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.
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.
We’re already three weeks into the New Year which means we are passed the point where you can comfortably still wish people ‘Happy New Year’ without them giving you a strange look in return. It’s also far enough into the New Year that I can already look back at my New Year’s Resolutions and see how well (or bad) I am doing so far. Here are my expat related resolutions for the year 2016.
New Year’s Resolutions Checklist
1) Recover from my oliebollen overdose.
2) Master the Dutch language.
2) Get better at speaking the Dutch language.
2) Learn to speak Dutch better than a three year old.
2) Learn one new Dutch word a week.
2) Learn one new Dutch word a year.
3) Introduce Hagelslag and stroopwafel in England and become rich.
4) Alternatively, become rich by holding The Netherlands supply of Mayonnaise for ransom.
5) Find a way to use the word ‘schommel’ in every Dutch conversation. It is my new favourite Dutch word (and my new word for this year).
6) Pimp my bike with plastic flowers so that it looks more Dutch.
7) Invent a new kind of stamppot.
8) Invent a new kind of Speculaas product.
9) Possibly combine the above two ideas.
10) Learn the Friesian anthem (hopefully it is not as depressing as the Dutch one).
11) Find an English translation for the word ‘gezellig’.
12) Alternatively, invent a new English word that means gezellig.
13) Speak in Dutch conversations in exactly the same way Google Translate would translate English to Dutch.
14) Get myself on to the Dutch television show ‘Wie is De Mol?’
15) Break the world record for the largest Dutch Circle Party ever.
16) Reclaim some land from the sea and create a new Dutch province just so I can say I did it.
What are your expat related New Year’s Resolutions? How well are you doing?
A chiropractor waiting rooms are not inherently funny places but as I waited with my wife for her appointment I was having serious trouble keeping it together. My badly suppressed giggles and sniggers were starting to draw the attention of the other patients in the room too. Occasionally one of them would glance up from their newspaper or phone to see what was going on, quickly looking away if they accidently made eye contact. To make matters worse I was starting to infect my wife. She was desperately trying to ignore me but could not help giggling whenever I whispered a comment or observation about what we were both witnessing.
The waiting room included several chairs, a small play corner for the children, some posters about good health and one of the largest flat screen television I have ever seen, which was showing what I can only describe as 1990’s Chiropractor propaganda. In fact, I’m not entirely sure it was not an advertisement for a cult in disguise.
“YOUR BODY CAN HEAL ITSELF.” The text on the screen loudly announced in all caps-lock. “People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those of us who are doing it!”
I half expected the next screen to read; Rise up now and show them that our way is the only true way.
“It isn’t that they can’t see the solution, it is that they can’t see the problem.” It announced instead, crediting the quote to G.K.Chesterton. I looked him up briefly later. I’m fairly sure that he was not talking about chiropractic treatment.
The screen suddenly changed to a scene of children happily dancing and playing in an open field in slow motion as the onscreen text told us off for being bad parents.
“You have their hearing checked… You have their eyes checked… You have their teeth checked… Shouldn’t your children’s spines be checked too… by a professional.”
I was sure that if I turned up the volume I would discover that the video included dramatic music and a voice over by the movie trailer guy as well.
The next clip showed an elderly lady trimming the roses in her garden and looking very happy about it but the onscreen text told another story.
“American’s make up 5% of the world’s population.”
“That seemed like a weirdly low number to be bragging about in a Dutch chiropractor’s waiting room,” I whispered to my wife.
“But take 64% of the worlds drugs.”
I know that the video was probably made in America but since it was being shown in Holland and I’m British my first thought was; Is this anti America propaganda? Are we supposed to hate the American’s now for only leaving us 36% of all the drugs?
“WE CARE FOR YOUR HEALTH… without drugs.”
You probably have to. The American’s have taken most of them, I thought to myself.
The next scene showed an old couple happily looking through the memories in their photo albums as the onscreen text promised some kind of immortality.
“Will your body last a life time?”
“Add LIFE to your YEARS. Add YEARS to your LIFE.”
I realized that either way my old age probably won’t look like that. We’ll be looking up old family photos on Fliker or Facebook and complaining about pixel quality or who really has the copyright on them.
“MARK YOUR CALANDER,” the on-screen text suddenly commanded, “BE SURE TO KEEP APPOINTMENTS… FOR BEST RESULTS.”
The caps-lock made it seem like an official government mandate. I wondered if I would get in trouble if I didn’t start writing down dates.
