Why I started a Facebook group for English speaking theatre in The Netherlands

I grew up wanting to be an actress. I loved films and theatre. My parents had the vinyl LP’s for West Side Story, and My Fair Lady and I would play them both over and over. I knew every word to every song.

I did lots of acting as a young person. I went to drama classes, took exams and took part in speech festivals. But I wasn’t brave enough to choose to study drama at school, as I always took the ‘sensible’ subjects. I ended up doing a business degree, although part of me would have loved to have studied English Literature with Drama, or some such combination. 

Whilst at Uni I ran the Drama Society, so was able to let loose my creative side there. Once graduated and working, I took every opportunity to work with young people, writing scripts and directing short plays. Some of those I was really proud of and won competitions with. Bringing together a group of people and just the right ingredients of a good script, central message, music, dancing, costumes and lighting, and heaps of humour, to create something truly magical, is something I will always relish.

One of the highlights of the last few years for me was attending the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and having three days of solid performances, some in the street, some in rooms below bars, some in college classrooms. Being sat metres away from a powerful performance of a one-act Tennesse Williams play in the middle of the afternoon is my idea of perfection.

Most of my life I have lived in proximity to London, being able to hop on a train for a day trip or the occasional evening out. Of course, we’re spoilt with the choice of live theatre in the West End. What I loved about living in the UK (and didn’t truly appreciate how unique it was until I moved away), was the abundance of culture. With a family it was not always possible to go and see everything, but to know of it, to hear it talked about on the radio or the tv talk-shows, to hear interviews with the actors, to hear the stories behind the production. That’s what I loved, and that’s what I missed when I came to the Netherlands. Maybe those things happen here, but I don’t know where. I don’t know what channels to listen to or watch, or what to read to find out what’s going on culturally.  

Actually, I love Shakespeare so much, I was a bit worried when I came that there would be no Shakespeare here. Shakespeare is one of those tricky things – so much is in the language, the detail, the poetry of the words. That could not possibly work for an audience where English isn’t the first language. Even my husband who is 100% fluent in English and writes academic papers in English, puts the sub-titles on when we are watching certain things – anything where there are accents, or where the speech is so fast he can’t pick out the vernacular. 

So, it was from all of this that I set up a Facebook group, English-speaking theatre in the Netherlands. I wanted to find out what was going on and thought that others would too. In Amsterdam they have a couple of the big production musicals every year, which is great, but for me it’s not just about the musicals. Since setting up the group I’ve learnt about theatre groups like STET the English Theatre, in the Hague, and the Orange Theatre Company in Amsterdam that put on high-quality English language theatre. 

We’ve topped 200 people in the group this weekend, and I only set the group up over the summer. We’ve had loads of actors join the group too, people that are interested in performing. And it’s been great to find out how many amateur or semi-professional theatre groups there are here for Brits or English-speakers that want to perform. Actually, this is all really important. When you move to a new country, quite often you’re starting over with zero social circle, you have to create a whole new life for yourself. Many things, because of the language barrier, aren’t accessible, so having something for people to get involved with where they can make friends and have good experiences, is invaluable.

I’m a little bit sad that where I live, in Eindhoven, there does not seem to be quite so much going on theatre-wise in English, or even in Dutch actually! I suspect (and it’s tricky to back this up as statistics on expat numbers in cities are a bit sketchy) that as Eindhoven’s expat growth is more recent, then the cultural offerings in English haven’t quite caught up with the demand. I’m hoping with this group in time we can change that! 

And of course, it’s important to say, it’s not that I’m not interested in seeing performances in Dutch. I’m still learning the language, and that would be an obvious barrier to understanding a performance, but of course I am open to experiencing what the Dutch have to offer too. I do think that there are opportunities for some creative thinking around making performances accessible where there are language barriers. I saw a production in London called ‘Once’ – a fabulous musical set in Dublin, and when one of the main characters let loose in their native Czech tongue, a small screen at the top of the stage offered the translation in English. Such an ingenious idea. We use sub-titles for viewing films, so why not in the theatre. 

In the meantime, I’m enjoying hosting the conversations in the Facebook group. Sharing things (like the British National Theatre ‘live’ performances that are streamed from theatres to your tv screens) with other’s that will appreciate them and getting to know more about what’s going on in places not too far away from me. Building a sense of community with other theatre-lovers, is helping have my cultural ‘fix’ for now.

