18 May
15 Years In The Netherlands

It’s hard to believe that this year marks two big anniversaries in my life as an expat here in the Netherlands. The first being the 10 year anniversary of this very blog (that took place in March) and the second being today; the 15 year anniversary of the day I first arrived in The Netherlands… I think it is finally time to admit that I live here now.

It’s also funny to think how much of the life I now have in The Netherlands is down to a single, unintentional fluke. As most of my long term readers will already know, I never intended to move to The Netherlands. I never even intended to move out of London. I came here purely by accident. I’ve already written about that strange story before so I won’t go into too much detail here but the short version is I applied for a job without realizing it was in another country. I didn’t find out what I had done until I was invited for the interview in Amsterdam but I went along with it anyway. I got offered the job, accepted and moved to the Netherlands. It is the best thing that ever happened to me.

It didn’t always feel like that though and as I look back over the last 15 years I think that is an important part of the story to tell, not to bring the mood down but to celebrate how struggling through something difficult can often lead to something great. Maybe this part of my story, which I have never told before, will help other expats who are finding adjusting to a new country difficult. It strange to think about it now but there were two very difficult periods in my new Dutch life where I actually hated living in The Netherlands. On both occasions I almost gave up, packed my bags and returned home to England.

The first time I almost gave up was just four days after my arrival, before I’d even started my new job. The nervous excitement of moving to another country had quickly given way to self doubt and loneliness. I was staying in a hotel for the first few days and had rather naively thought it would be easy to extend my stay as needed. I had not realized it was the height of tourist season and everywhere was fully booked. I was going to be hotel-less and homeless by the end of the week. To make matters worse my obvious confusion with the Dutch guilder (yes, I’ve been here that long) had led to me being ripped off in a Chinese restaurant and losing a big part of my budget. I started to wonder; had I really wanted to move to the Netherlands or had I just done it because I thought I should? I suddenly felt like I had made a huge mistake and all I wanted to do was go home. I even got as far as buying a plane ticket.

I was too ashamed to phone my parents and tell them how I felt. I didn’t know what to say to them and I was having a hard time admitting my failure to myself. Luckily I phoned a good friend first and when I told him my plan he gave me what is probably the best advice I have ever received in my life. It is a piece of advice that I have been giving to other newly arrived expats ever since to help them when they are feeling lonely, confused, homesick and vulnerable.

“Don’t be an f***ing idiot! You can leave any time you like. Why give up before you’ve had a chance to find out if you really don’t like it.”

I usually leave the f-ing idiot part out when I’m giving this advice to others.

It might sound strange but for me the idea that I could leave anytime I liked suddenly gave me a safety net. Why did I have to leave straight away if I could leave any time I liked? I still had a few more days at the hotel. My new job started in two days. Why not give it a go for a bit and then decide? I’m very happy I did.

Very quickly things got better. I started the job and they found a place for me to stay (which was lovely even if it did have a few strange Dutch quarks). A few weeks went by and then a few months. I started to enjoy my life in The Netherlands. I made a few friends, started exploring the night life of Amsterdam and got to know the city a little better. Everything turned around because I gave it a chance to and opened myself up to the possibility that it could. I was very happy…

…until three years later when I found myself in a dark place again. The honeymoon was over. I had grown frustrated with living in a country where I didn’t understand anything that was going on around me. I’d tried to learn the language but had failed miserably. It just seemed too damn hard. The problems became blown out of all proportions in my head. It started affecting other things in my life. I was not enjoying my job, I was not going out as much anymore and I was not on the best terms with my flat mate. I was angry and I was frustrated. I hated the Netherlands and I just wanted to go home again… And then the strangest thing happened to turn it all around for me. I broke my ankle.

My anger had led to a night of heavy drinking at the office Christmas party and a fall which I still (to this day) cannot remember. I didn’t realize that I had broken it at the time. In my drunk and confused state I spend the night lost and stumbling around Amsterdam on my freshly broken ankle (trying to find a way home to Haarlem). I still only have flashes of memory from that night. I somehow ended up in parts of the city that I have not been able to find since.

Luckily I eventually made it home in the early morning once the trains started running again. As I’d sobered up I’d started to notice my foot was hurting and when I discovered that my ankle had swollen up like a balloon I quickly went to the hospital. It was while I hobbled around on crutches for the next two months with my ankle in a cast (that left me unable to scratch my foot) that I realized something; if I can survive in The Netherlands like this, everything else is easy. I also realized that I was damn lucky I didn’t get myself killed that night. It’s a very strange epiphany to have but breaking my ankle was the best thing that could have ever happened to me at that point in my life.

