday was strangely quiet after the frenetic activity and intense emotional strain of the past days. It was difficult to adjust to being somewhere normal, ordinary, as if the last three days had been imagined or dreamed. We put it down to being tired, exhausted, disoriented.

The weather outside was glorious, the neighbours in Dave’s cul-de-sac going about their business, living their lives. We felt disconnected; our hearts and minds weren’t in the here and now, they were back in the place we had left.

The vehicles were unloaded and we sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee, it was surreal – I could sense Elizabeth felt the same. As soon as we’d arrived both of us rushed to the television to get some handle on what had been happening while we’d been on our seventeen hour evacuation, mostly without the radio.

Just after midnight, while we were somewhere in the wilds of Mississippi, Katrina had been 160 miles away from New Orleans, the northern edge of the storm only 90 miles from the coast. In Alabama gale force winds had been coming ashore with water pouring inland and power going out. At the eye wall waves were 60 feet high.

The high temperature of the water in the Gulf fed the storm and there was no wind shear to break the upper clouds. The only good news was that as Katrina moved closer to landfall she weakened slightly to a category 4 hurricane, with the western wall predicted to have 120-125 mph winds, the eastern and most destructive 155 mph winds.

This slight weakening allowed a slight shift to occur, ever-so-slightly to the east, maybe east of the city of New Orleans, that old, gracious pearl of the South.

Unfortunately that slight shift put our home, our town, right in the bull’s-eye.  The water pushing ahead of the storm would rush into Lake Pontchartrain straight for us, and as the surged forced its way into the lake it would threaten New Orleans from the north of the city, at the same time as water would be rushing up from the south across the vastness of the wetlands.

What had offered protection to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in the past were the barrier islands and the wetlands; they slowed down the rush of water and acted as a speed bump. For every  2.7 miles of wetlands, storm surges are reduced by one foot. Sadly both had been decimated by Hurricane Ivan the previous September and the city was more vulnerable than she’d ever been.

At 09.00am, while we were drinking coffee, the eye of the storm – 32 miles wide – was moving over the Louisiana/Mississippi coast, spreading out over 1300 miles north to south.

In New Orleans 120 mph winds shrieked through the city, the Superdome damaged and leaking.

While the storm moved through there would be little news, the television stations already re-running old footage, showing adrenaline fuelled reporters trying to stand upright in ever increasing winds, but little else. There would be nothing new for a few hours.

We unpacked, showered and changed, realising how few clothes we had brought with us, and tired, but wide awake, decided to head out for breakfast. The kids needed food and it wasn’t helpful for us to sit around.

The Waffle House was the nearest place. We walked in to curious stares and a slight lull in conversation. Looking back it was easy to spot New Orleanians, tired, bedraggled, haunted. We ordered food, we made what plans we could. There was nothing we could do until the storm had passed through and we knew what we would be dealing with, how bad things were.

Plans to put the dogs into kennel were made. Dave was, and is, an incredibly generous spirited man and his kindness to us at that time can never be repaid. He’d taken in seven people and three dogs; we felt the least we could do was relieve the pressure by putting ours into kennels. With hindsight the worst thing we could have done. The dogs were stressed and anxious; it was the beginning of old Max’s decline into dementia and illness.

As we got up to leave and asked for the bill we were told breakfast was on the house. Surprised, we asked why. ‘Because of Katrina,’ was the answer. ‘Because next time it might be us.’ We argued with the manager, telling him if he started doing this he’d be bankrupt, given most of New Orleans was in town. We agreed he could give us a 20% discount just to get out of the place.

The dogs in kennels, we headed ‘home’. Joe, now fed and finally relaxed enough to sleep, headed for the nearest bed to crash out. Kimberly, four years older than Harry, decided to take him in hand as only a big ‘sister’ could and dragged him off and kept him occupied while the adults could talk.

The Captain and Steve had set up the computers and printers we’d bought with us, all round Dave’s formal dining table. It really did look like a command centre. This way we had immediate access to local information back in Louisiana, news updates and hurricane information, sometimes before the television stations could get it on air. We sorted out paperwork, getting the numbers together for the insurance companies which we were in no doubt we would be using. Not today, maybe tomorrow.

Then the time came we could do nothing but wait. Elizabeth and I sat  on the sofa in front of the television, alone in the room, the guys off somewhere, the kids occupied. It was like a drug – we didn’t want to watch but couldn’t tear ourselves away.

We watched the pounding waves, the walls of water, the relentless wind knowing our homes, all we owned, were being subjected to one of the most brutal assaults mother nature could create. We clung to each other, her hands gripping mine, trembling and cold, the bile rising in out throats, eyes aching and heads throbbing knowing life as we knew it and for everyone around us would never, ever be the same again.

The two of us would stand up occasionally and walk round the room, restless, making tea, stunned into silence by the horror and power unleashed by this storm.

During this time something happened to our mental perception of Katrina, a feeling we couldn’t have verbalised at the time. She was no longer a storm spawned from nature, she was becoming a living entity, wrecking lives, threatening our family – it was getting personal. There was anger – that bitch Katrina wasn’t going to roll into and through our lives and take it from us.

Time slowed and the afternoon drifted by. News would start coming out soon. Dave came home from work, Harry and Kimberley emerged from wherever they’d been. Joe woke up and came and sat quietly with the Captain and I.

‘Listen mom, I’ve been thinking. There’s no point in my staying here, it’s overcrowded as it is, there’s nothing for me to do. I can’t help. I feel useless. I’m thinking I’ll drive back to Baton Rouge, go stay with Missy, we can be together and I can look out for her.’

My heart stopped. It wasn’t going to happen, there was no way I wanted him on the road driving back into a storm zone. Not now he was here and safe. Baton Rouge had taken a battering, Missy was without power but was safe, had food and water and there was no danger of flooding, more importantly we had been in phone contact with her most of the time.

Yet I knew there would be problems in Baton Rouge, not from the storm but from the sheer numbers of evacuees stretching the local infrastructure to breaking point. Joe took himself off so the Captain and I could talk. I cried. Again. The Captain took my hands,

‘Listen, Joe’s right. He’s not a kid anymore. They’ll be no traffic, he’ll be back there in four hours,’ he took a deep breath and looked me straight in the eye. ‘And he’s right about Missy, we don’t want her on her own. Either she drives here or one of us goes there. We don’t want her there on her own.’ He didn’t have to spell out why.

‘And God forbid he breaks down again, but if he does I promise I’ll drive out and bring him back.’ I hadn’t even thought about that.

I didn’t agree, in my head Missy should come to us now the storm had passed through, but the idea of her driving alone wasn’t going to fly. Nor did she want to leave Baton Rouge, she was having a blast. A huge part of the real reason Joe wanted to join her. And why be stuck here with us in Houston when he could be there, with his sister and be closer to home?

Which was my fear. I knew Joe would want to get back home as soon as he could, as soon as it was safe. That afternoon life changed. Before then there would be no way I would have allowed him to go. No way, no how. But now, post-Katrina, it made sense for him to go, it was sound reasoning, it was what my adult son had chosen to do.

We waved him off, cell phone charger plugged in, gas tank full. He was cheerful and bright, happy to be heading to party central.

‘Mom, please stop stressing, I’ll be fine. Promise. I’ll phone as soon as I get there.’

‘Joe, I want you to promise you won’t try and get home. Please, I need you to promise. It’s going to be a mess, dangerous, and when we go back I want us all to go together. Deal?’ He pulled a face and grinned.

‘Mom, I’m not that stupid, I’m going to look after Missy, course I’m not going back.’ He grinned his cheeky grin, jumped into his Explorer and started the ignition, waving out of the window as he sped off down the street, blasting the horn as he went.

Heavy hearted we walked back into the house, the Captain hugging me in his, ‘c’mon, it’ll be fine,’ kind of way.

We all went out for dinner, cooking a meal the last thing on our minds.

Getting back, we sat anxiously waiting to see what news was coming out of New Orleans, more especially our town. The door bell rang, Dave put his head round the kitchen door to see his neighbours standing the other side of the glass front door.

‘Oh Lord, I’ll have to answer it, they know I’m in,’ he sighed resignedly, and walked out of the room into the foyer to answer the door. We muted the television thinking they might be here to complain about our vehicles blocking the cul-de-sac, their dusty and dirty bedraggled state reflecting our long journey.

The conversation was muffled, but we heard laughter and Dave thanking them. He walked back into the room looking taken aback and stunned, balancing three plates of cookies each piled high with delicious goodies which smelled divine. Far from worrying about us lowering the tone of the neighborhood they had come with offers of spare rooms, extra bedding and toys for Harry. They’d seen our license plates and figured it out.

Darkness was falling, that time of day when fears and anxieties get a hold of the imagination and reality takes a back seat. No news was coming out of Slidell; watching the track of the storm it looked as if the western wall of that 32-mile wide eye had been very, very close to us.

The impact looked as if it could have been catastrophic. A 24 foot wall of water had been heading for the place we lived, shopped, where the kids had gone to school. To get to our town, eight miles from the lake, that water had to pass by our house. Through our house. Maybe take our house with it. It was built on reclaimed land; would there even be land left by the time the water rushed in then washed back, dragging half the swamp and it’s wildlife with it?

Laying in bed, holding each other tight we were grateful to have a warm clean bed to rest in. Funny how much simple things matter when bad stuff happens. We’d heard from Joe, we’d called him in the end, he’d forgotten to call us the minute he arrived. He sounded fine, as did Missy, they both thought we were being way too over-protective.

We knew there would be phone calls to make in the morning. We would have an idea tomorrow of how bad the damage had been, word would be getting out, maybe photographs. However bad it was we’d face it together.

There was no alternative.

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The Day Before the Storm: Sunday 28 August 2005

This is the third part of a short series recounting what happened to our family over the weekend before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of America on Monday 29 August 2009, and the immediate aftermath. At that time our home was south of Slidell, Louisiana, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, a 35 minute drive from the French Quarter in New Orleans and less than a mile east of the Interstate 10 Twinspan Bridge crossing the lake.

“Well, I guess we need to get up and get on with it.”

The Captain’s voice in the darkness had a resigned sadness. We laid in bed staring up into the darkness, the whump-whump of the ceiling fan paddling slowly over our heads the only sound in the tomb-like blackness, the boarded up windows blocking all chinks of light.

We’d lain awake for a long time, still, weary, scared to leave this room to face the challenges the day would bring. After listening, exhausted and sleepless, to the Katrina co-ordinates last night, we knew we might have to face the worst scenario imaginable. We had no idea when we would lay in this bed again, walk into this house. If the doom merchants were right we might not have anything to come back to.

The Captain swung his legs out of bed, sat on the edge and sighed deeply.

“I’ll go and make some tea, see if the kids are awake.”

I followed him through to the kitchen throwing on some shorts and pulling an old T-shirt over my head, ready for the sweat and grime of the final packing up.

The boys were awake and the television on; Joe had been up from first light measuring and lining up the boards to cover the remaining windows, Harry his assistant. The heat outside was already brutal, the build-up before the storm, but the sky, like yesterday, a vibrant blue.

Breakfast before the sawing and hammering.

Our first phone call of the day to the Byron family, Elizabeth, Steve and daughter Kimberley. We planned to drive with them to Houston – Steve and the Captain both old friends and colleagues of Dave, who was offering his home as our port in the storm. We agreed to touch base later when we were all ready to travel.

The television on in the background, we stopped for a second to stand and watch with a numb fascination as Katrina’s latest projected track flashed up. A direct hit on New Orleans with us to the east of the eye of the hurricane, the worst possible outcome for us. And now a category 5, travelling at phenomenal speed.

Funny thing about staring down the barrel of a loaded gun, there’s not much time to think, which is probably a good thing. We refused to believe this scenario was a certainty, we clung to the hope there was time for the storm to veer east, even a few miles east, but then that would be wishing destruction on our neigbours in Mississippi.

We watched the lines of cars leaving New Orleans, the Mississippi and Alabama coasts, crawling along at less than walking speed. Cars and trucks and trailers loaded up with as much as people could carry behind, on top and inside their vehicles. Being north of Lake Pontchartrain we were way ahead of those trying to leave the city but our sense of anxiety soared and we resolved to get on and get out.

Jo worked like a trojan; the Captain incapacitated with his damaged arm could do little of the heavy work, limited and frustrated with himself. The dogs were anxious too, picking up on our tension, unsure of what was going on.

I got fixated on food. We had no idea how long we would be on the road, when we would be able to eat our next meal. I boiled all the eggs we had in the fridge, it seemed like a good idea. Filled plastic bags full of non-perishables we could eat en route. Bottles of water, sodas, flasks full of hot water for tea or coffee, tea-bags, milk, fruit anything that we could snack on. Barbecue lighters, candles, torches and batteries. Just in case. In case of what I couldn’t have said.

The dog food I kept forgetting about, along with dogs’ bowls and beds. Our old dog Max was already in the trunk of the Suburban; he’d jumped in as soon as it was opened and refused to get out, snarling and gnashing his teeth if anyone went near. We left him to it.

The boards were proving a problem, the saw tired and worn from so much use, we were behind schedule. Our neigbours across the street left, waving good-bye from their loaded car, with a forced gaiety, ‘God speed and good luck you guys! See y’all when it’s over!’ We waved with a cheeriness we didn’t feel and watched them drive away, wanting to be gone to.

The phone rang; the Byrons, they were leaving.

‘I’m sorry Elizabeth, we’re not done. We can’t go yet, the windows aren’t finished!. You guys go, we’ll be fine, honestly. We’ll follow when we can.’ Agreeing to keep in touch via phone while we could, we confirmed we would be taking the same route out. The call ended with, ‘See y’all in Houston!’

I put the phone down and wept. We were on our own and it was the loneliest place in the world. The sense of abandonment was instant and terrifying, out of all proportion to reality. We were ready to go, everything packed except for those last damn boards. Joe was exhausted, driving himself, digging deep to find the strength to do this, the Captain pushing himself to help. Worse still, once we were on the road it was just the start of the next phase.

In the quiet of that kitchen I bawled my eyes out; for my husband, my son, friends neighbours and everyone – young, old, rich, poor, black and white.

Like crying was going to do any good.

Hastily wiping the tears away I went to break the news the Byrons had left without us. As I walked out into the heat the Captain and Joe were taking turns to gulp large draughts of water from a shared bottle.

Before I could say a word, the sound of a beeping car horn further down the street made us all turn to look, shading our eyes against the bright sunlight. The Byron’s blue truck, fully loaded and covered with a tarpaulin was heading our way, kicking up a trail of dust behind it.

It was the first time I’d break down in gratitude for the kindness and caring of others. It was something that would happen many, many times over the months to come. Knowing we were not alone, people did care, and that although the road ahead was uncertain we would not be walking it alone.

In less than an hour we were on the road. The Captain’s truck left behind on our driveway, parked sideways across the main entrance.

‘If the storm surge is as bad as they say, at least the truck will take the force of it, not the house,’ he explained. Joe insisted he was going to drive his car too.

‘Mom, it’s the only thing I have, I’m going to need it. I’m driving.’ We didn’t argue. Our boy was taking on responsibilities he shouldn’t have to. He was tired and worried but nothing would sway him. ‘Anyway, I can’t stand to sit with you guys and listen to your music!’ he grinned. It was 2.00pm Sunday afternoon.

I hadn’t left Lakeshore since Friday, we’d been in a cocoon with the television and internet. Nothing prepared me for what was outside our subdivision. The gas station where I’d fuelled up on Friday, that lonely sentinel standing in isolation in the middle of nowhere, was surrounded by hundreds of parked vehicles, some refuelling, most parked up. People were stretching their legs, walking pets, changing tyres, eating sandwiches and drinking sodas. One of the fuel pumps was already empty.

This was the first stop after leaving New Orleans, they’d got over the lake, they were safe for a while. It was only as we listened to the radio we discovered it had taken these people 10 hours to get here from the city – normally a 35 minute drive. As we navigated our way past the gas station, weaving round the parked vehicles and drove over the I10 our hearts stopped.

The contraflow system had started and all lanes on the interstate were one way out of the city; in every direction vehicles were nose to tail and hardly moving. We had no intention of getting mixed up in it.  The state troopers had closed all roads west from here, traffic diverted north or east into the state of Mississippi. The Governor there had agreed all lanes of interstates crossing Mississippi could be used as one way roads to allow people to get out. God bless you sir.

Our plan was to head west on the back roads through Slidell to Mandeville, through Madisonville and up to the I12 and on to Baton Rouge, cross the Mississippi bridge and we’d be safe.

By the time we hit Mandeville the traffic had gone from heavy but moving, to gridlock. Traffic leaving New Orleans north, via the Causeway bridge, was flooding into Mandeville and heading the same way as us.

The sky was clouding over, the first gusty and the heavy drops of rain started to fall. This was the first tangible sign of the reality ahead, the outer bands of the hurricane moving over us, although the centre of the storm was still over twelve hours away and well south of us.

Our mood was sombre, the enormity of the situation we were in hitting home. We were running from a category 5 hurricane, 1000 miles across, packing winds of 175 mph, pushing a 28 foot storm surge ahead of it. There wasn’t much conversation and we knew in our hearts there wouldn’t be a last minute turn.

We never made it to Baton Rouge, well not from the east of the river. Getting on to the I12, thinking all was well, the road ahead was barricaded with police vehicles, lights flashing, troopers on the road turning us north through Hammond and over the state line into Mississippi.

The state of Louisiana is shaped like a boot in profile; we were driving from the toe in a loop through Mississippi to halfway up the leg crossing the Mississippi River back into Louisiana. We went where we were told to go.

Meeting up with Missy was out of the question. We didn’t want her driving, we knew she was safe. There were tearful (on my part) phone conversations with her but she was fine, just getting started on a hurricane party – they had friends evacuated from New Orleans staying with them and she was having a blast. Oh the ignorance of youth.

There are snap shots in my head of that drive, images indelibly inked from the endless hours we were on the road, seventeen in all, most of them in the dark.  Seventeen hours for a trip that should take six. Three cars in convoy, Joe in the middle, us bringing up the rear.

● losing the radio signal from New Orleans, being out of touch with the storm, the traffic, everything till we arrived in Houston

● driving through small towns in Mississippi, everything closed because it was Sunday; the locals sat on their porches with shocked faces watching the refugees drive by, and in one case lining the main street in disbelief at the sheer numbers of cars passing through, hour after hour

● struggling to comprehend why everything in Mississippi was closed when people were running out of gas and hungry

● pulling off the road into a leafy wood hidden from the road to have a cup of tea and picnic and walk the dogs. The panic when Joe’s car failed to start and half an hour was spent trying to get it going. The sheer relief when it did and we were back on the road

● driving nose to tail to Jackson, Mississippi then cutting south on back roads finally   crossing the river at Natchez, in the dark, and finding a gas station to fill up

● relief to be back in our home state where every fast food joint was open and at 10pm pulled into a restaurant to eat, along with half of New Orleans, all pale, dishevelled and shell-shocked

● the Captain answering his phone, a colleague calling from a restaurant in Baton Rouge where he was sat with strangers who turned out to be the neighbors we’d waved off that afternoon

● driving for hours in the dark, lost, trying to head south-west to join the I10 to Houston without having a clue where we were

● Kimberley riding as a passenger with Joe trying to keep him awake

● reaching the I10 only to realise we’d arrived in Baton Rouge, west of the bridge, less than 50 miles from where we’d left the I10 at Hammond all those hours before

● crossing the state line and stopping at the Texas Welcome center for a bathroom break along with hundreds of other haunted, tired and bedraggled New Orleanians all with the 1000-yard stare

● having to pull off the highway to sleep less than an hour from our destination

● arriving at Dave’s at 7.30am Monday 29 August as hurricane Katrina was blasting ashore

As we pulled into Dave’s driveway everything around us seemed weirdly normal and ordinary, totally unreal and out of sync with our life over the past few days.  It was like being in a twilight zone where anything might happen, where nothing could be predicted.

Through the front door, past the welcoming kitchen where the kettle was on the boil for tea, the television sat and flickered in the family room, the only window to the world we had escaped from.

We were drawn to it like moths to a flame, wanting to know the fate of everything we had left behind, afraid of what it would show us, terrified to see what had been happening while we’d been driving through the darkness running from the storm.

Elizabeth and I looked at each other, grabbed each other’s  shaking hand and walked through the door.

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The Days before the Storm – Saturday 27 August 2005

This is the second of a short series of posts recounting what happened to our family over the weekend before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of America on Monday 29 August 2009, and the immediate aftermath. At that time our home was south of Slidell, Louisiana, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, a 35 minute drive from the French Quarter in New Orleans and less than a mile east of the Interstate 10 Twinspan Bridge crossing the lake.

Saturday morning dawned bright and clear, as we knew it would. We’d had it drummed into us for years by Bob Breck, our local TV weatherman/ meteorologist on Fox News 8, that when ‘the big one’ came, we’d be evacuating in beautiful weather. Not a cloud in the sky, a glorious day.

Not that we’d slept much. Too much adrenalin in the system. We’d not gone to bed till the 1am advisory and projected track of Katrina had been released by the National Hurricane Center. The late evening spent with the TV on, every station in emergency mode, scrolling information, parish by parish – where Red Cross shelters were opening, where sand bags could be collected, when people should leave.

We were up early. The Captain to return to the terminal for a few hours, sending stress levels soaring. Getting there would be easy, travelling back in evacuation traffic could be difficult. The news reported people leaving early, being sensible, and traffic was flowing. Joe headed off to the hardware store – this was an emergency situation, people needed plywood, tools everything. Without them around to help no boarding up could be done on our home. Nerves were starting to fray.

Ever had those times in your life when there’s so much to do your brain shuts down and you have no clue where to start? I remember sitting on the coffee table in our family room watching the TV, watching the Mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, telling the city the Superdome would not be used as a center of last resort as in previous emergencies. This was new. Announcements were made as to when the new traffic contraflow systems would be implemented, when all roads leading out of the city would be one way only. A system as yet untested.

Geographically New Orleans lies in a bowl, with the Mississippi River to the south and Lake Pontchartrain to the north, the only ways out east, west or north over Lake Pontchartrain on the 26 mile Causeway bridge to Mandeville.

Its unique position  causes problems for evacuating. If a storm is to the west of the city people evacuate east on the I10 into Mississippi and on from there to Florida or north to Jackson, Mississippi. A storm to the east sees everyone heading west to Houston or north through Hammond and beyond.

Heading west is a nightmare (CLICK for map) because at some point the Mississippi river has to be crossed. All major routes from the east cross at Baton Rouge, the state capital. The other alternative is to cross near New Orleans and meander up the Old River Road alongside the river levee. Scenic, picturesque and impractical.

All major routes heading west on the I10 bottle-neck at the Horace Wilkinson Bridge in Baton Rouge.

