30 December, 2012

It's a Holi--holiday!

After two weeks of sunshine and Christmas (over) indulgence I've finally managed to find a moment to sit and write about our Fabulous Holiday.

We were off to a rough start, all of us with the trots (babies, aeroplanes and gastro is not fun, no matter what people tell you), but the sunshine quickly cured us of all ills and we've been gallivanting around the countryside having a lovely time.

First stop was Melbourne and a visit with a great Dutch friend whom we only seem to ever see in Australia, despite all living in Almere, before dashing off to Wilson's Promontory which is the most southerly point of the Australian mainland and just incredible.  It's like another world down there, so completely different to the rest of the country.  Squeaky Beach is truly beautiful, and the sand really does squeak underfoot!

Maarten and Raina playing in the surf at Wilson's Prom
From Wilson's Prom we drove over to Phillip Island to see the world famous Penguin Parade, and what a hoot!  We all took our seats in the bleachers on the side of the sand dunes and waited for sunset and the penguins to start their dash up the beach to their burrows in the dunes.  The Phillip Island colony is the largest of all Little Penguin (Fairy Penguins) colonies, with more than 30,000 living in the tiny stretch of coastline in the south west corner of Phillip Island and every night they return from their fishing adventures en masse.

We sat and waited for the first group to appear on the edge of the water and a couple of brave souls would lead the charge, although more often than not something would spook the group and see them all racing for the safety of the water, only to regroup and start all over again.  The most fun was commentating.

Little Penguin Forward Scout Fitzy:  "Right-o chaps, are we ready?  All here?  OK.  Let's go.  No, wait.  I see a bird.  Stand still. NO, DON'T RUN BACK TO THE WATER!! Oh bloody hell.  Wimps!  I'm off by myself then.  Wait, perhaps not.  Back in the water men!"

And so on and so forth...

We were lucky enough to arrive smack in the middle of breeding season, so there were thousands of penguin babies waiting at home for their parents to come and feed them.  Strangely enough, Little Penguin babies don't seem to recognise their parents, so attack any adult penguin who comes past for food.  This will often see them receiving a damned good pecking by a couple of hundred penguins before their parent finally arrives with a belly full of fish for them.

I absolutely loved the Penguin Parade and can't recommend it enough.  If you're ever in the neighbourhood it's a must (but let's face it.  If you're in the neighbourhood, it's more than likely because you're on your way to see the penguins).

From Phillip Island we headed across Port Phillip Bay on the Queenscliff-Sorrento ferry to stay with Maarten's family before cruising along the Great Ocean Road on our way home to see my parents.
At the Twelve Apostles

At the Twelve Apostles

Bay of Islands, Great Ocean Road

Finally we were in the Centre of the Universe (Lucindale) where we chilled out with my family for a week over Christmas.  And what a Christmas.  Twenty odd guests for Christmas lunch, including my amazing friend Amanda who trekked from Perth to celebrate with us.  Just prior, we had a great big family reunion which I'll tell you all about when I can trawl through all the photos.  It was such a great day, hearing stories of my great grandmother and seeing family that I didn't even know existed!

Now we're relaxing in NSW at the home of one of the TGAs (Truly Great Aunts) before heading off on the second half of our Australian Adventure.  Next stop:  Mount Kosciuszko and the Gippsland coast.  Can't wait, although it means that we're more than half way, and I never want to leave.

Hope your Christmas was wonderful and I'll be back in the New Year!


18 December, 2012

Thanks from The Antipodes

It has been a bit quiet here over the last week or so, I haven't had the opportunity to thank Expats Blog for their fabulous award (take a look on the right hand side of the page) - I'm the winner of their 2012 top blog for the Netherlands!

But why has it been quiet? Well, right now I'm posting this from my mums kitchen in Australia! We've had an enormous week traveling to get here and some wonderful highlights to share with you. All which I will get to in the next few days. But, for now I'm going to kick back for a day or so and just enjoy being in the warm weather for a change. Tomorrow I'll see some of my extended family in the warm up to Christmas. From what I understand, the Williams family Christmas 2012 is going to be an event to remember!

Stay tuned, I have some tips for flying with a baby, coming soon... 

21 November, 2012


I’m the master of playing Chicken.  It’s not quite farm boys and tractors, but more bicycles and pedestrians, with the odd truck thrown in for good measure.

When I first arrived here and started cycling every day I was the chicken.  I hadn’t been on a bike for years, and although I grew up riding push bikes and motorbikes, it was always on the farm or in the middle of nowhere, not in the big city with cars, trucks, buses, or pedestrians who refuse to look anywhere except straight ahead.

So, I wobbled back and forth to work, seemingly having a near-death experience at least once a day.  Did terrible things to my blood pressure.  Maarten kept insisting I toughen up and cycle like a Dutchman: “We don’t give way, we take way,” but I never had the balls to cycle like him.  This is a man who is afraid of nothing on the bike.  Conversations like this were perfectly normal:  

Maarten:  “Oh by the way, I was hit by a car today on the way to work.”

Me:  “You what?!”

Maarten:  “I had way, but he drove straight into me anyway.”

Me:  “Are you hurt?”

Maarten:  “Nah, I did end up with his side mirror in my lap though.  Called him a klootzak and kept going.  He didn’t even notice that he hit me.  I just threw the mirror in a canal and went on to work.”

Seriously.  That was an actual conversation.  No wonder I was shitscared.

But, I knew it was time to grow a pair.  So I would tentatively hold my line, wobbling a bit through intersections with eyes half closed bracing for impact and after a few encounters, my confidence started to grow.

By encounters, I mean a head on smash with another cyclist (she tried to cut a corner without looking and took me out - her bike was a write off, but I toddled off unscathed, but shaken), hitting a pedestrian who stepped out in front of me at the last moment without looking (I smashed my face on the edge of the curb and he disappeared into thin air) and more close encounters of the car kind than I can even remember.

