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Delft mama of the week: Elizabeth

Our Delft mama of the week, Elizabeth, has worked as a political consultant, a NASA tour guide, and a lawyer, volunteered for the Sisters of the Holy Cross in Ghana, traveled to 30 countries and 45/50 US states, and even been inside the Space Shuttle. Now she is a travel writer and full-time mom living in the Netherlands.

In 2015, Elizabeth’s husband, Jeff, was offered the exciting opportunity to complete his PhD at TU Delft, and Elizabeth and her two older sons eagerly joined him. They saw Delft as a charming town in its own right and an ideal base to travel around Europe. A third son joined the family and their travels in 2016.

Elizabeth is clearly enamored of the Netherlands and of Delft in particular. She describes it as “a real town with the advantage for expats that everybody speaks English and that you can find friends. There are a million little restaurants in every price bracket, and there are parks hiddeneverywhere. You can go climb the windmill, go to the farm and buy eggs, or see sheep at the petting zoo. These are just so many opportunities in this special town.”

A half year before arriving in Delft, she found the Delft MaMa Facebook group and connected with fellow Coloridan Caroline. When she first arrived in town, Caroline helped connect her to Delft MaMa friends and resources, giving her an invaluable piece of advice: “surround yourself with expats who are excited to be here in Netherlands, as your local friends will largely determine your mood.” Elizabeth has put this advice to good use, not only finding supportive friends, but also making herself a valued member of the Delft MaMa community. She co-coordinates the weekly Delft MaMa newsletter with Karen, and in the coming months, you may have the chance to read an original post or two of hers on the Delft MaMa blog.

Elizabeth believes that “Delft MaMa is a wonderful resource that provides something for every personality type. If you are a one-on-one person, there are many events. Ifyou need mom friends, you can go to a Mom’s Night Out. If you need friends for your children, there are playgroups. If you are just are looking for advice, you can ask on the Facebook, and the newsletter details what’s going on locally in the coming months. When I travel, I usually look for something like Delft MaMa, but a lot of places either do not have an equivalent or the local international family group is not on the same level as a support group.”

Elizabeth is thriving in Europe, but the decision to move to the Netherlands was not so straightforward from a professional perspective, as her visa status precludes her from working locally. Elizabeth’s optimistic and driven personality, though, have helped her to embrace this difficulty and turn it into many opportunities – that to spend more time with her children, blog actively, and pursue other endeavors close to her heart, particularly traveling.

Elizabeth’s blog, Dutch Dutch Goose, started as a way to share her European travel experiences with family and friends and as an outlet for her creative and professional talents. Dutch Dutch Goose soon became a popular resource for families around the world. Her post on traveling from the US to Europe on the Queen Mary 2 with children was a particular hit, given the lack of information available on this topic online. Thanks to the success of her own blog Elizabeth was also asked to become editor-in-chief of BebeVoyage, a global community of parents providing local, practical advice on traveling with kids.

Elizabeth and her husband traveled widely before having children and have decided to use travel as an educational tool with their children. They firmly believe that “the places we see and people we meet during our different travel experiences help make our children better human beings. Exposing our kids to so many different tastes, modes of transportation, ways of living, and cultures is the most wonderful gift we can give them.”

Elizabeth is also always challenging herself and looking for ways to grow and learn through travel. For example, this careful planner took a trip this year without having organized any specific destinations or itineraries. You can find more about how the family managed this adventure in spontaneity here.

Through her blog, Elizabeth also shows families around the world that travel with children may be challenging but that it is both a feasible and a rewarding experience. For Elizabeth, there is no need to travel for many weeks or to a distant location to make a trip great, as visiting a nearbyfarm or museum can be just as valuable.

There is also no need to force your children to immerse completely in every aspect of a trip. Instead, do your best to ensure your children are comfortable and enjoying their time traveling, even if this means allowing them to look at the iPad on some museum visits or play at a local playground for some hours rather than visiting a site. Elizabeth notes, “I find that the kids absorb so much of the little stuff while traveling, like going to playgrounds and to kids cafes, as opposed to all the big tourist sites. At these places, they get a better picture of the local culture, differences in parenting, and differences in interactions between the kids.”

