08 March, 2011

Before and After - an Expat Meme

I recently joined the Insego expat group online, and am only just beginning to pay attention and become a little bit active.  I mostly use the site as a wonderful resource as there are many excellent and relevant posts from others in my exact same situation.  It’s great to know that I’m not alone! 
One such post via Insego is from a fantastic blog A Touch of Dutch, that I thoroughly recommend you read.  Isabella has created a series of questions a couple of years ago now related to impressions of the Netherlands before and after becoming an expat in the Netherlands (or wherever you may be or if you have ever been an expat).  Please feel free to copy and paste this and share on your own blog, and it would be wonderful if you would share in the comments here (and I’ve linked this to the original blog).


Before you knew you'd be coming to the Netherlands, for whatever reason you originally came to the Netherlands, truthfully how much did you know about the country? 
Not a great deal, I must be honest.  I knew how to say “Proost” from my tour guide days, but I knew nothing of the culture (aside from the prostitution and drug laws) and when I was very young I honestly thought that the dykes were huge concrete walls.  I knew it was very flat, and the home of windmills.  My mum collects Delft Blue ceramics, so that’s one thing I knew a bit about.

Did you learn about the Netherlands in school when you were growing up?  
Not that I remember.  We did learn about different countries obviously, but nothing stands out.  I learned that it was Abel Tasman who first discovered Tasmania and went on to discover New Zealand.  We learned more about Australia, and I always knew a lot about British and American history (British because I’m fascinated by it and American because we can’t help but learn about it through popular culture).  I knew more about the VOC than anything else from reading Wilbur Smith books based on the Seven Years War!

Do you have family who is Dutch or Dutch heritage?
Not directly.  My mother’s first cousin married a Dutch man (at least his parents were Dutch), but I couldn’t tell you where in the Netherlands they came from.

Were you aware the language the Dutch spoke was Dutch and not German or any other language? 

Had you ever lived outside of your home country for longer than one month prior to living in the Netherlands?  
Yes.  After I finished school I spent time in Malaysia on a student exchange program.  It really gave me the bug and all I wanted to do once I came home was travel.  In 2003 I spent 7 months working in New Zealand, and then in 2006 I went to England for about 12 months, then on to Scotland for another year, and then moved to the Netherlands.  Initially I had only intended to be away for 12 months as I had big plans to go back to tour guiding on the west coast of Australia.  Still haven’t made it...

Had you learned to speak any other language than your own, even if only partially so, before coming to the Netherlands?  
I studied French at school, but can’t remember much.  I learned quite a bit of Malay while I was living in Malaysia.  And then because it is quite a similar language to Malay, I came home and studied Indonesian at university.  My skills are rusty at best and non-existent at worst though these days!

When you learned you'd be coming to the Netherlands, did you feel it was important to learn Dutch?  
I know the answer you want to hear is yes!  Absolutely!  The single most important thing ever!  But actually that wasn’t the case at all.  I never had a concrete plan to live in the Netherlands long term (still don’t), so only really intended to learn enough to get by (shopping, eating out etc).  Due to the nature of my visa I was called up for the compulsory integration (Inburgering Cursus), and although it was tedious to begin with and I was resentful of being forced into it, I’m glad I did the course.  I can now confidently go about my daily life without having to hide behind my lack of language skills.

Did anyone prepare you with information of any type before you came to live in the Netherlands, did you attempt to find information on your own, or did you come to the Netherlands without preparing?  
Let’s just say that before I came here I could probably have sprouted the contents of the IND website on command.  I knew everything possible about the visa process.  I picked up the “Laura Speaks Dutch” podcast from iTunes (highly recommended for a bit of pre-arrival study), and I came back and forth for several visits so I was somewhat prepared.

How did your friends and family react when they learned you'd be moving to the Netherlands?  
They were very supportive.  I’m sure my parents were thinking that I would never come home, and if they were upset with my decision they never held it against me.  Most friends were very supportive as well, but a couple were a bit miffed that I was extending my time abroad even further.

What did you think would be your biggest challenge living in a foreign country? Or did you feel you would face any big challenges?  
I didn’t think I would have any problems adapting to the culture, as it wasn't the first time I'd moved to a new country, and I wasn’t too scared about the language issue as I wasn’t planning to stay forever.  Strangely enough, the biggest challenge I thought I would face was that the cars are on the other side of the road!  I never thought I would be able to get my head around it, but now it’s quite normal for me.  And I have loads of problems adapting to the culture...

