Major life changes can typically be linked back to one specific trigger, a tipping point so to speak. There are many minor and even some major events leading up to this, but there is usually one moment when the flip switches.
My tipping point was waking up in the middle of the night to blood on my pillow. A lung specialist had prescribed a new medication to me to help with my nearly constant allergy problems and increasing issues with asthma and migraines. The medicine triggered a middle of the night, gushing nose bleed. The night before, it had put me into such a deep sleep, my husband could not wake me. And after both nights, I awoke to a pounding headache.
The medicine scared me. So I stopped taking it.
The lung specialist was the latest in a series of doctors I’d seen over the last two years. I won’t bore you with the rest of the symptoms, but I came to think of it as being sick and tired of being sick and tired. Doctors – female and male – told me it was because I was a working mother with two young children. I was just too busy.
After myriads of tests and exams came back inconclusive, they told me it was in my head. No really, in characteristic Dutch bluntness, a doctor told me I had a ‘mind issue’. He prescribed, with a half laugh, that I get more ‘me time’.
My sister has a gluten free and dairy free lifestyle. That planted the seed.
It was time I start evaluating very closely not only the medicine entering my system, but also all of the food.
This morning, I sat for the written portion of the NT2 II exam and, this afternoon, I will sit for the speaking portion. In the next two weeks, I have the listening and reading comprehension exams. The NT2 translates to “Dutch as a second language”. These are the level two exams and so this should tell anyone looking at my resume that I am fluent in the Dutch language.
Nope. Not fluent. I don’t feel fluent. I don’t know what that would feel like. I still sigh and squint as I read Dutch text. My heart still races when I speak Dutch. I still use Google translate. I have to consciously suppress my, “Oh Shit!” face when people ask me a question in Dutch.
Other people, other immigrants, say they dream in Dutch. Blek! God I hope not! Other people start watching Dutch television programs. Why? I come from the land of “Scandal” and “House of Cards”. One word – Netflix
My family and friends from America speak slightly awe struck when I talk about sitting for these exams. Everyone else smiles and thinks, “It is about damn time. You have lived here for ten years.”
Taking these exams makes me feel equally parts old and privileged. I’m an immigrant just like they are, but I am termed an expat or even mistaken for Dutch because of my skin color, my hair texture, my clothing, my last name.
Most of the other people at this sterile government office building are here as a requirement to continue their education at a Dutch university. They have so much ahead of them. In many ways, they have so much behind them. We all sit here dreading the same thing – The great equalizer, government red tape.
I have been an expatriate (expat) living here in The Netherlands for going on nine years. It might seem surprising to you, but I have yet to make a real friendship with a Dutch person other than my husband, of course. I am friends with Dutch people by association. I am friends with my husband’s Dutch friends and I am friends with the Dutch partners of my expat friends, but I have yet to make a new Dutch friend on my own.
I blame my lack of fluency in Dutch. When you have a conversation with a friend, you want it to be relaxing. You want to freely express yourself. Most people feel best doing that in their native language. There are also some cultural issues at play here that I haven’t completely sorted out.
I have been lucky enough to meet some great expat women (and their families). Expat life has some added dynamics to it that can be difficult to understand and get used to. I oftentimes feel an instant comradery with women from English speaking countries that I never felt in the U.S. It is such a relief to find someone to speak easily with and, most of all, to vent with about the oddities of The Netherlands in particular and of living abroad in general. There are just so many innate nuances to the culture a person has grown up in and they only really become apparent when you live for an extended period of time abroad. It can be fascinating, but the novelty wears off and it is nice to have someone to vent with.
The aspect I find most difficult is the transience of the relationships. Expats for the most part are only in The Netherlands for a relatively brief period. For me, this means pushing myself to introduce myself and put myself out there far sooner than I feel comfortable with.
I learned that lesson the hard way years ago. We had some lovely neighbors at the time (and still do, but I am referring to a different family). I always liked talking to them, but always chickened out of inviting them over for dinner or asking the woman around for tea. Finally, when I got pregnant with our first, I was really looking forward to getting to to spend more time together because I knew the start of my maternity leave would overlap with the end of her’s. So we went by one Sunday afternoon to share the good news only to find out they had an announcement too. They would be moving soon as part of his work. I was so disappointed – mostly with myself.