Furthermore, “the best trip for me is one where each member of the family has something that peaked their interest, and we have all gotten along and enjoyed ourselves as a family.” During our interview, Elizabeth described how a trip to Brussels’ train hostel that was requested and largely planned by her eldest son fits the bill.

To summarize some of her expert advice, Elizabeth encourages parents to know their kids and make them comfortable, know that disasters happen and don’t let them ruin trips, plan the right balance of activities parents are interested in and child-friendly activities in an itinerary, and allow children to absorb the little details during trips that show cultural differences.

One word that kept popping up during our conversation was “gift,” with travel as a gift, living in Delft as a gift, and even her local un-employability as a gift in disguise. Elizabeth also described her time interacting and talking to her kids while biking as a daily gift and one of the highlights of her life in the Netherlands. I hope all Delft mamas can also recognize and take advantage of the multitude of gifts in their lives and embrace challenges with as strong a positive attitude as Elizabeth. Indeed, it is this zeal for life and focus on uplifting values like joy, discovery, and gratitude that make Elizabeth so charming and her blog posts so delightful to read.

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Some of my favorite books by female authors

There are so many authors and readers in our Delft MaMa community that I felt inspired today to write about women writers. Books have always been one of my passions. At one stage growing up, I would finish my homework and then devour a book a night. These days, I do not have the luxury of finishing a book a day, but I generally manage to carve out some time from my busy schedule to read. Believing in the power of literature and being enamored of a wide range of authors, I, however, find it jarring to see how much the literary world still reflects biases in our society. Female authors are reviewed less often reviewed than their male counterparts, and fiction written by men or about men is more likely to receive literary awards. Furthermore, a large swath of popular novels by women are deemed less worthy of praise than more “serious” literature, generally written by men, as shown in this exchange.

With so many exciting and excellent female writers to choose from and with the summer holidays around the corner, I decided to make a short list of some of my favorite works of fiction from the last fifty years by female authors. Over the upcoming holiday, perhaps you can spend some of your well deserved rest and relaxation time discovering one of these gems. The list idea is inspired by the Guardian’s weekly Top Ten book series, which I also highly recommend.

I will start my list with a Arundhati Roy, an Indian author and activist, whose first work of fiction in twenty years will be published next week. Before you dive into her new book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, I would recommend taking the time to read her spellbinding The God of Small Things. Set in Southern India, this novel shows how a series of prejudices linked to class, gender, and religion combine to produce a tragic outcome. Its evocative, lyrical prose is made all the more vivid by the fact that the story is told through the eyes of two children, fraternal twins Esthappen and Rahel. This evocative book was the first Indian novel to win the Man Booker Prize, and I am sure it will linger in your mind long after you reach the last page.

Elena Ferrante’s engrossing Neapolitan Novels (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child) follow Elena (Lenù) and Raffaella (Lila) from girlhood in a tough Neapolitan neighborhood through many twists and turns to arrive at old age. Ferrante masterfully paints a portrait of a friendship that is both a source of strength and anguish and examines the inner lives of her characters with lucid intelligence. Ferrante has never revealed her identity, considering her biography irrelevant to her fiction. Unfortunately, a journalist recently reported to have unmasked the “real” Elena Ferrante, an endeavor that many describe as sexist.

Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories offers a refreshing perspective on traditional European fairy tales and their underlying themes. Carter’s heroines are not helpless damsels in distress but strong, independent characters that define their own destinies. Her depictions bring to light the sensual dimensions underlying most of these traditional tales and her gorgeous, gothic prose is a joy to read.

Another collection of short stories that I would strongly recommend is Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America. These excellently crafted stories delve into the everyday of lives of people, most often women, to find deeper meaning. The prose is subtle and minimalist, especially if compared to that of Carter, but the stories manage to pack a true emotional punch. For example, the poignant “People Like That Are The Only People Here” brings the reader inside the painful reality of life for parents of a child diagnosed with cancer.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale become a bestseller again. Atwood’s dystopian vision documents the life of Offred in Gilead, a theocratic military dictatorship that subjugates women. The story is a page-turner and a frightening prediction of where the dogma of limiting women’s rights and wilfully destroying the environment could lead. If you are interested to find out more about this prolific Canadian author, the New Yorker recently published an intriguing profile of Atwood.

