Who Dat?: Friendly Faces in Foreign Places

A while back driving home from Schiphol (Amsterdam) Airport, the Captain and I experienced something which got me thinking about how we react when we meet fellow countrymen thousands of miles from home.

Our American home is New Orleans; I’ve written before about how the place gets to you, gets under your skin, and how it’s people are like no other anywhere in the States for kindness, generosity of spirit and open hearts.

See two New Orleanians meet outside Louisiana and it will be a noisy acknowledgment of a mutual city, a joyous bear-hug of an embrace, back slapping and beaming smiles and the ubiquitous “aww man, great to see you guys – who’d have thought it so far from home?”

The city has had much to unite its citizens over the decades in sorrow and joy, and one entity which has given the city both in equal measure is it’s football team the New Orleans Saints; the rallying cry for all fans “Who dat?

Dear Lord, that team has bought the fans to its knees year after year, raising and dashing hopes, making and breaking promises, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory game after game. The joke of the NFL.

Until 7 February 2010 when the Saints finally gave back to the New Orleans fans. It wasn’t just a football game, it was a city crawling back from the brink of the abyss, the phoenix rising, the driving flame that had kept the city fighting back for nearly five years.

We watched that game here in the early hours of the morning, keeping the faith and the vigil with New Orleanians all over the world. Did we cry when they won? Bawled, both of us.

This wasn’t a about a football game, it was about the fighting spirit of a city determined to survive, despite the apathy of a system seemingly happy to watch the city sink into oblivion. It was about a people overcoming the odds and the Saints were the symbol of that rebirth.

Who didn’t feel that emotion? Missy immediately mailed a saints sticker home for my car, much to the eye rolling of Harry, the Times-Picayune (our local paper back home) and other memorabilia necessary to celebrate the victory.

So there we were, driving down the A4 on a sunny afternoon having dropped guests for their return flight at the airport.

Suddenly a car pulled alongside, horn blaring, full of people gesticulating wildly and pointing to the rear of the car. The traffic was quite dense so they pulled ahead and in front of us, faces pressed to the rear window obviously shouting, and waving frenetically.

We visibly jumped, wondered what we’d done wrong. Did we have a dead body hanging from the trunk, a tyre blown, were they just being rude and obscene? The latter thought when we realised they had French plates.

We knew no-one in France. Had no friends of friends in France. A mystery. We put it down to road rage and let the car in front get ahead of us. Except it didn’t; it slowed down so we were forced to overtake. As we drew alongside the excitement in the French car increased to manic levels; the Captain put his foot down and flew past eager to shake them off. They followed.

We pulled over, they drew alongside with front and rear passenger windows sliding down, horn bipping rapidly like an AK47 in action. Dear God were they armed? (Living in New Orleans gets you thinking that way).

Holding up two lanes of traffic people were hanging out of each window, behind them others trying to force heads and hands through any available space waving riotously, wind tearing at their hair, pointing to the back of our vehicle yelling “Who dat?’’, “Go saints!” and “wooooooo hooooo!”

They’d spotted the saints sticker on the rear bumper of our car.

We wound down our windows, yelled back, beaming animatedly and instinctively back, connecting in that moment with our people, our city. Yes, they were from New Orleans, living in Paris, ardent saints fans, all this gleaned from a windswept conversation yelled between vehicles on a Dutch motorway. Eventually the drivers behind us insisted by the angry detonation of car horns that we get back into line and stop being stupid. God forbid.

We drove in convoy down the A4 then the N44, till we reached our junction for home. As we turned off our cars were level again, we yelled and waved cheerfully for the last time, saluted each other with a final crescendo of horns and went our separate ways.

It made our day, that connection with a city 4000 miles away sweltering in a sauna of heat and humidity. That in this tiny, ordered, temperate country in northern Europe for one moment we were transported back to the heat, the suffocating heaviness of the air, the colour, the noise, the exuberance of the people.

Sometimes we need those moments, that connection to who we are and who we’ve been even when we’re settled somewhere new.

I tell all y’all, it made our day.

Posted in Expat Experiences, Family Life, The Netherlands, USA | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Book Review – Expat Women: Confessions, Andrea Martins and Victoria Hepworth

Before we start could I ask those who have arrived on this page under a misapprehension to please leave?

This is not a blog to entice bored or jaded readers with thoughts of what expat women may or may not (usually may not) get up to overseas. This is a serious arena for informing as many people as possible of a fabulous new book, just published . . .

. . . that should have the salivating voyeurs clicking on to something else whilst we get to grips with something I think is very important.

First off I’d like you to know I get to read an awful lot of books and I get to decide which I’d like to review.  Generally, but not always, this means I’m going to enjoy them and write something positive. Occasionally I pick up a book I’m sure I’m going to like but a few pages in, stop in my tracks, sit up, really start to notice and think “wow”. Expat Women : Confessions, 50 Answers to your Real-Life Questions about Living Abroad is one of them.

For those of you who don’t know (are there any?) www.expatwomen.com is the largest global website helping women living overseas. It’s fabulous; full of great information. I make no apology for copying this extract

ExpatWomen.com was created by two friends, Andrea Martins and Jill
Lengré
, when they were both living in Mexico City. Their dream of connecting

expatriate women worldwide was a result of their combined 20 years of experience
living overseas.

Andrea and Jill worked together on the web site for two years (one year prior to launch on 16 January 2007, then one year after launch) before Jill repatriated to the United States.”

Obviously to get all the information you need please head on over to the site when you’ve finished here, there’s also a link on my sidebar.

Expatwomen have a page on their site called ‘confessions’ – a problem page for expat women maintained by Andrea and Victoria Hepworth (a Kiwi and trained psychologist). The problems are sent in by real expat women world-wide, and often relate to challenges or issues they keep silent about for fear of being the only one with the problem or seeming negative in a world where upbeat and positive are the social currency.

The result has been an incredible opportunity to look at the kind of challenges expat women globally are dealing with in their nomadic life choice, irrespective of age, number of international moves, ages of their children, or the giving up/setting up their own careers.

What Martins and Hepworth have done is break down these issues into identifiable chapters – Settling in, Career and money, Raising children, Relationships, Mixed emotions and Repatriation. Each of these categories is further subdivided, for example, ‘Realtionships’  is broken down into  My trailing man, Intercultural couple, He wants to go home, Keeping secrets, Divorce abroad, Picking up the pieces, Domestic violence, Expat infidelity, Online betrayal and A lonely affair. You get the picture.

As I started to read, avidly I admit, I appreciated the way each chapter had been formulated, the question and answer format backed with a phenomenal wealth of information.

What blew me away was how seriously Martins and Hepworth regarded the problems in front of them. You never get the feeling the answers are glib or text-book; they understand that behind each letter is a woman in turmoil who feels their only lifeline is to write to on online problem page.

That’s what stopped me in my tracks. Each submission represented a woman lost and alone, often afraid and here was a place their voice could be heard. Their issues and fears are handled with respect, compassion and a deep understanding. Not content with a trite answer Matins and Hepworth give practical options, alternatives and resources  in a measured voice which I believe would instill hope in anyone.

They encourage gently, sensitive to the person behind the problem, in a way I’ve not seen in a book like this. The book finishes with a wonderful wealth of websites and online resources.

I don’t care how many times you’ve moved or how old you are this book really is essential for reference at any point in the expat process. You may not need it now, but maybe one day you will, or a dear friend might need help and you can pass it on.

Go out and get a copy, buy your friends a copy, this is a valuable tool helping all of us over the humps and bumps of overseas life. And no, I do not have a vested interest in this book, I am just a reader who likes to pass on the news when a book this important comes along.

  • Expat Women : Confessions, 50 Answers to your Real-Life Questions about Living Abroad, Andrea Martins and Victoria Hepworth
  • Foreward by Robin Pascoe
  • Paperback:274 pages
  • Publisher:Expat Women (5 May 2011)
  • LanguageEnglish
  • ISBN-10:0980823609
  • ISBN-13: 978-0980823608
  • Available in paperback and Kindle format  from Amazon
Posted in Expat Related Book Reviews, Women and Female Related | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Dutch Workmen: Tips On Understanding The Tribe

I’ve been doing some unofficial research of late into the habits and behaviour of Dutch workmen. I say unofficial because it’s more observation than research and has happened only because we have decorators repainting the exterior of our building.

It’s supposedly a twelve week contract which has already over run by at least four, despite the glorious weather we’ve been experiencing. I doubt anyone has thought to introduce an incentive bonus for early completion of the contract.

Why my interest?

Over the past several years I’ve had a lot of contact with workmen both here and in North America, usually as project manager, and the similarities between the tribes is remarkable yet it’s the differences that really fascinate me.

Are they due to nature or nurture?

My interest in such things goes back a long way. My father considered it part of his parenting responsibilities to ensure my sister and I were able to look after ourselves in a practical way. Changing the fuse in an electric plug, to electrical wiring, installing light fittings, wiring in electric ovens, dishwashers, washing machines and getting to grips with basic plumbing – he taught us well.

Having so much practical knowledge passed on from a master has put me in the special position of knowing when someone is giving me a load of BS. I admit to a certain primal pleasure in listening to a workman explain the difficulties of a job knowing he thinks I’m an idiot. The day he realises he’s been played is always one of sweet revenge, and I hope a valuable life lesson to the more chauvinistic types.

The Captain and I have overseen homes built in England, America and the Netherlands so we are not rank amateurs at this.

My real hands on, thrown in the deep end kind of research was back in 2005 after a bit of a brush with Hurricane Katrina. The number of contractors involved was endless, language skills essential and not taking any poop from shysters crucial.

I was privileged to have lived and breathed in the same environment as these hardworking male dominated tribes of workers. Watching them toil over the months, observing their frustrations, problem solving capacities, skills with brick, wood, tile, marble and sheet-rock I learned curse words in several languages and new skills along the way.

These guys were hard-working, committed and, on the whole, took pride in what they did. These weren’t just local contractors, these were guys who’d driven from all over the country to help out; some storm chasers to be sure, but the majority good, gifted men doing the right thing.

They worked long hours, rarely took breaks. This was not because of the hurricane; guys like them worked hard all the time. Before the storm they took weekends off; post Katrina many worked for 4-6 months, seven days a week during every daylight hour. Heroic really.

Fast forward a year to fitting our new home in the Netherlands and I found myself working with a new tribe, distant cousins of the one I’d called my own back in Louisiana. Certain assumptions were made that shouldn’t have been.

I had naïvely assumed basic things would stay the same despite the language differences; knowledge and availability of building materials, knowledge of how to use them and a strong work ethic.

Oh dear. Never make assumptions.

The Dutch have a well-balanced attitude to work and play. Family and play come first, work last. Not to say that the Dutch aren’t committed to what they do, just that priorities are different.

Before I go further I want to be clear this is not to put Dutch workmen down in any way; it’s just their approach to the workplace and work in general can seem very different if you have encountered the same breed elsewhere.

Patient observation over the last five years has allowed me to scrutinise the idiosyncrasies of behaviour  in Dutch workmen which I am more than happy to share with you.

Workmen here have a very set routine. They arrive on time, usually just before eight,  spend half an hour or so assessing what was done the previous day, ruminate on todays plan then break for breakfast and a quick review of the daily newspapers.

The good weather in recent weeks has seen another trait of behaviour rarely seen outside this country. Certainly not in North America.

We have a communal garden which has been taken over by the painters. Each morning they arrive and unload plastic garden furniture and set chairs in a line facing the building to more easily evaluate their work and discuss the finer points of the job. Breakfast will be followed by unloading supplies and setting up equipment. Half an hour of painting and it’s time for a coffee break. Sun chairs and newspapers once more.

Over the weeks and with the continuance of good weather the chairs have changed. They have gone from regular plastic to more substantial reclining ones with seat and back cushions and a small plastic coffee table. Two weeks ago cushioned sun loungers appeared, all set in a line to allow maximum relaxation whilst deliberating on their handiwork.

Coffee is followed by an hour or so of work then a break for lunch and getting some serious rays on the loungers. The afternoons consist of an hour or so of work, afternoon tea, then packing up for the day. They have all left by 4 o’clock, exhausted.

On the odd day of rain or high winds they have sat huddled in their white vans, wrapped up warm and disgruntled, clutching warming cups of tea which steam up their vans, angrily fighting with the large obstinate pages of newspapers in the confined space. On such days they are best avoided.

On regular days they are jolly and cheerful, chatting and joshing with one another. The radio was banned by our neighbours during week three; there is only so much techno you can play at one time outside of Ibiza. They have given impromptu singing performances of pop, opera and on one occasion a note and word-perfect rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.

As they arrived this morning I noticed they have bought a sun parasol and a full sized water cooler – quite a relief as they are sporting tans more reminiscent of the south of France than northern Europe and I do worry about them dehydrating.

I am surprised by my own laid back attitude to this indigenous tribe. Five years ago this approach to work would have driven me to the point of drink or melt-down, wanting them to show drive, commitment and passion not a laissez-faire charm.

What I have learned is acceptance. It is not my place to change the culture I live in, my responsibility is to adapt to it, which I rather think I have.

So a few tips on how to save yourself from a stress induced heart attack. Here are my tips for dealing with Dutch workmen if you’ve only previously dealt with their North American relatives :

1.  Even the most basic home improvement project will take more than six months.

2. Good planning is essential – factor in national holidays, the eight week summer shutdown, five hour working day

3. All supplies will have to be ordered – whatever you’re told the reality will be a 3-4 month lead time between order and delivery

4. Supplies arrive but will be the wrong order, size, amount or damaged.

5. The job will start later than planned as the builder will not have factored the supplies delay into his calculations and you will have missed your slot for the work to be completed. The job will be pushed back 2 months till you can be slotted back in the schedule

6. Go back to point 4

7.  The start day arrives; if the weather is inclement work will be put off until the following day. If fine, day one will be spent deciding what equipment they should have brought with them, then disappearing for the rest of the day to find the missing items.

8.  The job will always take twice or three times as long to complete as promised. The fact you have visitors arriving for a month, planned for after the work was finished will not be sufficient reason to speed up the job.

9. Do not, under any circumstances, allow any worker to leave the site for any reason. An innocent “I have to go pick up some screws” at 10 o’clock in the morning will result in one man off the job till 3.55pm.

10.  Do not offer to make tea or coffee; make it clear from the outset you are not a 24-hour cafeteria service but they can help themselves to water. Under no circumstances utter the words “make yourselves at home” or “help yourselves”.

The two tribes have many endearing and similar qualities but environment seems to have made a huge impact on their differing approaches to work commitment, duration and application.

It is perhaps testament to my adjustment in this new tribal culture that I no longer have permanent bruising to the head from having spent so many years banging it in frustration on a variety of solid objects. The head banging has been replaced by gentle sighs, a resigned shake of the head and tolerance.

It didn’t hurt that leaving the building this morning I heard the sound of a wolf-whistle; it doesn’t take much to charm a girl, especially when I realised there was no-one around but me. At least in the Netherlands you don’t turn invisible once you’re over 30, which has to count for something.

Posted in Dutch Culture, Expat Experiences, Family Life, The Netherlands | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

Left behind, and I’m not talking about the Rapture

This is not a subject I particularly want to talk about and is unashamedly personal but it’s something I’m sure many people will relate to.

I’m talking the bad, sad side of living in an expat community when friends move on. Now before everyone starts giving me a hard time and reminds me I promised not to mention this again, I can only say this is a big deal for many people every year and we can’t ignore it.

Expats talk about moving, the transition period, settling in, saying goodbye well and learning to build up a certain emotional resilience. What I want to talk about is those of us left behind, who once again wave friends off to pastures new. Our lives are forever changed by their leaving yet everything else remains the same.

I have spent today putting the final touches to a memory book for my dear friend Rosemary, whose leaving bash is being held tonight. Reading through the wonderful tributes sent to her from friends all over the world,  something deep inside has welled up and I’m bawling my darn eyes out. Better now in private, than publically tonight, so long as we all keep clear of the alcohol. Like that’s going to happen.

It’s not just the loss of Rosemary, but memories of all the friends who have left. They are still a part of the fabric of our lives, we hold them dear, we miss them, we wish they were here to share the everyday ups and downs of life.

I met Rosemary online before I set foot in the Netherlands; she was the Volunteer Parent Welcomer assigned to me by school when we registered Harry. Four months before we arrived she was emailing me with information, answering questions – being a friend before we’d set eyes on each other.

When we finally did meet she was anxious to introduce me to as many people as she could. It was only later I understood her drive; she had said goodbye to so many people over the years (she has been here eight and a half ) the only way to survive was to make new ones. Year after year the same relentless round of hellos and goodbyes.

I’ve often heard veteran expats say they have one or two moves left in them then “that’s it, I’m done” and I understand and sympathise with their feelings. Perhaps it’s age, or stage of life but something happens and the making of friends becomes harder. Or perhaps we become drained of the emotional energy we need to go out there and connect.

It seems relatively easy if you have younger children, making friends through them has always been the way of things, more so in a different country and in an alien culture. As the children grow it becomes harder; when they leave home and you find yourself parenting by email and Skype things change again. Friends become more important for support. Yet it’s at this point in your life the emotional energy bank starts to run dry. You don’t want to make the investment anymore. The return sometimes doesn’t seem worth the effort.

We all know what we have to do to make new friends, how to reach out and connect but some days the little voice inside says “no more”. Finding the way to replenish the emotional batteries is a tough one; it seems there’s no tried and tested method, everyone has to find their own path. At a time of life when so many other changes are happening it can seem like an uphill struggle.

The next few weeks will fly by, the final goodbyes will be said but it will be two or three months from now when the mind slips a little, I’ll see a car like Rosemary’s, pip the horn and wave before that slamming realisation hits the brain and the gut and  I realise she’s really gone.

I had a similar experience the other week. Driving locally I spotted a light blue people carrier, I waved thinking “I wonder where Emma’s off to today?”

Emma and I were friends in Louisiana ten years ago before she left America to return to England, but for that split second the memory linked car and friend as if no time had passed at all.

So what do we do?

Get on with it. Do what we have to do because that will get us through, move us on and we will connect with new people. By doing that we will meet great new friends who will add wonderful memories to an already rich life.

In the meantime there’s nothing wrong with taking some quiet time, letting the tears flow, letting go, accepting. It’s life; it’s a wonderful journey and feeling pain allows us to appreciate and embrace the joys which will come. They always do.

Posted in Expat Experiences, Inspiration and Reflection, Personal challenges, The Netherlands, Women and Female Related | Tagged , , , , , , | 11 Comments

When the Netherlands is Perfect: The Gentle Grace of Holland

It occurred to me this morning I’ve never said much about the everyday beauty of the Netherlands. I’ve sat and typed through the long dark days of winter, made miserable by the relentless rain, howling wind and a chill factor that grinds the bones.

Come the spring everyone is so grateful for the rays of the sun and the odd day you can venture out without a jacket,  we’re out there living and breathing it, not writing about it.

I’ve mentioned how the Dutch cheer up amazingly when it does warm up, how the country becomes well, a whole other country. It is a glorious place of colour and gentle delights, light breezes, dappled sunlight and clean air.

Perhaps I appreciate the change more than most as I spend several hours a day wandering the leafy footpaths alongside shallow canals trying to exhaust the Archster. It’s difficult for him right now as dogs are on a leash till 1st August to protect the breeding birds, but that’s not really a hardship as it means he’s not in and out of canals every other minute. He believes his appeal to any available female lies in his casual, slobby chic  – wet and stinky.

What we have is a front row seat observing the seasonal changes up close, and it’s a marvellous show. This time of year is perhaps my favorite but from a purely practical perspective; I don’t have to wear ten layers of wind/rain proof gear or hose the dog down after every trip outdoors. We can walk,  enjoy and luxuriate in the solitude of quiet walks.

And quiet walks there are. We live a ten minute drive from the center of The Hague,  but are surrounded by woods, fields and miles of pathways through parkland. During the week we can walk and not see a soul, which is my kind of walk. In a country of over 16 million people in 16033  square miles of land that’s pretty darn good.

Admittedly the weekends are a tad more busy, but then the Captain is happy to take over dog walking duties and deal with the masses, brave soul.

Yesterday was a delight; warm, sunny and rejuvenating and I realised I’d never shared this side of the Netherlands and maybe it was time. Armed with camera and a long leash the Archster and I set off to record our circular walk from the front door, through the woods and back.

It was glorious; the only noise the cacophony of agitated birds protecting emerging young,  the shade under the trees without it’s usual chill, the open spaces bathed in soothing warmth and sunlight. Such days you want to sit, leaning against the solid strengh of a tree, absorbing  and blending  with nature, dog laying alongside panting in the sun – he’s of nordic descent and he regards the mildest of days as tropical.

So I make no apologies for posting photographs of some of the natural beauty of the country we now call home. Of course while I’ve sat here on my laptop the clouds have rolled in, the wind is screeching, but that’s what makes a day like yesterday so very special.

Posted in Advice for New Arrivals in the Netherlands, Inspiration and Reflection, The Netherlands | 6 Comments

So where do you go from here Mr. Camping?

Well, what a relief. Although I do wonder if the Rapture  really did happen and we’ve all been left behind, including prophet Harold Camping who is now saying “oops, I miscalculated and meant October 21”. That he may be on the losing team and be facing the wrath of God has obviously not crossed his mind.

I’m sorry but even his most ardent followers may be wondering if he’s lost his marbles and probably a bit peeved at having put down the family dog  and blitzed life savings on a hedonistic break in Vegas.

Living in the Southern US we learned very quickly that slightly weird religions were the norm, often breakaways from the mainstream over a clash of theologies. In general terms these splinter groups just wanted to do their own thing their own way, which is fine so long as you leave everyone else alone.

Now before I go any further, I must make it very clear I have the greatest respect for people with a real faith, whatever their religion, including those with a deep spirituality who have left their church for whatever reason. These are usually quiet, humble, and profound individuals who understand everyone has to find their own path.

I am one of those who believe there are many roads to the same place and we are all responsible for our own spiritual journey. I have no time for organised religions who hide behind theology to gain their own ends; several come to mind. My own journey with a higher being has been a bumpy one; there was a falling out many years ago and a sulky (on my part) distance has been kept since.

The sect of Harold Camping came to my attention about ten years ago.

Browsing in a book store through new releases piled haphazardly on a large table, I discovered a book that tickled the brain cells; verging on the beach book with sci-fi and thriller elements the back cover blurp hooked me in. It was the third in a series and next to the new release were the two earlier books. I was in heaven, a whole trilogy to get my teeth into.

Now they weren’t brilliantly written but the story was good and engaging; something has happened to the world, people have disappeared in an instant – from planes, cars, shopping in the store and the books are about those left to deal with the mess. Obviously sci-fi right? Just a matter of tracking down the aliens responsible, although why anyone would want to abduct the weirdos was anyone’s guess – they seemed to have left all the interesting people behind.

It was book five before I listened to a radio program about religious sects which touched on the Rapture, something I’d never heard of before. Of course it all fell into place and I felt a prize dork and never read another book. I was quite sad though, as up until then I’d been having a rather good time figuring out who the aliens were – although maybe I wasn’t so far off the mark.

What was really interesting was how there was no mention of the books being about religion – I don’t recall the word ‘Rapture’ being in the write up, but then if it had I would have put it down to being a fictional idea. So maybe not wrong about that either.

How Harold Camping has managed to dupe so many supposedly sensible grown-ups with wishy-washy fairy stories is beyond me. That they might still believe he has something valid to say blows my fragile mind. He’s screwed up twice now but perhaps it will be third time lucky. MSN reported today

“. .Camping said that he’s now realized the apocalypse will come five months after May 21, the original date he predicted. He had earlier said Oct. 21 was when the globe would be consumed by a fireball.

Saturday was “an invisible judgment day” in which a spiritual judgment took place, he said. But the timing and the structure is the same as it has always been, he said.

“We’ve always said May 21 was the day, but we didn’t understand altogether the spiritual meaning,” he said. “May 21 is the day that Christ came and put the world under judgment.”

Well I’m glad he’s cleared that up for us.

