47

47_lemon_meringue_pie47. That is right, I turned 47 the other week. My children are of the opinion that 47 is still quite young, some of my older friends and colleagues call me a ‘spring chicken’, Mr S., bless him, seems to think I do not grow older at all, but I feel perilously close to 50 and yes that makes me feel a tat old.

The birthday is lovely though. It all kicks off with strict orders to stay in bed from the 12 and 13yo and a cup of tea from Mr S. to let me know they really mean it. Reading a book in bed – completely guilt free –  for an hour and a half in my book makes for an extremely good start to the day. (The fact that I cannot a week later remember what I read is a bit worrying but I guess that is being 47 for you).

When the three of them finally make me come down, I find the living room decorated with a string of blue and pink balloons, adorned by my daughter with smiley faces, happy birthdays and mum’s-the-bests; all up side down, as she had not realised that you do not string balloons the same way you hold them. It is just lovely.

Every breakfast item known to man is laid out on the festive table and Mr S., who normally starts asking me weeks in advance what he should get me for my birthday, now surprises me with 47 red roses and a harrowing tale about how he visited every florist in our village fifteen minutes before closing time, to find exactly 47 red roses.

Gift

The 13yo, completely true to character had not managed to find me a gift, as a consequence of which he had to get up ridiculously early (from his point of view that is) to cycle to the market, shepherded by the 12yo, who knows exactly what he should have bought his mum in the first place: three dark purple petunia’s. How very me indeed. My daughter, who started planning my gifts weeks, if not months in advance, surprises me with a hand made voucher for a ‘luxury dinner for two, completely free!’ (providing I buy the ingredients of course) in her own restaurant, which she, with a keen eye for detail, has given four and a half stars.

My daughter by the way also gives me another hand made voucher with some banknotes taped onto it to go and buy myself some make-up, which has me thinking I do look old and in desperate need of some ‘glow-in-the-dark nail varnish’, hot pink lippy and bronzing powder. On the purchase of which, she no doubt will advise me. I can not wait!

Firing squad

Shortly after breakfast, they all leave me. The 12yo to go to an all day party, involving all her friends and a subtropical pool and the 13yo and Mr S. to go to play slash watch some field hockey. I spend the morning (and the better part of the afternoon) food shopping and baking, because that is what you do in the Netherlands on your birthday. To the amazement of my expat friends and colleagues, Holland is the only country they have ever been, where etiquette requires you to bake several cakes and then bring them to work. Or else the firing squad awaits you.

I never looked at this tradition from their perspective, but after baking four (!) lemon meringue pies, I can totally see how lovely it would be if someone else would do the baking for you. The good thing though is that since the children are out all day and most of the evening too, I decide it is totally okay to accept an invitation to a BBQ from our lovely friends P. and M., who conveniently live a five minute bike ride away.

So totally against Dutch protocol someone else cooks me a totally scrumptious birthday dinner, invites some more friends and then gives me some lovely presents on top. All I have to do is turn up, drink some bubbles and be merry. The evening is such a triumph that from this day forwards any invitations for the 23rd of May will be gratefully accepted! (Mr S. will happily throw in a couple of bottles of fizz).

Expat Life

cottageLiving the expat life has opened up a myriad of possibilities in my mind. Whereas ten years ago I would only dream of buying a forever family home in the Netherlands, I now imagine myself living almost anywhere in the world. Considering I moved back to the Netherlands only a year and a half ago, these dreams of expat living are not always welcome (nor welcomed).

Certainly not by my almost 14yo son who is having a blast, living in the Netherlands, where he can cycle to school and most of his mates in less than ten minutes and has all the freedom and independence he craved for while living in Switzerland. The 12yo is also beginning to see the benefits of her Dutch life, being able to choose a secondary school all by herself and having the luxury of also making friends outside of school.

Even Mr. S and myself, though reluctantly at first, are starting to find our feet. It is really nice to have our own home again after years and years of living in rental accommodation. Having family and old friends close by is lovely and we are both becoming more and more involved in local sports clubs, which is something we definitely missed living abroad.

The minute though I set foot outside the Netherlands, I instantly want to be an expat again. So when I visited my dear friend P. in England a few weeks ago, I immediately starting plotting to get myself over the pond for a spot of expat living again. The compartment in my brain (and soul) that is labelled ‘How to behave in the UK’ opened up and out it all came – down to every scone eating, tea drinking, pretty dress loving bit of it. I always find it so tricky to leave.

