17 October, 2011

The Expat List

This morning I opened my blog reading list and first stop was Our Big Expat Adventure, a blog written by a fellow Australian, living in Singapore.  The author, KJ and I connected over a mutual love for mamamia.com.au and now chatter away on Twitter fairly regularly.

Today’s post is titled The Expat List and just reading it made me become excited.  I’m certain that every expat has their list filled with weird and wonderful items that only fellow country(wo)men can relate to, I know I do.  I have found that over the years as I get used to living abroad my list has decreased somewhat,  However, my mum is coming to visit in a few months with a luggage allowance of 30kg (bless you Emirates), so I’m in the process of putting together the full shebang.  She’ll regret offering by the time she has no space left for her own clothes!

Here’s my list of essentials:
  • Arnotts Pizza Shapes.  If you don’t know what pizza shapes are, it’s probably a good thing.  They are good enough to consume my thoughts for days on end.  Really.
  • Chickadee chicken salt.  I’m sure the ingredients aren’t only ‘chicken’ and ‘salt’ but it’s so damn tasty that I could cover anything with it.
  • De Jour tampons.  I don’t know why, but tampons outside Australia just aren’t as good.  Plus it seems women in the Netherlands prefer sanitary towels, which are just not for me.
  • Tea bags.  English breakfast is my flavour of choice, and the blends here in the Netherlands are just not up to scratch.  I love Twinings, Tetley and the best:  PG Tips.  I usually put in an order for those when I know someone going to the UK.  I have found them in the Black Market in Beverwijk, but that’s an hour’s drive, just for tea...
  • Chocolate.  It’s weird what you miss.  Belgium is as close to Almere as Mount Gambier is to Lucindale, but when all you want is a Violet Crumble or a block of Cadbury Snack Godiva just doesn’t hit the spot!
  • Heinz (or home brand) cheesy tinned spaghetti.  Love it.  I can also get tinned spaghetti from the UK, but the Australian version is just that much better.
  • Crumpets.
  • Cotties apple and raspberry flavoured cordial.  This is a new addition to the list.  I really miss ‘proper’ cordial.
  • DiGiorgio Family Wines sparkling pinot noir chardonnay.  My all time favourite bubbly.  Helps that it’s from my home town!
  • Bundaberg rum.  This is for my husband.  The smell takes me back to too many nights of obscene drunkenness, and these days it’s only after I’ve drunk my body weight in beer or wine that I think rum is a good idea.
  • Vegemite.  Of course.  What I would really love is a cheddarmite scroll from Bakers Delight.  Yum!
  • Promite.  I prefer it to vegemite actually.
Notice that Tim Tams are missing? I love them, but they don't quite make my essentials list. Chuck in an extra box of pizza shapes instead.

What about you?  What’s on your list of items from home when someone comes to visit?

12 October, 2011

Is that light I see at the end of the tunnel?

Just recently I’ve noticed a shift in my perception and attitude to life here in the Netherlands.  Confrontations or situations that earlier would have left a black cloud hanging over my head for an entire day (or a week, sometimes!) no longer seem to bother me for much longer than a couple of minutes.  Often these days I’ll have a near miss on my bike with an idiot in a car on the way to work and by the time I arrive at the office it has been forgotten.

I have been wondering to myself if perhaps, finally, I’m transitioning through the stages of culture shock.  It is generally understood that culture shock passes within a few months (certainly within a year), but I talk to people here in the Netherlands who are clearly still struggling, often after a few years.  I certainly have been!

According to Wikipedia culture shock has four distinct phases; Honeymoon, Negotiation, Adjustment and Mastery.  In the honeymoon phase everything is lovely and new, bright and shiny, exciting and fascinating.  The negotiation phase tends to kick in once one realises that life isn’t actually all roses.  Differences between the home culture and new culture become glaringly apparent, and the differences are often difficult to deal with.  Language, social interaction and perhaps one of the big issues for people coming to the Netherlands is the attitude within primary health care and its magical wonder drug, paracetamol, can become overwhelming.