As my confidence grew, so did my attitude.  I mean, I had been in a couple of big smashes so my fear left me.  I started cycling like it was the Champs Elysee on the last day of The Tour - fast, but not aggressive - and I adopted the policy of always holding my line.

So far it has served me well.  I don’t come home traumatised from my experiences on the road (and there are still many, many near death experiences) and I take no prisoners.

Here’s how to win a game of Chicken - Dutch Style:

Step one - Always look straight ahead.  Under no circumstances may you turn your head one way or another.  Do not make eye contact.  As soon as you make eye contact all is lost.

Step two - Assess the situation.  How big is the other cyclist/pedestrian? How close are you going to come to actually colliding with said person?

Step three - Hold your line.  Be confident!  No wobbles.  Do not waver.

Step four - Veer ever so slightly to the left (this is a dirty intimidation tactic that I use when I’m in a particularly bad mood).

Step five - Pretend that you are the only person on the planet and do not slow down.

Step six - You’re through!  Now cycle on with a little smile on your face, you’re a winner!

Slight variation:  If you’re coming up behind someone, ding your bell about 20 metres out, then again at 10 and 5 metres.  If collision is imminent, stick your elbow out and aim.

Note that I only ever employ these tactics when a cyclist is on my side of the path, a car is not giving way (I still waver a bit when it comes to cars though!) or a pedestrian steps out in front of me.  I don’t actively seek these situations out, I’m an idiot magnet!

If you want to play Chicken with me, you will lose.  I’m a hardened commuter cyclist.

Just for fun, here’s a clip of the best game of Chicken ever:

PS.  Remind me one day to tell you the story of how Maarten went berserk after a pedestrian stepped out in front of him on an icy day.  Pure comedy gold.

How do you cycle?  Do you take no prisoners or are you a bit timid?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've been nominated in the ExpatsBlog Expat Blog Awards, 2012. Voting is nearly over, and you can show your support by clicking the image below and dropping a quick line about what you think of this site.

I'd be ever so grateful if you did.

Expat Blogs

15 November, 2012

Sinterklaas is coming to town!

Last week I talked about the celebration of the patron saint of lollies, Sint Maarten and this week we’re joined by his taller, better known and more controversial brother, Sinterklaas.  Well, it’s not so much Sinterklaas who is the controversial one, but it his entourage of Zwarte Pieten that are the cause of much discussion every year.

To be honest, I’ve shied away from talking about Sinterklaas in the past, mostly because after being shouted down in the first year I was here I don’t want to offend by being offended, if you know what I mean.  However, this year I’m giving it a go.

First of all, let’s talk about the Sint himself.  Sinterklaas is who we anglophones know as Saint Nicholas.  Or Santa.  Or Father Christmas.  He is the patron saint of children, sailors, thieves,  and Amsterdam (along with many, many other people and cities).  Saint Nicholas Was a 4th century Greek bishop in Turkey, but in the 11th century his remains were moved to Bari in Italy, before finally coming to rest in Venice in 1100 (although the Irish believe that he is actually buried in Ireland).

He was well known for giving gifts in secret; putting coins in the shoes of people who would leave them out for him.  One of the most famous legends attached to Saint Nicholas is how he secretly paid gave the dowry to a poor man for his three daughters by throwing three purses filled with gold through his window in the dead of night to save humiliating the father by offering public charity.

His name day is celebrated in the Netherlands every year on the night of 05 December, or the morning of the 6th.

So why are we talking about Sinterklaas now?  It’s only mid-November!  Well, Sinterklaas officially arrives in the Netherlands this weekend.  He comes from his home in sunny Spain in a steamship (patron saint of sailors, remember) and upon arrival rides through the city streets on his white horse Amerigo while his entourage of Zwarte Pieten dance, prance and make jokes while throwing pepernoten to the adoring crowd.

Here's the Sint, with the world's most awesome beard.

This is undoubtedly one of the Netherlands’ most beloved traditions.  Every year we watch the arrival of the “Real” Sinterklaas on telly while there are parades in almost every city to celebrate.  Most people get ridiculously excited about pepernoten (and with good cause, those little suckers are delicious!) and catching a glimpse of the Sint as he passes by.

Then, between the 17th of November and and the 5th of December kids everywhere put their shoes out at night to see what little gifts they will receive while they’re asleep.  Traditionally, kids would put a carrot or some hay in the shoe for Amerigo - in much the same way I would leave a beer glass of milk for Santa on Christmas Eve as a child - and place the shoe next to the fireplace (or central heating these days!) and in the morning would receive a small treat.  The most popular treat today is the chocolate letter.  This last weekend we had a family weekend away and on Sunday morning we all woke to see that the sint had been to visit and left us all a letter.  Mine is obviously already long gone...

Other popular treats include speculaas, mandarins, chocolate coins and marzipan.  Then, on the 5th of December it is “Pakejesavond” (present evening) where the real gifts are exchanged.  However, there’s a catch.  You don’t just hand your gifts to one another.  You have to create a “surprise” (said with a French accent) or write a funny poem about one person.  This is a secret process - nobody is supposed to share who they have created the surprise or poem for, and it’s usually a kind hearted dig at something that has happened to the person during the year, or a personality trait to be made fun of.  It is supposed to be all in good fun, but I have heard some horror stories...  

In my first year living here I was initiated into this event and considering my level of creativity is pretty much zero, my surprise (are you still using a French accent to say that in your head?) wasn’t the greatest success.  Some of the family had gone all out though and built fabulous, hilarious creations and it was a fantastic fun evening.  If you look up gezellig in the dictionary, you’ll see a photo of us on pakjesavond in 2008.

This all sounds lovely doesn’t it?  So why all the controversy?  Why is it that this time every year migrants, expats and social commentators all climb on their soapboxes and start shouting about this event?

Well, it’s all about that entourage I mentioned.  The all dancing and mischievous helper Zwarte Piet, whose name literally translates to Black Pete.  How did he come to be a part of this story?  His origins are hotly contested.  Some sources claim that he was a slave boy freed by Saint Nicholas.  Wikipedia talks of an older possible origin, where Zwarte Piet evolved from the legend of Wodan and his two helpers; ravens Huginn and Muninn.  The ravens would listen at the chimney tops and report to Wodan on the good and bad behaviour of those who lived in the houses.  Yet another version is that he has evolved from being the captured devil, forced to assist Saint Nicholas.

