Monday, 24 October 2011

How many bikes are enough?

I find myself contemplating this strange question after a discussion with my husband about finally sending my old, battered, mountain bike to the tip as it’s wheels are now beyond repair.  It is the sort of question you would only ask yourself if you live in the Netherlands.  In the UK I used to ask, how many pairs of stilettos are enough or how many handbags. Now its bikes.

Before I came to the Netherlands I could barely ride a bike. I didn’t learn as a child because I lived in London and to ride a bike on our local streets would have resulted in certain death! Once I was a student, my pride and self image were too fragile to take the inevitable knocks of the extremely ungraceful process of wobbling up and down the (very steep) hills of Brighton on two wheels.  Thus it was only when I moved to the English countryside in my thirties that I finally set my nervous bottom upon a bike seat and meandered dangerously around my cul de sac where the local 7 year olds generously encouraged my efforts.

The bike I learnt to ride on was a deeply unglamorous neon, orange, mountain bike.  It was passed on to me by a friend whose 16 year old son had outgrown it. Since she had kindly donated the bike I felt compelled to use it, so every summer for 4 years the bike was ceremonially brought out of storage in the garage, dusted off, oiled and tyres pumped. I would then wobble my way into the village which was a 10 minute walk away but which took equally long at my pathetic peddling pace.  This annual event was my sole experience of cycling before I moved to the Netherlands.

Once I arrived here it became very quickly apparent I would have to re-assess my relationship with 2 wheels.  So the neon orange bike came out of storage once more and I attempted to get the hang of cycling somewhere with cycle paths and no hills.  The first problem I encountered was my tummy.  As I was pregnant at the time I found my belly was increasingly getting in the way when I leant over the handlebars of my mountain bike. Eventually I had to concede that a bump and a mountain bike were mutually exclusive and so I decided to buy my first bike.

This is where the slippery road to bike collection began.  I realise I am not alone in this phenomenon, in fact I suspect there is some kind of mathematical correlation between the number of years you live in the Netherlands and the number of bikes you accumulate!  We now have my stadsfiets, a moederfiets, my husband’s road bike, his old mountain bike and a whole range of varying sized 2 wheeled vehicles for the kids. I think we currently have at least 9 wheeled vehicles in our bike shed. 

We justify the collection with the reasoning that we should have enough bikes for guests to join us when we cycle into town.  I would estimate that has actually happened twice in the three years we’ve lived here!  So, when my husband looked exasperatedly at the neon, rusty, mountain bike on which my adventures on two wheels started and pronounced it beyond his ability to repair, I found myself wondering if we really could do without it.

When you anguish over the departure of an old bike does that mean you’re starting to adapt to a life where two wheels, rather than four, are king?  But whether it’s a sign that we’ve assimilated or just a question of de-cluttering, either way the orange bike is going to the great cycle park in the sky!

Monday, 6 June 2011

Camping in Lage Zwaluwe

After much persuasion I was convinced to spend the Hemelvaart holiday with 2 days under canvas. The idea of camping has never appealed to me and the idea of camping with two small children was even more horrific to me, however a party was occurring at the campsite so I knew I could cushion the experience with a large quantity of wine!

As it turned out the weekend was glorious (until the final morning) and we had 2 days of setting up our little tented village in glorious sunshine and 30 degrees of heat.  We barbecued and snacked, ran around the campsite with all the kids, played strange hybrid anglo-dutch versions of various bat and ball games and threw buckets of water over super-heated children.

The surrounding countryside was beautiful, the dawn chorus very loud, but reassuringly varied in song and I was even able to watch a pair of marsh harriers gliding over the fields in search of their next meal.  In the evenings the bats came out and performed an aerobatic display for us while hoovering up the wide range of insects covering the campsite.

Unfortunately the final morning brought the inevitable arrival of rain - you don't go camping in the Netherlands and expect to stay dry the whole time!  So we packed up our soggy tent and filled the car with damp garden furniture, wet carrier bags of belongings and soaked children and returned to civilisation - well at least solid walls and a hot bath!

The weekend was great fun, pity about the rain which spoiled our plans for a long luxurious Sunday breakfast and I'm still not convinced camping has any merit in a world where 5 star hotels exist. But the kids had a great time, we didn't freeze or get eaten alive and we've now passed through another rite of passage towards integration into Dutch life - after all whats more Dutch than spending a holiday weekend camping!