Eventually the negotiation phase fades and the adjustment stage will begin. Wikipedia states that this usually happens between the six and twelve month mark, although if my own experience is anything to go by, it can take much, much longer.  In the adjustment phase one will develop more of a positive outlook and deal with issues as they arise instead of getting bogged down in the differences and difficulties that they would have during the negotiation phase.

Finally, the mastery phase.  Basically full integration.  This does not mean losing one’s own cultural identity, but becoming comfortable enough in the new country that they finally feel at home and at ease.

I have been struggling along in the negotiation phase for a very long time.  So long in fact, that I don’t even remember the honeymoon phase.  Perhaps my honeymoon phase was in the time when I was just a regular visitor, rather than a resident.  I do remember marvelling at the ING building in Amsterdam Zuid on my first trip and traversing the Oosterschelde and Afluitdijk respectively was an incredible experience for me.

But, I have so many memories of incidents and hurdles that really bogged me down.  Regular tantrums in the supermarket for not being able to find the "right" products.  Horror and anger that would last for days at a perceived slight from an encounter in public.  Throwing my homework across the room and refusing to continue at the tone of some to the integration coursework.  Uncontrollable tears when I break three wine glasses in one day because I’m just useless and can’t do anything right (that was a merry Christmas, let me tell you).  All things that should in all seriousness be water off a ducks back.  But they just weren’t.  Everything was so much harder.  I would take everything personally.  Maarten has been unbelievably patient with me for a very long time and it’s really only now that I’m coming out the other end that I realise just how trying I must have been (who am I kidding, still am!).

Why has the transition into adjustment finally come about after so long?  I really think that it has to do with all of the health dramas I’ve had this year.  As a consequence of being ill, I’ve had to put myself out there and speak Dutch.  I’ve had to be proactive in interacting with others.  I’ve had to take a good look at myself and my own attitude.  

It’s really only been in the last week or so that I’ve actually noticed this shift in my own attitude.  I’m happier more than I have been the entire three and a half years living here in the Netherlands.  I can finally have a meaningful conversation with my mother in law as I am much more confident with my level of Dutch.  When I encounter antisocial behaviour (daily) I’ll just think “sukkel” and forget about it almost immediately.

By no means does my new outlook make me reflect and think that my old attitude was ridiculous and invalid.  I don’t doubt that others around me believe(d) that I was behaving like a crazed harpy, but that makes my own feelings no less important or relevant.  Life has been a real struggle for me in the last few years.  I could not count the amount of hours, days or probably even weeks that I’ve spent wishing that I could be in Australia, or even anywhere else if I'm honest.  I do truly believe that there are real social and behavioural issues that need dealing with here in the Netherlands which have been a huge factor in how I've felt.  The bubble mentality is so ingrained that it is very obvious that many, many people think only of themselves.  You can enter any supermarket or stand in any queue and experience it.  Maarten’s grandfather, who is quite possibly the most lovely man you could meet turns into a shoving monster when he’s put into a queue for free food.  His appalling behaviour has to be seen to be believed!

What happens now?  I keep moving up.  I seem to be slowly evolving into more of a glass half full type of person and I’m liking this new outlook.  I’m not walking around with a dark cloud hovering over my head any more.  I can finally see and appreciate my life and how damned good I have it.

And let’s face it.  I have some pretty cool experiences coming up soon.  Not only am I having a baby in a few months, but my mum is making her first trip abroad to visit us.  This is huge.  The woman is terrified of flying and is going to put herself through quite possibly the worst plane journey on earth in the middle of our winter just to come here.  It makes my heart sing.

Lastly, I’m going to master this culture shock if it kills me.

Which stage are you at in the four phases of culture shock? How have you coped? How long has it taken you to see the light at the end of the tunnel?

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