Nobody seems to have a problem with the origins of Piet though (aside from being unable to agree upon where he actually came from).  The big issue is what he has evolved into.  Today Zwarte Piet is a character dressed in renaissance attire, with brightly coloured pantaloons, a funky hat with a feather, bright red lips and a black face.  When I first arrived, I was horrified by the black face.  I could not believe that it was socially acceptable for a person to paint their face in the manner of a character that has been considered a bit of a poster child for racism.

The general consensus however, is to explain the coal black face is that Zwarte Piet is dirty from climbing down the chimneys at night.  I personally find this stance difficult to reconcile.  Why is he completely black?  Why are his lips painted bright red?  If he is really dirty from climbing down the chimney, why not make him look like that?  Why is the make up even necessary?

However, my views have mellowed in the years that I have lived here.  While I still find the black face repugnant, I can accept that there is no racist intention in the tradition, and the problem is mine and mine alone.  To be perfectly honest, I’ve found it hilarious to be sitting in the car at the lights on a dark Pakjesavond to look over and see Zwarte Piet on his way to a party, filling a tiny hatchback with his presence.  How can that be a racist image?

I can very slowly see the character evolving commercially too.  Just this week going through the Sinterklaas catalogues that were pushed through the door, the blackface was virtually non-existent and only in cartoon images actually.  In the V&D catalogue for example, the (model) kids were dressed in the cool outfits, with no make up whatsoever and in other catalogues there were hints of soot here and there.

I think this is a great step forward in the evolution of the character.  After all, it is the retail giants who will slowly push the changes onto society, much as we hate to admit it.

But enough of the sidekick (if only Robin scored this much press, he would have his own comic.  Or does he?).  Let’s focus on what’s important:  celebration.  Sinterklaas is coming to town this week.  He arrives on a ship and rides a beautiful horse.  And best of all, we all have an excuse to stuff our faces with pepernoten, guilt-free.

And between now and for the next few weeks kids will be having their shoes filled with goodies some mornings (not every morning, that would be greedy) and then comes Pakjesavond where we all get together as a family and celebrate Saint Nicholas’ birthday by taking the piss out of one another with funny poems and surprises (oui oui).

As a bit of a tradition of our own, I’ll be making roast pork with all the trimmings and we’ll be replacing that gezellig 2008 image with one from 2012.

What's your experience of Sinterklaas? Can you help me write my poem, by any chance? I'm useless...

07 November, 2012

The Silly Season has begun

In Australia we are lucky that we don't really have to worry about the Silly Season until some time in December.  Well, it does get a bit silly around the second Tuesday in November with the Melbourne Cup, but it tends to die down again for a month or so before the onslaught of Christmas parties and catching up with friends and the ritual scoffing of crayfish and champagne begins.

In the Netherlands the Silly Season is kicking off this week with the celebration of Sint Maarten (Saint Martin).  I could mention Halloween, but it's not really celebrated here.  The tradition is slowly infiltrating society with more parties and calls for "trick or treating;" especially in expat circles, but I myself am resistant to celebrating Halloween.  Although it is not a wholly American tradition, I still see it as being yet another way the world is being americanised (along with those stupid yo bro handshakes and half-arsed man hugs) and it grates on my nerves.  

But I digress.  Where was I?  Right.  Sint Maarten's day.

In the Netherlands there is a wonderful tradition where children make lanterns and walk through the streets singing songs and are rewarded with sweets.  Well, that’s how the tradition is intended, but in reality happens (in my neighbourhood, anyway) is that kids knock on doors and sing songs for sweets.  

When I first moved here I thought it was tedious, but now I open my eyes and actually see the joy in the kids faces (at getting lollies) and how proud the parents are of their little ones.  I has become one of my favourite traditions and I have to make sure we have plenty of sweeties to give away.  It’s always a bit of a let-down when you realise that it’s all over and there have only been four groups of children to the door.

This year we have the added bonus of Raina, who can answer the door with us and be involved.  Too bad it’s still too early to go singing songs with her and earn me her some lollies.

What I have realised though is that I am completely clueless as to the origin of the festival and none of my friends seem to know either. Even researchers seem to draw a blank when it comes to a definitive origin.

Martinmas was celebrated as something of a season changer, a harvest celebration.  All the preparations for winter are finished so it's time for a feast.  In the middle ages (and earlier), the celebration marked the beginning of what evolved into Advent; forty days of fasting. A final fling, so to speak.

It seems (but don’t quote me!) that the tradition in the Netherlands evolved as a festival for the poor, begging for food for the winter and it gained momentum during the 20th century and has been embraced as a festival with no particular religious basis (other than the name).

In some parts of North Holland the festival is celebrated with the parade and lanterns and song singing, in parts of the south of the Netherlands it’s celebrated with a bonfire, and in other parts of the south the festival is not celebrated at all (perhaps they’re too busy with the kickoff of the carnaval season).

It never ceases to amaze me how such a small country can be so diverse.  In Australia the whole country celebrates holidays together without much deviation from the middle line.  Australia Day is a sausage sizzle and cricket.  Anzac Day is the dawn service and Two-Up.  Easter is chocolate and the occasional trip to church.  Nobody cares about the Queen’s Birthday and everyone loves Labour Day (free day off).  Melbourne Cup Day is sweepstakes, feathery hats and champagne, and Christmas Day is about family (either celebrating or avoiding). Then, New Year is a giant slurp-up.  There are no divisions between how we celebrate state to state, even though the distances are that much further.  I feel like I have more in common with the average North Queenslander than a person from north Holland has with someone from south Limburg...