As of Saturday morning no-one knew which way to run. Friends were heading east and west. The consensus was the storm might still turn on an easterly track once it got closer to the coast. That had happened before when we’d evacuated for Hurricanes Georges and Ivan. It would be the same this time. Wouldn’t it? We had till Sunday to leave, we had time. Except time speeds up, contracts, gets smaller right before your eyes.

The day passed in a haze, photographing the house inside and out for the insurance company, standard stuff everybody knew to do, photographing furniture and belongs, some still in packing boxes. Made sure up-to-date paperwork was in the fireproof/ flood proof security box we had ready to pick up and run with at evacuation times – house, flood, car insurances, birth/ marriage certificates, passports, medical records, social security cards, address book. All that before thinking what personal items to take.

We owned a Chevy Suburban as in previous evacuations we’d travelled in two vehicles – a nightmare with both of us having to drive. This time we could spilt the driving, with room for us, three children, two dogs and the trunk for our stuff. We hoped to be home in a few days as soon as the storm decided what it would do, where it would go.

When it comes down to it you don’t have to think too much what to pack. You work from the worst case scenario – if we were to lose everything, what really mattered?

Large storage boxes from our house move in May were tipped out and repacked with photograph albums, family photos in frames scattered about the house swept up and added to them. A box of special treasured toys, a few books, computer games for the journey. Heck, don’t forget the dog food. Do we have enough bottles of water for the trip? Hell, do we need to take food?

Our house was on one level with one room, the guest room and walk in attic, upstairs. If there’s a wall of water coming this way how high will it be? If we move things to the attic and the roof blows off will we lose stuff anyway? What time is it? When are the next co-ordinates out? Who’s been given a mandatory evacuation order now? Have they mentioned anything about us, about St Tammany? What time is it? What’s the absolute latest we can leave? Phone my parents in England, let them know we’re leaving, give them our contacts in Houston. Play it down. Don’t let them know freaking scary this is. What time is it? Pull yourself together, you can do this. Shit, shit, shit.


The Captain arrived home, through traffic moving very slowly but he used the Rigolets bridge on the old coast road, the only road along the Gulf Coast until the I10 was opened. Heavy traffic heading east. East? East? If the storm turned east they’d be right in it, but people were heading home, back to family.

Joe arrived back shortly after, exhausted and drained – the hardware store closed, there was little left to sell and everyone had been sent home to pack up and leave.

We headed outside to board up. It had to be done. Without boards the house would be vulnerable to flying debris, surge water, breaking glass, snakes and all that good stuff. If it survived at all. And more importantly we had to make sure we did as much to protect the house for insurance purposes, otherwise they may not pay for any damage.

Outside the sound of the the circular saw cutting through plywood like a hot knife through butter was reassuring, normal almost. They screwed those boards into the window frames – forget nails, screws would hold better. They worked round the house during the afternoon while I packed, unpacked, repacked. The space in the rear of the Suburban getting smaller each time I looked at it. Inside the house, as each board on the outside was put into place, it became darker. It was difficult not to feel as if we were being nailed into a spacious, airless coffin.

Breaks for food, drinks, catch up on the news, all going to plan. Eighty percent finished. As the afternoon slipped into early evening, there was a loud, anguished yelp and crash outside. The Captain, pushing upwards on a board to get it into place, ripped the tendons in his arm.

We phoned the father of Harry’s best friend, a doctor at the local hospital. At that stage we had no idea what the injury was, which hospitals were taking emergency patients. Sanjay, our friend, went above and beyond to help. He was at home, packing up his house, not at the hospital, although that was where he and his family would be for the duration of the storm – as a doctor he was expected to stay behind.

He called a colleague at the hospital on our behalf, arranged for the Captain to see him immediately on his arrival. He drove himself, insisting we stay at home, shocked when he arrived at the hospital to see it in chaos, the emergency room full. Not with patients who needed real medical help, but refugees who knew they would be safe from the storm when it hit. Food, water and generators.

The remaining three of us made an impossible attempt to continue boarding. As darkness fell we gave up trying and went back to the television, drawn to the images, mute, numb. Category 4. We needed to be on the road and moving, we needed to go.

A dawn start was not an option. Depending on the seriousness of the injury we still needed to board up. We could have a good nights sleep, be up at first light, finish boarding, be on our way by 10ish. Couldn’t we? In traffic maybe, but whatever time we left the traffic would be horrendous. You don’t evacuate over a million people in less than three days without it being a bit chaotic.

The phone rang and I jumped up to grab it, thinking it was news from the hospital. It was the St Tammany public emergency notification system. The automated announcement informed us we were under a mandatory evacuation order. That meant if we chose to stay there would be no emergency services to help for the duration of the storm and for days afterwards. What it really meant was ‘the big one’, the one they’d talked about for years, was here, now, heading our way.

As I put down the phone I heard the click of the front door. The Captain was home. I walked through to the foyer and he stood subdued, pale, anxious. He’d been in traffic where even the back roads and local rat-runs were coming to a gridlock, seen the thousands of cars on the interstate crawling north to join the I12 and then head west; all the west bound routes from New Orleans already at a standstill. He’d been listening to the radio, he knew what we knew.

We hugged each other tightly, we were together with the boys, Missy as safe in Baton Rouge as she could be anywhere – inland, away from water, on the west side of the storm. We had to get out through Baton Rouge so if we judged it necessary we could link up with her there. There was no need for words, what was there to say?

Arms around each other we went through to the family room to make the final plans for leaving.


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The Days Before the Storm: Friday 26 August 2005

This is the first of a short series of posts recounting what happened to our family over the weekend before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of America on Monday 29 August 2009, and the immediate aftermath. At that time our home was south of Slidell, Louisiana, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, a 35 minute drive from the French Quarter in New Orleans and less than a mile east of the Interstate 10 Twinspan Bridge crossing the lake.

Four sleepless nights in a row and finally my subconscious has broken through and I’ve clicked what’s going on. An anniversary I dread each year, which I normally avoid, and distract myself from, till the day has passed.

This year with so much else going on the days have slipped by unnoticed and I’ve not prepared mentally for this weekend and it has hit like a train. Made more difficult with the dates falling on the actual days events occurred.

I know exactly where I was on Friday, 26 August 2005, what I was wearing (a sky blue knee-length linen sleeveless shift dress and matching mules), what I did, and when.

At precisely 11.00am I had one of those intensely powerful moments of complete clarity heading west on Gause Boulevard East, Slidell, sitting in my vehicle at the lights by the intersection of the I10, heading home. One of those defining moments that hit you on the back of your head and take your breath away.

The new dock on our waterfront property we’d moved into only two months previously was being completed that day; we’d planned to celebrate with a bottle of champagne en famille later in the afternoon in preparation for a relaxing weekend. The hurricane currently crossing the southern tip of Florida was not going to be heading our way. Weakened and dissipating, the likelihood was it would fizzle out or, worse case, veer to the north east into the Florida panhandle around Destin/ Panama City, pushed east by the spin of the earth –  assuming it crossed Florida at all.

We’d tracked this storm from its formation as a tropical depression off the west coast of Africa, as we did with storms every summer during hurricane season. Our computers were linked to all the N.O.A.A websites, and we talked regularly with our friend Terry, a naval meteorologist working at the Stennis Space centre across the state line in Mississippi.

Here in Louisiana the sun was shining, the sky that deep, deep, Louisiana blue I’ve never seen anywhere else and I was smiling. No-one was out stocking up food or panicking – we were hoping this storm would be well clear of us and not interfere with the weekend.

As I glanced at the trunk of the stationary vehicle in front of me, it was as if time stalled, everything moving in slow motion, sound muted, and dark shadows flitted through the bright corners of my mind and hovered there, unafraid and haunting. I felt the cold chill of premonition brush across my skin. I’ve learned never to ignore these feelings.  I shivered.

The light mood of the day vanished and I switched on the radio.

Hurricane Katrina was heading into the Gulf with one skewed computer model projecting a direct trajectory for New Orleans, but all other projected tracks still anticipated landfall well east of the city. No one seemed unduly concerned. In a hurricane you want to be west of the eye of the storm; as it spins anti-clock wise all the ferocious winds, tornadoes and other bad stuff is situated in the NE quadrant, a place you don’t ever want to be. If the hurricane came in to the east of us we’d be fine. A tad windswept, maybe a bit of rain, but fine.

The traffic started moving and I slid on to the I10 southbound, taking the Oak Harbor exit before the Twinspan Bridge which crosses Lake Pontchartrain heading to New Orleans. I drove over the I10 and pulled in at our local gas station. It stood alone, built up out of the reclaimed land on a mound of dirt, taking it to thirteen feet above sea level.

Jumping out of the vehicle to fuel up, I landed in the blasting heat of a Louisianan August, hot dusty wind blowing from the lake across the scrubland, everything seemed so darn normal. Less than a quarter of a mile away the outline of the new Convention Center, only two months before we’d been celebrating its completion at a grand opening ball. Suddenly it looked small, insignificant and out of place here in the vast expanse of openness.

Uneasy and anxious I slipped back on the road taking me home to Lakeshore, wanting to check data on the hurricane, watch the local news stations on TV, see if anything was changing. And feeling the same as I’d had after September 11, 2001 –  a need to have my children close. Our eldest son, Joe, was spending his summer working at a local hardware store before returning as a senior to UNO (University of New Orleans) so close to home, as was our youngest, Harry, eleven.  Our daughter, Missy, had started as a freshman at LSU (Louisiana State University) the previous week and was living with girlfriends in Baton Rouge.

By 4.30pm we were sat on our new dock. The boys had dragged the garden furniture onto its pristine planks and we cracked that bottle of champagne along with a few beers. The sun was beating down, the blue dress changed out with shorts and flip-flops. The outside speakers on the terrace blasted out, the bright upbeat sound swimming through the sticky air down to the dock. A light breeze from the water keeping us cool.

That image of us sat round laughing, joshing, having fun, the dogs barking with excitement as they ran up and down the newly installed dog ramp to the water and swimming, a great weekend ahead of us, is a treasured snapshot. It was the last time we would be this relaxed and carefree for a very long time.

My husband, affectionately known as the Captain, was deep in thought when his cell phone rang. He answered it, moved awkwardly from his chair to get clear of the laughter and noise and walked slowly round the garden while he talked, stopping occasionally to kick the grass absent mindedly with his toe. As the boys laughed and egged each other to swim, I watched his back while I sipped my drink. I saw him stop, disconnect the phone, take a deep breath and push his shoulders back as he inhaled. Exhaling, his shoulders slumped and he turned and looked directly into my eyes as he walked back.

One son had pushed the other off the dock into the water with much yelling and screeching, and the dogs were swimming noisily, none of them aware of us. My spouse sat beside me, quiet and thoughtful, eyes wary.

‘She’s coming this way,’ I didn’t have to ask who. ‘I have to go secure the (chemical) terminal (down river from New Orleans) now. And we need to get the hell out of here by Sunday.’

I felt the sick knot in my stomach tighten and the increased heart-rate pump adrenaline through my system. The prickling hot feeling under the skin like the beginning of a bad fever, the shakiness, the trembling, the nausea. Over the months to come I would learn to call these feelings ‘friend’ – they would be with me, part of me, living inside me, a separate toxic entity.

My husband reached for my hand. ‘We’ll be fine, we can do this, we’ve done it before. I’ll be back late tonight and we can board the house up tomorrow, get packed and on the road to Houston.’ We had friends there with a reciprocal arrangement that if they had a storm coming to them, they came to us and vice versa. We’d been in phone contact all this week, as a precaution, a bit of a joke, but the beds were ready for us.

‘Katrina hasn’t stalled – the Gulf water is warmer than it should be and it’s feeding the hurricane, not slowing it. They think she might even make a category 5 and she’s moving fast.’ The highest category on the Saffir–Simpson Hurricane Scale with sustained winds of   155 mph and a storm surge (the wall of sea water pushed ahead of the storm) in excess of sixteen feet. Our house was thirteen feet above sea level.

A category 5 moving at speed would be a force to be reckoned with, a storm that size would not turn easily. As she headed west out into the Gulf of Mexico from southern Florida, a slow turn eastward would put her on a northerly track, with the Louisiana coast firmly in the crosshairs.

I remember the numbness, the feeling of having been caught out, not prepared. We had boards ready but not cut to fit the windows, hell, we’d not even completely unpacked from moving in. We had no file of photographs showing what our house looked like before the storm, what furniture we had or what belongings we owned.

There were calls to make to friends and family, see who was evacuating where, when they were leaving, exchanging phone numbers of mutual friends outside the area who we could leave messages with to say we were safe – we knew when the storm hit the phones would be the first thing we’d lose. Plans made to ride to Houston in convoy.

How to prepare the house to survive a storm – which was the biggest risk, flooding or the roof blowing off? We had hurricane clips on the roof, would they hold? How much time did we have?

We walked to my husband’s truck, I wanted to wave him off, uneasy he was heading south down the river, not knowing how long he’d be gone. The boys had seen us talking, knew the score, they’d headed quietly into the house to shower before we started to plan the exodus. They knew the drill too, we’d evacuated twice before.

Climbing stairs, weighed down with boxes to put in the attic, the enormity of what might be ahead hit home. I placed the boxes on the bedroom floor and walked over to the window resting my forehead on the cool glass. Darkness was falling and in the distance to the west the Twinspan bridge could be seen against the fading light, outlined with what looked like strands of Christmas lights.

With a nauseous realisation it dawned on my numbing brain they were the headlights of hardly moving vehicles heading north out of New Orleans from Grand Isle and the lower Parishes in the Mississippi Delta. They were designated ‘First to Leave’ in the well regulated evacuation plan for Louisiana. The lower parishes, New Orleans, and then us, if we hadn’t left before the mandatory evacuation order we were sure would come.

The first wave of evacuees. It had begun.

Posted in Hurricane Katrina | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

And the Dog Came Too: Travelling with Expat Pets

Max - 'Starbuck Glow"The often forgotten passengers in a life of global gallivanting are the unsung heroes who are dragged hither and thither, without discussion or consideration of climate; our family pets.

Now I know there are people who have cats and idolize them, I am not one of them. I have dear friends who adore cats; their cats love me, sticking like a magnet, purring,  wrapping themselves around my legs whenever I move. I know they have ulterior motives, I just can’t figure out what they are, but know they’re not good. Their loyalty is questionable and in our family loyalty is all.

Dogs however are a whole other universe. What you see is what you get. Loyalty. love, rapt attention with enough stupidity to entertain and endear.

On our first international move we were the owners of Max, a rather superior and long-suffering English Springer Spaniel, who was unaware he was a canine. In his head he was as human as the rest of us. He was also a bit of a diva and terrified of enclosed spaces.

We knew he would be coming with us, despite our misgivings of taking him from the cold of northern europe to the heat and humidity of the American South, in a plastic sky-kennel as they were known back then. We knew because my best friend Trish, although loving our dog as we did and prepared to keep him herself, decided he had to come with us.

“You’ll so regret it if you don’t. He’s part of the family and a few months from now when things have settled down you’ll wish he was there.” Wise woman.

The dog was our biggest stress of the move. After consulting the vet who knew him well, it was decided to drug Max; enough to make him relaxed without being unconscious. The vet understood Max’s fear of small spaces, having failed spectacularly on one rather lively occasion when he tried to get our normally placid dog into a kennel.

I’d like to point out this was back in the day when it was recommended and encouraged to sedate a pet for travelling. I know thinking on this has changed over the years as we discovered moving back to europe.

I was given a large supply of drugs and told to go and practice on the dog until we got the dosage right and it would also give us chance to monitor any possible side effects in advance. This wasn’t an option I was entirely happy with.

The Captain was away on the high seas and with three children to supervise and a house to pack up, the last thing I needed was to mollycoddle a neurotic dog.

I’d set up the sky-kennel, equipped it with Max’s bed and a few choice personal items, but he wouldn’t go anywhere near it. Not even to investigate, it was as if an invisibility cloak had been draped over it. He wouldn’t look at it or acknowledge it existed. My plan to get him used to the kennel, building up his tolerance to it by five minutes a day, eventually sleeping in it, treating it as his own personal space, was failing fast.

Despite misgivings I decided to go the drug route.

Max -'Starbuck Glow' 1992-2006The first two attempts to ‘relax’ the dog failed miserably, despite doubling the dose on the second try. Getting the tablets down him was a Herculean task. Putting them in his food, wrapped in meat or similar resulted in him not eating at all or me finding little pills dropped on the floor sometime after he’d ‘eaten’.

The only reliable way to get medication down him involved the dog laying on his back mouth firmly clenched with me sitting astride him prising his jaws apart. Once the tablets were in his mouth his jaws had to be held together for a good five minutes to ensure he swallowed them. It was rather like alligator wrestling.

By the third attempt I was getting frantic, time was passing and I still hadn’t managed to get the dog in the kennel. I decided to take control, stop messing around and get the darn dog in that kennel.

Oh boy.

He sat facing the open mesh door of the kennel, erect, alert and refusing to cooperate in any way. Normal, quiet, encouraging entreaties were met with contempt. Ernest, firm commands were dismissed with a scornful sneer. There was no way the dog was going to win this one.

Standing behind him and grabbing his scruff with both hands, I planted both feet firmly against his rear, trying to push him along. He resolutely dug his front paws in. Lifting him by his scruff and scooting his rear with my feet we moved a couple of inches forward. Slowly, with much huffing and puffing on my part and a complete lack of response on his, the kennel door came closer.

At the point we were close enough for me to engage in one last push and hurl him bodily into the cage, the dog roared into life with a gnashing and snarling usually associated with a trapped predator, and adopted the starfish position across the front of the cage.

His modus operandi was to startle me into letting go of his scruff. We’d been here before and I knew it was a bluff, although the snarling, bared teeth, dripping drool and seeing the whites of his eyes did make me hesitate.

He was positioned with paws gripping the four corners of the cage, his chin on the top turned slightly so he could have direct eye contact with me, even his little stump of a tail was a solid rod of refusal against the bottom rim of the kennel.

Back off now and all was lost.

Using every last ounce of energy I pulled his head gently back and flipped him into the cage. Still holding his scruff I now found myself looking at the dog, his face inches from mine, his bared teeth against my wrist and inches from my face. I let go, telling him he was a bad boy and how disappointed I was with his behaviour. He was still growling like like a lion but made no attempt to move so I closed the door and left him for the requisite five minute. Oh Lord, could that dog howl.

Back to the drugs and the drawing board.

Next day followed with intense calculations taking into account the dosage I’d given him previously, the instructions from the vet and his increased anxiety levels now he knew the new object in the house was meant for him. I thought I’d got it right. After the ritual of getting the tablets into him we waited for them to take effect.

Boy did they take effect. Within an hour he was laid out and  snoring like a banshee. Even young Harry crawling up to him and ‘stroking’ his ears didn’t make him flinch. I was frantic.

By dinner time the snoring had ceased and I was checking for breathing every ten minutes. The phone rang, it was the Captain via satellite to ask how it was going with his beloved dog.

“Oh my god I think I’ve killed him!” I wailed, “he’s been asleep all day!” The Captain remained calm and talked me out of my hysteria.

Max -'Starbuck Glow' 1992-2006Before going to bed  I roused Max and got him to have a drink, relieve himself (outside, after half carrying him) and he fell sleepily onto his bed in the kennel with the door open.

The next day found him stretched out comatose on the floor beside the kennel, eyes open and totally spaced out. He was curled up with 18-month-old Harry in total heaven at being near the dog, who would normally go to any lengths to avoid being in the same room as the human pup.

Max’s eyes remained open all day, unfocused maybe but he was obviously content, relaxed, very happy and as high as a kite.  At least he wasn’t dead. And I’d finally figured out the correct dose to get him safely to America to share our family’s big adventure.

We never regretted the decision to take him with us and he remained part of our family for nine more eventful years.

★  Max traveled to the USA, unstressed and happy in his kennel. He adjusted to his new life in the heat and humidity of New Orleans. He spent joy filled years with his companion Sable, a Louisiana pup left on our doorstep, who showed him the ropes and protected and cared for him in his final days. The effects of Hurricane Katrina took their toll on his health, never fully recovering from a stroke followed by dementia and cancer. The time came to take our loyal and loving companion to the vet.

Max (‘Starbuck Glow’) died on 4 January 2006, peacefully in my arms.

Posted in Expat Experiences, Family Life, Personal challenges | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

‘Jump Down Under’ with Iain Ayres : You Won’t Regret It

What is it about Australia?

Every time I turn around somebody’s son or daughter is travelling there, friends are heading out for extended stays and numerous people I know are in the process of submitting paperwork for visas to go live on the continent – a nightmare by all accounts.

I suppose if you’re in the market for upping sticks and emigrating, the reasons for choosing Australia are self evident. Weather, opportunities, weather, relaxed lifestyle, weather, 11,000 beaches and did I mention the weather?

Then I find a great book, Jump Down Under by Iain Ayres, which gives you all the information you need about making the permanent move to the antipodean continent. I thought it might be one of those pro-forma, cookie cutter books with endless lists of things to consider when you’re thinking of emigrating, which end up leaving you frustrated and strangely empty because they never tell you what you really want to know.

This book does not disappoint. It’s amazingly readable given the wealth of information packed in its pages. Although its audience is aimed at a UK readership, the information is relevant to anyone interested in the move, warts and all.

I love how the book is laid out starting with an introduction telling you how to use the book and asking the question, Why Move To Australia? Obvious but gets you focused before delving into the meat of it.

Rather than chapters Iain starts each section with a case study of people who have already made the move and survived, transcribing hours of interviews answering questions such as –

●How did you become interested in moving to Australia

● Was it easy to get a visa?

●Do you get homesick and long to be back in the UK and how have your parents taken to your move?

●Being sponsored by your job must be very worrying, if you lose your job would you have to leave Australia?

●Was it a difficult transition to move into the Australian Corporate working environment?

●How have your children adjusted?

●How do you stay in touch with friends back in the UK?

● Australia is well known for its spiders and snakes, does this concern you?

●What would you say to others coming to live in Australia?

●What was it like to arrive in Australia?

●What are the misconceptions of Australian life?

●How did you prepare for the move?

●Were the last few days in the UK emotionally difficult?

Each case study is followed by the nitty-gritty practical information you need to get you from the dream to the reality – I’m going to list them to give you a taste for how comprehensive this book is :

●Getting and keeping your Australian visas

●Choosing where to live in Australia

●Staying in contact with friends and Family

●How to start your new life in Australia

●Snakes, Spiders and other nasties

●Finances, pensions and Taxes

● Resource pages for every contact you could ever need

There wasn’t any point where it felt stodgy or contrived, it flowed effortlessly and easily at every turn of the page. By the end of it I was completely engaged, feeling this was a book anyone contemplating the move needed to own.