On the one hand I am stunned with disbelief that people give this man the time of day, on the other I’m saddened so many vulnerable and gullible people have had their lives turned upside down by him. It’s criminal.

Now before you all start to de-cry me as a sadistic person who takes delight in knocking an elderly, man of religion I’d just like to put before you an interesting fact,

“In 2009, the nonprofit Family Radio (Harold Camping) reported in IRS filings that it received $18.3 million in donations, and had assets of more than $104 million, including $34 million in stocks or other publicly traded securities.”

Kind of makes you wonder what kind of man of God Mr. Camping is doesn’t it?

Just saying.

Posted in Politics and Social Comment, USA | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Garden Gnomes and Pink Flamingos: The Ultimate in Taste

In the previous blog I wrote about how some people judge or pigeonhole others by the way they speak, which led me to wonder why people are also judgemental about other folks’ belongings, their choice of furniture, the way they decorate their homes.

Who it is that dictates what is acceptable or unacceptable when it comes to good taste?

I’m not thinking ‘art’ here, there’s no need to complicate things by bringing in the academics – I’m thinking everyday items adorning our homes and gardens which may be regarded by some as tacky or tasteless. Things we have around us we don’t even notice anymore, but which visitors see and immediately start computing where to slot us in their social rankings.

What makes people cringe at a garden full of plastic gnomes or coo with delight at a bronze sculpture set in a formal garden? On the gnome front is it the plastic that’s the problem or the actual gnome? With the sculpture is it an appreciation of beauty or are we being conned by the good taste police? And who are they anyway?

Of more concern, do the good police differ in their criteria from country to country? I rather think they do.

Such matters have given me a sleepless night, because nowhere has it crossed anyone’s mind that people have a sense of humour.

While I’m sure there are individuals who are passionate about garden gnomes, I’m equally convinced there are some with a wicked sense of humour who adorn their perfectly manicured plots with these Lilliputian statuettes with the sole purpose of annoying their neighbors.

This must apply in the same measure to crocheted toilet/ lavatory/ loo roll covers, trios of plaster ducks flying up a wall and plastic flowers. There must be homes all over the country prettified with such items just for fun.

We have good friends who once made a joke about flying plaster ducks à la Hilda Ogden, which resulted in us presenting them with three we managed to find in some obscure hardware store. Good sports that they are, those ducks have glided gracefully across the walls of their home ever since. Behind a cupboard in the utility room admittedly, but on the wall all the same.

Then you have items for the garden which start out as the garden ‘must haves’ in all the trendy magazines, judged a year or so later as ‘naff’. I do wonder in these situations if such dictates are driven by the marketing men rather than good taste pundits.

On moving to the southern US we discovered another slant to the garden embellishing syndrome – plaster saints. This blew our minds coming from the heathen UK and didn’t sit too well with our protestant upbringing, where any religious icons clearly came under the heading of idolatry. We underwent a crash course on Religion in the Southern States 101 to get us up to speed, but it did emphasise our preconceptions and snobbish attitude. Suddenly we realised we had no clue what was acceptable, taste wise, in this new country we’d moved to.

It was the same with pink plastic flamingos – they turned up everywhere. Surely they were naff? Weren’t they? Yet they were to be seen, poised elegantly amidst the groomed and polished lawns of up-market homes belonging to people with impeccable taste and enviable social standing. Was it the ‘fade’ factor that deemed one flamingo ‘tasteful’  while perched on a the lawn of a million dollar home while another was judged ‘cringeworthy’ when found outside a double-wide trailer being savaged by a Rottweiler?

We found the whole thing utterly absorbing and such matters were discussed endlessly and heatedly over margaritas and mint julips on sultry, steamy evenings serenaded by the chirping of cicadas. It seemed at every American holiday new wonders would appear to assault our visual senses and Christmas blew us away.

Where else in the world would you see an illuminated 20-foot long, 6-foot high Santa and sleigh drawn by ten alligators precariously balanced on the roof of a house?

We loved it. It was so over the top and camp you had to enter into the spirit of it all, although ‘camp’ and ‘southern states’ aren’t words you would put in the same sentence outside the French QuarterNew Orleans.

Would we have been so laid back in the UK? Absolutely not – we’d have been thrown on the social scrap-heap before a ray of sunshine had fallen on the iridescent Barbie pink of those flamingo feathers.

It was such fun being a foreigner and not having to worry what other people thought. No-one knew us, no-one cared, and if we crossed their minds at all our behaviour was dismissed as odd because we were foreign and didn’t know any better.

We found the ‘rock and roll’ gyrating Santas hilarious and still wish we’d bought a Billy bass . Wal-mart was always a treasure trove of weird, wonderful and totally tacky treasures.

Our pick-up truck (we had to have one) was decked out with Mardi Gras beads swinging from our rear view mirror, country music pumping out with the best of them, and we had a blast. Bumper stickers were de rigour – the fish symbol was on many a bumper as you’d expect in the south, but there were also fish with legs which made me howl – go Darwin!

Moving to The Netherlands was another world. Far more conservative than either the UK or the US, we were immediately aware of a distinct lack of gnomes, flamingos or similar. Even Christmas here is a bit subdued – the only decorations being clear twinkling lights in trees. In some areas (dubbed Little America by the locals) resident americans get wonderful, colorful over the top decorations shipped in by friends and relatives back home. So worth it for the synchronised resigned sighs, head shaking and eye-rolling of the Dutch.

Occasionally we see a miniature windmill  tastefully appointed beside a garden pond,  and it’s clear this is a serious well thought out embellishment, no humour or campness in sight. It would be nice to think the Dutch have a fun side. If they do, it’s not expressed in choice of garden ornaments or loo roll covers.

I draped red white and blue bunting outside for the Royal Wedding only daring to do so because it fell at the same time as a Dutch holiday. Our neighbors were quite touched we’d made an effort to liven things up on their behalf, bless ’em. I’m afraid I won’t be doing the same on the Fourth of July, I’m not that brave.

So good taste, or acceptable taste, is defined differently wherever you live. It seems the taste police, those gatekeepers of refinement will judge your gnomes a definite no-no in one place but not another.

All this thinking takes far too much energy – we should all go for the fun factor and not stress, life is way too short.

By the way, have I shown you our loo roll holder which plays the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ when  the bathroom tissue is yanked…

 

 

Posted in Expat Experiences, Family Life, The Netherlands | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

If The Accent Fits, Should We Wear It?

Struggling this morning with a thumping headache brought on by an accidental glue-sniffing incident (long story) I was rather concerned I wouldn’t be able to think of anything to blog about.

Getting the grey matter going was a slow job, until I opened an email from one of my guardian angels forwarding an article from The Economist she thought I might like. Entitled Accents: Did I hear you raht? I knew immediately what it was about, making me smile broadly; although this proved too much activity for the facial muscles for first thing in the morning.

I read the article with delight, as it’s a subject close to my heart crossing countries, continents and cultures.

For many people the way we use language, how we speak, the accents we have, tell us so much about another person, whether we realise it or not.

Growing up in England it was something you learned instinctively from early childhood; the tiny nuances which gave a new friend, colleague or prospective employer the discreet clues to who you were, where you were from. The subtleties of background, education, all those things the English get wound up about.

As a child you copy the people around you, it’s only as you venture out into the world you realise other people may speak differently to you, use different words, put the emphasis on different syllables.

In the days when people lived within a small area for most of their lives it wasn’t an issue but as communities changed and people moved around for education and job opportunities our regional accents became more obvious to ourselves and others. We all knew how we should speak; the BBC was the epitome of correctly spoken English to which we should have aspired but rarely did.

My first awareness that English was spoken differently in other places was going to university. I’d only moved 40 miles north of my home town but it could have been a different planet. Going to the bakery was a nightmare; the familiar words for loaves and cakes did not apply. Asking for a “cheese cob” I’d be met with blank looks, only for a light to go on with someone who’d shout,

“oohhh, the lass means a cheese barm cake!”

It was also at this time I ran into the vocabulary that, for some, defined the social class you came from. Whether you used a serviette or napkin, or had a lounge, sitting room or drawing room at home, sat on a settee, couch or sofa, whether you used a lavatory, toilet or loo.

I remember being mocked mercilessly by friends who considered themselves socially superior to me, whose softer, elongated vowels and correct vocabulary made me feel small and stupid.

Then I attended linguistics lectures as part of a course and was blown away by what was taught; I’ve been fascinated and intrigued by accents ever since. The lecturer was one of the smartest, most enthusiastic, passionate people I’ve ever heard speak. He turned language into a living and evolving entity, and delivered his lectures in the broadest, flattest northern accent I’d ever heard.

It was the first time I’d consciously realised how you spoke didn’t matter so long as you had something to say, and could communicate well.

Of course there are times we change our accents or vocabulary to fit in or be understood, mimicking the voices around us, and recent research has proved exactly that, although I can’t find the darn article I was reading, but trust me, research has been done. (This is, after all, a blog not research paper.)

Whilst it’s always seemed a particularly British thing, I’m realising every country has acceptable and unacceptable ways of speaking; of being socially acceptable to your peers.

The Economist article is about the southern US, and it’s true, have a southern accent and the rest of America regards you as mentally sub-normal, completely uneducated and socially unacceptable. (For the record it’s completely understandable to me that the writer of the article would confuse hearing “wife’s name” as “last name”.)

Interestingly, the City of New Orleans, as southern as you can get, has an accent very similar to that of New York, which makes those northerners squirm when it’s pointed out – they tend not to mock quite as much as the rest of America.

As an aside I’ve always felt particularly comfortable in the USA, where my short vowels fit in and Americans, for the most part, can’t make the same differentiation between accents as a native English speaker. The only time I start to panic is when I meet another Brit abroad and you can see the social antennae start to twitch as soon as you’re introduced. I am not my accent, but there are people who would make assumptions based on it.

A dear friend, who is friends with me despite everything, worries herself silly about such things. She is English, married to an American and has lived in the US for 30 years. On a layover in the Netherlands on the way to the UK she stayed with us. That evening, watching the BBC news from England, (via satellite) she turned to me, appalled, and said

“oh my god, when I left England everyone at the BBC spoke beautifully; I come back and everyone on the television is speaking like you! What is the country coming to?” I got the impression this was not a good development as far as she was concerned.

Here in the Netherlands it’s just the same. I’ll say a Dutch word only to have Harry look at me in horror and ask,

“who on earth told you to pronounce it like that? You sound like you come from Leiden!”

According to him, the only fluent dutch speaker in the house, anyone with any intelligence can tell if someone comes from Leiden, The Hague, Rotterdam, even Amsterdam, just from their accent. Whether this is entirely true we’re not sure, but it could explain why I have difficulty getting to grips with the lingo.

Is how we speak so important these days? With so many people moving and traveling globally and being multi-lingual shouldn’t we be more concerned with what’s being said than whether the accent is right?

There’s nothing I love more than meeting someone new with an accent or twang I’ve never heard before; it’s music to my ears. I want to know they’re from, listen for the faint traces of exotic countries in the rhythms of their speech, the unusual lilt hinting at the places they’ve lived or passed through.

Give me the beating heart, the warmth and humour of an accent over the clinical and precise every time.

Posted in England and Things English, Expat Experiences, USA | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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

There are discernible rumblings in expat land. It’s divisive stuff.

Way back in the spring at the FIGT (Families in Global Transition) Conference in Washington DC, there was a move to redefine the term used to describe the spouse-following-the-spouse-with-the-job. That’s the one usually following several months behind the first with suitcases, children, and the dog – frazzled, frustrated and not taking any prisoners.

Oft times referred to as the ‘trailing spouse’ or the ‘accompanying partner’ these terms don’t encompass the role the supporting spouse (male or female) plays. At the FIGT the acronym STARS was suggested. (Spouses Traveling and Relocating Successfully). Coined, I believe, by Apple Gidley.

This in itself has caused some interesting debate. My friend Linda over at adventuresinexpatland wrote an interesting piece in April entitled Expat Bougainvillea: Tale of the ‘Trailing Spouse after reading an article before that written by Evelyn Simpson at thesmartexpat.com.

Evelyn has written further on this subject, ‘Still an Accompanying Partner’ and I respect what she has to say, and was particularly drawn to the comments:

‘Now as you all know, I hate/despise/loathe the term ‘trailing spouse’ for all of the reasons I’ve been ranting on about for the last year or so, but won’t be using STARS either. Why? The nomenclature for what we are doing serves two purposes. The first is that it gives us a way to describe what we are doing to other people and the second is that it gives the HR community a way to refer to  us as a group.’ 

Evelyn got me at HR and I sat up and started to take notice.

‘The first is that it gives us a way to describe what we are doing to other people and the second is that it gives the HR community a way to refer to  us as a group.  STARS/CEO of Team X/Execuwife are great in the first instance as they help to paper over those awkward ‘what do you do’ conversations with a bit of humour and they mean that we can describe ourselves with words that don’t feel demeaning.  Unfortunately, I don’t think any of them help in the more important HR conversation.  I just can’t imagine HR/Relocation professionals referring to expats and their STARS.’

It was ‘HR’ and ‘important conversation’ used in the same sentence that really hooked me in.

I’ve never given much thought to HR accept as those faceless, nameless wonders with the clipboards who make decisions about our lives without having a clue who we are, never mind how we live.

On our last move they failed to insure the contents of our home whilst in transit, saying they didn’t think we were bringing anything with us. The fact they’d booked a 40-foot container and had been emailing the removal company daily would have been a clue to most people. We never did recover the full cost of the damage.

As the trailing/ accompanying spouse/ partner I’ve never had an important conversation with HR. Ever. I’ve had dictates, instructions, reams of paperwork but a sane two-way conversation? Never.

How HR refer to me I have no idea. It has honestly never occurred to me they might have a need to describe or pigeonhole me as the Captain’s sidekick. It’s not me who works for the company after all. Up until recently I was referred to as ‘that bloody woman’ but whether that’s still the case I’m not entirely sure.

Nor have I any desire to be a trailing anything. I love wisteria as a flower but these days it brings to mind The Wisteria Sisters (as The Duchess of Cambridge and her sister were refered to by the UK tabloid press) but I digress.

Clinging wisteria I am not. Nor do I particularly like the term accompanying spouse, STARS appeals if only to get under the skin of the HR department but – and I have to be absolutely honest here – I really don’t give a rats bottom how anyone wants to define me.

I have never been in a social situation where ‘trailing/ accompanying spouse/ partner’ would have been an appropriate response to any question. I’ve been asked what I do but ‘I’m a trailing spouse’ is not the answer. (In such situations I have been known to make something up just to enliven the proceedings, but there’s only so many times you can get away with claiming you’ve been assigned from NASA to train astronauts at the European Space Centre.)

If I had to close my eyes and picture who I am, then the image I always see is the searing desert, dry, hot wind blowing from the Sahara and me organising the taking down of the tents and loading up a caravan of camels. The next scenario is riding at the front of that caravan, robes billowing behind and setting off towards the sun-baked dunes on the distant horizon…  and Johnny Depp waiting at the next oasis.

Forget trailing/ accompanying spouse/ partner, in my mind’s eye I’m just a glorified nomadic camel-herder setting off on the next adventure. It works for me.

 

 

Posted in Expat Experiences, Family Life, Women and Female Related | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Expat Book Review: Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child, Julia Simens

Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child: practical tips and storytelling techniques that will strengthen the global family, Julia Simens

I was excited to be asked to read and review Julia Simens book, having raised three global nomads. I guess I wanted to see where we’d gone wrong and where we should have gone right.

In our defence, at the time our family headed off overseas more than 15 years ago there was little out there in the way of resources to help families deal with the inevitable emotions of change and loss associated with international relocation.

It was only after we moved that the internet came into existence – can anyone imagine life without that resource tool now? Most of the ground breaking books about international relocation of families had yet to be written.

What surprised me about Simens book was how much we had managed to get right working on instinct and emotional intelligence alone. It also outlined how much we got wrong.

Although the book is aimed mostly at children up to 8-years-old, it will be of interest to anyone who works with global children of any age. I learned an awful lot despite my youngest child coming up to senior year in High School.

Simens has spent over 20 years as a psychologist specialising in family therapy and international relocation, survived seven international moves and raised two global nomads along the way. Professionally and personally she has experienced the unique problems children face relocating globally.

She has used this knowledge to formulate a programme helping families to become emotionally resilient in coping with international relocation. It provides a practical framework and work book, which parents can use alongside their children, helping them recognise and understand complex, frightening and intense emotions.

To children who successfully navigate a lifetime of change, the world is a garden of exotic gifts, a house of treasure to explore and take in. Transferred from place to place, young and porous, global nomad children collect and absorb experiences. Their personalities become amalgams of those cultures they internalize and claim as their own. Perched for a while in a new environment, they experience each move as an occasion for growth, a chance to blossom in new ways… ‘ Unrooted Childhoods – Memories of Growing Up Global

Simens has used real stories and quotes from global children, and includes family case histories to illustrate her work – the book is worth reading for that alone.

This is a book I’d heartily recommend to any global family with younger children – wish it had been available 15 years ago.

Click Here For Amazon Link  

Forward by Doug Ota.

Published by Summertime

ISBN 978-1-904881-34-6

Posted in Expat Related Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Eurovision Song Contest: the Ultimate Revenge for Past Wrongs

Tonight the population of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will be holding its collective breath in anticipation, fascination and fear of humiliation.

It is the annual Eurovision Song contest, held this year in Düsseldorf, Germany.

Created in 1956 in an attempt to unify a Europe still recovering from the Second World War, its conception was the brainchild of Marcel Bezençon, head of the European Broadcasting Corporation.

Over the years it has had its share of  drama and controversy, and far from being a place where Europeans come together in unity and peace, it has served only to bring the grudges of the centuries to the surface.

This is not a competition where the best song wins – it’s an arena where each country has the power to award points to another, based, in theory, on the quality and performance of the song. Like anyone believes that.

The political affiliations and alliances within Europe can be better gauged by watching who votes for who in this TV spectacle, than spending hours listening to the droning of the EU in Brussels. The real European power brokers used to be the judges sat in front of the TV cameras, now the songs are voted for by phone vote in each country with pretty much the same results.

This is not to lessen the power of the competition – Abba shot to global stardom in 1974 from this launch pad. However, over the years the British handling of this music fest has brought a whole new art form to television. The BBC has always been a little more mischievous and kitsch in it’s coverage than other countries – making subtle fun of themselves and their European neighbors.

For 38-years the commentator was the legendary Sir Terry Wogan whose wit and irreverence had audiences watching the show to listen to him, rather than the songs. On retiring he said,’ … it has been nothing but laughter and fun. The silly songs, the spectacle, the grandiose foolishness of it all.’

His charm lay in sending the program up, poking gentle fun without being cruel. Although his comment in 2001 that the Danish TV host looked like a cross between ‘Doctor Death and the Tooth Fairy’ did cause public outrage and a near diplomatic incident with Denmark.

Our iconic Terry had an instinctive understanding of why the program was such a roaring national success – it was our only way to get back at past insults dished out from Europe without firing a bullet.

‘There has always been that general feeling of distrust of Johnny Foreigner, but of course it is mutual. Britain has attacked nearly every country in Europe and people don’t forget,’ Sir Terry has acknowledged.

Unfortunately his witty banter was not so well received by other European broadcasters who took the whole thing rather more seriously. This frisson of having got under the skin of our European neighbours further endeared Sir Terry to the nation, raising him to saint-like status.

Unfortunately the nation’s darkest moment in the competition occurred in 2001, when the UK was not awarded any points – ‘null points’ – by any nation in the competition. It is said this was a political protest against the Iraq war.

In my opinion this was an excuse – it was merely an opportune excuse to give the two-fingered salute to the island off whose coast their small (minded) continent lies. The whole idea was probably initiated by the French with the Germans egging them on and the Italians lending support in the rear. I have no grounds to say this except it would just be typical. Not that I’m biased in any way.

The action was not cricket or in the spirit of the event, but was all part of what makes Eurovision so darn watchable.

Tonight the UK has Blue, a boy band, representing the UK. Even more newsworthy the Irish representatives are Jedward, the ‘so bad they’re good’ twins who shot to fame with their alleged lack of any talent on Britain’s X-Factor show last year. That they are tipped to win gives you the true level of where this competition lies.

Blue are up there with a chance according to the book makers, who generally make a killing on the event. It’s rather like the Grand National – there are so many fences to get over, so many factors involved, it can be a game of chance who actually does win.

Which is part of its watchability and why, despite loathing the show for its appalling bad taste, millions will be sneakily tune in to see it, if they’re not already heading out for a camp, over the top, Eurovision party.

Posted in Dutch Culture, England and Things English | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Take Time Out: Have a Mental Health Day

Ever had a day when you have so many things to do you know you’re going to drop the ball somewhere? Do you make lists with everything that needs to be done today, stuff that can be put off until tomorrow, and things that must be done by next week?

Factor into that all the things you’re supposed to remember for your family, who apparently can’t function unless you keep on top of them, and you start to feel that horrible knotted feeling in your stomach. Time management goes out of the window and you throw yourself into things that aren’t a priority – clearing out cupboards or the kitchen drawer –  and completely forget to do the important things such as food shopping and laundry.

We all have days like these and I’m fast learning how to handle them, resulting in better time management skills, something I resolved to do back at New Year. I may have abandoned several other resolutions I made at the time, but this is something which will reduce stress if I can only get organised.

I’m a list person, I love making long lists and get a ridiculous amount of pleasure from crossing things off it, putting a line through all those annoying ‘must do’s’ which drive me crazy. I try to multitask, working online while making annoying phone calls, paying bills while cooking dinner, racing to see how fast I can iron a shirt, that kind of thing. The plan is, if I get things achieved in a timely manner I can have some time off, chill and do nothing – but sadly that never seems to happen.

We all know this results in feeling overwhelmed, under pressure, anxious and irritable, and everybody in a five-mile radius suffers. Once in that mental state it’s difficult to unravel, stop a while and take a breather, you feel you’re on a hamster wheel spinning ever faster and can’t jump off.

Actually you can. I’ve discovered I’m more productive and focused if I step back, walk away from something and come back to the task in hand later. It ends up taking less time, I’m more relaxed and the results are generally better. All the wisdom in the world backs this up so why do so few of us take that time for ourselves?

My new strategy is to take a mental health day every so often, however much I ‘should’ be doing other things. It’s not easy, I fight with myself, argue that I can’t possibly have time out, there are way too many other things I have to do, but of late I’m allowing myself the freedom to do just that. And I love it.

Shutting down the computer, forgetting deadlines, leaving the keyboard and going off to do things I normally wouldn’t ‘waste’ time doing is a treat – reading through recipe books, mooching around the shops looking for nothing in particular, smiling at people in the street. Just being.

It’s a wonderful tonic for the soul – calming, energising and freeing at the same time. Today has been a day like that and I’ve achieved far more than I planned. There are things I haven’t done but, hey, so what, the world hasn’t ended.

I thoroughly recommend everyone take a mental health day on a regular basis, you won’t regret it. Promise.

Posted in Inspiration and Reflection, Personal challenges, Women and Female Related | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Book Review: Postcards from Across the Pond, Michael Harling

I was looking forward to reviewing this book having made Michael Harling’s journey in reverse, traversing the pond from east to west. Like him, I’d assumed life couldn’t be so very different when the two nations spoke the same language and came from common stock. How clueless we both were.

Harling comes from a place several miles beyond small town America and became an ‘accidental expat’ when he met and married a Brit (a man of taste obviously), moving his settled and ordered life to Sussex, England. His observations on the oddities and absurdities of his new life were originally documented in his blog, a method guaranteed to save his sanity in his early days of cultural adjustment.

Harling will inevitably be compared to Bill Bryson but they are two different people with diverse experiences. I am a huge fan of Bryson so had great expectations of Harling and wasn’t disappointed.

I found his detailing the differences in the minutia of daily life riveting – bath taps, storage heaters, television and daily shopping; things we can all connect with. I also understood that feeling of familiar things being slightly off-balance and skewed, never allowing you to feel entirely settled or at ease.