I put the call out on Facebook to my Dutch friends and family asking what Sint Maarten means to them and some of the replies were fabulous!  From “Its getting together with family and friends!” to  “It's that day I lock my door, close my windows, turn off all the lights and watch youtube video's under a blanket with a headset,” to “It's a stubborn way of saying, "We're Dutch!!! Not American!! Don't force us to celebrate Halloween!"

Overwhelmingly though, Sint Maarten is about lollies, and who doesn’t want to celebrate lollies?  So, if you stop by my house on Sunday evening at around 6pm, you’ll find me tapping my feet to silly songs and handing out candy to very happy little children.  Can’t wait!

Here's the trick to getting all those lollies!

What do you think of Sint Maarten?  Sound like good fun?

The Silly Season will continue with the Arrival of Sinterklaas (I've avoided discussing this one for YEARS), before rolling on into Christmas and Oud en Nieuw (New Year).  Stay tuned!

01 November, 2012

Not quite as famous as Lady Gaga...

This week I have been interviewed by expatblogs.com about my experiences and life in the Netherlands.

Head over and take a look: Expat Interview Nerissa

Incidentally, I have also been nominated by Expat Blogs in their 2012 Top Blog Blog Awards which is a fabulous nomination.  Expat Blogs is a site that unites expat bloggers from all over the world into one place, with 700 blogs listed, and counting.  It is also a great location to keep up to date with global news that affects expats, along with a very active forum and regular writing contests.

Now, if I want to win the Top Blog title, I need your help.  One of the major judging criteria is recommendations from you, the amazing people who take the time to visit this page and bother to read about my life.  Of course winning is not the goal, but it's wonderful to be able to spread the word about life in Almere.

So, could you do me a favour and click on the image below and leave me a small comment on my profile page there?

Expat Blogs

Now, back to regular programming.

25 October, 2012

Counting Down

At about this time in seven weeks I will be jetting off to Australia for Christmas.  It will be the first time I have been back since we were married in 2010, the first time Raina has been to Australia (her visa is all ready to go!) and the first time that I will have spent Christmas with my own family in eight years. I can’t believe how long it has been.  More about that in a later post.

I have been thinking recently about what I miss about Australia.  I’ve had an Aussie-filled year, with my parents visiting and a very good friend has just left us after spending a few months as our house maid guest.  I haven’t really thought about all the things I miss for a long time.  To be perfectly honest, the longer I’m away, the shorter the list becomes.  This is a common theme among expats.  And a common post among expat bloggers I’m certain!

It seems that instead of missing things, I miss places, people and experiences.  I don’t yearn for pizza shapes like I used to, and even though a chicken parmy will be top of the menu, I don’t dream about it any more.

Here’s how my dream day in Australia would go: 

Wake up at Grandma’s house in Robe.  I don’t even mind if I’ve been sleeping on the crappy 50 year old squeaky bed.  Then I would stroll down the street for a cheeky eggs benedict brunch with a gorgeous cappuccino.  Coffee in Australia is sooooooo much better than here.  So good that Starbucks couldn’t stand up to the competition and left the country.

The sun would be shining and there would be no wind and I’d wander to my favourite beach.  It’s not a swimming beach and is a bit rocky, so there are almost never other people there.  The memory of it has actually become my happy place that I visit when I’m stressed, upset or unable to sleep.

I’ll climb out onto the rocks and sit in my perfectly moulded seat and watch the sea and the sky.  Because it’s a perfect day, the local sea lion will appear and play amongst the rocks searching for fish.

I love this beach so much that we took many of our wedding photos there

In the afternoon I’ll meet up with my favourite girlfriends and we’ll have scoff wine and eat goodies and while away the day.  A bit later someone (most likely my mum) will start cooking a bbq and there will be eight different cuts of steak to choose from, all cooked to perfection (ok, I’m tripping into fantasy territory now...).  There will be crayfish (for everyone else) and noodle salad (for me).
Eventually I’ll crawl back into the squeaky bed and sleep like the dead.

No dreams of grandeur, just comfort. This perfect day is even possible, and in just over seven weeks I'm going to have it.

What’s your dream day in your home country like?

18 October, 2012

The REAL Final Frontier

A couple of weeks ago I posted about conquering the final frontier.  How going to the dentist and the hairdresser was it and I am as integrated as I could ever possibly be.

I was wrong.

The final frontier is actually the phenomenon that is the Dutch sauna.

Australians may have a bit of a reputation for being exhibitionists.  You often see photos of women at Bondi with the girls out, or some bronzed goddess wading into the surf in only her g-string (thong to you northern hemispheerders*), but it's a safe bet that woman is not an Australian (unless it's Elle MacPherson).  You see the Australians are the women wearing boardies and a singlet over their bikinis.  Something I used to do before coming here.  Well, not quite.  There's not a snowball's chance in hell that I would wear a bikini.  Under boardies or not.

So, that's a bit of background.  Maarten has been suggesting for years that we go to a sauna together (that's a day spa for you who don't live in the Netherlands) however I have always resisted.  I mean, it took me about eighteen months before I would allow Maarten to see me naked in the shower (or anywhere with the lights on, for that matter).  How was I going to get my gear off and go swimming and lounging in a sauna in front of a couple of hundred complete strangers?!  Can you tell that I don't have the greatest body image?

Not long after Raina was born, he convinced me to give it a try.  I decided I could hide behind just having given birth as to why I looked so horrid in the mirror naked and thought; "It's now or never."  Off we went to Zwaluwhoeve in Hardewijk.  Waiting in the queue at reception I almost chickened out.  It didn't matter that even though I was searching everywhere and couldn't find a single Doutzen Kroes look-alike, I was terrified.  I was desperate that nobody look at me because they would judge me and my saggy bits and cellulite.

But I didn't.  I made it into the changing room and found myself standing across from two guys unceremoniously stripping off.  Down to their todgers.  Bending over in front of me and everything.  My eyes would have popped out of my head if I wasn't so busy trying to avoid looking.

Meanwhile I was revisiting some classic manoeuvres that I hadn't used since getting changed in high school.  You know, where you would put a second outfit on before cleverly removing the first.  Not showing a single bit of extra flesh.  When I was fifteen I was the master at this.