For anyone who has pondered, dreamt about or already started to make the dream their new reality, you must get a copy of this book, sit down with some marker pens and knock yourself out highlighting facts you need to be aware of. It’ll be well worth it knowing people like you have made the move, struggled through the heartache of transition and survived.

Congratulations Iain, this is a great book and will be appreciated by every Australian bound Pommie.

Check out Iain and loads more information on his website, find him at twitter @jumpdownunder, or  facebook

Click here for Amazon Link available at and

  • Paperback: 238 pages
  • Publisher: Summertime (23 May 2011)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 190749863X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1907498633
Jump Down Under is available on Kindle but recommend the paperback format for using as a ‘hands on’ manual!
Posted in Expat Related Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

College Bound Kids?: Keeping in Touch Across Time Zones

Part two of a series of four – suggest you pour a cup of coffee and kick back, this is a bit of a long one. It’s a tough subject.

You’re now into the final days/ weeks before college starts and wondering how often you’ll be able to speak to your child, what will be the best way to keep in touch, worrying about the fine balance between too much/ too little contact in the early days.

Have you actually sat down and talked about this with them?

Obvious I know, but you both need to have the same level of expectation. I’m not talking about setting rigid times or dates, rather a general feeling for how you both want to handle this situation.

Whatever you decide will change once college and school commitments are scheduled, but if you have a feel for what is going to work, being flexible down the line should be no problem.

The biggest issue after how often you’ll be in touch will be what social medium you’ll use to communicate. It used to be simple, not so these days. The expectations you have may not be the same as your child’s and it may take some open and frank discussion on both sides for everyone to be happy.

As  a high schooler your child will have been used to contacting you by cell phone or SMS which is great when you’re all on home turf, not so easy with an 6-hour plus time difference. They may live on Facebook, you may have refused to go there. You live by email, they no longer use it. You may need to hear their voice, see their face but that may be their idea of hell, especially if your teetotal angel is nursing the mother of all hangovers.

Sit down, be open to all possibilities, maybe review your expectations and everyone will benefit. Like everything else, you and your family are unique, you have to find what works best for you in your circumstances.

Mobile/ Cell Phones/ Texting: Seriously, this is a mine field

In a perfect world, where money is no object then every child would be clutching an i-phone or at very least a Blackberry. Once the preserve of captains of industry who could actually afford to have them, they are now every teens must-have item.

I shall sit on the fence a moment and point out that what parents see as extravagant our children see as an essential items. For Generation Y the i-phone is an electronic time management tool and a pretty good one at that. They are the generation who regard spreadsheets and word documents as pencils.

I-phones and Blackberrys require a phone contract and this is where the water starts to get muddy. This will apply to any cell phone with a contract. You need to investigate whether it would be better to get one in the country where you currently live, assuming you will be staying there while your child is in college, or looking at a contract in the country where they’ll be studying. The downside to that is you probably won’t have it up and running before they arrive on campus.

You need to be very clear what you want on that contract, how it’s going to be used. International calling? Unlimited texts? Number of minutes per month? Internet connection? Do they pay for incoming international calls? Read the small print, get to know it by heart because over the next three to four years this phone  will be the bane of your life.

Every child will want an i-phone if the offer is on the table. Of course they do, and if they’re paying for the phone and the contract out of their own funds fantastic. It’s an interesting fact, known to most parents, that if a child has to put up their own money for either the phone or running costs, the majority will find a better use for it.

Let’s get realistic , as parents often thousands of miles from offspring, you will provide your child with a phone for your peace of mind. My advice would be make sure you factor the costs of any contract phone into the college budget and view it as part of the overall cost.

The cold reality of your child having an expensive phone is that it will catch the eye of any light fingered soul in a five mile radius. Your child will go over their minutes/texts by at least a $100 per month. There will be moments they use it not realising some aspects are not included in the monthly fee. We had friends whose daughter had a $3000 (yes, three thousand dollars) bill one month as she’d been downloading from the Internet assuming the cost was covered in the contract.

(Before we start on the stupidity of kids, an employee in the Captain’s company ran up a $74000 phone bill on a business trip last year downloading World Cup soccer games.)

Being practical, down-to-earth and a techno dinosaur my preference (from costly experience) is buy a local pay-as-you-go phone the minute they on campus and load it up to an amount you all agree is reasonable. They can text if they want you to call and your stress levels will be manageable. If they don’t like the idea they can save up for their own state-of-the-art status symbol, which they will lose, have stolen or break. Guaranteed. This avoids 2 year contracts, unexpected excess usage, and wasted money because although slightly more expensive there won’t be unexpected huge bills. They won’t like it, but it will do the job.

If you are setting up a contract phone in the country of study it’s always worth getting a pay as you go phone when you arrive until things are sorted out. They can switch the SIM card from the P-A-Y-G phone in their existing phones if the embarrassment is too great.

If you don’t have strong feelings either way on this issue use it as a negotiating tool ‘you can have an iphone if…  ‘.

It may be hard for your child to appreciate but there will be students on campus who will not be equipped with state of the art phones or computers, despite what they tell you.

Unless it’s an iphone or blackberry a cell/ mobile will mainly be used for texting as verbal communication is no longer the done thing, and cost for international calls can be high. The time difference will also play havoc with calls. In our family our children would call us to see if we were around and we would call them back. We still do, although the eldest are now in gainful employment. Hmm.

If I’m asked, and I often am, which I think is the best communication tool for a parent it will be a computer – if I had to chose between a child having a fancy phone or a lap-top, I’d go for the laptop every time.


Because it gives more options to keep in touch than a phone (unless it is a  smart phone or blackberry and I’m not totally convinced) for both of you, especially with a time difference.

●Options for Communicating via Computer

Skype: this will be your medium of choice. It’s free and you can use it just to talk, or as a video link.

Most people are familiar with Skype if they’ve lived overseas, but it may be new to some of you. Google it. You can schedule a call every week or so and plan to sit and chat; in our family Skype is on, the lap top sat on the kitchen counter and we chat while I’m cooking dinner. Great for your child to watch regular life at home, see the family pet wander past, snipe at siblings.

From your point of view you can see them in their new surroundings and they can show you things they’ve bought, how they’ve decorated their room.

Be prepared to face some opposition to Skype initially. Until they feel settled they may feel you’re wanting to invade their new independent space. Don’t push it, keep it on a back-burner until they’re ready.

Email: when did your child last email anyone? We parents use it as a matter of course, but most kids have moved on to other social media and rarely use it to communicate with each other. It’s no good getting frustrated with them for not checking emails regularly. They will email if they have internet connection on their phones as it takes no effort to check it.

Email can be sent at any time and read at the recipients leisure. If your child needs frequent contact in the early weeks you can make sure there’s an email in the inbox when they wake up. I’m not talking a novel here, or an update on the a daily activities of all family members, the weather, the dog vomiting or a conversation with the neighbours. Something as simple as

‘Good morning you, hope the presentation/ lecture/ meeting goes well. Thinking of you, have a great day, loads of love xxx.’ Innocuous, normal, the kind of thing you’d say as they’re walking out the door in the morning on their way to school.

They can reciprocate – leaving you an email to let you know they’re back safe from a trip, had a good grade, made a new friend – and it will be there for you in the morning (assuming they’re west of you). When Harry is on his travels he sends a one word message every few days – ‘ALIVE!’

Email is wonderful but it doesn’t give you a real feel for how your child is doing, they can be good at covering up homesickness or depression in a lively email home. Make sure emails are balanced with voice contact – they can’t disguise their voice so well.

Facebook and Social Media: Stop groaning and look at the positives

You hate Facebook, curse the time your kids spend on it, can’t see the point? Just read that again – your kids spend their life on it. If you want to know where they are and what they’re doing this will the key, but not in the way you think.

Many of you will have Facebook accounts and those that do will extol the virtues of keeping in touch with friends round the world and sharing photos with family and friends without having to email everyone individually. Like anything it has it’s good and bad points – I suggest you ignore the bad and embrace the good.

For those of you who are already linked with their children via Facebook, congratulations you don’t need to read further on this topic!

If you haven’t got a Facebook account yet, set one up. It’s as secure and as virus free as you chose to make it. Be cool. When the time is right open negotiations for being their friend on Facebook. The initial reaction may be frosty. This is a serious threat to personal space and privacy. Tell them if they ever decide to be your Facebook friend you promise

● any communication you have with them will be done privately, through ‘message’ not splattered all over their wall

●you will never make comments on their wall, join in conversations or ‘like’ anything they do

●you will not be spending time looking through photographs

●you will never judge or make comments on anything seen on their Facebook page. Ever

Your child may not be keen so don’t push it. If they refuse, accept their decision. As time goes by and trust developes this might change. You will still be able to send them a message privately if you need to get hold of them and phone contact has failed.

If you are already friends with your child stick to the rules. You can check their page anonymously, view their photos check out their friends. Discreetly. You will never make any comment on what is on their page, their behaviour or things they say to other friends.

What you will gain is a real sense of their life and their new friends, even if they haven’t been in touch with you. You may feel disappointed they can spend time online but can’t send you an email. Come to terms with it, it’s their life not yours. If you are their friend on Facebook it is a wonderful gift from them, an affirmation of trust. Abuse it at your peril.

Enough to absorb for today. I hope these thoughts have given you some of you own, or clarified the muddle in your head. And to those mom’s who got ‘A’ level results this morning, I hope all went well!

The next post in this series will be ‘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.’ 

❋ Kindle for downloading documents I’d like to add something which wasn’t included in the last post on practical tips for students. It was sent by Martha Gonzalez for which I’d like to extend my thanks. It’s something I know about because I’ve used it for work related PDFs but never thought to appy it 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 If you have 3G and want to avoid charges and force the Kindle to use the wireless connection use 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 absolutely brilliant.

Posted in College Bound Kids, Empty Nest, Expat Experiences, Family Life, Women and Female Related | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

College Bound Kids?: You’re not alone

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 soon be returning from their summer travels to their home counties 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 past 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 the choices your child has made.

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, 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, waiting 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 possibly 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 conjur, 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 already 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. Your 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 home and had been telling us just how ready for the previous two years. Fights with his siblings were monumental, mood swingsHe didn’t want us to take him to college but we did, with his siblings tagging along too. He couldn’t wait for us to unpack his stuff and leave.

Driving home, all of us subdued, (particularly 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, not realising 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 me, coming 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 the family.

And this year will be the last time we empty our nest. He 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.

We have figured things out that (hopefully) will ease the way for all 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 this situation, learned the hard way through trial and error. Things I wish I’d known then, that would have made the transition 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?

Posted in College Bound Kids, Empty Nest, Expat Experiences, Family Life, Women and Female Related | Tagged , , , , , , | 13 Comments

‘Finding My New Normal’ – A Balloon for your Son

Last year when I first started writing this blog, I began following another, launched around the same time, written by an American living in London.

I’d clicked into her blog having no idea what it was about, intrigued by it’s title Finding My new Normal. The words on her profile were haunting,

On August 13, 2010 our lives were shattered when we lost our son at 36 weeks pregnant. After struggling with infertility for many years, we thought we were finally going to have our miracle baby. Sadly, this is not what happened and I struggle every day to make sense of it all. But I am determined to get my life back. Not my old life of course, but a new life . . . a new normal.”

I have followed her since, reading her eloquent words on how she and her husband have learned to cope with the devastating loss. Her writing has been heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting; her determination to honour the memory of her son and survive his loss as a functioning human being has been inspiring.

She writes anonymously, not even her family are aware she has this blog, so she can be honest about her feelings and speak openly about the reaction of her family to that loss. She talks with a candid directness about being overcome with grief when she least expects it, dealing with meeting pregnant women and her hopes for a future pregnancy through IVF treatment.

In the last week she has undergone IVF and will know next week if she is pregnant. All of this is overshadowed by the one year anniversary, today, of her son coming into the world still-born.

She has written about the guilt she and her husband feel at having another child, the fear they are replacing their first. How they have come to terms with those feelings and found the courage to take this chance in the hope, this time, they will have a child.

So today they mourn their son not knowing if the chance of a new life, a new miracle, is growing inside of her.

These past weeks she has thought deeply about how she can commemorate this anniversary and has decided to release a balloon and take a photograph. She has asked her family and friends if they would do the same. No pressure, only if they feel they’d like to. She has extended that invitation to anyone she has connected with through her writing. Her plan is to put all the photos together, in a memory book. One day, when she can. Something tangible and real. To know people cared about him, that he won’t be forgotten.

She has found her path through the darkness of grief by writing; from those early days of hopelessness she has clawed her way back and helped countless others with her words.

Finding My New Normal you’ve come a long way, it’s been a heavy journey and I hope, next week, the sun will start to shine again.

With love, our balloon from Wassenaar, The Netherlands.

Posted in Family Life, Inspiration and Reflection, Personal challenges, Women and Female Related | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Brothels Closed at 10pm and No Magic Mushrooms? In AMSTERDAM?

One thing with living in the Netherlands, visitors are always asking about the drug culture and sex industry. It’s a source of great fascination to many people that the Dutch are tolerant and open about these less than respectable, by the standards of most nations, trades. I’m asked endless questions about how, why, when and most of all where.

Come on. Like I’d know.

In the years I’ve lived here the Amsterdam Red Light district is not somewhere I’ve visited. Not for any reason particularly, it just hasn’t happened. I haven’t made it to the Anne Frank house or several other notable tourist sites, because there’s so much to see and do in Amsterdam and you figure it will always be there and you’ll go at some point.

I don’t notice the coffee shops either – they’re pretty discreet unless you’re with a bunch of adolescents who always want to take photos of them. Never been in one. It hasn’t been a conscious decision either way, hasn’t been on my radar.

It seems the coffee shops, certainly in Amsterdam, are frequented mostly by locals for whom it is a lifestyle choice and what are known as the ‘three-day-tourists’ – those visitors who arrive for a few days and want to hit the ground running and experience the slightly daring and risqué side of the capital.

There does seem to be that mind set with some visitors. Normally staid responsible pillars of the community back home, they feel the need to let their hair down and regress to being teenagers once they inhale the liberal air of Amsterdam.

I have a girlfriend, for legal reasons she will remain anonymous, who visited Amsterdam on a three-day cruise from that island off the west coast of mainland Europe. It was a ladies group, not girls, they were all old enough to know better and back home were well-respected, well-heeled and the solid centre of their communities. Think school governors and the Women’s Institute and you get the picture – although I must stress in this case none of them were actually members of this esteemed organisation.

Once disembarked they headed straight for the Red Light district, not the usual cultural jewels of Amsterdam such as the Rijks or Van Gogh museums, the canal boat or architectural tours as they’d told their families they would be doing.

Oh no, these ladies headed to the nearest coffee shop to partake of the local fare. As non of them were smokers – why does that not surprise you – they decided to imbibe the narcotic substance via hash brownies killing two birds with one stone as they got their chocolate fix too.

Initially they were a little disappointed with the result. I understand their first response was to inform the coffee shop owner they’d been screwed over at which point they were asked to leave.

They think they had a lovely afternoon wandering the streets and did have the presence of mind to visit the Van Gogh museum just to cover themselves if interrogated by family and friends on their return home.

Apparently they loved the intensity of Van Gogh’s colours and the mastery of his brushstrokes, with one of the group spending rather too long in front of one painting, breathlessly extolling the creativity and genius of the artist much to the nervous consternation of the other visitors. I can only imagine.

My girlfriend has rather blurred memories of the rest of the trip. How they got back to the ship she has no idea, although she has a vague memory of a rather helpful taxi driver. I bet. Lord knows how much that taxi cost.

Once back at the ship there was some difficulty getting aboard, caused, she believes by their inability to stop laughing and falling over several times due to the strange motion of the ship. That it was still in port obviously didn’t compute.

Several crew members were assigned to help them find their cabin keys and subsequently their cabins after they’d spent several hours wandering the decks, doubled up with laughter at their own ineptitude. They slept soundly only to wake feeling rather tired and emotional the next day.

At the time my friend regaled me with her story I remember being shocked and horrified. This was so not her. She’d never done anything remotely outrageous in all the years I’d known her which was over several decades. It had the same effect as if I’d heard the Queen was partial to the odd joint or partying with toy-boys.

It seems the experience of my girlfriend is typical of the behaviour of the three-day-trippers coming in to town, according to an article on the Radio Netherlands Worldwide website quoting drug expert August de Loor, ‘ …they want to cram everything they’re not allowed to do in their own country into their three days in Amsterdam – binge drinking, smoking marijuana in ‘coffeeshops’ and doing magic mushrooms on top of all that. It’s just too much. They also take the magic mushrooms in Amsterdam’s busy city centre, with all the noise and trams. That’s the very worst place possible!’

In an attempt to stop bad things happening to tourists who go wild in Amsterdam, the authorities banned magic mushrooms in 2008 following several incidents when people died after taking them. This gap in the market was soon filled by ‘trip truffles’ (sclerotia) which have the same hallucinogenic effect as the mushrooms but, unlike them, the truffles grow underground so are technically legal. Their properties fade when cooked so bear that in mind amateur chefs.

The result has been fewer emergency call outs according to the Amsterdam GGD health service spokesperson Sanne van Meeteren, who also notes that the incidents are generally less serious than those involving the use of magic mushrooms. It seems most of the 69 truffle related incidents last year most were the result of panic attacks. In 59 percent of the cases, the problems can be dealt with on the spot by talking, reassuring and arranging for somebody to stay with the person.’

Sounds more like an attack of conscience to me – fear of having to explain to family back home how they really ended up in hospital.

Another problem for the authorities has been ongoing issues in the Red Light district.

Not so much from a moral standpoint but trying to stamp some authority over the dubious people who do business there. One such businessman bought prostitution premises with funds alleged to have been part of the ransom paid to the kidnappers of Freddy Heineken, the then CEO of the brewery giant.

The authorities decided to bring brothels and sex shops under the umbrella of the Shop Opening Times Act earlier this year, forcing them to close at 10pm in the evening instead of 2am, which has been the practice for the past 40 years.

Whether this has achieved the desired effect I have no clue.

It seems rather strange to have a sex trade which closes at 10pm. I can’t imagine the girls rushing home to curl up with a hot mug of cocoa and a hot-water bottle to watch the late evening news. (It’s been a cold summer here in the Netherlands).

Quite how the sex industry is getting round this one I have no idea, except we all know they will have found a way. It’s a huge business and the cat-and-mouse tactics between the authorities and the pliers of the trade will continue regardless.

In the meantime the three-day-tourists continue to arrive and have fun, despite threats that coffee shops may soon only be available for use by residents. There’s some talk they’ll be classed as members only clubs to get round EU legislation, which prohibits the Netherlands from not allowing other EU residents the same status as locals. Who knows.

What won’t change is the number of people who visit Amsterdam each year for a variety of reasons. And for a capital city, Amsterdam is about as chilled out as you can get.

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

Britain the Best Country in the World Mr. Cameron? Not this week.

I’ve tried for the past few days not to comment on the rioting in Britain. Although the Scots and Welsh, quite rightly, will be pointing out the rioting is technically in England, not Britain.

The television footage as shown by the BBC (my channel of choice for national celebration and crisis) has sickened and enraged by turn. My heart sank when rioting was reported in my home town of Nottingham.

Unfortunately I can’t keep my mouth shut any longer and have to make some comment from my vantage point in mainland Europe.

Let’s not be under any illusion these riots were sparked by the police incident involving Mark Duggan; that was the excuse not the cause, as Mr Duggan’s family will attest. Let’s not fall for the line it’s the rage and frustration of disadvantaged youth reaching boiling point; many of the looters now in court are employed and have ‘normal’ lives. And please let’s not swallow the line it was because of the current economic climate; everyone’s dealing with that but most don’t feel the need to riot, threaten or intimidate their communities.

Whilst these factors may play a part, the reality is that thugs, bullies and the socially irresponsible found an excuse to throw their weight around, causing mayhem and criminal damage and looting what they wanted while a seemingly impotent police force stood by and watched.

Impotent because any action to crack down on the looters would have been regarded as facist and right wing by the left, despite the desperate pleas of the general public for police protection on the streets. Protection the police were unable to give to the public, business owners and even other emergency services. They were forced to stand by while business and homes burned.

The capital of Britain was brought to a standstill as the world looked on in disbelief. This was not Syria or Egypt or Libyia – this was happening in a western democracy, a country who regards itself as a player on the world stage.

Once again Britain is on the verge of being considered a joke by the international community. Think I’m overreacting? Read some of the international press. I’m not going to quote them here, just google the New York Times, Washington Post, Le Figaro or Die Welt. I’ve already received an email from european friends asking where to send aid and food parcels, and information on aid being sent from Africa. Very funny.

Last night no trains or public transport were operating, businesses closed early, the capital was paralysed. What message is that sending to our global neighbours? Within the past few days Britain has had the glare of international flashbulbs lighting up the reality of social disintegration on so many levels and for so many reasons.

I do not want to apportion blame, or offer a solution for the problem. I’m incredibly sad the sordid, squalid and unsavoury underbelly of Great Britain has been on display for all the world to see; especially now, so close to the Olympics.

Mr. Cameron, you may stand outside number 10 Downing Street and talk about the greatness of Britain, but too many of us know in our hearts, and with a quiet despair, that Britain is living on past glories and the echoes of a once great nation.

I do not envy you the job in hand.

The salvation, the saving grace and what will save the reputation of Britain is not the politics but the people for who vote for the politicians. The British are a tolerant people. Until they are pushed too far.

The law abiding, caring, socially minded and respectful have reached their limit too.

Black, white, Christian, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim have been out on the streets cleaning up, standing guard over homes, businesses and places of worship making their voices heard. For every disaffected youth rioting and looting there are those who are helping clean up the aftermath, or serving their country in Afghanistan. Let’s not forget them.

Listen to the people Mr. Cameron. They want what we all want, to raise families in peace, live without fear and intimidation and have a government in power who will ensure that.

It’s not too much to ask is it?

Posted in England and Things English, Politics and Social Comment | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Forced Marriage and campaigner Jasvinder Sanghera

I recently  wrote a post on forced and arranged marriages in the UK and the new Freedom Charity launched this year by Aneeta Prem, backed by heavyweights in the political and celebrity arenas.

During our weekend perusal of the international newspapers, my spouse alerted me to an article published in last weeks The Guardian (UK) paper. An article not just about the concept of forced marriage but the experience of a woman, Jasvinder Sanghera, who ran away from home to avoid the fate of her four sisters who weren’t so lucky.

What it has to say about her own experiences and those of girls she has since helped is inspiring.  She blows away the myth that only girls from poor and uneducated families are at risk. I make no apology for reproducing the article in full, with due credit to The Guardian newspaper and journalist HomaKhaleeli.