It has taught me both how to brush myself off from such disappointments and invest the extra effort to put myself out there. Otherwise, it is a very real likelihood that a friendship will pass me by. (Photo: Tea Time by Fabrizio Sciami)
Our littlest one, Wiglet, had her regular check-up with the Consultatie Bureau, the Dutch version of the Health and Human Services Department. Though, to make that comparison is quite a stretch. I will spare you the details, but in The Netherlands, all children (and parents) receive free check-ups, vision & hearing screenings, vaccinations (and advice on things like nutrition and developmental stages), etc. They do not say it outright, but they are also screening for child abuse. They definitely follow a checklist and script, but all and all, I am grateful for their services.
Our family records indicate that I am American. They have begun insisting that Wiglet has a measles vaccination before we next visit the U.S. That means they recommend we not visit the U.S. for the next six months, until she gets her MMR vaccination at 14 months of age.
I never thought the U.S. would be on the CDC list of countries requiring vaccinations. When I travelled throughout Asia and the Middle East, I had to get a variety of vaccinations before my travel. I had to take malaria pills in Cambodia. I took Cipro to Egypt. I always thought of the vaccinations as a price to pay for traveling to less fortunate countries. I thought they were needed to go to exotic, underprivileged countries in which the government and infrastructure are broken.
Then I heard that the measles broke out in Disneyland. Frankly, it shocked me. I did not think it would get that bad. I thought people would come to their senses before that happened. I know the reasons why people refuse to get their children vaccinated. I seriously considered it myself with our oldest, but, thank goodness, by then the findings linking vaccinations to autism had been debunked. I watched Jenny McCarthy on “Oprah”. I believed her.
I understand why parents did not want to risk the vaccination. Parents want to do the best they know how to protect their children. They are looking for the silver bullet to prevent their child’s suffering. I get it. But now we have better information. Unfortunately, it is not as easy as avoiding a shot.
Honestly, I do not want to wade into the debate. I just want to come home this summer so my kids can hang out with our friends and family.
I typically am both listening to an audiobook while also reading something on my IPad. Not simultaneously, of course, but melding the two books oftentimes makes for some crazy daydreams. All set against the Peppa Pig cartoon theme song that I enjoy more than I will admit to my three year old. See if you can keep up.
I have been listening to Ken Follet’s trilogy and just finished his WWII book, “Winter of the World”. I also just finished reading Ruth Reichl’s book, “Delicious: A Novel”. Reichl’s book is about a fictitious culinary magazine in which a young employee finds wartime correspondence letters between a young girl in Ohio and the famous James Beard whom supposedly wrote for the magazine during WWII. Unconsciously, I managed to pick two great books that overlap in topics.
Like never before, I have come away with awe at how much people sacrificed in those austere, uncertain and violent times. It has also given me an appreciation for how far freedom has come in some ways. And it has made me curious about my roots. So my mother is sharing with me stories about her parents. I had always known my grandfather fought in WWII, but this puts it all in a new light. For instance, as I was standing at a tram stop in the middle of a Dutch city with my Dutch American daughter, I could not help but wonder what my grandfather would think about us going across town to visit our German Chinese friends. I choose to think he was proud to fight for a world in which I have such easy freedoms.
The austerity of those times strikes me too. I am trying, in my own weird way, to waste less these holidays. And, let’s be honest, with a three year old and with nursing a five month old, I am looking for any excuse to cut a few corners this holiday season. Case in point, my recipe of the week.
I did not want to waste two apples or the ridiculously expensive imported creamy Skippy peanut butter I just had to buy to use in recipes. Sounds weird I know, but I found a recipe for apple peanut butter muffins. My husband was horrified by the thought so I get them all to myself. Yippee!
While I was on vacation, I read “Bringing up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting” by Pamela Druckerman. This is not a paid review, but only my musings. I would not recommend the book as a parenting guide. I would say it is more a combination of non-fiction autobiography and anthropological survey. It interested me because it gave another American mother’s perspective on raising a child in Europe. I was surprised by some of the clear differences in the French parenting style as compared to things I had observed of Dutch and expat families.
I think the clearest difference is that French mothers seem not only expected to, but also want to return to work full time in three months or less after giving birth. And, along those same lines, there is much more acceptance and expectation of having children looked after by someone other than parents from a very young age. This would have been great information to have when working for a French manager. Looking back, it would have changed the context of many of our conversations.
There is an anecdote from the book that sticks with me of a French couple that pay to have their children driven to Saturday morning events so that the parents can go out to lunch together alone.That anecdote made me very aware of a practice that I think is generally accepted in the U.S. that a couple’s relationship gets essentially put on the back burner for several years with little ones. The French do not seem to see it that way. I remember a French woman quoted as saying that your relationship with your partner should be the relationship you put the most effort into because that is one of the few people you truly choose to have in your life. You are born into a family and your children are born unto you, but a partner is someone you hand pick. I found that a refreshing perspective.
