The Happiest Kids in the World

Last week we looked at the school system in The Netherlands, so, along those lines, let’s look at the lifestyle of children here.  There have been numerous studies in recent years proclaiming that Dutch children are some of the happiest in the world and there are some factors that might contribute to that.

 1.  Children here are given large amounts of autonomy.  Rather than being driven everywhere, they bike on their own.  Many young children (think early elementary years) are still escorted to school by their parents, but once they are in the later years of primary school and secondary school, they go alone even when it takes 30 minutes or more to get to school.  Likewise, children bike themselves to their after school and weekend sports clubs or music lessons with their gear which they were probably responsible for gathering as well.  Also, many children ride public transportation by themselves. 

Children may run errands alone.  Many kids go to appointments on their own.  For example, when I take my daughter to the orthodontist, many of the kids come alone, go into the appointment alone and get the information needed and schedule their own appointments before leaving.  Kids also take care of shopping on their own when they need to or are asked by parents.  It is very common to see groups of secondary age kids in the grocery store in the morning buying items for their lunch.  I have also seen children sent to buy a few items for the family when the store is close to their home. 

And finally, Dutch children are encouraged to just go out and play without having to stay at their home to do so or to be overly supervised.  They don’t have to check in regularly and they aren’t checked on.  During the distance learning period in the spring, some of the children in our neighborhood spent hours every day building a fort in the wooded area by the houses and no parents ever went to check on them. 

2.  Children here don’t always have much “stuff.” Rather than have large rooms in which they collect copious amounts of toys and other junk, Dutch kids have smaller rooms, less storage and hence less stuff.  And while some people may feel that having stuff leads to happiness, it is, in fact, rather freeing to have less to keep up with.  In addition, when you don’t have “things”, you are more likely to go out to play, spend time with friends or engage in physical activity.

3.  Another theory is that Dutch parents are happy which makes the household and the children happier. The Dutch place a high level of importance on a balance between work and family time.  They do not work excessive hours, and it is culturally accepted that there are times when family obligations will trump work commitments.  In addition, Dutch fathers play an active role in child rearing and care which may also lead to balance and happiness in the household.  I see many fathers in The Netherlands taking their children to school which is something I rarely saw in the US.  In addition, when I see Dutch families doing things together, it seems like the parents are more engaged in the activity and spend more time talking with the family or friends they are with rather than being on a device.  I personally feel that in the US, I saw more parents on devices even when they were participating in family time out of the home. 

4.  There are also reports that Dutch children find their peer groups to be supportive and helpful and do not deal with issues regarding bullying and social identity as much as children in other countries. Also, it seems that social media and its pressures don’t stress Dutch kids much at all (see the link to the study below). 

5.  Dutch children are seen as having a “voice.” Within the family unit, children are listened to and encouraged to have opinions.  Likewise, at school, children are given the freedom to express themselves and do not experience as much authoritativeness from administration.  In return, the students generally trust their teachers.  And, parents may not put as much pressure on children in The Netherlands because they allow them the freedom to be themselves which may lead to more feelings of happiness.

6.  Finally, overall, the Dutch consider themselves to have a good life. They are a wealthy country with a good economy, they have decent healthcare and education, and there is little worry of incidents of mass violence particularly in schools.  These factors mean less stress and more happiness.

Of course, no culture is perfect and the Dutch do receive criticism for an unhealthy diet among kids.  There are also, of course, issues of poverty and racism to deal with.  And, for better or worse, Dutch children do seem to be exposed to sex (in terms of both education, discussion and the actual act) at a much earlier age than in many other cultures. 

All in all, though, I think there are some great things about being a kid in The Netherlands and some interesting aspects of child rearing to consider and potentially adopt in order to encourage children to be happy and well-adjusted.  I hope you have enjoyed this week’s peek at life in another culture.  Until next time, I wish you all, adults and children alike, much happiness! 

**Here are a few other things to note about life for Dutch kids-drinking age is 18 and so is driving age.  Of course, many kids get a license to drive a moped (which are generally driven in bike lanes) much sooner than that.  Tons of kids here play an extracurricular sport whether it is tennis, soccer or field hockey.   There is an idea/saying in The Netherlands that is ingrained in kids early on which is “doe normaal” (be normal) basically meaning that you should not behave in a way to stand out or to be different in a negative way.  It kind of translates to “stop, that’s crazy enough.”

Finally, this is an interesting study regarding the stressors of teens in The Netherlands.

https://nltimes.nl/2020/06/23/stress-school-dutch-teens-main-problem-unicef

 

Happy Anniversary-Year 2

It’s that time of year again.  It’s the 2nd anniversary of our move to The Netherlands!  In preparation for celebrating this second anniversary, I had a look back at the one year anniversary post from last year and found that while year one was an up and down rollercoaster of emotions and trying to settle in, year two proved to be a little calmer, although it had its own set of challenges.

We kicked off our second year with an awesome trip to Iceland, and, while that was a lot of fun, we were also a bit apprehensive about how the coming year would go.  As we wound down on year one, almost every single one of my close friends was leaving the area.  I wasn’t really sure how it would feel to “start over” again.  In addition, we were nervous about the teacher that our youngest had as she was pretty tough.  And, our oldest had struggled a lot with letting go of the life we had in The States and accepting the life we currently had in The Netherlands.  On top of that, we were going through the process of buying our house in The Netherlands and making decisions about what to do with our house in The States.  There was a lot to be uncertain about.