I’m off the check out Jasvinder’s autobiographies Shame and Shame Travels, both mentioned in the article.

I hope you take the time to read it – if you have daughters, granddaughters, sisters or nieces you should. It is only through education, awareness and recognising the problem for the barbaric practice it is, that victims will feel able to step forward knowing they can seek help and be taken seriously. Read it for those girls who will no longer be enrolled in school for the next school year.

Summer is a dangerous time for those at risk of forced marriage

Jasvinder Sanghera has long campaigned against forced marriage but, she says, it is still widespread – and thousands of girls will not return to the UK after the summer holidays.

Jasvinder Sanghera, campaigner against forced marriage

Jasvinder Sanghera: ‘The girls will only [report] it if we have a strong campaign, so victims realise they haven’t done anything wrong.’ Photograph: Mark Pinder for the Guardian

Rolling hills, stone cottages and a pub where customers are greeted by name – the Yorkshire village that Jasvinder Sanghera now calls home is a chocolate-box vision of England. It may not be the obvious place to find a woman who campaigns against forced marriage, but it doesn’t take a psychologist to see why it suits her perfectly.

Brought up in a close-knit Sikh community in Derby, Sanghera watched as her four older sisters were taken to India, one by one, to wed men they had never met, each becoming trapped in a violent marriage. At 15 she ran away to escape the same fate; only to be disowned so completely by her family that her mother told her she considered her dead. Years later, after one sister killed herself to escape domestic abuse, she set up the charity Karma Nirvana to help smash the culture of silence around forced marriage. It is a story she tells often – in her books, on TV, to police and social workers, and to the scared young women and men who ring her helpline.

She has faced public abuse and even death threats in her bid to expose the rigid system of family “honour” that is at the root of such marriages. So it is not surprising she has chosen to live in such a quiet retreat – or that she asks me not to give its name.

Unsurprisingly, she has a complicated relationship with the Indian heritage and community that defined her childhood. “One of the things I did as a coping mechanism,” she says, “was to detach myself from my culture. And because there was no one with whom to share the Asian food, the saris, the music – it was painful. I used to say to my daughter Natasha, ‘Never go out with an Asian boy’, because what Asian family will accept [her] mother – [who] ran away from home?”

Yet in Shame Travels, the 45-year-old activist’s latest book, her prediction is turned on its head when Natasha gets engaged to a Sikh whose mother welcomes them with open arms.

“Here was an Asian family who have encouraged their children to be independent, to respect different values. I have never seen that before,” she says. The warm relationship sparked a journey to India to seek out a long-lost half-sister whom Sanghera had been banned from visiting in case the “dishonour” she had brought on her family in England infected her. Her sister was thrilled to see her, supportive of her decisions and happily agreed to attend Natasha’s wedding to make up for all the family members who turn their faces away when they see her.

“It was hard for me to reconcile my [Asian heritage],” Sanghera explains, “but I feel like now I have. This book, for me, is almost like the final journey.” As if to underline this point I notice that, despite her conversion to Christianity, glinting beneath her sleeve is a kara, the steel bracelet that is not just a mark of identity for Sikhs, but a reminder to behave with honour.

Sanghera’s campaign to expose the rapes, domestic violence, and even honour killings and suicides that can result from forced marriages has garnered political success, while her 2007 autobiography, Shame, catapulted the issue into the media spotlight.

The fluency with which she reels off statistics hints at the thousands of lectures and talks she has given. Yet when I ask if all this exposure means things are getting better, she insists the scale and complexity of forced marriages – and “honour killings” to which they are intimately linked – is still not recognised. The 500 or more calls a month to Karma Nirvana and the 400 survivors of forced marriage rescued and repatriated by the Foreign Office’s Forced Marriage Unit every year is just “the tip of the iceberg”, she says.

Because the average victims are girls aged 14 to 19, she says summer holidays are “the most dangerous time. There will be thousands of girls who don’t come back in September.” The last call she took to the helpline brought this into sharp relief. The caller was a terrified 14-year-old from the north of England, who, “is always in conflict with her family because she wants to see her friends at the weekend and they don’t let her, so they said they will ‘sort her out’ in the same way they sorted her sister out”. Her sister was taken out of school and sent to a village in Pakistan for two years to be “rehabilitated”, then married and brought home.

When asked to give evidence to the home affairs select committee on forced marriage in May, Sanghera took with her a British-born survivor whose mother was a GP and father a wealthy businessman. “I wanted people to know it’s not only uneducated people who do this. She was forced to marry at 16. Her parents took her to Pakistan and left her there.” After being repeatedly raped by her new husband she became pregnant and at 17 was allowed to come back to the UK to sponsor her husband’s application for a British visa. When she begged her mother for help and complained her husband was beating her, Sanghera says she was told: “This is your duty. If you have to die in that marriage, you die.”

The girl ran away, but was tracked down by a family friend. “One day this guy came up to her – he was her father’s friend,” says Sanghera. “When she refused to return home with him, the man told her she had dishonoured her family and stabbed her repeatedly in the stomach, killing her child.”

Survivors such as this are often let down by the authorities, Sanghera says. “Often professionals will look at them with sheer disbelief.” Others are simply unaware of the powers they have to protect victims; at one of the charity’s roadshows (held for agencies such as the police and social workers) 75% of attendees had never heard of the Forced Marriage Act. This allows courts to issue orders that can prevent families from taking victims abroad, forcing them to hand over passports, or reveal the victim’s whereabouts.

Between November 2008 and February 2011, more than 250 orders were made, according to Sanghera (more than half to protect those under 16, and some for children as young as eight). Yet few of these are monitored, she says, and breaches are not dealt with seriously. So far there has only been one imprisonment. All other breaches have been dealt with by community orders or fines, including those involving threats to kill.

In May, the home affairs select committee advised that forced marriage should become a criminal offence. And when critics complain that few survivors will be willing to prosecute their families, Sanghera points to the leaps made in prosecuting domestic violence, and suggests victimless prosecutions – when the case continues even if a complaint is withdrawn. “The girls will only [report] it if we have a strong campaign, making victims realise they haven’t done anything wrong. We have to empower them.”

Those survivors who are strong enough, she encourages to follow her lead and tell their own stories, as a counter to the ostracism and silence they face in their communities, either as volunteers on the charity’s helpline or at public talks.

“Statistics can be ignored, but what moves a fellow human being is that sitting opposite you is someone who has suffered abuse by the person or people who are supposed to love them the most.” Some argue that such narratives turn forced marriage and “honour violence” into cultural issues, rather than another form of gender violence, and lead to ethnic minority communities being labelled as barbaric.

Sanghera admits this is a risk, but she is adamant it is the fault of the people who don’t oppose “honour violence” strongly enough. “I’m tired of saying cultural acceptance does not mean this is acceptable. It’s not part of my or anyone’s culture to be abused.”

• Shame Travels is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99.

Posted in England and Things English, Politics and Social Comment, Women and Female Related | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Mammogram Screening Makes No Difference to Breast Cancer Mortality Rates? Seriously?

A girlfriend alerted me on Facebook yesterday that ‘analysts from 6 EU countries (inc. NL) suggest Mammogram screening has had no effect on breast cancer mortality.’ 

Excuse me?

It took a bit of time for that to sink in at which point I headed off to investigate where this article had originated and what these people were on when they put the results of their analysis together.

Well darn me if it didn’t date back to 28 July this year when the esteemed British Medical Journal published their findings. In short

‘Objective To compare trends in breast cancer mortality within three pairs of neighbouring European countries in relation to implementation of screening.

Design Retrospective trend analysis.

Setting Three country pairs (Northern Ireland (United Kingdom) v Republic of Ireland, the Netherlands v Belgium and Flanders (Belgian region south of the Netherlands), and Sweden v Norway).

Data sources WHO mortality database on cause of death and data sources on mammography screening, cancer treatment, and risk factors for breast cancer mortality.

Main outcome measures Changes in breast cancer mortality calculated from linear regressions of log transformed, age adjusted death rates. Joinpoint analysis was used to identify the year when trends in mortality for all ages began to change.

Results From 1989 to 2006, deaths from breast cancer decreased by 29% in Northern Ireland and by 26% in the Republic of Ireland; by 25% in the Netherlands and by 20% in Belgium and 25% in Flanders; and by 16% in Sweden and by 24% in Norway. The time trend and year of downward inflexion were similar between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and between the Netherlands and Flanders. In Sweden, mortality rates have steadily decreased since 1972, with no downward inflexion until 2006. Countries of each pair had similar healthcare services and prevalence of risk factors for breast cancer mortality but differing implementation of mammography screening, with a gap of about 10-15 years.

Conclusions The contrast between the time differences in implementation of mammography screening and the similarity in reductions in mortality between the country pairs suggest that screening did not play a direct part in the reductions in breast cancer mortality.’

Who do these people think they’re kidding?

Perhaps their findings would be different if European women were screened at a younger age and more frequently.

Anyone reading this will know at least one person who has died/ recovered from /is currently fighting breast cancer, their stories are legion but most will thank the powers that be that mammograms are available.

I’ve experienced both the USA and European attitudes to mammograms and the differences are startling.

In the USA you have a mammogram at age 40 to establish a baseline and annually thereafter. In the UK/ Netherlands from 50ish (depending if anyone remembers to alert you to screening and that’s a whole other story) every three years.

Over zealous americans? Perhaps you might think so, but their philosophy is sound. The Americans are great believers in preventative medicine as it saves money in the long run, better still, it benefits the patient.

I well remember my surprise when my US doctor sent me for my first mammogram. We had no family history of breast cancer and it all seemed a little over the top, until she said the chilling words, ‘The screening will give you a baseline for any changes that might happen in the future. By the time there’s a lump it will be too late.’

Hearing that makes you focus. Two years later I was recalled with an abnormal mammogram which subsequently turned out to be okay but gave a few sleepless nights all the same.

The first time I was up close and personal with breast cancer was back in 2005 when two girlfriends, both British, one living in the USA and one in the UK
were diagnosed with breast cancer, neither having a family history of the disease. Both were in their mid forties. Their diagnosis, treatment and recovery could not have been more different.

My friend in the US, lets call her Jenny, went for a regular screening around Thanksgiving 2005 – this after the stress of Hurricane Katrina when she was living in Alabama where she’d evacuated with her children.

The mammogram showed several areas of concern, which they’d been watching from previous mammograms, had developed and she was diagnosed with having two very aggressive types of cancer. Neither could be seen without the mammogram – no lumps, no feeling ill. Time was of the essence but having previous mammograms for comparison helped the doctors more accurately asses her prognosis.

Her options were discussed. Treatment and medication for the rest of her life and no guarantee it wouldn’t come back, or double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.

I remember a long talk with her after she’d been given the options and time to make her own investigations. The thought of treatment, medication and watching her shadow for the rest of her life wasn’t an alluring prospect. If the cancer did come back she’d be undergoing surgery ten or twenty years down the line, older, maybe less healthy. She elected for a double mastectomy, brave woman that she is.

The surgery took place in February 2006, after surgeons had discussed how it would be done to make reconstruction easier. This in New Orleans where breast cancer patients from all over the states were trying to get surgery, despite the post hurricane devastation. The hospital was reputed to have some of the best mastectomy/ reconstruction surgeons in the country.

It was still pretty brutal – home after a few days and nursed by friends. Attached to tubes and drains and in post operative pain, at no time she did she bemoan her fate. Her only comment was. ‘However bad this is, I’m just grateful to be alive. If we’d been at home in England I would have died before they knew I was even ill.’

By June 2006 her reconstructive surgery had taken place. She was pert, pretty and glowing. At our July book club she was radiant, healthy and ready to grab life with both hands.

My friend in the UK, we’ll call her Liz, developed her cancer at exactly the same time.

In her case she’d never had a mammogram, being under 50, but found a small lump, less than the size of a small pea. Well, her husband found it but that’s a different story. She reluctantly headed to her GP who duly and without much concern sent her off for a screening.

The news was devastating. Aggressive cancer, double mastectomy required immediately. Trying to take it all in there was little time for discussion about post operative treatment, options for reconstruction, alternatives. It was made clear the operation was needed within a week or so.

She and her husband discovered their local Health Authority could not schedule a surgery for two months, but if she were to pay to go privately the adjoining Health Authority could do it the following week. Her doctors made it clear two months was too long to wait. They scraped together from family and friends the £8000 required and she headed off to the hospital.

There are no words to describe what happened except to say she was butchered. No thought as to what may or may not be possible for her afterwards. It was assumed she’d be so grateful for being alive that this pretty, vivacious outgoing woman would be happy wearing standard issue bras filled with prosthetics for the rest of her life. Prosthetics which rubbed and chaffed her painful scars.

She dressed and undressed in the dark away from her loving husband, who couldn’t have been more supportive. He wept to see her so distraught when he was just relieved she was still alive. She started not going out, wearing baggy clothes spiraling down into depression. She felt she shouldn’t complain, rather be grateful and deal with it. She’d been told reconstruction would not be possible due to the botched surgery.

Then she found strength from somewhere and started to fight back.

Three years after the initial surgery she had reconstruction work done using new techniques, and phoned me in great excitement to tell me they could make new nipples too.

I saw the end result physically and mentally. Seeing her for the first time after all this was emotional and heartwarming – she glowed, was vibrant, happy and loved every second of her life. As we left and my husband went ahead out to the car Liz stopped me, whipped up her T-shirt and said, ‘What do you think of these then? Pretty good aren’t they? Don’t have to wear a bra or anything!’ That much was obvious and I have to say they looked totally real. I was thrilled for her. At her 50th birthday party she was dancing on tables.

Two women in different countries sharing the same journey.

I’m not here to make political statements or say what should or should not be done when a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer. Health care systems differ in attitude and how they are funded. I’m sure people in the states have had bad experiences and I know people in the UK have had good ones. What seems incredibly sad is that there is so much discrepancy in diagnosis, treatment and mental/ physical support.

What I do know is that if anyone has a wife, mother, grandmother, sister, daughter, granddaughter, aunt, niece, or daughter in law who is diagnosed with breast cancer they will want the best possible care for them.

And in most cases that first line of defence is the mammogram. Period.




Posted in Expat Experiences, Family Life, Women and Female Related | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Expat Book Review: Sammy’s Next Move, Helen Maffini

It hadn’t occurred to me until recently how few books are written for young expat children facing another international move. Once you start to look around the dearth of literature is obvious.

Which is why I picked up this book.

Having some experience of living oversea I was interested in two things – who had written it and how they’d encompassed the huge variety of places, people and cultures experienced by global nomads in one small book.

The author, Helen Maffini is well qualified personally and professionally.

I am a ‘third culture kid’ myself having spent 2 years in Japan as a child. I also have two of my own TCK’s, Francesca, 8 and Alexandra, 15 who have now lived in 7 and 9 countries respectively. I am an educational consultant currently studying for my doctorate, looking at emotional resilience in TCK children. I am a certified Emotional Intelligence trainer and co-author of the book Developing Children’s Emotional Intelligence.

As an education consultant I have worked with many children in International schools in the countries I have lived in. I realized that there was not a book written for these children, to help with their emotions during an overseas move. The idea came to me to write a book with the snail as the character as a snail carries his home on his back just as a TCK makes home wherever he/she lands!”

She was recently interviewed by Jo Parfitt (from where these quotes were taken) and will talk about herself and the book on Jo’s Writers Abroad radio show on the Women’s Information Network in a couple of weeks time.

So to the book itself.

Not having any young children in my life at present, I handed the book over to a professional who works with elementary school children at the American School of The Hague and a child psychology student who is a TCK herself, to ask their opinions.

The book gives no indication as to the age range of intended readers but following their advice and my gut instinct as a mother, it would be ideal up to the age of 7. It is something to read with children, although once read, a treasured touchstone for a child to hold close.

Sammy is a young snail facing yet another move who explores his emotions about the adventure to come and how he has handled moving in the past. The excitement of researching a new place is balanced by feelings of loss and sadness at what must be left behind.

It is beautifully balanced, validating and addressing the emotions any child feels on hearing the news their family will be moving to a new country. At each point in the story there are opportunities for parents/ teachers to talk to children about feelings they may not be able to verbalize, a huge hurdle with younger children.

The illustrations are wonderful and designed to pull a child in and engage with the book before reading it.

At the back of the book Helen has included a couple of pages of tips for parents of TCKs and some project ideas for handling the move.

This is a wonderful book and I’d thoroughly recommend it to anyone contemplating a move with a young child. For the record, both my professionals loved this book and my educator at ASH enthused that it would be fabulous tool for group discussions in school.

If you’re reading this because you have a child and you’re looking for resources in helping them deal with an overseas move, I would also highly recommend Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child, by Julia Simens which I reviewed a while ago.

Sammy’s Next Move is available in print and kindle format, but a major appeal of the book are the superb illustrations by Mike Swaim so I can’t recommend the Kindle (UK) version.

Pack both these books and you can’t go wrong.

Sammy’s Next Move (click for amazon link)

  • Paperback: 32 pages
  • Publisher: Createspace (22 Jan 2011)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 1456495011
  • ISBN-13: 978-1456495015
  • Product Dimensions: 25.4 x 17.8 x 0.2 cm
Posted in Expat Related Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Expat Arrivals: Newbies in Town part 1

It’s that time of year again; after weeks of frenetic activity in June and early July with people packing up and moving out, the tide has turned. The first container trucks are appearing on the narrow leafy streets of Wassenaar and unloading furniture and boxes arriving from the four corners of the globe.

New families are swooping in jet-lagged, tired and shell shocked. Wherever they’ve come from this will be a new place, a new language, a new culture.

Some are here before their belongings living in hotels or short term furnished rentals, getting to grips with their new environment before the containers roll up and life fills with the unpacking of the familiar in an unfamiliar place.

We noticed the new migrants for the first time last week. Shopping in the local store with Harry, he breathlessly dumped an armful of junk food in our cart and headed off with a,

‘New family – back of the store, gotta go and help.’

Peering round the end of the cereal aisle I saw his disappearing back heading towards a family group stood in a dishevelled huddle at the rear of the store. Mom was clutching a dairy item in her hands, looking as if it were a grenade with the pin removed, desperately trying to figure out the contents.

All of them had the the deer-in-the-headlights look of the newly landed. Paralysed, confused, dazed and bewildered. The family stood frozen as the wash of customers flowed round them oblivious to the fish out of water in the midst of them.

I watched Harry walk over and start talking. Immediately you could see the relief as Harry’s american accent filtered through and connected with the overwhelmed brain cells. Shoulders relaxed, bodies became less rigid, breathing returned to normal and direct eye contact was made, bringing them all back to the here-and-now.

I saw smiles, hand shaking and the expat speed introduction. The mother’s face was towards me and I saw a look I recognised; close to tears, incredibly grateful, holding it all together in front of the children who wouldn’t be able to cope seeing mom cry. Especially not in public.

By now Harry had taken control of their cart and shopping list and was guiding them round the store. The mom was listening with rapt attention and the children clung to every word in hero-worshipping awe.

So much for Harry crawling out of bed and reluctantly coming to assist me with a major family shop.

I kept glimpsing him as I struggled to steer our over stacked cart round aisles full of boxes of store supplies waiting to be unpacked and stacked onto half empty shelves. (The concept of stacking shelves after the store is closed and empty is one that hasn’t penetrated the Dutch culture.) He was pointing, smiling, laughing and being unbelievably empathetic with their situation.

I admit to feeling a warm glow somewhere in the pit of my stomach.

I could see he was advising them as to the best Dutch equivalents on their shopping list, he was probably better at this than me, being fluent in Dutch. Let’s face it, the family are probably still in shock that ‘slagroom’ is dutch for ‘cream’, the container the mom was holding when Harry approached.

In years past I have done what Harry did, spotted a ‘newbie’ and rushed to help, remembering that awful sinking feeling of not being able to construct a meal from the array of foreign labels amongst the fresh and packaged produce. I so remember the wonderful feeling of thinking you’ve figured it out, only to sit down to a meal which no-one will eat because it ‘tastes weird’.

I didn’t rush over on this occasion.

Apart from navigating my cart round an obstacle course and getting in the way of every tutting and eye-rolling Dutch shopper in the store, with me muttering ‘sorry’ like a record stuck in a groove (Harry’s back into vinyl), I figured my son had it covered. I’d caught his eye a couple of times on the circuit and winked at him, he was doing great.

He’s been around long enough to know this time of year is when we spot new people and help if we can, because people did that for us. Those wonderful people who helped us in the store, the post office, the bank, the park, the parking lot when we first arrived and were clueless. Expats and Dutch natives alike.

We couldn’t pay them back for their kindness but we can pay it forward.

As I struggled through the check-out and headed to the car Harry was nowhere in sight. It was only as I lifted the last awkward heavy bag into the trunk I caught sight of him on the other side of the parking lot, unloading shopping into a rental car. As he closed the trunk and handed the keys to the mom I saw her reach forward and give him a grateful hug. I saw his bashful smile and knew he understood.

I leant back on the car, arms folded and waited for him as he sauntered over to me, hands in pockets, head to one side with a huge smile from ear to ear.

‘Sorry about that mom, but what else could I do? Did you manage ok without me?’

I ruffled his hair and gave him a hug too.

Then I asked him about the rather cute teenage girl around his own age who was the oldest of the four children in the family . . .

Posted in Advice for New Arrivals in the Netherlands, Expat Experiences, Family Life | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

A Century of Posts: A Bit of a Milestone

d0002482 Comstock Photos Royalty Free Photograph

Comstock Photos Royalty Free Photograph

Tah – dah!! Drumroll, cheerleaders and ignition sequence for fireworks . . .

It’s with surprise and a bit of a shock I realised today that this is the 100th post I’ve written. One hundred posts, published, read and commented on; where has the time gone?

I’ll be honest, this is not so much a post as a bit of a pat on the back, a blow on the personal trumpet and a moment to bask in the warmth of an achievement which has surprised me. Indulge me.

It’s a chance to take a moment and reflect that I didn’t give up and walk away when the technical stuff got tough, ideas didn’t flow and I wondered what on earth I was doing.

More importantly it’s to say a huge thank you to people who have navigated the complexities of the WordPress software I use and taken the time to leave their own reflections and musings on things I’ve written.

d0002482 Comstock Photos Royalty Free Photograph

Comstock Photos Royalty Free Photograph

A thank you also to those who have subscribed to Wordgeyser by email, RSS feeds, networked blogs, and now (just started) my new Facebook page. Thanks to followers on Twitter, Linkedin, Google and Yahoo! and thanks too to those who connect through Go! Overseas, ExpatWoman, Dutchnews, Iamexpat, Expatblog or who just type in on a regular basis.

From my first post on 16 November 2010 until today it has been a journey which has taken twists and turns I didn’t expect, introduced me to new friends and opened doors I didn’t know were there. By turns it’s been challenging, inspiring, enriching, frustrating – head bangingly so on occasion – and it has been a whole new learning curve getting to grips with technology and social media which has impressed even my kids.