It feels like there is a perception in French society that becoming a mother does not changes a woman who much. You are expected to get your figure back in a matter of months and your values should not change. Granted, I think American mothers can go to the extreme in taking on the mantle/yoke of motherhood, but I also find the French expectations just a little too unrealistic.
My husband and I took a birth prep class with other expats and there was one exercise in particular that stuck with me. The instructor laid out pictures on the table depicting aspects of our lives like career, shopping, food, sex, beliefs, fitness, family and so on. We talked about our expectations of how these aspects would shift in importance immediately after our baby is born and for the longer term. Then she said it will feel like someone has come along and lifted the table-cloth of your life and tossed these aspects into the air. In the first weeks, everything will just be up in the air.
After a while, all the various aspects of your life will settle back down, but will re-ordered themselves sometimes in an unpredictable fashion. Some things will fall out of your life completely. I think that best explains what the first year of parenthood has felt like for me so far. It changes a person in ways you just cannot imagine or sometimes even explain. You cannot predict it and you should not fight it. It is just natural. There is a huge cultural aspect that invisibly guides some of the re-shuffling I think, though, and it never became more clear to me than after reading this book.
I also find some of the aspects of the French parenting style to be a relief. The one that most immediately changed my parenting style is what I think of as the Parent Monologue. It is this belief that a parent should constantly be talking to a child and explaining every singe thing to a child as it is happening. I was doing it because I thought it was supposed to help with speech development. It was such a relief to read in this book that not all parents do this and children turn out just fine. Carrying on a constant, one-sided, third person plural dialogue is exhausting and can be embarrassing in public. I felt like a crazy person at times.
In a very general sense, I found the philosophies of the day cares in France to be like that in The Netherlands at least with regard to babies. My child is only an infant so that is my only point of comparison. They both seem to think that a baby should mostly be left to play by themselves and other babies. There is no pressure to teach a baby. There is a schedule to a baby’s day, but that revolves around sleeping and eating. The focus is more on socialization and sensory development through play.
I think in America there is far more pressure to educate children from as early an age as possible or even in utero. It was a relief to hear that French parents do not do that either and to hear the author quote statistics that French kids are no worse off because of it. For instance, The Netherlands ranks tenth in the UN’s 2007 Education Ranking and the French are not too far behind at 13th while the U.S. ranks 21st and the U.K. lags even further behind at 30th. There are a lot of factors that impact this rating probably one of the least of which is the day care system, but it is reassuring to know that my child is no worse off in the Dutch system that she would be in the U.S.
As a parent, I find it to be a relief that I do not need to constantly be teaching and interacting with my child. I think it is important that a child can entertain themselves. I also find in my daughter that she is easily over stimulated and is easily happy playing alone with a toy for several minutes. I used to try to get more involved and direct her play and step in with a running narrative, but I felt like I just got in the way. And it dissolves any guilt I felt about sending my child to day care. We are lucky to have a day care really close to our house that we are all happy with. I think it is good for the whole family that she gets out of the house and interacts with other people and children.
In the end, most parents are looking for things that reinforce what they are doing as parents. This book reinforced a few things I was thinking and opened my eyes to other ideas that I may or may not try.
The book also expressed the French belief that children become part of a family’s dynamic, but that a family does not revolve around the child. I do not know completely how I feel about this part yet. A child vastly changes the dynamic of a family especially in the beginning. Our lives do to a large extent revolve around our child and mainly mine because I am currently a stay at home mother. I structure our day around E’s naptimes. It seems like a fool’s errand not to. She has changed the way we socialize, but she has not eliminated it entirely. She has changed the way we travel, but she has not kept us from traveling. We will just have to wait and see when E gets older. Food
One of the biggest differences in the French parenting style revolves around food. The author insisted that picky eaters do not exist in France. All foods are incorporated into a child’s diet, no foods are off-limits, and snacking is not an option. From a very early age, children have a three course meal beginning with a vegetable followed by a main and then fruit for dessert at lunch and dinner. There is also a small, afternoon meal or what I think of as like a British tea time that usually includes a sweet cake. And, oftentimes, chocolate is part of the afternoon meal. The author mentioned her daughter was fed a chocolate bar nestled in a baguette. Oh, how good does that sound??