So, I managed to wiggle out of my jeans and into my robe, only flashing a little bit of boob (I was trying not to appear to be too obviously prudish, you see) and it was time to hit the sauna, via the group shower.  There was no avoiding hiding in my robe any longer.  So I slowly slid the robe off, shuffled into the shower and faced the wall, all the while chanting "Don't look at me, don't look at me," over and over in my head.  Well, the chanting was fighting for space with "Don't judge me, don't judge me," so it wasn't a particularly relaxing start to the day.

I was forced to get out of the shower eventually and join the naked population.  It was only then that I opened my eyes properly and had a good look around me at the other people and you know what?  There were no perfect bodies.  Not one.  Every single one was "flawed" by society's standards (meaning that they had bits that would be photo-shopped if on the cover of any magazine in the world).  We were all just people and we all had perfect bits and not-perfect bits.  We just have this image in our heads as to what's perfect and what's not.  We're bombarded with messages every day reminding us that our bodies are less than perfect and I've taken this message to heart more than any sane person should.

I made the decision then and there that it was time to stop being so precious and get on with it.

So I dropped the towel and hit the pool like I hadn't a care in the world.  Plus, my boobs were so happy, floating there in the water...  As the day went on, my confidence grew.  I stopped noticing what the other people looked like and just gave into the experience.  I swam, I baked, I scrubbed and I was massaged to the point where if I was any more relaxed I would have been dead.

I walked out at the end of the day with my head held high and ready to book my next trip to the sauna.

That, my friends was me conquering the final frontier.

Have you been to a Dutch sauna?  How do you feel about getting naked in front of a couple of hundred strangers?  Or would you only go on swimsuit day?

*Yes, I did just make that word up.

10 October, 2012

A sappy moment

Those of you who know me well enough know that I'm not particularly sappy. You won't find a single Celine Dion song on my iPod and although I love Sex and the City as much as the next thirty-something woman, I love Dexter more. You know that I'm far more comfortable propping up the bar with the blokes sharing stories of sheep shit than I am discussing the merits of Chanel vs Dior.

But please, allow me a moment here. Today's a special day. Today I sit back and reflect of
two years of marriage with the sweetest, most loving and caring man I have ever met. Two years of unwavering support through thick and thin. Two years of being held while I cry (and
for a tough nut, I cry a lot). Two years of thigh-slapping laughter. Two years of knowing what the other is thinking (except when it comes to cleaning the house - there's no way we're on the same wavelength there!) and saying the same thing at the same time. Two years of sharing excitement over the prospect of becoming a family and then actually doing it. Two years of snuggling on the couch, of holding hands wherever we go. Two years of just being together, not needing to talk.

We've had a grand romance. Him falling for me in Australia years ago and me falling for him on the phone a year later. Another year later we reunited and have never looked back. A year of snatched weekends, struggling with long distance. Then a year of struggles. Culture shock, change, staying in one place, learning a new language and lifestyle. A year of patience (him) and plotting (me) preparing for a wedding that was a perfect day. Then the rollercoaster. Cancer scare, pregnancy and finally the greatest possible gift; Raina. Our second year of marriage has been the most difficult yet rewarding year of our lives.

Maarten, thank you for the best times of my life. Thank you for our daughter, thank you for loving me.

I love you, happy anniversary.

Now, let me tell you a story about sheep shit....

08 October, 2012

Winners are Grinners

Yesterday was a massive day.  We hadn't had a great night with Raina (awake at 2.30, then again quite early), but Maarten bless his soul was up and eager to deal with it so I could get some rest ahead of the long day ahead.  In fact, he was Super-Dad all morning, with breakfast on the table when I came down, then getting Raina all ready for our big day trip to Amsterdam for the i am not a tourist fair so I could concentrate on trying to tame my mad, frizzy mess that sometimes resembles hair.  In fact, he was so organised that we made it out the door early!  That almost never happens.  We're at the stage now where we make our get out of the house deadline 15 minutes before we actually should be out the door and we're usually only a little bit late for everything...

So, we made it to Amsterdam with plenty of time to spare and hit the fair.  I hadn't taken two steps inside when I had half a dozen bags shoved at me and was pounced upon by a market research dude, but after a few deep breaths I squeezed through into the main hall where all the action was.  I made a bee-line to the Expatica stall to introduce myself and find out how the competition was going to shape up, then I took a seat to take a few deep breaths.  To be perfectly honest, I wasn't all that nervous.  It's much more difficult for me to knock on the neighbour's door to collect a package than it is to get upon stage in front of thousands (okay, dozens) of people to deliver a reading.

Andy, the fantastic Toastmaster gave me the run-down, I was first up and it was time to get on with it.  Up on stage I went, looked down at my page and could hardly read as I was shaking so damn much!  I thought, ok, I need to make this shaking less obvious, so it was time to try and wing it.  I started moving around on stage a bit and only glancing briefly at the page and it seemed to work.  Although I did quite a bit of ad-libbing and forgot some of my best lines!

Image thanks to the awesome Indigo Jones.  That's Maarten and Raina there in the foreground.
Next up was Catina from Amsterdam Mama.  Catina read a fabulous post called Pancake Panic - Mama gets stuck in honour of Breast cancer awareness month.  Catina had the crowd in stitches with the imagery of getting her girls stuck in the mammogram machine.

Then Nandini from Taal : : Tale took to the stage with her thought provoking post about identity while visiting the hairdresser; Kapper Who?

Once all three of us had read our pieces, it was time to climb back on stage for the voting.  It was a process that Catina and I agreed took us straight back to high school.  I felt 16 again, standing up there, trying to appear nonchalant, all the while secretly hoping that I get the loudest cheers.  You know, just like in high school.

Because Maarten had been an exceptional campaigner, he had brought along a contingency of loud voices to cheer me on.  And it was entirely due to them that the applause-o-meter (Rhys, from Expatica) decided that I was victorious!

Thanks to Amsterdam Writing Workshops I won a fantastic two day workshop of my choice, worth 150 euros!  The course is something that I am very much looking forward to and it's wonderful to be given the opportunity to improve my writing skills, something that I have been desperate to do for a long time.

After the competition was over, I was able to spend some more time walking around visiting stalls, and I was treated to a gorgeous pink velvet cupcake from Alice in Cakeland by a friend.  I caught up with Lynn from Nomad Parents who has some brilliant projects in the pipeline and I also managed to catch Emmy from Amsterdam Mamas, which must be the fastest growing community in Amsterdam.

We even managed to wind it all up with a sensational cheese tasting from Reypenaer, trying not to be too piggy by scoffing some of the most famous and best tasting cheeses in the entire world.

Thanks very much to Expatica for putting on such a wonderful event and hosting such a fun competition   My  only criticism:  give the job agencies more space.  The hoards of people surrounding them made it difficult to navigate the close quarters at times.  But that's a minor detail in a wonderful day.

See you next year.

Did you attend?  Did you try any of the workshops on offer?  What did you think, will you go back next year?

04 October, 2012

Finals Fever

And not of the AFL variety either (curse you swans).

Incredibly, I have been selected as one of the finalists in Expatica's i am not a tourist Expat Blogger competition.  I'm absolutely stoked, to say the least.  Just being a part of this competition has revived my enjoyment of blogging and has helped me to get back into writing (semi) regular posts.

Thank you to everybody who voted for me, and to Maarten for being such an enthusiastic campaign manager.  He saw the competition and took it upon himself to nominate me and although popularity contests are something that I really struggle with, this entire process has been great fun.

Now there's one more step expected of you.  This Sunday between 11.30 and 11.50 at the i am not an expat fair, myself and fellow finalists Catina from Amsterdam Mama and Nandini from Taal : : Tale will be reading our favourite posts out loud.  On the main stage.  In front of other people.  For you all to judge.  The finalist with the loudest cheers will win a creative writing workshop from Amsterdam Writing Workshops.

So, get gargling, start warming up your voice, clearing your throat, practising your wolf whistle (damn, why is my wolf whistle the loudest?!) and find your loudest pair of boots to come cheer for us at the Beurs van Berlage in central Amsterdam (next to de Bijenkorf).

If you haven't already, you can download your free tickets by clicking the image below.

See you there!

20 September, 2012

High on the hill...

...was a lonely goat herd.  Lay ee odl lay ee odl lay hee hoo.

Raina meets a friendly goat.

The Final Frontier

I've lived here in the Netherlands for more than four years now.  It blows my mind every single time I realise how much time has passed since I arrived.

Around this time last year I wrote about culture shock and how far I had progressed.  I had finally moved into the Adjustment phase and could finally behave like a normal human being again.  It took a long time, but I think I can finally truly say that I've moved into the final stage of culture shock - Mastery.

How did this come about?  In the last twelve to eighteen months I have been living my life outside our home almost entirely in Dutch except in two small but crucial places - the dentist and the hairdresser.  I was semi-confident when visiting the doctor; I could certainly make my ailments known well enough to walk out with more than paracetamol, but the idea of not being understood at the dentist and hairdresser terrified me.

But, it was crunch time.  Four years was long enough to carry the language crutch.  First up, the dentist.  I went in and immediately received a lecture about not going for so long (more than 18 months) and even though I had a lot of excuses to hand, I just explained that they were all that - excuses.  The dentist was happy with that, so it pays to be honest sometimes!  I had to have an old filling replaced, so it meant a second appointment.  Both the dentist and the assistant were reasonably impressed with my grasp of Dutch, so even though I had to go back for punishment I left with a spring in my step.

I still had to go to the hairdresser though.  I have a massive professional crush on my hairdresser, but she is so expensive I have been putting off going since January.  I was in desperate need of a haircut; I was beginning to look a bit like a cave woman, but I just didn't have the spare cash to go to my regular hairdresser.

So, I cheated.  I went into Brain Wash, a walk-in, no appointment salon in Almere.  I knew that the English skills in there are not fantastic, so I would be forced to speak Dutch and it worked!  I could get my point across and she could understand me and I came away very happy with my 15 euro trim!

You know what this means, right?  I'm finally fully integrated language-wise.  I'm not sure that I will ever be completely integrated (I'd still rather pay 2 euros to park rather than walk half an hour), but I think I'm as close as I will ever be.


19 September, 2012

Amsterdam Mamas

Look!  Here I am, over at Amsterdam-Mamas talking about how Adventures in Integration was born. All as part of their Expatica Blog Competition Nominees in time for the i am not a tourist community fair that I talked about here earlier today.

Amsterdam Mamas is a a wonderful resource and has probably been a life-saver for me throughout my pregnancy and now as a new mum living in the Netherlands.  I stumbled upon the Facebook group back when there were about 200 or so members and today the group is staring down the barrel at 2000 members along with a hugely popular website launched earlier this year.

Founder Emmy is even Expatica's Expat of the Year 2012, congratulations and amazing work supporting so many of us Emmy.

Head over and take a look at my profile, featured on the Amsterdam-Mamas site:  Meet the Blogger: Adventures in Integration.

18 September, 2012

I am not a tourist

My husband (bless his soul) has nominated me as an entrant in the The "i am not a tourist" Expat Blog Competition, together with some of the most stunning expat writers here in the Netherlands.

To be honest, I was a bit reluctant to be nominated as I don't really feel as though I'm a 'real' blogger.  I'm only just finding my groove again after a long break away from the keyboard, mostly due to the birth of my daughter.  However, it's lovely to see the reactions from friends and family and even people I have never met.  Perhaps I'm a worthy entrant after all!

However, have you seen the competition?  Wow.  Some of my favourites are featured, including Amanda from Life with a double buggy, Stu from Invading Holland, Alison from A flamingo in Utrecht and Marianne from Like a Sponge.

These are some seriously classy writers and I'm waiting with baited breath to find out who the winner will be...

