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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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His Royal Highness Willem Alexander King of the Netherlands is 50! and we are all celebrating him

Citizens of the Kingdom of the Netherlands*, vassals of the King Willem Alexander “the first”, let your hair down, dress up in orange from top to toe and celebrate that His Royal Highness is hitting 50 tomorrow Thursday the 27th of April.
If you arrived in the Netherlands after that date of April 2016, you should know that on Koningsdag nothing is bizarre.

(*that includes Aruba, Curaçao and Sint Maarten)
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Delft mama of the week: Sine

Sine invites me to her house for the interview. When we step in the elevator she tells me many of her neighbours are older people. She loves it, as they are very curious about her son, Arda (4). Just like herself, her husband Faruk also originates from Turkey. When biological grandparents are a plane ride away, living among the elderly is giving their family some invaluable contacts that otherwise might be harder to come by.

It’s the first time I visit Sine in her home. The Sun is shining outside and laying rays on the two yellow armchairs in front of their living room windows. The style of the home is impeccable and it feels welcoming. Sine tells me she could’ve chosen her career path differently and pursue one of her dreams of becoming a designer. She sure has the eye and the taste level for it. However, Sine chose another one of her passions and decided to study English language and literature at the University of Gaziantep in southern Turkey. That is also where she met Faruk.

When I listen to her stories, she comes across like a bit of a nomad. Both of her parents are from Circassian descent, both of whom are born in Turkey. Circassia was a sovereign nation until the mid-19th century on the shore of the Black Sea with its own rich language and cultural heritage. Her name, Sine, is a typical Circassian name, so although born and raised in Turkey, her parents valued their heritage and Sine was already happily living between two worlds.

Her first experience outside Turkey by herself was her three-month trip to Alaska through a work and travel program and afterwards she knew she couldn’t settle in Turkey for good. During their University years Faruk applied U.S. Green Card lottery and asked her to try as well. She calls her last year at the University her “lucky year”, because not only was Sine granted a chance to study in Denmark, but she also won a Green Card. Instead of spending an entire year in Denmark, she spent three months there and then moved to New York with her husband.

The nearly seven years they spent in New York were great but tough. When Arda was born, the grandparents from both sides would fly from Turkey and babysit him one after another. “In New York we had fun, but we did work a lot. When I was studying in Turkey, I was reading about American history and about the American dream, but in New York life was different. You don’t have much time to spend with your family,” Sine points out. When Arda was born, Faruk didn’t get to see him almost at all. Luckily Sine’s work at a non-profit organization was more flexible, but in the long run something needed to change. Out of all places, the family relocated to Oklahoma.

The first three months in Oklahoma were great, but soon enough Sine realized she misses the big international community around her, which she had gotten used to while working in Manhattan. Some years in, Sine realized she wasn’t very happy in Oklahoma. The window of the opportunity to move to another country was closing in, because Arda was getting older and soon they would have to think about settling down for a longer period.

In 2014 the family visited Maastricht during their holiday in Europe. It was then the spark for the Netherlands was ignited. In 2016 Sine’s husband arrived in Delft for a job interview and in September they moved to this picturesque town. It wasn’t a smooth transition, especially with the housing and picking a school, but one of the aspects that made the move easier was a great online community happy and quick to answer Sine’s questions. “I found Delft MaMa when I was searching for how to do something in Delft. Whenever I had questions in my mind I asked them. I joined the group before I came here and they helped me a lot about many questions, and got me socializing quickly”, Sine says. Sine also took part in a DMM organized soft-landing in Delft, or SLiDe program for short, and after seven months of experience on living in Delft she felt confident enough to mentor another Turkish newcomer.

Because of her keen eye, Sine has been volunteering for the DMM even further to help with the 10-year anniversary preparations. “I like doing things like decorating and currently I have enough time to help with these kinds of things. A lot of other organizations in the Netherlands require a lot of Dutch. Delft MaMa is more international”, our mom of the week points out.

People often ask Sine if they moved to the Netherlands, because statistically some of the happiest kids in the world live there, but she tells me it wasn’t the reason. “To me it seems the kids are happy, because from my point of view it’s such a luxurious thing to spend breakfast time with family in the morning, then bring the kids to school that is at a walking or cycling distance, have time to stay at school for a moment, go to work and be back home for dinner.”

In the end, when I ask about Sine’s cultural identity, she says to me she feels more Circassian than Turkish, more American than Turkish, but when she must say where home is, it’s Turkey. “Maybe in 10 years I’ll say I’m more Dutch, who knows. To me, it’s having the best of both worlds. I want my son to grow up in an environment with people from different cultures. We had that in New York and I loved that aspect so much. Delft is no New York, but it has a big international community. I feel so lucky,” Sine says happily.

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My six insights on The Netherlands

When one thinks of The Netherlands the first images that comes to mind may be bicycles, flowers, windmills and cheese. In fact, it does make sense and I was imagining exactly these kinds of things before coming to live here, but the truth is I have learnt that this country is way much more than that. As I had never thought about living here, I wrote a quick list with six things that was only possible to understand after moving to this foreign land.

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Delft Mama of the week: Masha

If you aren’t a native English speaker like myself, when you first start talking to Masha you’ll most likely think you’re talking with someone from North America. But after a while she might say something about Russia and you just have to ask, and that’s exactly what I did.

The first 18,5 years of her life our mom of the week grew up in Tomsk in the Russian Siberia. She chuckles about telling people she comes from Siberia, but she says the winters were cold, but the summers were hot, too. Masha moved to Vermont in the United States on the brink of adulthood following her big sister and to continue medical science studies there. Another 18,5 years later Masha, her American husband Ryan and their children Alice (5,5) and her 1,5-year-old little brother, Sasha, packed up their two dogs and belongings and moved to Delft.

The family wanted to move to anywhere in the EU, but their friends in Breda got them interested in the Netherlands. In the end the choice was narrowed down to Delft and Leiden. One of the reasons the family chose Delft in the end was no other than the existence of such a thriving and functional parenting community. “Delft MaMa made it feel like this is the place to go”, Masha says.

She has been attending some of the DMM activities ever since the first week after the touchdown. Masha got involved with the Facebook group even before moving here, but only met her first moms at events such as high tea and DelftMaMa Cinema Club. “One of the moms got me a ticket to the movies, although she didn’t even know me”, Masha explains with gratitude in her voice.

Because Masha works from home these days, her schedule allows her to meet up with other moms and toddlers whenever she feels she can squeeze it in. She tells me the best thing about being a mother in the Netherlands is to have more time for her family, as moving here meant being able to cut down a lot of extra responsibilities. Now Masha only has to manage herself at work, which makes her working life easier compared to the past.

Although Masha travels a lot for work, the family is constantly planning trips together to various different European countries. Their next vacation will be in (hopefully sunny) Lisbon. Masha has a bucket list for traveling and for places she wants to visit. “I love art and I want to visit more museums. Recently I’ve been reading a lot about my favorite artists of which many are less known Russians or Americans”, Masha says and explains that because of her chemistry background, she finds style and technique more fascinating than anything else. When I ask her what her favorite art style is, she says without hesitation:“Photography! I used to do photography and I’ve done a lot of imaging for work in microscopy level. There is a darkroom photo printing technique called liquid light where you apply the film on the paper and your printed photo looks much more like a painting.”

For now, family, work, dogs and traveling are pretty much filling up the days of this incredibly hard-working, intelligent and efficient lady. When I ask about their plans of staying in Delft, she says jokingly “maybe for the next 18,5 years! I’m very slowly making my way to the Caribbean.” Masha ends up the conversation with the same humorous note she’s had on throughout our talk together: “when I retire I should be south enough to end up there.”

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Delft MaMa takes The Hague

Delft MaMa, represented by a group of kind-hearted volunteers, was one of the 140 institutions present at the largest expat fair in the Netherlands.
This annual event organized by The Hague Online in partnership with ACCES  celebrated its 10th edition.

“… have you heard about the most thriving parenting community in the South of Holland? … ” “Delft MaMa is…?” “New in town..?”

and so the day went by at the Feel at Home International Family Fair past Sunday the 5th of February.

From 11 am until 5 pm the City Hall of the Hague, hosted over four thousand people coming from every corner of the world.

Many were the visitors that stopped by to meet and greet a small representation of the people that build our community. Amongst crayons, boxes of raisins, bubble blowing bottles and face painting, our Delft MaMas got engaged with families coming from Canada, Italy, India, China, Japan, England, Hungary and The Netherlands, to name a few.

Complicity smiles and tips about parenting in a third culture environment where joyfully shared.

We hope we will see new faces in the upcoming events real soon!

A big thanks to everyone involved in making this fair a success, before, during and after.     

 

 images of the video by Ildikó Wooning and Eva Sabina Amaral, editing by Ildikó Wooning. Pictures Shadi Parsa, Eva Sabina Amaral and Agnès Batllori

 

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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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Bicycles and traffic for the newly arrived

It’s the time of the year a lot of people working in sync with the academic school year have just found themselves relocated in the Netherlands. A new wave of people arrives every summer and face similar challenges every autumn after the sparkling, upsetting, amazing period of settling in. One of the things that fascinates and often intimidates most newbies in the Netherlands is the bicycle culture and the unique traffic in general.

I have met a number of newly arrived parents in the last couple of months. They have been equally curious about many things, but especially about things to do with traffic. Can you keep your foreign driver’s license and if so, for how long? How different is it cycling between the cars than on a sidewalk? Where do you get your bike and more importantly how do you lock and store it? What are the general traffic rules?

colorful-bike
You can always decorate your bike to make it easier to recognize when you need to spot it in a sea of bicycles.

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