Friday, 30 May 2014

Expat Life: Stuck in the Middle

How big is the gap between your two worlds?
Photo Credit: Nate Brelsford
I recently wrote a blog post about how expat life is like Tom Branson moving into Downton Abbey. A wise reader commented that she could relate:

"Especially the part where he is not the same driver he once was and yet is not really posh yet. I am not the same girl who left my country, but I am not really the same as the girls here yet. I am in the middle."

In a recent interview for Expat Mamas I also described how I feel that I live between two worlds - I'll never be mistaken for being Dutch, yet I don't feel that England is my home anymore. Living life being stuck in the middle is a strange idea, but one that is all too familiar for many expats.

When I was asked by Expat Mamas about part-time working and schooling trends in England I struggled and could only really refer to my own personal experience - how it was when I went to school as a child, how it was when I left the country fourteen years ago. Any other answer would be based on what I read in the media, the little bits I pick up from friends and family but certainly not based on any personal, first hand knowledge of how things are right now in England. I don't know first hand how it is to live in England right now.

Of course, I watch the BBC News and keep broadly up to date with current affairs in Britain. And when I say broadly, I mean I know who the prime minister is, who the opposition leader is, who the main cabinet members are (Education Secretary Grove for example just can't seem to keep himself out of the news) and what political expenses scandal is hitting the headlines. But I can't say I know how it is at ground level in Britain. The news coming out of the country generally doesn't directly effect me. That's not to say I didn't feel pride watching the 2012 Olympics, or the Queen's jubilee celebrations, or real shame watching the London riots. But it's emotion from a distance.

Whenever I go back to England I am often amazed by the changes: some little, some much bigger. Some revolve around neighbourhoods I grew up or lived in, how they have been redeveloped, or the shops that have disappeared on what was my local High Street. Laws and rules have evolved. In short, things have moved on. But I haven't moved on with it - the England I think of is the one from the year 2000, the year I left.

The details of my daily life are now in Dutch. What is reported in the Netherlands on the news does generally have some impact on my life. Legislation changes involving schooling impacts my family. Child benefit payment changes effect my household. I live in Dutch, not English.

However, I am not Dutch. Nor will I ever be. I don't have the cultural background, mentality or history to be Dutch. My cultural background, mentality and history is British through and through. So I fall into a void. Locally, I'm accepted as one of the gang, but I feel sometimes like an impostor, like I stand out, like I'm different. Which I do and I am.

The void I fall into has got smaller over the years. I dangle a little more precariously over the gap these days and most days I could fall either way - or directly in the middle perhaps - an adopted Dutchie with a British flag emblazoned on my chest.

The thing is, I no longer feel lost in that void between the two countries that make me who I am.  I'm like Tom. He may no longer be a driver but he will also never really be 'posh'. His upbringing, his life before marrying into the Crawford family determines who he is, who he will always be: no longer   a chauffeur, but never upper class. He has found a middle path through that connects who he was to who he is now.

I too have found a way through and moulded my past to my present. I may no longer be a fully fledged Brit, but the truth is I will also never be Dutch. And I can live with that - there are much worse things than living life 'stuck in the middle'.


Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Do You Have an Expat Mask?


©Expat Life with a Double Buggy
Many, many years ago I read an article in the Dutch daily newspaper, the NRC, about how people wear 'masks' according to the situation they find themselves in and who they are with.

In essence, people are only really one hundred percent themselves when they are alone. With a partner most, if not all, of the facades come down. However, when people are amongst strangers a wall goes up, or a mask goes on. We adapt to the group we are with.

It is an article that struck me at the time because I can relate to that idea. I'm an introvert. I'm uncomfortable in unfamiliar situations and that means there are very few people on this planet that know the real me. Becoming an expat made the idea of wearing a mask in some situations even more poignant. I have a British mask, my expat mask, my wife mask, my mother mask, my daughter-in-law mask, my writer mask....... and I'm sure this is just a selection of my mask collection.