I am very happy that I stayed, fought through the home sickness, the cultural confusion and the language miss-understandings. I am very happy that my friend called me an f-ing idiot on the phone and I am over the moon that I broke my ankle because if none of those things had ever happened I might never have stayed in the country. I would never have taken a chance and gone out on a date with a Dutch girl I met online. I would have never fallen in love with her, married her and had two amazing children with her. I owe all of that to a mistake, an accident and someone calling me an f-ing idiot.

I might be extremely accident prone but some of the best things in my life have come out of that. Not just the big, grand, amazing life changing things that have made me very happy but all the funny little situations that have filled my 15 years in the Netherlands with adventure.

I’ve almost been arrested by the Dutch police, I’ve ended up bleeding in a Dutch police station (which are surprisingly two unrelated stories) and I’ve discovered that for the first eight years of my life in the Netherlands I was not actually legally living in the Netherlands (but this anniversary still counts). I’ve spent four hours trapped in an elevator, I got a fake sun tan that made me look like Zwarte Piet and I’ve sent mixed signals during gay pride. I’ve received lessons in manners from a drug dealer, my poor Dutch has led people to believe I was mentally handicapped (but at least they thought I was Dutch) and I’ve been mistaken for a pimp more than once.

London will always be my home and a huge part of my identity but now the Netherlands is too. I grew up in London but I also grew up in the Netherlands and became the person I am today. If you’d stopped the nervous 21 year old me as I boarded that British Airways flight 15 years ago, took me aside and told me that everything was going to be fine and that I’d get married to an amazingly smart, funny and beautiful Dutch woman, have two amazing children, call the Netherlands home and be extremely happy I would have thought you were mad. Plus you would have probably caused a major time paradox so it’s probably best to just let things run their natural course.

I sometimes wonder; if I had accidently moved to any other country than the Netherlands 15 years ago would I still be there today? It’s a hard question to answer because I now can’t imagine myself living in any other country than The Netherlands (especially a country without Stroopwafels). Thank you to all my Dutch readers for letting me call your country home.

This story ended up being a lot longer than I originally planned but it was important for me to share it. I hope that it might one day help someone else who is finding it hard living in another country from the one they were born in. It can be difficult but it can get better.

At the moment I can’t ever imagine myself leaving the Netherlands. I think I am here to stay. I am happy here.

And maybe in another 15 years I will have finally mastered the Dutch language…or not.

6 May
New Arrival

I am happy to announce the birth of Matthew who, like a confused tourist with an inaccurate guide book, missed the King’s Day celebrations and arrived a few days ago.

My wife and I are both tired but very happy. Our daughter is already enjoying her role as a protective big sister and often tells me I am being too loud while Matthew is sleeping. I am extra happy because the birth of a son evens the odds in the house. I would have been greatly outnumbered had he been another girl.

It probably comes as no surprise to anyone that I almost made a huge mistake while officially registering his birth at the city hall. When it came to the question about his gender I accidentally ticked the box for girl. Luckily the eagle eyed city registrar noticed that Matthew is not typically a female name and asked me if I might want to check the form again. It’s a good thing the mistake was spotted otherwise Matthew would have had a big surprise later in life when he tried to apply for a passport or any other official documentation.

When I moved to the Netherlands almost fifteen years ago I never would have imagined that I would end up calling the country home and staying to start a family of my own but I am very happy that that is exactly what happened.

While we get used to the sleep deprivation and hourly nappy changes again I’ll be taking a short break from writing. There might be a few posts in-between here and there (a very big anniversary post is coming up soon) but for the most part I’ll be away. The blog will return to a more regular schedule once I remember how to operate on minimal sleep again.

15 Apr

Speculoos Note

Case File #113e

Long time readers will know that the mystery of the anonymous speculoos gifts that occasionally appear on my desk at work is my greatest unsolved case. Despite my best efforts I have been unable to uncover the identity of the perpetrator. I have considered closing the case. It is becoming harder to find new things to write about on the subject since every clue simply leads to another dead end. However, every time I think like this there is suddenly a new twist in the case that takes me down another path. The latest twist arrived in the form of an empty chocolate speculoos wrapper with another note.