Check out the competition and order your free tickets to attend the event. Check out the exhibitors and perhaps we will see each other Sunday, 7 October at the Beurs van Berlage in Amsterdam.

14 September, 2012

The Birth

I've been thinking about writing this for six months or more, but unsure if anybody really wants to read all the gory details.  I've decided that enough time has passed that my glasses have become sufficiently rose in colour and I won't horrify anyone.  So here goes, the story of how Raina popped into the world....

My due date was 12 February and because of my family history (father and cousin born 8 weeks early in the car on the way to the hospital in the middle of winter) and the potential side effects of the surgery I had during the pregnancy I was well and truly ready to have my baby by Christmas time.  A few twinges at the Christmas dinner table made me think "This is it!" but alas, false alarm.  Christmas came and went, then New Year was upon us with a friend reminding me that I would be giving birth to a watermelon shortly.  I was still very active at this time, hiking across Amsterdam visiting museums and eating cake at the incredible Patisserie Pompadour and starting to get a bit anxious.  I still had six weeks to go, but in my head I was over due.

My mum arrived mid-January and fresh off the plane exclaimed "You don't even look pregnant!"  Well, thanks. I certainly looked pregnant when I stared in the mirror, but I guess that's another drawback of being fat.  I just looked even fatter.  Joy.  Pass the cake?

Before I knew it, it was the end of January and my baby shower.  There were soooo many people and sooooo many amazing gifts.  It was an hour-long present opening session.  I've never seen anything like it in my life.  The best thing is that we are still using so many of the gifts and Raina still needs to grow into some of the clothes!  But, still no baby.  My father in law's predicted date: 29 Jan came and went without a twinge and before we knew it we were entering the busiest birthday month in the family and it was turning into a game of "Dodge the Date," as the 6th is my sister in law's birthday and she didn't want to share her day (although she did change her mind in the end), then an uncle, an aunt and two cousins.  I still, after more than four years don't understand the Dutch obsession with birthdays.  Anyway.  Before I knew it, the due date was upon me.  Less than 5% of babies are born on their due date, so I really was not expecting anything.  In fact, by this stage I was preparing myself (not very well) for a 42 week pregnancy.  I just knew that she was in no hurry to come out and my begging, pleading, crying and shouting wasn't making her move any faster.

Honestly, the week after my due date was the hardest of my pregnancy.  And this includes multiple trips to casualty in the middle of the night for mystery blood loss, two hospital stays for vertigo and blood loss, surgery at 13 weeks and an extremely sensitive nose (the smell of raw meat still makes me want to hurl).

What made it even harder were all the helpful comments:  "The baby will come when she's ready," and "It's so nice and warm in there, why would she want to come out?" and my favourite: "Make the most of this time, you'll be wishing for peace and quiet very soon."  Really?  I doubt it.  I was done. D.O.N.E, done.  40 weeks was more than enough for me.  The waiting was so difficult - it was like Christmas Day that never comes.

I was under the care of a gynaecologist and part way through week 40 I started asking about being induced.  The hospital wouldn't do it at 40 weeks, but he was the first person who understood that it was the toughest time and agreed to start inducing at 41 weeks in the least invasive way.  Awesome!

On the Friday, when I was almost a week over due I went with my mum and mother in law to Urk to see the ice flows.  It was a once in ten years experience where the sea ice was breaking up and being swept on shore.  There were mountains of beautiful sparkling ice shards glimmering in the sunshine.  It was beautiful.  Too bad that Urk is the unfriendliest village in a 300 km radius...

Ice flows, Urk
That night, it happened.  I woke up at 3 am with shooting pains in my abdomen. and my excitement knew no bounds.  I started timing the contractions, which were about 30 seconds long every ten to fifteen minutes.  I knew from my child birth session with my good friend Becky that this was pre-labour and usually lasts 6-8 hours.  Sensational, pregnancy was nearly over and my amazing, difficult, rewarding new life was about to start.

But no.  Actually, it wasn't.  The pre-labour contractions continued through the night and well into the morning.  By lunch time on Saturday I was starting to wonder when I would move to active labour and by bed time I was trying not to be too impatient, but I was excited and positive.  You see, Sunday was my birthday and the possibility of me having a baby for my birthday was looking pretty good.

Then it started.  I had managed to get a few hours sleep, and then at around 2 am active labour began in full force.  Contractions for 90 seconds 4-5 minutes apart and gaining momentum.  I woke Maarten who didn't seem to be too interested and instead rolled over and went back to sleep.  By 6am I asked him to call the hospital who weren't ready for me yet.  I had to have contractions two minutes apart for an hour before I was allowed to come in.  You see, in the Netherlands quite a few women give birth at home and even if they do not wish to or cannot give birth at home, it is expected that much of the labouring is done at home.  We are all sent a birth package from our health insurance company to prepare for the prospect.  In the early days of my pregnancy I would not even entertain the possibility of giving birth at home, but after talking with other mums, reading everything I could get my hands on and learning to relax and go with the flow, I decided that if I was to do it all again I would attempt to opt for a home birth.  I would just have to talk someone else into cleaning up the mess....

By morning the pain was reasonably intense ("reasonably" is Australian for "just about unbearable," by the way).  Not sure if it is the most pain I have ever been in or the worst I have ever felt though.  All my yoga practice went out the window.  I am blaming the teacher for that though, she was absolutely rubbish.  All discussion and little practice.  My advice when looking into pregnancy yoga, do your research.  Find a teacher based on recommendations, not a quick Google search like me.

At around 6.30 my mum came in and we decided that I should open my birthday presents as we had no idea when I would get the chance, otherwise.  I remember struggling to rip open the paper and having to stop to walk around and breathe through a contraction.  Mum gave me a beautiful Cow Parade cow and Maarten gave me some lovely opal earrings, then I asked him to call the hospital again at around 7.30.