It's a topic I have touched upon before in an article for Expat Harem. The very nature of being an expat means adapting. It often means communicating in a foreign language. It means hanging with people you don't know. It means following a steep learning curve. It means starting again. It means taking on parts of a new culture. It means reshaping everything you know and moulding it into a new daily life.

How many masks then does an expat wear? How many versions of ourselves are there? Do expats hide a part of themselves away to blend in with their surroundings? Can we really be truly ourselves and let our personality shine though when we are communicating in a foreign language and wrestling with cultural quirks that feel alien and uncomfortable? Does leaving our friends and family behind mean we leave a little part of who we are elsewhere? Do we reinvent ourselves with every new country, or do we stay true to the essence of who we are?
 

Is expat life at the expense of our own authenticity?

What do you think? Do you hide part of yourself away because you live in a foreign country? Can you let the real you shine through when you live in unfamiliar surroundings?


*This post has been adapted from a post published originally on my blog A Letter from the Netherlands*

Monday, 26 May 2014

Dutch Difficulty - The Elusive Word

There is (at least) one word in the Dutch language that still eludes me. It's a word that I just can't quite my tongue round. It's a word I'll avoid saying if at all possible.

That place hard for expats to say
© Expat Life with a Double Buggy
The list of impossible words was, of course, once quite long. Fourteen years ago it was a limitless list. Luckily, it has got much smaller over the years. 

Let's face it, the Dutch language is not the easiest for a British person to get a grip on. There are lots of throaty sounds which simply don't exist in the English language. I have had to learn to growl and gargle in whole new ways, just to communicate with the people in the country I now call home.

When I first came to the Netherlands I lived temporarily in a place called Voorschoten. Thankfully it was only for a few months because I really couldn't pronounce it properly in those early days. It's the "sch" part that caused issues. The same sound is the culprit when non-Dutch visitors are trying to say Scheveningen. It took a while, but I did eventually master the guttural sound.


That once elusive word ui as part of uitgang
© Expat Life with a Double Buggy
Ui (the Dutch word for onion) was the other word that I avoided if I could, simple enough if you refuse to talk about food. But that also meant I couldn't talk about leaving the house (uitgaan) or about exits (uitgang). But I eventually got over those hurdles.

However, one word remains. It sits as a solitary, lonely word on my 'impossible to say' list. It glares at me, sits there with an evil smile, daring me to make a fool of myself, challenging me to find an alternative way of saying what it means.

Difficulty. I have difficulty with the Dutch word for difficulty. Moeite. There, I've said it out loud. Faced my Dutch demon but alas, I still can't say it like a native. Tips welcome on how to say it like a real Dutchman.....

What word eludes you in your host country language? Why?

*This post is adapted from a post originally published on my blog A Letter from the Netherlands*

Friday, 23 May 2014

Do I Not Like Mushy Peas

Prompted by a post written by Marianne over on her "Like A Sponge" blog about pulse discrimination, this post is about the British delicacy of mushy peas.

Mushy peas are essentially soaked marrowfat peas which are then cooked. The end result is a thick, lumpy, green splodge. And yes, that is the technical term for them.....

They are traditionally served with the great British fish and chips, which regular readers will know I am a fan of. However, there is no way, no how, I will eat fish and chips with mushy peas. They are vile. Foul. By far, mushy peas are my most loathed food. The most disgusting monstrous green mess that has ever passed my lips. They turn my stomach. Mushy peas are in fact evil green mush.

And a portion of mushy peas IMG_2032

Mushy Peas in all their glory

And that green? It's not real. It's an artificial colouring to make them greener than green. Artificial green mush.

And whilst I am on the subject of peas, I don't think much of parched peas either. Also known as black peas, this is a traditional Lancashire dish. A good friend introduced me to them in Preston. She bought them from a food stand in town and then tried to force feed them to me. Their evilness was one step below mushy peas on the food evilness scale.

Reading Marianne's post and being forced to conjure up images of mushy peas, I was hastily reminded to never, ever be diminutive of the mashed up meals that constitutes Dutch cuisine. At least the Dutch do not do the evilness that is mushy peas.

What food from your home country do you NOT miss? Have you ever had the misfortune to eat mushy peas?


This post was adapted from a post originally published on my blog A Letter from the Netherlands which won a Foodie Alice award from Displaced Nation.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

An Interview with Expat Mama's

I was very honoured to be asked recently to do an interview for the Dutch site Expat Mama's. It's an expat website that shares the stories of Dutch mothers who have left the Netherlands. But, every now and then there is also the story of an expat mama who, instead of leaving Dutch shores, landed in the Netherlands to make a new life. That's where I come in.

The interview is in Dutch, (so good practice for those of you learning the local language) and you can read it at Expat Mama's. What do you think?


Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Smitten By Britain: 10 Ways I am Still Very British Outside of Britain

Yes, it's that time again! My monthly post on Smitten by Britain is out into the blogosphere and it would appear that many Brits around the world can relate to 10 Ways I am Still Very British Outside of Britain.

I have loved reading the comments from expats that can relate to my British traits in the USA, Canada, Belgium, Australia, the Bahamas, Switzerland, France as well as from readers who believe they may well be British but who were most likely kidnapped and then raised in another country. So many around the world who are British at heart, even if not quite British born.

Anyhoo... if you haven't read it yet, here it is:

"I’ve been living in the Netherlands for almost fourteen years but I am still the proud owner of a British passport. However, the words “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” inscribed across the top of my passport are not what make me British.
If I surrendered my British passport tomorrow (which I have no intention of doing, but just humour me) I would still be British, in these ten ways at least:"

To read the rest go to: http://www.smittenbybritain.com/10-ways-im-still-very-british-outside-of-britain/

Monday, 19 May 2014

Chips, Cookies and Pants: American, British and Dutch

Meghan of Bringing up Brits recently wrote a post about the conflict in her house about the use of British and American English. Whilst reading it I realised that a few Americanisms have slipped into usage in our home, despite the fact that no one from the USA lives in our home. The few American English words managed to slip in anyway. They just snuck in the back door and it dawned on me that some of them are because the Dutch is sometimes very close to American English.

Chips, Fries or Frites?
Chips: this is the Dutch word for what we call crisps in Britain. It is also the American word for crisps. So my Dutch husband often says chips even when he is speaking in English to me. To my utter confusion because chips in Britain are the fried potato variety of snack which the Dutch call frites and the Americans call fries.





Biscuits, Cookies or Koekjes?
Photo Credit: Bev Lloyd-Roberts

Koekjes: this is the Dutch word for what we British call biscuits. Cookies is the standard American word. You see where this is going don't you? So when my three small Dutch sons ask me for a biscuit, they follow their father's word use and say "Cookie?"






And I am also guilty of letting an Americanism sneak into our British/Dutch home when I yell out into the garden,

"Put your pants back on!"

Thankfully for the neighbours I'm talking about trousers and not underpants. And I'm talking to my children, not my husband.


Friday, 16 May 2014

Dutch Integration: Slicing Cheese

You're about to delve into the world of cheese slicers. I'm not kidding. Let's start at the beginning. More than fourteen years ago, whilst living my British life, I used a knife to cut cheese for my sandwiches or crackers. A sharp knife. Sometimes a fancy cheese knife if I was out and about. But essentially a knife. No fancy fangled gadget to slice cheese in my house. A knife.

And then I moved to the Netherlands and I was presented with this:




This is what the Dutch use to cut cheese: een kaasschaaf. In the wrong hands (my hands) it's no longer a cheese slicing device, it's a deadly weapon. But then for self inflicted wounds. Unless you have fingers that grow back make sure you practice with a toy kaasschaaf first (most Dutch toy kitchens come with a mini plastic kaasschaaf to get you started). 

There are expats spread across the length and breadth of the Netherlands with bandaged fingers. There are expats sitting right now as you read this in the A&E department of their local hospital nursing missing finger tops. Don't join them. Practice before you are let loose with a kaasschaaf.