Speculoos Evidence

The lack of edible contents comes as no surprise since I had recently announced my attempt to reduce my sugar in take. Since I basically told everyone on Facebook I was planning to do this it does nothing to help me reduce the list of suspects. However, the note still provides a new and shocking insight in to the case.

A closer look at the handwriting suggests that I might have been wrong about a key element of this case all along. I always thought that all these gifts were coming from the same person. It seemed logical to assume that there was just one mastermind behind it all. However, I am now forced to reassess that theory.

Examining the handwriting in the latest note and comparing it with that of the previous one reveals enough subtle differences to suggest that they might not have been written by the same person. Taking this new evidence into account there is only one logical explanation; I am at the centre of a conspiracy!

Well…. It’s also possible that the difference in handwriting is just a red herring designed to miss lead me or my mysterious benefactor has an accomplice or it’s a copycat but conspiracy just sounds cooler.

Speculoos Conspiracy

Comparing the two sets of handwriting is a little tricky since one is written in block letters and the other in lower case. It is possible that this was done on purpose just to make analysis more difficult (which supports the red herring or accomplice theory) but it could also just be coincidence (which brings us back to copycat or conspiracy). However, it is still possible to see several differences between the two sets of handwriting. The block letter note has a slight hint of messy-ness to it as if written by an unsteady or rushed hand. The lower case note however has a more elegant stroke to it that causes it to slant ever so slightly to the right (which handwriting analysis websites suggests indicates an assertive and confident person).

Speculoos Handwriting

As if that was not enough the two notes are also signed differently (the first with a B and the second with a U). It’s possible that later notes will be signed with different letters that will combine to spell out a hidden message or name but for now I am sure that these two notes were written by different people.

It’s difficult to draw any further conclusions from the two notes at this time but this revelation revealed by the handwriting changes everything. What will happen next? Where will it lead? I do not know. For now I will be patient and wait to see if more members of this conspiracy attempt to make contact. One day one of them will slip up and break this case wide open.

4 Apr


In the Netherlands there is only one true way to know when Spring has arrived. It is not the blooming of the first tulip or the birth of the first baby duckling. It is quite simply Rokjesdag.

Rokjesdag (also known as skirt day) is the name given to the first day of the year when it becomes warm enough for Dutch ladies to start showing off their bare legs again as they once more begin dressing in a selection of short skirts, dresses and shorts.

It also happens to be the day when most Dutch men start wearing their sunglasses in what they ‘think’ is a clever deception allowing them to enjoy the ‘traditions’ of Rokjesdag without getting into trouble with their wives of girlfriends. It never works out as they expect.

Most people in The Netherlands are familiar with the concept. In fact, a lot of Dutch people don’t consider spring to have officially started until Rokjesdag has taken place. The term was made popular by Dutch writer and columnist Martin Bril who called it a great and beautiful day. It has become so recognised now that a Dutch movie was released this year about it. In short, it is the most official un-official holiday in the Netherlands.

When is Rokjesdag?

The Dutch probably would make Rokjesdag an official holiday if the unpredictable Dutch weather didn’t make it impossible to set a fixed date for the event. One year Rokjesdag might be in April, the following year it might be in May and the year after that it might be in April, May, June or July. It’s the only holiday that can be affected by chaos theory. As the old saying goes, “A butterfly can flap its wings in Brazil and cause a Hurricane in Hong kong and Rokjesdag in The Netherlands.”

This unpredictability is probably the only thing stopping the Dutch from creating official ‘Happy Rokjesdag’ greeting cards for the occasion as well.

How do you celebrate Rokjesdag?

There is no official way to celebrate Rokjesdag (yet, give the Dutch time). However, most people agree that at least 50% of the female population has to be showing off their legs for it to be considered a true Rokjesdag. Anything less and it is simply a group of women who have badly misjudged the weather (and are probably freezing).

Wearing tights or leggings is viewed as cheating. Only items of clothing that put bare legs on display count; skirts, dresses, blouses, shorts. Men are also free to join in with the tradition of skirt/dress wearing if they wish. Rokjesdag is for everybody to enjoy, male or female. It should be fun for everyone… However, most men choose to wear shorts.

The important thing to realize is that Rokjesdag is more than just one day. It is merely the opening ceremony to (what is hopefully) a summer of clear skies, warm weather and short dresses… That is if the Dutch weather does not spoil everything.

Happy Rokjesdag

26 Mar
Easter Egg Hunt Comic

Dutch Easter Egg Hunt

This cartoon first appeared in the March/April edition of DUTCH:The Magazine