As we started back to school, I was a bit down without my friends, though I did still have one close friend that I did several things with.  Having her around really helped a lot, and, as I was now heading up the PTSA group at the school, I tried to really force myself to get to know several other parents, both new and returning.  While most of the friendships were not quite as close this year as the ones the year before, I did find that I enjoyed many of the people, and we were able to do things together.  I also found ways to be in touch with some of my friends from the year before, which was nice as well.  We even began working on planning a trip to London to spend a weekend together which was one of the goals that I had for our second year here (spoiler alert-Covid ruined that). I was also working on the goal of doing a regular biking activity with a few of the moms at the school and had a schedule of excursions planned (spoiler alert-the weather ruined that).  So, as we moved into the Fall, I felt pretty good about our social life.  I was in a Bunco group, weekly tennis lessons, a bookclub, and had coffee and lunches regularly with other moms.  We also had another family or two that we enjoyed doing things with regularly.  We had even socialized with our neighbors a couple of times.  By the start of 2020, I had rejoined a choir and a yoga class.  Those old feelings from year one of being out of place and uncomfortable were there sometimes, but for the most part, we felt like we had found a niche, and we felt more connected to the customs and celebrations here and more prepared in how to handle the ins and outs of our daily lives here.

At school, the kids were facing a few struggles.  Socially, there were some tough situations facing both of them, but nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary for their ages.  Our oldest was also facing struggles with the Student Council that she was heading up and our youngest was having some issues with the classroom environment.  Overall, though, they were doing well.  The oldest seemed to have finally let go of the hangups regarding old life versus new life and was enjoying one of her friendships here in particular.  She was enjoying several of her classes and her music and she even had a weekly dog walking job.  The youngest was enjoying extracurricular activities. learning a new instrument and socializing with friends.  Overall, there seemed to be a more positive outlook on things.

In the first half of the second year, we were able to take several trips which were a lot of fun.  We also did several things around The Netherlands.  We were able to have my mom for a visit at Christmas time.  We were looking forward to several upcoming trips and activities.  And then, the second half of our second year arrived and with it came Covid.  It seemed like everything changed overnight.  The kids were no longer in school and hence their social lives came to a screeching halt.  Our youngest struggled with this tremendously.  Our oldest felt glued to the computer for classes and assignments and missed being able to be in person with her friend.  My social life also came to a halt.  There were no more activities, no more seeing friends and because everyone was spending so much time assisting and monitoring their kids’ distance learning, there was little communication with anyone.  In addition, all of our trips that we had been looking forward to were canceled, the visit from my mom was canceled and several special school activities were canceled.  We were not very happy.

At the same time though, we were getting to spend a little more time together.  We were taking a lot of walks, eating lunch together, our oldest and I were working on a daily music challenge which required spending many hours a week together, and I was able to give some real attention to helping our youngest improve school and organizational skills.  On a personal note, I was working out and meeting some fitness goals and I was exploring a new interest in art and card making.  It was far from an ideal situation, but we were trying to make the best of it.

We finally made it back to school for a few weeks just before the end of the year.  Though we were a little nervous, the kids were glad to be back and got to have a few of the regular end of school activities which was nice.  But life was pretty quiet, and I could feel a small negative aspect to all the staying distant.  That feeling of being a little out of place and uncomfortable was growing.  Now, going to the store or having to interact with Dutch people felt a little worse than it previously did.  Driving, biking or having to take transport somewhere felt a little overwhelming.  It was like a little backslide thanks to all the months of isolating in our English speaking, Americanized home and school environment where we were not forced to be a part of Dutch society at all.  And, it also made very clear that I had failed miserably at one of my goals for year two which was learning more Dutch.  It has been a bit of an unsettling realization.

But, as we finish year two, we are trying to remain positive.  We just got to take our first real trip since Covid began, and it was a lot of fun.  We also have recently been able to get together with the other family that we like to do things with, and it was really nice to be social again.  We are still really enjoying living in The Netherlands, and we like the area that we live in a lot.  There are a lot of nature areas near us, and we really enjoyed walking in and photographing those areas in the spring.  There are also still a lot of things to do in the area and in nearby European locations.  And we still really love the international nature of our life here and getting to know people from so many different places.

But, as with every year it seems, with those positives come the struggles.  Again this year, we had to say goodbye to some friends at the end of this year, we just found out that our closest friends will no longer be at our school next year, Covid is still wreaking havoc making everything for this year (school, socializing, travel, etc. an uncertainty and at times a fear), and we are not sure where we will be at the end of year three and with that uncertainty comes a lot of decisions and potential stress.  It seems the only thing we can do is hang on and try to make the most of year three, whatever that looks like.

So, with that in mind, I’d like to take a look back at the goals we had for year two and set some goals for our third year.  Of course, as we learned from Covid, and at times from the expat life in general, life may just come along and make all of these goals impossible.  In which case, it will be time to make some new goals.

Year Two Goals

  1. Learn more Dutch -oops…socializing, PTSA work and watching TV took precedence.
  2. Visit more places (we’ve got some really great vacations and day trips on the horizon that we are really looking forward to)-we tried, we really did but Covid just messed this one up.
  3. Take some biking excursions and/or work up a biking group with some friends-I did one with friends and we did one as a family.  Dutch weather is hard, you guys!
  4. Take a small ladies trip or do some other exploring locally with friends-I went to some Christmas markets downtown with some friends and to a friend’s store opening in another city, does that count?  Again, Covid reared its ugly head and blocked my ladies’ weekend away plans.