Once you are sure you've developed a safe but efficient technique you can progress to a real, sharp cheese slicer. Carefully. Slowly. One small, thin slice of cheese at a time.

If, even after practice, the idea of using a kaasschaaf is still too frightening all is not lost. I have an expat friend who has the perfect solution: buy cheese slices from the supermarket instead of cheese blocks or rounds. It's a little more pricey, but when you weigh up the medical insurance personal contributions and rising premiums because of excessive insurance use, it may all balance out in the long run.

One last word on the topic. All kaasschaven are not created equally. Once, a long time ago, in a cheese shop far away, we bought a big round cheese. The cheeseman (kaasboer) gave us a free kaasschaaf. Once my husband had got over his excitement of a freebie, we headed home and I immediately used our new kaasschaaf. 

"Well, so much for gratis, this cheese slicer is crap. It is ripping the cheese into pieces, not slicing it. It's going in the bin," I informed my husband as I menacingly held the slicer over the kitchen dustbin.

"Stop! It's the wrong sort of cheese," he said.

"What? Like the wrong kind of leaves or snow on the track issue?" 

"No. This cheese is too soft. Use the other slicer we have. This new one is for hard cheese," He explained.

Little did you know huh?

Hard Cheese, Soft Cheese? You Need to Know

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Home Births: Let Pregnant Women Decide

 One of the things I loved about being pregnant in the Netherlands was the fact that I was not treated like I had a medical condition. I went to the hospital during my first pregnancy only for scans (and in subsequent pregnancies even these were done in the midwife practice) a blood test in the first trimester and a rush visit in the last trimester when my baby's heartbeat was deemed to be too fast by my midwife.

The rest of the time I saw only a group of midwives in their practice. Hospitals, as great as they are when you actually need them, are not places I need to spend a lot of time in.

What I also loved was the fact that I could make a considered judgement about where I wanted to give birth. I had the option of a home or a hospital birth. If I had been pregnant in England I am 99% sure a home birth would not have even been a topic of conversation.

In the UK only 2.4% of births happen at home compared to nearly 20% in the Netherlands. The cost of a hospital birth in the Netherlands is only fully covered by medical insurance if there is a medical reason for it. Plus the Dutch first line care (midwives) advocate natural births. At least in 2006, they certainly did.

I'm an expat, and the first thing that crossed my mind was how culturally different a birth in the UK was (or in the US for that matter), where all my friends seemed to be talking about epidurals and gas and air. However, I decided that if I could, I would opt for a home birth. What could be more comfortable than not having to pack up a case and head off to an unknown, sterile environment surrounded by strange faces to give birth?

But when it came down to it I had to go to hospital. There was meconium in the embryonic fluid and I had no choice. The midwife was with me at home, and made it clear that we had to transfer as quickly as we could to the hospital. No panic, no stress, just matter of factly, "Let's move it".

I was devastated. I hadn't prepared myself for Plan B. Everything was ready for a home birth, not a hospital birth (it turned out that I seemed to have absentmindedly forgotten to complete the packing of my hospital case).

A typical delivery suite at a Dutch hospital
(ball not included!)
The details of the birth I will save for a rainy day (or a book) but suffice to say that because the maternity ward was working at maximum capacity and there was not enough staff to attend to all the women in labour as it was needed I had a difficult, stressful delivery. No woman should have to go through a traumatic labour and birth because of staff shortages. My husband and I were left alone for large chunks of time in the delivery room - feeling helpless, clueless and upset. My baby also became distressed.

So no one will ever convince me that a hospital room is always the best place for a woman to give birth, because it is safer, because of 'just in case', that it should be the first choice of every woman, regardless of situation.

A doula and a whole lot of personal experience made the difference for me the second and third births around - also in a hospital.

And so to last week. Dutch News.nl translated an article that appeared in De Volkskrant on 29 April (if you can read Dutch be sure to read the original article, and particularly the comments it evoked - including from gynaecologists themselves) called "Home Births: Let the Gynaecologists Decide".  In the article the two authors (Kenneth Watson and Rob Kottenhagen) are advocating that gynaecologists should decide whether women can safely give birth at home or not. It's an opinion piece. And this in turn is my opinion piece about the article.