And after:
Upon arriving, can you remember the overall impression you had in the first 48 hours?  
I couldn’t believe I had done it!  I was so happy to be with my boyfriend.  I didn’t have much time to reflect though, because we were off to a festival within a couple of days of my arrival!  I do remember the stress of the drama from the IND and at that point I had nowhere to turn to get information.  This is before I discovered sites like Insego and Expatica!

Tell me about your bicycle, if you have one. Is it borrowed/rented or do you own it? And how often do you use it weekly?  
I use by bike everyday to cycle to and from work.  It’s about 8km each way and I only take the bus when the weather is just absolutely appalling (windy and raining or very icy).  I’ve had more flat tyres than I care to remember – there is a wonderful habit here of dropping glass bottles on the ground.  I’m so pleased to have a bike to ride.  It’s lovely getting out and about and we sometimes just go for a bike ride at the weekend.
Name three of your favourite things about the Dutch culture which first come to mind:  
Food -  I know that many people complain about the boring food here in the Netherlands, but I really enjoy a plate of boerenkool and rookworst.   Carnaval – It’s fantastic to see people who might otherwise be a bit uptight during the rest of the year letting loose and getting dressed up to celebrate.  Art – the Netherlands has such a rich art culture, and works of the old masters are easily accessible, which I love.

Of the things you never knew before coming here, what have you learned about the Netherlands?
The Dutch people are a lot different at home to when they are abroad.  And the traffic is horrendous!

Culture shock. Does this ring a bell? [Not sure what culture shock is? Click here to learn more.]
  Oh absolutely.  Using the link as a guide, I think I swing between the Adjustment Phase and then will regress to the Negotiation Phase at times.  I would like to think I’ll make it to the Mastery Phase, but I don’t know if I ever will.  Some of the cultural differences just make me so angry that I don’t see myself coming to terms with them, but one can hope!

How far have you come with learning Dutch?  
I’ve come a long way with learning Dutch.  In the last twelve months I have gone from pigeon Dutch to being able to attend appointments and go out for dinner with friends and participate in the general conversation without spending long periods staring at my hands.  I still do doctor’s appointments and hair appointments in English, mostly because my vocab hasn’t extended that far yet.  I have a wonderful hairdresser that I trust immensely, so I think I might start talking to her in Dutch next time I go to see her.

What was/is your overall impression of the inburgering [integration] program?  
It’s a bureaucratic nightmare.  There is minimal information available to people like myself who have little or no language skills to start with, and it’s not until I started the course that I could find info, or even know what to look for.  There’s no indication when you arrive that the nature of the visa will mean taking the courses – I only found out about it through the Expatica website!  Hence the birth of this blog.

Has your view on politics or world issues changed from how you previously viewed things before living in the Netherlands?  
The rise of Geert Wilders has probably pushed me further to the left than I would normally have been politically, but I don’t think my views of the world have changed since moving here.

Coffeeshops and smartshops. What is your opinion?  
Take it or leave it.  Not interested.  Actually, I would be happy if coffeeshops were abolished.

Since living here, have you learned anything new about yourself? Or perhaps have you learned anything else new? A new hobby or a new way of life?
I’ve learnt that my tolerance levels know no bounds.  I also work in IT now, a profession that I never ever considered myself suitable for.  Actually, I quite enjoy it.  I don’t have to talk to customers all day, which makes me very, very happy.

07 March, 2011

Vastelaovend.... Wat an avond!

While Sydney was suiting up (or stripping off?) for Mardi Gras, we were partying in Maastricht at Carnaval, or Vastelaovend as it's known as down there.  We stayed with a couple of friends and we had an absolutely cracking time.

Maarten had bought us cow suit costumes from Maartkplats.nl (Dutch version of Ebay), and we were so chuffed with them.  Last year we went to Carnaval in Eindhoven and I just didn't really get the concept as it was my first time, so our costumes were absolute arse.  Maarten looked like the killer from any random slasher movie, and I just looked rubbish.  So, this year we wanted to at least have a good crack at a costume, and this was the end result:

We went into town on Saturday night for a bit of pre-Carnaval action (as it doesn't officially start until Sunday in Maastricht) and had an amazing time.  The atmosphere was sensational.  Everyone was dressed up in their awesome costumes.  One of my faves was a group of KLM flight attendants and a couple of guy's wearing Snuggies with "Snug Me" on the front - awesome!