As I looked for a pen my wife was called into her appointment. She quietly told me to behave myself and disappeared from the waiting room. As soon as she was gone I took out my phone and started covertly filming the screen.
“Does everyone need a chiropractor? Or only people with spines?” The screen text joked with a heavy hint of sarcasm. I could not help but marvel at the fact that I just got talked down to by an advert from the 90s.
After 15 minutes (and a few other hilariously cheesy scenes) the video started looping through the same scenes again. Even on a second viewing it was just as funny and I could not stop myself giggling. I continued filming it all, for posterity.
It seemed like such a weird place to have such a video running since the primary viewers were going to be chiropractor patients who are already sitting in the chiropractor waiting room, waiting for their chiropractor treatment. It’s not going to bring in a lot of new customers.
A short while later my wife returned from her treatment. She spotted what I was doing straight away and had to suppress another fit of laughter. I put my phone away, we collected our things and got ready to leave. As we made our way out the door a thought suddenly occurred to me. I quickly returned to the desk and made my own appointment to see the chiropractor the next week. I guess it does not hurt to get it checked after all… I’m sure I didn’t do it because I was influenced by the video in anyway…
“Don’t come here to get healthy and leave loved ones at home… Share your success story with a friend,” the screen suggested ominously with that slightly cult vibe again as we left.
(The following is a story I wrote last year for a story telling night. It has never appeared on this blog until now. Since I’m away on a camping holiday this week it seemed appropriate. Enjoy).
When my daughter grows up she is going to be a scientist.
This might sound like quite a bold statement to make when considering that she is only 21 months old but I know it to be true. She will be a scientist.
Please don’t think that this is the statement of an overly proud father or a father who has already decided for himself what his children are going to do because this simply is not true. However, she will be a scientist.
She has not officially stated this intention and we’ve yet to find any scientific equipment hidden within her bedroom but it does not make it any less true.
I know that my daughter Sophie will become a scientist when she grows up because it is the only logical explanation that I can come up with for the sleep deprivation experiment that she is currently putting my wife and myself through.
Now, I know that sleepless nights are nothing unusual for young parents. I’ve become quite familiar with them and I certainly know that I’m not the only one to experience them. I’ve spoken to enough tired and blurry eyed parents to know that they are regularly denied a quiet night’s sleep too. We’ve all suffered sleep deprivation.
And I had become quite good at operating on a certain level of exhaustion too. As long as I was not required to operate heavy machinery, do anything productive or use cognitive thought I was able to manage and sort of function.
However, this is no longer the case. The sleep deprivation has become more extreme. It is as if the financial backers of Sophie’s sleep deprivation experiment have threatened to pull out unless they start to see results. As such she has doubled her efforts when it comes to keeping Mummy and Daddy awake.
This was no more apparent than on our recent weekend camping trip in the East of Holland.
We’d spent the morning packing and getting ready. My wife and I putting things into bags, Sophie taking them out again and putting them back where she thought they came from. After we recovered the car keys from the washing machine and my shoes from the kitchen cabinet we set off.
Sophie took care of the in car entertainment during the long drive to the caravan by sharing with us her latest musical creation, a post modern peace combining the familiar Sesame Street tune with elements from both the Nijntje and Bob the Builder theme songs. I’ll be honest; I don’t think it is going to be a hit. There are more than a few copyright issues.
After a two hour drive we arrived at the campsite and got settled in. Sophie was going to be sleeping in her travel bed in the caravan while my wife and I would be sleeping in the front tent attached to the caravan. At least that was the plan. Sophie, it seemed, had been working on a plan of her own.
We should have realized something was up when she happily went to bed with no objection. She had even been smiling and happily waved goodbye as we left her in bed. As we sat in the front tent, enjoying a cup of tea and a much needed moment to ourselves everything was quiet in the caravan so we naturally assumed Sophie had already fallen asleep, hugging her favourite rabbit knuffel.
It came as quite a surprised when (a short while later) the window blind of the caravan suddenly shot up to reveal a happy little face grinning at us proudly.
It seemed Sophie’s brain had been working on a particular problem for the last few days and our visit to the campsite coincided with her finding the solution to the ‘How to climb out of my bed’ conundrum.
“Mama, Papa,” we lip read through the caravan’s plastic window as she stood on the caravan seating.
Getting her to sleep again was impossible. The excitement of her successful escape from bed was too much for her (and too easy to repeat).