He relates with gusto his inevitable brushes with bureaucracy and left me feeling every country is bad as the next when it comes to form-filling and paperwork; from getting a social security/ national insurance number to opening a bank account in the US with a non-American spouse. If you fit the guidelines all is well – be different in any way and chaos ensues.

Harling has a unique skill to make wry and humorous observations without causing offence to anyone. His curiosity and sense of the absurd shine through the writing as he comes to understand why Brits do things they way they do.

His growing affection and understanding of his adopted country are obvious in the conversational and engaging style of his writing. This is a great read you can pick up and put down which will leave you feeling upbeat and positive.

The spirit of Harling can best be described by something he wrote himself, ‘being amazed by your life is a great way to live’. I’ll second that.

http://postcardsfromacrossthepond.blogspot.com/

Postcards from Across The Pond: Dispatches From An Accidental Expat Michael Harling  

Paperback:188 pages

Publisher:Lean Marketing Press (26 Nov 2008)

LanguageEnglish

ISBN-10:1905430485

ISBN-13:978-1905430482

Posted in Expat Related Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Why Getting Fit is a Dangerous Occupation: And the Dog is to Blame

I’ve procrastinated long enough. I’ve checked my email, Facebook, bank account, daily newspapers (Europe and the US), sorted laundry and scheduled my research and work for the day.  I can delay no more, not without starting to do the most mundane of things like cleaning out the kitchen draw, which even I realise is an excuse not to exercise.

Waking this morning feeling energetic I decided to don my exercise gear as a statement of intent and a psychological reinforcement. There would be no excuses, first priority this week is getting fit and making it part of my daily routine.

I must point out that I’m not an athletic type, never have been, never will be. School memories of sports are not good – I have no hand/ eye co-ordination when it comes to anything spherical requiring to be hit by bat, racquet or club. Throwing or catching? Forget it. I have no interest in sport either as a participant or observer. None.

Hockey at school was a nightmare, not so much the sport as having to get out in the winter months and play it. I have horrific memories of playing in falling snow wearing only a thin cotton polo shirt and impossibly short hockey shorts, hands and knees numb and a fetching shade of blue. I couldn’t figure out then, or now, why it was necessary.

Summer sports were only a smidgen more appealing because the weather tended to be warmer than in the winter – on occasion anyway. Sitting down on the playing fields in the sun was infinitely more fun than declining latin verbs in a stuffy classroom, along with the odour of adolescent boys sweating profusely in heavy woollen blazers they weren’t allowed to remove.

Outside in the bright sunlight, with the scent of new-mown grass wafting on the breeze, it was easy to wander out of range of the gym mistress’ voice on the pretext of hunting for a lost ball (totally believable in my case) or practising cross-country running. It was worth the risk of a detention for the peace and quiet away from the frenetic running up and down the track or throwing the javelin.

You’ll appreciate then how this morning was a huge deal for me. And before anyone starts to think I’m a couch potato I’d just  like to point out that I’m on the go most of the day – the only time I sit is to write, or in the evenings, where of late I’ve been asleep by eight o’clock. What I don’t do is organised exercise in the same way I don’t do organised religion.

I have friends who will be at the gym four days a week and play competitive tennis on top of that. I join these dear friends for an aprés-gym coffee once a week as I’m flying around running errands, but to join them in a class is not going to happen. I understand it’s a great way to meet and make new friends, and the perfect antidote to the stress of moving to a new country with all those endorphins keeping depression and angst at bay.

Over the years I’ve accepted what works for me – exercise has to be undertaken on my own, not at a set time, and involve things I enjoy doing. Being somewhere at a certain time and having someone yelling at me to try harder doesn’t do it for me. I use dance exercise to burn calories and Callanetics (similar to Pilates and Yoga) for toning the body and clearing the head. Swimming. Walking the dog for a couple of hours a day.

I decided to take the latter up a notch and go for a run with the dog, figuring this was good time management. Not that I’ve run for a while and haven’t ever run with the dog. Biked with him alongside, but not run. I’d toyed with putting on roller blades (yes, I have some) but decided to err on the side of caution first time out.

There had to be a first time and I sallied forth with enthusiastic dog at my side. The results were the same as the first time I biked with the dog. Ice packs applied to elbows and knees, and a bruised ego.

In the zone, focused on breathing, I failed to notice a small dog off a side path – the Archster hadn’t.  He flew across the front of me tangling my legs in his leash and in the momentum of running I fell forward, arms windmilling. With neither grace or elegance I fell heavily and without dignity onto the tarmac.

The worse part? We have a formal function on Friday evening for which I have the perfect dress. Elegant, it fits, is sleeveless and knee-length, and will expose grazed flesh on elbows and knees, along with the golf-ball sized lump which has appeared in the middle of my knee cap making me look like something out of a freak show.

I’m beginning to think this getting fit lark is far too stressful and dangerous – perhaps it needs rethinking.

This is my idea of a perfect morning at the gym…

Posted in Expat Experiences, Personal challenges, Women and Female Related | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

DIY: Household Chores and the Retention of Sanity

We have been busy catching up on the home front, trying to pull in all those niggling little household jobs that have been outstanding for months. The Captain refuses to pay the exorbitant cost of having a man do the job when he is perfectly capable of doing it himself.

This is not a process the Captain or myself enjoy and we face it together with gritted teeth, agreeing that whatever is said or happens between the two of us during a project will stay within the project. I’m talking violence, abusive language and threatening behaviour, either towards each other or inanimate objects.

The Captain has decided he can no longer live with the curtain rails in our bedroom. We won’t go into it, but they have been a problem for some months leading to issues when the drapes need to be drawn. The matter came to a head when new drapes were purchased (the reason for that is a very long story) and it seemed an ideal time to purchase new rails.

He was very keen on some remote-control curtain rods he’d discovered online. With that I headed down to our local DIY store to purchase some perfectly adequate window furnishings before any online purchases could be made. Top Gear has a lot to answer for in our household.

In our younger days when the Captain was away on the high seas I had no problem undertaking these minor household chores myself. However, since fracturing a rib in the spring I find myself reluctant to stand on the top of a seven-foot ladder clutching a hammer drill in one hand and a vacuum tool in the other – doesn’t everyone use the suction tool when drilling, thus eliminating plaster dust? The Captain agreed this was a job we should undertake together.

Before I go further I would like to make it clear I love and adore my spouse. He is a wonderful man of warmth and humour – smart, witty, well-read and tolerant. He has skills and knowledge in many areas but sadly DIY is not one of them, which he will cheerfully attest to if asked. It is rare a DIY job is completed without loss of blood, injury and on one occasion a visit to the local Emergency Room.

This morning at the mention of ‘drill’ and ‘toolbox’ both Missy and Harry left the building, refusing to return until the job was completed. The Archster retreated to his kennel at the sight of the stepladder.

Every time we decide to do a project together I have an immediate visual of Uncle Podger (as the Captain is affectionately known at DIY times). He is a character in my favourite book, Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome.

We’re sure Uncle Podger must have been an ancestor of the Captain’s – the similarities can only be attributed to sharing the same gene pool. I pulled out the book this afternoon  to re-read the section relating to Podger and have decided rather than explain what I’m talking about, it would be easier to share the experience with you.

I would also like to make very clear that I did ask the Captain if he’d mind me writing this post, and lovely man replied, ‘Darling I’m not your censor, you must write what you think best, although I have a feeling I’m not going to come out of this awfully well.’

By reading the extract you will get a feel for why we are exhausted and have no plans for the rest of the weekend except to sit in the sun with a good book and a nice cup of tea – hope you have a moment to sit back and enjoy.

‘You never saw such a commotion up and down a house, in all your life, as when my Uncle Podger undertook to do a job. A picture would have come home from the frame-maker’s, and be standing in the dining-room, waiting to be put up; and Aunt Podger would ask what was to be done with it, and Uncle Podger would say:

‘Oh, you leave that to me. Don’t you, any of you, worry yourselves about that. I’ll do all that.’

And then he would take off his coat, and begin. He would send the girl out for sixpen’orth of nails, and then one of the boys after her to tell her what size to get; and, from that, he would gradually work down, and start the whole house.

‘Now you go and get me my hammer, Will,’ he would shout; ‘and you bring me the rule, Tom; and I shall want the step-ladder, and I had better have a kitchen-chair, too; and, Jim! you run round to Mr. Goggles, and tell him, ‘Pa’s kind regards, and hopes his leg’s better; and will he lend him his spirit-level?’ And don’t you go, Maria, because I shall want somebody to hold me the light; and when the girl comes back, she must go out again for a bit of picture-cord; and Tom!—where’s Tom?—Tom, you come here; I shall want you to hand me up the picture.’

And then he would lift up the picture, and drop it, and it would come out of the frame, and he would try to save the glass, and cut himself; and then he would spring round the room, looking for his handkerchief. He could not find his handkerchief, because it was in the pocket of the coat he had taken off, and he did not know where he had put the coat, and all the house had to leave off looking for his tools, and start looking for his coat; while he would dance round and hinder them.

‘Doesn’t anybody in the whole house know where my coat is? I never came across such a set in all my life—upon my word I didn’t. Six of you!—and you can’t find a coat that I put down not five minutes ago! Well, of all the—’

Then he’d get up, and find that he had been sitting on it, and would call out:

‘Oh, you can give it up! I’ve found it myself now. Might just as well ask the cat to find anything as expect you people to find it.’

And, when half an hour had been spent in tying up his finger, and a new glass had been got, and the tools, and the ladder, and the chair, and the candle had been brought, he would have another go, the whole family, including the girl and the charwoman, standing round in a semi-circle, ready to help. Two people would have to hold the chair, and a third would help him up on it, and hold him there, and a fourth would hand him a nail, and a fifth would pass him up the hammer, and he would take hold of the nail, and drop it.

‘There!’ he would say, in an injured tone, ‘now the nail’s gone.’

And we would all have to go down on our knees and grovel for it, while he would stand on the chair, and grunt, and want to know if he was to be kept there all the evening.

The nail would be found at last, but by that time he would have lost the hammer.

‘Where’s the hammer? What did I do with the hammer? Great heavens! Seven of you, gaping round there, and you don’t know what I did with the hammer!’

We would find the hammer for him, and then he would have lost sight of the mark he had made on the wall, where the nail was to go in, and each of us had to get up on the chair, beside him, and see if we could find it; and we would each discover it in a different place, and he would call us all fools, one after another, and tell us to get down. And he would take the rule, and re-measure, and find that he wanted half thirty-one and three-eighths inches from the corner, and would try to do it in his head, and go mad.

And we would all try to do it in our heads, and all arrive at different results, and sneer at one another. And in the general row, the original number would be forgotten, and Uncle Podger would have to measure it again.

He would use a bit of string this time, and at the critical moment, when the old gent was leaning over the chair at an angle of forty-five, and trying to reach a point three inches beyond what was possible for him to reach, the string would slip, and down he would slide on to the piano, a really fine musical effect being produced by the suddenness with which his head and body struck all the notes at the same time.

And Aunt Maria would say that she would not allow the children to stand round and hear such language.

At last, Uncle Podger would get the spot fixed again, and put the point of the nail on it with his left hand, and take the hammer in his right hand. And, with the first blow, he would smash his thumb, and drop the hammer, with a yell, on somebody’s toes.

Aunt Maria would mildly observe that, next time Uncle Podger was going to hammer a nail into the wall, she hoped he’d let her know in time, so that she could make arrangements to go and spend a week with her mother while it was being done.

‘Oh! you women, you make such a fuss over everything,’ Uncle Podger would reply, picking himself up. ‘Why, I like doing a little job of this sort.’

And then he would have another try, and, at the second blow, the nail would go clean through the plaster, and half the hammer after it, and Uncle Podger be precipitated against the wall with force nearly sufficient to flatten his nose.

Then we had to find the rule and the string again, and a new hole was made; and, about midnight, the picture would be up—very crooked and insecure, the wall for yards round looking as if it had been smoothed down with a rake, and everybody dead beat and wretched—except Uncle Podger.

‘There you are,’ he would say, stepping heavily off the chair on to the charwoman’s corns, and surveying the mess he had made with evident pride. ‘Why, some people would have had a man in to do a little thing like that!’

Extract from Chapter Three

Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome

First edition 1889

 

 

Posted in Family Life, Personal challenges | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Alternative Vote: Politics of Apathy by Committee

Before I get started I want to make clear from the outset that this is not going to be a for or against rant for one side or the other of the political debate. I have been relegated to the bench by those who control my right to vote in the UK, so my capacity and comments are those of observer and not a participator.

Why do have a right to have any opinion?

I grew up in the UK when having the right to vote was a privilege with the power to change governments, which it could and did. I appreciated the value of that vote – women had died that I might put my cross on the ballot paper and I was not going to let them down. In the ballot box we had an opportunity to change things and have a voice.

My first chance to vote was another referendum, but I won’t say which as that will immediately dispel the façade of my being young and cool. I clearly remember spending weeks pouring over everything in the newspapers, watching political discussions on television, getting all the facts and making a choice. I wanted to be as informed as possible.

Standing in the ballot box, canvas curtains drawn around a rickety table, the ballot paper in front of me and clutching a stubby pencil tied to the wooden trestle table with string, I will never forget the sense of power I felt, that we all feel, for having our voices heard.

There were a lot more elections to vote in after that, during a period in history I now appreciate was a time of radical change, anger, resentment and high drama. Two political parties alternating back and forth – the British people passionately involved in the process.

Even local elections could be electric and it was not uncommon to vote for one party in a local election (because you voted for the person not the party) and vote for the other party to run the country and be the face of the nation.

That is how the ‘People’s Republic of South Yorkshire‘, as it was affectionately known, came about. And before everyone starts howling, ‘how does she know?’ I lived there and it was home during the City of Sheffield’s most tumultuous time in its history, and had in-laws who had lived there all their lives. I figure I’m qualified.

I find it intriguing that the man instrumental in the referendum happening at all, Nick Clegg, is from that fine city. Not a Labour Party man but a Liberal Democrat, the only non-Labour party the affluent area of Hallam will vote for – Conservative is not an option for the dour people of that leafy suburb, there is too much history. Yet it is the only seat in South Yorkshire not held or ever won by Labour.

Moving to America it was a  long time before we had the right to vote but as an observer it was interesting, engaging and very different on so many levels to the system I’d grown up in. I loved that local government really was local, you voted for the person not the politics.

We lived in Louisiana – a state regarded by every American outside of it as corrupt, maverick and a political joke. I knew nothing of this when we arrived, but learned fast. Lets just say Louisiana has a rather colourful history politically.

We arrived as the legendary/infamous Edwin Edwards was coming to the end of his fourth term in office, twice as many as any other chief executive. He was the first Roman Catholic Governor of Louisiana of the twentieth century. Bumper stickers during his last (successful campaign) read ‘Vote for the Crook’ so I guess the folks in Louisiana were well aware of what they were dealing with.

You can see why we found politics a source of interest. We met Mr. Edwards socially once (his slim, blonde trophy wife adored my outfit) and I was surprised how small he was, but a man with charisma and air of power none the less. In 2001, he was sentenced to ten years in prison on racketeering charges. The trophy wife wasn’t around long.

American national politics were intriguing and different – we liked the measured way government had been put in place by men who were trying to get it right. Checks and balances, accountability. Think the size of population and it’s awe-inspiring. We are privileged to have that vote and use it.

We also have the right to vote here in the Netherlands although we haven’t used it yet. Well, I haven’t, I cannot speak for the political persuasions of my spouse.

The Netherlands is a country with sixteen million voters who vote under a system of proportional representation. The government runs, when it does run, smoothly and efficiently. The trash is emptied the roads are good, the system of social care is second to none. It is a great place to live – life is well ordered, caring  and fair. There will never be social revolution in this country because there is no need. The Dutch impress me.

The reason I do not vote is because I am overwhelmed by the choices and options available. It takes me enough time to figure the best first option without going into the rest. At election time here there are web sites listing all candidates, their political affiliations and policies. The pressure to get it right is too great. I’m sure a large majority of people have no clue after second choice and vote randomly, a huge risk in my book. And you get the extremists in positions of power who under other systems wouldn’t stand a chance. Think Geert Wilders.

What you then have is a coalition government across so many ideologies it takes forever to get anything done. It is slow, lumbering and by the time anything is resolved the voting public have forgotten what it was they wanted in the first place. Think the EU in Brussels slowed down.

Look at Belgium. Do they have a government yet? Even a google search is inconclusive. They have been without a government since June 2010, longer than Iraq. It was reported in the Dutch news last Thursday, May 5, that the Belgium negotiators are not allowed to have sex until there is a new government. Nor do the populace seem unduly concerned, they deal with it using humour. Only in continental Europe.

Amusing maybe, but this is serious stuff. This is politics. It should be measured, fair and the voters engaged in the process. The security of our nations and the futures of our children depends on it.

Having lived in three political systems in the western world and observed the effects of putting theory into practise I do have a few opinions. America has a devised political structure which works for its people. Most of Europe has a system of management and committee – it works but oh so slowly – but its voters are happy.

And then there is the UK.

The existing system of voting is not perfect and nor is any system that may replace it. If it’s changed, parliament will never be the same again – the passion will be gone to be replaced by what?

What makes the country great is the people who have stood up to be counted when things get tough, they have spoken with fervour and excitement, have stirred feelings and provoked a response. They are the great and the good (sometimes not so good), but they have been leaders not managers. And have been accountable to the people.

My biggest fear with change is that we will also have to accept inertia, apathy and most of all blandness, where politicians forget who they work for. I am afraid change will sink a nation of noble historic traditions and great political history in a sea of bureaucracy never to emerge again.

As the Chinese say ‘may you live in interesting times’. Guess we’ll have to wait and see.

 

 

 

 

Posted in England and Things English, Personal challenges, Politics and Social Comment | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Dilemma of a Beach Book Junkie: How Do You Chose the Perfect Read?

I’ve been looking for beach books to download to my Kindle as mentioned in a previous post.

So far I have found nothing. I decided to start with ‘Top Ten beach Books’ – I love google – and searches of that ilk.

Do you know how many lists there are to choose from? Every magazine seems to have a ‘Top Ten’ from Vogue to Good Housekeeping, as well as every newspaper and celebrity magazine. I’m exhausted looking through them all. Who decides these lists anyway?

I’m never sure whether  to be happy or disturbed when I discover I’ve read most of the books on a list – if it’s the New York Times, the UK Times, Telegraph or Independent I admit to feeling a tad saint-like, if it’s the Women’s Own or National Inquirer list I do start to question my taste in literature. The only saving grace is that we are looking at beach reads here, something not too challenging or demanding on the vacation brain cells.

I’m supposed to be reviewing several books at the moment and one I’m working on comes into the reading for pleasure category. It’s Michael Harling’s Postcards from across The Pond, ‘a humorous commentary on British life by an accidental expat’ to quote the blurb on the back cover.

It’s rather Brysonesque (not to be confused with Byronesque a whole different genre of literature altogether ) and having ventured across the pond myself, although in my case from east to west, it is of great interest. I can relate to his coming to terms with the idiosyncracies of the English when I understand them so well, but appreciate his sense of having landed, rather like Alice, in Wonderland.

I was a little dubious to start this book being a huge fan of Bill Bryson, who has reduced me to tears of speechless laughter in every one of his books. Bryson has endeared himself to the hearts of the British by arriving in England, leaving, and then going back again and is now regarded as a National Treasure – his being American is overlooked as he’s such a jolly nice man. Definitely on my list of ‘twelve most interesting people you’d like to invite for dinner’. Although I’d have to have it catered.

Harling married an Englishwomen (obviously a man of exceedingly good taste) which explains his appearance on a small, wind and rain-swept island off north-west europe. He arrived and was surrounded by local in-laws who could gently introduce him to the finer workings of the British psyche and culture. In that he was exceptionally lucky.

It has been fun comparing his first experiences with my own on arrival in Louisiana, USA; my introduction to American football, his to watching a professional soccer game; the use, or not, of electricity in bathrooms; baseball as compared to rounders; dealing with Thanksgiving. Anyone who has had the opportunity to live for a time on either side of the pond will relate and enjoy.

I haven’t finished reading the book yet, or started the review, but I have a feeling it’s going to be rather fun, and a little more exercise for the grey matter than I expected.

Will keep you posted.

Posted in England and Things English, Expat Related Book Reviews, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Death of Osama Bin Laden: Closing The Loop, A Day the Nation Will Remember

Finally, nearly ten years after the attack on the Twin Towers in New York, on 9/11 2001, Osama Bin Laden is dead.

While we know this will not end the operations of Al Qaeda, may make them more determined to continue in the name of a now-dead martyr, in our hearts there is relief. The mastermind behind the biggest act of terror perpetrated on American soil is no longer in the game. There is a symmetry, a symbolic closing of the loop.

For the conspiracy theorists who have long claimed Bin Laden is dead, the real truth is finally out there.

For the people behind the scenes, working for eight months on a covert and sensitive operation and for the special forces sent in to complete the mission, the sense of achievement must be palpable. Achieved too, with no loss of life on their part. Bin Laden is dead, no global debate over what should be done with him were he to have been taken alive in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

In many ways nothing will have changed, the global operation against terrorists will continue – there may be reprisals against the west and the world will continue to be vigilant for a long time yet.

This morning America and the west will be celebrating. After a nearly a decade of waging war against an unseen, elusive foe, the head of the snake has been removed. We’ll have to wait to see if an effective head emerges from the body to make it whole again.

While I am not comfortable with the public display of celebration I understand and feel it. Many of the young people whooping and hollering with joy outside the White House last night would have been young when 9/11 happened.

They will have absorbed the horror, fear and sense of a world de-stabilised passed on by the media and in the response to family and community around them. Many have grown up not knowing what life was like before Al Qaeda. When you didn’t have to stand in line for security checks at airports, removing shoes, belts, watches and not being able to board a plane with a bottle of water. A time when the world was not afraid.

Who can deny them a moment of relief that the bogeyman of their childhood is no more.

For those who lost a loved one, or were effected by the hell of that day, the pain has never gone. Scratch the surface and its there in its rawness every day, in shadows, dreams and ‘what if’s’. How they will feel as the media intrudes into their lives once more to get their reaction to the news?  We will have to wait and see.

For those who have rebuilt a life from the rubble and pain, today will be tough – the fragile veneer of recovery will shatter for a while until the emotions are reined in and equilibrium restored. They will be living a new normal from today – raw justice has been done, an eye for an eye, there may be a sense of closure. For some at least.

For others there will never be closure. Al Qaeda physically killed nearly 3000 people in the 9/11 attacks, irrespective of colour, creed or nationality. They killed the spirit of hundreds more who had to continue living with a family member missing at the dinner table, as Mr Obama so poignantly put it.

Everyone remembers where they were that day, what they were doing when the news broke.

Driving home from the school run on the I10 in Louisiana, turning on the radio to our local station and hearing the news, I assumed the World Trade Centre in New Orleans had been hit. I called my husband to put the local news on the TV in his office and call me back. When he did it was like cold water running down my body.

Obama used the words ‘seared on our memories’ to describe the events that followed. He has a good speech writer. We were all branded by the images we saw.

In our small town the atmosphere was subdued, the inhabitants in shock, helpless. The land phones were down, cell phone signals intermittent, the fear and uncertainty tangible.

I saw the effects of primal fear first hand – a colleague I’d worked with for several years, someone I regarded as a friend, cornered me in my office demanding to know if I was an American citizen. At that time I wasn’t: the process to naturalisation is tardy and although the process was started, its completion was still a few years away. Not that I had a chance to explain.

With her face inches from mine, a look of rage and loathing in her eyes she hissed, ‘If you people coming to live here aren’t prepared to be American you should get the hell out of our country.’

I understood the emotion, as I do today in the celebrations outside the White House, but it will change nothing in the day-to-day turning of the world – yet.

To the committed men and women who have spent every day of the past 9 years and 8 months quietly devoting their lives to fighting the faceless enemy in the shadows, we salute your courage and determination. To those on the final operation, congratulations and grateful thanks from the nation on a mission accomplished so comprehensively.

As the President said in his address, today should be celebrated ‘by all those who believe in peace and human dignity’  across nationalities and faiths and no-one should argue with that.

For those struggling with wounds re-opened by the news, our thoughts are with you today as they have been over the years.

And for anyone who has forgotten how the events of that day hurt a nation (are there any?) watch U2’s Superbowl performance in January 2002 to remember…  those who died and those who pledged to remember always. From a city who would feel a different pain three years later.

U2 Superbowl 2002, Superdome, New Orleans, Louisiana USA                                    

To Watch Click here 

 

Posted in Politics and Social Comment, USA | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Well Done Carole Middleton: You Did Your Daughter Proud

Carole Middleton is not so much famous as infamous in Britain as the social-climbing, pushy Mother of the Bride. Dubbed ‘doors to manual’ by some of the British social elite, she has been privately and publicly mocked for her humble beginnings and wanting the best for her children.

Excuse me, have I missed the point here?

The Middletons have done exactly what Mrs. Thatcher advocated back in 1979 – they got on by working hard, building a business and not relying on handouts from anyone. They have invested in themselves and their talents. Having done that, they did what any other parent might do, gave their children the best start in life they could by investing in their education.

The world may be under the impression that Catherine, Princess William of Wales and Duchess of Cambridge, is a commoner but let’s not be under any illusions here. All commoner means is not royal or titled. She has had a wonderful upbringing and a privileged, expensive education at one of Britain’s finest schools, paid for by the hard work and aspirations of her parents.

Why is that so awful? Most people in Britain, the world even, are doing exactly that – whether it be getting their children into the best local school, sports team or whatever.

The cynical insinuation has been that Mrs Middleton and her daughter set their sights on Prince William as a future husband and son-in-law long ago and Kate’s attending St. Andrews University was part of the plan to snare her Prince.

We are not in the school playground. That opinion allows for William being nothing more than a pawn in Catherine’s game and he’s smarter than that. So are the Middletons – they wouldn’t be where they are today without being astute and grounded. As loving parents they will have thought long and hard about their daughter being involved with ‘The Firm’, as the Royal family is affectionately known.

Marrying the future King of England maybe the crowning ambition of many a female aristocrat, but the world has seen what a suffocating and soul-destroying place it can be if you’ve not been born into it. Diana, Princess of Wales, was an aristocrat and look what it did to her.

The Middletons have endured the cruel jibes, said nothing, got on with things and done their best. Carole Middleton has been reported as being ‘difficult’ over the past weeks, upsets with designers that kind of thing. Seriously? Is that all they can come up with? She is a tough lady, they’re not dealing with a timid woman overwhelmed or out of her depth, she is a force to be reckoned with. And what mother of the Bride isn’t stressed before before her daughter’s wedding?

Yesterday Carole Middleton got her revenge on those critics, snipers and social snobs with style, class and dignity without saying a word.

As she walked into Westminster Abbey in a stunning outfit by Diana’s favorite designer, Catherine Walker, she blew every negative, mean, and cruel comment out of the water. She may have been as nervous as hell, but she outclassed every senior royal female except the Queen. Next to her Camilla looked like a matronly frump despite the designer clothes – hard to believe there is only a seven year age difference between them.

Princess Anne – what can you say? She tries hard but never seems to get it right. The Princess’ Beatrice and Eugenie? Sitting behind the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh they looked as if had arrived directly from a provincial pantomime. Cinderella I’m guessing. What were they thinking and who let them out of the house dressed like that?

The aristocracy in Britain is obsessed with breeding – coming from the right family, having the right connections. They forget breeding isn’t class.

Yesterday the Middleton’s showed the world they are as good as anyone. Mr Middleton the consummate father, Pippa and James the supportive siblings, good-looking, elegant and self-assured.

And who can doubt that Kate is the perfect match for William as she sailed through yesterday as if she’d born and raised an aristocrat, with dignity, style and grace.

Carole Middleton, congratulations on a job well done.

Posted in England and Things English, Women and Female Related | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A New Era: Dignity and Deference at the Royal Wedding

I’m exhausted. Weddings do that to me, Royal ones especially. It’s not the romance or love story or even the dress – it’s the splendor, pageantry and formality of the occasion in a time when deference, good manners and behaving well seem to have been abandoned.

No one wants to live in a society forced to obey rules or submit to a self-interested leader, politically or in the workplace, but there is something rather comforting and reassuring in knowing how to behave when the situation demands. Doing things the right way. It’s not being submissive or subservient it’s being respectful of other people.

Watching the Royal Wedding there was something soothing in knowing the event would follow the protocols worked out over centuries, with a few modern tweaks thrown in. The etiquette and procedures follow a pattern we recognise and feel familiar with as a nation.

Nothing stirs the heart more than seeing the pristine horses, carriages, military bands and all the pomp and circumstance surrounding them. The precision in timing is breathtaking.

What moved me was the understanding of everyone present in the Abbey that this was a profoundly important ceremony and gave it the reverence and respect it deserved. The music elevated proceedings to an almost mystical level. It was history being made – a solemn awareness that today will be recorded in the annals of the nation. That once again the monarch and her people have acknowledged the symbiotic relationship that has tied them over millenia. A relationship of trust and respect.

You don’t agree?

Then ask the hundreds of thousands of people surging down The Mall towards Buckingham Palace why they were there. People of all backgrounds, colours and creeds. At times of great celebration, sadness and crisis it is Buckingham Palace where  people congregate, they seek the Monarch, not political leaders, in time of need.

Perhaps I am lucky to have lived during the reign of a monarch who takes her responsibility seriously and has put that role before private and personal considerations. I for one would love to see her mantle pass directly to her grandson, but monarchy doesn’t work like that.

What we saw today was a national figurehead in the making. A man who obviously thinks he is the lottery winner in this marriage. What has stayed with me throughout the day was how well Kate behaved – deferential, dignified and regal. Her family showed outstanding grace in how they conducted themselves too; they may be commoners but ‘manners maketh the man’ as William of Wykeham said.

It was a wonderful moment when, after each had said ‘I will’, the Abbey filled with the roar of approval from the people outside.

And the prime moment for me?

As they headed back to the palace and drove through the archway from Whitehall into Horseguards, for a few seconds, away from the gaze of the public, William and Catherine held hands – and the image of that young man and his brother walking through that same arch behind the coffin of their mother, Princess Diana, was forever banished.

The beginning of an era where mutual respect, deference and behaving well are the order of the day? It would be nice to think so.

Posted in England and Things English, Politics and Social Comment | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Wedding Bells and National Cheers: The Royal Wedding

Like everyone else in the world with British roots, today will be spent watching the Royal Wedding – we can’t help it, its in our DNA. Our Harry is not impressed.

‘Mom, what do you think you’re doing? It’s not as if these people are family or you actually know them.’

No, I don’t, but there’s something rather special about watching two people publicly pledge a life together. This is also a family like no other anywhere on the globe. I have tried to explain the importance of monarchy to Harry, its position as a check on the activities of the British Parliament – the armed forces are under the control of the Monarch.

Which is why there hasn’t been a civil war since the unfortunate national glitch in the 1600s. At that time Charles II was getting a little out of hand and did need reining in, but unfortunately, as happens in these situations, the pendulum swung rather too far the other way and it did take a while to get the nation back on track.

In today’s world I have a great deal of respect for a monarch who is the greatest international statesman alive. This was not a career choice for her. She has watched parliaments come and go, politicians rise and fall on the tide of popularity and had to deal with her own dysfunctional family, in public. And not once has she faltered. The first Prime Minister she worked with was Sir Winston Churchill which says it all.

Perhaps she’s not made the best choices when it came to public opinion (aka the debacle after the death of Princess Diana), but overall every decision she has made has been made for the right reasons. How many politicians have done the same?

Todays Royal Wedding is momentous historically and socially. Westminster Abbey has existed in some form since 624AD (no, I didn’t miss out a digit). Kings have been crowned there, royal marriage ceremonies performed. Read the history books and this place was walked in by the great and the mighty – the walls breathe the lives of those who have gone before, their presence felt still in the stone and wood of that glorious building.

For this wedding there is also the back story. The ghost of the wedding thirty years ago which haunts a family still.  A marriage entered into by a man who forgot to mention to his wife that he wasn’t really in love with her. ‘whatever that means’.

Look at the footage of the young Lady Diana spencer walking down the aisle at St Paul’s Cathedral and at one point see the look of fear in her eyes. A lamb to the slaughter – believing she’d married her Prince only to discover she’d ended up with the frog.

What Diana did, as so many women do who find themselves in that situation, was pass her hopes and love on to her children. What she seems to have achieved’ where so many mothers fail, was to find a balance between guidance and smothering.

How effective she was as a mother has been seen in the behaviour of William over the last few months. No-one can be in any doubt he loves his bride, wants to spend his life with her at his side. Despite the sniping in the press Kate obviously loves the man, not his position. Look at photographs of the two of them catching each other’s eye and the love, respect and joy they share is obvious.

They have been living quietly in Anglesey – enough to make any woman run a mile if she was only around for the glamour. Kate hasn’t had a ‘proper job’ – please define proper job for someone with her background. I’d be worried if she was a career women – she’s going to have a full-time job-for-life from today onwards, one she won’t have too much say in, can’t run away from and will live surrounded by a family world-renowned for being difficult.

Today, as the two of them walk up the aisle their lives ahead of them, the history books will close on thirty years of a family torn apart. It won’t close on Diana – she will be there in the Abbey hopefully at peace, knowing her son has absorbed the lessons she taught him. It’s fitting Kate wears her ring, that William instinctively understands the emotional symbolism. He is his mother’s son and she would be proud.

Todays occasion is an historic one, but more importantly it’s a story of happiness after tragedy, of finding a soul mate, of finding love. William’s father ‘messed up’ but in William there is a something deep and tangible. He knows who he is and where he’s going, is not defined by the position he’s been born into. He gives hope of goodness in a crazy world.

He’s not just his mother’s son, he is his Grandmother too. Both women have hung their hopes on William the man becoming a great King.

I don’t want to hear the muttering of ‘bah humbug’ – the negative comments of the cynics. Watch the people on the streets of London today, the roar of the crowd when the couple walk on the balcony, the street parties around the country and tell me the monarchy is no longer important to the nation.

Call it what you will I won’t be missing it for the world.

Posted in England and Things English, Women and Female Related | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

The Best Thing About Living Overseas?

One thing we’ve really enjoyed having lived away from our birth country is the wonderful variety of people we’ve been lucky enough to come across. It has been a real bonus to meet interesting, smart and culturally different citizens from all corners of the globe.

As I’ve mentioned before, we are not the type of expats who move from one place to the next every year or so. I suppose we could be described as serial immigrants although that does make us sound as if we’re constantly moving from place to place avoiding conflict, political regimes or because we want to make a better life for ourselves.

None of these situations have applied to us – opportunities have cropped up and we’ve gone with the flow to see where they’d take us. We’ve also, during a natural disaster, been referred to as refugees, something you don’t expect to happen in a first world country, but which has given us great empathy for those who do genuinely lose all when bad things happen.

At Harry’s school (The American School of The Hague) there are over a 1000 students from 67 different countries. You’ve read it right, 67. If that isn’t a cultural melting pot I don’t know what is. Children do not get into fights, stab each other or bring guns into school. They get along, embracing and respecting the differences rather than fearing them. They are curious, eager to learn and compare how things are done in other countries, taking the best of everything irrespective of where they have come from.

These are the children who will become world leaders in whatever fields they chose to work in as adults and I use the word ‘leader’ advisedly. They will be educated, respectful and have spent their youth in an environment where they see the person, not the colour, religion, culture or nationality they have come from. It’s an environment essential in today’s world.

Not only are these students learning to live in second or third cultures from the one they were born into, so are we, the parents of these global nomads.

Imagine a PTA committee – a nightmare of social politics in any country – consisting  of parents from differing countries, educational systems, priorities in education and where English is not necessarily the first language for many. Does anything get achieved? Absolutely. It works because people are committed to the goal and prepared to do what it takes to get things done.

We have learned so much from people we would never have met, or had the opportunity to meet, if it hadn’t been for the life we have chosen. It can be scary, the continual coming and going of friends and associates, but we have discovered the world is a small place too, that friends are friends wherever they are.

As a child I would watch Star Trek and be filled with wonder at the strange worlds and galaxies Captain Kirk and the Enterprise crew would explore. I was thrilled by their mission to, ‘boldly go where no man has gone before’, awed by their bravery, curiosity and insatiable desire to reach out, learn and understand the universe around them.

I have my own Captain and crew, and although we haven’t left the planet (yet) I’m grateful every day to know there’s a world out there full of places and people we haven’t seen or met, of adventures still to come.

What could be more exciting or enriching than that?

 

 

Posted in Advice for New Arrivals in the Netherlands, Expat Experiences, Family Life, Inspiration and Reflection, Personal challenges, Women and Female Related | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Turning Points and Defining Moments

A bit of a change of pace for this post. I got to thinking the other day – always a dangerous pastime – about how many twists and turns there are in life. How its course can hinge on a single decision and the impact this can have down the years.

Defining moments, turning points, call them what you will, we’ve all had them. A second when life stops, holds it’s breath for a moment, and its direction is forever changed. They can be good, bad, glorious or devastating.

Some are gentle and unassuming. They float into your life, blending and weaving their insubstantial shape around you so you hardly notice the subtle shift in life’s fabric. With hindsight and deep understanding you recognise them for what they were – a moment when you spun off your present course and followed a new trajectory.

Then there are those moments of exquisite clarity when you’re hit by a static charge intensifying and assaulting the senses. You stand motionless, absorbing the moment while the world swirls round you in a kaleidoscope of brightness and colour, and you experience the brilliance of life as if for the first time.

This moment is dynamic, vibrant and fills you with total awareness. An instant so defined life can never be the same again and is imprinted on your memory and senses for all time. Usually these moments are points of deep insight and happiness, when seemingly random things fall into place and the obscure becomes obvious. They leave a mystical imprint.

Then there are other moments.

They confront you with devastation and loss, stop you in your tracks and challenge you to face things you hoped you would never see. There is no doubt life will change beyond all recognition.

Their shape looms solid, black and impenetrable. A presence so terrifying it stops the beating of your heart. Any insecurity you ever had makes you question yourself and the reality around you. The moment is shattering, and your response to it almost spiritual. ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’ was written for an experience like this.

What makes defining moments interesting is how we perceive and react to them. We hope we will behave well and find inner strength to cope when life derails us from our planned path, but none of us truly know how we will respond until we find ourselves in the maelström.

We can plot our course through life, connect the dots of these defining moments until we can see a pattern and realise we are in the place we were meant to be all along. It may not be the place we wanted, or the route we had mapped out, but it’s the place we need to be.

There’s a country song by Garth Brooks Unanswered Prayers, (the Captain and Missy are avid country music fans, I am not – I can’t listen to one without bawling my eyes out). The song is not a favourite of mine but the sentiment behind it is spot on.

We go through life thinking we know what we need and sometimes Life has to remind us we have no clue when it comes to the big picture. We have to learn to trust, go with the flow and have faith that things will work out.

Seems to me the most successful people – I’m talking well-balanced, happy and in tune with themselves – are those who see the bigger picture and more importantly their place in it. They see beyond themselves.

Maybe we should all try harder to be like them, I’m sure we’d all be a lot happier.

Posted in Inspiration and Reflection, Personal challenges | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Family Travels and Unaccompanied Children

There’s something rather nice about returning home from travelling, even if home is in a foreign country. It’s a feeling of having survived a mission during which so much could have gone wrong.

As I mentioned a few posts ago, getting out of the door is something I find especially stressful. The night before we left on our trip I erased our booking details from my computer without printing a copy, which caused stress levels to go through the roof.

This alone would have been enough to cause a sleepless night, but anxiety levels increased after receiving a frantic text from a friend. She had left town the day before us and driven from The Hague down to Calais to catch the cross-channel ferry. On arrival at the port she discovered her eldest daughter had forgotten her passport.

She had to schedule a later sailing and drive back home (three hours each way on a good run) to collect the forgotten passport. I assume with much venting en route.

Now, mothers with younger children will roll their eyes at my friend for not having taken control of the passport in the first place. All I can say to these mothers is, ‘you wait’.

There comes a time when children have to take responsibility for themselves. In this case, the young adult in question will be going to university in a few months, in a different country to the one in which she and her family are currently living. She will have a lot more to worry about than her passport.

I imagine her mother asked at least ten times, ‘You have your passport, right?’ to which the default response would have been,

‘Yeh – of course I have. It’s here, exactly where it was the last time you asked,’ accompanied by much eye-rolling and deep sighs. Sometime between then and leaving the house it would have been put down for a second and forgotten.

At some point you have to make sure they are responsible, if not totally for themselves, then at least for something beyond their iPod or 3D-DS.

In our family we would hand younger children their passports prior to going through passport control and collect them in immediately afterwards. This so they could experience what to do and how to behave, without the responsibility of looking after passports for the entire trip.

Joe and Missy have travelled trans-Atlantic together, and solo, from Missy being aged nine, usually with passports in a clear plastic cover hanging from a lanyard around their necks and this always worked well.

On these flights they travelled as ‘Unaccompanied Minors‘ and were in the care of the airline, but were expected to be responsible too. Their travel was complicated as they had two flights to get to Europe – New Orleans, our then home, has no direct international flights to anywhere.

During one flight through Newark Airport (New York) I received a phone call from Joe – the children had extensive training in collect calls in the days before we all had cell phones – who had managed to escape Airline Custody and was shopping in the airport on his own and did I need anything picking up? I managed to remain calm.

‘No, but thank you for asking darling. Why are you shopping on your own and where exactly is your sister right now?’

‘Oh, she’s fine. She’s met some nice girls her age who are flying to Paris. They managed to break out too and have gone to MacDonald’s. I’m meeting up with them later after I’ve had a look around.’ He sounded very bright as if he was having a fabulous time. ‘Although you know, Mom, I really think you should make a complaint to the airline, they really don’t seem to be making too much effort to keep an eye on us.’

He promised to go and find Missy immediately and take all the girls back to Airline Prison and stay there. He was twelve, she was ten. They told me afterwards the stewardesses were furious when they all got back – I can only hope those responsible realised the enormity of ‘what might have happened’ and such jail-breaks never occurred again.

I can look back now without wanting to throw up, call the police or sue the airline – at the time I was beside myself at the thought of them wandering around a major airport on their own. That was the last time they flew completely alone – we made sure they travelled with a family member or people we knew after that. Part of me is blown away by their being so fearless and brave – if you can overlook the danger they were open to, which of course I can’t, and may be partly responsible for my recurring nightmares.

We also had friends whose 18-year-old son took a direct flight from the USA to Germany, parents putting him on the plane at one end and family meeting him off at the other. Somehow during the flight he lost his passport and, on arrival, was held by the German immigration services for six hours until they could resolve the situation.

Meanwhile parents and family were frantic wondering how he could have dissappeared, with no information passed to them by anyone for the whole six hours.

Having also misplaced his cell-phone on the flight the young man was unable to tell the authorities the name of the family members meeting him or where he would be staying whilst in the country. I can see the powers that be would have found the story a tad dubious. We are amazed he could remember his own name.

Why the authorities didn’t venture into the arrivals hall and ask if anyone was looking for an eighteen-year-old arriving from the States we never discovered, we can only assume they found the situation beyond belief. Obviously they were not the parents of teens.

We are relieved to be home safely with no major incidents, although there was a slight problem on the ferry to Hull. A blocked toilet on deck ten caused awful problems for many people, if the resulting public announcements throughout the evening were anything to go by.

There was also a considerable delay in disembarking, which we assumed was due to increased security for the Royal Wedding later this week. We sat on the tarmac of a fenced parking lot for over an hour. Harry mused that our situation was like that of a fish floating in a plastic bag acclimatizing to a new aquarium. We did begin to wonder if he had a point.

It turned out we were not being acclimated to England at all, but the ‘dirty bomb scanner’ had malfunctioned and was being replaced.

All-in-all a safe and stress-free trip, what more could we ask?

We’re unpacked, the laundry’s in the washing machine and we’re going to sit down and have a nice cup of tea… before the Captain re-packs his suitcase and heads off the States…

Posted in Expat Experiences, Family Life, The Netherlands, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

My Father and Other Animals

Having taught my sister and myself to ride bikes my father saw no reason not to apply similar methods to riding horses.

He taught himself to ride by chasing down the milkman’s horse, which was guaranteed to be found relaxing at the end of a hard day in the peace and tranquillity of a lush, green field at the end of his street.

I feel nothing but pity for that poor horse. Having spent the day affixed to the shafts of the milk-cart, the last thing it wanted was a bevy of young lads chasing round it the field until one of them managed to grab its mane and swing his legs over its back, whooping and hollering imagining they were Roy Rogers.

That said, my father loves horses and at some point in his life got to grips with concept of saddles and bridles, but always eschewed using stirrups to mount, choosing instead to swing his leg over the back of his mount like every cowboy in every western ever made.

I remember he came unstuck once when, on a family horse ride, he contemptuously brushed off the offer of the stable-hand to give him a leg up. Clutching the reins in one hand, he swung himself upwards with the gusto of the middle-aged proving a point and surprised himself with the acceleration he’d achieved – he went hurtling at terrifying speed over the other side of the startled beast.

My sister and I watched in horror, eyes wide with astonishment, hands clasped over our mouths to contain the mirth, which we didn’t want to escape until we knew an ambulance wouldn’t be required.

Although his efforts to do anything were always slightly unconventional it made for an entertaining childhood.

From a young age we learned the names of trees, flowers, birds and how to identify their calls. We’d arrive home from a country walk and his coat pockets were stuffed with interesting items he’d come across in his wanderings, along with the odd wild plant he’d decided would be delightful, and better preserved, in his garden.

He has always been a conservationist in his own unorthodox way, although he has had his ongoing battles with grey squirrels which regularly taunt him from the top of his silver birch trees.

Over the years he has devised some ingenious methods of discouraging the wild-life of the area from destroying the paradise of his garden, none of which has worked in the long term.

We had to disconnect the electric wire he’d rigged up on the top of the fence to dissuade the squirrels and neighbourhood cats from entering his territory. And drew the line at a loaded shotgun perched from an upstairs window, cross hairs lining up a dray of squirrels.

He’d had a terrible time with them which led to a rising of domestic security alert levels and the current impasse – they had taken to digging up his spring bulbs and replanting them in the spinney at the back of my parents’ house.

For the record the spinney is a large wooded area with public footpaths criss-crossing the dense manicured grass, sheltered by the towering branches of ancient chestnut trees, offering leafy shade in the summer and a plethora of glossy chestnuts in the autumn. In the spring it is full of dancing daffodils, most of them planted from bulbs taken from my father’s garden.

Daffodils are one thing but the snowdrops were the final straw. I’d found them in the garden of our old cottage garden in the East Riding of Yorkshire the spring after we moved there and I’d given some to my father.

The cottage was old – walls made of horsehair – the garden older, and these were snowdrops unlike any I’d seen before. Turned out they were a rare species, so I made sure Dad had some for his garden too.

The squirrels took a liking to them, only discovered when the rare species flowered in the spinney the following spring, much to the delight and excitement of local horticulturists –who were set to make this a protected area of horticultural interest. There was much media coverage and speculation as to where these specimens had come from, with my father watching the proceeding with gnashing teeth over the garden fence under cover of a large forsythia bush.

My father was enraged to have been treated in this way by a troupe of grey skinned vagabonds whose fur, in his opinion, was only useful as a component for making fishing flies. Another of his passions.

He was finally reduced to sneaking out after dark with a small trowel and a plastic bag to retrieve what he believed was rightfully his. He can get very territorial and sentimental over things like that.

Fortunately the local constabulary were very sympathetic when they accompanied him home and he was able to show them (by torch light) the same variety of snowdrop in his own back yard and decided not to press charges.

Since then his rage against the grey peril has known no bounds but he has agreed not to invest in any automatic weapons, hand grenades or landmines, although I’m sure he’ll find a loophole somewhere…

Posted in England and Things English, Family Life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer

Day twenty-one of a thirty day blog challenge, two-thirds behind me and one-third to go. I should be feeling wonderful but sadly I don’t.

I’ve hit that wall where it’s too much effort to take a take the next step, where you start to question the reasons for starting in the first place. It seems such a trivial and insignificant thing to feel passionate about – why am I doing it, what’s the point? And at the end of the day who cares?

It’s very easy to feel sorry for yourself and difficult to stop that downward spiral when throwing in the towel seems the only viable option.So why do I feel this way? I know why I decided to start the challenge –

1.  learning to write faster and more effectively

2. working to deadlines

3. the discipline of sitting down to write a finished piece whether you feel like it or not

4. better time management

I’ve enjoyed every minute of the writing, that hasn’t been a problem at all. Nor has thinking of things to write, which is why I called this blog Wordgeyser. Trying to stem the flow of words inside my head, desperate to get out, is far more difficult.

I’ve looked forward each day to time spent writing, it’s a regular rhythm which gives me a sense of achievement, of structuring something out of random words or feelings. Some days are easier than others. I have many half written posts which went off in directions I didn’t expect and I’ll go back and explore them and see where they lead once the blog challenge is over.

Working to a deadline has been fun, pushing and challenging myself to see how far I can go, how much I can write in a given time, hopefully being more productive and increasing the quality of writing.

What I’ve really struggled with is time management. Blocking time to get this done would have been fine in the normal ebb and flow of life, but do it in a month when there are two long weekends away has been tough.

Not because I resent the intrusion, far from it, I want to be fully engaged with the people I’m with, refresh my brain, be inspired by them. It’s these times I’ve resented the writing, and have to remind myself why I started the project. It has been a huge learning curve, challenging yourself to be your best.

For some people it’s building up to do a 10km run or a marathon, learning a new skill, or taking up something left off years ago. For me it’s writing.

I have two projects I’m ready to begin working on this summer and in my heart this blog challenge has been a preparation for that. I’ve put minor projects on hold to see this challenge through and I’m looking forward to getting back on track with them too.

In the scheme of things this challenge isn’t important to anyone except me, but already I can see the benefits. The encouragement I’ve had along the way both in the comments left on posts and privately sent (anyone can email me at wordgeyser@gmail.com) have humbled me , encouraged me and spurred me on when I’ve been ready to throw in the towel and go out for lunch instead.

For those who have been beside me on this journey, who have taken time out of busy schedules to read my daily posts, commented and supported the goal, thank you. Being in an ivory tower is very lonely and without you there making me accountable the path would have been so much more difficult.

I feel so much better already.

A weekend away is what we need to recharge spent batteries and get the gas tank back up to full instead of running on empty, and I’ll be back ready to rock and blast my way through the last third of this challenge. I hope.

Posted in Inspiration and Reflection, Personal challenges, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Loving my Kindle: Why Everyone Should Have One

I will stand up now and say I used to have no time for the Kindle.

It went against every bone in my body not to hold a real book, feel the texture of the paper and inhale the woody, musky scent when you turned the pages.

Reading has always been an emotional and sensory pastime for me – anticipated, cherished, almost spiritual. From being small it was wonderful to escape to worlds of imagination outside anything I knew in my normal life. To read was/ is to live – it nourishes the soul, revives the spirit, makes you question, debate and analyse. It takes you to places and introduces you to characters who enrich your mind, stretch your ideas.

A few years ago I discovered I had cataracts – it was a shock. I’m too young, obviously, but the facts couldn’t be changed and for the first time I realised how bleak life would be if I couldn’t read.

I’d spent the previous winter unable to read unless I had the brightest of lights to illuminate the pages, and then only for a short time before they were strained so much I couldn’t see a thing. It was agony to have to choose between books because my eyes could only cope with so much. It was a humbling experience.

I have alluded to the operation elsewhere, but I never said what an incredible feeling it was to take off the bandages and see clearly. I will never take my sight for granted again.

Reading once more became a pleasure to be immersed in, a joy. There was no way I would switch to a cold, hard, tablet of technology to get my nourishment.

Until last summer.

I’d just started Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, a huge tome of a book the size and weight of several house bricks. I wanted to take it on vacation with me, along with a couple of beach books for the nine-hour flight. I didn’t finish the book on the vacation, or on the flight home. I toted that darn thing half way round the world and back and I determined not to make the same mistake again.

I investigated the Kindle and talked over my change of heart with the Captain, who was appalled and mystified at my about-turn. Wouldn’t I rather have an iPad? Something more useful?

No, I wanted a Kindle and the Captain, with grave misgivings I’d made a really bad decision, bought me one for Christmas. I’ve never looked back. It’s small, compact, ergonomically perfect and I can download a book in seconds. Do I miss browsing in bookshops? No, that’s a pleasure I’ll never give up, but when you live in a place where buying books in your native language is difficult, and waiting for a delivery from Amazon frustrating, then the Kindle is perfect.

Even more exciting, the screen is gentle on the eyes and I can read  in less light than I did reading a regular book, and for twice as long. If I’m into the story and want to keep on reading with tired eyes, I can increase the font size. It’s reached the point I’m having difficulty reading normal books, they feel wrong in my hands.

There are some books I will, and do, read in paper format, but if I want a book to read now, then I download it and voilà.

If I’m honest, and I try to be, there is one benefit to owning a Kindle I didn’t appreciate until I owned one. No, it’s not that it can hold 3,500 books or connect to the internet to pick up emails.

I have a guilty secret. Whilst I love and appreciate books of depth, knowledge and great wisdom, I love trashy beach books too, especially in airports, on planes or in traffic jams. The beauty of the Kindle is no-one can see what you’re reading, it could be War and Peace or it could be trash, and no one knows.

Now if you don’t mind, I’m off to find some delicious light reading for the Easter break.

Posted in Expat Related Book Reviews, Inspiration and Reflection, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Trains, Boats and Planes: The Easter Getaway

We are leaving on the overnight ferry to Hull – the aim is at arrive at the ferry terminal with everything we planned on bringing and leaving nothing behind. I’m not good at travelling, or rather I’m not good at getting out of the door. Once I’m on the way I thoroughly enjoy it.

If we travel to the UK to see parents and friends we have several options to choose from. In theory.

We can drive down to Calais and head over to Dover on the cross Channel ferry. Never done it, not tempted as we then have an awful journey north the other side. If we do the Calais route we go via the Eurotunnel which has its own issues.

It’s a three-hour drive to Calais from The Hague, on a good run, and you have to be there well before departure. If there are no problems it’s all wonderfully easy. However, a slight glitch – broken train in the tunnel, fire or numerous other reasons – then you’re screwed. The son of my friend L was caught in the mayhem of a broken down train and had to spend two nights sleeping in a van on the M25 outside London, the County of Kent was grid locked for several days.

Assuming we get on the train through the tunnel in a timely fashion, we can while away the 35 minute journey relaxing. And trying not to think about the huge weight, volume and freezing nature of the water above in the English Channel, and what acts of terrorism may result in that water cascading in on top of us.

Leaving the Eurotunnel we head north-west to skirt London via the Dartford tunnel where lines for the toll booths can stretch back miles. Clear those and we head towards the infamous MI which is another unknown – road works abound, well, traffic cones to be exact, all over the place and for no apparent reason to the frustrated motorists trying to get round them.

The whole journey door to door takes ten hours with one bathroom stop. It’s not an option we choose often.

We could also fly from Schiphol Airport (Amsterdam) which is fun. It’s only a 45 minute flight to the local airport where our families live, unfortunately we have to fly with one of the economy airlines which is always hysterically funny after the event, but quite tense while we’re doing it. We don’t do cattle pens awfully well, or being treated as if we’ve never seen a plane before, let alone flown in one.

Then there’s the issue of flying with hand luggage only. Great idea so long as you have no fluids and your bag fits into the correctly sized bag-frame. Our local carrier, BMI Baby, was recently exposed for having a wrongly sized bag-frame at the gates. People were about to board the flight, had bags checked for size and then told they were larger than the measurements allowed and the bags would have to go into the hold, at eye watering cost to the passenger.

After having run the gauntlet of check-in, passport control (there are 15 kiosks and only two are ever open, even when the lines snake outside the airport), security (which country are we in and what clothes do we have to take off?), the cattle pens and finally the 400 yard dash to board the plane, we are ready for a nice cup of tea only to have to take out a mortgage to buy one.

We save flights for emergency or hit-and-run visits only.

Our first choice mode of travel is the overnight ferry from Rotterdam Europort to Hull. Neither are destinations you would aspire to visit at any point in your life, but it gets us to where we need to be and it’s relatively relaxing. We have a meal on board and a good nights sleep.

This will be the first time we have not had a cabin en famille. Missy and Harry refused to go on the trip if they had to share a cabin with us – again.

Our last trip together was rather eventful. I occasionally have a recurring dream which involves sitting bolt upright and screaming the place down. In bed with the Captain he can usually grab me as I sit up and the screaming phase can be averted. On this occasion it failed. Being in a confined space I lashed out hitting the wall with arms and feet, waking the people in the next cabin who thought murder was being committed.

This trip we have we have decided to treat ourselves and upgrade to a suite, making the crossing part of the break. The children have their own onboard cell which they are thrilled about. They can spend an evening in the karaoke bar, assuming the licensing laws on this sailing are Dutch, otherwise Harry will be very disappointed.

Must dash, there seems an endless amount of things to do before I can get out of the door.

Posted in Dutch Culture, Family Life, The Netherlands, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Foreign Invasion: When the Tourists Arrive

The sun is beaming gloriously from a blue sky and it’s two days to go to the Easter weekend.

As a family we hate traveling at peak holiday periods, we know Schiphol airport (Amsterdam) will be bursting at the seams on Friday as the dutch make their getaway to places foreign, roads will be gridlocked, the ferries full.

As the locals leave town their numbers are replaced by holidaymakers from the UK, Germany, France and Belgium. It seems we’re quite popular in our small town, even though Wassenaar is not by the beach – we’re separated from it by several miles of dunes which are there for a purpose – to keep the sea from flooding the lowlands.

I quite like having these visitors around, it gives a jolly feel to the place. There are stands of postcards outside the shops, along with displays of colorful beach paraphernalia – glow-in-the-dark footballs, buckets, spades, beach towels, flip-flops and the like.

Hard to believe only a few months ago you could walk down the pedestrianised Langstraat and not see a soul, due to the driving snow and subarctic temperatures. Today outdoor tables and chairs, shaded by jaunty nautical sun umbrellas, are the order of the day.

It’s noisy – people are chatting, laughing, relaxing and enjoying the day, eating ice-creams, drinking coffee. It’s rather continental and not at all the town I’m used to. People are smiling, animated, dressed in light summer clothing and wearing sunglasses. Children are running around and nobody seems to mind. Dogs are everywhere, panting heavily in what you’d assume must be tropical temperatures. It’s rather cheerful.

I find it a little overwhelming, and so, well, different. Our sleepy little town has changed overnight and the social dynamics have altered too.

The first thing you become aware of is the cessation of hostilities between the Dutch and the foreigners who live here all year. Now before anyone gets tetchy, we all accept that relationships between the locals and the expats tend to be rather grizzly during most of the year – it’s the weather.

The sun comes out and attitudes change, people are civilised to each other but still there is an atmosphere of wariness on both sides. Bring foreign holiday makers into the mix and suddenly we’re all on the same team.

The real locals and the temporary locals find ourselves tutting at the bad parking, aimless strolling, walking on bike paths, inability to work cash machines and other inconsiderate behaviour people exhibit whilst on vacation. They seem to forget that we live here and have lives to organise.

Suddenly the food stores are full of entire families trying to figure out the contents of tinned cans, bemoaning the fact the labels are in a foreign language and there are no decent tea bags to be had anywhere. I feel their pain, I was the same when we arrived.

There is the shock at the check-out when credit cards are not accepted (it was brain numbing for me too) and they don’t have enough cash, leading to much agonised discussion as what items to leave behind.

I have to admit, although it shames me, that I do enjoy these moments – not because I take pleasure in the misfortune and distress of others, but because for the only time during the year there are other people below me in the pecking order of social rankings.

I’m practically hugged as I enter the local shops and greeted as a long-lost relative, the service is solicitous and kind, they cannot do enough for me – it is the poor holiday makers who are getting the brunt of local frustration. There is much muttering and eye rolling at the new folks in town, something I’ve been subjected to many times. I intend to make the most of it as it will only last a few months at most.

In the meantime we’ve decided to avoid this mayhem and are going away for a few days to visit family and friends over the weekend and hopefully enjoy some peace and quiet.

Will let you know how it goes.

Posted in Dutch Culture, Expat Experiences, The Netherlands | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Preparing For The Worst: Death of a Spouse Overseas

A change of pace today, caused by some sad news which has me thinking deeply.

Everyone has a file stored in the back of their mind under ‘things I’d rather not think about’  but which anyone living overseas has thought about quietly and planned for in the event the worst ever happens.

It’s happened to two girlfriends of mine and a male colleague of the Captain’s – the death of a spouse while living overseas.

A tragedy like this is horrendous enough when surrounded by family and friends in your home country. When it happens abroad the additional stresses on top of heart-wrenching  grief are enormous.

There is enough information on the internet for all the practical things you need to know, and the Consul for your home country will advise and support you through the paperwork. It’s the emotional fallout that leaves everyone floundering.

We know death of a loved ranks number one in the scale of stressful life experiences. The isolation, fear and apprehension of how you will cope in a foreign country, maybe not speaking the language, is an overwhelming scenario.

Friends supporting a grieving spouse, striving to do the right thing, can feel as if they’ve been dropped on a foreign planet without a guidebook.

There’s a good article for friends on the Expatwomen website which gives some great advice to on how to support a spouse who has lost their partner. Please take a moment to read it – we all might need it one day.

Some of the practical advice in the article I’m going to quote here, as it has important information for all of us :

‘… there is merit in the old adage ‘keep all of your important documents together, as well as cash for emergencies’. If you have not already done so, help your friend gather copies of important documents (passports, residency visas, employment contracts, marriage certificates, bank account details and so on) in one, safe place.

Do this for yourself and advise your other expatriate friends to do so as well. Have them all together and somewhere safe where the whole family can locate them quickly if need be.

Your friend will need to access some money fairly readily so help her get that underway if she does not already have an emergency fund somewhere, which is strongly advisable. If she needs to transfer some money from home, this could take a few days to arrive so it is best to do this now rather than later.

Again, I would recommend you and your friends also have some money easily accessible for emergencies, either to fly to your friend’s home, to fly to your own home or to fly family members to you.’

It’s a family joke in our house that Mom has a, ‘Death and Disaster’ book, left out every time we travel. It has our birth certificates, insurance policies and contact details of accountant, lawyer, bank and family members. And of course an up-to-date Will made in the country you’re living in. (Don’t mess with this one – I may have been light-hearted when in Where there’s a Will there’s a Lawyer, but it’s no joke)

I started the D&D book in Louisiana when every hurricane season we were poised to evacuate. We kept a fire-proof lock-box with our current insurance policies (life, home, car), passports, birth certificates, bank details and wills. Oh and a large amount of cash – in an emergency they’ll never be a working cash machine or it won’t give you the amount you need.

In the years we were there we had two serious evacuations before the big one, and knowing that box was ready to pick up and go was a huge relief. And trust me, when an emergency does happen, you say a quick prayer for having taken a couple of hours on a rainy afternoon to put it in place.

The practicalities do not help to alleviate the pain of loss, but it’s one thing you can do for a friend, numb in disbelief at facing his/ her worst nightmare, and this is only the beginning.

Whilst we were living in the USA, a Canadian girlfriend who had happily followed her spouse from Montreal to New Orleans with three children, found her husband dead on Superbowl Sunday from an unexpected heart attack.

Of course everyone rallied round – her church, neighbours and new friends she’d made. Devastated didn’t come close. You would have thought things couldn’t have got any worse. They did.

Her husband had arrived in the States ahead of her, as many spouses do, to set up a home and life before the family arrived.

In the USA, on her husbands visa, she had no right to reside there without him. The Immigration authorities advised her that when the visa ran out she would have to leave the country. Unfortunately this was soon after her bereavement.

Should she have tried to stay she would been arrested and deported at her own expense and banned from re-entering the US for 10 years. That would mean her children would have been denied university places in the USA. Their schools were told by the authorities that the children would not be allowed to register for the next semester.

Her car was taken back by the finance company because it was not in her name.

The mortgage company were on her case immediately as the mortgage was, guess what, not in her name, nor were the bank accounts and there was no Will.

She had three children, all in high school who, having just lost their father, with university places planned and bright futures ahead, were wrenched from everything they knew and loved – their home, their friends, their lives.

My friend left the States in a beat up mini-van donated by her church, her worldly goods and children on board and drove herself back to her home country, but with no home to go to and no future in place. The only money was from money raised by friends as the bank accounts were all frozen.

Watching that situation unfold the Captain has made sure it will never happen to us. It is a gift I appreciate more than he knows.  Everything is in joint names, both cars in mine (there is a backstory to this), something he insisted on.

Yesterday morning the Captain phoned to let me know a colleague in the states lost his wife unexpectedly the other day. No illness, but probably a heart attack. She was my age. It’s been a bit sombre in our house the past few days.

It makes for some serious thought.

Posted in Expat Experiences, Family Life, Personal challenges, The Netherlands, USA | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Keukenhof: Useful Tips for Reluctant Visitors

I realised in my earlier post I’d forgotten to include some pretty important stuff you may like to consider before visiting the Keukenhof, should you decide to go at some point over the next few weeks. The weather here in The Netherlands is glorious at the moment, as tends to happen as soon as we make plans to leave town.

The same thing happened when we went away last summer.

Everyone raves about last summer as being hot and magnificent, practically Mediterranean apparently. We remember it as being cold and wet. This enigma persisted for weeks till we finally pinned down the dates this spectacular summer was reported to have occurred, only to find it coincided exactly with the weeks we were away.

With a trip planned to the UK over Easter the weather in The Netherlands is guaranteed to be superb.

I digress. Back to the Keukenhof.

There are some things you should know about the Keukenhof to make the most of your visit which I failed to mention in my last post.

Get there early, it opens at 08.00 so be there then if you can, having bought your tickets online before you go. I understand going in the evenings is also recommended. Get there well before the bus trips arrive, as six or so coaches unloading their gardening enthusiasts just as you walk in, can quickly dispel that feeling of serenity and goodwill you arrived with.

Never go on a sunny weekend as everyone in The Netherlands will also decide this is the perfect time to visit too, and the A4 from Amsterdam will be at a standstill with cars trying to exit for the Keukenhof.

If you decide to ignore this advice please make sure you go equipped with hot flasks of tea, sandwiches and a sleeping bag or two just in case you end up stuck in traffic overnight. If the lines are incredibly long it’s likely a party atmosphere will develop among the backed-up traffic and having spare food always goes down well with other grid-locked motorists.

You can go by train, bus or bike too, all information on the website.

The bike ride from where we live to the Keukenhof is allegedly spectacular as you ride through the tulip fields. Several of my friends do it every year; I have yet to join them. If you’ve read Loving your Dutch bike, Expat style you’ll understand my reluctance to go anywhere outside my comfort zone although I adore my bike.

I’ve also been told the train from Leiden to Haarlem is a ‘must do’ with the train track ambling through tulip fields stretching to the horizon in every direction.

The only time I’ve caught this train was in January – our book club read  The Hiding Room by Corrie Ten Boom and decided to visit the Ten Boom Museum in Haarlem. On that occasion the vista was more Dr Zhivago; snow hurling itself horizontally at the train windows, our only view brief snapshots of a white and grey landscape between the snow flurries.

It was darn cold that day but we were enthusiastic to explore and get to know the Netherlands. Now we tend to explore between April and August unless equipped with arctic survival gear. Even then you can be caught out as I was on my second, and last, visit to the Keukenhof.

Different friends in town and both eager to visit the Dutch Jewel. Mick loves gardens, installing a tasteful water feature in every home he and Trish have lived in, and he was very interested to check a few things out. Trish and I were happy to go anywhere if we could chat and have coffee on route.

The Captain wasn’t keen and made feeble attempts to excuse himself from the trip. Our guests were having none of it, insisting he stop being a grumpy old man and get with the program.

It was further complicated as Archie, our English Springer had only recently joined our family and I was loath to leave him alone for the day, being only a few months old. Checking the website we discovered well-behaved dogs were welcome. We decided to take the loose definition of well-behaved and he came with us; much to the incomprehension of the Captain who had no qualms at leaving the poor mite home alone. Trish was having none of that either and we finally set off on what was a cool but promising day.

I tried to raise the Captain’s spirits by telling him what a great place the Keukenhof was and how he’d be thrilled he’d been by the end of the day. He wasn’t playing ball.

As we headed north the day started to deteriorate rapidly, and by the time we got to the Keukenhof the promising blue skies and fleeting warmth of the sun was replaced by low cloud and cold, dank air.

There had been heavy rain the previous day and the flat, easily traversed parking lot of my memory was reduced to a quagmire of mud with deep ruts and puddles of indeterminate depth.

Even with a four-wheel drive it was tough going, not helped when the Captain hit an unseen rut and the car drifted into the ropes at the side of the track. The men in the high–visibility jackets directing the traffic were not pleased and let their feelings be known, as did the Captain who continued muttering under his breath. As punishment we were made to park several miles from the entrance.

Things went from bad to worse, arriving at the entrance at the same time as a senior bus trip from France. The disembarkation was a slow affair involving wheelchairs and zimmer frames blocking everyone from passing until the old folks – who were all in riotous form – got out of the way.

Once inside the Archster, terrified by the zimmer frames, decided this was the perfect place to show off his rather unique way of defecating, much to the delight and laughter of the elderly French citizens who were now behind us. The Captain was getting more tense by the minute, he scooped the poop with much sighing and glum facial expressions.

We were looking forward to the panoramic vista across the blooming tulip fields from the side of the Keukenhof windmill, where an old-fashioned barrel organ was churning out an oompah version of Abba’s Super Trooper. Unfortunately, there was little to see as visibility was limited and the tulips weren’t yet in flower.

The weather had been so cold there were few blooms anywhere. For enthusiasts those that were on display were amazing but the Captain was not one of them and his disappointment was tangible.

By this time the seniors were ahead of us, and the low cloud had turned into a biting drizzle. We decided to stop for a coffee to warm up but had to sit outside because of the dog. Most of our party were quite happy with the arrangement, but one of us had forgotten to bring a coat and his smile was getting tighter.

The final straw was a trip to the bathroom from which he returned speechless.

“I honestly don’t believe it!” I’m ashamed to say the rest of us could no longer contain our restrained mirth and instantly fell apart, but the Captain was too incensed to notice.

“We pay all this money to come in here, can’t see a damn thing because of the rain and what we can see won’t be in flower for another week or two, the damn dog is a disgrace and can’t be taken anywhere, the whole place is full of geriatrics who are having more fun than I am and NOW they want 50 bloody euro cents to use the bloody bathroom!”

We decided it was perhaps best to call it a day and head home.

I’ve never been back since and the mention of the Keukenhof to the Captain will induce a slight twitch at the corner of his eye.

The best advice I can give is chose a good day, leave the dog at home and take plenty of sandwiches with you. Oh, and a 50 cent coin or two.

ULTIMATE BLOG CHALLENGE DAY 16

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Keukenhof: The Jewel in the Crown of The Netherlands

What I didn’t mention in The Perfect Palette : The Netherlands in Spring and what anyone living here would think of when you put ‘spring’ and ‘The Netherlands’ in the same sentence – the Keukenhof

The reason, dear readers, is because I’ve saved that for today.

For those of you outside the Netherlands bemused and ready to click the mouse to take you somewhere else, let me explain. The Keukenhof Gardens are world-renowned among the horticultural set, as well as regular people like me, who appreciate the glorious colours, the manicured perfection and the incredible variety of blooms from all over the world, interspersed with sculptures and other artwork, exhibitions and displays.

It’s only open to the public for a short period in the spring (24 March to 20 May 2011) the rest of the year spent planning for next. Flowers bloom continually throughout the opening period.

I won’t go into minute detail over the beauty of the place as you can read all about it at their website, but there are other considerations to take into account when you decide to visit. Which you will, if you’re in theNetherlands during spring, or if you live here and have visitors during that time.

It is a place close to the heart of the Dutch, their pièce de résistance, their showcase to the world. As the Dutch economy relies heavily on flowers it explains an awful lot.

I have been to the Keukenhof twice since we moved here. The experience was wonderful but did leave me overawed and destroyed all my self-confidence in the gardening department. I’ve just thrown out a pot of dead basil so you know where I’m placed on the garden rankings.

My first trip was shortly after our arrival here – we had friends over from the UK, the husband being an obsessive compulsive photographer. A Sunday afternoon stroll with him will result in 700-800 photographs. His conversation during the stroll is non-existent as his mind is totally absorbed in light and backdrop issues. He has produced spectacular results over the years.

They arrived with the highlight of the weekend being a trip to the Keukenhof. G came equipped with lenses, tripod, light meter and the usual works. I was concerned we’d need a trailer to transport his equipment.

In the event G went down with a very nasty stomach virus the day after they arrived which confined him to bed and the bathroom for the rest of the visit. In his dehydrated and fever induced disorientation he would try to leave his sick-bed and twice we found him ransacking his camera bag searching for some important lens, distracted and muttering about getting to the Keukenhof at first light.

This caused some concern and well as much hilarity to his wife C, a nurse who is always great to have around as I have no patience with sick people as the Captain will attest.

In an attempt to calm her spouse C decided she and I would head off to Keukenhof and take photographs in G’s stead. She thought G would be absolutely fine on his own, figuring  he would sleep for most of the day having spent most of the night hugging the toilet bowl for dear life with what little strength he had left.

It would also allow us give us chance to have some girl time alone, although this was obviously not the prime motivation.

C and I were, I’m slightly ashamed to admit, excited to escape the sick bay,  it’s quite difficult to keep a sympathetic and caring face in place when you want to catch up with girl time and gossip. It was obviously much easier for C than me as she’s a professional, but even she was ready for a break.

We convinced G we couldn’t be trusted with anything more elaborate than his basic camera, the risk of us dropping lenses, knocking over the tripod or losing the camera altogether were enough of a threat for G to reluctantly agree with us.

We thought we’d got off quite lightly, could take a few snap shots, admire the flowers and head for lunch at one of the various cafes and bistros, followed by a slow amble and an ice cream.

We hadn’t planned on G having studied the website and giving us a comprehensive list of blooms we needed to photograph and how to take them. Why this came as a surprise I have no idea, because this is consistent behaviour of a man we have known for over 30 years. (We were all very young when we met.)

C and I decided we could manage this and set off. We arrived early and were directed where to park by Disney-trained employees in high-visibility jackets. They were well versed in dealing with patrons likely to ignore them and head off in an undesignated direction to grab the best parking spots. They employed ropes and light sabres to make sure we did as we were told – if that failed, yelling, and the arrival of a SWAT team, seemed to resolve the problem.

We made it into the Keukenhof as ten coaches arrived, the first three off-loading Japanese tourists weighed down by every camera and accessory imaginable.

We were already ahead of them and started our tour, map in hand, alone and in total quiet. We realised later this was because we should have headed to the prize exhibits first but we had elected to explore the woodland area as we had no clue what we were doing.

It was only as we were half way round the gardens we realised we hadn’t taken any photographs. We’d been side tracked by a deep a conversation involving the intricacies of a bad marital situation her friend B was going through.

Realising our error we headed off in search of the required blooms. There was no problem finding them at all; not so much the blooms as the banks of photographers surrounding them.

For a moment we seriously thought it was the paparazzi and a Royal visitor was about to arrive, but after making discreet enquiries among the throng around us we realised our mistake and the enormity of the task ahead.

‘Not a chance in hell you’ll get anywhere near that thing, love,’ advised a man standing next to us who, it turned out, was from Bradford, in the north of England, ‘what you need to do is go over the other side of the lake and take one from there with one of them big lens things.’

He pointed vaguely to the far horizon and through the haze of distance we saw the flash of sunlight on a camera lens. We should have been mortified and would have been had we been able to stop laughing. We knew G would be devastated at our ineptness, but still we roared.

The best course of action was lunch, during which we phoned G to ask his advice. We decided that honesty (kind of) would be the best policy.

C was brilliant and didn’t falter once. She’s had practise. After inquiring about his state of health – he’d decamped from the sick bed to laying on the bathroom floor wretched and wrapped in a duvet – she broke the news.

‘Well the thing is, we seemed to have arrived at the same time as several professional photographers from Tokyo and a contingent from the British Institute of Professional Photography. Seems they’ve roped off the important areas for them to have exclusive use to take photographs.’

She was brilliant – mentioning the BIPP would throw him completely, he’d immediately understand they’d want to keep rank amateurs from spoiling the camera shots of people who knew what they were doing, but the conversation ended abruptly and I wondered how angry a sick man could get.

‘What did he say?’ I whispered, in awe at her superior guile.

‘He started to give me another list,’ she smiled mischievously, ‘but then his stomach started again, so he managed to say ‘whatever’ as he put his head down the toilet.’

We had a fabulous day, took a few shots when we felt like it, mostly on our own ‘point and shoot’ cameras, as the mood took us – G’s camera was too darned fiddly. Away from the crowds there were lots of places to sit awhile and take in the beauty that is Keukenhof.

If you go, and you should, take photos but don’t miss the point of being there.

By the time G got his camera back he couldn’t hide his disappointment at the few miserable shots we’d taken, but next time he comes he can go on his own and he’ll savour every second.

From my perspective it was a memorable day, and you’ll be glad to know B has resolved her marital issues, divorced her lawyer husband and run off with the plumber…

 

Posted in Expat Experiences, The Netherlands | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Perfect Palette – The Netherlands in Spring

When the sun comes out in the spring, there is no more beautiful place in the world than The Netherlands – this from someone who struggles with the weather here after more than ten years living in the heat, humidity and dramatic weather of New Orleans USA.

It’s an easy statement to make on a day like today, when the breeze is warm and the soft baby-blue sky gazes down on a calm landscape filled with fields of flowers. An artist’s palette sprinkled with delicate pastel colours in a myriad of subtle tones and shades.

This is not a dramatic, awe-inspiring or breath-taking panorama – it’s beauty lies in its delicate calm. Easy on the eye and gentle on the emotions, it has an everyday quality – this is a canvas of subtle hues and fleeting shadows rather than swathes of vibrant color from a large brush.

The spring landscape is emerging, thrusting its way through the monochromatic colours of winter covering the fields with precise, light brushstrokes. The scent of hyacinths gliding on a warm breeze is excitement enough as we wake our senses from the heaviness of winter-induced sensory deprivation.

It’s like being released from the confines of a dark, silent, cold and soggy room into sunlight – we need our senses roused gently, with caring and kindness. Mother nature eases us back into life with a muted palette of beauty which will deepen and intensify into the vivid colors of late spring and summer.

There are infinite shades of green unfolding from tightly furled buds on crooked branches, jutting from wrinkled trunks of ancient trees. Pink and white blossoms are exploding too, thrusting towards the sunshine in a froth of ruffles, bright and effervescent, tossing petals into the slightest breeze like confetti at a wedding, bringing life and vibrancy to a world starved of colour for far too long.

Everywhere change is evident. Grass grows rapidly on the banks of canals topped by erect windmills, sails outstretched like children stretching to the sky. The southerly breezes twist and twirl across the lowlands making the grasses sway like an ocean rising and falling on a new tide, the heads of delicate wild flowers bobbing among them like colourful toy boats jostling with each other to crest the waves.

Among the lapping waves, black and white bovines stand and ruminate contentedly, tails swishing, coats gleaming in the sunlight. They no longer have to stand hunched in a corner of the field, huddled together for protection against the raw winds scything down from the arctic across the vastness of open, flat space.

The Dutch bloom too, in this atmosphere of awakening and renewal. The longer hours of daylight and warmth from the sun allow for more social interaction everywhere. Their clothes echo the transition from semi-hibernation into spring – gone the heavy, dark coats, jackets and warm boots. Like emerging flowers we see soft colours, floating fabrics, a flash of skin.

Facial expressions are softer, smiles ready, eyes connecting with interest and curiosity, there is time now to stop and chat, exchange pleasantries. No rushing indoors to get respite from bone chilling winds or slicing rain.

Outdoor cafes sprout up from the pavements cheerful and inviting, their bright umbrellas urban flowers, with the same variation in colour, size and shape as their natural counterparts. The chatter and jovial hubbub from the cafes matches the increased noise and exuberation from the wildlife in the trees and parks.

Alongside the cafes and squares the canals have changed from bleak, sluggish soups lined by anorexic winter trees, into iridescent mirrors of light and colour. Crystal ribbons of water are washed by the reflection of the sky and blossom adorns the now voluptuous trees, as arid air ripples the surface of the water.

We’ve watched with a quiet anticipation as life has slowly started to return to The Netherlands after (this year particularly) a seemingly endless winter. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, spring is finally here.

So please excuse me if I dash to catch the remnants of a glorious day, we have to make the most of them . . .

Posted in Inspiration and Reflection, The Netherlands | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Lagnaippe: Return to Childhood with Albert and The Lion

A few days back I made a comment in the blog Filed and Finished- Finally about poking the fates with a stick.

Every time I hear the expression I have a visual – a young boy called Albert, poking a lion through the bars of its cage at the zoo, and the dire consequences of those actions.

Anyone around my age who grew up in England will know what I mean. It is a scene from a comic poem called Albert and the Lion by Marriott Edgar, and was recited on the radio regularly by a well-known comic of his time, Stanley Holloway. It belonged more to our Grandparents time but humour is timeless and this was passed down the generations. As a child it delighted and appalled in equal measure.

Sometimes we need to take the journey back to childhood, to remind us of things that made us feel safe and comfortable, something we often long for as adults in a strange place a long way from that childhood home. 

I found the poem and the recording by Stanley Holloway and would like to share. Listen to Mr Holloway reciting as you read the words – it is his voice that gives it life and humour. It’s read in a northern England accent, which some people seem to have difficulty understanding. Unbelievable that should be so, but there you are.

Consider it Lagniappe for today! 

Click here for recitation

Albert and the Lion by Marriott Edgar (1880 – 1951)

There’s a famous seaside place called Blackpool,
That’s noted for fresh air and fun,
And Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom
Went there with young Albert, their son.

A grand little lad was young Albert,
All dressed in his best; quite a swell
With a stick with an ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle,
The finest that Woolworth’s could sell.

They didn’t think much of the Ocean:
The waves, they were fiddlin’ and small,
There was no wrecks and nobody drownded,
Fact, nothing to laugh at at all.

So, seeking for further amusement,
They paid and went into the Zoo,
Where they’d Lions and Tigers and Camels,
And old ale and sandwiches too.

There were one great big Lion called Wallace;
His nose were all covered with scars –
He lay in a somnolent posture,
With the side of his face on the bars.

Now Albert had heard about Lions,
How they was ferocious and wild –
To see Wallace lying so peaceful,
Well, it didn’t seem right to the child.

So straightway the brave little feller,
Not showing a morsel of fear,
Took his stick with its ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle
And pushed it in Wallace’s ear.

You could see that the Lion didn’t like it,
For giving a kind of a roll,
He pulled Albert inside the cage with ‘im,
And swallowed the little lad ‘ole.

Then Pa, who had seen the occurrence,
And didn’t know what to do next,
Said ‘Mother! Yon Lion’s ‘et Albert’,
And Mother said ‘Well, I am vexed!’

Then Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom –
Quite rightly, when all’s said and done –
Complained to the Animal Keeper,
That the Lion had eaten their son.

The keeper was quite nice about it;
He said ‘What a nasty mishap.
Are you sure that it’s your boy he’s eaten?’
Pa said “Am I sure? There’s his cap!’

The manager had to be sent for.
He came and he said ‘What’s to do?’
Pa said ‘Yon Lion’s ‘et Albert,
‘And ‘im in his Sunday clothes, too.’

Then Mother said, ‘Right’s right, young feller;
I think it’s a shame and a sin,
For a lion to go and eat Albert,
And after we’ve paid to come in.’

The manager wanted no trouble,
He took out his purse right away,
Saying ‘How much to settle the matter?’
And Pa said “What do you usually pay?’

But Mother had turned a bit awkward
When she thought where her Albert had gone.
She said ‘No! someone’s got to be summonsed’ –
So that was decided upon.

Then off they went to the P’lice Station,
In front of the Magistrate chap;
They told ‘im what happened to Albert,
And proved it by showing his cap.

The Magistrate gave his opinion
That no one was really to blame
And he said that he hoped the Ramsbottoms
Would have further sons to their name.

At that Mother got proper blazing,
‘And thank you, sir, kindly,’ said she.
‘What waste all our lives raising children
To feed ruddy Lions? Not me!’

Posted in England and Things English | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Coven Convenes

I make no apologies for continuing the theme of Fond Farewells and Private Tears  – it will be the last time I talk about my girlfriends, for a while at least. I wanted to explain why they, and my other friends, are so are important to me.

We are off today for our farewell weekend with R who is relocating from the Netherlands to California.

What I couldn’t say, because of the secrecy involved, was that our friend A has flown in from Shanghai to join us. She has made a trip back, with ten days notice, to be with us again. Two years ago we were all in Maastricht saying goodbye to her.

In those two years the lives of everyone in the group (or Coven as Harry prefers to call it) have changed, dramatically for some, more subtly for others, but changed none the less.

Lives have changed but we haven’t.

It goes back to shared history, slowly learning each other’s stories, finding the depth and breadth of who we are. We are all different and would never have met if it hadn’t been for this roller coaster of a life we find ourselves living. We know each other’s children, families, spouses, hopes, dreams and fears.

When we meet up it will be as if we were together last week. There will be hugs, tears and laughter. We know who will be sharing rooms with who, it will fall naturally into place.

In the years these women have been my friends there has been no bitching, arguing, snide remarks, atmospheres or tension. We don’t gossip about each other or anyone else (unless, of course, it’s particularly juicy) and no one has an agenda.

Good friends make life magical – they are the spark that ignites us, giving support in other areas of our lives, encouragement to follow our dreams, faith in ourselves.  It’s one heck of a nurturing experience.

There will also be alcohol and chocolate involved, what more could we ask for?

”Don’t be dismayed at good-byes. A farewell is necessary before you can meet again. And meeting again, after moments or lifetimes, is certain for those who are friends.’
~ Richard Bach

‘Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.’
~ Helen Keller

‘The making of friends, who are real friends, is the best token we have of a man’s success in life.’
~ Edward Everett Hale

‘There is nothing worth the wear of winning, but laughter and the love of friends.’
~ Hillaire Belloc

Posted in Expat Experiences, Inspiration and Reflection, Women and Female Related | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Fond Farewells and Private Tears

Blogs the next few days will be a little different. Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t blog at all, but having taken on a challenge to blog every day for thirty days straight one has to get a little, well, resourceful.

The reason I wouldn’t normally be blogging the next few days?

Two farewell lunches today and a farewell weekend away with girlfriends tomorrow. It’s that time of year when people start to leave, and because many of my friends have seniors in high school it’s a natural point for them to move on to another place or move back home. These parents are having leaving ‘do’s’ early so as not to interfere with Graduation in May.

Which means for those of us left behind the goodbyes are starting earlier than ever.

It’s bittersweet. We celebrate with and support those who are packing up and saying goodbye, we reminisce, laugh, encourage and hold back the tears till we are safely home. It’s emotionally exhausting in so many ways, on so many levels.

For the left-behinds that stark realisation we have to make new friends. Again.

I leave for the weekend tomorrow morning with the remnants of ‘our group’. We were eight, now we are four but the hearts all of us will be there tomorrow, C and N are in New Jersey and California respectively, B is in Belgium (and will be joining us) and A is in Shanghai. We have a pretty good idea how our time together will be, having done this so many times before.

The eight of us have history. Everything we’ve ever done together has been fun, glorious fun. As soon as we’re in that car tomorrow on the way to Spa, Belgium, the fun will start.

One trip to Edinburgh we were at the airport six hours early so we could be together, shop and have coffee at Starbucks. Another weekend to Maastricht took eight hours to get there because we had to stop for lunch enroute and lost the car. Well, forgot where we parked it.

The spirit of those who have already left will be with us in the laughter and reminiscences, memories are the bonds that bind us together for always.

So forgive me if I need to take a moment to regroup and get back on track.

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible. Consider the posts over the next few days as lagniappe, that wonderful New Orleans expression for ‘a bit extra’.

Posted in Advice for New Arrivals in the Netherlands, Expat Experiences, Inspiration and Reflection, Women and Female Related | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Filed and Finished – Finally

I have to admit to feeling a little pleased with myself today. I wouldn’t go so far as to say smug because that would be tempting the fates, we don’t have to poke them with a stick to get their attention, they’re focused enough without our help.

My feeling good is down to having removed the monkey off my back who has been there since January. An intensely annoying little beast he’s been too, keeping me awake some nights, losing paperwork when I need it and giving me mental blocks when asked for a document by our accountants.

As of now, this morning, all our tax affairs are in order. The coffers of the belastingdienst have been filled and Uncle Sam will be rubbing his hands with glee. Another year filed, checked off and out of the way.

You may remember I blogged about tax season back in January Life’s Certainties: the Dutch and Taxes .

It’s a time of year I hate due to the bad financial advice we were given when we first arrived here, which took several years to resolve. Unfortunately there’s a remnant of that psychological trauma which has me on edge waiting for the worst to happen every year. The words ‘IRS’ and ‘audit’ are not ones I ever want to hear.

We are very happy with our current accountants, who are bi-lingual and understand the tax laws of the Netherlands and the USA. They are approachable, efficient and great to deal with.

So here I am feeling a heavy weight has been lifted and it’s feeling pretty darn good.

There’s something very intimidating about living in a country and not being at ease with the way things are done, especially important things like tax and legal issues. After five years I’m finally comfortable with getting our taxes submitted in a timely manner.

Our Dutch return is, obviously, written in Dutch and whilst our linguistic skills in the reading department are better than our verbal ones, it does take a few years to get to grips with the legalese used the world over by government departments.

I used to phone the Dutch tax office if I had a query or didn’t understand something and they would be most helpful and explain a technicality in English.

Unfortunately, the last time I called and got through to the right department after navigating the telephone menu, Franck told me, in Dutch, that he could no longer speak to me in English, I would have to ask my question in his native tongue.

‘You’re kidding me right?’

‘Nay mevrouw u moet aan me in het Nederlands spreken.’ You don’t need me to translate.

‘Franck, I speak to you every year and you’ve never done this to me before.’

There was an uncomfortable silence then a rasping whisper came over the line, ‘I know Mrs Dean, but we are not allowed to speak English to anyone anymore. It’s the new rules, I’m so sorry.’

‘Oh heck, Franck, what are we supposed to do now? This is difficult enough to do if you’re fluent in the language!’ I found myself whispering back, despite being alone in my kitchen.

‘I know mevrouw, it’s crazy but that is the new policy, you will have to let your accountant deal with it.’ I can hear the chinking of money pouring into the pockets of accountants everywhere.

I’ve missed my annual chats with Franck but one has to move on, and for the record I completely agree with the belastingdienst policy that Dutch tax matters should only be dealt with in the Dutch language. It is complex information and their own staff can inadvertently give out wrong information due to translation difficulties.

We had a situation with the Gemeente (Town hall) when we first arrived here. We got a bill in the mail from them for €4000 ($5750) and had no clue what it was for.

In those early days we often paid bills because we assumed they would be correct – we later discovered many were charity appeals with a bank slip attached which we presumed was a bill. There are an awful lot of senior citizens who’ve probably been on some good excursions to the Caribbean on our inadvertent donations.

We figured €4000 was a bit steep to pay without investigation so set off to the Gemeente to find out why we owed them this amount of money. Was it a tax we were unaware of and hadn’t factored in our budget?

Our first contact was the man behind the main desk who spends his day dealing with the crazy, manic-eyed foreigners who have arrived in his town. He scratched his head, made several phone calls to various departments trying to discover what the bill was for. He did agree absolutely that it was a demand for money, not a request for a donation.

The consensus of opinion after an hour or so of consultations was that nobody knew which department it had come from or what it was actually for.

The man behind the counter shrugged his shoulders in that ‘go figure’ kind of way, scrunched up the bill and threw it his trash basket. We never heard anything after that but we’ve been very wary of unexpected demands for money ever since.

Five years in and for the first time we’re feeling a real sense of having got a handle on the way things work here, being ahead of the game for once rather than endlessly running to catch up. We feel we’re running with the pack and not caught off guard when unexpected letters arrive from official institutions.

Perhaps it’s being comfortable with things like this that make us at home in a foreign culture, rather than feeling as if we’re in a rudderless boat on storm-tossed seas.

It would be nice to think so, especially on a feel good day like today.

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

And Death Came Third: Facing Your Fears

I was chatting with someone recently and they mentioned a book whose title has played on my mind ever since. Called And Death Came Third, it was the title which initially caught my interest.

I haven’t read the book (yet) but the idea is based on the premiss that people’s biggest fear is walking into a room full of strangers and networking, second is public speaking and death comes third – hence the title.

It got me thinking about the weird things people are scared of which can, in some extreme cases, stop them living a full and satisfying life. In the business world public speaking is part of what you have to do and our children regularly give presentations at school as part of the curriculum. It’s something we all face in life at some point, whether in a personal or business environment.

Now I have no problem walking into a room full of people and chatting, networking, whatever you want to call it. If there was an Olympic medal for talking I’d be up there in the rankings. I regard it as a room full of strangers waiting to become friends – I want to get to know everyone, hear their stories.

My big fear, after snakes, roaches and spiders, is public speaking, and definitely ranks ahead of death in my book. Put me on stage, give me a role to play and I’m fine. Ask me to stand on a stage and speak to a room full of strangers as myself, not a chance. Even speaking to a meeting full of people I know makes me want to throw up. It’s something that has stopped me doing things I’d really like to. See something I want get involved in and it calls for speaking in public, forget it.

In recent years though, things have changed. I’ve discovered if you’re put in a situation and there is no choice but to face the fear, you can do it.

Take snakes. Photographs of them I can just about handle, glass tanks full of them only if I’m stood well back. See one in real life and I’m stood on a chair, feeling like someone has poured iced water over me and wanting to scream like a banshee in the adrenaline rush of fear.

I got over snakes after hurricane Katrina, when water piled in front of the storm surged eight miles inland. It retreated dragging the contents of the Louisiana swamp back with it through our house.

Everyday I’d have to kill at least one of the darn things – not by hand but with a shovel. Chop their heads off. You have to. I found one huge cotton mouth curled up in my son’s guitar amplifier, so huge my hunting, shooting, gun-toting neighbour wouldn’t come near it without snake boots and firearms. I still don’t like snakes but I don’t have nightmares about them.

The same with spiders. Now those I did have nightmares about. That phobia was cured by my eldest son announcing there was a Black Widow spider sat in a web by the garage door and there was no way he was going anywhere near it… especially as it was about to give birth.

Let me tell you if my reptile loving son – who would rescue snakes from my manic antics with a shovel – wasn’t going near it, there was no chance for me. However, the prospect of a garage overrun with Black Widows was enough for me to face my fears, get in there and get rid of it. I saw an awful lot of respect in both my boys’ eyes after that.

After facing some of my primal fears post-hurricane the only block left in life was public speaking, but like the previous fears fate intervened and gave me no choice.

My spouse skyped home during a business trip to Manila. In the middle of cooking dinner with my laptop perched precariously on the toaster, I make it clear I was quite busy, and couldn’t he call later?

‘Not really darling, have you any idea how late it is here?’ he had a point. ‘I’ve just called to give you a heads up. They’ll be an email coming to you tonight from the company, about a ship launch in Rotterdam next week.’

‘Ha, so I finally get invited to do something fun do I? Next week?’  I was rattling saucepans by this stage and not really listening.

‘Well, yes, they’ve had to bring the launch date forward, a problem at the shipyard,’ he sounded a bit edgy, ‘they’d like you to be the Godmother.’

There’s no need to go into the finer details of my reaction, suffice it to say I had eight days to write a speech for Christening the ship – launched with the obligatory champagne bottle ; buy a gift from myself to the ship to be presented to the Captain (‘some artwork would be ideal and if you could say a few words as you present it that would be great – oh, and can you arrange for an engraved plaque to be attached to it?’); buy a new outfit suitable for a ship launch – and the killer, make a thank you speech after the Celebration Lunch at the Rotterdam Yacht Club.

No pressure there then.

It’s amazing what you can make yourself do in situations where you have no option but to take a deep breath and get on with it. Did I want to decline the ship launch? Hell yes, but I didn’t want to let my husband down either – let’s face it I hadn’t been chosen for the honour because of my service to the company.

Having faced down snakes, spiders and public speaking, I’m now prepared to take on most things. I’m proud to say death comes first in the fear rankings now, although I’m starting to see that as the beginning of a whole new adventure…

And Death Came Third!                                    

Andy Lopata andPeter Roper P aperback : 224 pages

Publisher: Lean Marketing Press (March 30, 2006) 

Language: English                 

ISBN-10: 1905430159

 

Posted in Expat Experiences, Expat Related Book Reviews, Personal challenges, Politics and Social Comment | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Exclusion Zones and Social Politics

I try very hard every day to do the right thing, behave well and all that stuff. It doesn’t always work, but I figure trying and failing has better results than not trying at all. I wrote about how I try to achieve this in Negative? Moi? a blog I wrote a few weeks ago so won’t bore you by repeating the details but please feel free to read it if you’d like.

Today I find myself in a situation which has affected others because I followed my personal ethics and didn’t say something when perhaps I should. I made a decision without consulting other people, because to have done so would have meant giving an opinion which could have been perceived as negative.

It wasn’t a matter of life or death, or illegal or threatening to anyone else, that would have been entirely different situation.

This was something as unimportant (in the scheme of things) as being asked my opinion on who would be a good fit for a proposed project. I failed to mention one person who I genuinely felt would not fit well in this particular group dynamic.

I didn’t mention her name or make any comment about her, just didn’t include her. I based the decision on my knowledge, preconceptions and, let’s face it, gut feelings.

In an expat community where everyone is living away from their home country people try hard to offer help, extend the hand of friendship, show kindness and include people in things – the United Nations would be proud.

In this current situation I said nothing but managed to convey information, make a judgement, without saying a word. I don’t feel good about it as the woman concerned later felt excluded.

As adults we learn we can’t be included in everything all the time, it would be a sad world if we did everything with the same people.

Being honest I will admit there have been times when my name hasn’t been on an invitation list and there’s been a tiny voice inside wondering plaintively, ‘what’s wrong with me?’. We’ve all been there but let’s get real, as adults we deal with it.

I love the fact my friends are involved in different things from me, it gives us so much to talk about when we get together. Through them I meet new people, make new friends and our circle grows. If I’m honest there are times I’m relieved not to be included in something, it saves me finding an excuse not to go.

I feel bad the woman concerned felt hurt and I want to be sure I did the right thing. Why? Because it matters to me – the only person I’m accountable to at the end of the day is the person who looks back in the mirror.

Did I genuinely exclude her name based only on the remit I was given, or do I have other issues I’m not facing. And would I make the same decision if I had to make it again?

Absolutely.

Because if you asked me to recommend someone who is involved, committed, driven, engaged and works hard to get things done, then she’d be top of my list.

Glad that’s out of the way. Another coffee pot issue dealt with, which is a huge relief as I much prefer tea…

Posted in Inspiration and Reflection, Personal challenges, Women and Female Related | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Dutch Death and Taxes: Where There’s a Will There’s a Lawyer

This week has seen the Captain and I have our annual meeting with our Dutch and US accountants – enough angst to put both of us in need of a long vacation somewhere warm, with hammocks, and 24-hour room service.

The Captain had taken a days vacation to attend the meeting and we decided in a moment of exceptional time management to schedule an appointment with a Dutch lawyer on the same day, to draw up a Dutch will.

You may be sat there with a smug sense of being ahead of us, thinking, ‘we have a Will, we are fine’. Trust me, if it’s not Dutch and you’re living in the Netherlands then it’s not valid.

We were told by the lawyer that we may have a last Will and Testament from any other country in the world but it will not be recognised by the Dutch authorities. I’m not sure if this is entirely true – do some internet research and opinions seem to differ.

The expat rumour mill is full of conspiracy theories – die here and the authorities will tax everything you own at 100% and take your children (under 18) into the care of the state until the mess you have left is resolved. A Dutch judge will appoint a guardian and if your children are pre-teens they may will be adults by the time the paperwork is completed, unless they’ve already been sold into slavery or put into pies and eaten.

I can only recount what we were advised by the lawyer. Maybe different scenarios have differing outcomes, we’re still confused.

All we wanted was a basic will (ie inexpensive) where the remaining spouse gets everything on the death of the first, and the kids can divvy up what’s left when the second parent dies. After a heavy morning with the accountants we discussed the will over lunch – we knew what we wanted to do and could be in and out of the lawyer’s office in twenty minutes. How hard could it be?

Our naïvety was astounding.

Of course it isn’t that easy. The lawyer talked at length on how our estate has to be legally divided or ‘labelled’ as he preferred to call it. It seems the children have rights where an inheritance is concerned – we can’t disown them when they go against our sage wisdom and advice or elope with unsuitable partner.

This came as rather a shock. In Dutch law our children have rights. How had this been allowed to happen in a civilised society? The threat of a lost inheritance through bad choices on their part is the only weapon we have these days, and a pretty feeble one at that.

I admit I did lose the plot a couple of times and faded off into a mind fog, but was pulled back by the look of absolute concentration on the Captain’s face – we needed two of us focused on this.

The lawyer was drawing intricate diagrams with a multitude of intersecting lines on a large legal pad outlining various scenarios of what money would go where depending who died first and how all that would change again on the death of the second spouse. It looked more like a design plan for a space shuttle than an explanation of inheritance laws.

Half way through the meeting it dawned on us this was very similar to the Napoleonic code of inheritance followed in the state of Louisiana which, obviously, was based on the French system. We breathed a sigh of relief, back in a zone not entirely comfortable but not as alien as we’d thought. Pretty darn complicated though.

We should have the paperwork through by next week and have asked for a translated copy just to make sure we are signing the document we think we are. For all we know we could end up leaving everything to the Dutch Law Society Christmas Party Fund. The translation will cost more than the Will, which in itself is pretty steep.

By the time we left the building our brains were mush and there was still a blog to write. Hence the Tylenol and Pinot.

We have not told our children they have a guaranteed inheritance, because as of right now we are worth more to them dead than alive, and Harry has his sights set on a very expensive college…

FOR THE RECORD:

‘If you are resident in the Netherlands when you die, Dutch Inheritance Tax will be due ON YOUR WORLD WIDE ASSETS… as a result, your assets may be subject to double or even triple taxation.’

Taken from an information booklet published by:                                                                    Pels Rijcken and Droogleever
Advocaten en notarissen
Den Haag

http://www.passionateparenting.nl/.

 

Posted in Dutch Culture, Dutch Laws, Taxes and Bureaucracy, Expat Experiences, Family Life, The Netherlands | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Girlfriends and Sunny Days

I have written far too many words this week and it is the weekend, so perhaps a shorter blog may be allowed.

Yesterday I decided to have some down time after a hectic week and was looking forward to a birthday lunch with girlfriends. What a wonderful treat and boost to sagging energy levels it was.

There’s something incredibly enriching being with girlfriends. I love them dearly, wherever in the world they are. Time nor distance ever separates true friends, they are with you in your heart always.

It’s said you have friends for different times and reasons through your life and I think that’s true.

If we’re lucky we have friends we’ve known for always, our guardian angels who will stand beside us as we weather life’s storms, will take a phone call at three in the morning and be on the next flight if you need them. And you would do just the same for them. We watch our children grow, lose sleep worrying about each other, cry together when life falls apart, celebrate the good times and cheer each other on when we need it. They are our life friends.

In a nomadic, expat environment friendships are stellar – they develop quickly and are intense by necessity. They burn brightly and more often than not shoot away from us when we least expect it. In the time we are with them they become family and life-friends in an alien country away from home.

This time of year is bittersweet for many expats as friends move to pastures new and leave a void that can seem like a black hole. It’s an emotion that squeezes your heart which you won’t acknowledge till the round of goodbyes is over.

Yesterday, laughing and reminiscing, I looked round the table and had a moment of clarity. I was with friends, some I’ve known for a long time and some I’ve only got to know in the last few months. It didn’t matter, what mattered was what each of them meant to me.

We all struggle with losing friends, saying goodbye well and closing the loop – but it is a loop, a circle, with friendship embraced in its centre, safe, nurtured and enduring.

We support and encourage those leaving, listening to their plans for a new life without us. We do not allow ourselves to feel sadness or regret, knowing some day someone will share that same journey with us as we say goodbye. The sadness will come later when their home is lived in by another family and day to day life is poorer for them not being around.

What struck me for the first time yesterday was that friendship can’t be measured by time, it is measured only by sharing, connecting, being comfortable in the same space, and being yourself without judgment or censure.

All of those women round the table were unique, funny, smart, caring, fun and my life has been enriched for knowing them and nothing can lessen or negate that. They will always be a part of me whatever happens in the future.

It was a moment of sheer happiness (possibly helped by a shared bottle of champagne) – friendship doesn’t end when someone moves away, it merely changes shape, colour and texture.

Today I salute my girlfriends everywhere and thank you for your friendship, laughter and most of all for giving of yourselves.

Posted in Advice for New Arrivals in the Netherlands, Expat Experiences, Inspiration and Reflection, The Netherlands, Women and Female Related | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Loving your Dutch Bike

Ask anyone to think of anything Dutch and I guarantee the top four will be, in no particular order, tulips, windmills, clogs and bikes.

Bikes will always be listed – they are such an ingrained part of Dutch life and wherever you go hundreds will be parked up in cycle racks. Every Dutch person owns at least one and 98% of them will be the same basic old-fashioned design known as an omafiets (Grandma bike), with baskets of some description up front, panniers behind.

Buttock-supporting saddle of a seat, brakes (if you’re lucky), built-in bike lock and three gears. These bikes are stately, solid, reliable and oh so comfortable and everybody rides them from grande dames to trendy teens. It’s just what you do.

Before we moved to the Netherlands we decided to equip ourselves with two-wheeled transportation; we’d heard rumours that the cost of buying a bicycle in the Netherlands would buy a small car in the US. With enthusiasm we headed off to purchase three flashy, 27-gear mountain bikes, with which to explore our soon-to-be new home. The three together, we subsequently discovered, costing less than one basic omafiets.

The purchase itself was a daunting task as neither the Captain nor I had been on a bike since our teens. Harry had been taught to ride from being young, using the tried-and-tested-over-several-generations family technique of attaching a cut down walking stick to the bike frame. In the days before safety helmets and knee pads this allowed some control over the wobbling learner by the biking instructor. No wussy stabilising wheels for us.

Harry peddled off round the store having grasped the concept of gear changing immediately, the Captain in hot pursuit. I stood looking at the gears wondering how hard it could be. Back in the day my old bike had three gears – uphill, flat and downhill. The combination in front of me was like looking like something off the bridge of the Enterprise. You had to engage first (I think) in one main gear then select one of eight gears within that combination. Bloody hell. I managed to manoeuvre forward although it was like pedalling up Everest towing Noah’s Ark.

‘Alright darling?’ breezed the Captain as he and Harry swooshed past on their third circuit of the store. Obviously not, but I’d figured it was a rhetorical question.

The boys were quite gleeful by this stage, making excited plans to undertake regular bike rides to acclimate to this new mode of personal transportation.

‘So, your bike’s okay too?’ asked my spouse brightly, having been transported back to his youth in a matter of minutes.

‘Yes thanks, it’s absolutely fine.’ That was the clue right there.

‘Sure you don’t want to check any more out, make sure that’s really The One?’ Was he insane?

‘No, this one’s absolutely fine. Really. Perfect. Honestly.’ I smiled enthusiastically to emphasize the point. Not that he was picking up any signals as he and Harry were already on the accessories aisle, looking for things they couldn’t live without.

Back at our house, with the Captain now in the Netherlands (this was all pre-relocation), Harry and siblings were spending time each day riding round our subdivision. Missy had taken over ownership of my bike and the three of them would set off – Bruce yelling older-brother advice, Missy looking gorgeous and Harry giggling and weaving all over the place.

There was no relationship at any point between my derrière and the seat of my bike.

Things didn’t improve when we arrived in the Netherlands, mid-summer. It was only in the soft days of the Fall that the bike was pulled from the garage and used. Lord I hated that bike. There was no position where it didn’t cause excruciating pain to regions you hope never to experience pain, unless it involves giving birth. It didn’t matter how short the distance, I’d dismount feeling more wretched than Roy Rodgers after a week or so in the saddle.

The situation with the gears was increasing my stress levels, spending more time figuring and factoring their delicate nuances than pedalling through, and relaxing in, glorious countryside.

The Netherlands is criss-crossed with miles and miles of bike paths through fields adorned with the ubiquitous black and white cows, alongside canals flanked by windmills. I saw none of it. Between the pain in my butt and balancing the gear changes with the right level of pedalling, the bike rides were miserable.

I tried everything – gel undergarments (yes, really) which my hairdresser recommended – the idea being the derrière would have a comforting layer of gel between it and the saddle. It was a unique sensation but a complete failure in decreasing pain levels.

We invested in various saddles – bigger to support what I assumed was my overly huge rear, but this was not helpful, it just spread the pain over a larger area, smaller to reduce the area impacted by pain, but that resulted in increased trauma in more intimate spots. In the end we found what I hoped would be my salvation. The blurb insisted this saddle was perfect for women, giving ultimate support to the bone structure of the pelvic area.

This was my Holy Grail. Life on a bike would be perfect.

It just looked a bit weird, rather like a three leaved clover. Two rounded mounds on the rear of the saddle, one on the front and the whole thing smaller than a side plate. Balancing on it was just one more thing to factor into a bike ride.

I have to say it did cause great amusement wherever I went, looking as if had been purchased from an adult store not Halfords. I have to admit to any normal person it did look odd and one could assume its main use was for insertion rather than support. (This is The Netherlands after all). Older house vrouws in particular would give me very severe looks, and I’d see groups of teens pointing at it, doubled up with hysterical and obscene laughter.

The two final straws in my love/ hate relationship with my bike occurred within weeks of each other. The first was a bike ride with two of my girlfriends through the dunes to Katwijk, just up the coast to the north.

‘It’s a beautiful ride,’ enthused my dear friend Susan, ‘it only takes twenty minutes, and we can have lunch on the beach when we get there.’

I’d forgotten the dunes are huge – several stories high in places, with the bike path snaking up and down and in between them.

It took over an hour to get there and I had more gears changes than Jeremy Clarkson on a Top Gear special. We found a delightful eatery where I could ease myself into a cushioned chair and the three of us imbibed several fortified coffees and a glass or two of wine – in my case for medicinal purposes to anaesthetise my rear in preparation for the ride home.

We emerged from lunch to find a group of holiday makers round my bike chatting animatedly and pointing at my bike saddle. The conversation stopped dead as I retrieved the bike – none would make eye contact.

The second incident involved a bike trip across the dunes south to Scheveningen, the seaside suburb of The Hague. Eight couples planned an evening bike ride for an Indian curry and a few beers, riding home on a bright evening speckled with twinkling stars. That was the plan.

I won’t go into details but the ride home was a nightmare. It was pitch black, no lights and no stars. The only decent bike light was the dynamo on Louise’s bike so she had to lead us home through the dunes. We’d only been riding for five minutes when my wheel veered off the bike path and was stopped dead as it ran into sand. The bike stopped, I didn’t. I’d been busy watching our lead light and it was impossible, in the dark, to differentiate between path and sandy sidewalk.

Two kilometres from home, whilst executing a tricky gear change I rode head on into a large prickly, very dense bush. By this time the Captain and I were alone, the others so far ahead they may as well have not been with us.

That was the last time I rode that bike.

I am now the proud owner of a second-hand omafiets with three gears, brakes, built-in lock, wicker basket up front and panniers behind. You’ll often see me whizzing along, dog trotting alongside, with a beaming smile and a painless rear.

I absolutely LOVE my bike.

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

Dutch Rules and Regulations

There’s no getting away from it, the Dutch are a nation managed by infinite rules and regulations. They are there for a reason, they work and are immoveable. Even Moses would have had a tough time without the Ten Commandments in triplicate and verified by an authority higher than God.

This is not a complaint – it just takes a little adjustment if your life before the Netherlands allowed more flexibility in the rules department. We relocated from Louisiana USA, so you can appreciative our culture shock where unbendable rules are concerned. The trick is to find out about the rules, protocols and minutiae of social behaviour before you have the chance to screw up. Not likely if you’ve just stepped off the boat.

One Dutch rule which does perplex and aggravate me is the requirement to carry personal identification at all times. Not only identification, but the right sort of identification.

As is usual in our family the Captain arrived in the Netherlands ahead of us, got his required residency card and was good to go. By the time we breezed in the rules had changed. Residency cards were no longer issued – a rather colourful, official visa-like document was super-glued into our passports instead.

At my interview with the Dutch Immigration services I was handed back my newly decorated passport without a residency card and was disappointed.  I felt I should make sure there hadn’t been a mistake, unlikely with Dutch bureaucracy but you never know. I looked inquiringly at the poker faced official, nervous smile in place.

‘Thank you so much for your help, but don’t we get a residency card too?’

‘You no longer need one, mevrouw – the document in your passport will be sufficient proof of residency,’ he beamed, rather patronisingly, as if speaking with a three-year old. Which I suppose I am when it comes to dealing with the intricacies of the Dutch immigration laws.

‘But what about having the residency card for identity purposes?’

Mevrouw, your passport will suffice,’ the smile became tighter, the eyes a little less friendly, the poker face showed a twitch of annoyance.

‘I’m so sorry, I’m obviously being a bit dense.’ His expression confirmed this.

‘What you’re actually saying is I’m supposed to carry my passport with me at all times?’ His smile broadened with pleasure that I’d finally grasped the concept.

Fortunately, I’ve never been stopped by an official demanding any form of identification since then, which is a good thing as I never carry my passport. Let’s face it, the chance of me losing it is high and often a driver’s license will suffice in day-to-day life, but there are times when having the correct form of ID is crucial.

Let me elaborate.

It’s a fact known to everyone except new arrivals that the debit cards issued by Dutch banks are extremely fragile and temperamental compared to the more robust counterparts in other countries. Put them near cell phones, keys and other random domestic items and the magnetic strip on the card has a complete meltdown and wipes itself clean. The first inkling you’ll have of this catastrophic event will be when you try to use it and it fails to work.

It will always happen at the store with a cart full of shopping in the spare 25 minutes before a dental appointment. The check-out woman will suggest that maybe the card has been wiped clean.

‘Excuse me?’ Assuming you have funds in your bank account this really won’t compute with any previous life experience.

‘Yes, mevrouw, it happens all the time. Have you had it near any other bank cards or a cell phone perhaps?’ No, but I know someone who has. ‘You must go straight to the bank and they will sort it out for you. You can leave your shopping here and come back when you’ve sorted things out.’

The bank was, thankfully, empty. I knew the staff, they knew me. I explained my predicament. They smiled – this is a regular occurrence in the banking world. I felt myself calming down. I could withdraw cash and a new card would arrive in the mail in a couple of days. My faith in the system was being restored.

‘That’s about it then Mrs. Dean, all I need to see is your ID.’ I slid my newly laminated Dutch drivers’ licence across the counter, complete with photograph, far too many personal details and probably my DNA profile embedded in the chip.

‘I’m sorry Mrs. Dean but this will not do.’ His voice conveyed a well practised tone of concern and solicitation. ‘We require an acceptable form of ID.’

‘I’m sorry?’ Not so much sorry as stunned.’But you know me and my driver’s licence has all the information you need on it.’ It probably had my blood group on it too – information which might be needed should my head explode.

‘Why is it not acceptable?’ I tried to remain calm, aware the hands on the clock behind the counter were ticking closer to my dental appointment, and my frozen goods at Albert Hein were defrosting and it dawned on me that dinner was sitting in the cart.

The powers that be required my passport. A photocopy sat in our personal file open on the desk – I could see it lying there, but a photocopy was not acceptable. There was no option but to drive home and find it.

There was no time now to retrieve my groceries before seeing the dentist, who would charge for a missed appointment if I turned up five minutes late – that’s the rule.

Some days you have to accept there’s nothing else you can do but go with the flow, breathe deeply and chant ‘serenity now’ through gritted, pristinely cleaned teeth.

Posted in Advice for New Arrivals in the Netherlands, Dutch Culture, Dutch Laws, Taxes and Bureaucracy, Expat Experiences, Family Life | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

The Art of Thinking

In my opinion thinking is a much underrated pastime, often confused with indolence and idleness by those who do not allow their thoughts to roam freely and often. I can recommend doing nothing but thinking as a wonderful way to pass an hour or two, preferably in a hammock with a glass of wine to hand.

You can take a book, pretending to spend time improving or enriching your mind, but I guarantee within a few minutes the book will fall unhurriedly to your chest as your eyes are caught by, perhaps, the swaying of the branches overhead, the fantastical shape of a scudding cloud, or your breath is taken away by the violet blueness of a vibrant summer sky.

This implies good weather but the sense of relaxation can equally by achieved with the same glorious results curled in a chair on a rainy day, watching the ribbons of rain snaking down the window pane, and listening to the popping of scented wood burning slowly in a fire grate, watching smoke wisping in spirals up the chimney.

It’s an opportunity to set all your senses free to explore the space around you. The ticking of a clock, the scent of roses, the feel of the fabric of the chair holding you safe, the taste of springtime on your tongue (try it), the glimpse of the living world outside your window.

I’ve always felt guilty about my thinking time but it is a delicious and necessary pleasure. Every day I try to find a moment or two of stillness to just be. Having a dog comes in handy, a grand excuse to find a secluded spot somewhere in the woods or by the sea.

It was with great delight I received an email from the Captain recently, forwarding an article published in  the UK Independent newspaper by the author, playwright, screenwriter and filmmaker Hanif Kureishi.  The article is no longer available at the Independent but I found it reproduced on a blog so click the link if you’re interested in reading it.

Entitled  The Art of writing: Hanif Kureishi reveals how to succeed in the worlds of fiction and film, it wasn’t so much the title of the article that engaged me, rather some of his comments in it descibing how he spent his time. 

I can’t begin to tell you what hard work it is looking out of the window and wondering about your favourite pen, and which colour ink you prefer that day, but few will be convinced.”’

A man after my own heart who understands the point of being lost in thought, whatever that thought may be. I’m so relieved.

I was beginning to think I was a lazy and self indulgent, shooting the breeze while the rest of the world focused on making their hamster-wheel lives turn ever faster.  But now I know I’m not alone, there are other day-dreamers like me. Some have bigger dreams than others but that’s not the point – it’s allowing yourself to dream, to lose yourself for a while, that matters.

The cushions on my chair are plumped, the cup of tea beside it steaming, and those sliding raindrops on the window are calling…

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

Pillow Talk: The Best Way to Learn a New Language

The Dutch are an enigmatic race. On the one hand conservative to a fault, on the other broad-minded, tolerant and objective. A confusing mix for the outsider – you think you have the culture sussed then something goes and blows your preconceptions away.

One thing everyone thinks they know about the Dutch is their perceived tolerance to drugs and sex. Not necessarily.

Every Dutch person I’ve spoken to on the subject has had the same response – a slight puckering of the forehead, a considered intake of breath and a resigned explanation of the drug and brothel policy. Happy with the situation? Not entirely. So why the apparent tolerance if they don’t agree with it?

The Dutch are a pragmatic nation. The best definition of pragmatic I’ve found which epitomises their attitude is, ‘ …solving problems in a realistic way which suits the present conditions rather than obeying fixed theories, ideas or rules’ (Cambridge Dictionary – the OED definition was too convoluted on this occasion).

Along with the official attitude to drug use, the Netherlands consistently has one of the lowest teen pregnancy/ abortion rates in the world, and, according to UNICEF, Dutch children are the happiest in Europe and rank highly when rated against the rest of the world.

Hmm, food for thought then, especially when the drinking age is sixteen for wine and beer, eighteen for spirits. And the legal age for sex, sixteen.

No wonder just-arrived-American–moms-of-teens turn pale in horror when they are informed, gently, of what their teens are legally allowed to do. It’s only with time, acclimatisation and observation they appreciate the country is not overrun with drunk, high, sex-crazed teens round every corner. Generally they are responsible, mature and very well-adjusted but it does make mom’s house rules a bit harder to enforce.

These open attitudes aren’t confined to one age group either as both Missy and I have discovered.

I often run into a Dutch neighbour while we’re both dog walking and we walk and talk together. P’s English is excellent, not surprising as she worked in New York for ten years. When I first met her I apologised haltingly for my limited, spoken Dutch. She laughed brightly, said it was a waste of time as all the Dutch were such excellent linguists and we chatted on the subject for a while. She is also fluent in French and Italian.

Half-way through our chat she suddenly paused, turned to me and said, ‘You know, if you’re serious about learning the language the best way to learn is to take a Dutch lover’.

I was about to roar with delight at her sense of humour, when fortunately I turned to her, looked at her face and realised she was totally serious. Seeing my expression she shrugged her shoulders in that almost French way, smiled, and replied in her flawless English, ‘How do you think I’m so good at languages?’

I don’t remember the rest of the conversation. In my world this is not something you would drop into the conversation on a first meeting. We think P and her husband have been through a troubled time of late and it did cross my mind she’s perhaps been learning a new language. Her husband was seen hurling items of her clothing from a window during a rather heated row.

I put P’s comments down to their being her personal philosophy on linguistics until the other week, when our daughter, Missy, arrived home from work, agitated, with a slightly manic expression in her eyes.

‘I don’t believe it mom, I really don’t believe it!’ She’s only been here a month and is still in the throes of major culture shock. She spent the majority of her life growing up in the American South, but even the perceived lurid sexuality of New Orleans is pretty parochial compared to the Netherlands.

It seems after strolling to Albert Hein for a sandwich in her lunch hour, she got into conversation with an elderly woman in the check-out line. ‘Mom, she was at least 80, I’m not kidding.’

It seems the delightful woman was discussing my daughter’s lack of spoken Dutch – all in English of course. Missy explained with an easy intimacy gained from having grown up in the Deep South, that she’d only been here for a few weeks but was already picking up a few words and wasn’t as intimidated as she had been when she first arrived.

The old woman smiled sagely, nodded her head and said, ‘The fastest way to learn the language, my dear, is to take a Dutch lover.’

Missy is still in total shock – such a public exchange of this nature with a total stranger, particularly one over the age of 30, is completely alien to our southern belle and the conservative background she grew up in. Apparently, the visual of this elderly Grande dame having such thoughts at her advanced age was just too gross for Missy to compute.

I had to smile.

Just goes to show, ‘ …solving problems in a realistic way which suits the present conditions’ can have its upside and has given me a whole new respect for Dutch womanhood.

Posted in Dutch Culture, Family Life, Learning Dutch, Personal challenges, The Netherlands, Women and Female Related | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

The Ultimate Blog Challenge

Oh shoot, now I’ve really gone and done it. I’ve signed up, registered and will make have to make myself accountable. 

 Why do I always get gung-ho on an idea only to wake up the next day with that hangover-like feeling of having done something you really wish you hadn’t? Technically I haven’t been hung over for years as alcohol is so drying for the skin, but you get my drift. 

So what have I done that’s so headache inducing and will have me banging my head against the keyboard for the next 30 days? 

The Ultimate Blog Challenge that’s what. Am I mad? Perhaps. Hell, yes I am, and crazy too. The plan is to blog every day for the next 30 days. I’m feeling nauseous already. 

Its stressful enough blogging twice a week – I’ve always aimed for three times but haven’t managed it yet, so why would I try for seven days a week for the next four and half weeks? 

The therapist in my head would say I’m in denial about my own abilities and my dear mentor Jo Parfitt would sigh sadly and point out it’s up to me and I’d so hate to disappoint her. Jo is a woman with too much energy for a mere mortal as is my dear friend over at adventuresinexpatland both of whom are taking the challenge. How can I compare to their energy levels, drive and ability to pluck the perfect word from the air every time they need it? I must be a masochist.  

Certainly I’m a mere mortal with the month ahead full of distractions and life stuff guaranteed to fog the brain and bring on a violent headache. Oh Lord. 

This is a challenge supposed to excite, stimulate and get you writing more productively and faster than you do now. I’m sceptical. If the challenge is for the month of April (I’ve just read the small print and it is) then I’m already three days late, running behind the pack. I have that uncomfortable jittery feeling in my stomach of sitting in front of an exam paper with the dawning, icy realisation I’ve revised for the wrong exam. (It happened once and the recurring nightmares didn’t stop until I was 35). 

Why would any sane person put themselves through this? Ahh, well, sanity may be the issue here. But I’d like to try, make myself accountable and if I do start to write more effectively then what a great trade-off.  

Writing a blog takes me about 1000 words. Don’t know why that should be, (the rules say around 500 but I don’t do rules very well) it just seems the natural amount, twice a week when the wind’s in the right direction and the stars are aligned. So thirty days non stop is – gulp – 30,000 words – half a novel, or a novella. Hells bells. May have to rethink length of blogs. Will definitely have to rethink the length of the blogs. 

I’m checking my calendar in panic. In addition to regular life this month, we have two family birthdays, our wedding anniversary, vacation at Easter, a girls farewell weekend for a dear friend moving to California, (the day before that two farewell lunches and hosting a morning meeting) and a Royal Wedding. 

That’s what’s in the diary now and like everyone else I know it will fill up as the weeks go by. I may need to pencil in mental health days to protect my fragile emotional state. 

Oh, and I forgot an appointment this week with our Dutch and American accountants to find out how much the belastingdienst and IRS will be holding their hands out for. If you’ve read my blog Life’s Certainties; the Dutch and Taxes  you’ll fully appreciate why, for at least three days this week, I’ll by lying in a darkened room.

Breathe. Slowly. Feel your body relax, think beautiful thoughts, imagine yourself swinging in a hammock between two palm trees on a deserted beach, with the gentle gulf-warm water lapping languidly on a white, shimmering, deserted beach. A sighing, wafting breeze dancing in from the Caribbean scented with heat and spices, caressing the palm leaves, making them shiver; rippling softly over your sun drenched skin, warm and sensuous…

 Yeah right. 

Okay dear readers. I’m off to figure out a cunning plan of how the heck I’m going to do this. It will be a journey of self-discovery, finding and defining personal limits and head banging frustration, along, no doubt with several glasses of Albert Hein’s best Pinot Grigot. 

I’m holding myself accountable to you, because without you there would be no point. 

Anyone along for the ride?   

 

 

Posted in Inspiration and Reflection, Personal challenges, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Question: What is An Expat?

According to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) – for me the only font of knowledge when it comes to definitive explanation of all words English – ‘expatriate’ is defined as, ‘To expel, remove oneself from homeland; withdraw oneself from citizenship or allegiance’ or ‘Expatriated person living abroad’.

A broad and loose definition, encompassing a diversity of people who label themselves, or are labelled as, expats.

I got to thinking about this after reading an article by Efthymios Kotronias, a Greek who moved to the Netherlands in 2010. In The Word ‘Expat‘ he defines expats in the broadest sense as foreigners choosing to live in a country other than the one of their birth and the problems arising from that.

Kotronias makes a valid comment that the word expat, ‘… has not only entered into our modern-day language but it has also gradually replaced the word immigrant’. However, an expat isn’t necessarily an immigrant; generally an immigrant is someone who chooses to live in another country permanently for the remainder of their life.

Most career expats do not stay permanently in any one country, they move for work and usually repatriate to their home country eventually. There are also people who chose to live abroad for most of their working life, sometimes in only one country, but who will ultimately ‘go home’ to retire.

The expat experience will differ depending on life circumstances. Kotronias, a young single man (I think!) has a different outlook and attitude to a family on their fourth international move. Yet both regard themselves, and are regarded by others, as expats. Taking it a step further, the length of an expat’s stay in a foreign (to them) country will impact their attitude to integrating into another culture.

Most expats stay for a limited time and have a leaving date from the moment they arrive. It’s difficult for them to fully integrate with the language and culture when they know within a few years they’ll be moving on again – to a new country, with a new language and the process will start over again. In the limited time frame available most expats expend emotional energy on making friends and finding their way around geographically and bureaucratically, rather then immersing themselves into the culture.

Then there are others, like me, who know our stay is not permanent but have no idea how many years it’ll be before we leave. We integrate, take the best of the Netherlands and work with it, accept we are the foreigners, take responsibility for ourselves and adjust our attitude accordingly.

That said we are still outsiders and however positive our attitude, occasionally weariness can creep in. Weariness not negativity. Caught in the shadowy area between expat and immigrant. Yet there is something about living in, yet not a complete part of, your host country; observing, watching, listening. It’s a unique place, and one I enjoy immensely.

As the world changes (socially, economically and politically) and the global movement of people within it adjusts to those changes, maybe it’s time to reassess how we define an expat.

Any thoughts?

Posted in Advice for New Arrivals in the Netherlands, Expat Experiences | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Spring Time and Dutch Delights: Dutch Leisure Pursuits

Finally after six long months of cold, wet and dark the Spring Equinox has arrived, the first day in the year when day and night are of equal length. From now until September 21 the days will be longer than the nights and boy, does that lift the spirits.

After months of seeing the sun through a watery beige haze, or an insipid cream in a washed out blue sky (if we were lucky), it’s now making its journey north with bright expansive rays bringing the promise of warmth.

Through the winter months interaction with the Dutch is limited – the population scuttle from the cosiness of their homes only when necessary. They dress to match the climate in shades of black and charcoal, merging with the murky greyness, silent and ethereal as they go about their business in hostile silence. Contact with this semi-hibernating species is met with frowns, glares and words spat viciously. A wearing time for everyone.

All that is over, at least for the next six months. The past few days have been a flurry of activity as the Dutch have thrown off their winter slough, ditched the dull heavy clothes of winter and emerged into the spring, blinking in the unaccustomed brightness, waking as if from a depressing and gloomy dream and raring to go.

As the Captain and I lay propped up in bed over the weekend, we had a wonderful view of the comings and goings of the local populace beyond the sheep field next to us. We have an uninterrupted view of woodland, a bike path, a footpath and ruiter route (horse path). This past weekend it was like Grand Central Station before Christmas.

The bike clubs are back. The Lycra Lads in all their glory, professionally equipped with the latest cycling gadgets. We sipped tea and watched them swish past at ludicrous speed in their go-faster helmets, black lycra shorts and matching tops.

The Orange club had the most members this weekend, 26 of them in a tight cluster racing for their lives. After them a group in various shades of blue, strung out (literally?)  in a loose line with two or three here, a couple there, someone huffing and puffing at the back, undisciplined and a little unfit after the winter hiatus. They were followed by the casual weekend bike riders – American or British. They always chat, this is a social event, spending family time like the Dutch.

The give away they’re not Dutch are the safety helmets which define them immediately as foreigners.  Other than the professional bikers the only people who wear bike helmets for safety in the Netherlands are the Americans and the Brits. Look round the streets of Amsterdam or The Hague and the everyday person going about their business doesn’t wear a helmet.

The behaviour of the Dutch on bikes is enough to guarantee the Health and Safety Executives of the USA and the UK an immediate cardiac arrest. What they forget is all Dutch kids ride bikes as soon as they can walk – bikes have precedence over cars in ALL situations, there are bike paths everywhere so a safe environment for bike users.

However, it’s still a shock to watch teens on their way to school, usually with someone sitting side-saddle on the pannier over the back wheel, cell phone glued to ear. They ride all over the road if there’s no bike path, five abreast at least and everyone deals with it. No helmets in site.

Finally, we watched a Dutch family cycle past. Mom on a solid beast of a bike with toddler on a seat behind her, babe strapped into a seat on the handlebars in front, and the eldest peddling furiously on a small cycle at her side. Dad was ahead of the group oblivious to the chaos behind.

We’ve often debated this scene – it looks so chauvinistic, especially when Dutch men play such an active and hands on role in family life and parenting in particular. We have decided Dad is probably a little too relaxed when out with the kids so Mom has decided she has to take control – he can’t be trusted to watch the kids or protect them from the onslaught of the Lycra Lads at full pelt.

Mixed into this mêlée were dogs trotting alongside bikes like the carriage dogs of old. Focused, joyous, tails high and having the time of their lives.

On the footpath things were no less rushed. Walking groups with matching anoraks consulted laminated maps and pointed vaguely in all directions, cameras and notebooks at the ready (why?) and into the colourful mayhem the runners wove their way, eyes rolling at such low impact activity.

Dog walkers strolled with old canines ambling slowly at their sides, relieved to feel the heat in their bones after months of aching cold. Even their tails were raised and you saw the happiness shining through clouded eyes as they plodded from the main footpath and wobbled into the wood.

The finale of our weekend spectacle was the emergence of sleek, full bodied horse flesh from the wood onto the ruiter route. Tightly reined in, tails flicking and switching, ears pricked as they sensed the open space of the grass path ahead, we watched their muscles contract under the gleaming rippled flesh as they pranced in the warming air.

In between our morning sips of tea we placed bets as to whether the riders would hold their horses in check or allow them to run free. Almost as good as Cheltenham Races.

Mingled with all this activity was the ceaseless chirping and cooing of the birds finally convinced it’s time to build nests and mate. The swans are back too – they return each year to nest by the pond outside, raising their brood with devotion and serenity.

In the field just up the road the first spring lambs were frisking in a field by a canal, where the weeping willows are almost in full leaf.

All this in one of the most densely populated countries in the world and only 6km from the centre of The Hague. Unbelievable. Spring has finally arrived and life in the Netherlands doesn’t get much better than this.

 

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Boomerang Kids

Life is pretty interesting in our house right now, especially for Missy who has moved back into the bosom of her family after graduating in December. This is not the scenario she had planned as she stood on the verge of real life and self-sufficient adulthood.

The lack of suitable (and unsuitable) employment options has been a show stopper for her enthusiasm and ambition. The cold reality is that a pretty face, perky smile and degree certificate still dripping with ink are not always a passport to an immediate opening in the perfect career.

Even the burger flippers have not been hiring which would at least have contributed towards her apartment, car, health insurance and current lifestyle.

According to CNN 85% of college grads are moving home and unemployment in the USA for 20-24 year old is running at 15%. From talking to friends and reading newspapers in the UK things seem pretty much the same there.

Our family does not own a money tree and Missy’s predicament had not been factored into the domestic budget. Nor were we prepared for how challenging and stressful this would be for our middle child as she faced continual rejection from companies who a few years ago would have been falling over themselves to recruit her.

What all employers wants to see on a résumé is experience.

Newspapers are full of items on graduates working for nothing so they can add the E word to their list of post-graduate accomplishments and give them an edge. Especially when in a few months thousands more students will be entering the workforce. Tough times.

In most cases the financial burden falls back on parents who had hoped, at this stage in their lives, to be traveling the world, installing saunas in the newly vacant bedroom, or celebrating one less on the family payroll. Harry’s anxiety levels went through the roof as he perceived money from his college fund might be under serious threat from his fiscally irresponsible and inconsiderate sister.

After two months of serious job hunting and nothing concrete in the pipeline it was time for Missy to come home until she could be employed, self-supporting and back on her feet.

It was a conversation none of us wanted – although Harry had an awful lot to say considering he generally contributes little to the verbal interaction of the household. His input related mostly to his sister having to live in a card board box if necessary, getting with the program and not being an unacceptable drain on domestic resources.

I knew Missy would not want to consider the option. She has lived on her own in the USA since we left five years ago (her choice). She is an independent, sassy, smart 24-year-old who is globally and culturally comfortable, regularly flies across continents and travels alone without a second thought. She is the epitome of the strong, independent woman we always hoped she would be – on every level except, right now,  financially.

In most families the dilemma might be a tad easier, returning home within the same state, or country. For children studying overseas it would be returning to family and friends in their home country.

We were asking Missy to the move from the place she has called home for the past 15 years. The country where she, like us, chose to take citizenship, where she went to school, where she has friends she’s had forever, where there is a support system for her to fall back on.

In asking her to come home we were asking her to move to a foreign country she has visited but never lived in, with a different language, culture and customs. And terrible weather compared to the glorious skies and hot temperatures of Baton Rouge.

We were positive. We promised the aim would be to get her back to the USA as soon as possible – she could apply for jobs from here in the Netherlands while getting experience in an internship/ temporary work here in The Hague. Wouldn’t that look fabulous on her résumé?

So Missy has come home. Of course she wasn’t happy, who would be at having life turned upside down and moving a quarter-way round the world? Having said that, after what has been a challenging time for her this past year, she was ready to have someone else take over for a while and completely understood our situation. Our little girl is not so little anymore, despite what I wrote about her in a previous blog.

Decision made, she packed up, stored her belongings, gave up the lease on her apartment, re-housed her beloved dog and relocated her life in six days. Told you she was capable.

She has a job (temporary but covers the E word on the résumé), several irons in the fire in the USA and enjoying the chance to reconnect with family. It helps that she knows she won’t be here for long.

She is coping well, but like my daughter I’m not a total idiot. I know the day will arrive, sooner rather than later, when the realisation she has moved will sink in and culture shock will overwhelm her, if only for a few days.

I have all my notes on surviving global transitions and a box of Kleenex to hand. Will keep you posted.

UPDATE: these days our middle child has a career she loves, based in Houston TX, as an international buyer for a shipping company.

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Disaster and Tragedy: The Emotional Cost

In 2001 I spent days watching footage from Japan. Then last week Hurricane Sandy. What struck me with both was my utter numbness.

It seems inhuman and inhumane to admit this in the face of such horror and suffering on such an incomprehensible scale as the tsunami and now another devastating storm. During the tsunami what broke through that numbness was a shoe.

Not a child’s shoe, the camera shot you’d expect, but a man’s black leather shoe covered with mud and detritus, alone, protruding from a mountain of debris as if struggling towards the light.

It was that shoe that broke me.

I’ve walked in shoes like those, obviously not the same size, style, colour or material, but very similar and that same journey, as have my family. Different time, circumstances and continent but I recognise the road, and can see the path ahead for the man whose shoes these are, if he’s alive.

Watching the reports I felt my insides start to give way and turn to mush. I watched the reporters, adrenalin driven, talking a little too fast, a slightly higher pitched voice than normal, a mix of excitement and horror, thanking God this was not happening on their home turf.

Watching the eyes of the survivors, the 1000-yard stare, the disbelief and horror on their faces, the knowledge they have survived still not registering as they look for loved ones, news of friends, neighbours, the guy who owned the corner shop on their street. Nothing else will matter for them right now except to know who is alive or dead.

They won’t be functioning on a rational level, their bodies and emotions automatically shut down as their minds struggle to process the disaster. Even hunger will be secondary until the mind can process the new reality they’re in.

Good job too. If they could process how life will be for the next days, weeks, months years, maybe decades, they might turn their faces to the wall and give up. The human spirit will do all it can to make sure that doesn’t happen, although for many that will be their journey.

As I watched the camera zoom out to piles of debris, cars precariously perched on trees and houses, my memories superimposed their ghostly images on top, and I was reliving my neighbourhood, my town, my city. Hurricane Katrina, 29 August 2005.

And I knew what was missing from these reports from the other side of the world. We see them we hear them, but it’s the other senses that make the picture whole. Smell, taste and touch.

We saw the water as it raged liked an unleashed leviathan, were awed by the force of its black broiling power. It was like watching the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse come riding in.

As the oozing mess dries out the survivors, reporters, rescue workers, Red Cross and other support organizations will have their senses assailed in ways they will never forget.

The stench – a sweet sickly mix of death, decay and sewage mixed with burning bonfires, some accidental, some deliberate. The smell is like a living entity, it catches in your throat, makes your eyes burn and stomach heave, you fight to stop the vomit rising.

You taste that smell in your mouth, it seeps into the pores of your skin, it envelopes you. Everything you touch smells of that cloying, heavy, syrupy perfume. The scent of putrification and decay. Everything becomes infected and contaminated with it – soul, spirit, mind, emotions.

Watching mother nature at her most powerful we face the insignificance of ourselves and the awe-full reality of our own mortality in the face of her wrath. It’s sobering – we are nothing in the scheme of things. Getting our arrogant human heads round that one takes some doing.

The survivors will be adrenalin junkies for months, it’s what will give them strength each day to get up and get on with it. They’ll do it and do it well. Their shoes will move them forward – they will be driven to make things normal again, except it never will be. Not as they knew it.

Heartbreakingly, months from now, the pages of obituaries in the newspapers will be more than they should – cancers and heart conditions will have increased along with suicides, divorces, mental and physical breakdowns. These will be casualties of the tsunami just as much as those who lost their lives when the wave hit.

What will break through the fragility of these people as they struggle to find order in their destroyed lives will not be the bureaucracy, insurance companies, rogue contractors and swarms of storm chasers. They will descend like the roaches and rats already running over the debris, breeding and spreading disease. Those evils can be fought with rage, head on, face to face.

What breaks those determined spirits, allows their hearts to feel and begin to heal will be the kindness of strangers. The gentle touch on an arm, the look in the eye and the half smile from another human being who lets you know they are there, you are not alone. It is those tiny gestures that will make the spirit crumble and roar with pain, like an infected boil lanced and purified. Painful but necessary.

For me it was the National Guard handing out MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat), the Red Cross bringing lunches in their van with a cheery smile and words of encouragement as we rebuilt our homes and lives. We needed to know that somewhere in the world people had normal lives and one day we would too.

The assistant at the opticians in Wal-Mart – when asked if could have contact lenses without prescription immediately went to find out, tracked us down in the store, handed us free lenses and hugged us while she cried.

The kennels in Houston who boarded our dogs and refused payment when we finally took them home.

Our friend Dave who opened his door and took us in – his neighbours who brought cookies and offers of bedding and spare rooms because they saw our vehicles had Louisiana licence plates and understood.

And nearly a year later sitting in a gym at the end of the school year listening to Daniel Powter’s I’ve Had a Bad Day, watching images scrolling on a huge video screen. Photos and film clips showing a destroyed school rebuilt by the willpower, determination and volunteer labour of parents and staff, whose own homes had been lost and damaged. They believed if the school opened families could come home. They took in every child they could.

Looking round on that hot steamy morning in May, stunned by the absolute stillness of everyone in the gym, I realised every adult, including me, had tears streaming down their faces. Huge strapping hulks of southern men unafraid and unashamed at their open demonstation of emotion. They didn’t care who saw, it was a public acknowledgement of loss and the celebration of recovery and renewal.

It’s those kindnesses that make us feel again, break down the barriers and start to make us whole. Shared humanity and caring. Realising that when the chips are down we only have each other.

Last night something finally broke through those psychological blocks and bars on the box buried deep in a quiet corner of me marked ‘Hurricane Katrina’ and came screaming and roaring out.

In bed, surrounded by the darkness and calm of a sleeping house, I watched the rapid kaleidoscopic flashbacks flickering in vibrant colours across the backs of my eyes and felt the hot tears sliding relentlessly down my face.

I cried for the people in Japan, Christchurch, Brisbane and all the disasters before and those yet to come. For the frightened children, the broken adults, the lost souls not just in disasters but struggling every day in their own hell somewhere in the world.

I cried for my husband who couldn’t fix it though he tried – my children whose lives are forever changed by what they saw and lived through. For myself because I can’t forget.

This morning I woke up, put the feelings back in their box and moved on, because that’s what we have to do. I refuse to be defined by one experience for the rest of my life.

However, if you’re ever with me and Cold Play’s Fix You starts to play, please forgive me if I have to walk away.

There are some triggers which get me every time.

 

Posted in Expat Experiences, Hurricane Katrina, Personal challenges, Politics and Social Comment | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments