Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Happy New Year

I would like to wish you all a fabulous time seeing in the New Year, and wish you all the very best for a healthy and happy 2014. And remember…..

Friday, 27 December 2013

Top Three Posts of 2013: Highly Sensitive Children & Introverts

2013: A year of reaching out and being amazed
by the response
Photo Credit: Sanja Gjenero
As the year draws to a close it's always nice to reflect and think about the last twelve months before moving on to the next year ahead. And so it is too with blogging. It's a great idea to take a peek at the stats and see what has worked, what has pulled people in to the blog…. and for this blog there's a clear and definite popular trend - highly sensitive children and the theme of being an introvert.

  1. Parenting a Highly Sensitive Child
  2. Being Introvert, Being Me
  3. Understanding Highly Sensitive Children

2013 is the year that I started writing about the idea of highly sensitive children (HSC), mainly because it has been a difficult year for our family with regard to schooling for my eldest son, because he is a HSC. I started talking about it, and people started responding in their droves on Twitter, Facebook and on this blog. It was a huge relief to know we weren't the crazy ones, and that we are certainly not alone. It has been an eye opening year, with the creation of a Facebook group for parents of HSC which has been an amazing support during the last few months, not only for me, but for other parents too who find themselves having to make difficult decisions with little support from family and schools - because there is so little understanding for what being highly sensitive actually means. I have also collated HS links and made a page on this blog - that will also be expanded a great deal next year.

Time has been short the last few months, but it's something I will write lots more about  in 2014, to share my own experiences with other parents who are going through the same situation.

As a very short summary, we changed primary schools in September and it was the best decision we could have made. The change has been life changing for us all. My son has found his place, his teachers could not be more understanding and because of that he's a happy little boy again. He does of course have his overload moments still, but don't we all? However, life is very different today than it was a year ago!

A big heartfelt thank you to all of you who have reached out this year, not just on this topic but on all the posts that have been written this year!!

Monday, 23 December 2013

Mysteries of the Netherlands

Why oh why does icing sugar only come in small pots in the Netherlands, pots that I associate with sprinkling on pancakes? Why doesn't the texture match that of the big bags of icing sugar you can buy in England? Seriously, what is that about? The Dutch like to bake, in fact their sweet delicacies line bakeries across the land. So why is there such a lack of baking products in the supermarkets?

Photo Credit: Michal Zacharzewski
Like bicarbonate of soda. Expat forums are alight with questions about where you can buy bicarbonate of soda. Answers usually involve the cleaning section of specific supermarkets, eco shops or expat shops. Why? Why do I have to stock up on this in England in order to make gingerbread when I am back in the Netherlands? What do the Dutch use instead?

And why is lamb so rare and expensive here in the Netherlands but when you go to an English supermarket much of the lamb is imported from…wait for it….. yes, the Netherlands. Same with bacon. And parsnips. I have to scour the country at Christmas time for parsnips yet when I'm in the vegetable section in Tesco in Cornwall the parsnips there are imported from the land of the Dutch. What the hell is that about?

And don't get me started about garam masala.

And why can you only buy oven gloves in sets of one here. I have two hands. In England oven gloves come sewn together to cover both hands. One of my hands is not made of asbestos. Obviously the answer is buy two… but why don't they come as a package deal? What am I missing?

I'm not complaining…. I'm just wondering. Honest…….

What other absent items mystify you about the Netherlands?

Friday, 20 December 2013

Making December Memories

During December our family does a daily advent activity. This year we made envelopes from scratch and then decorated them with all things Christmassy and I added a chocolate coin and a card with a fun activity to do on it. 

Every day the children take it in turns to open an envelope. Every day we do something to connect as a family. This evening is Christmas movie night with special treats to eat. On Christmas Eve there will be a box for the boys to unwrap filled with things to keep us busy that evening - a DVD, new pjs and hot chocolate and popcorn. 

We've been to a Christmas market, walked the streets with homemade lamps, donated food for special Christmas packages to help less fortunate families, coloured Christmas pictures in, made a special gift for opa, decorated the Christmas tree. A Christmas family tradition in the making, and lots of memories to cherish when the kids are all grown up. 

We included the Dutch Pakjesavond celebration in the advent activities

One night we sat out in the garden, with the burner going, sipping Gluhwein
(us, not the kids) and eating Christmas biscuits
One night was Christmas story night - the room lit only by candlelight
We decorated the Christmas tree, and made lamps for a night time walk
Do you have a special way of counting down to Christmas? How do you celebrate this wonderful month with your children?