Monday, 11 April 2011

Technopolis - a fun day out just South of the border!

Just across the border into Belgium on the outskirts of Mechelen, Technopolis is an exciting interactive science centre with many fun and interesting exhibits to discover. On our visit the children and adults alike had enormous fun; pedalling a vehicle with square wheels, making man size soap bubbles, catching shadows and printing our own currency! There is so much to do there it would take several visits to see everything and press all the buttons/take part in all the activities.

The centre has 7 areas and a science garden plus the current themed exhibition - Plantastic, the wonderful world of plants! The 7 areas include space travel - where you could re-enact walking on the moon, air and wind - where you can pilot a virtual plane flight and action/reaction where you can ride a bicycle through the air!  In the house section you can lie on a bed of nails, at building blocks you can produce an identification image on the computer and in the invisible section you can use smoke and mirrors to make someone disappear (I’m not sure who wanted to make whom disappear more - the kids or their parents!!)

The waterside area held the younger visitor’s attention for a long time, splashing, squirting and pouring, all in the name of science. There was also an excellent science centre for the 4 to 8 yr olds where they could build a house out of enormous rubber lego blocks or shop at a supermarket and find out where food comes from.

We had a great day there with our young children and we also took along our 14 year old nephew who enjoyed it so much he’s told us he has to go back when he next comes to stay. So it really is fun for all ages (especially the dads, many of whom were spotted taking part just as enthusiastically as their offspring!)  Our only criticism was the café which was hopelessly disorganised and chaotic and took hours to serve everyone with poor quality food - a pretty fundamental flaw for a café!

So, in summary, it’s a great place to visit and you probably don’t even need to take the kids with you to enjoy it - but take a picnic!

Friday, 11 February 2011

What to buy and where - a Brit’s guide to shopping in the Netherlands

When we first landed here from the UK we were amazed at how different the shopping experience is here. Quite apart from the shock at how expensive many things are here compared to Britain there was also a culture shock as we adjusted to shorter opening hours, smaller shops and Dutch “service”.  But now that we’ve adjusted to our new shopping experience we rather like it!

Whilst “service” is interpreted slightly differently here, it can be nice to be able to browse without being leapt upon by an over-enthusiastic sales person. The supermarkets are much smaller here which I find less stressful and I think they offer a good quality of fresh products compared to the UK (if you can get past the shelf stackers to reach them!) When I go back to England and compare the contents of the vast warehouse style supermarkets to what is on offer here the main difference appears to be smaller packets and less ready meals, although I do miss the clothes selection.

The shorter opening hours have meant we no longer spend all our leisure time in retail therapy but are forced to have quality family time - making conversation and going for walks (shock!) However we have noticed that the recent changes in opening hours, more out of town shopping and new supermarkets arriving are changing the shopping experience here to a more familiar model.  Personally I’m a little disappointed about that, but I know for the majority of folk, who are not at home during the week and who have a car, it is a great bonus.

What I would have found useful when I arrived was a guide to what I could buy from where, especially the products that help to make you feel “at home”.  Specialist expat services and product suppliers are here in Breda and many more are available online. You just need to know where to look! So here is an attempt to lay out some useful tips - it is by no means an exhaustive list but hopefully will provide useful information for newcomers and maybe a new experience for those who are familiar with the Dutch shopping selection.

If you’re looking for something to read, you can often find an English bookstore or the larger bookshops have an Englsi language section many larger towns also have an International Magazine Store. However buying international language materials in the Netherlands is an expensive business and now that are offering free delivery to NL its usually cheaper to buy online. However if you need the tactile shopping experience or to browse with instant gratification then having these shops within the town is invaluable.

For grocery shopping there is a range of supermarket chains; Albert Heijn, Jumbo (famous for stocking Rice Krispies!), C1000 and for budget groceries Aldi and Lidl.  These are just a few of the more common ones. But if you are looking for a wider range of tastes than those provided by the regular supermarkets there are several other options.  Many towns have an oriental supermarket or grocery and organic chain Estafette have stores around the country.  And if you are really missing the large supermarket experience, just over the border in Turnhout, Belgium there is a large Carrefour with a particularly good rang of wine and beer (plus clothes - yippee!!)