I had previously been a bit concerned at the trials of finding a toilet as this is one thing that is really not done well at large events in the Netherlands - female toilets practically don't exist!  At New Year's Eve a 2008/9 we were at the Dam Square in Amsterdam, and I kid you not, there was not one single toilet for women.  Not one.  Only men's urinals.  My friend Jess and I ended up going in a dark corner at the garden of the poshest hotel in town!  Rightly so I was a more than a little concerned that I wouldn't be able to get to a toilet, so Maarten got hold of a couple of TravelJohns just in case (the wonders of having a husband in Procurement!).  Luckily I didn't need to use one, because getting out of that cow costume was not fun:

I could fight my way through the crowds to use the loos inside pubs thank goodness.  I'd stupidly forgotten to bring coins though, because you have to pay to go (that is one of the most bizarre things about this country I think and a whole other rant-y post for the future).  Trying to get to a toilet was also a bit of a mission because it was nothing to end up in the middle of a Polonaise Hollandaise (that's a Congo Line to you and me) on the way!

We tottered home at around 3 am to get a bit of sleep before getting up to do it all again, this time for the REAL Vastelaovend!  In Maastricht the parade isn't so regimented as in other places, meaning anyone can join.  If I wanted I could have walked to the back of the line and danced along with them.  We only saw a few really elaborate floats.  I'm not sure if we missed a lot, or if there just weren't that many to be honest as we weren't late for the parade.

Even Vikings had prams!
We left at the end of the parade to drive home.  We had initially thought to stay until Monday, but after the Saturday night, we knew we wouldn't be able to hack the pace.  Plus, it's a bloody long way to drive even without a hangover!

It was a wonderful weekend, and I'm already planning my costume for next year.  I'm thinking we'll have to try another city so we can try to experience the diversity - it's not the same everywhere.  Cologne, perhaps?  Obviously I only want to go to Germany for the sausage and schnitzel!

For a great overview and a list of do's and don'ts for Carnaval, head over to my new Twitter friend @windmilltales post on Tales from the Windmill Fields for everything you need to know for next year!

04 March, 2011

Weekendje Weg - Berlin

Ah, Germany.  How I love thee.  Before I packed up and relocated to Europe, I swore black and blue that I would never go to Germany.  Why not? you ask.  Well, in my past life I worked as a tour guide based in Alice Springs (taking trips mostly between Uluru, Kings Canyon, the Flinders Ranges and Adelaide).  It was a job I absolutely loved.  I was fortunate enough to visit some of the most beautiful and ancient places in Australia once or twice a week, for which I am eternally grateful.  I also met hundreds of fantastic people; some of whom I still keep in contact with, and one of which I actually married!

Gorgeous, hey?

Did I mention before that Maarten was a passenger on one of my tours?  Yep, he saw me at my absolute best - in my very feminine uniform of brown shorts, green shirt and hiking boots.  Covered in red dirt and a mouth like a rude version of Steve Irwin.  Cooking damper in a camp oven and rambling about rocks.  And he still managed to crawl into my swag on the last night of the trip expecting a bit of romance.  Obviously I should have realised then that he was the perfect man for me because the person I was in that place was exactly who I am.  With no pretenses, no makeup, it was me pure and simple.  I kind of miss that Nerissa.  Haven't seen her for a while.

But I'm wandering off track a bit here (I never seem to keep the one train of thought for very long).  Not only did I meet some wonderful people, I also met some shockers.  Among those shockers were English gap-year girls (horrible high maintenance daddy's girls looking for power points for their GHDs everywhere) and Germans.  We all know that Germans have a horrible reputation abroad as terribly behaved tourists.  And they didn't disappoint.  My worst passenger ever was a middle-aged German man who ruined an entire tour, made the group hate me and nearly made me quit the job.  One particular comment that has stayed with me was "When are we eating" (as a demand, not a question.  Nevermind that I'd just driven 700+km and taken them on a 6km hike).  But in hindsight, the Germans were never problem passengers aside from their general attitude, and of course it wasn't everybody - I met some wonderful Germans on tour, even got tattooed with one.  The were never late, and never whined (hello gap-year girls, I'm looking at you).

So, I'd sworn off Germany because I wasn't fond of the tourists I'd encountered.  Sweeping judgements abound.  However, I have seen the light, and am now a borderline evangelist for Germany.  Love it.  Love how it's such a beautiful country, love how everyone obeys the rules (we were told off for crossing the street on a red man), but most of all I love love LOVE the food!  I'm glad I don't live there because I would eat everything.  There's always a dilemma when I go to Germany - do I have the bratwurst or do I have the schnitzel.  When really in my head I'm wondering if I can have the schnitzel with a side of bratwurst.  And the bakeries!  Real buns and pastries, which is something that is very disappointing here in Holland.  No good bakeries.