Let’s face it, as far as they are concerned I should be settling for games Bingo and getting excited about Zimmer frames.

It started out as a kind of portfolio, a commitment to publish writing on a regular basis, to put myself ‘out there’. This the scariest thing of all for one who is genetically British but who has lived, embraced, lived and worked the American way and now has reached the age where quite frankly, I no longer give a damn.

d0002482 Comstock Photos Royalty Free Photograph

Comstock Photos Royalty Free Photograph

Life’s too short, can be incredibly difficult, harsh and brutal but it’s also the most amazing gift we have. I refuse to be afraid of challenges anymore because fear holds us back, stops us achieving the things we can.

What’s the worst that can happen if we follow our dreams, face our fears? We might fail or we might not. Even failure takes us down roads we didn’t know were there, leads us off at tangents to new places, new dreams.

Success and failure are different sides of the same coin; it’s the journey that counts.

So thanks a million to friends, fellow writers and bloggers and my very own cheerleaders – here’s to the next century!

THE VICTOR by C. W. Longenecker*

If you think you are beaten, you are.
If you think you dare not, you don’t
If you like to win, but you think you can’t,
It is almost certain you won’t.

If you think you’ll lose you’ve lost.
For out in the world we find
Success begins with a fellow’s will –
It’s all in the state of mind.

If you think you are outclassed, you are –
You’ve got to think high to rise.
You’ve got to be sure of yourself before
You can ever win the prize.

Life’s battles don’t always go
To the stronger or faster man;
But sooner or late the man who wins
Is the man who thinks he can.

* there is some debate as to who was the original author of this poem, but I’m going with this one.

Posted in Inspiration and Reflection, Personal challenges, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

Dutch Navy 1: Somali Pirates 0

It’s been brought to my attention today that Somalian pirates are in the news again. In the Netherlands.

Five Somalis are appearing in court in Rotterdam today charged with piracy. They are accused of attempting to capture a South African yacht and using automatic weapons and rocket launchers against a French naval vessel which came to its aid.

They were eventually overpowered by the crew of the HNLMS Amsterdam, the Dutch navy‘s rapid combat support ship. The captain of the South African yacht was rescued but two others on board are still missing, presumed kidnapped.

The five suspects have admitted to setting sail in rubber boats to attack shipping off the coast of Somalia. The Public Prosecutor’s Office is due to submit its sentencing demand today.” (

Now regular readers of my literary missives will recall I have a personal, vested interest in the activities of these nautical buccaneers. For those whose visits to these pages are of a more intermittent nature, you may like to check out Somalia, Pirates and Ransom Money : solving the famine problem to get up to speed.

The Dutch take the piracy problem seriously as a sea-faring nation who continue to have business interests world-wide and who are players on the global political stage.

One thing about the Dutch, they do play their part internationally; perhaps without the fanfare and grandiose gestures of other nations, but when things are starting to rumble around the globe you’ll find the Dutch in there somewhere. Not in huge numbers, the Dutch Army has 35,000 full and part time soldiers and the Dutch Navy 10,000, but they’ll be there and are pretty darn good at helping administer global justice to those who break international law.

It’s one of the great things about the Dutch, they are a fair-minded and tolerant people. They do love their paperwork and rules and regulations, which can drive you up the wall when you live amongst them, but they make ideal candidates in an international arena.

Where other nations would end up chasing their tails in the administrative processes, the Dutch relish the challenge of getting stuck in and getting results. They are not impressed by the drama and histrionics of dictators or war criminals, so a few Somali pirates are a walk in the park by comparison.

It was with great delight I read todays report; it gives me a sense of things being a little bit better in the world.

Now if you’re interested in what the Dutch have to do to bring pirates to justice, you may be interested in watching this short clip of Dutch forces storming a Somali pirate ship. It is in Dutch, but you’ll have no problem following the action.

It quite warmed my heart.

                                                      Royal Netherlands Naval jack

Posted in Dutch Culture, Politics and Social Comment, The Netherlands | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Mont Blanc: In Memorium

In memory of

James Stephen Brownhill     

 30 September 1988, Sheffield, UK – 1 July 2011, Frendo Spur,Chamonix, France

I have written about James, his family and his life elsewhere, this page is to quietly acknowledge their loss, and the loss suffered by other families who grieve for those who have died on Mont Blanc.

The James Brownhill Memorial Fund has been established in his memory, please check it out, details of how to donate are on the website,

The fund 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.

James was an avid climber and mountaineer. His love for climbing led him to develop skills in every climbing style but it was in Alpine and Traditional climbing where he sought to improve most.

James reveled within the wider community of climbing. He shared much happiness with those he met in the Peak District and regular trips to Chamonix; always encouraging people to embrace the challenges of climbing.”

The music on the link below was played at James’ funeral on 21 July 2011.

                                            Breaking of the Fellowship – Click 

 When the cold of winter comes

Starless night will cover day

In the veiling of the sun

We will walk in bitter rain

But in dreams

I can hear your name

And in dreams 

We will meet again

When the seas and mountains fall

And we come, to end of days

In the dark I hear a call

Calling me there,

I will go there

And back again.

Lyrics © Warner Chappell Music Inc

In remembrance of all climbers, guides and rescuers who have lost their lives on Mont Blanc, the White Mountain.

Posted in Expat Experiences, Inspiration and Reflection | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Forced and Arranged Marriages: Do You Really Understand the Difference?

My attention was recently drawn to a new charity established in the UK, through a book I was asked to look at and possibly review. I’ve read the book, checked the charity and feel a need to spread the word.

I’ll admit this organisation is not something I’ve been aware of up until now, it’s only been formed this year, and if I’m not aware there are other people who may have missed it too.

Freedom Charity was established by founder and lifetime President Aneeta Prem, one of London’s youngest magistrates who chairs adult, youth and family law. I make no aplogies for taking their aims and mission statement directly from the charity web site,

‘Freedom Charity was established to save the lives of vulnerable children and young people who are at risk of, or are subjected to violent crimes, dishonour-based violence and forced marriages throughout the UK… 

… When citizens from other countries settle in the UK, not all of their culture’s practices are transferrable. The practice of forced marriages and dishonour-based violence is not acceptable in the UK and citizen’s rights are protected, especially those of children and young people, and appropriate measures are in place to ensure the safety and protection of our most vulnerable citizens.

It is these children that Freedom Charity will help.’

Until I read up on the charity and the book Aneeta has written to bring attention to the problem, I was oblivious to the concept of forced marriage. If it had crossed my mind at all I believed, as many do, that it is one and the same thing as an arranged marriage.

Not in the same universe.

In arranged marriages the bride will usually have a choice of suitors to select from and either party may reject a potential spouse.

In a forced marriages girls as young as 15, often having been born in the UK and grown up in a westernised environment, return to their parents’ home country for a visit, maybe attending a family celebration, only to discover they are to be married. These marriages are brokered by her parents with family back home without consultation or knowledge on the part of the girl.

While her own family return to the UK she is left behind to marry someone she has not met and will live under the control of his family. She will have no contact with friends, they will not know what has happened to her until she fails return to school after a holiday break. Often these situations are abusive and the girls live in poverty as chattles of the husband’s family. They have no freedom, no education, no rights.

That this should happen in any civilised and humane society is deplorable. It is illegal in the UK but this is not enough to stop the practice.

In her work teaching karate to young children Aneeta became aware of the issue of forced marriages and got involved – seriously involved,

She is an active member within her local community and has gained trust and respect for the voluntary work she has done in London, acting as a mentor and a public voice, for which she has received public recognition. She received the Commissioner’s Commendation for the work she did in an oversight capacity leading the Tsunami Police Rescue effort for the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA). Aneeta was the MPA lead member for forced marriages and dishonour based violence, working closely with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and many victims, survivors and community groups to provide independent advice, and she is helping to develop an information website.’

What she also did was write the book, But it’s Not Fair, which the charity hopes to place in every school in the UK, along with programmes to alert teachers and adults working with children to the very real threat of forced marriage in some communities. Although a work of fiction, it has information and advice for girls who fear their friends may be in danger of a forced marriage or abuse.

‘It draws on her extensive experience supporting child victims of forced marriage and dishonour based crimes through her work with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Government Ministers, the police, survivors and her experiences as a magistrate.

The story is written from the view of a young girl, Vinny, whose friend is almost a victim of forced marriage. The book is presented in a fun easy-to-read style, but it carries some powerful messages. “It not only raises awareness but also suggests courses of action that could potentially help potential victims.”‘

The Charity offers a 24/7 telephone help line to anyone who has concerns and questions. Their overall aims are to,

  • raise awareness on the issues of violent crimes against children and forced marriages throughout the UK
  • engage with young people and empower them, offering advice, information, and guidance
  • support victims of violent crimes against children with a range of intervention and support programmes
  • identify young people at risk and support them
  • work in partnership with specialist agencies and organisations, communities and families
The charity has heavyweight support from the worlds of politics and celebrity putting muscle and drive behind this initiative. Check them out on the website
Although this charity is UK based, forced marriages take place globally. It’s something we should be aware of and help spread the word. We should also say a prayer for people like Aneeta who are prepared to do what it takes to help.

Photos : Stephanie Sinclair/National Geographic

Posted in Politics and Social Comment, Women and Female Related | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Vices or Virtues?: No, the 7 Links Project

Like many people I start the day by checking my emails, social networking sites and online global newspapers, at the same time rehydrating with a large cup of hot, steaming tea. Part of this ‘starting the day’ process involves reading blogs I follow, most emailed directly to my inbox.

I feel it’s part of the job to read what other writers are writing, commenting on their thoughts or takes on newsworthy items.

Linda over at is a daily given; I never know what to expect or which high-profile project she’ll be working on next. Yesterdays post was great fun – she’d been invited by a fellow blogger, Jack Scott at Perking the Pansies to be involved with the Seven Links Project.

In a nutshell, the originator of this great idea is Katie at Tripbase, and the concept is deceptively simple:

‘To unite bloggers (from all sectors) in a joint endeavor to share lessons learned and create a bank of long but not forgotten blog posts that deserve to see the light of day again.’

The rules are straight forward,

1. You’re nominated by a nominated blogger;

2. You decide which seven of your posts to assign to each of the seven categories;

3. You nominate five more bloggers to pick up the baton and run with the idea.

I was intrigued which posts Linda thought were her most beautiful /popular /controversial /helpful /successful /didn’t get the attention it deserved and the final category, the one she was most proud of.

By the end I was smiling at the memories of what good stuff she’s written, reminded of posts I applaud too and casually glanced down at the list of bloggers she’d nominated to carry the torch.

The tea in mid gulp failed to enter the correct tube for stomach entry, instead making an attempt to enter the lungs; Harry leapt into action poised to perform the Heimlich Manoeuvre. Shoot. You’re kidding me. There in flashing neon, with Klaxons blasting in the background was “wordgeyser”.

Like the tea it could have gone two ways. Total panic or stop whining and get on board. I’ve opted for the latter.

Before I do let me explain why it could have so easily gone the other way.

There are people out there who are better writers than me, I read their blogs/books and am able to make a considered comparison. Then there are people who read my blog who are more capable too, and more than likely chunter that thought aloud every time they read a post. The difference is I’m the one who actually screwed up the courage (and believe me it is courage) to put thoughts into words and share them publicly. It’s the scariest place I’ve ever been.

It’s laying yourself open to public humiliation and ridicule, having thoughts and ideas trampled by others; it’s incredibly painful, frustrating and terrifying.

Yet there’s no place I feel more alive.

Believe me, I know when a post is good, bad or indifferent. If I write about something intensely personal I know how I felt while I was writing it, what was happening in my life at the time I wrote it and, more importantly, what I was feeling when whatever it was actually happened.

Writing’s never straight forward, it’s always multi-layed. I never really know what I’m going to write about when I sit down four days a week to write the blog. Often I have a plan, start to write and it flies off somewhere else. In between the blog writing other projects are evolving too.

So a task like this isn’t a matter of pulling up your stats (oh yes, blogging is far more complex than people realise) and re-reading a few past posts, but I’m going to give it a shot.

1. My most beautiful post:

Beautiful (I believe) in sentiment – it says what friendship means to me when everyday life is lived on a global canvas  Girlfriends and sunny days

2. My most popular post:

I’ve written a  mini-series of posts over time about learning a new language – Dutch. It’s difficult to say which came out on top so will cheat and count all of them as one post! Oh, and one about my bike which has been featured on several websites, so I guess the most successful to date.

Loving your Dutch bike, Expat style

Pillow Talk – the best way to learn a new language IV

Ruanchy Daffodils and Randy Tulips – Learning the Lingo III

Cataracts and Breast Implants – Learning the Lingo II

How the English approach language learning : Learning the Lingo Part 1

3. My most controversial post:

This is obviously a subject very close to home for some people . . .

Rumblings in Expatland : Trailing, Accompanying, Stellar or “Other”?

4. My most helpful post and 5. A post whose success surprised me:

I intended this post to be about the most important thing to take with you when you move – your hair colour and mixing codes for your new stylist – but once I got started this never got a mention, the whole piece turned into something else. Story of my blogging life.

Surviving the Netherlands and other useful tips for new arrivals

6. A post I feel didn’t get the attention it deserved:

Personally I thought this was hilarious . . . DIY : Household Chores and the Retention of Sanity

7. The post I am most proud of :
 Couldn’t decide between these – both are written from the heart about real things. They were both incredibly tough to write because they were so personal. Disaster and tragedy: the emotional cost and Every Parent’s Fear

It would be really interesting to know if people who have read these posts actually agree with my choices. I’m getting very close to my 100th blog (marching bands, cheerleaders, fireworks and numerous celebrities already booked) and it’s difficult to remember what I’ve actually written.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, (extended drumroll) may I present my 5 nominated bloggers I’d love to get on board to continue the creative flow (in no particular order),

My friend at Finding My New Normal

Naimh at The Singing Warrior

Miss Neriss at Adventures in Integration,

Reina at

Sarah at Count Only Sunny Hours

As your minds go into panic mode here’s a list of bloggers already nominated to help you out

Go girls!!

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

Repatriation of the Deceased: If You Die Overseas Die in The Netherlands

I did have a mental debate as to whether I should write about today’s topic. After listening to both sides for several days I’ve decided we’re all adults and can deal with grown up things.

Ever given a thought to what happens when someone who is living/ traveling /vacationing overseas dies away from home? It’s one of those things that lurks darkly at the back of our minds which we push away and promise ourselves we’ll think about it another time.

For many of us with spouses, children, family and friends who regularly travel the world perhaps it’s something we should at least be aware of and which I’ve touched on briefly before (Death of a Spouse Overseas and Death and The Expat)

Having friends who have just been through the ordeal of flying the body of their son home it’s something at the forefront of our minds. We had little idea of what was involved – dealing with insurance companies, undertakers in two countries (home and abroad), the legalities of a foreign country and people who go home at five o’clock. Even with the help of a consulate it can be gruelling navigating through the red tape.

When something like this happens we become acutely aware through news media or other people of how many other families are dealing with this situation, of bringing a loved one home.

Suddenly articles on this subject seemed to be everywhere but one in particular caught my eye as it was close to home, involving Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, Martijn van Tol’s  ‘A First Rate Death in the Netherlands’

Schiphol is the only airport in the world with a mortuary and around 1450 bodies a year pass through on their way to their final resting place.

The facility is in the capable hands of Theo de Haardt, care manager of the mortuary, situated next to a runway within the sprawling airport complex. The department is accessible 24 hours a day and the deceased are cared for with respect and dignity, irrespective of who they are or where they’re from.

They arrive in de Haardt’s autopsy room for preparation for the flight home where he works alongside rabbis, imams or family members, depending on religious or cultural requirements. The body is embalmed ensuring the deceased arrives at the funeral destination in the best condition possible.

The staff are accommodating to all nationalities, faiths and cultures, with friends and families welcome to pay their respects at the facility,

‘It’s different every time,’ says de Haardt. ‘People from Indonesia often bring snacks and drinks. People from Suriname like a party with lots of singing. Nigerian families are immaculately dressed with sashes. Turkish people are extremely friendly and polite. Sometimes we have as many as a hundred people here but there’s never any problem.’

It seems the team are happy to accommodate anything required by a grieving family, a lock of hair, a poem in the casket. Whatever the family want,’… we can arrange that. 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Everything is possible.’

Everything is possible? That’s an expression not uttered often in the Netherlands.

Yet where de Haardt works so respectfully and diligently, thinking only of those placed in his safekeeping for transit home, is not really the Netherlands or any other country for that matter.

It’s that ethereal place removed from the world which goes on regardless and unseeing – those days following death when the clocks stand still, the earth wobbles on it’s axis and life for the families involved stops. Theo seems to have an intuitive understanding of what is important at these times of raw grief – for the deceased and their families.

I’m deeply touched by the humanity of this man. I’m warmed and comforted that should the very worst happen, here in the Netherlands we have one of the best facilities in the world to deal with it, led by a man who sees what he does as more than a job.

Thank you Theo.

Posted in Dutch Culture, Expat Experiences, The Netherlands | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

USA Consulate in Amsterdam: A Little Taste of Home

I had cause this week to head up to the US Consulate in Amsterdam. We had received a phone call from Harry whilst we were on vacation that his US passport had expired 3 months ago.

Why he was even checking his passport I have no idea as he uses his EU one as his ‘official’ ID in the Netherlands. I don’t want to follow this train of thought too closely; anything Harry does tends to leave me confused and in need of rest in a darkened room.

Nevertheless something had to be done about the passport so on returning home we hit the internet to find out what we had to do. In the US renewing a passport is a matter of downloading forms and mailing everything to the passport elves. It’s not quite so straightforward overseas.

Our search revealed that as Harry was under 18 and exchanging his minor passport for an adult one, we would have to appear in person at the Embassy of the country in which we were living. No problem, the Embassy is a ten minute drive in The Hague. Except things are never that easy.

The interesting thing about the Netherlands is unlike most countries it effectively has two capital cities; Amsterdam and The Hague. Amsterdam is recognised by everyone, here and overseas as THE capital, but The Hague is the seat of government.

This means that everything important –  International Court of Justice, International Criminal Court, OPCW the UN’s Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, (the city regards itself as the world’s fourth United Nations city, after New York, Geneva and Vienna), Europol, Monarchy, foreign embassies, international companies and anything else of national and international importance is in The Hague. Along with a big prison for the international bad guys like Mladic.

Amsterdam is party town but The Hague is where the real business gets done.

The US have both an Embassy and a consulate in the Netherlands; embassy in The Hague  and consulate in Amsterdam. This is actually a great idea as I’m assuming the important stuff gets done in The Hague but the place most Americans visit in the Netherlands is Amsterdam so it makes sense a consulate is there for them and anyone who needs US paperwork / passports etc. It’s also the place where non-Americans can file for visas too.

We set off for Amsterdam with rain hammering down like a tropical storm and despite missing our usual exit for Amsterdam on the A10 due to bad visibility, we found a parking garage a mere 100-yards from where we needed to be and were half an hour early for our appointment. Result.

We headed on over to the consulate and although wearing heavy-duty rain gear, arrived at the line by the security gate drenched. Having read the website comprehensively we knew, for security reasons, not to take cell phones, purses, bags or anything else likely to result in a lock-down of the consulate.

Without cell phones and clutching a rather damp and limp print-out of our appointment, unlike most in the line, we were fast tracked through the 20-foot high security gate by a smiling, efficient and very polite security man. He ushered over to the security hut; a small white shed outside the main building whose door unlocked to let us in and locked again behind us.

It was the two of us, three security guards and a scanner.

The fact my cell phone was in the pocket of my jeans not the car as I thought, was no problem. I was asked to remove the battery and leave it with them for the duration of my visit. Thank goodness for Harry – I had no clue how to get the darn thing out.

They went through everything we had, calmly efficiently and with good humour. They roared with laughter at Harry’s old passport photo, aged 12, which bears no resemblance to the 6 foot drop-dead-gorgeous (I’m biased) 17-year old. There was some consternation at the discovery in my Barbour jacket pocket – only worn for dog walking and severe rain conditions – of soggy, mashed up dog treats which resembled semtex but that was quickly resolved.

As we left security I realised  those innocent and innocuous questions and idle chat were very sharp and incisive ways of getting an awful lot of relevent information out of us. My respect for what these guys have to do everyday to protect the people they work with increased no end.

Once inside the building we were faced with a room full of people and a wall full of interview booths, like arriving at the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) on a Monday morning. Fortunately that waiting room was for visas and we were directed to a small, quiet room with only three booths and even fewer people.

The lady who dealt with us was bright, smiling, helpful and calm. She cheerfully but kindly admonished Harry for not completing the paperwork himself and made him read through it to check it was correct. He did so with a huge grin on his face; he appreciated being treated with respect. I noticed his manners went up a notch while we were there, it was great to hear him ‘yes, ma’am’ and ‘no sir’ when appropriate.

We were in and out within half an hour, seen ahead of our appointment time. It was stress free, straightforward and just plain nice. While we stood waiting for everything to be processed I was almost overcome, it felt so darn good to be somewhere with people I could relate to without thinking, who were nice to me and made me feel welcome. It almost felt home.

Too quickly we were finished and on our way out, back through the security hut to pick up my phone, and out of those huge, black, clanging automatic steel gates.

I stepped through them, my back turned on the warmth and comfort of the familiar, facing into the slashing rain, biting wind and cold chill of a country that is my home, but which doesn’t hold my heart.

Posted in Advice for New Arrivals in the Netherlands, Expat Experiences, USA | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

How much personal living/working space does a Dutch person have?

I’m hoping everyone is up to a mental workout as I’ve come across some facts on the Netherlands which make for very interesting reading.

This morning there was an article on the website, quoting information released yesterday by the CBS, the Dutch national statistics office.

It appears the Netherlands comprises 55% agricultural land, 20% water, 12% woodland, 8% buildings and the remaining 5% semi-build, roads, railways and recreational land.

My initial reaction was to be totally impressed by the amount of green space here in this small country. A whopping 67% is agricultural/woodland (not including parkland) out of a geographical area (land and water) of 41,543 sq km /16,049 sq miles. (Wikipedia stats – slightly different to CBS figures but only marginally so; maybe the tide was out.)

I think that’s a pretty amazing statistic for any country.

It took a bit of time to ruminate over the figures and as the morning brain cranked into gear it occurred to me that what they also meant was the entire population of the Netherlands lives and works on 8% of available land.

Try and stick with me here because it’s worth it. Make a cup of coffee, you’ll need an alert brain.

So we have a population (CBS June 2011) of 16,679,667 living in an area of 41,543 sq km /16,049 sq mile.

