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

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