What I learned from these goals this year- reaching goals can be hard especially when things outside of your control interfere or when you just really don’t commit to something.  But you can always adjust your goals and explore goals you didn’t know you really had.  I added some goals this year after setting these original goals-

  1. Complete the Kiliminjaro Climb challenge with my oldest-did it
  2. Push for and join a parent/teacher choir at school-did it (though it was short-lived thanks again to Covid)
  3. Lose weight and get in better shape-did it

And now….Year Three Goals

  1. Take some family bike excursions to work up to a several hour biking trip in the spring/summer.
  2. Visit more places-I’m not giving up on this one; I just need Covid to cooperate!
  3. Complete a couple of artistic projects that I have worked up as well as a cross-stitch that I have been doing on and off for about 20 years (mostly off which is probably the problem).
  4. Walk for an hour at least 3 times a week.
  5. Play tennis weekly with another couple and with moms at school (again I need Covid to cooperate)

And so, with some reflection on this past year, a positive outlook and fresh goals in mind, we are ready to jump into year three of our overseas journey.  Thank you for coming along with me on this journey for another year.  Happy anniversary and away we go!!

 

My So Called Pandemic Life (Expat Edition)

At this point, we are all at least ankle-deep in our self quarantined, pandemic lifestyle.  I, like most everyone, have experienced difficulties and disappointments.

For one, travel that we have been planning and looking forward to has been disrupted.  First, a mom’s trip to see some very good friends that I have not seen in nearly 9 months came to a halt less than 24 hours before leaving, and then, our upcoming family spring vacation, which I have actually been looking forward to for many years as it was to a country that I have wanted to visit for some time, was decidedly canceled as that country’s borders are closed.  At the moment, we also have some long-awaited trips to 3 other countries that are all in danger of being canceled.  These are disappointing times.

Another issue that we are all experiencing is the fear of what the economic picture will look like when the pandemic dust has settled.  Not one of us is immune to this.  How will we be able to support our existing lifestyles, will we be able to pay bills, what jobs and businesses will still exist and how will their lack of existence affect all of us, will we be able to sell and acquire properties and assets, will we be able to send our kids to school or retire?  These questions weigh heavily on all of us.

Another difficulty that many are experiencing, including myself, is this strange scarcity of resources.  There are no times available for grocery delivery meaning that you have to trek to a store and risk virus spread.  And yet, when you go to the store, you can’t find the things that you need.  It is one more frustration in an already frustrating time.

There is social isolation.  The lack of communication and connection with friends at a time when you need connection and support the most is indeed trying.  It is hard for adults and children alike.

Finally, there is the fear of being sick and needing medical care.  You worry about yourself, your family and your friends.  And there is no definitive, trustworthy source from which you can find reassurance or answers as information varies greatly and changes daily.

Just like all of you, I have faced these difficulties.  But, there are a few added difficulties for Expats that many of you may not realize.  First off, some times that travel that is getting canceled is not just a desired and planned trip that you are disappointed about, but a lifeline to those you care about and rarely get to see.  It may also be a source of getting products and supplies that you can’t find in the country that you are currently living in.  Finally, for us, it’s also a chance to do some medical visits that are outside of the medical services that we utilize in the country we live in.  And now, we have no way of knowing when we might be able to make that trip.

Second, while you may find it difficult to quarantine away from family, for an Expat, we now no longer have a choice.  If your family member gets sick and needs care or hospitalization, you can most likely visit them (even if it has to be in a protected environment); we cannot.  If our family becomes ill, we have to watch that play out from a large distance and we can be of no assistance as we are no longer allowed to travel.  We have to worry about not being there and how we will arrange for the care of a loved one.

Thirdly, there can be added fear and frustration when you do not wholly understand the language of the country that you live in.  Emergency press briefings and warnings are issued in a foreign language, signage informing patrons of safety procedures are in a foreign language, neighborhood chats for assistance and isolation relief are in a foreign language and you have to rely on translator services which are not always accurate or up to the task.  This leads to further feelings of isolation and fear.

Finally, you are isolated from country camaraderie.  What is that?  You know the sentiments that express the belief that all the citizens of a country can overcome a problem together because you are living it together and together you are strong?  That’s country camaraderie.  As an Expat, you are not a part of the camaraderie of the country you live in, because you are an outsider there and won’t stay for long.  You are also not a part of the camaraderie of your native country because you aren’t there.  I can’t tell you how many posts I saw in the past week claiming “we are the greatest country and we will get through this together” or “our great nation has endured things before and we will survive this because we can do this together.”  As an Expat who isn’t present, that kind of support just doesn’t include you.  In fact, it feels like it excludes you; like you don’t deserve support because you are not currently a part of that nation.  It’s a little frustrating and sad to see because, in reality, this is a world problem, not a nation or community-specific problem and for Expats, that point is especially clear.

So, here we are-each with our own set of challenges and each with a similar set of challenges.  I, by no means, am trying to say that it is worse for Expats in this situation.  I’m simply trying to share my perspective and maybe share with everyone some things that you otherwise wouldn’t think of as we all face this reality together.  Safety and health to everyone!