That’s 401 people a sq km/1039  sq mile.

Of that 41,543 sq km /16,049 sq mile area only 8% is buildings for living/work, ie. 3323 sq km /1283  sq miles.

Keep focused here if you can because it’s about to get mind boggling.

Put the whole population in that 8% of land and take it one step further (actually several – thank god for mathematical converters) and the result is that each person in the Netherlands has – wait for it – 199 sq m \ 238 sq yards of personal living/working space.

So how come the population isn’t huddled together like a ginormous flock of flamingoes balancing awkwardly on one leg?

Because the Dutch are brilliant at utilising what they have in the most creative and enriching way possible. Buildings are designed beautifully with regard for their use and position; they build up, not out, but not so high you feel overwhelmed by them. Apartments for the most part overlook and are surrounded by green areas – the 67% of agricultural land, woodland and beaches which are all publicly accessible by miles and miles of footpaths, bike paths and horse trails.

Then there is all that water (20% of the country) for every outdoor recreational activity you can imagine on lakes, canals and the sea.

Now I have to confess I’m someone who needs an awful lot of physical, mental and emotional space. I feel like a rat in a maze when confronted by large groups of people and start to noticeably twitch and turn slightly aggressive if I can’t find a quiet, calm place at some point in the day.

I know, it’s hard to believe given my sociable nature.

Studies on Norwegian white rats (Rattus norvegicus – used by scientists for research) have shown that in large population densities rats show increased stress and aggression levels and it seems humans react the same way. Having moved from a US state where the population density is 272 people per sq km /105 per sq miles (90%-ish less people per sq km/mile than here) no wonder I have days when I lock myself away and disconnect the phone.

The truly amazing thing from all of this is the Netherlands, despite the size of the population in a relatively small space, are a calm, measured and social people. There are times, admittedly, when they can be brusque and, well, rude, but that can be forgiven when you look at how they have organised a system of living where everyone benefits from available space.

Sometimes you have to take your hat off to the Dutch.

Posted in Dutch Culture, The Netherlands | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Somalia, Pirates and Ransom Money: Solving the Famine Problem

Watching the BBC news last night I felt my hackles starting to rise over an item relating to the imminent famine in Somalia : The refusal of the Kenyan government to open a nearly completed refugee facility close to Dadaad camp which has been overwhelmed by the recent influx of refugees.Check out the full video report here 

The venting started much to the resigned sighing of the Captain who has heard it all before and is well used to having his spouse verbally erupting and raging at the television in indignation and disbelief.

He maintains a calm and resolute silence having been in Africa in his younger days and seen the reality of what happened to aid arriving in ships to help famine victims. Whilst I would love to share his experiences with you, it is his story to tell, not mine. However, he has never given to famine relief since, believing the situation to be the same now as then and this from a man who is as caring and concerned as they come.

What he did do was bring the Somalian pirates into the equation which took us off on a completely different tangent.

For the record he has a professional interest in piracy on the high seas, Somalia being very high profile. It’s one subject he does know about, and his comment was uttered in exasperation after the newsreader reported that in the 48 hours since it was announced money was needed for famine relief the Brits had donated £9 million.

“Nine million? Nine million? What good is nine million? That’s just two-and-a-bit ships to the pirates.”

It seems the pirates have upped their ransom demands in the last year from US$2m to US$5m per ship.

Let me say at this point that I have an interest too, not professional but pastoral. Being the Godmother of a ship sprayed by pirates’ bullets mere months after her launch makes it very, very personal.

The Captain and I haven’t talked pirates for a while, not because all is quiet on the swashbuckling front but because it has become a fact of life which doesn’t look as if it’s going away anytime soon. Running the gauntlet of piracy has almost become a commercial risk worth taking, given the length of time (and time is money) to detour round the Cape instead of through the Suez Canal.

By all accounts the perpetrators of these crimes are not of the Johnny Depp variety, rather thugs and gangsters that would make the mafia look like members of the parochial church council on a summer picnic.

It seems the Somalian buccaneers could do with an image makeover and perhaps I might make a suggestion?

Should any Captains of piracy be reading this, it might do an awful lot for your street cred if you were to re-think pirate policy and improve your global image.

As of now, you are public enemy number one on the high seas with no groundswell of support from the Somalian populace. It may be worth following USA lines of gaining ‘hearts and minds’ with your own people.

Use the ransom money – some of it at least – to feed your fellow countrymen and you’ll have a loyal following for life, a global perception as humanitarians and a legitimate presence in the commercial world, which will accept the business of piracy as a necessary inconvenience in the bigger picture.

Just a thought.

Posted in Politics and Social Comment | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

A Period of Solitude: Why We Sometimes Need One

I haven’t posted for a while as sometimes life necessitates taking a step back, pulling up the drawbridge and keeping yourself and family safe in the Ivory Tower. Protected, for a while, from the devastating whirlwinds of sadness, loss, fear, pain and anxiety that rage and scour through life from time to time. We need a time of calm and quiet solitude to recharge and regroup emotionally, reconnect with those we love whose presence in our lives each day is the core of our being.

Perhaps it’s because of what’s happening in the lives of families close to us right now that we are so aware of the suffering going on around the world, irrespective of culture, creed or geographical location. From famine to abuse; lives crippled by circumstances which, in many cases, cannot be controlled by the individual. Check out Adventuresinexpatland‘s take on Somalia this morning.

We all know Death sits among us, walks with us always, but usually we’re not aware of him; the blinding sunlight of regular life reducing him to a hazy mirage on the periphery of our awareness, only thought about at times of crisis when he takes centre stage. His arrival in the spotlight shakes our foundations, reminds us just how fragile and limited our mortality. How unimportant so much of our lives are in the real scheme of things. He makes us take stock; re-evaluate our priorities. Hold our loved ones close while we can.

What we do at times of withdrawal is find acceptance, build emotional resilience and move forward. (Linda at Adventuresinexpatland has also been writing a series on this too, you really need to check her out, this is one smart, insightful lady.) Without it we become useless, paralysed emotionally, unable to pick up the pieces and carry on.

Which is what we have to do because there is no alternative.

Because life is the greatest and sweetest gift we have been given, that despite the awful things around us there is joy in the smallest of things. Life owes us nothing but can give us so much if only we let her in. I’m not talking religion here, just the wonder of our existing at all.

Taking time out is not about feeling sorry for yourself or having a (self) pity-party, it’s time to appreciate and give thanks for the best things in life, things we take for granted in the hustle and bustle of everyday living. It’s for getting emotionally, mentally and physically strong; balanced.

It’s only when we’re balanced we’re able to stretch out our hands and help others; take their weight on our shoulders for a while, fight their battles, make our voices heard on their behalf, because humanity is at it’s best when it’s giving to others without thinking or for personal gain. It is pure. It’s what we’re here for. Isn’t it?

So my apologies for not being my normal upbeat, positive, witty and amusing self of late. Normal service will be resumed soon – I’m thinking tomorrow all being well.

Today the drawbridge is going down and I’m off dip my toe in the water of ‘normal life’ although the inevitable trip to Albert Hein could be enough to make me pull it back up again . . .

Posted in Expat Experiences, Family Life, Inspiration and Reflection, Personal challenges | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Dutch Sending the Poles Home?

So the Dutch are considering sending Polish and other east Europeans home?

I didn’t read the full story immediately as my brain went into complete melt down and shock at the thought of the Dutch economy grinding to a halt without the productivity and work ethic of most of the Polish and east european workers in the country.

It’s a truth acknowledged by most, that regular Dutch workers are not overly fond of their eastern neighbours who arrive here, are prepared to work very long hours and rarely take breaks. They get a job done and are happy to move on to the next as soon as possible.

Sadly this does not sit well with the Dutch way of doing things, which I wrote about in a post recently entitled Dutch workmen: tips on understanding the tribe, based on personal observation. It’s very normal to have to wait weeks/ months to have a job completed, and woe betide anyone who wants to get anything done over the summer months when it seems the entire Netherlands shuts down for extended vacations. (The Dutch spent €15bn on vacations outside the Netherlands last year, mostly in France and Germany. Why? Why not push the boat out and actually head somewhere different.)

When we first moved here and were trying to get projects completed on our new home, we had a problem which necessitated a visit from a supplier. I received a phone call from them informing me they would be telephoning again in two weeks to make an appointment to come out and look at the problem.

I repeat – a phone call to tell me they would be phoning again in two weeks to make an appointment to come and see us.

I’m afraid this did not compute in my culture-shocked brain. I suggested that as I was speaking to them right now, perhaps we could skip the next phone call altogether and just schedule the appointment today?

I was met by an affronted silence followed by the phrase that has driven me to distraction over our time here, ‘Mevrouw, that is not possible,’ delivered in a tone of absolute disbelief that I should have asked the question. I could not believe what I’d heard and no amount of questioning could give me an explanation as to why, just the repetition of, ‘Mevrouw, that is not possible,’ in ever hardening tones.

Two weeks later I received a phone call from the same man who scheduled an appointment to visit four weeks after that. No further comment.

It was only as I read the news article further it dawned on me that it was referring to jobless Poles and east europeans.

Excuse me? Jobless Poles? That didn’t equate either. Are there any?

If there are, and I can’t get my head round it, then that is a whole other issue.  In my book no country should have to subsidise the unemployed of another, but that’s a personal opinion not a political one.

I’m sure the EU will spend months if not years and probably more than the Dutch vacation budget debating that political hot potato.



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

Every Parent’s Worst Fear

If you’ve been anywhere near newspapers the past week or so you can’t have failed to have noticed the untimely deaths of many young people. I wrote only a few posts back about the sister of Missy’s best friend, killed as she deliberately ran into traffic on a busy interstate.

You have perhaps read of the gap year students killed in Thailand, the father of one saying  ‘I am absolutely devastated. I did not know human bodies could produce so many tears. It is such an intense pain that will never go away.’

You may have noticed a small headline tucked away this morning reading ‘British climbers fall to deaths in French Alps‘. This story is devastating for us as we received a phone call from the parents of one of the climbers yesterday morning, two of our oldest, closest and dearest friends.

I know what the news has done to us and it’s nothing compared to the agony they and their two other sons are enduring, as they wait for the return of their beloved youngest son and brother, flying home today.

To answer the phone and hear the broken, heart-rending keening of a mother telling you her child is dead breaks something inside the soul of every mother. It is not how things are supposed to be and we pray it will never happen to our family, our friends, but we know it will happen to someone.

I don’t need to outline the thoughts of what can never be for this family now one of them is no longer there. We all have those thoughts in our heads during awful times when children are injured or ill, the paralysing fears of what life would be without them.

Then children become adults, make their own choices have their own lives. In this case the choices were always good. Duke of Edinburgh Awards Scheme, hockey player for Yorkshire, talented musician, skydiver, a trip to South America at 17 to help others, paid for out of money earned himself. A gap year working to earn money to go back to South America with his (slightly older) twin brother to climb in the Andes.

A return to the UK and university with every moment spent getting money together to head each summer to Chamonix and Mont Blanc. He has climbed there the last three summers and trained as a climbing instructor. Fit, healthy, loving life. This summer extra-special; final exams done, his life ahead of him as a Phyiotherapist.

This was someone who lived more in his short life than many who are decades older. He took life by the horns, lived his dreams and challenged himself, always. He was happy, energetic and engaged. I know because I first saw him at a few days old and watched him grow alongside my own children.

Our families have vacationed together and the twins on the last two have taken Harry and hiked up mountains, down gorges and shared the passion of their lives with him in both the US and Europe. They have been, and still are, Harry’s heroes.

Today tributes are filling his Facebook page from friends all over the world. I hope one day his parents will read them and see him through the eyes of his peers; a fantastic friend, a team player, empathetic, caring and fun.

I hope one day, many, many tears from now, our friends will take comfort from knowing their son died doing the thing he loved most, but not now, not anytime soon.

Now is the dark time, the bleakest days they will ever experience, a living nightmare, when each brief, exhausted moment of sleep will be followed by the waking and realisation all over again, that their child is gone.

As George Mallory said: “The greatest danger in life is not to take the adventure”. A noble thought for the individual but I’m not sure if, today, I can agree. All I can think of is my friends’ grief, pain and loss and know there is nothing I can do to ease it except walk with them through the darkness in honour of their son.

Mont Blanc : In Memorium

Posted in Expat Experiences, Family Life, Inspiration and Reflection, Personal challenges | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

And I thought the Dutch Were Tolerant

Last night after a day driving down and around Victoria BC, we settled with our hosts to watch a movie. Nothing too challenging but with enough entertainment value to stop us drifting off to sleep. John Grisham’s The Rainmaker suited us all, despite the intermittent adverts on the viewing channel.

And what interesting adverts they were.

Now I’m not a prude, and we live in ‘tolerant about all things’ Holland, but I have to say I was a tad surprised by two adverts in particular; both of which seemed to run several times in each advertisement slot, so a dozen or so times during the movie.

One was for a blue male performance pill, the other a male enhancement pill. I do not wish to name either for fear of being seen to advertise them, and more importantly have no desire to be buried by unsolicited email should my name be connected to them by the mere mention on a blog.

I have to say the blue pill adverts were quite entertaining and obviously paid for by a large budget; the other less so. It took a while to figure out what the second was about – the starring male spent a lot of time with a huge smile on his face, so our initial reaction was it must relate to dental work.

Oh, the naivety.

Thing is, while I understand Monday evenings are quite dull TV-wise in BC, one has to wonder who on earth is watching a good courtroom drama and thinking about male related matters so early in the evening. I understand men are alleged think of sex every twelve seconds, and oft feel the need check their vital parts are in place many times a day, but hey, come on, enhancement pills at dinner time? Enough to put most of us off our food. Mainly females admittedly.

Of course as the evening progressed all the adverts became a little more, shall we say, risqué, but this was after 9pm and we’re all adults and it’s the same in the Netherlands. We have a choice whether to watch or not. We were just a tad sad the movie seemed to end halfway through the final scene and we were bombarded yet again by blue pills and male enhancers. By this time of the evening ( it was a long film given the amount of adverts) the guys the ads were aimed at would have been fast asleep and couldn’t care less.

I don’t know why, but it came as a real surprise to see adverts like these on mainstream TV . . . in Canada. My own preconceptions obviously, but they don’t seem to fit with the outdoorsy, clean-living way of life out here. Lumberjacks, Mounties – you follow my thinking . . . sorry, I drifted for a moment there.

I don’t want to get into a moral debate over this but I guess in my head I have a line and these ads crossed it – there’s a time and a place for stuff like this and early evening TV anywhere doesn’t seem appropriate, to me anyway. I have a visual that in homes all over the country young kids are asking, ‘mom, what’s male enhancement?’

Worse still I have to go away and decide whether I’m really out of whack with the world, getting old and turning into a prude, and if so what I’m going to do about it.

At the moment though I can’t get the visual of that man and his smile out of my head, think The Shining and you’ll be on the same page.

Posted in Dutch Culture, Dutch Laws, Taxes and Bureaucracy, Expat Experiences, The Netherlands | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Book Review: The Singing Warrior, Niamh Ni Bhroin

This book has been on my ‘to read’ list for some time and I’m sorry to say I’ve put off reading it because of its subtitle, ‘Finding Happiness After a Life Filled with Pain and Abuse.’

I admit this is not a genre of book I would actively chose to read, despite the rave reviews from many friends. Based on their recommendation I down-loaded it to my Kindle for vacation reading. I started reading it yesterday evening, picked it up again this morning and couldn’t put it down until I’d finished the last page.

By it’s end I wanted to take the little Niamh, hold her close and keep her safe. I was enraged and saddened that any child should have to live, come to terms with, and ultimately write, this story.

Niamh was an imaginative lively child, yet believed she must have been bad and deserving of the thoughtless abuse of a controlling mother, the taunts and actions of sadistic nuns and rape, aged nine, at the hands of a friend’s father followed by years of mental and physical self-abuse.

What makes the book memorable and moving is the simple clarity of the writing, the lilting, haunting images Niamh paints of her life growing up in Ireland with two older brothers, a sea-faring father and schooled by catholic nuns.

Her use of singing and imagination to obscure her suffering at the hands of ‘responsible’ adults only brings home to us, the readers, just how damaging that torment was.

She tells her story without self-pity and with a purity of spirit which resonate in the heart long after the book is finished.  She doesn’t flinch from pain, humiliation or loss but recounts events as they happened reflecting the confusion and consternation of the young. She struggles to understand why things have happened to her, always blaming herself.

The damaged child becomes the damaged adult but Niamh’s journey to understanding and salvation is compelling and beautifully drawn. Her escape from Ireland to England, Greece, marriage to a Dutchman, the birth of her daughter and creating a life in the Netherlands – all an attempt to leave the pain of her youth behind.

We will her to find the inner strength and self-belief to confront her past and face the future as herself, the wonderful, warm, confident woman she is.

This book will enrich you as Niamh moves from darkness into a brighter future. It will make you wonder that people can recover from the most awful situations and find hope.

This book is worth your time; please read it, it’s courageous, inspiring and ultimately uplifting.

CLICK HERE to see book at Amazon

  • Paperback: 274 pages
  • Publisher: Summertime Publishing (31 Jan 2011)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 1904881319
  • ISBN-13: 978-1904881315
  • Product Dimensions: 19.8 x 12.8 x 1.6 cm
Posted in Expat Related Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

When the Captain decided to check out the quality of Canadian Emergency Care

Wherever our family live or travel one of the first things we do is check out where to find the local hospital, or more importantly their Emergency Room.

The first person I met on arriving in the Netherlands, Karen, admitted to me months later she had pigeon-holed me in the neurotic category when, during our first ever conversation, wide-eyed and frazzled I asked the location of the nearest and best ER.

Within two weeks of our arrival in the Netherlands we had our first visit to Leiden ER. Harry broke his arm during orientation week at his new school and we were re-classified in Karen’s mind as ‘sane, just trying to get through the day’.

It’s usually Harry who’s the one requiring emergency medical attention, but Bruce has had his fair share over the years too. The Captain has always managed to avoid hospital admittance with DIY related injuries, which have never been serious enough for emergency admittance status. Those of you who follow the trials of our family will remember I wrote about my dear spouse’s DIY record some time ago.

Yesterday, on day 6 of our Canadian adventure we were excited as the day dawned bright and clear without the threatened rain and glowering clouds forecast by the Canadian meteorologists. Seems their systems of weather prediction are on a par with the rest of the world.

We were both looking forward to heading over with Mr. Mike to Nanaimo, on the big island, where the Pillar Rock was in the boat dock, hauled out of the water to be cleaned and painted. The Captain was keen to be back in a marine environment, don coveralls and have a paintbrush in hand. I was along for the ride, to see something of the big island, take photos and find a quiet spot to read – well away from the action lest I be handed a paintbrush too.

The day started well. The ferry trip was easy, the roads clear up through Ladysmith to Nanaimo, even time to drive through Tim Horton’s for a couple of double-doubles and a latte for me. A quick run into Home Depot for some additional painting equipment and a rare chance for me to smell the lumber piled high at the back of the store, then onto the boatyard.

It was fun seeing the boat out of the water, hull power washed and half painted, watching the guys with weather-tanned faces and easy smiles preparing to spray paint the bottom. It was a comfortable kind of a place; hoses and ropes coiled neatly, the smell of paint and oil mixed with other unknown chemicals, and a battered paint splattered radio playing country music. I knew the Captain would feel at home. I left the guys and retreated back to the truck, curling up on the backseat in a pool of warm sunshine overlooking the marina with views of the islands beyond.

Lost in a book it only seemed five minutes before Mr. Mike ran up to the truck,  jumped in, slammed the doors and fired the engine. I figured it must be lunchtime.

“Just got to go somewhere,” Mr. Mike announced a tad breathlessly, one arm flung over the passenger seat as he twisted to look out of the rear window, reversing the truck at speed out of the parking lot.

“Great!” I said, “ back to Home Depot?” Another chance to wander and investigate the latest useful DIY gadgets.

There was a moment of hesitation before he answered, “ we have to pick up the Captain first. “ Something in his tone gave the game away.

“Oh Lord, what’s he gone and done now?”

The truck bounced recklessly down the short track; at the bottom the Captain was being helped and escorted by the boat workers from the boat shed into the daylight. At least he was walking, although from his hunched shoulders and the protective way his left arm was held to his body this was going to need more than a band–aid to fix.

As he turned his back to slide gingerly and with obvious pain into the passenger seat I saw his elbow joint from behind. My stomach lurched violently and turned to mush. Dislocated or broken it didn’t look good and pain was etched on the pallid greyness of his face, finely misted with sweat as he tried to breath deeply and evenly.

Thank goodness we were on the big island where the hospital was close to hand. It has to be said the authorities did a fabulous job of hiding the signs for the ‘Emergency Room’ behind an unbelievable amount of construction work going on at the hospital.

We found a sign saying ‘Ambulatory Patients’: we went for that in the absence of anything else only to find we were on the wrong side of the hospital. Another circuit of the hospital perimeter in the truck, several bumps in the road eliciting groans from the Captain and finally, to the relief of us all, we found the entrance.

Shock is an interesting thing to observe in someone else. In my spouse he defaults to ‘Captain on the bridge mode’; business like, efficient, taking charge. The insurance cards were already in my hands but the Captain instructed me four or five times what cards would be needed and phone calls that would have to be made, and oh! Human Resources at the office would need to be informed. The fact it was past midnight in Europe wasn’t registering, nor was the fact everything was already in hand.

It was a relief to walk into the building and pass the Captain over to people who knew how to help, who could start to alleviate his pain. Mr. Mike and I were left to deal with the administration process.

Let me say here and now the process was straightforward and easy. We were foreigners but brandishing insurance and credit cards and spoke the same language. The lady behind the desk was courteous, concerned and helpful – what more could we ask?

The Captain’s befuddled hope the hospital would claim the cost of his visit through our insurance company was never going to float; signs everywhere were clear how much a visit to this clean, efficient hospital would be for a non-Canadian. We had no problem with that.

I was told to go straight through to see my suffering spouse while Mr. Mike returned to the boatyard to reassure the guys they would not be sued. It seems the Captain had stepped over a heavy-duty wire cable, used to winch the boat out of the water. He’d navigated it several times with no problem but the third time missed his footing and been hurtled forward onto pretty unforgiving concrete.

I found the Captain propped up on a bed surrounded by machines monitoring heart rate and breathing, with heparin lock already needled in place in his arm, oxygen monitor clipped to the end of his finger.

They’d tried to cut off his T-shirt but he’d resisted and insisted he could remove it himself.

‘It was my best Calvin Klein one,’ he’d muttered cheerfully, obviously relieved to be in professional hands. I wondered fleeting why he’d been wearing it for painting.