*I regularly share photos and updates on the Expat Life with a Double Buggy Facebook page so if you are on Facebook pop over and like the page and stop by and say hi!*

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Smitten by Britain: Guest Posts about British Culture

Christmas, British style over on
Smitten by Britain
No matter how long I live in the Netherlands I will always be a Brit. By that I don't mean the obvious fact that I remain a British passport holder, or that my birth country obviously doesn't change. I mean that culturally I'll always be British. It's ingrained. The core of me is British and moving overseas doesn't change that. I can speak Dutch day in, day out but I'm British. I could even surrender my British nationality for a Dutch one but the reality would be that I would still be more British than I am Dutch.

I had decades of indoctrination before I moved to the Netherlands. So whilst I won't scream and shout about it (I am British after all) I am delighted to be able to write monthly for Smitten by Britain and share posts about British culture, as I see it now as an expat.

My latest post is about Christmas (what else at this stage in December?) and the relationship that the British have with the television during the festive period. It wasn't until I moved to the Netherlands that I realised Christmas specials and spending Christmas in front of the TV with a glass (or bottle) of alcohol in hand wasn't a worldwide thing. It's truly British. Head over to Smitten by Britain to find out why.

And if you missed last month's offering I explained why rain is so very British. In October I talked about being British in a lift…. it's harder than you could imagine as a non-Brit.

Friday, 13 December 2013

It's Starting to Look a Lot Like Christmas at Keukenhof Castle

On Wednesday,  we took a trip to Keukenhof Castle for the annual Christmas Fair held there. The kerstmarkt is a treat for the ears because aside from Christmas music playing over the speakers, there are choirs performing at intervals. There's also something special for the nose with the delicious scent of Gluhwein and artisanal bread wafting around and for those still needing Christmas gift purchases there are various stalls selling jewellery, decorations and ornaments, clothes and bags as well as food.

We were drawn in by a stall selling cheese, bread and wine - all in one little tent. The boys had a field day sampling different cheeses and various types of bread (a heartfelt apology to the owner who would have had to fill up almost every bowl once my sons had left; the image of locusts springs to mind) - and they were more than happy later to help devour the loaves and cheese we chose to take home. Tip of the day - try the Toscanse bread - heavenly!

For the kids the 'Coca Cola Santa' is on site with a large truck, there's a merry go round, a few animals (including the tallest goat I have ever seen, presumably Dutch) and music especially for the children at certain times. And of course no Dutch Christmas fair would be complete without a skating rink, and all three boys took the opportunity to do a few rounds on the ice, with varying degrees of success. With many laughs and bruised bottoms to show for their efforts we called it a day and headed back to the car, guided back by the beautifully lit trees.

The kerstmarkt continues over the weekend (until 22.00 tonight and tomorrow) so if you are starting to get into the Christmas spirit Lisse is a good place to head to - Gluhwein, christmas carols, twinkling lights and ice skating - what more do you need to get Christmas going? I'll leave you with a few images…

The big man himself is there, with the big truck.

The Dutch on ice - as natural as cycling
As dusk falls, it's time for the lights to take centre stage

Beautiful lights create an amazing atmosphere once the sun sets

Monday, 9 December 2013

Breaking the Dutch Birthday Circle

Birthdays are best with no circles in sight
(c) Amanda van Mulligen
Growing up in England my birthday celebrations evolved from children's parties at home with traditional party games like pass the parcel, musical chairs, pin the tail on the donkey and musical statues. As I got older I remember birthday parties turning into birthday treats. I went with a few friends to a musical in a London theatre (James and the Giant Peach is one such memory) or the cinema. As my teenage years went by such trips turned into two separate celebrations - a family dinner and drinks with friends. Combining the two worlds during a birthday was never on the cards. Until I came to the Netherlands.

My initiation into the Dutch birthday circle happened soon after moving to the Netherlands in 2000. I barely spoke Dutch. I knew none of the guests. I had no prior warning of a Dutch birthday celebration. I was unprepared. Clueless. I was a Dutch birthday circle virgin. I was naive. Easy pickings. Like a lamb to the slaughter.

Guests arrived and everyone started kissing and congratulating me. It wasn't my birthday. I was startled. Why were all these strangers kissing me? Did they think they here to celebrate my birthday? My partner whispered,

"It's normal. It's because you're related to the birthday host so you get a congratulations too."

Although not strictly blood related I was apparently in the firing line by default because of my partner's direct bloodline. Unavoidably then I was to be kissed on the cheek three times by every single guest that came through the door.

In a state of utter confusion I was ushered to a chair. It was a chair in a circle in the living room. The living room normally looked like a regular living room. A sofa or two, a table, a TV and a fireplace. In honour of the birthday celebration the living room had been transformed into what I know now to be lovingly known by expats as the circle of death. This is a special birthday arrangement whereby all chairs in the house (as well as chairs borrowed from the neighbours, friends and family) are placed in a tight circle. The phrase 'packed like sardines' actually originated after a wordsmith's attendance at a Dutch birthday circle. The idea is that once you are seated you do not move. Not one inch for the entire afternoon/evening/night.