The first line already riled me; translated from the original article, the piece starts like this.
"It is irresponsible to keep home births as the cornerstone of midwifery care."
And it riles me because just over 80% of women in the Netherlands give birth in the hospital. The cornerstone of midwifery care is not home birth.
It goes on to state,
"The German poet Heinrich Heine once said that if the end of the world came he would go to the Netherlands because there everything happened fifty years later. This comment seems a fitting one for another anachronistic Dutch phenomenon: the home birth. Everywhere in the affluent West the safety of mother and child is paramount and hospital births are the norm." Dutch News 2 May 2014
It goes on to talk about midwives playing Russian Roulette with the lives of mothers and babies, that midwives make woefully inadequate risk assessments.

By the time I got to the end of the piece my blood was boiling. And I don't even think it was because of the message in the article, more the tone. I can well imagine how any midwife felt reading the article. The authors imply that the priority of the midwife is not the mother, nor the baby. And how insulting must that be to such a profession?

I miss the part in the article where it states around the time that the worrying baby death figures were published that part of the discussion was that gynaecologists, doctors and anaesthetists weren't always around at night in hospitals. That their absence put women in danger.

I miss the part that admits that many women who were successfully able to have a home birth had a wonderful experience. I gave birth three times in a hospital, and not one time could I say it was a pleasant experience. It got the job done - I took three healthy baby boys home with me, but pleasant? No. Absolutely not. I am envious of the many positive home birth stories I have heard.

I miss the acknowledgement of the research that indicates that hospital births increase the chances of intervention being necessary (caesarian sections, vacuum pump and so on). That labour is lasting longer and longer as women lie around in hospital beds.

I welcome any proper discussion on the topic of child birth, whether that be about the Netherlands or elsewhere. Childbirth should be safe, no matter where you give birth. Women should have a choice. Women should make the decisions, based on facts and risks with the help of the professionals (I'm not alone thinking this see: http://www.knov.nl/actueel-overzicht/nieuws-overzicht/detail/keuze-vrouw-centraal-in-reacties-opiniestuk/1386).

I believe all women should have the right to a safe environment and professional care for labour and birth. But the truth is that sometimes things go wrong; they go wrong in a maternity ward in a hospital, they go wrong at home. Midwives are human. Gynaecologists are human. Labour is unpredictable. Births do not follow a script.

I feel strongly that demonising midwives is just wrong. That's my opinion. Instead of the eternal battle that rages on in the Netherlands between midwifes and gynaecologists about who is best to lead pregnancies, labour and births, it would be nice to see more collaboration. Instead of one camp against another I would rather see more unity, seamless co-operation, specialists working together in the interest of mothers-to-be and their unborn children. Less emphasis on who gets the money for delivery, more emphasis on safety, but also comfort! The comfort of the mother, a relaxed mother, a contented mother, which is proven to aid the labour process, seems to have been forgotten along the way.

The only positive thing I can say about this article is that, despite its dismissive, condescending tone, it has of course sparked discussion. I am, after all, writing about it. Many are talking about it. Many have commented on it. It's a topic that will always spark controversy, that will evoke the most primal of emotions. I believe women should have a choice where they give birth.

But lastly, when all is said and done, I believe child birth is a topic that should be treated respectfully, which I missed in this article.

Monday, 12 May 2014

The Tales That Bind A Family

I was at the funeral of my great aunt and, like most farewells of this form I guess, there was a melancholy air about us. As a contrast to that feeling it was heartwarming to hear the many stories about my great aunt from my dad and his brothers and sisters.

Over breakfast on the morning of the funeral my stepmother threw out the question,

"What is your earliest memory of your aunt?"