Most towns also have a regular market and local shopping parades often have a butcher, greengrocer and bakers amongst their offering and the fabulous fresh cakes and pastries on offer are a particular weakness of mine! There are several “British grocers” in the Netherlands; have a shop in Den Haag and offer delivery,  deliver worldwide and have a shop just outside Brussels. Australian outlet; have a web shop and a shop in Leiden.

One of the main complaints I hear from my expat friends is the lack of good value clothing. When you are used to popping into Tesco to clothe your family (keeping the cost within the weekly food buying budget!) or equipping yourself for the season ahead in the Next sale it can be a real disappointment to find you are limited to the high street prices here. Plus the lack of variability of size ranges - where can you go for clothes when you’re less than 5 foot 3?!  But if you’re after a bargain its worth checking in Wibra and Zeeman or individual outlet shops.

For familiar names for fashion/accessories - Zara, H&M, Esprit and Clare’s are all available on the high street here. The V&D department store has some British concessions including Jane Norman and Accessorize.  Plus a range of UK based webshops offer overseas delivery to mainland Europe for a fee - including Next, Debenhams, Marks & Spencer and Gap.  For other products there are web retailers such as , ,  who offer delivery to Europe, for a fee.

And finally once you’ve begun to assimilate and you start to feel like a “local” you will find you are endlessly popping into Hema for useful bits and bobs (or just for cake!), buying large quantities of Trappist cheese from the market and filling your house with fresh flowers!  My favourite shopping treat is a visit to our local chocolaterie - the architecture, interior design and smell alone are worth the visit and the wonderful array of chocolate scrumminess they stock makes up for the absence of Cadburys in these parts… well, almost!

This is just a short guide on an exhaustive subject (if you're a shopoholic like me!)  If you have a useful shopping tip or weblink please let me know and I’ll add it to my list!
Happy shopping - English mum abroad

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Life in the Netherlands as an Expat - Who am I?

I have always been keen to live and work abroad; the opportunity to broaden your horizons, the chance to learn another language, a different cultural experience. When I was in my 20s, the folk who made me think "I want to be like you when I grow up" had nearly all lived abroad at some point in their adult lives. So I figured this was something I should aspire to. I also remember reading an article about Kristin Scott Thomas, the quintessentially English actress, who had chosen to live in France. She said one of the reasons she loved living outside of the UK was the complete lack of relevance that class has once you are a "foreigner".

This idea of life as a classless foreigner intrigued me. As an escapee from a country obsessed with class (still! in the 21st century!) I thought that you could go somewhere else in the world and reinvent who you were.  Whilst that might be a very attractive and romantic notion its actually not an option for those without the necessary skills to make a good fraudster!

There are also some down sides to loosing your identity. In a new environment you are required to define yourself in different terms - an English speaker, a British person, an immigrant... As with many women immigrants I have found it very tricky to find a job that I can fit around the family and that allows for my poor Dutch language skills! So a key part of my former identity - my career - is no longer a part of how I define myself. However I realise I'm incredibly lucky as an English speaker that I still have the opportunity to take part in my community as so many people can communicate in English. It must be so much harder for women who have neither Dutch or English language skills or who live where English is less commonly spoken, it can be very isolating.

As with all opportunities in life it requires some effort to make the most of it. Nine months after arriving in the Netherlands I discovered the International Women's Club of Breda and that has really helped, pointing me in the right direction to find those key bits of information that often elude buitenlanders!  Plus the freedom I craved really has transpired without the work and class identities that clung to me back in Blighty. Living away from the British work obsessed culture and the competition of my peers I no longer feel the need to prove I can be ambitious, balance a full time career with being a mum and have an active evening social life. I am a much more relaxed and happy person without that pressure. I hope my kids are also benefiting from a less stressed and more hands on mummy (although you do sometimes suspect they would be happier at daycare all the time because the toys are more interesting than the ones at home)

Of course once you become someone's mum you do tend to lose your own identity anyway (including class, education, career and social life!) and assume a whole new one. To a range of people across several countries I am simply my kids' mummy.  Fortunately my children are lovely small people to be associated with and life as a mummy is rather fun. The social life is fabulous - loads of supportive people who are in the same boat as you and who can enjoy your triumphs (getting out of the house before 9 o'clock in the morning) and commiserate on your pains (that piece of lego you stepped on at 5 o'clock in the morning in the dark whilst stumbling for the crying baby!)