That means late arrivals clambered over the circle to get to me to give me the obligatory congratulatory kisses that I neither understood nor wanted. And there was no escape from the birthday circle. Extraction from the circle was impossible. I could picture how it felt to be a small child thrown in a swimming pool without armbands. Terrifying. Suffocating. Bewildering.

And then everyone started talking to each other. Across the circle. Without moving from their seat, ignoring their unknown neighbour to talk to the familiar person on the other side of the large circle. Everyone talking through each other, loudly.  In a language I had little comprehension of. And then, just as I thought I couldn't possibly have any more fun than I was already having, people started shouting at me from the other side of the circle. In Dutch. Loudly. I had never before prayed so hard for a Star Trek type transporter to suddenly appear and take me back to my own world. A world where birthdays are not celebrated in circles at home.

Protecting my sons from the dreaded circle with themed
birthday parties and little people only as guests
(c) Amanda van Mulligen
Needless to say these days I do everything I can to avoid the birthday circle ever making an appearance in our house. I don't want to subject my children to the same ordeal I went through, causing trauma that may fade but never completely disappear. But it's hard. There is something in the Dutch genes that compels them to move chairs into circles when they come together in a group. It is a force so powerful it can only be overcome by hiding chairs entirely. It's extreme but it's the only thing I can do to help my sons grow up in a world free of Dutch birthday circles.

*This post was written for and published by Multicultural Kid Blogs in honour of the one year anniversary.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

A Guide to Pakjesavond in the Netherlands (aka 5 December)

Today is pakjesavond in the Netherlands which is the evening that St Nicholas' birthday is celebrated. It literally means parcel or present evening. What it means in reality is an evening of gezelligheid. It's an evening when friends and family get together, eat together, exchange gifts and play games together.

Pakjesavond with young children in the house is very different to a pakjesavond with older children or adults around. With a six, three and two year old in house I'll share what our pakjesavond looks like.

A 'pizzarette'
(affiliate link)
First we eat together: sometimes we gourmet or fondue with us all around the table, last year I made pancakes and tied them up to look like Sinterklaas's sack and this year we have invested in a pizzarette. It is basically a pizza oven for on the dining table and everyone creates their own small pizza and then puts it under the pizza dome to cook. I have a feeling my kids will love this! The essence of the pakjesavond mealtime is fun and together.

Once we have finished eating we sit together in the living room and sing Sinterklaas songs, as loud as we can. The harder we sing, the more likely it is that Sinterklaas and his Piets will pay us a visit. There is a loud knocking on the door, which is then opened slightly, enough for a gloved hand to sneak through and throw kruidnoten, taai taai, pepernoten and sweets - all traditional Dutch Sinterklaas lekkernijen. Then the door closes (our children stop screaming and crying and realise that the floor is covered in sweet things for them to eat) and the children scurry around and collect anything edible from the floor and stuff their faces with as much as they can. Then the penny clicks that Sinterklaas has been and they rush to the hall to find a sack of presents for them.

We spend the rest of the evening opening presents and playing with new things until little ones are rubbing their eyes and complaining of stomach ache and it is clearly time for bed.

So here's a summary of what you need for a pakjesavond with small children:

1. Presents
2. A sack – to put all the presents in
3. A knowledge of Sinterklaasliedjes (songs) – for the children to sing to encourage St. Nicholas and his entourage to visit their house
4. A friendly neighbour or a fast moving parent (or you can even hire a Sinterklaas or Piet) – to play Sint's helper Piet
5. A door or a door bell– for Sint’s helper to knock on/ ring
6. A black glove – for Piet to wear on the hand that will appear through the door
7. Pepernoten, kruidnoten and other sweets designed to give any child a sugar injection – for Piet to throw through a crack in the door with his gloved hand

Traditional Dutch Sinterklaas biscuits - kruidnoten
You can of course make your own kruidnoten - there's a simple, great recipe and explanation about typically Dutch ingredients right here.

If the children are older, or the company is entirely made up of adults the evening looks very different. It works a little more like Secret Santa so everyone is responsible for the present of one person. The present is then a small gift, a surprise, which is hidden in something homemade, instead of simply being wrapped.

It can be as elaborate as you can imagine, or as simple as you can make it. An example is this ski piste (see link) with a present firmly encased in the middle, needing a lot of force to get the present out. Or a disco ball perhaps.