Another page turner, but one based in the past rather than an imagined future, is Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Mantel plunges the reader into the intrigues of King Henry VIII’s Court and brilliantly portrays the ambitious Thomas Cromwell. Her prose is vivid, and the tale is thrilling enough that the reader never feels overwhelmed by the large cast of historical characters. Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up The Bodies both won the Man Booker prize. The third and final part of the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, has yet to be released.

Penelope Fitzgerald only published her first book at the age of 58, but her late blossoming career left us with a remarkable body of work. One case in point is The Blue Flower, a short but elegant novel that immerses the reader in moments of the life of the 18th century German poet Novalis. Fitzgerald shares a multiplicity of sensations and meanings through a series of vignettes, but the tale retains an aura of mystery that will keep you searching for what the blue flower truly represents long after you have put the book down.

On the fence between journalism and fiction writing is the work of Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 Nobel Prize in Fiction Winner. In Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, Alexievich weaves together interview segments to show how the collapse of the Soviet Union impacted everyday citizens. Many qualify Alexievich’s work as oral history, but she prefers to call her literary technique, “a novel in voices.” No matter how you classify the book, it offers a remarkable and compassionate portrait of post-Soviet society.

I have read all of the extremely talented Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s works, and my favorite is her powerful account of the Nigerian Civil War, Half of a Yellow Sun. Rather than focus on battles or glory, Adichie offers a devastating assessment of the disappointment and violence wrought by this conflict. You may also be familiar with Adichie from her TED talk on why we should all be feminists.

The list would not be complete without a work by the brilliant 1993 Nobel Prize laureate, Toni Morrison. Beloved, a virtuosic novel in every sense, tells the tale of former slave Sethe and her process of “rememory.” It is even more tragic to note that the book is based on an actual case from the 1850s. For those interested in the topic of the value of work or how work relates identity, I also encourage you to read a short piece by Morrison from this week’s New Yorker.

Additional resources :

For the very ambitious, the New York City Library created a list of 365 Books by Women Authors to Celebrate International Women’s Day All Year.

Danielle Dutton recommends her top ten Top 10 Books About Wild Women.

Marta Baussels lists 10 Inspiring Female Authors that You Need to Read.

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School endings and new beginnings

My daughter is in “groep 8″of the “basisschool”. And since she has returned from her last break beginning of May, she is in a total mode of end-of-primary-school-career-celebrations. They still do learn something at school, but after the Cito-toets just before the last holidays, school is all about preparation for the school camp and the famous end-of-musical.

For many international parents the Dutch school system is sometimes at least a bit confusing. To start with the fun parts. in many other school systems going to school camps happens yearly as from year 1 or 2 (groep 3 and 4 here), while in most Dutch schools the groep 8 camp is a very big deal. My daughter was lucky enough to go abroad to an International British school, and back in the Netherlands first to an international orientated bilingual Dutch school, so this is not her first camp. And also not her first musical, as theater productions are an yearly happening in many other school systems. She sometimes giggles: I am a pro, I’ve already done so many camps and musicals. But even so, the fever of all these preparations,  the fun and the joy is there every day, but also the fear and anticipation of what comes after. Because after the school camp, and after the musical, and after the summer holidays, she will start at her new “middelbare school”. Quite a huge step. And it keeps her and her peers very busy.

Since the Dutch education system does not have middle school, the step between the 8 year long primary school, (where all the kids learn together at the same level, have almost no homework and go to have lunch at home everyday) and the high school is really a big one. Everything changes. And it starts all with the Cito toets. The Cito is actually not only one exam (in some schools they use different examination tools, Cito is the biggest and most common one at the moment). Cito is a standardized testing system used for the very first groep 1 till groep 8, where the pupils are being ranked by their cognitive and academic achievements. In groep 8, the teachers look at the Cito results from previous years, and they look at the social-emotional development of the child, and they advice which type of school suits your child the best. Dutch high school educational system is characterized by division, according to the level of abilities of the pupils.  And then you as parents, and the child, start looking for schools, and their different educational curriculum, and choose one.

Middelbare school…how is that?!

Sounds simple? Well, it is not that simple. Because each high school has its own way of teaching, each school offers different kinds of support, extra curricular activities, foreign languages or practical skills. My daughter and we have visited quite a few school till we decided upon the one we think fits her. And it is hard, because it happens at such a precious age (hello puberty), and the differences will be felt. Because after the summer break my daughter, like all her peers, will have to deal with a new teacher for each subject, moving from one classroom to another, work in projects, and foremost make tons of homework and presentations. The transition is not soft. She and all of them, will be growing lots next school year. They will all need to make new friends, get used to new class dynamics, they will learn to plan, and again make lots of homework… they will learn a lot.

But, there are still some time till then. I remember the first time she went to “basisschool” when she just turned 4, and now she is ending her primary school years, getting ready for the unknown yet “middelbare school” ones. Packing her backpack for school camp, rehearsing her lines and songs for the musical, planning her summer, getting almost ready to take the next plunge.  No it’s not about reading and writing anymore, it’s about the big things. As for us, the parents, there is a Dutch saying “small kids, small problems, big kids, big problems”. Oh wel…

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Delft mama of the week: Marie

I met Marie for first time last year when she started hosting the Delft MaMa playgroup. She is currently the playgroup coordinator and she’s taking part in several other DMM projects as well.

We sit down together on display on the window of Hummus in Delft and order hot beverages. It’s Saturday and she’s coming straight from mindfulness yoga. It fits the first impression I had of her: a calm mom oozing nothing but serenity, but Marie tells me laughing her yoga classes were a gift from her husband, who hopes she can find it easier to relax a bit. Marie has been called too serious all her life, because of her amazing drive and ambition, so she has made a conscious effort of finding ways to loosen up a bit. To her luck, becoming a mother has been one of the things that has helped her in her quest.

Marie has been calling the Netherlands home for a few years. She used to travel a lot first for her studies: a scholarship took her from her home in the US to Paris when she was only 16, and later during her undergraduate studies Marie spent a semester in Brazil, two summers in Russia and one summer in Paris, where she also completed her master’s degree. Later in life her project based work took her from Scotland to Singapore and everywhere in between. She loves Brazil and says Vietnam is one of her favorite countries. But the love of her life, a Chinese man Junzi, Marie met by coincidence in the Netherlands.

When Marie was expecting their son, now a 1-year-old William, the married couple decided to settle down in Delft. Earlier having spent her time visiting new countries and cities every two to three weeks, Marie was sure she’d go out of her mind in such a small place as Delft. She had good friends in The Hague and in Haarlem, but she was missing a closer safety net. “When I first had William, I wasn’t meeting others very much, but I knew about Delft MaMa. When he was 5-6 months old, I decided to come to the playgroup”, Marie says. Meeting other moms allowed her to create her own social circles in Delft and thanks to this simple plan followed by action she’s much more involved in the community and to her surprise has yet to feel bored in the beautiful medieval town.

Marie speaks several languages fluently (English, French, Portuguese, Russian) and is constantly pushing the envelope with useful things to learn. She is currently taking Dutch lessons and teaching herself Chinese and she’s soon traveling to China with William to stay with her in-laws for a month to get more immersed in the language. She has always been hard-working and extremely driven at school and at work. Before becoming a mother, she describes herself as having been “definitely workaholic”. As one might assume, it has been a big adjustment fitting in the stay-at-home-mom shoes.

Lately Marie has been increasingly thinking about returning to work. The original plan – to return to work when William was three months old – didn’t go through. She realized the plans she had made before the birth of her child weren’t what she wanted and she listened to her heart instead. “Outsiders often think I’m calm, but I feel it’s the opposite! The main struggle now is should I go back to work or should I stay with William,” Marie explains.

The struggle is familiar to if not all, to most mothers. Marie says she knows she shouldn’t compare her own situation to her friends who are working in very prestigious positions around the world, but she can’t help but think about the opportunities she had, the good schools she went to and the professional ambition she to this day has. Now that William is one year old, Marie started to apply to again. She has sent out tons of applications, but hasn’t gotten that much interesting feedback. “It’s always difficult when you’re used to having a job and now I have to think how much I want a certain job and how much I want to stay at home with William. He’ll never be young again, but maybe if I stay out of work too long, I might have more difficulties finding a good job”, Marie says.

She often thinks about why work is so important for people in general. In the more distant past people didn’t define themselves by their work, but now it seems to be one of the first questions people ask each other. Before Marie didn’t mind this question at all, but lately she noticed how defining this question sounds. “It makes you think why do we value work so much as the value of the individual, when it doesn’t represent much at all. Of course it can, but oftentimes it doesn’t,” Marie says and explains how these days a specific job isn’t always what someone chooses to do, as it depends a lot about circumstances one can’t control. “If I’m philosophical enough I’d say would it matter if I’m working or not? What I’m doing is probably more valuable than what a lot of work people do,” she rightfully says at the end of our talk.

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In your face!

You just had a tough morning, got the fussy kids fed and finally to school, got yourself racing against the clock and made it to your job. And then it happens: not your best pal at work, but some random Dutch co-worker wishes you a good morning in the most charming way: “meid, wat zie jij eruit vandaag”. Which roughly translates “you look like sh*t today”.

There you go, Dutch directness. To some extent, directness can be seen as bluntness or even rudeness. But it can also be seen as being honest, sincere, and not hypocrite. So, what makes the Dutch being seen as (too) direct?

It is actually your perspective on the Dutch culture that makes you categorize it as being too direct or rude. It is your “own culture” that reacts to this approach. We’ve all been raised with values and within visible or non-visible cultural boundaries and faux pas. While growing up you suck up like a sponge the way you should or not behave and react, the way to start or continue a conversation. Your surroundings and education is full of unwritten rules and expectancy rooted in your culture and the society around you. So is the Dutch kid growing up, she absorbs the way to communicate, to bring her message across, to deal with situations and social courtesy.

There’s the thing with Dutch culture and the way the Dutch communicate. World wide you can divide the way people communicate to one another as being “confrontational” or being “avoiding confrontation”. Cultures as the Dutch one (but also the US and German one) are communicating the confrontational way. The message must be simple and clear. Cultures as many Asian ones, but also the French one for example, are avoiding confrontation. Their message is full of nuances and there is lots to read between the lines. So when you come from a confrontation-avoiding society, it is not surprising you find the Dutch at least too direct.

But there is more. Another way to divide societies world wide, is the way a society relates to power; in other words, how hierarchic a society is. As you can expect, the Dutch are one of the less hierarchical societies. And because there is less hierarchy, there is also less of a need for imposed politeness and communication layers. This also means less etiquette, more feeling of equality, and there is a more open, two way communication. This all facilitates a more direct approach to all facades of life.

And there you are at this birthday party, and you find yourself chatting with this Dutch guy. And then he throws at you something like pure statements. This is this, and this is that. And then you block. That is not the way to engage in a conversation, not the way you’ve learned it. But that is the whole funny thing, that is exactly the way a Dutch person wants to fire up a conversation. Talking in statements, for many other cultures a conversation stopper, is the Dutch way to start a debate. It’s not a non-disputable statement, and the Dutch really don’t mean that their statement is the truth. It’s not that black and white. It should be an ice breaker, you are invited to exchange ideas. And you should start telling your point of view. The Dutch are taking pride in the freedom of speech and are very open to debating and making an argument.

As I wrote earlier, it’s most of the time your own cultural background that might make you feel offended by Dutch directness. And it is hard work for your cultural antenna to get the right message. It is hard when you are not so well acquainted with Dutch culture to differentiate between Dutch directness and real Dutch rudeness. Let’s be honest, there is a fine line between funny and sarcastic even in your own culture. But look at the up side of Dutch directness. When someone tells you something straight in your face, you just know where you stand. No false politeness, no pretending. And actually, when your co-worker tells you you look like sh*t, take a few moments to digest and have a good look at the face of your colleague. I am pretty sure that most of the time the non-verbal communication will tell you: “been there, I feel you”.

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