As coincidence would have it off I went to Rome only a week or so after visiting England. Although I found living in Italy tough at the time (struggling to speak Italian, finding it difficult to make some local friends), here too I realised there is a secret Italian lurking somewhere inside me. One that relishes in driving too fast all the while honking the horn and – dare I say it – swearing. I also love (love!) sipping cappuccino’s in fluorescent, mirror adorned little bars, whilst eating sweat pastries that I would loath anywhere else in the world. I really don’t have a sweet tooth. ,

Mr S. , showing off his fluent Italian, did not stop chatting with everyone he met. His inner Italian came  out when he insisted- like a true Italian – to wear jeans and a long sleeve shirt on a sweltering hot day. And point blank refused to drink cappuccino after 11.00 in the morning. He even took the food ordering  for the whole table, acting like a true capo della famiglia. Adorable.

Together we dreamed about living in Rome (we would have a ball) all the while maintaining that we will retire to Cornwall, finding ourselves a cute little cottage to enjoy the (our?) sunset. It isn’t until I am home a good few days that I realise that although I have loved the expat life (and probably always will) it is the day to day talking to my neighbours, tending my own garden, meeting friends at the local supermarket, reading the news paper, being opinionated about local affairs and having a bit of time to build relationships is what I missed living abroad.

In my expat life friends would leave with sometimes only a few week’s notice, I couldn’t speak to my neighbours because I didn’t speak their language well enough, I couldn’t read the local newspaper, nor listen to the local radio. And although I tended some lovely gardens they were never mine to play around with. I bought shiploads of Ikea furniture in three different countries, but rarely something I really liked and mostly items that only looked sort of  right in one house but never in the next.

So may be, just may be, I should stay put for the next couple of years. Find out if I am capable of growing some roots again, watch my teenagers grow up and make their way in life, tend to my garden, paint some furniture, make some new friends and keep them close. And may be, just may be I will find that cottage in Cornwall some day.

Triangle

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Drawing (and story) by Naomi Hattaway

Some days being back in my home country mystifies me. Behaviours, or unspoken rules, that after living abroad for eight years strike me as really weird are in a Dutch context of course perfectly normal. I am the one that needs to adapt, or am I?

Just this morning while I was contemplating how lovely it is to be able to take my 10yo daughter to school on my bike, I almost bumped into an au pair from the Philippines trying to steady a heavy carier trycicle with three blond children aboard. Poor thing. Whereas I at least have long legs and a past rich of cycling expeditions, head first into gale force winds with rain slashing in my face, she has not.

Is it so much more natural, or normal to see an American au pair in a big four wheel drive Volvo collecting a couple of kids from the international school in Switzerland, or children being picked up by a private chauffeur every day from our school in Italy? Not really no. Still the image of this tiny Filipina struggling to keep her monster bike afloat, strikes me as really weird.

Just as weird really to find myself severely overdressed at my neighbour’s fortieth birthday party. She had send out handwritten invitations, hired a caterer and erected a party tent in the garden. So it wasn’t an informal, bring your own booze type of get together and yet at least half of the guests were wearing jeans and a top.

In the Netherlands it is considered perfectly all right to wear jeans, trainers and the latest knitwear wherever you go, be it a party,  the theatre, a restaurant, or a graduation ceremony. Ten years ago I would probably have thought nothing of it, but after living in England where everyone wears something sparkly and festive to go out and Italy where you wouldn’t be seen dead going into town wearing flip flops, or out to dinner wearing the same clothes you had on all day, I feel it is much nicer if everyone takes the effort to put on something special before going to a party.

My English friends will smile when I confess that I do struggle with the bluntness of my Dutch countrymen. Although my English mates have always found me cringingly direct, Dutch people can be forthright to the point of being rude. Over the past couple of days waitresses and shop assistants have told my 10yo daughter off in what I perceived as a very unfriendly manner. Yes, she was touching some things in shops that she perhaps shouldn’t have, picking wax of a candle in a café and hiding under a clothes rack just for the fun of it, but before I even got the chance to tell her to stop, someone beat me to it. And not in a gentle way with a smile on their face, no, more in an old-fashioned headmistress kind of manner.  I didn’t like it and have decided to take at least some of my business elsewhere.

Instead of being one hundred percent Dutch as most of the people I meet these days, I have become part English (I love their politeness, eagerness to queue and – dare I say it- their over the top Christmases) part Italian (I love the fact that they all love my children and always make me feel like

the guest of honour in their café’s and restaurants) and part Swiss (sometimes it is nice if everyone just obeys the rules. I for one really enjoy spotless clean swimming pools and dog poo free pavements).

A friend of mine send me a lovely story the other day in which a circle from circle country gets on a plane to go live in square society for a few years. On moving back this little circle discovers that although he hasn’t become a square, he certainly isn’t a circle any more. Instead he has changed into a triangle, without quite realising it.

So that’s what I am: a triangle and proud of it. I even found some lovely other triangles to hang out with. Joking about our inability, at times, as square pegs to fit into round holes, really makes my day. As does fantasising about a little lady moving back home to the Philippines one day taking with her a Dutch carrier tricycle and telling everyone around her exactly what she thinks of them.