 

Lessons From the Volcano

Our family recently went on a hiking excursion up to the top of a volcano.  It was an enjoyable hike filled with interesting scenery.  Reaching the top and surveying both the inside of the volcano and everything surrounding us for miles was quite amazing and very rewarding after the effort put into getting there.  But I think the more important part of that hike was the lessons along the way.  You see, if you have never stopped to ponder it before, you can actually learn a lot from a good hike.  And most of the things you learn can be applied to life.  So here’s what the hike to the volcano taught us.

1.  You Can Be Tripped Up by Small and Large Rocks

As we picked our way through lava fields on our way to the volcano, there was an abundance of rocks to step over and around.  It didn’t really matter if they were small rocks or large rocks.  They all hurt your feet, they all created a tripping hazard, they all slowed us down and they all made the hike much more challenging.  There are things in life that do the same thing to us.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a big thing or a small thing-an obstacle is an obstacle.  But the hike to the volcano reminded us that regardless of the size of the rock, the only way to keep going was to pick up our feet and go.  In life when we are faced with obstacles, we can’t just stop.  We have to pick up our feet, maneuver through and go.

2.  Keep Your Eyes on the Path (But Don’t Forget to Look Up Sometimes)

With rocks all over the ground, we really had to keep our eyes on the path to make sure that we didn’t trip or misstep which might have caused us to fall.  We had to keep our eyes on the path.  In life, don’t lose sight of what you are doing.  You are on the path to where you need to go, but keep watching the path to make sure you don’t misstep or get sidelined by an obstacle.  Be that as it may, if we never looked up from the path, we missed the scenery extending for miles and the volcano looming closer.  Even with your eyes on your path in life, you’ve got to look up sometimes and see the bigger picture so that you can make adjustments and appreciate everything around you.

3. Sometimes Your Path Is Empty and Sometimes It’s Crowded

When we hike, we generally enjoy hiking on secluded trails because it allows us to have quiet family time and to enjoy nature more.  As we began hiking the path to the volcano, we were alone-not many hikers had ventured out in the early morning hours.  But as time progressed, more and more people showed up.  Sometimes we wished they weren’t there and sometimes it was nice to encounter a friendly face and exchange a pleasantry.  Sometimes in life, we are more alone and secluded which can allow us to slow down, think about ourselves and take in the world around us.  At other times, we have many people coming in and out of our life.  During those times we can be uplifted and encouraged by others.  And, though you might have a preference, neither time is wrong; they both serve a purpose, so appreciate both the times you are alone and the times you are not.

4. Both Ups and Downs Can Be Tough

Of course, hiking up a volcano means both inclines and declines.  Experience, instinct, and knowledge tell us that going up will be tougher than coming down.  But, I’m here to tell you that they are both a challenge.  Going up there is a physical challenge required to propel oneself up, and coming down there are loose rocks and an equally steep decline requiring great effort to avoid slipping.  In all the hikes we have done, I’m truly not sure if going up or coming down is harder.  In life, we also believe that only the times that we are having to struggle to rise above something or rise up to new heights are hard, but there are also moments in coming back down from something great or an impressive achievement that can also be quite hard.  Anyone who has ever worked incredibly hard to achieve success at work on in school and is then forced to take a step back or begin again or who was celebrated for a while and then forgotten can understand how hard coming down can be.  Anyone who has fought for a relationship or struggled through difficult times just to lose the relationship in the end, can understand how hard coming down can be.  So don’t underestimate or devalue the process of coming down.  Reaching the top and the bottom are both successes.

5. Drop the Rocks

Our son is an avid collector of things on a hike (don’t worry, he almost never removes them completely from the trail).  But when you are hiking in a lava field, filled with lava rocks and your local friends encourage you to take some, you might begin to go a little crazy and fill your pockets with some rather large rocks.  After getting slower and slower and struggling to keep up, we asked our son what the issue was.  He shared that his pants were too heavy and weighted down, and it was making him go slow.  So we gave him the obvious advice-drop the rocks!  How many times in life do we collect things-money, accolades, schedule fillers, possessions, people, obligations that we don’t want?  In life, it is often hard to see the obvious-we’ve got to drop the rocks.  If the things that we are collecting are weighing us down or are unwanted and useless, why not just let them go so that we can move forward more easily?

6. If You Choose the Wrong Path, Try to Find the Positive (But Sometimes You Have to Go Back)

Sometimes our youngest complains incessantly about the path that we are on and how the hike is going, so we recently came up with a game to change the thought process.  We started naming everything that was nice about the trail or the nice things that happened because we chose this trail that wouldn’t have happened if we had chosen another.  And guess what- it worked!  On our hike to the volcano, when we began to regret the incline and length of one of the trails, we all began finding good things about the trail and before long our youngest was the one coming up with the longest list and the complaints stopped.  In life, we make choices and set ourselves on a path.  Sometimes we enjoy the decision and sometimes we regret it.  But there are times that once the choice is made, we have to keep moving down the path.  Those are the times to find the positive and before long we may find that the path wasn’t so bad after all; that it afforded us opportunities and experiences that another path would not have.  Now, having said that, hiking has also taught us that there are times when you just have to admit defeat or a mistake and turn around to find another path.  Turning around isn’t a failure.  You still had some experiences and learned some lessons from the path you were on, it’s just time to accept that you need a new path.