In February we went to Berlin for a long weekend.  Everybody I know who has been absolutely loves Berlin, so I was very excited to go.  We had an amazing deal with EasyJet - we booked return flights for €85 for the two of us, and stayed in the EasyHotel for €75 for three nights.  The accommodation was fantastic - brand new, clean and cheaper than a hostel!

After a delay at Schipol we arrived at Berlin and caught the train into the city.  We took an S-bahn train, but I would recommend taking an RER - two and a half times as fast as the S-bahn and also lovely and quiet and clean.  The NS here in Holland can certainly use a few pointers from their German counterparts, that's for sure.
The Clock @ Alexander Platz

We bought a Berlin Welcome Card valid for three days, and that gave us unlimited public transport access in Berlin and Potsam.  Let me tell you, you really need the public transport in Berlin.  Unlike Amsterdam, it's just too massive to walk around and see all the sights!  Just be prepared to climb a lot of stairs.  And I mean a LOT.  Between the U-Bahn and the S-Bahn is what feels like about 4 stories, so it's a great workout.  Not so much fun with a belly full of schnitzel and sausage though...

We travelled all over the city.  On the first day we went to the Holocaust Memorial near the Brandenburg Tor.  What an eye-opener that was.  I couldn't read all of the stories, it was just too traumatic.  One room is devoted entirely to reading the names and a brief history of each known victim.  It was very confronting and brought home the devastation of 6 million murdered Jews.  Remembering and acknowledging past horrors is something that the Germans do very well.  I appreciate the way that the country does not shy away from its atrocities in the way that other countries do.  The German people are willing to stand up and recognise their past and use that to remind themselves and the world what can happen if we allow it.

Holocaust Memorial
Holocaust Memorial
On the first day when we were walking around (we walked from the Central station to the Brandenburg Tor to Potsdam Platz) I kept wondering about the wall.  Which side was I standing on, what did it look like, what it must have been like knowing that there was a different world right on the other side....  There is a whole restored portion near the Oostbahnhof that is covered in art.  It's awe-inspiring and worth it to walk the entire length.

Checkpoint Charlie
Of course we also went to see Checkpoint Charlie.  I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it was a bit surreal to read the signs and see that just over there was a completely different country!  There is a museum right by the checkpoint filled with tales of daring escapes from the East.  One of my fabulous aunts told me that her sweetheart was posted in Berlin on the wall at Checkpoint Charlie, which I really didn't know.  He's one of these guys who keeps his cards quite close to his chest and you can know him for years and then have a good think about it and realise you hardly know him at all.  He's a highly decorated Vietnam Veteran and was the first Australian to be posted to West Germany since WWII.  Just between you and me, he's my real-life hero.  A few years ago I went to Gallipoli for the Anzac Day memorial service and he was kind enough to let me take some of his badges (not the medals of course), so I took him along with me in spirit.  I was so honoured.

But back to Berlin.  One of the biggest highlights was going to the zoo.  Apparently it is the largest zoo in Europe, and it was just fantastic!  All of the outdoor enclosures are built around the animal's indoor houses, and you can go inside and see the animals up close!  I was thisclose to a lion and a rhino!  And we saw Knut the Polar Bear.  If you haven't heard of Knut, you have obviously been living in a (bear?) cave.  He is a polar bear that was rejected by his mother, so was raised by one of the zoo keepers.  He might actually be more famous than my twitter friend @mistershuffles (a baby elephant who zookeepers thought was dead when he was born at Taronga Zoo)!


On our last day we took the train out to Potsdam.  Maarten had heard that there were lots of castles (Castle Alert!), so thought I might enjoy it.  As it turns out the city is FILLED with castles!  There were a couple of homes of Frederick II of Prussia, who was one of the coolest emperors in history in my opinion.  Not only did he win the land version of the Seven Years War, he introduced the potato to Europe (he was sneaky enough to encourage his subjects to 'steal' the potatoes from his private garden) and he was such a strong commander that he is regarded as one of the best in history, up there with Napoleon and Charlemagne.  I absolutely loved seeing Potsdam.  I could go on and on all day about the castles and palaces, but I probably lost you at Castle Alert...
See?!  Damned
Television Tower

I really thought Berlin was an incredible city.  It was so easy to get around, and there were endless places to eat if you're on a shoestring like we always are.  The monuments are huge in scale, but beware:  you can't take a photo of anything without the bloody television tower in the background!