School children are usually assigned to make them for each other in the higher groups of primary school - the more creative the better, and the more difficult it is to get the present out the funnier.

There is often an accompanying rhyme or poem written by the gift givers, joke presents and a game to accompany the gift giving which involves rolling a die. Instructions include things like swapping presents with your neighbour (hence the chance to end up with the joke present that no one wants) or performing a task if you throw a certain number. The games are as creative and as varied as you want to make them!

The essential element of pakjesavond, the thing that holds it together, just like Christmas, is the company you spend the evening with. It is about being together, having fun and sharing each other's company. It's about family and friends, however you celebrate it. Happy birthday St Nicholas!

Monday, 2 December 2013

5 December - It's a Dutch Thing

When I first moved to the Netherlands in 2000, the annual celebration on the 5th December baffled me. Year after year, in search of enlightenment I bombarded my Dutchie with questions.

Thirteen years after witnessing Sinterklaas and his helpers for the first time, I get it. I really do. In 2007 we celebrated it for the first time as a family, because we had a child. Every year since then our celebration has got bigger and better. We have three children that find this time of year magical. Truly magical, and that is what the onlookers on the outside don't see - the children's joy and excitement. It is absolutely a children's festival.

Sinterklaas is now a part of life, and  I feel qualified enough to  answer my own questions that I once had about Sinterklaas and the festivity of 5 December:

You Dutch celebrate both Sinterklaas and Christmas. How does that work exactly?

Sinterklaas and Christmas, whilst sharing the same origins, are just not the same thing. That's why there are two different celebrations. The Dutch do not have two Christmases (contrary to the suppositions of a certain supposed UN representative recently). They celebrate Sinterklaas and Christmas.

What do you tell the children - Sinterklaas comes at the beginning of December from Spain on the steamboat with his horse, and then the Kerstman comes at the end of the month with his sleigh and reindeer?

The Dutch don't need to explain the appearance of the kerstman twenty days after Sinterklaas because most Dutch families do not have Father Christmas bringing presents on the 25th December - presents are exchanged in some cases but they are openly from each other. They aren't left in the dead of night under the Christmas tree by a jolly figure in red. My husband had never received a present on Christmas Day until I moved to the Netherlands. That's how different the idea of Christmas has been here. The kerstman is known as the Coca Cola santa here. My lucky kids have both figures visiting them because they have a British mother - and that is easy enough to explain.

How does buying two lots of presents in December fit with the Dutch reputation of stinginess being careful with money?

As already mentioned, presents aren't necessarily the norm here at Christmas and certainly not on the grand scale it is in Britain and the United States for example. Besides that the presents on the 5th December are brought over from Spain on the boat by Sinterklaas and the Pieten, even though the Hema and C1000 logos are clear for all to see on chocolate letters and presents… something that did not escape my then five year old last year…..

What do you mean you want me to put a carrot in my shoe?

No biggie, I'm fine with putting a carrot in my shoe these days as long as the horse gets the carrot out without slobbering in my shoe.

Why do you throw sweets at your children?
To be fair there are other times of the year when I feel like throwing things at the kids (not just my kids). Getting it all out of your system once a year with sweets is quite ingenious.

Seriously though, you do need to think about where your children will be when the 'gloved hand' comes around the door and throws sweets into the room on Pakjesavond. Two years ago we narrowly avoided a hospital run when a 'Piet' lobbed goodies into our living room, into the play pen my then two month old baby was lying in. Three screaming kids (two petrified, one injured) is not the best way to spend an evening.

St Nicholaas is actually from Turkey but travels from Spain in a boat to the Netherlands every year - how does that work?

Okay, hands up, this is one of the things I still can't explain - the whole 'he comes from Spain on a boat' thing is a mystery to me. I have no idea. Nobody I have spoken to has a proper explanation, other than it's a great holiday home destination. It just is so.

Where can I find an online Sinterklaas poem generator?
Google it.

So, let me get this right. Good girls get chocolate letters and pepernoten and bad girls get a free trip to Spain?

I have since learnt that NO ONE gets to go to Spain. Years of trying my hardest to get on the naughty list to get put in a sack for a free holiday to Spain. It's a bloody myth. The idea terrifies the kids though and gets them to do what you want for two or three weeks of the year whilst Sinterklaas is in town.

Sint’s slaves helpers are black because of the soot in the chimneys? Really?

The least said about this the better I think. This year has seen the biggest uproar yet to Zwarte Piet and I wouldn't be wholly surprised if we see a few changes over the coming years.

What do you mean I can't finish off this Sint paper and use it to wrap Christmas presents?

As I said, I get it now. It's not the same thing. That would be like wrapping Easter eggs in Christmas paper.

Any more questions anyone?