7. Don’t Worry Until You Get There

Sometimes when you are hiking, it is easy to look ahead and begin to worry.  As you hike to a volcano, you can worry about how far away it actually is and how long this will really take, if you will be able to climb up the steep side, if you will feel safe at the top, if you can make it back down, or if you will be too tired or get hurt along the way.  But even though all of those worries were expressed on our hike, none of them happened.  What did happen was time was spent worrying which took away from the time that could have been spent enjoying the scenery and the company of one another.  When you hike, being prepared is great-take water, take food, take first aid, take appropriate clothing for varying conditions, but worrying about what might happen is useless.  If problems arise, you will be able to handle them as they come, make decisions, and adjust.  The same is true in life.  Preparation is always a good idea and can save us a lot of grief and heartache, but worrying before the problem arises just takes away from living our life fully and enjoying it.  If problems come in life, you will be able to adjust and find ways to handle them, so don’t waste time worrying until you get there.

8. Negativity Slows You Down

I don’t know how many times on our hike to the volcano (and many others) our son stopped in the path to complain and have a meltdown over all the things that he felt were difficult or unjust.  But you know what, that just slowed us down.  It didn’t help us get where we were going, it didn’t help us complete the hike, it didn’t remove the things that he was complaining about, and it didn’t help any of us enjoy hiking.  Negativity creeps into all of our lives at times, but is it helping us at all or is it just slowing us down or even preventing us from reaching our goal, experiencing an adventure, appreciating the things around us and living our lives to the fullest?

9. Sometimes You Have to Have People to Encourage You

From time to time on our hikes, one or more of us has begun to feel tired or hungry or like they just can’t continue.  The hike to the volcano was no different.  But we never hike alone, meaning there is always someone to encourage you, to remind you that you can do it, to sit with you when you have to have a break, to help you get going again, to give you a little push or pull to move forward and to stay by your side until you get to the end.  Life is no different.  Everyone gets discouraged along the path sometimes, and if you are alone it is hard to push through.  Having people alongside you on the path can help you know when to pause and when to get going again, and they can encourage and support you.  It’s critical in hiking and in life.

10.  Go Your Own Speed

As I mentioned, our hike to the volcano involved a lot of loose rocks along the path.  Sometimes we could hear someone from behind that was hiking faster than us and the temptation would be to speed up.  But, this posed a risk in that it was much harder to walk safely on the rocks when we were going fast.  Typically, we had to just step aside and let the faster people pass us by.  That meant there were going to be more people at the volcano when we got there, but we could hike more comfortably and not worry about getting hurt.  It’s also tempting in life to try to keep up with others or “get there first,” but that isn’t always what’s best for us.  It’s more important to think about what we need to do and go our own speed.

11. Share the Path

When we are hiking, it is often frustrating to encounter others on the path.  If the path is narrow and they are coming toward us, we have to step to the side or off the path to let them go by or have others stop and wait on us to go by them.  And, sometimes, if people are coming up behind us and we feel pressured because we aren’t fast enough, we have to completely stop and get off the path to let them pass.  But, the trail isn’t just for us, so sharing the path is part of the hike even if it is inconvenient.  Life isn’t just about us either.  We exist with many others, some of who are a part of our life and some who just pass by.  But just like on a trail, we have to share the path.  We can do that by being respectful, considerate and accepting of others, making concessions and compromises, thinking about things from another’s perspective, taking care of the spaces we all share, and being kind.  There are just too many of us on this path of life.  We have to be able to share the path.

12. You Can Do It

Our hike to the volcano was filled with challenges, negativity, complaints, obstacles, frustrations, and uncertainty.  There were many times that we heard the mantra “I can’t, I can’t do it!”  To which we would reply, “You have to.  You have no choice.  You can’t just stop here.  There is nothing to be done but to keep going and get through it.”  And you know what- we did!  We made it to the top and we made it back down.  We have hiked many, many trails over the years- some are short, some are long, some have been in extreme heat, some have been freezing cold, some have been easy, and some have been very challenging, but the one thing they all have in common is that we completed them all.  Because even when you think you can’t, you can.  You can be determined, fix yourself to your goal and push yourself to the end.  Life is just like a hike.  There can be easy times and tough times, there can be obstacles and a million reasons why you think you can’t.  But in the end, you can’t just quit.  You have no choice but to keep going.  You have to decide where you are headed, set a goal, pick a path, commit, work hard, be determined and focused, push yourself or find others to push you, let go of things that slow you down, stop worrying, accept the path for what it is, learn to accept others on the path, enjoy the journey and just go.  You can do it!

 

What’s It Like Being an Expat Anyway?

The experience of being an expat is somewhat difficult to explain.  Those who are or have ever been expats generally understand things that you are going through very readily (which is why expats often find solace in the company of other expats), while those who have never been in the expat situation find it harder to understand.  Having never been an expat myself, I really had no idea what the experience would be like (even being married to someone who was originally from another country as living in a country temporarily is not the same as making a permanent move to a new country which has its own set of rewards and challenges), and not really knowing any expats before our move, left me unaware of what to expect.  However, even if I had spoken to other expats, I think I still would have found it hard to comprehend what the life is really like as it is a unique situation that is best understood through experience.

So, while I have found it difficult over the past year to explain to non-expat friends and family what our experience and existence right now is truly like, I do find it easier to relate what I think are the two best things about living as an expat (especially operating within an expat community which is what we have with our school) and the two most challenging things.