Surprisingly I was allowed to head in and to say the car trip was a challenge is the understatement of the century.  The only way I had been able to manage the pain so far was to sway and walk, and that ten minute car journey may have been the longest of my life so far.  Maarten had his 2 euro coin all ready for the wheel chair, but it was pointless.  I couldn't sit and cope with the contractions, so I walked to the delivery suite with poor Maarten fretting behind me with an empty wheelchair.

By 8.00 I was installed in a nice room with a bathroom and plenty of space, but no TV.  Apparently all the flats screens from the birthing wing in the Flevoziekenhuis had been stolen!  Seriously, who steals a TV from hospital?  Some extra gauze I can understand, but a TV?!  I had decided by this stage that I wanted some pain relief.  I had thought all the way through my pregnancy that I would go without, but I was also a realist.  I could feel myself slipping into another realm and not coping so well.  I was even less personable than usual and managed to offend the nurse who was going off shift in about 10 seconds.

Amazingly, my own gynaecologist was the rostered midwife (the actual midwife had called in sick), so he got in and had a bit of a look and a dig around and broke the water.  The feeling of that was so bizarre.  Gushing and hot and not at all ladylike.  However, it was all in good time as there was a little poo in the amniotic fluid, but nothing to worry about (although I took some convincing of that).  He also made a big deal about telling me I was six centimetres dilated and how he was proud that I had waited so long before coming in.  According to my wonderful nurse Jeanne, most labouring mothers come in when they are around 2 centimetres!  Then he fixed a heart monitor to the baby's head, helped me get hooked up to the IV, waved and said he'd be back in an hour and a half to two hours to see how I was going.

About this time (maybe a bit sooner or maybe a bit later, I don't really remember), my mum and mother in law arrived as part of my support team.  What I remember most was my mother in law muttering that I should breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth, a mantra that Maarten promptly adopted.  I'm sure they honestly believed that they were helping me, but really all I wanted to do was punch them for their helpful tips.  After an hour or so mum and Maarten switched places and mum held my hand, breathing with me and helping me through each contraction.  You see, the pain relief wasn't helping.  At all.  Turns out there was a kink in the hose...

By about this time my body was trying to push.  The effort to compress the urge to push was almost too much to bear.  I kept shouting "I need to poooooo!"  Yes.  All glitz and glamour.  But nobody would listen to me.  Not enough time had passed for the doctor to come back, so I couldn't possibly be ready to push.  After what felt like hours of asking for the doctor and trying to breathe through pushing contractions, finally the nurse came and brought the doctor.  He flipped me over and had another look and declared that I was 10 cm and ready to push.  No shit Sherlock.  I could have told him that half an hour before.

At 10.20 he gave me the go ahead to start pushing and helped me get into position.  God knows where Maarten was at this point. He was in the room somewhere and I think I saw him looking a bit bewildered.  I do remember seeing his mum taking photos (graphic is NOT the word!) but was pretty out of it by this stage.  The doctor told me to push, so I gave it all I had.  Yelling helps, it really does.  I could feel the baby moving down, and filling my birth canal, then with the next push her head was out!  I actually felt her pop out.     Weirdest thing ever.  Becky had described the crowning feeling to be like sticking your fingers into the corner of your mouth and pulling your lips tight and she was dead on!  With the third push I felt her slip out and then she was plopped on my chest squalling.

Our first photo
From then on my memories are really in snapshots.  I don't really remember anything in the first person.  I was pure emotion.  Crying, shaking, overwhelmed.  The nurse asked what her name was and even though we had decided months before, I still wasn't 100%.  It took me a few moments to choke out "Raina."

Maarten cut the chord, the doctor whipped her away to do the reflex tests and then I was stitched up - ouch and phone calls were made and all of a sudden we were left alone.  After the sprint that was the birth and because there were so many people around (both mums, Maarten, a doctor and a nurse) it seemed a bit strange to be just the three of us blinking and wondering what on earth we should do next.

Having her reflexes tested

Papa still managed to find the time to do his hair...
The nurse came back and decided it was time to try and get Raina to latch and begin feeding.  This was not something that I really wanted - I was determined to let her explore and try it for herself, but the nurse was insistent so I let it go.  Some times it just isn't worth the argument.  My birth plan had gone out the window anyway, so what was one more thing?  The nurse also started looking at her watch and told us that because it was a Sunday, our post-natal care at home (kraamzorg) might be difficult to arrange.  However, she said that if we could get ourselves home and on the phone to the service before 14.00 they would send someone over.

This sent us into a bit of a panic.  I wasn't ready to go home yet, but I wasn't ready to go home and not have any help for the first day.  Raina had not really had anything to eat or drink yet and besides, how was I going to change her nappy?!  So it became a mad rush to get showered, dressed and home.  We made it with 15 minutes to spare and a nurse arrived by 15.00.  I had heard stories of new parents being sent home from hospital within four hours of giving birth, but I had not expected to be home within three!

This was when the fun really began.  It was time to learn the ins and outs of keeping a baby alive and who would have thought that this stuff isn't instinctive?  Learning to bath Raina was easy enough once I remembered to hold her head properly, but drying her had never occurred to me.  I had never realised that there were so many nooks and crannies that I had to dig around in to make sure she was nice and dry.

The nurse was with us a week and it was one of the roughest of my life.  I knew that breastfeeding could be a challenge, but never realised how emotionally draining it was when it wouldn't work and we had to supplement with formula while I pumped like a mad woman to try and get some milk flowing.  When it finally all worked it was like a miracle.  It really was.  The relief was palpable.  It was all going to be ok.  Raina started gaining weight rapidly (she lost almost 10% of her birth weight) and we all started coping better.  There were still many tears, very little sleep and I was only holding it together by a thread, but it was improving and I was slowly getting the hang of motherhood.

In the role he was born to play
Now when I look back on those weeks of my life I can't believe that I went through it, that every mother goes through it.  And how easy it is to forget when I don't sit down and make the effort to remember what it was like.  Raina is now almost 7 months old and life has a completely different set of challenges (solid food, crawling, tantrums, and teething), but I love it.  She is such a reward, and like my friend Juliette says about her boys, I'm so happy she picked us.

What we are talking about

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