Photo Credit: Krzysztof (Kriss) Szkurlatowski
Mine was of her wedding day. I was a young child. I remembered a far happier day than the one we were gathering for that day. My dad's earliest memory was sitting with his aunt and some of his brothers in front of the 'wireless', an old radio. He recalled that she was their regular babysitter. A wonderful storytelling babysitter, enchanting and reeling them in with fantasy tales, captivating her nephews with stories of rich relatives in far off lands.

During the funeral service the priest shared his recollections of his first meeting with my great aunt, and how she ensured he was whipped into shape for his role as her parish priest. She played a huge role in the parish, despite being less than healthy for as long as I can remember.

After the service, in a local hotel, there was a board full of photos. Photos taken of her happy life. A life I realised I knew very little about. Smiling faces, people wrapped in loving arms in various locations, undertaking various activities. Happy days, happy years filled with family, fun and adventures.

In a few short hours I learned more about my great aunt than I'd heard in the forty years before. Funerals do that to people - bring back memories of happier times gone by, memories of the essence of a person. I also got to hear the story of how my grandparents met. A wonderful, simple meeting that was to lead to a marriage that has lasted 63 years and which is still going strong.


These stories, none of them earth moving or spectacular in the face of mankind's achievements, not world changing by any means except to those playing the starring roles, made me smile. I'm going to write them down and share them in years to come with my sons, so they know where they have come from. These beautiful little tales are the stories of how we came to be; how one generation turned into another. These stories give us our roots, give us a sense of our family history. They pass our culture and traditions on from generation to generation. They need to be cherished, to be shared with the next generation, to be remembered.

Our memories, the memories of our parents and our grandparents, are tied together. Bound together they make up a picture for our children of the family they belong to.  And I feel that having children born in a country different to the one I was born in, living away from their extended family, makes these stories all the more important. These stories connect our cultures. They connect family history to our family now.

These stories connect us, even when we live our life away from the rest of our family, even when we are expats.


So ask to hear these wonderful tales now; don't wait to hear them in a somber moment when everyone is reflecting on what was. Ask to hear those stories in happy times, direct from the horse's mouth. And capture them for your children, and the generations beyond.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

A Mother's Hands

Photo Credit: Leroy Skalstad
Growing up I often looked at my mum's hands and vowed my hands would not look the same when I was older. Despite regular lashings of hand cream, strong stuff at that, her hands remained dry, chapped, worn out.

It's only now, with three children of my own, now that I've been bestowed with the special title of mama, that I understand why her hands always looked so overused, so tired.

It was from helping us wash our tiny hands, washing our muddy or dinner stained clothes, soaking our trousers, the ones with the grass stained knees, from bathing us, washing our hair after a day playing out in the garden, from the endless, thankless task of cleaning the home we lived in, washing the dishes after dinner, from cooking and baking.

Hands in water. Hands immersed in detergent, hands covered in dough, constantly dipped in and out of dirty dishwater, wringing out sodden wet clothes, hanging damp clothes on the washing line. Hands in constant use. For years. Day in, day out. From sun up to sun down. No breaks or respite from the work she did, even when we were on holiday. No thought, time or money for a manicure. 

When we started school, my brother and I, my mum started working in school meals, to fit her working hours in with us. All day in a kitchen: cooking, hands in water, hands covered in food, cleaning, clearing, creating. Then she went home and started all over again. I understand now that her hands took a battering from her daily tasks, the ones she never complained about doing. Her hands took a battering from motherhood. 

No amount of handcream could keep the cracks at bay. Handcream never got the chance to soak in, let alone had time to work its promised magic.

I look down now at my own hands. They are tired, aged hands. And I'm proud that my hands look just like my mum's did. They make be dry, chapped, tired but I am consoled by the fact that is is all in the name of motherhood.

Today is Mother's Day in the Netherlands. This is for my own mother, my own way of thanking her for everything she did for us growing up, but who is more distant now than I would ever wish. Let your mother know today, even through you are all grown up, that you know what she has done for you. That you are grateful that her hands are worn by the years of motherhood. That her hands are worn for you.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Smitten by Britain: England's Love for The Beautiful Game

Photo Credit: Ontanu Mihai
My latest article for the wonderful Smitten by Britain website is about football. The beautiful game of football. It's about the English psyche when it comes to football. It's about the upcoming World Cup. It's about the trip back to England my eldest son and I took in March for his initiation into English football.  It's about Harry the Hornet. It's about my personal trip down memory lane to my first live football match.

"We are a mere two months away from the start of the 2014 World Cup football tournament. Media pressure is already on the England team to beat Italy in their opening match. Grumblings from the fans that England won’t get past the first stage of this tournament have already started."

Head over to Smitten by Britain to read the rest and if you are a football lover take the time to make a comment and tell Carl James just how wrong he is.........

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

De Efteling - A Dutch Theme Park

Continuing from my tales about my newly found retirement home last week, this week I'm sharing photos from de Efteling, which we visited just before Easter. 

The iconic Efteling Lange Nek

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Your Reverse Expat Bucket List?

Just a quick reminder that there is still time to link up with your expat reverse bucket list. Instead of dwelling on what you haven't done as an expat, I invite to celebrate what you have done already during your expat years. You can find my reverse expat bucket list here, as well as lists from all the other great expat bloggers who have already joined in by using the InLinkz button at the bottom of the post.











Monday, 5 May 2014

5 Ways Expat Life is Like Moving into Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey aka Highclere Castle
Photo Credit: Darren Deans
I'm currently watching the latest series of Downton Abbey, sneaking in an episode here and there after the children's bedtime routine is finished. It struck me watching Tom Branson, the chauffeur who marries into the aristocratic Crawley family,  and his eternal and internal struggles to fit in with his in-laws, that expat life is a similar experience. Here's how.

1. Thinking Before Speaking
Tom speaks English, but not the same English as his mother and father in-law, Lord and Lady Grantham and their offspring. He needs to mind his p's and q's, think about his word use and his inflection. Like us expats, he needs to think about everything that comes out of his mouth if he doesn't want to stand out, make a show of himself or make himself a target of ridicule. When you live life in a foreign language you truly know how it is to think before you speak.

2. Testing Beliefs
An Irish socialist in the ranks of the English aristocracy is hardly a match made in heaven. He desperately wants to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor, is anti-British establishment and holds left wing, republican ideologies. However, his survival at Downton means watering down his own beliefs and political opinions, or at least how he expresses his views. He learns over time to keep his mouth firmly closed or risk stirring up animosity, putting his wife in the middle of unwanted family conflict. He has to learn to balance his political views and Sybil's happiness. In his own words,

"Sometimes a hard sacrifice must be made for a future that's worth having."

Many expats find their belief or ethics systems or values tested to breaking point when they move to a new country. The status quo in a foreign country often presents a personal or cultural conundrum. Ideologies, political beliefs, religious views and freedoms differ across the world and expats have to learn to thrive in the face of internally conflicting or unfamiliar laws or norms, even when it goes against everything they believe in.

3. Making New Friends
Tom finds himself in a completely new social circle, one forced upon him by his new status marrying in to Downton Abbey's well-to-do family. They are not people he would normally be dining and exchanging pleasantries with. And so it is too with expats, thrust into a new social circle by default because of a new expat location. Expats often find themselves in a room filled with people they wouldn't necessarily be socialising with in 'real life'. They reach out to people they wouldn't be friends with back on home turf.

Downton's Formal Dining Setting - the Scene for Many a
Discussion on Tom's Evening Attire
Photo Credit: Rachelle Lucas Flickr Creative Commons
4. Adapting to a New Culture
Tom was raised in a different world to that of his wife, Lady Sybil, and her family. He came to Downton Abbey as a chauffeur and we can safely assume there were no maids, butlers or footmen attending in his family home growing up. His background could not be more different than the world of formal dinner jackets, hunting and cricket that he enters when he marries Lady Sybil.

Daily, across the globe, expats find themselves living in an unfamiliar world to the one they grew up in, entirely different to their passport country or the one they were raised in. It means learning how things should be done, learning how others do things and adapting to a new way of living. Just like Tom, who after stoically refusing to conform to formal dinner attire for a long while, eventually gives in so that his attire ceases to be a topic of discussion. He also learns how to play cricket in order to keep his father-in-law happy and make up the numbers on the house team. He adapts to his environment, just as we expats do.

5. Staying True to Ourselves
Despite the changes that Tom goes through in order to fit in to his new home and life, he remains true to himself. He remarks to Matthew on one occasion that even if he learns cricket, goes fishing and hunting,

"I'll still be an Irish mick in my heart."

Tom carves his own role in the household, becomes an accepted, valuable, member of the Downton Abbey household despite feeling in his heart that he doesn't truly belong to the family nor any longer has much in common with the staff he used to serve the family alongside with. He makes himself essential nonetheless as manager of the Downton estate. He adapts, changes and makes a new life for himself, one he could never have imagined when he first arrived at Downton Abbey as a chauffeur.

And so it is with expat life. It changes us, in ways we could never imagine. We learn to adapt to our surroundings, to the people we live with, live with a new culture, a novel way of doing things, learn a new way to live our life. And that is true if we move to Downton Abbey or to a little unknown town in the Netherlands. In the words of Mr Carson, Downton's very loveable butler,

"What would be the point of living if we didn't let life change us?"
What indeed.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Kasteel De Haar in Utrecht

This week is meivakantie in our part of the Netherlands - May school break. We decided to do a series of day trips out in our own country with the three boys instead of actually going away, which was what we first considered doing.


One of the places we chose to visit was Kasteel De Haar in Utrecht. Muiderslot had been on my bucket list for years, and last March I finally got to see that little gem of a castle. Then I came across another castle, and as my newly turned four year old had been blabbing on about castles this week we put it on the list. My expectations weren't high - we were going to a castle with what looked like nice gardens. That was all I knew.

First impressions count
From the moment we saw the castle from the road I knew it was going to be a fabulous afternoon. The castle stands proudly, magnificently and beautifully renovated surrounded by an English styled landscape and waterways. It is stunning. The renovations are ongoing and the flowers are yet to show their petals (summer blooms are planted after May 15th and I am guessing it looks spectacular) yet despite this it's already a true magical wonderland. 

You can get married there. I've already hinted to my husband that we should do our wedding over just so we can get married in this setting. The wedding photos would be stunning. I also want to live here when I retire. In fact, I'm okay moving in now. 

As it is school holiday time the castle is putting on special tours for children on a daily basis. You can only visit the castle with a guide and my eldest (7) loved the tour, and followed the guide round very enthusiastically. My 4 year old got bored half way through, wanting to go back outside to run around the gardens. My 2 year old wriggled a lot in the arms of his papa - who was reluctant to let him loose amongst the antique vases and expensive furniture. However, the tour was interesting and enjoyable in any case and at the end the children got a quiz (on paper to do later) and a diploma with their name on - very nice touches when you are little.

Beautiful details in every corner
It's amazing to think about the celebrities and gentry that have walked through those castle doors. Annually in September Kasteel De Haar still plays host to an array of the rich and famous. I'm thinking of ways to get on that guest list without actually being rich or famous.......ideas on a postcard......
Stunning - simply stunning

After the tour we headed back outside for a spot of lunch in the Tuynhuis, and then walked to the maze, which kept three little boys happily amused. When they emerged from the maze puffed out and red faced from running around they sat on a  bench and did the quizzes they got from the guided tour.

The gardens are huge and you could certainly wile away an afternoon walking around without going inside the castle at all. In fact, I had images of myself dressed in a white, flowing summer dress (à la Downton Abbey) and sun hat perched with my back against one of the many spectacular trees in the gardens, armed with nothing but a few notepads and pens. And a picnic. The place cries out for a summer picnic to be had there and there are plenty of beautiful spots to lay down a rug and enjoy an outdoor family feast.

The castle through a child's eyes
In short? In the words of my two eldest sons,

"This is the best castle ever!"

If you have never been - go!