Best Things

  1.  We get to travel to so many amazing places; places that I never imagined or even planned to visit.  Actually, many of these places are places that I never even heard of before living overseas.  Getting to see places of historical significance, places that existed long before my home country existed, world-famous works of art, breathtaking landscapes and getting to try delicious cultural foods is amazing.  Getting to have these experiences with my family, especially my kids, is priceless.
  2. Meeting people from all over the world and getting to learn about their cultures is wonderful.  Even better is learning firsthand that we are all different but also the same, and that there are always ways that we can relate to one another.  Watching your kids make friends with people that have lived in so many different places and have so many cultures as a part of their existence is awesome and, hopefully, something that will make them more accepting, broad-minded adults.  But the best part is just realizing that you have friends (and sometimes some of the best friends you have ever had) all over the world and that because of this, you are changing and shifting your perspective and becoming a better version of yourself.  A friend that left recently received a gift that was a world map and friends wrote their names on their home country or in the country where they now reside with a note that said, “wherever you are in the world, you can always find your friends.”  Finding friends and knowing you have people that you can count on all over this world is an amazing gift.

Worst Things

  1. While it’s amazing meeting people from all over the world, the expat community is also a very transient community meaning that people are always leaving.  You make friends, you spend a lot of time together (especially because you can relate to one another, you often have a common language and you have no other connections in the country) and then they leave.  This past year, I made some very good friends and then three of my best friends and several others left in one mass exodus.  Now, I have to start over, find people to socialize with and talk to, and it’s not easy.  In fact, there are days where it makes me quite sad.  But, it’s the nature of the expat life, and, so, I will find some new connections and strengthen those with the friends who remained.  But, more than likely, I will find myself (as will my kids) saying goodbye again very soon.
  2. As an expat, you exist within two or more worlds.  You have the country/home that you came from and the country you now reside in (and for some, you also have your country of birth/origin and/or the country of a spouse).  You often left behind friends and family in one country, but have also made or returned to friends (and sometimes family) in a new country.  You have a culture that you were familiar with in your home country and a culture that you are interested to learn in your current country.  There are things that you miss in your home country, but also things that you like in your new country.  In some cases, you have left behind a home or property in a home country, but you also have a home and property in the current country.  There are responsibilities and obligations spanning the globe.  And to make it worse, you are trying to maintain relationships and connections in a home country (and many of these people cannot quite relate to what it is like for you in the current country) while trying to make new connections in the current country (so that you have people to socialize with and relate to in what is, at times, a challenging existence).  Add on the fact that for many expats, there is no idea what the future holds-where you will live next, what the next job or assignment will be, where your kids will go to school or on what time frame any of these things will occur.  It’s all up in the air and there is no sense in planning or trying to figure it out because it is impossible -there are no answers.  To say that you live in two worlds, that you belong in multiple places but also belong nowhere at the same time, might be the best way to describe it.  It is a strange feeling, especially for someone who is new to the lifestyle and has been living in basically one place their whole life.

But having said this, I wouldn’t trade this opportunity, and I am not complaining or failing to see how lucky we are to have the chance to experience this.  I am merely pointing out, that like many things in life, there are multiple facets, good and bad, rewards and challenges, ups and downs.  This is my expat life and I hope that you all can take something away from both the exciting and challenging side of this existence.  That is what we try to do, and, while we may not know what will happen next, we hope that embracing all aspects of this lifestyle will make it a more rewarding experience which will help us to carry the things that we learn with us for the rest of our lives.

It’s Our 1 Year Anniversary!

As we have reached the first anniversary of our move to The Netherlands, I thought it was appropriate to take a minute to reflect on the past year and look toward the coming one.

This year began with a whirlwind of emotions-sadness to leave the place that we have called home for so long and the people that we care about, anxiety over leaving some of our things (mainly our house) behind and trying to begin the process of getting things arranged and settled here and begin at a new school, frustration over not understanding the language or knowing where or how to find things (or work our appliances!), excitement over being in a new place and getting to explore areas around Europe, utter chaos of trying to pick furnishings and put them all together and get the house set up so that we could function even without our shipment boxes with all of our things, and fear of getting lost or making a mistake in our new surroundings.  All in all, it was a stressful time.  At that exact moment in time one year ago, I really couldn’t have told you how this would all work out.

A few weeks into the journey, we started school and began to meet some people.  It was a bit lonely in the beginning as we tried to fit in among people who were already friends and comfortable in the surroundings.  For me, I felt isolated at the house a lot in the beginning.  I was a little scared to venture out and didn’t have a lot of people to venture out with.  There was still a lot of arranging and paperwork that needed to be done to register here, so we never quite felt settled.  In addition, we were dealing with some difficulties with the kids.  Our oldest seemed to just be numb and was showing little emotion and our youngest was exploding with anger and frustration and having a meltdown everywhere we went.  We were really wondering what we had done to our kids and feeling pretty down about it.

Finally, around month 2, our belongings arrived and we could actually arrange the house to feel more like a permanent home.  In addition, I was getting more involved at the school and with other parents.  I began my tennis lessons, joined a Bunco group and a book club and was doing some social activities.  The kids seemed to be settling in a little and some of the previous issues were beginning to resolve themselves.  Still, I would look at some of the people that I met that had already been here a year or more and see how comfortable they seemed navigating around and going places and how happy their kids seemed to be, and I felt like we would never get there.