He was quite agitated by not being able to see the heart monitor behind him, so I gave him a running commentary on how he was doing. Apparently it’s at times like this that men his age have heart attacks. I wondered what on earth he’s been reading lately.

Within seconds Lindsey appeared, a young (she looked about 12) very professional nurse who had arrived to administer pain relief. No messing about, Morphine. It struck me like a thunderbolt: after initial assessment the Captain was being given immediate, heavy duty pain relief without us having to ask, insist or beg. Not only that, she made it clear from the outset that nothing would be done to his arm without him being completely pain free. Wow: a phrase I’ve never heard used in the Netherlands.

A portable x-ray machine was brought to his bed and within seconds a digital image was there for Dr. Shepard to see, (no I haven’t made the name up and Grey’s Anatomy fans will understand why the Captain kept referring to him as Dr. Dreamy).

The elbow was badly dislocated but not broken. It would be put back into place while the Captain was under general anesthetic for 5 minutes; another x-ray would be taken to ensure everything was as it should be then we could go home.

I moved through to the waiting area, having no wish to watch the proceedings, knowing the Captain was in safe hands. Mr. Mike had returned from the boatyard and there was little to do but wait.

By this time things were starting to liven up a tad. School was out for the day so children were turning up, along with several domestic injuries involving blood and burns. With each arrival the staff were efficient, caring and professional, but most of all kind and concerned.

We left the hospital feeling we’d had the best treatment possible, administered by caring professionals. Admittedly we haven’t had the final bill and may feel differently when it arrives, but we can’t fault the staff and care of Nanaimo hospital. And his x-rays were emailed to us before we left the hospital.

The Captain will be in a sling for two weeks, followed by physiotherapy when we get home. Further maritime outings will have to be curtailed but he is pain free (unless he moves) and confident in the treatment and advice he’s been given (he checked on Google).

However, he would like to make it clear to readers that this mishap was not the result of his inability to successfully put one foot in front of the other, but an heroic attempt on his part to rescue a young adorable puppy he swears was trapped near the back of the boatshed.

Posted in Expat Experiences, Family Life, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

From the Netherlands to British Columbia, Canada: A Treat for the Weary Spirit

All is well in British Columbia, this western bastion of Canada, where the looming mountains of Vancouver Island protect its eastern isles from the wrath and might of the vast Pacific Ocean.

Nestling in its protective embrace the day dawns stealthily over the quiet sleepiness of Thetis Island, a tiny seed pearl in the strand of islets strung down the eastern coast of the big island.

There is nothing on this tiny fir covered piece of heaven, only a small post office and two places down at Telegraph Harbor catering for the boating fraternity passing through. There is no store or gas station, to reach anywhere you travel by ferry to Chemainus on the big island, or leave by floatplane. Chemainus is only a small townstead, but is besieged each year by thousands of tourists visiting to see the world renowned murals painted throughout the town.

Coming from the populated density of the Netherlands it feels like stretching out, breathing big. The common denominator between home and here is being surrounded by water and a need to get out on it, feel its movement under the bows, inhale the salty tang of the air.

Good job then that on day one of our visit Mr. Mike has to move a concrete dock from Telegraph Harbor round to the west of the island as a favour for a neighbor. A great excuse to get out on the water and climb aboard the Pillar Rock again – the boat that took us on a trip last year into the BC interior up Jervis inlet to Chatterbox Falls.

It’s wonderful for me to leave the guys to do what they have to do, find a quiet spot on the boat and just be, absorbing the peace and solitude. At any given time seals will bob up by the boat with curiosity and interest, heads gleaming like polished billiard balls, whiskers twitching with amusement then quickly disappear without a splash, gliding on to something new.

The Captain was quick to point out an otter, floating idly on it’s back, looking for all the world as if it should be reclined on an inflatable sun-lounger, webbed paws clutching a martini, relaxed and unconcerned by our boat chugging by.

There were eagles too, circling overhead or perched high in the trees, imperious and graceful, aloof to the human activity below.  Everything here is on a wilder and grander scale than the country we have come from. The Netherlands is domesticated and tamed, where ducks and well-groomed parks offer a refinement and structured elegance rather than the raw, untouched almost feral beauty of British Columbia.

Even on the first day of summer the place has a brooding power and presence usually softened by the brightness and warmth of sunlight in other places. Not here. The briny waters gently lapping the rocky beaches belie the harsh lashing waves of the winter storms and the mountain peaks of summer, dusted with powdered sugar, mere echoes of the dense arctic blankets thrown over them in winter.

It’s a place to feed the soul and spirit, remind ourselves of our insignificance as we go about our business on this small planet floating in the vastness of space.

We need to be reminded of that sometimes and this is one place to do it.

Posted in Expat Experiences, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Interview with Michael Harling, author of the ‘Postcards From Across the Pond’ series

I recently had the opportunity to interview Michael Harling, author of Postcards from Across the Pond and More Postcards from Across the Pond, both reviewed in earlier posts. The books recount with humor and sharp observation his adjustment, culturally and socially, to being an American living and working in the UK after marrying a Brit.

I’ve reviewed both books and jumped at the opportunity to interview Harling and ask how he came to write the books and, more importantly, found someone to publish them.

It seems hardly a day goes by without an article in the media about the crisis facing the publishing industry and the revolution in how the public choses to read books.  These days there doesn’t seem to be one accepted route to publication and I was interested to learn how the books came to be written and how Harling chose the publishing route he did.

Like many writers having published their first book, you must have been thrilled to see Postcards from Across the Pond ‘out there’. When did you decide to write More Postcards and was there any point you worried you might be a ‘one hit wonder’?

When I received a contract for the original ‘Postcards From Across the Pond,’ I was thrilled, even though it was with what I call a micro-publisher.  The manuscript had been making the rounds of agents and publishers—and getting some good feedback—for about 18 months, so when I finally got a ‘Yes’ it was almost surreal.

The book came about because friends and fans kept egging me on.  I’d started the website, Postcards From Across the Pond, even before moving to Britain.  Back then, in 2001, Blogger was practically unheard of and Twitter and Facebook did not exist, so I posted my musings and adventures in HTML.  Even so, I managed to acquire a modest following and almost immediately people started e-mailing me, saying, ‘You should write a book.’  I started it in 2006 and it finally saw the light of day in November 2008.

I always assumed Postcards would be a one-off.  The essays covered the first five years or so of my life in the UK and, even though I continued to blog regularly, I didn’t feel I had enough left to say to fill a whole book.  I was comfortable with that, however; I never anticipated making a vocation out of being an expat.  I concentrated on my fiction writing and enjoyed what notoriety ‘Postcards’ brought my way.

At the beginning of this year, to fill the down-time between submitting my novel to an agent and actually hearing back from the agent, I began casting around for another project and the idea of pulling together another Postcards book seemed a likely prospect.  Coincidentally, at the same time, my publisher contacted me asking if I wanted to re-release Postcards with additional and updated material.  I was already into the new project far enough where I felt a second book was a real possibility, so we decided to go with More Postcards From Across the Pond rather than re-release the original.

 Was writing More Postcards more difficult knowing it was destined for publication, rather than being written with the spontaneity of a blog?

 Knowing publication was practically a given didn’t inhibit me in the least; in fact, it inspired me, and the deadline helped keep me from slipping into my usual writing habits, which involve finding increasingly creative ways to waste time.  I knew the length, pace and style I was aiming for so, mechanically, it was it wasn’t difficult, but content was an issue.  I felt Postcards had set the bar fairly high and I was concerned about maintaining the quality, but as More Postcards progressed, those fears diminished.  By the time I completed the manuscript, I was confident that it was every bit as good as, or better than, the original.

Were you tempted to go back to a literary agent/mainstream publisher once you’d got one book published and were more of a ‘name’?

 Oddly, having a ‘name’ and a quality manuscript was what kept me from going to another literary agent, publisher or back to my own publisher.

You chose to go with a different publisher for the second book, was there a reason for that?

 The publishing world is currently undergoing a dramatic shift and many things have changed in the two and a half years since Postcards came out.  Improvements in POD technologies and the astonishing rise of the ebook has made self-publishing, for the first time in history, a viable option as opposed to something you have to mortgage your house to achieve.  This has kept a lot of people’s garages and spare rooms free from boxes of unused books but, on the down side, it has flooded the cyber-library with legions of really, really, really bad books.  (No, even worse than that.)

At the same time, cutbacks in traditional publishing houses have resulted in lower quality books, low or non-existent advances and the shifting of marketing responsibilities to authors.

As these two forces converge, it provides a unique opportunity for authors—those with a good manuscript and who possess halfway decent marketing skills—to produce and publish their own books at a very low cost and higher profit margin.  Or so they say.

This all sounded a bit too “California Gold Rush” for me and the stigma of “Self Published” was not something I wanted to saddle More Postcards with, but eventually I decided it would be worth a try.  However, the only reason I chose this option—and I cannot stress this enough—is that I knew I had a publishable manuscript and a template for a professional looking cover.  The last thing I wanted to do was toss another substandard book into the ever-widening cesspit of self-publication.

So I spent a lot of time working on the manuscript, trying to get it right and having people proofread and review it.  Then I wrestled with Photoshop for a week or so until I got tired of banging my head against the wall (this is where traditional publishers have the advantage: they employ artists and creative designers).  The eventual result (in addition to the dent in my wall) was a cover I felt was both professional looking and in keeping with the Postcards brand.  And I put my old website’s name on it because I liked the sound of Lindenwald Publishing better than ‘I printed this myself.’

More Postcards is currently only available on Kindle in the UK but in paperback in the US . Was this a conscious decision and are there plans for a paperback edition in the UK ?

The book has, literally, just come out.  I released it as an ebook on Amazon and Amazon UK in early May and published the paperback about a week later.  The wheels of Amazon move slowly, however, and as of this writing, More Postcards is only available on the US Amazon site, though I expect it to be on Amazon UK, and others, soon.

The ‘self-publishing revolution as gold rush’ pundits tend to eschew paperbacks, leaning more toward the Kindle crowd, but I am still a big fan of physical books, so I did not begin publicizing More Postcards until the paperback was available.  It wouldn’t bother me to sell a lot of ebooks, but I really like the idea of people holding my book in their hands or having it lying on their coffee table, even if they are only using it for a coaster.

Where do you see your writing going from here assuming you have time to think about it right now?

Now that the writing and publication stages of this project have been successfully completed, I’m gearing up for the marketing phase.  It’s not something I love, or claim to be good at, but it is necessary if you want to be an author these days, even if you go with a traditional publisher.  But even as I’m oiling up the marketing machine and slipping it into gear, I am already working on other writing projects.

 You’ve been quoted as saying that you have to write; has that changed since the publication of your books, do you feel more driven to write or less so?

Having two physical books that I can look at and feel proud of seems to have taken the edge off of my writing desperation.  My goal was to have a book published and I have achieved it.  For me, that was liberating; now I can write without having to worry about that goal.  Instead, I have another goal—get a novel published—but having attained one goal, I am more confident of the next one, and better equipped to achieve it.

 Any plans for a Postcards trilogy? Are you tempted to try other directions in your writing?

I am already working on the third—and hopefully final—Postcards book.  This one won’t be a collection of essays about my life here but will, instead, be a narrative of my two-week trip to Ireland in 2001 where I met my wife and started my expat journey.  I like the idea of a Postcards Trilogy and I think that book will tie up the series nicely.  After that, I plan to concentrate on my fiction writing.

 On a personal level you’re obviously very settled in the UK , have taken citizenship and are no longer the accidental expat of the early days. How would you describe yourself now?

As a member of the expat community, I have met (in a virtual sense) a lot of people for whom intercontinental travel is part of their makeup—they were born with a sense of wanderlust, and finding themselves in another part of the world was a dream fulfilled, not a bewildering surprise.  The idea of me living in another country was not a vision I grew up with, which is why I call myself ‘the accidental expat.’  Because of this, my early days in Britain were characterized by an astounding sense of wonder.  Nothing in my life had prepared me for this and I found everything fresh and new and exciting.

These days, I’m a bit calmer.  You can’t sustain that level of excitement for very long, and after a while your everyday life becomes, well, your everyday life.  I actually find it surprising when people who meet me for the first time ask if I am an American.  I feel comfortable enough here now to consider this my home, and when they ask me where I’m from I tell them, “Horsham.”

Still, hardly a week goes by where I don’t find some reason to reflect on my new life and feel grateful for the turn of events that brought me here.

 Has moving to the UK changed how you feel about your identity as an American? Would there ever be a time you would consider moving back to the USA, especially now you have reached the ultimate in life and become a Grandfather?

Like many Americas, I lived a very insular life until I moved abroad.  Living in Britain and on the doorstep of continental Europe has really broadened my outlook on the world in a way that could never have happened if I had stayed in New York.  All the traveling I’ve done, the people I’ve met the places I’ve seen have helped me redefine America’s role in the world.  I have no less respect or love for my country, or less pride in being an American, but—having had the chance to look at the US from the outside—I  think I have a more realistic view of what we’re all about.

At this point in my life, I can’t envision moving back to the US, but then I couldn’t envision moving out of it, either, so I never say never these days.  Being a grandfather has changed my relationship with ‘home’ in that I expect to be going back more often.  When I left the States, my children were grown and independent, and keeping in touch by email and the occasional visit was enough, but now that I’m entering Grandpa Territory, the need to be physically there is greater.

The dirty secret of the expat life is that it can be a lonely and isolating experience.  Take away the novelty, the exotic flavor, the new experiences and you may find you are simply a person without friends and family.  That’s a sobering thought.

 What personal goals are still out there that you would like to achieve?

What I would like to do is make a living writing.  That’s not an easy thing to do but it is my goal: to make money by writing books, not a lot, just enough to keep me in cigars and single malt, and pay for a yearly excursion to the States.

My hope for the future is that when my grandchildren (there will be more, oh yes) get old enough they can come for extended visits and my wife and I can show them around and open their minds to a wider world.  If I can plant the seeds of wanderlust in a few of my descendants, I will feel I have done my job.

More information on Michael Harling can be found at his blog and website 

Postcards from Across The Pond: Dispatches From An Accidental Expat Michael Harling 

 Click here to order from Amazon

Paperback:188 pages
Publisher:Lean Marketing Press (26 Nov 2008)

More Postcards From Across the Pond – Dispatches from An Accidental Expat, Michael Harling

Click here to order from Amazon

Paperback: 188 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace (May 10, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1461173892
ISBN-13:  978-1461173892

Posted in Expat Related Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Schiphol, Heathrow, Vancouver, Thetis Island: Traveling to the Edge of the World

When the Captain announced we would be traveling to Vancouver via London Heathrow‘s Terminal five I must admit to an involuntary shudder and a dampening of my usual high spirits.  Why couldn’t we fly direct from Schiphol, our local airport in Amsterdam?

Something to do with air miles we needed to use and times of flights. I didn’t argue; the Captain is the family wizard when it comes to booking flights and over the years he has never let us down. It’s not an area I want to be involved in; booking flights through BMIbaby and Easyjet are my limits of aviation planning and can reduce me to an emotional wreck.

It’s just that flying into Heathrow Terminal five conjures images of Dante’s Inferno, and the gates to hell “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” –  walking through them and entering the First Circle of hell; Limbo.

You may consider I’m being a little over dramatic here, but think back to the bedlam of the opening weeks of the Terminal when luggage disappeared into the Purgatory of Baggage Reclaim not to be seen for months. And don’t forget the Captain himself was embroiled in the chaos of Hell freezing over in December last year when Heathrow ground to a halt in the snow and was stranded there for what felt like eternity.

In the event our passage through Hades was uneventful, calm and, if I’m honest, rather enjoyable. This may have had something to do with the Captain’s wonderful airline cards, worked hard for on his travels during the year which gained us admittance to the BA lounge and fast tracked us through the lines to board our jumbo jet. I say we, but let’s be honest here, it is the Captain who is the big shot, and I’m just along for the ride and included by association. I love it.

Usually you’ll find me in the cattle pens of the budget airlines, tearing my hair out, blood pressure rising and temper held in check through sheer force of will.

The flight to Vancouver was exceptional.

Despite having laptop, kindle and access to a library of movies and TV series to watch we spent the entire flight relaxed, chilled and fussed over by attentive cabin crew.

This is a route we’ve flown before and I love it. Leaving northern Europe the flight path skims the southern coast of Iceland where from the cabin windows we see the snow capped volcanoes rising from the earth’s surface and pushing into the azure blueness of sky that is only ever seen from this height; the blue on the edge of the world before it slides into the inky darkness of space.

Further west we cross Greenland; the sky is clear and below the glaciers and jutting barren mountains are seen through the clarity of cold artic air. I’m awed. Across Baffin Bay and the northeastern edge of Hudson Bay there is no vista of open artic sea, rather cracked plates of broken ice interspersed with small puddles of open water the sparkling brilliance of topaz.

Leaving the northern seas behind the plane turned slightly to follow the curve of the earth and traverse the thousands of miles of frozen, snow covered tundra below, broken by exposed glacial rock in the summer sun thirty thousand feet below.

We’ve been flying for hours and nowhere below us has there been any indication of human life.

We cross the prairies in clear skies and to the west see the heavy bands of slate-like cloud at the edge of the Rocky Mountains, erupting from the floor of the plains and towering over them. The air is turbulent as we fly into the greyness and begin the final stage of the journey down into Vancouver.

I have to say Vancouver airport is one of the prettiest I’ve ever been through. It’s calm, serene, light and bright. There is a small line at passport control, where the immigration officer is thorough, professional and friendly yet you know he is taking his job seriously. The baggage reclaim area is large and spacious, despite six international flights arriving within twenty-five minutes of each other. Customs, then out side into the balmy air of the west coast.

A short taxi ride to the south terminal finds us sat on the deck of the float plane terminal awaiting our flight on a four seater Cessna 182 taking us to Thetis Island. Nestled south-east of Vancouver, across the Straits of Georgia\Salish Sea in the lee of Vancouver Island live the Captain’s oldest and dearest friend Mike and his Dutch born wife, Twink. She moved to Canada as an infant with her parents, who before they left a war-devastated country had owned the bakery across the canal from Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam.

Lounging on the deck, breathing in the salty tang of the dancing air, watching our float plane fly in, the connection between this part of Canada and where we have come from is not forgotten. Life is a series of circles within circles, an interconnectedness of things.

Sitting in the back of the Cessna skimming the restless waters beneath, glimpsing Mount Baker in the USA to the south and the looming, mountainous fir covered slopes of Vancouver Island ahead there is a sense of coming home. I am still amazed that the island is the size of the Netherlands. I’m blown away by the scale of beauty through the windows.

Before we know it, Thetis is below welcoming us back. The plane banks steeply and we drop down into Telegraph Harbor, floats touching down effortlessly and we glide to the landing jetty passing the Pillar Rock, the boat we travelled in to Chatterbox falls last summer.

As the jetty comes into sight Twink is standing waving excitedly and it’s almost as if we’ve never been away. We step out of the plane and feel we’re home.

Posted in Expat Experiences, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Book Review: More Postcards from Across the Pond, Michael Harling

I recently reviewed Michael Harling’s book Postcards from Across the Pond and was delighted to discover he has just published his second, More Postcards From Across the Pond.  As the first book was so fresh in my mind I immediately downloaded the second on to my Kindle and settled down to see what had been happening in the life of this American adventurer putting down roots in Horsham, England.

This second book has a more measured, settled tone, something he acknowledges,

“These days, I’m a bit calmer. You can’t sustain that level of excitement for very long, and after a while your everyday life becomes, well, your everyday life.”

He expands his horizons from the domestic to the more exotic recounting his first forays into foreign travel as an Englishman, after officially becoming a Brit. We feel his sense of becoming adjusted, settling and accepting.

His writing is stronger, better paced and less disjointed with the maturity and stoicism of a man who entered the maelstrom of a culture shock and survived. As a reader I found this a much sharper and more entertaining book perhaps because he learned from the errors he made with the first. It is better edited and more tightly drawn.

His spirit may be calmer but the sense of wonder and the excitement he feels for where life has bought him have not waned, his observations are made with the mellow, contented eye of a man comfortable with himself and the world around him.

Coming soon – an interview with Michael Harling, his writing, getting his books published and where he goes from here . . .

Michael Harling’s books are available on Amazon and Smashwords in paperback and Kindle format.



More Postcards From Across the Pond – Dispatches from An Accidental Expat  Click here to order from Amazon

Paperback: 188 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace (May 10, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1461173892
ISBN-13: 978-1461173892
Posted in Expat Related Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

My Father’s Greatest Gift

He’s never said, but I rather think my dad would have liked a son to share his macho interests, but being the man he is, decided to make the best of a bad job. From an early age I could be found sat beside him passing and learning the names of tools while he did odd (some very odd) jobs around the home.

He could never pass a charity shop or pile of discarded junk outside someone’s house without finding something useful to repair or ‘do up’. Not because he needed it, but just in case. He was always coming home with some new treasure someone had given him or he’d come across by accident; there was always a project of some description on the go.

As I grew up I was taught everything I would need to know to look after myself. At first it was simple things like changing the fuse in an electric plug, progressing to electrical wiring, installing light fittings, wiring in electric ovens, dishwashers, washing machines and getting to grips with basic plumbing.

As I got older I was taught how to check the oil in a car, replace spark plugs, change a battery, jump start a car and change a wheel without help. There was no way I was being allowed to go out into the world reliant on anybody for anything.

I was also taught to use firearms although mom had to step in at one point after a lesson at the firing range. This was not the USA where firearms are given as christening gifts in some states, but leafy safe suburban England.

During a practice session with a friend of my fathers I’d fired the rounds at the target and was being shown how to dismantle a .22 pistol. We’d taken the soundproof headphones off and the gun was lying in G’s hand. He was showing me the safety catch mechanism, pulled the trigger and the darn gun went off, bullet flying sideways out of the barrel.

Fortunately no one was injured, but it was a heart stopping moment for everyone, particularly G. To his credit he pulled himself together and turned it into a lesson about how easy it is to think you’ve fired off all the rounds, even when you count them as you shoot. I thought he’d done it deliberately to prove a point until I saw father’s face.

Mom was furious for quite a time; the words irresponsible and total idiot were bandied about for several days. We hadn’t planned to mention it to her (obviously) but father’s fragile state when we arrived home gave the game away.

I’ve had a healthy regard for guns ever since, and was allowed, as an adult when there could be no maternal comeback on my father, to try my hand with a shot gun and clay pigeons, but I never found a gun I could use where I could successfully brace myself against the kick-back.

The last time I handled one was 2005, returning to our home after Hurricane Katrina. We’d travelled back from our refuge in Houston armed and dangerous not knowing what we’d find. According to coverage on Fox News 8 there were looters and rapists roaming the streets so our friend Dave, with whom we were staying, insisted we pack arms and ammo just in case. It seems he had a personal arsenal.