So we were forced to form a plan B. We took out the travel bed, set up the large family bed and (after she had worn herself out a bit) we all went to bed and let Sophie sleep between us since this usually calms her down. Unfortunately for us Sophie was already working on her own plan C.
At about two in the morning Sophie decided that she was not quite comfortable yet (despite having already been asleep for a few hours). We were suddenly woken by movement as she turned over, rolled back, sat up onto her knees, looked around, laid back down, turned, spun around a few times, sat up, stood, hopped once or twice (she’s not yet got the hang of jumping), sat on her knees, laid down on her tummy, spun around again so that she was laying sideways and rolled over on to her back. She then decided to take a small break before starting the whole process over again. This went on for quite some time despite our best attempts to settle her down. She was having too much fun to sleep. This was particularly distressing for us since it’s very hard to sleep when someone is training for the Olympic gymnastics right next to you.
Never the less, I must have dozed off at one point between workouts because the next time I open my eyes I suddenly became aware of a tiny figure looming over me in the darkness, silhouetted by the window of the caravan. Sophie had positioned herself on her knees right next to my head and was mimicking the snoring sound I’d obviously been making just a few seconds before. Realizing I was now awake she fell silent, sitting there quietly for a moment, deciding what to do next. I stared back, desperately trying to will her back to sleep with my mind… It didn’t work.
Sophie was the first to break the stand off. In the darkness I saw her tiny little hand slowly reach out towards me, with it she leaned in closer until her face just millimetres from my ear and I heard her whisper, “Tickle, tickle, tickle.” We should never have taught her that.
Neither my wife nor I were safe from the tickle attacks. Sophie alternated between the two of us as we unsuccessfully tried to convince her that it really, really, really was time to sleep. More time passed.
We tried gentle persuasion, heartfelt negotiation, authoritative commands and final resorted to full on blackmail with an extra bedtime bottle.
“Thank god,” I thought as she quietly sucked on the bottle and I was finally able to lay my head back down on my pillow, “I don’t know how much more of that I would have been able to take.”
“Toot-ta, Toot-ta,” Sophie suddenly started to chant a few moments later, having finished the bottle. I groaned into my pillow.
Toot-ta is Sophie’s word for a car. She has become quite obsessed with cars lately. I am happy that my daughter is fighting the fight against pre-assigned gender roles and so-called gender appropriate interests. I just wish that she was not doing it at three in the morning. I’m fairly certain that both genders need sleep.
“Toot-ta, Toot-ta,” she continued to cry while pointing outside indicating that she really, truly, desperately, urgently wanted to go and look at the Toot-tas (I guess to make sure that they were still there).
Try as we might she could not be dis-persuaded from this early morning car inspection either. In what I can only describe as an act of desperation I took her outside to see the toot-tas. I tried to quietly explain to her that they were sleeping and we had to be very quiet so that we did not wake them up. I silently curse the toot-tas for getting more sleep then me.
But at least Sophie will now be satisfied I thought to myself. I could go back to the warm caravan and finally we might all be able to get some sleep.
And then she started pointing in the direction of the play ground. For a second I actually considered it. I didn’t have to be completely awake to push a swing, did I? It would keep her quiet too. It could work. Then I realized how creepy it would look for anyone passing by on their way to the toilets, a father and child silently playing on the swings in the dead of the night like something out of a particularly creepy horror story.
So instead I took Sophie back to the caravan, something that she was not happy about. Almost an hour and half had passed. We were about to lose our minds. In fact, I think we had lost them. Now the heartfelt negotiation had became more like desperate pleading for mercy, our authoritative commands an official surrender. We had officially ran out of ideas and so, tired and exhausted, we resorted to blackmail again and tried yet another bed time bottle.
Thank god it worked this time. Sophie slowly drifted off to sleep with a tummy full of warm milk. When a safe amount of time had passed my wife and I allowed ourselves to breathe a sigh of relief. We could finally get some sleep. We desperately needed it.
But we stayed awake for just a moment longer. We watched as Sophie fell deeper into sleep. Despite everything she looked so peaceful. I guess from her point of view she’d just had a fun late night morning playtime with Mummy and Daddy. Maybe it was the Stockholm syndrome talking but I suddenly realized that the sleep deprivation didn’t matter. I would happily forgo sleep if it meant I could have this amazing little person in my life. It might not be easy at times but it is worth it. Tired, exhausted and in desperate need of sleep I smiled and felt happy.
… and then she started snoring.