By about month 4, I finally got my car which made getting to some places and tackling some tasks a lot easier.  We had been able to do some nice traveling and we all continued to make friends, so it seemed like things were going pretty well.  I was even feeling a bit more comfortable navigating around.

In month 5, we went back to the states for a brief visit.  After that, we had a resurgence in the emotional issues with our kids.  In addition, we came back to winter and, in The Netherlands, that means short days and very little sun.  Things definitely felt a little down, but we kept plugging along.

As we rounded the corner into month 7, we were able to head to sunny Portugal which was a much-needed break.  Now the days were longer and things were beginning to bloom.  It definitely put us in a better frame of mind.

By month 8 and 9, we were out and about a lot more.  We were doing a lot of socializing, and I felt pretty good about things.  Our youngest child seemed to be doing well and was enjoying things.  Our oldest still seemed to struggle with feeling down, though a big portion of that was the amount of homework being assigned and a lack of free time.

Finally, at month 10, I had to do some longer distance driving and navigating around some other places.  Suddenly, I realized that I had made it to where all those friends who had already been here a year were at when I thought I would never get there.  I was fairly comfortable going places, I knew my way around our city and where to find things, I had some knowledge of the language and wasn’t as worried about interacting with locals or making a mistake.  I felt like I had a strong social group and was going to be fine.  Then, we had a slight setback when I found out that almost every single member of the said social group was moving.  I really began to worry about how I would handle the upcoming year and some of the old panic and loneliness began to creep back in.

Now, as we hit the one year mark, am I saying things are not good?  No-for the most part we really like the area we live in, we enjoy the activities and vacation spots that we have available to us and we look forward to meeting new people this year.  So am I saying everything is great?  No-there are still times that I feel a little uncomfortable and out of place, there are still emotional struggles with the children, and there are still moments of doubt and uncertainty about the future.  I guess it’s just like many things in life; we just have to take it one step at a time, keep positive and enjoy ourselves as much as we can.  At one year, I am confident that we can handle things and that there is still much to look forward to.

So, as year 2 begins, what do we hope to accomplish this year?

  1. Learn more Dutch
  2. Visit more places (we’ve got some really great vacations and day trips on the horizon that we are really looking forward to).
  3. Take some biking excursions and/or work up a biking group with some friends.
  4. Take a small ladies trip or do some other exploring locally with friends.

Happy 1 Year Anniversary to us (and to this page) and Here’s to Year 2!!

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas (Markets?!)

Christmas is upon us and it’s a little different here in The Netherlands.  There are Christmas decorations and lights though nothing to the magnitude of the displays in the US.  There are Santa decorations here and there but no Santa at the mall or on street corners ringing a bell.  The radio has all Christmas music stations just like in the US and we found a store that was like Christmas on crack with tons of snow village displays, trees, decorations and more.  There aren’t many Christmas parties or specifically Christmas themed events but there are ice rinks, special shows, and light displays.  And of course, tis the season for Christmas markets in Europe, so we had to check some out.

First, I went to a small Scandinavian market.  Not many exhibitors at this one, but there were some nice things and it was held inside the Norse church in Rotterdam which was very interesting.

Next, we ventured to Brugge, Belgium.  Here the Christmas market was outdoors and spread into several sections of the city.  They had some craft and artisan vendors but there were a lot of food vendors as well as an outdoor ice rink and several midway-style rides and games.  We bought a lace ornament for our Christmas tree and some candy coated peanuts and almonds.  And while everyone else had some hot chocolate, I had some gluhwein, a staple of the Christmas market. (for those wondering, it’s essentially a hot, spiced red wine).

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Finally, we went to Monschau, Germany.  This market consisted of several areas of market stalls spread all over the city.  There were a lot of vendors selling artisan products as well as cheeses, candies, gingerbread confections, breads and of course a lot of food and drink vendors.  Some stalls were inside city buildings and many of the shops around the town were open as well including a three-story Christmas store.  We bought some cheese at this one and then we decided to get out of the cold and eat at one of the restaurants.  Monschau is well known for their mustard so I tried the schnitzel with mustard sauce.  It was a spicy brown style mustard which was good-even the kids liked it.  We also tried their famous dessert Monschauer dütchen which was essentially a hardened cake shaped like a cone with vanilla ice cream inside-no one was very excited about this one.  But our favorite part was trying some chestnuts roasted on an open fire, or rather, in a large kettle type drum used for cooking chestnuts.  We had never had them before and they were good in a strange sort of way.   Monschau definitely had some European charm with the half-timbered buildings which was enhanced by the snow on the ground and the twinkling Christmas lights and garland strung everywhere.

 

Overall though, I think that the Christmas markets may not live up to their “romantic European” hype.  Instead, they are sort of like the fair-you pay to park, pay to get in, pay if you want to buy anything and pay for food which ends up being the highlight of the adventure anyway.   But they are a nice excursion for a weekend in December if you don’t mind being a little cold.  We’re already scouting out a few that we want to check out next year as well as some other winter events.  So, for this year, I raise a glass of gluhwein and wish you all a Merry Christmas!

 

Liability-what???

