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