I think the biggest highlight was the zoo.  I loved that you could get so close to the animals and they all look so happy to be there, unlike Artis where you can just see that the elephants are very unhappy.  It's not a visually stunning city like Paris or Brussels, but there is so much going on that you it is impossible to run out of things to do and see.  Just don't forget to take your appetite with you, you're going to need it!

02 March, 2011

Weekendje Weg - Ghent and Antwerpen

In our house we have adopted a new year's resolution that we plan to stick to.  Well, it's Maarten's resolution, and he's the boss so that means it's mine too...

This year the idea is to go out of the country at least once per month.  So far we've stuck to the plan and have trips away booked up until April.  The rules are that abroad is abroad.  So Belgium counts!

Our first trip was in January, and we went to Ghent/Gent/Gand.  I love Belgium.  I think it's beautiful and diverse.  Once you get over the trauma that is the six or so merging lanes of the Antwerpen ring road and completely bonkers Belgian drivers, it's a wonderful place to be.  I also love how all the cities have different names in Dutch and French.  Brussel becomes Bruxelles, Brugge becomes Bruges.  My favourite though is Bastenaken becoming Bastogne.  Bastenaken is one of those words that I repeat over and over in my head just because I like the way they sound.  There's a very famous cycling race called the Luik-Bastenaken-Luik and I like repeating that in my head over and over even more than just plain old Bastenaken...

Anyway, where was I..?  Right.  Ghent.  We went in January for the weekend.  Now, we're not ones to put our hands very deep into our pockets to pay for accommodation, so we booked a Formule 1 hotel on the outskirts of town.  I wouldn't really recommend it to be honest.  Sometimes the accommodation can be reasonable, but this time I really wasn't feeling it.  I think it was the long term home of a bunch of single men who hung out in the foyer all day, so if you're looking for something quiet and welcoming, this isn't your place.

Ghent itself however; what a visual treat.  Way back in the middle ages Ghent was the largest city in Europe outside Paris and it shows in the skyline.  The city's famous for its three tours in a row:  The Belfry, and the Saint Bavo Cathedral and Saint Nicholas' Church are just stunning, not to mention the Gravensteen castle dating from the late 12th century smack in the middle of town.  It was also the birthplace of John of Gaunt (Ghent), Duke of Lancaster who was the father of Henry IV and from whom the British royal family is descended from through the ages.

Three Tors
When we were in Ghent, it was absolutely freezing (being January), but it was still very pleasant.  The cold had likely made the city much more quiet, which for someone like me, that equals bliss.  Must see locations are the Saint Bavo Cathedral and the Saint Nicholas Church, but wandering around the city is just gorgeous.  The architecture is medieval and being from Australia, anything older than a soldier settler's pre-fab house makes my head swivel like it's on a stick trying to take it all in.  Mouth hanging open is obviously compulsory.

We ate at a lovely restaurant on the Korenmarkt, next to the St Nicholas Church.  There were so many choices that we became sick of wandering around looking for something and we very nearly just went to an Irish pub because it was easiest.  I think everyone else had the same idea, however because we couldn't get a seat!

The following morning we decided that we might check Antwerpen out.  I've been around Antwerpen on my way to other places countless times (oh, the dreaded ring road), but had never been into the city centre.  Actually, there was that one time but it was a car-free Sunday so we decided to keep on driving and ended up in Bruges!

Antwerpen was amazing!  Being a Sunday, nothing much was open which is par for the course across a lot of Europe.  However, that just adds to the appeal for me.  We could wander around the city without all the crazy shoppers and saw some absolutely stunning buildings.  The Cathedral of Our Lady was incredible.  But, there was an entrance fee so we decided not to go in on principle.  I'm always prepared to offer a donation when I visit a church/cathedral, but being slugged a €6 entry fee just gets up my nose (hence why I have never seen the inside of St. Paul's in London either).  However, there are three works from Rubens, so it possibly would have been worth the fee.  But, the bloody Louvre is only €10 by comparison!  I know.  I'm a philistine.  Anyway.  The train station was also amazing.  The stairs inside are reminiscent of that unforgettable shootout pram scene in The Untouchables.  It was another city where everywhere you looked there was something beautiful to see.  Idols of the Virgin Mary on corners of buildings, Gothic and Art Nouveau architecture, endless gabled buildings...  Just loved it.

I really can't wait to go back to Antwerpen.  We've agreed that we'll go back in the summer (to fight the crowds) for another look around.  It looks like it will be a wondrous summer city.  I might even cough up to enter the cathedral...
Grote Markt with the cathedral in the background

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