Last weekend we took a drive to Belgium to an ice sculpture exhibit.  While there we decided to ride the ice slide which might have more aptly been named the slide of definite injury and possible death.  Essentially this was a decent sized curved slide made of ice.  There were small cafeteria-style trays at the bottom of the slide for you to sit on as you came down.  There was not, however, any signage indicating the dangers of the slide or that you ride at your own risk.  There was also no employee regulating the traffic flow on the slide.  Now, I can tell you that cafeteria trays plus downward sloped ice are very, very fast.  I can also tell you that children going down ice that fast can get both scared and hurt, and adults going down ice that fast will likely break something while pretending to be neither scared nor hurt!  Luckily we escaped with just one smashed finger that has healed quickly, but we witnessed large adults shooting off the slide and slamming into the floor on their sides, backs and faces.  We also watched a pregnant woman shoot off and land on all fours, barely avoiding having her stomach hit the ground.  And this was all we could observe at the bottom before having to get out of the area for fear of being knocked over by one of the sliders as they performed their aerial dismount.

Now imagine this slide in the US-no disclaimer, no monitoring; one of those victims of the slide would have sued before they even hit the ground!  This isn’t the first time that we have witnessed this kind of thing in Europe.  Here it seems very unregulated while in the US there is a disclaimer on everything.  But, interestingly enough, here in The Netherlands, we have liability insurance which protects us from liability on everything from our dog biting someone to our kids breaking a window with their ball.  It even protects us if we ruin our friend’s furnishings while eating at a party at their house!  Now I’m not saying this insurance doesn’t exist in the US, but it doesn’t cost too much here and it seems that most everyone has it unlike in the US.  Now, I can only assume there is something like liability insurance for the company providing rides such as the ice slide in addition to the fact that the culture is just not as prone to suing, but maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe in Europe, they just figure if you are dumb enough to sled down a slide made of ice on a tray then you just have to accept the consequences and they don’t need to post a sign to explain that!

It Ain’t Easy, But Friends Help

Lest you think that moving your family to a foreign country is easy, let me enlighten you.  Is it hard being a stranger is a new culture?  Yes.  Is it hard not understanding the language?  Yes.  Is it hard not knowing where to find things or finding that things are just different?  Yes.  Is it hard to navigate through all the differences and new things?  Yes.  But all of that pales in comparison to the emotional struggle-most of which involves our children.  On an almost daily basis, we struggle with one or more of our children as they attempt to cope with the changes their lives have undergone.  As a result, on an almost daily basis, I struggle with the guilt of whether or not this was the right decision, or if I have systematically altered my children’s personalities and changed the course of their lives in a negative way forever;  and that’s a lot of guilt!  This constant state of living in an emotionally charged existence puts a strain on yourself and all of your relationships.  It’s a whole different level of hard.

The good news is that if you look and open yourself up, there are other people who are going through or have gone through the same thing.  I’m not sure how I would survive these ups and downs if we hadn’t connected with a group of other expats through the school.  Just being able to talk to these women (and laugh a little) and hear that they have gone through the same thing and that their kids have gone through the same thing and displayed the same behaviors, lightens the load a little.  Will this solve the issues?  No, of course not.  Will this make all of my guilt go away?  A wonderful thought, but no.  But, at least for a few minutes, it might help lessen that guilt and provide a ray of hope that this will pass; that we will survive and that someday our kids will be happy and thanking us (not murdering us in our sleep over unforgiven emotional scars)!  So, for now, here’s to friends, empathy, support and someday!

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Baby Steps- Strong Legs Required

Today, I took a baby step toward making a life here.  I went to the grocery store-alone and On My Bike!!!  This may sound like no big deal, but, for me, stepping out on my own in another country is huge.  And, in fact, I felt like it was a multistep process.

Step one-get on the bike path and make it to the store-check.  Step two-lock my bike in an appropriate “parking spot”-check.  Step three-get in the store and put a Euro in to use a shopping cart-check.  Step four-pull up my app that allows me to scan as I go and pay at self-check at the end-check (one of the machines wasn’t working so this almost sent me into a panic!).  Step five-maneuver around the other shoppers and get what I need whilst scanning and loading my shopping bags-check.  Step six-use my phone translator to translate a few items that I haven’t learned yet-check.  Step seven-successfully use the produce scale to weigh and print a ticket for scanning the item-check.  Step eight-return the scanner to download my purchases and then scan my app and pay-check.  Step nine-return my cart successfully so that I can have my Euro back-check.  Now here’s where it gets tricky; step ten-carry my three very large and heavy bags to my bike and get them loaded on.  This was a bit of a struggle.  Two bags went into the carrier that I have attached to my bike, but the other bag had to hang on my handlebar.  Nonetheless, I got them on and the bike unlocked-check.  Step eleven-and here’s where I was really panicking because this bike was weighted down-balance the bike and pedal hard enough to get home with that extra weight-check.  To complete this process, strong legs were required!

But here’s the funny part-strong legs weren’t just required for the pedaling.  I felt like I needed “strong legs” to get through the whole eleven step process.  I may or may not have had to talk quietly to myself today to reassure myself that I was, in fact, going to successfully complete this, but I did it.  My legs, taking those baby steps, were strong enough to get me through.  Perhaps, in a future step, I’ll need more strength, and I won’t quite make it.  But, if I keep trying and moving forward, I’ll make my legs stronger, and by the time I’m done with this experience in my life, man will I have some “strong legs” to stand on!

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