In the future, I want to try to try this – the choco baguette as well as the three course meals. The author gave an example of feeding her children slices of raw vegetable as she prepared lunch and dinner. I want to try that at least for dinner. One of the key takeaways I have from this book is that trying different foods is a must for French kids. They have a philosophy that a child will continue to try a food until they like it. Parents and care takers make a big effort to prepare fruits and vegetables and all types of proteins for that matter in a variety of forms. If a child does not like steamed carrots, for instance, then they raw or shredded. It is not about sneaking the nutritional value of a food into a meal. For now, it is just a theory to me. E has not teeth yet and now eats only pureed foods.
A key aspect to this that author is quick to admit is culture. It was far easier to introduce this eating philosophy to her children because the day care and every family around her is doing it too. And, let’s be honest, did she really have much choice in the matter? Her kids eat this way at French public school. Why fight the system when it is good for the child?
I got robbed today. No, I do not mean it metaphorically. Mom, before you freak out, let me tell you that we are all fine. E was with me, but she did not even notice what happened.
I went to the local market that I love so much. I love it so much that I guess I let my guard down. The weather is beautiful here…finally. I mention this only because the market was bustling. Everyone was out and in a good mood. I was kind of in a hurry. I was not interested in buying a pair of knock-off sandals like so many of the other people there today. I just wanted to get to the fresh produce section and get some fruit for a picnic tomorrow with friends.
I took some money out at the ATM in front of the market. I should have gotten money out of the ATM at my house, but this just seemed more convenient. The police think someone followed me from the ATM and targeted me. I think I was just an opportunity for someone walking by.
I stopped at a fruit and veg stall and picked out strawberries, raspberries, bananas, and some peaches. I turned away from the market stall worker and reached in my diaper bag that was hanging on my stroller. The diaper bag was open and my wallet was gone. I searched and searched and took everything out of my diaper bag just to make sure.
And what does the market stall owner do and say? Is she helpful or sympathetic? She should have had a direct view of whomever touched my bag. She tells me it is my fault that my wallet got stolen. She gets impatient at having to put back all the fruit she just bagged for me. She told me I should not have walked away from my diaper bag. I get it. I should have worn my purse, but I was literally two steps away from my purse. My foot was touching the wheel of my stroller.
What was my first reaction? I remember turning and seeing two teenagers staring at me and eating something. I felt like they saw what happened, but I just did not want to confront them. I just started walking. E was fine. She was quite and very busy watching the people walking past her in the stroller. For some reason, I went straight to the ATM at the opposite end of the market. I guess I thought the robber would immediately try to withdrawal some money. On the way to the ATM, I scanned the stalls and people looking for something strange. I was hoping the bastard would just drop my wallet after he took the money. My identity was in that wallet – my debit card, my residence card, my driver’s license, my insurance card and 75 euros. It is all gone. No one pulled out a brown and pink Coach wristlet like mine. No one tried to use a green debit card like mine. I called my husband to tell him. What did he say? “Jesus! How did you do that?!”
“It was your fault.” Those were the first words out of every person’s mouth. What is it with Dutch people? I went to the market’s office to report the crime. I rang the door of the office and had to explain over the intercom that my wallet had just been stolen. A woman buying fried fish from the take-out window at the shop next door started shaking her head, clucked her tongue, clutched her purse a little tighter, leaned towards me and told me I should have been more careful. What?! This lady that I didn’t know and just happened to be trying to overhear my conversation is being critical of me! The guard in the market office was nice enough to come down and explain to me in English that there was nothing they would do for me. He pointed me in the direction of the closest police department.
My husband was with it enough to immediately call the bank and freeze my debit card. I had to walk home because my public transport card was also stolen. E was quite and great through it all. On the long walk home, I realized that I was okay. E was fine. That is what matters. I will replace my residence permit and debit card everyday as long as E is safe and sound. I was still pissed, though. And I did feel stupid. I traveled throughout Southeast Asia mostly alone and did not have so much as a toothbrush stolen from me. I was the crazy one that other backpackers made fun of with the full wire mesh backpack lock that I wound through the sturdiest piece of furniture I could find in my hotel room. I got robbed less than two miles from my house at 1:15 in the afternoon.
The police officer that took my statement was actually the most empathetic person I talked to. I take that back. My husband was much more empathetic after I reminded him that my wallet had been zipped inside my bag and, no, I did not just wave it around in the air asking someone to take it. She, the police officer, took my statement in a non-judgmental way and told me that in the center of Den Haag pick pocketing happens several times per day and even more often in the market I was in. I think she said this to make me feel better, not so stupid perhaps, but it will make me more paranoid. I have to stop myself from staring down everyone I cross paths with. Besides, that is a lot of people to stare down. It is exhausting and I know I seem a bit crazy. I have to remember my sunglasses next time I go out so people cannot see me giving them the stink eye. Just kidding….kind of.