The gun ended up in my hands rather than the Captains; he had his right arm strapped up after an injury boarding up the house before the storm, and has always been apprehensive around guns.

I have to say, in those circumstances, it felt rather good to feel the weight of a gun again and it was with a great deal of reluctance I handed it back to Dave when we got back to Houston. Probably a wise decision given the number of times I would have used it over the next ten months.

When life has thrown difficult situations our way, they have been eased by having basic skills taught by a practical man. Wherever and whenever we’ve moved the issues of connecting major electrical appliances or undertaking minor plumbing repairs have not been an issue. Re-decorating? Paper and paints? Not a problem. Unblocking septic tanks and killing snakes? All in a days work in the life of an ordinary expat housewife.

The gift given me by my father has been the best a father could give his daughter. Faith and trust that she is equal to anyone and is capable of doing anything she needs to do. It’s a gift I’ve tried to pass on to my own children; if a DIY related call comes in from Bruce or Missy, I hear the Captain say cheerfully,

“Drill bits? No good talking to me, you’ll have to ask your mother about that.”

The Captain will happily admit his myriad skills do not cover the DIY department. His areas of expertise lie in technology and should anything ever happen to him you’ll find me living in a cave with no TV, computer or similar technical gadgets. The landline phone is currently driving me up the wall with a glitch I can’t figure out. It’s also rather wonderful to have sons who will ask mom advice on ‘manly’ matters.

I am incredibly lucky to have such wonderful men in my life who are or will be wonderful fathers; my own dad, my husband who is an awesome caring man and my two sons who will be incredible dads when their time comes.

In times when men are regarded by much of the media as incidental to family life, I’d like to honour the unsung heroes in mine and thank them for being the strong, caring and capable people they are.

I love each of you more than you’ll ever know.

Posted in England and Things English, Expat Experiences, Family Life | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Kids Home Alone: Part II – The Installation of a Plastic Hot Tub

. . . continued from the previous post, in which we returned home from a weekend away to discover all was not quite as we had left it . . .

I was still seething at the maltreatment of my poor vacuum cleaner as Missy and the Captain arrived home. She was a tad edgy and the innocent question ‘did you have a nice weekend?’ was the trigger for an immediate emotional break-down.

“You have no idea what an awful weekend I’ve had mom,” she wailed, “he’s been awful the whole time. He doesn’t clean up after himself, he’s a mess, I don’t know how you deal with him!”

“So what actually happened?” I asked innocently for information purposes. “I’m assuming he had a party or something?” She brightened at the chance to land him in the poop, but just as her mouth opened to regale me with the bad behaviour of her sibling her eyes looked blank as she computed what I’d said.

“Party? he didn’t have a party,” she looked quizzical, “he just had Will and John over and they ended up staying the night.”

“Why? Don’t they have homes they could have gone and slept in?”

It seems beer had been consumed and Missy had insisted neither go home, “there was no way they could have ridden their bikes home without being arrested or causing an accident, I told them they’d better sleep here.” At least someone had been sensible.

“But what on earth happened to the vacuum cleaner?” I asked in exasperation.

“What vacuum cleaner?” she looked genuinely bemused and I knew she wasn’t lying. When she lies there are certain facial and body indicators which give her away instantly, which she has never been able to fake.

I gave up and decided to tackle the man himself, except he called to say he wouldn’t be in till later due to the numerous end of year parties he was required to pull in during the evening. I was glad; sometimes being an inquisitor is too darn exhausting.

Bright and early the next morning I ambled towards his room and opened the door. He was face down on his bed, still in jeans from the previous night, although he’d managed to remove T-shirt and socks before falling into his pillows face first; arms limp and relaxed by his side, feet at the end of his six-foot-frame hanging flaccidly over the end of his bed. I leaned against the door jamb, arms folded and called his name repeatedly until a guttural “uuh?”  emanated from his squished up pillow.

“Harry I think you and I need to have a little chat” the crisp tightness on the word ‘chat’ was a pretty clear indication we weren’t about to discuss a trip to the grocery store.

“Urrggghhhh, yeh, no prob mom,” his body hadn’t flinched or twitched at all. He lay like an abandoned ventriloquist’s dummy, lifeless and and tossed aside at the end of an evening’s performance but with the ethereal voice of his ventriloquist hovering in the air above the mussed up hair on the back of his head.

“Any chance you could give me say ten minutes? just to . . . um . . . well . . get myself out of bed?” I agreed to leave him while I walked the dog expressing a desire to have him compos mentis by the time I got back. He was still prostrate as I turned and hooked my fingers through the Archster’s collar hauling him away as he tried to commando crawl into Harry’s bedroom and surprise him with a stealth spring onto the bed and prone body of the human pup.

The walk was calming and I was relieved to discover on my return home that Harry had managed to peel himself from the bed and walk to the bathroom to shower. He joined me at my desk and sat next to me gingerly with rather defined and precise movements, as if he’s stepped into someone else’s body and wasn’t sure how it worked.

This was good news for me as obviously his normally laser sharp intellect and ability to tie anyone into verbal knots was somewhat muted. Nor was he in the mood for an argument; he was having enough difficulty trying not to fall back to sleep.

“So Harry, good weekend?” The words left my mouth floated through the air and into his brain, the processing taking several seconds.

“Yeh, yeh actually mom it was pretty good, thank you,” he answered bright voiced, head nodding, although I could see how much effort it took as his already pale demeanour faded a few more shades to a misty grey.

“That’s marvellous darling, I’m so glad you had fun. And how many people stayed over?

There seems an awful lot of bedding strewn everywhere – have you been renting your closet out as it rather looks as if someone’s moved in there.”

It was fascinating to watch the mental process of his absorbing the information in my questions and see those workings reflected in the questioning stare and twitching facial muscles. He knew I knew, but not how much. He was genuinely struggling to remember what he was doing two nights ago. Lord, how was he going to cope in college?

“I was pretty impressed with the set-up actually” I confided conspiratorially, “and where did you find the inflatable mattress, I didn’t know we had one.”  A quizzical look crossed his face and molded into a confused expression,

“Mattress? We don’t have an inflatable mattress. Do we?”

“Well, whose is it then? It’s half folded up in your closet.” I was getting as bemused as him.

The confused look remained in place for a few more seconds, followed by a flicker of remembrance in the eyes. His hand flew up to his forehead and he pushed it backwards through his hair as the dawning memory of two nights ago clicked into the mental  archives.

“Oh no mom, that’s not a mattress that’s a paddling pool!”

“Excuse me?”

“Yeh, I bought it the other day, it was in the toy shop on the Langstraat at a really good price!” I was obviously supposed to be impressed with this.

“A paddling pool? A kids paddling pool?” I didn’t even try to keep the disbelief out of my voice. Somewhere I’d missed the point. I thought I’d use this opportunity to ask about the vacuum; catch him on the hop.

“So where did the vacuum come into this?” The blank look returned followed by one of horror, quickly covered by both hands in front of his face.

“Oh God, Will,” he muttered into his hands.He recovered quickly, I was impressed.

“Funnily enough mom there’s something wrong with the vaccuum cleaner,” you bet there is. “We kinda had to use it to clean up a bit.” I raised my eyebrows in the universal maternal expression of ‘this had better be a good one.’

It seems a beer bottle or two had broken and it was the most logical thing to use the vacuum to hoover up the beer and broken glass at the same time. They had not considered the electricity/liquid factor but realised something was wrong when they could smell burning, at which point they decided to use the time proven method of tea-towels, bath towels and personal clothing to mop up.

I was starting to feel drained. With three children there have been numerous conversations like this over the years which result in blinding headaches and little else.

The time Bruce’s teacher called and explained it was against school rules for students to have a tongue ring – we didn’t know he had one, we just thought he’s started grunting more than most teenagers.

The time the police called and asked us to collect Missy from the local gas station where she was being held along with other teens. It was hilarious with hindsight. Truly.

Then the bad times when we got a call from Missy to say her friend was in hospital, having collapsed and stopped breathing at a party – there were thirty kids present and 26 ran in panic. I am proud of my daughter that she wasn’t one of them.

The times we’ve heard the news of our children’s friends killed and injured in car wrecks just before graduation or on the way to vacation in Florida. Standing for a minute’s silence during a graduation ceremony to honor the memory of a brilliant student and weeping silently as her parents walked the stage to collect her diploma on her behalf. The news only today that the sister of Missy’s oldest and dearest friend has taken her own life.

That Harry and his friends celebrated at home, decided to install a plastic hot-tub on my terrace and were smart enough, despite the beer, to stay the night here really doesn’t seem such a big deal; not compared to lives torn apart or ended before young adults had chance to know who they were, what they might have become.

Although I’m still mad as hell about my vacuum cleaner, it’s only a vacuum cleaner . . .

Posted in Expat Experiences, Family Life, The Netherlands | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Kids Home Alone: Part I – What’s the Right Age?

OK we’re back, feeling a tad grouchy after having to deal with the cross Channel ferry . . .  technically, according to the Captain, the trans North Sea ferry as we’re nowhere near the Channel travelling Hull to Rotterdam. I bow to his greater nautical knowledge.

We disembarked to glorious sunshine – a first on returning to the Netherlands from anywhere –  and had a leisurely drive home. We’d only been away three days, there’d been one emergency phone call involving a bottle of coke and a wood floor and we were feeling all was well with the world.

How marvellous, we had proof we could leave the domestic front in the capable hands of Missy and Harry. Both get on like a house on fire, and had been looking forward to proving they were capable of looking after the parental home in our absence. Missy is 24 and has lived on her own since she was 19 (she is staying with us while training for her new job in Rotterdam although the position will be in Houston; she is an international buyer for a shipping company – forgive me a moment of maternal pride) there was no doubting she is to be trusted. It is Harry who is the unknown in the equation.

The weekend away was a dry run for our annual vacation starting this coming weekend, when the two siblings will be home alone for over two weeks. The Captain is very comfortable with this arrangement, me less so. As a practical person I imagine everything that can go wrong and try and preempt every conceivable disaster much to the muttering, eye rolling and deep sighs of my family.

Harry has convinced me he cannot come with us on vacation as he has mountains of school work to complete over the summer which will be best done at home. He has a point. On hearing this news the Captain gave me his ‘are you serious? he’s 17; like he’s got any intention of doing anything remotely studious’ look, but is content with the thought of the two of us vacationing san enfants especially without those of the terrible variety.

Actually that’s not fair to Harry, who is a wonderfully relaxed and laid back travelling companion; he took his first international flight age 7 weeks. He is polite, will chat away to anyone and has no qualms asking for help if he needs it. He can charm stewardesses into getting him anything when it’s too much trouble for them to acknowledge I exist. It never crosses his mind that something is not possible, mainly because no one has ever told him it might be.

Walking through the front door we were glad to be home; all was calm and peaceful. Harry had remembered to go into school, Missy to work. Ahh, nice cup tea. Except there’s no milk. The run to the store the children were happy to undertake over the weekend obviously did not materialise. Food was consumed though, as plenty of it was trampled into my pristine rugs by the sink. The ingredients for the nutella and peanut smoothies with which Harry starts the day were smeared across my usually highly polished countertops.

The Captain thought it best we leave the house immediately and drive to collect the Archster from the kennels before I tracked Harry down and throttled him. He has decided to drive with me given the highly stressed state I was reduced to, taking Archie to the kennels last week (Why Holland is the worst country for drivers).

Quite frankly I don’t think my spouse entirely believed how bad the traffic had been, so I was more than happy to have him along. En route to collect the canine Harry phoned to express his wish we divert immediately to school as he had to clear out his locker by the end of the day. He had too much stuff to carry on his bike.  The fact his father and I were busy and had to go into work and attend a meeting respectively (after dog collection) did not cross his mind. Nor did he clarify why his locker was not emptied over the weekend as planned. We deal. We’ll collect his stuff and he’ll have to leave his post-exam, end-of-school,  day-of-partying end go fetch us milk.

We chuntered on about the selfishness of youth for several miles until the Captain’s comments started to be aimed at traffic rather than his son. I wasn’t driving, I just took the photographs. It was as bad as previously and included two stops for two different river bridges and one train crossing and the Captain, in his Meldrewesque way, couldn’t believe it. I’m sorry, I had to mention it.

The Archster was collected, we returned home then exited our separate ways, making a mental note to sort out the place out when we got back, which I did several hours later.

It was at this point I ventured into the rest of our home. Unpacking our bags and carrying laundry to the utility room I discovered the sink already full of wet towels, underwear, tea towels, T-shirts and a leather jacket. It had been a long day; I ignored it, filed it under ‘to be discussed later’. Unwillingly I explored the rest of our home. Guitars and sheet music were found forlorn and abandoned in our formal room where they’d been since Saturday morning’s music lesson.

The fact Harry had been told not to go in there was beside the point. Before Social Services intervene on my son’s behalf, we have a family room where the children normally hang out and Harry has a bedroom as big as a normal sized Dutch apartment. He does not need more space.

Taking a deep breath I ventured into Harry’s room. It was obvious several of his friends had stayed over; in fact it looked as he’d been making some extra cash sub-letting his closet given the amount of bedding piled in there. Drawing back the curtains from the french doors to the terrace my eyes alighted on two new adornments among my flower pots – two crates of bottled beer, mostly empty. The drinking age in the Netherlands is 16 for wine and beer.

I was mad. I cannot deny it. Often in times of rage against teens I find cleaning a great and practical safety valve and decided to tackle the kitchen rugs, using a toothbrush to dislodge the hardened food detritus matted in the sisal. Plugging in the vacuum cleaner my ears were assailed by a screeching whine and the smell of rotting yeast with an undertone of electrical burning. Investigation revealed a vacuum bag sodden with beer, glass and dog hair, a motor with something jammed in it and a suction pipe with something jammed up it.

Getting up awkwardly on knees not designed for scrabbling around on the floor with vacuum cleaners my eyes were drawn to the new, dappled, decorative effect on my cream, glossy kitchen cabinets. The colour of the splattered beer toned well with the overall decor of the family room, but this fact was lost on me.

This was one step too far – bad enough to have a good time but not to clean up afterwards? That really was not playing the game. There would have to be serious words . . . .

The interesting conversation which ensued with Harry, Missy’s take on the whole weekend and who moved into the closet in Part Two

Posted in Expat Experiences, Family Life, The Netherlands | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Why writing sometimes has to take a backseat

A short post I’m afraid. Today is Sunday of a holiday weekend and the Captain and I are in England to celebrate a major birthday of our dear friend Michael. We are staying with him and wife Trish at the new home they moved into a week ago.

 Downsized into from the family home where they raised three children, with acres (literally) of space and weren’t expecting to leave quite this soon.

But move they have as a buyer came along and within five minutes they’ve upped and moved. All great stuff, and a big birthday to celebrate too, surrounded by wonderful friends, increasing family and a positive attitude to be envied by people half their age.

I should be writing posts – I have my laptop with me – but there’s little time to write as there’s so much fun going on. Nor will there be internet connection at the Johnson household till next Wednesday at the earliest which is essential for posting wonderful, stimulating blogs. 

I’m grabbing this chance of 15 minutes of wi-fi during a visit to the parents to let you know that normal blogging service will be resumed as soon as we return to the Netherlands.

Assuming I’m not too exhausted from having a great time . . .

Posted in England and Things English, Family Life, Writing | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Why Holland is the Worst Country for Drivers

Excuse me while I take a moment to swallow some heavy-duty Tylenol (to stop the pulsating banging in my head) washed down with something even stronger to subdue the need to kill anyone who comes into my field of vision.

The reason for this complete meltdown of calm and serenity?

A 32 kilometre (19 mile) round trip which has taken two and a half hours with road-rage inducing traffic through semi-rural Holland. The tragic thing is there was no heavy traffic, except for when it couldn’t move by virtue of the planners who love to cause chaos for us mere mortals. You leave home expecting a straight forward journey and wham! you end up in road-rage-ville.

The thing is, if you live in some far flung corner of the planet where traffic is horrendous, you accept it, plan for it, work your way around it. Here in Holland that is just not possible.

Before everyone starts taking the moral high ground and muttering on about the excellent public transport systems here, could I jump in and point out that to get to where I had to go there is no public transport route by road or rail. We are also dealing with, I believe, rolling bus strikes and road closures with little advance notice and even less sign-age. In your innocence you know nothing about it until you hit roads closed and barricaded with the kind of concrete blockades last seen during the troubles in Northern Ireland.

The problem with Holland is cars are viewed as less important than anything else, which in the main is no bad thing, unless you’re trying to get from A to B in a timely fashion avoiding overnight stays on a trip to the next town.

One real issue I have is that you’re funneled to follow specific routes dictated by the powers that be. There are no familiar ‘rat-runs’ through side roads when traffic is grid-locked or there’s been an accident. No sireee. In normal circumstances this is wonderful as residential areas are car free and safe from frustrated, enraged drivers.

That’s normal circumstances. Our small town has two routes in from the south, one in the middle and one from the north. This week both southern routes in and out are closed. Actually this has not been an issue; advance warning was given, alternative routes planned, loads of signage so no-one was caught out.

Heading out this morning to the east I expected no problems; a leisurely drive on a glorious morning through verdant pastures to the next town,Voorschoten, skirting Leiden and over to Leiderdorp alongside rippling canals with pleasure cruisers bobbing jauntily along, flags flapping in the breeze.

All went well till Voorschoten; a lively town whose main intersection is light controlled. Well, not this morning it wasn’t and chaos was not the word I would have used, but it will have to do. Finally getting clear of that with the help of deep breathing and chanting ‘serenity now’ under my breath, I fair whizzed along the next two hundred yards through open countryside, feeling the peace –  just as everything ground to a halt ahead and the view to the horizon was a sea of gridlocked cars shimmering in the heat-haze of hot engines.

The hold up? Traffic lights which, instead of changing to green and staying there for the optimum time to allow free flow of traffic, had glitched; they turned to green then straight back to red. Assuming the driver in the lead car was alert, three cars could cross on one light change with two technically breaking the law by doing so. If the lead car driver panicked, stalled or had dropped off for a moment everyone was screwed.

Once through that, the road ahead was clear for 15 yards before traffic ground to a halt for a bridge to go up. It’s quite common here for entire motorways to be brought to a standstill while the road is raised to allow large barges, sailing boats with tall masts and similar go under the road. So here we were in gridlock city waiting for one ******* sailboat to transit under the road. Those on board seemed to be having an incredibly jolly time, kicking back, going with the flow – which at that point on the river was about a mile an hour. It wasn’t just me; several white-van men surrounding my vehicle were tearing handfuls of hair out and making obscene gestures which, if I understood their meaning correctly, were physically impossible.

Four hundred yards beyond that a standstill again for the Amsterdam /Den Haag train to amble across in front of us, the barriers descending a good ten minutes before the train arrived and only being raised as it disappeared over the edge of the horizon – in Holland that’s one hell of a long way.

One mile from destination I started to relax, turned a corner and oh ****, the road was closed ahead. Not just closed; barricaded, dug up, no way through. No prior warning, no clue how to detour and the ******* SAT NAV at home. Bugger.

The journey home was as eventful and no way to deviate from the route. As I said before, rat-runs through residential areas are verboden. There was nothing to do but sit back and stick with it.

The good news; I managed a complete manicure while waiting for one light change outside Leiderdorp and found a great music CD which Missy and Harry had installed for when they’re sent off to the store. Great dance music which played at full blast took the edge of fantasies of firearms aimed at traffic lights, road signs, jolly sailors and people asleep at the wheel.

Only that’s illegal too; it’s an offence to have sound blasting from a vehicle even if all doors and windows are shut, as the nice police officer informed me as I was pulled over minutes from home. Really, it’s just too much

No wonder certain drugs are legal here.

Posted in Dutch Culture, Expat Experiences, The Netherlands | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

Death and the Expat: When Sad News Arrives

I have to admit to feeling a little heavy hearted today. I’ve just written two condolence letters – one to a dear friend who has lost her mother and the other to her father who has lost his wife of over 60 years. I’m a tad ashamed too, as these should have been written before now but although I had the cards, the words wouldn’t come.

I always have the cards.

In a country where cards written in English can be hard to find or not suitable, I tend to buy them when I see them, condolence cards in particular, because this is a card that has to be right. Of late I’ve chosen to buy With Sympathy ones that are blank inside so I can write my own response to news that will, at best, be deeply sad and, at worse, devastating.

My friend Amy and I met fifteen years ago, both newly arrived in a foreign (to me) country. She the english wife of a US Naval officer, who met and married her husband in Naples, Italy while working as a WREN attached to the US naval fleet. After they married she followed him to various postings in the states, arriving when we did in Louisiana.

As well as nationality, we had three children the same ages in common so it was inevitable we would become friends. Perhaps in a different life we wouldn’t have been – we are poles apart as people, but far from home raising our children in a culture removed from the one we grew up in, formed a bond that will connect us all our lives.

In the years we have been friends she left Louisiana for a three year posting in Hawaii then returned. She helped me through some tough times, I’d like to think I helped her too. As we watched our children grow we got to know each other’s family when they came to visit. The parents, the brothers and sisters, the friends who felt like family.

We shared the sad times – the untimely death of her beautiful niece Lily, from leukemia at age 5,  the death of my husband’s sister three days short of her 46th birthday leaving four children without a mother. Shared together on a continent thousands of miles from home, round a kitchen table where friendship deepened over cups of tea, glasses of wine and boxes of kleenex.

Amy moved to North Carolina, we moved to the Netherlands. We speak regularly on the phone as well as email and Facebook. These past months there has been a lot of talking – her mother told she had stomach cancer as my father was undergoing  radiotherapy. My father survived, we knew Amy’s mother wouldn’t.

When Amy emailed me the news her mother had passed away I called her on the phone, listened to her talk, felt the pain of her tears, wishing for that kitchen table to be between us not the Atlantic Ocean. We talked about her flight home, how long she would stay, how long she could stay.

She got back in time for the funeral despite the volcanic dust from Iceland – her sister flying from Canada was stranded at Schiphol airport en route to Scotland, Amy changed her flight to avoid the problem. Stress none of them needed.

I knew Amy’s mother, of course I did, as I knew all the family whether I’d met them or not. We had enjoyed each other’s company over the years on her visits to the US, a happy smiling lady who adored her children and grandchildren. I knew Amy’s father, a kind, smart, sociable man in whose company I always felt comfortable.

The day of her funeral I wished I could have been there to hug Amy, her father, her sisters, to have been a part of their lives once more. But that is one of the downsides of the nomad’s life – sometimes we can’t be there and there’s not the closure to life events there would be if we were home.

So we sit and write our letters, try and put our feelings into words and hope the recipients understand our hearts break for them wherever in the world we are. That we weep too.

Posted in Expat Experiences, Family Life, Personal challenges, Women and Female Related | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments