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Author: Natali Drake

Natali Drake is a freelance writer, branding consultant and author. Originally from London, Natali moved to Delft from the south of Spain with her husband and her two daughters in July 2016. Natali has recently joined the Delft Mama bloggers, she has written for many online publications including The Independent, Selfish Mother, Scary Mommy and Blunt Mums. In 2015 she co-founded women's online magazine theglasshousegirls.com where she is also a contributing writer. Natali's debut novel 'The Path Keeper', part of a series published by Accent Press, is out in February 2017. You can read more about her work at natalidrake.com and her author page njsimmonds.com

10 things living in The Netherlands has taught me

In the summer of 2016 my family and I moved from the sunny Costa del Sol to the not-so-sunny town of Delft, and  I wasn’t sure if we’d made the right decision.  I knew that my husband’s work opportunities would be better, my children’s schooling would be a LOT better and that I wouldn’t have any trouble continuing my writing. I also figured that living in such a creative town, and close to other business hubs like The Hague, Rotterdam and Amsterdam, my career could only ever progress. But Holland? Could I be happy there?

Yes I like cheese, clogs are funny and tulips are pretty – but what did I know about The Netherlands? What could the country offer me?

Well actually, it turns out that ten months into our three year placement here it’s taught me a lot. I now understand why everyone thinks it’s so cool and I know (freezing winters aside) I will be happy here. Here are ten things that living in The Netherlands has taught me…

 

 

You don’t need to have good weather to have fun
I’m half Spanish so sunshine runs through my veins…closely followed by mojitos. When I look back at the best times of my life there’s always been a blue sky. Yet living in The Netherlands has taught me that it’s fine to go outside. Even if it’s a bit drizzly and cold. Once I’d invested in a decent winter coat, thermals and thick boots I was ready to explore the amazing scenery. We’ve trekked through fields of tulips, woodlands and farms, canal boat rides, city walks and plenty of food markets – and although it’s been cold it’s also been lots of fun. And as for going out with friends in the evening, I just swap my sangria for gluhwein and it’s all good!

You don’t need a car
In Spain we had a car – in fact we had two! Then we moved to the tiny cobbled streets of Delft, with its multitude of bicycles and parallel parking beside canals and we changed our minds. And you know what? I love not having a car now. I walk over an hour a day and my backside is pert and round. I get fresh air (maybe too fresh) and I get to see the beauty of the town. The trains, buses and trams are (mostly) on time and reasonably priced and best of all I don’t have MOTs and insurance to worry about. I’m sure life will get even better once I get myself a bike…but one step at a time. Literally.

 

 

Kids should be given freedom
To be fair, my kids have always had freedom because I practise the parenting art of ‘do the least possible and tell everyone you are making your children independent’! But in Holland that is a thing. It’s actually their way of life and it’s encouraged for parents to let their children do as much as they can by themselves. Cycling to school, going to the park, going shopping…you see children as young as six years old going about their daily business alone and it’s fine. It feels safe here and you know your children are respected; in fact kids are given as much importance as adults. Apparently children here are also the happiest in the world (they don’t get homework in their pre-teen years, which I’m sure also helps). Take a look at the book ‘The Happiest Kids in the World’ if you don’t believe me!

A home looks better when you fill it with flowers
You know what makes me happy (apart from chocolate and silence)? Fresh flowers. And the best thing about The Netherlands is that flowers are cheap. If you go to the market before they close you can buy a bunch for as little as a Euro! I’ve quickly realised that the dustiest of houses look pristine if you fill them with enough tulips and roses. It also smells better too!

I’m lucky to have English as my mother tongue
Have you ever tried to speak Dutch? Well luckily you don’t need to, as the clever buggers all speak about five languages and feel so sorry for you as you splutter your way clumsily through every sentence that they insist that you speak English. Even the films on TV and in the cinema are in English – lucky us!

 


You can eat crap and still be slim
Dutch people are not fat. Dutch people love their beer, waffles, pancakes, bitterballen, bread and cheese. It must be all that cycling and lack of driving that keep them trim!

Beaches are not just for the Med
I was shocked that The Netherlands had such great beaches (OK, so my geography isn’t great). Although it’s standing room only when the sun makes a rare appearance, places such as The Hague’s Scheveningen is a Hipster paradise full of cool beach bars, restaurants and sand finer and more golden than anything the Costa del Sol has to offer. I wouldn’t bother bringing your snorkel, or getting in the freezing sea in general, but you can still get a mean cocktail or two.

Women are a force to be reckoned with
Being an expat (or ‘trailing wife’…don’t you just love that term?) it’s rare for me to move to a country because of my husband’s work and get asked what I do. It’s a sad fact of life that when you are a mother, and married to a businessman who travels a lot, people rarely expect you to have your own career as well. Except in The Netherlands. How refreshing to be asked if I was here for my studies or my own business. How wonderful to have the opportunity to tour universities and schools talking about my books, host panels at literary events and get to discuss gender politics, entrepreneurships and business opportunities while surrounded by like-minded working mothers. Hurray, an expat location with an advanced mindset.

You can be rude and still have manners
Just ask the Dutch. So friendly, so helpful, so smart…yet so direct!

Europe is actually one big playground
And the best thing about living in The Netherlands? We are at the centre of Europe. We are a short train ride away from Belgium, France and Germany. We can hire a camper van and drive to Italy via Switzerland. Or we can be in the UK in 40 mins by plane. Weekends have just got a lot more fun. So who cares that the weather is cold, the language tricky and the food a bit stodgy? It’s a magnificent country with great people and loads to do…and if you get bored of it you are just a few hours away from other amazing countries. Yes I miss my siestas and balmy nights of sunny Spain – but pancakes on a Dutch beach in an anorak isn’t so bad either. I might even treat myself to some cheap flowers on the way home.

Natali Drake is a published author and freelance Marketing consultant. You can attend her FREE talk about the Rise of Young Adult fiction and its place in today’s society at the American Book Centre in The Hague on 1st June 6.30pm, where she will be also answering questions and signing copies of ‘The Path Keeper’ – her first book from her thrilling fantasy romance series.

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What’s your time worth?

Yesterday I worked fifteen hours without a break. No, I’m not a life-saving surgeon or the Prime Minister – I’m a working mother who is underpaid and undervalued. Who am I undervalued by? Myself.

In 2012 I began to work as a freelance Marketing Consultant while living in Spain. My girls were aged nearly three and five at the time and in full time nursery. I had survived the sleep-deprived baby years, my energy and health was improving and my kids could finally (more or less) feed themselves and wipe their own butts. It was time to forego the part time work, take the plunge and finally use my years of experience to become self employed.

‘My days are my own!’ I silently rejoiced. ‘I will finally be paid for everything I do outside of my mummy duties.’

Oh how wrong I was.


The problem wasn’t that I didn’t have time to work – nursery was 9-5. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t have clients – I had plenty of work coming my way. The problem was that I underestimated how bad I was at valuing my own self worth, and what a pushover I would be at volunteering my time now that I didn’t have a boss managing it.

Time and time again I would find myself looking at my watch thinking ‘how can it be 3pm? I haven’t done any paid work yet!’

Then things got trickier. I received a three book publishing contract for my fantasy romance series ‘The Path Keeper’ and I temporarily moved to The Netherlands with my family. I continued working and getting new marketing clients, but now on top of work and mummying and writing my books I was now also promoting them. I was up until midnight every night trying to squeeze it all in…but my bank account didn’t reflect the amount of hours I was working

After a long hard think I had to admit where I was going wrong. Tell me if I’m alone here, but I think it’s fair to say that the self-employed, especially women, and ESPECIALLY mums are really really really crap at saying no.

I’ve often wondered why us mums are the worst when it come to recognising our own self worth. Is it because for years we’ve happily worked for free changing nappies and feeding babies and forgotten that our time is actually worth something? Or is it because once we finally escape the baby years and re-enter the workforce everything (yes, everything) seems easier and more fun than dealing with screaming newborns and tantruming toddlers, so we don’t see it as hard work but actually an escape? And who wants to charge people for work that doesn’t feel all that difficult?

Once I began working for myself I was so eager to please and prove my worth, show that my time out of the workplace hadn’t affected my ability, that I was putting in more hours than I needed to and earning a fraction of what I did pre-baby.

So at what point do we drop the guilt, the sense of obligation and our embarrassment and say to clients/people in need of our time – ‘no, I can’t do that’ or ‘yes, I can….but not for free’?

Work is one thing and one thing only – an exchange of our time for money. That’s it. What we choose to spend time on outside of our allocated working hours is up to us, it’s our right to say no if we think volunteering on three school trips in one month on our only day off is too much. It’s ok to sit and watch TV on a Saturday night instead of answering emails or helping our neighbour with their CV. It’s perfectly ok to say ‘I’m sorry, I can’t’ and be kind to ourselves.

Our kids get enough of our time without having to thank us…so why should anyone else?

What happens if we let things go and say no? Nothing. No one is judging us, if anything they are realising that our time is precious and only we have the right to decide how it’s spent. Hey, they may even pay us what we deserve!

So I have made a vow to myself – from this day forth I shall no longer do things for free. Unless it directly benefits my family, business or my books I can’t (literally) afford to do anything more for nothing. I can’t.

But of course there’s always an exception…such as this article. Of course Delft Mama haven’t paid me for it, and it’s 9pm and I’m still working after having been awake since 6am. Dammit! There’s only one thing for it then, I’ll have to use this as a big advertising tool to shout about my next author event in The Hague on 1st June.

There, that’s better, I don’t feel like I’ve given away my time any longer. And now for the tricky part – how do I say no to  the PTA?

Natali writes as N J Simmonds and the first book of her YA fantasy romance series, The Path Keeper, is now available at all good English language bookshops and online (the second book ‘Son of Secrets’ is out February 2018). She will also be presenting a FREE talk about writing at the American Book Centre in The Hague 1 June at 6pm and signing copies of her book. For more information on her work, and up and coming events, visit njsimmonds.com. And to find out more about her Marketing Consultancy services visit natalidrake.com

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Life After Motherhood…Dream On

I really wanted to be a mother and, as a woman who generally gets what she strives for in life, I took for granted that kids would magically appear when I wanted them to. Luckily for me I found getting pregnant easy, I had an easy pregnancy and I had a relatively easy birth. Those supposedly difficult stages that mums-to-be around the world agonize over were the easy bits, but for me the tough part was yet to come – motherhood itself.

No matter how many times you are told by a friend that being a parent is difficult or you read the warning words in books, blogs and articles such as this one…they don’t actually sink in. You think they do, you try and brace yourself, and you are convinced that you are ready.

But you aren’t.

It goes without saying that the sleepless nights, endless tantrums and aching monotony of baby days that act as foggy bookends to those flickering fleeting moments of joy and wonder that motherhood brings were difficult – but I was told about them and I knew that they wouldn’t last. No, what I wasn’t prepared for was that it wouldn’t only be sleep and freedom that I lost…I would lose myself.

Motherhood is a vortex, a black hole that we tumble into as soon as our pregnancy test turns blue, where nothing matters but our child. Mother Nature made it that way – that’s why our children survive until they can walk and talk and wipe their own behinds. But then we finally look up, like startled meerkats, and exclaim ‘shit, what’s happened to my life? Where did everyone go?’

When you shine the spotlight on your babies you fall into the shadows. And your dreams? They dissipate so fast it’s as if they never really existed.

But can we get them back? Can women mix success with motherhood?

This isn’t an article about post natal depression, working mothers or finding the work/life balance. This is my story….and it’s a story about dreams.

Since I was a old enough to hold a pen I have wanted to write. I still have the stapled-together ‘books’ I wrote when I was ten years old; as a backpacker I filled my bag with notebooks which in turn I filled with stories peppered with the adventures I was living day by day; and in my twenties I wrote articles for work and attended writing courses – but I was always too busy to write that elusive novel I promised myself would happen one day.

I was too busy…oh the irony! The occasions in my life when I did have the freedom and time to sit, alone, dreaming and conjuring up new characters were squandered to the frivolous and the fun. ‘You can write your novel next year,’ I told myself. ‘You have all the time in the world’.

Except I didn’t…because then I became a mum.

With a needy baby in my arms I realised that I had twenty years of raising kids ahead of me, how on earth was I ever going to be a mother and work and attempt a social life AND write a book? It was over. My writing ship had sailed – I would be a retired old lady surrounded by cats before I found the time to convert my scribbled notes into the novel of my childhood dreams.

Yet the strange thing about having a busy mothering life full of ‘have to’s’ instead of ‘want to’s’ is that you soon appreciate the tiny slivers of time that you have to yourself. When your days are filled with the cries of demanding small people and your nights are a merry-go-round of dream feeds and night terrors, ricocheting from the toddler to the baby to the toddler in the dead of night like a demented marble in a pinball machine – you realise that to stay sane you need an escape. So where can you go that doesn’t mean deserting your family? You can climb inside your mind…and that’s how I finally wrote my novel and became a published author.

Lots of people ask me where I found the inspiration and the time to write ‘The Path Keeper’, my first book of a Young Adult Fantasy Romance series (no, there are no vampires). And the answer is simple – I thought about it, planned it and wrote it all in my head as a way of managing motherhood.

When my baby took an hour to feed at 3am, I was thinking about my book. When I had my lengthy work commute stuck in traffic every day, I was thinking about my book. When I was hanging out the washing or cooking dinner or sitting in front of Teletubbies with the kids at the crack of dawn, I was thinking about my book.

How much ‘white space’ do YOU have in your day? Do you use your quiet mind time to zone out? Or worry about stuff that hasn’t happened yet? Or do you, like me, plan?

Instead of arguing with my husband about what to watch in the evenings, or getting upset if he wanted to go out, I would write; and when my toddler insisted that 5am was a good time to get up, instead of being angry about it I wrote my book while she played. I turned the moments that were a source of tension, resentment and anxiety and made them about what I wanted to do. Motherhood was so much more bearable that way.

And suddenly I was no longer just a mum…I was a writer. I was fulfilling my dream. I had stopped moaning and complaining about how trapped I felt and had found my private sanctuary inside of my imagination. Writing my book saved my sanity, the relationship with my family and my self esteem. I had returned!

Finally, after two years of staying up late (well, I had got used to not sleeping anyway) and sneaking to the spare room in the evenings to finish one last chapter – I had a book! Now, what was I going to do with it?

Another strange thing about motherhood that no one tells you about is the guilt. I felt proud with my achievement, but I also felt immense guilt. By juggling my job and my writing I had ignored my family – I’d put my enjoyment first and prioritized a self-indulgent hobby over my role as a mother and wife. So in my mind I had to make it mean something, I had to make sure it got read or it would have all been for nothing. And that’s how I officially became a published author while working and being a mother of two (now a bit older) children. The struggle it took to complete my book drove me to find an agent, it made my skin tough enough to spend a year being rejected by over forty publishers and I finally received an offer for a THREE book contract by UK publishers Accent Press.

I’d like to say that that was my Happy Ever After but in fact this is merely my beginning…because now I’m a few chapters away from finishing the second book ‘Son of Secrets’ and I’m busy promoting ‘The Path Keeper’ in four countries. It’s even being translated into Turkish with other languages in the pipeline.And guess what? I love it! I am interesting again! I feel powerful and proud and energised…and, most of all, I am the old me again!

So I hope this article has been a little light at the end of your tunnel. I hope you read this and think two things:
1. My dreams are still there, I’m not letting go of them just yet and…
2. Well, if she can do it, then so can I.

Being a mother is just one of many things I can be – it doesn’t define me and I won’t let it end me. In fact there is no end. The best thing about dreams is that they keep going on and on and on – just like us mums do.

‘The Path Keeper’ by N J Simmonds is available to buy from all good bookshops and online or visit njsimmonds.com for the latest news and appearances. Natali will be hosting a variety of events during her book tour of The Netherlands in March and April 2017 – follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to find out more.

 

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Living in an ex-pat bubble

Tis the season to be jolly…and for those that celebrate Christmas it is also the season of over-abundance, over-indulgence and  rosy-cheeked children whining to the merry tune of ‘it’s not fair, all my friends have got one.’

I love Christmas. I may even go as far as to say it was the main reason why I had children – that and having the perfect excuse to watch Disney films at the ripe old age of thirty-eight. Yet unlike my friends who at this time of year are tasked with the never ending battle of trying to manage their children’s’ expectations, when I asked my seven and five year old girls what they wanted from Santa  they answered – “ We don’t know, what is there?”

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To understand how I got so lucky you need to know where I live. I live in a bubble, a shiny happy ex-pat bubble of my own making.

Originally from London, I have been living an international lifestyle for eight years. I met my husband in Australia, we had our first child in the UK, our second daughter was born two years later in the south of Spain then just four months ago (following a job offer) our happy little family moved to Delft . We’ve gone from the big smoke to margaritas on the beach to cutesy canals and bicycles – and we love it. We enjoy our nomadic lifestyle, and never more so than at Christmas.

“How are you all adapting?” my overly concerned family and friends ask. “Is it hard settling in to a new country with the children?” To which I answer, “No, contrary to popular belief it’s actually easier to be a parent when you don’t know what’s going on all the time. We’re free to be who we want to be.”

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As mothers I’m sure you understand when I talk about expectations. Anxiety, fear of judgement, societal pressures and guilt are never far away. Doing what is expected of you as parents is something that never occurred to me as I picked out newborn clothes and pondered on baby names eight years ago. I didn’t once worry about whether my parenting methods would be questioned, or that I wouldn’t have control over what influenced my children…then they were born and the world of motherhood was cracked open in all its ugly technicolor glory. Without realising it, we parents are bombarded daily with what we should and must and need to do. Each country has a list of unwritten rules when it comes to children and how to raise them. Magazines, websites, mothering groups and family all influence our own parenting methods – until you move abroad. Then you are untouchable. Your rules from back home don’t apply and you are not worried about/able to understand/told about the rules in your new country of residence.

You know what that is called? Freedom. And never more so than at this time of year.

When it comes to Christmas I love living in a country that is not my own, and this year I’m especially excited about experiencing a cold Dutch Christmas for the first time. While others in their own home towns are feeling the festive season pressure of spending, attending and being in twenty million places at once – us expats are happily gawping in wonder around us, without any idea as to what is going on, completely oblivious to anyone’s expectations of us, simply floating about in our magical la la bubble. There are so many reasons why this time of year is especially magical (and easier) for my family.

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No expectations, no dissapointment
We have our own family traditions when we go back to the UK, but being new in The Netherlands we are still busy learning about what the locals do; the tiny round cinnamon biscuits, chocolate initials, Sinterklass instead of Santa and learning about when to put shoes out to be filled with presents. My children don’t know ‘the Christmas rules’ and neither do I…they have no expectations, so whatever happens is going to be magical and exciting because it’s all new.

No media influence
We don’t watch Dutch TV, so my girls don’t watch adverts (Netflix all the way). I don’t have magazines lying around the house full of glossy Must-Have Christmas Buys or Argos catalogues landing with a thump through the letterbox. My kids don’t know what is out there, except for the odd glance through the toy shop window, so when they ask for presents they simply ask for more of what they have. When you don’t have an abundance of choice, you don’t have stress.

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No peer pressure
Like many ex-pat families, my kids go to an International school. They play with children of many races, from various countries that practice a mix of religions and customs. Every child looks different, sounds different and dresses differently. These kids don’t care about ‘in’ toys or who has more or who’s wearing what. There are no fads, no designer gadget talk or one-upmanship when it comes to what presents they are going to receive this year. Half of them don’t even celebrate Christmas! So my girls are not whipped up into a ‘I want what she has’ frenzy.

Well-meaning relatives don’t get involved
We live far away from the ones we love. Sometimes that’s difficult, but sometimes that’s nice. I am not under any pressure to buy my mum’s neighbour a present because she has bought me bath salts every year since I was ten. I don’t have to attend the carol concerts of my friend’s children or my niece’s nativity play or send ten thousand Christmas cards. I’m out the loop. I have Facebook, I can say ‘hi’ and the rest of the time I can…

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…concentrate on my own family
Because that is what Christmas is truly about. Living in our ex-pat bubble forces my children, husband and I to stick together. We may be a little closed off from life around us, a little more selfish and a little bit insular – but it also makes us widen our horizons and pick and choose what is important to us. Our children are protected from Christmas expectations because they are living in a land that is not their own. Because the traditions of ‘back home’ no longer apply to them, instead they are getting the freedom to explore, respect and soak up new experiences.

We are not adhering to the kind of Christmas that advertisers on TV want us to have, that John Lewis ads are selling or what our parents before us are saying we must do.

We are all (even us grown-ups) getting to see Christmas in a new and wondrous light again and appreciating the importance of being part of someone else’s celebrations while still adhering to our own. We are choosing our own traditions and making our own memories, but most importantly we are doing this together as a family.

We’re in our own little Christmas bubble of happiness… you can’t get more magical that that!

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