The social side of being a "foreigner" is also enjoyable. It sometimes feels like we are quite exotic when colleagues and neighbours ask about our life before we came here and our perspective on the culture here. People have actually stopped me in the supermarket to ask if we're English (they can spot us from a mile off by the way we look quizzically at the labels on the packets and have a trolley full of breakfast cereal!!) Plus the discovery of the International Women's Club has created an entire social scene from the very fact I am a foreigner. When day to day you are identified as "the English lady" it can be a relief to be amongst other English speakers where your foreigner status is not a novelty and where you can have an in-depth discussion without resorting to shrugs and hand gestures to get across your meaning!

So as a mummy, living abroad, I can safely say my class, previous career and academic achievement are all frankly irrelevant. However my ability to improvise (creative use of a new language, using paper napkins to distract a grumpy toddler etc) is tested on a day to day basis! And that has given me a chance to reinvent myself in a whole different way.  So whilst I didn't need to leave the UK to enjoy a reinvention, living abroad has added a whole extra layer to the experience.

Since experiences are what help us to learn, feel more fulfilled and widen our perspective on the world then experiencing another language and culture are definitely giving me all the benefits I hoped for plus a whole load more. Not to mention, we're having a lot of fun!
English mum abroad


We've been living the Netherlands for 2 years now so we are hardly experts on life in this part of the world, but as we've looked to settle our family here, cultural and language differences have provided a source of both consternation and amusement, and I'm sure other new arrivals (and more established residents) will recognise some of our experiences.  In the search for useful information to help navigate our way through the Dutch initiation processes I've spoken to other expats, many of whom have been here a long time or who've even gone so native as to marry a "local"! This has produced a rich vein of entertaining stories and recommendations for how to approach the complex business of integration.

When you announce to folk in the UK that you are moving to the Netherlands, most people assume that means Amsterdam or The Hague. There is little knowledge of life outside these locations! There is also the assumption that "everyone in Holland speaks English". Well, not only are there a whole host of places outside the Ranstad that are home to large expat populations, but there is a large number of Dutch folk who do not speak or understand any English, plus many others who lack the confidence to converse in English. We're also rather British in our approach to being "foreigners" and feel particularly embarrassed about our poor attempts to speak the local language, but feel duty bound to try as it’s "the polite thing to do!"

The language is without a doubt the most challenging aspect of living here. I could recommend to anyone thinking of moving to NL that they learn the language first, but I know most people don't get time or have sufficient motivation before they leave their native shores. That means picking it up once you get here.  Both my husband and I took short courses in Nederlands very soon after our arrival. Whilst this gave us a little help, it was completely insufficient to really make the leaps in comprehension, pronunciation and vocabulary necessary, to be of any use in day to day exchanges.  I am still hopeless at understanding spoken Dutch but can just about manage with most of the written Dutch we receive. I've managed to work out what to do when letters arrive from utilities, tax office, child benefit agency and a whole range of other random sources (the roof and gutter cleaning company took some working out!) and I've even managed to sell something on Marktplaats!

We have been very lucky and regularly find ourselves assisted by our neighbours and the children's nursery. When my little boy started at the nursery his teacher looked at me pleadingly with her big, blue eyes and asked if it would be ok to write in his daybook in Dutch. I quickly reassured her that this would be just fine as it would help us learn the language and indeed it has. Sometimes the handwriting may stump me but the language is slowly becoming less of an enigma. It is also a good guide to the colloquial use of the language. Writing about the activities of a 3 year old lends itself to a more informal style!

Our neighbours have proven great for both assisting in times of need and allowing us to practice our bad Dutch conversation. We have perfected a bizarre hybrid of Dutch and English (known at home as Dungels) which uses common Dutch phrases and basic sentence formation, interjected with English words when either vocabulary or inspiration fails us.  The assistance of our kindly "buurt" dwellers has been invaluable in navigating the day to day use and abuse of the Dutch language.

The upshot of our, sometimes hopeless, attempts to "do the polite thing" has been some very amusing conversations at cross purpose and a whole host of bizarre hybrid words and phrases. But the net result is a great feeling that our community here - neighbours, International Women's Club of Breda friends, the nursery and our colleagues have all made efforts to make us feel at home and help us integrate. I've been told many times by Dutch friends that there is no direct translation for the Dutch word "gezellig" but I interpret it as "the warm fuzzies".  And that’s what living here with all this help, good feeling and support from our community gives us - the warm fuzzies!
English mum abroad