And if you’re interested in any of the above, we’d love to have you join our FB community here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/englishdutchtheatre

Tuscany or bust: tales from a summer road-trip 

My family has a tradition of a summer family holiday altogether. And when I say my family, I mean my four brothers, two sisters, their families, my mum, and my children. Last year there were around 40 of us. This year we were 25 – the corona regulations making it tricky with the hassle of tests. The risk of quarantines on return meant that some decided not to go.

Our chosen destination was Tuscany. After a year of corona restrictions everyone was looking forward to some summer sun and those rolling Tuscan hills. My brother and his family flew in from the US without too much hassle. My UK family members all flew in. Their holiday was slightly over-shadowed by all the corona test requirements, but they were undaunted none-the-less.

And as for me and my husband? We decided to drive to Italy from the Netherlands. Nearly 1300km, or a 13-hour drive. We stopped off for a couple of nights on the outward journey, taking in the Black Forest in Germany, and Lake Maggiore in northern Italy. For our route back we stopped off in the Cote d’Azur, South France, and a final stop-over in Dijon. In total we passed through seven countries (if you count Monaco) – and we didn’t have to take a single test, show our ID, or our vaccination pass once at a border. In fact, the only time we had to show our vaccination pass was to get into a couple of museums in France. 

Isola Bella, Stresa

The Scharzwald in Germany was stunning, fir trees on mountainous hills, with the winter ski runs visible and sapphire-coloured lakes in the middle. However, it was our stop at a lake in northern Italy that had the hidden surprise. When booking things online for a road trip one looks at the route rather than things to do on the way, and all we knew is we’d booked an Airbnb on the edge of a lake. To get there we chose the scenic road, hugging the edge of Lake Maggiore from the north, driving to our destination on the south shore. The lake was stunningly huge, and a feast for the eyes after a few hours of motorway driving. We stopped to take in the views properly, and the faded Italian villas dotting the lakes perimeter suggested a time more glorious. 

As we reached Stresa, we passed towering white Art Nouveau hotels lining the promenade along the lake’s edge.  Narrow streets punctuated with pretty piazzas wound through the ochre-coloured storied buildings. It was in exactly one of these that we were to be staying for the night, and our host was keen to recommend places for us to visit. Our original plan had been to get up early and drive to Milan before heading to Tuscany but landing ourselves in such a jewel of a place we felt we should honour it. Early the next morning we took the ferry to Isola Bella, the island palace, a short ride away. There were three islands in total.

The grand palace literally consumed the whole island, which consisted either of gardens, or walkways wrapping the palace itself. On the stone walkways street vendors and ice-cream stalls had laid out their colourful wares. The palace itself was opulent, rooms crammed with tapestries and paintings, floor to ceiling, most of which had been commissioned for the palace and created by teams of dedicated artists. Views across the lake were framed by fabulous windows. The last section of the palace held a grotto created to be like an underground seascape. The 10-storied palace gardens had white peacocks strutting around, everything was lavish but miniature, an over-the-top fountain resplendent with statues as the centrepiece.

After our visit, we were back in the car, for the final leg of our journey to Tuscany. I drove this bit, along the coastal route – which consisted of more tunnels than I care to remember. 

Tuscany

We finally pulled into the villa at dusk, to be greeted by my family. We had lucked out, and our designated apartment in the two-villa complex had a balcony view, as wide as you could see, with rolling Tuscan hills, and just as I was taking it in for the first time, there was a glorious sunset unfolding.

The next few days were spent catching up with family, swimming in the pool, and exploring nearby towns of Sienna, Arezzo, Montepulciano, and a trip to Florence. The highlight of this week was not just one but two dinners al fresco. Our Italian hosts cooked a special Tuscan banquet for us. We sat on long trestle tables with white cloths, with a view over the hills to one side, a vineyard on the other, jumping up to take pictures when we were bathed in the glorious evening light. The many courses meant that conversation could flow unchecked, and when it was dark, we played music and danced under the stars with the children to whom bedtimes had become non-existent.

Our last day a bunch of us went quad biking, a nice adrenalin thrill after a few days of gentle tourist walks. Motoring through hill-top villages and off-roading alongside rivers on bumpy paths for 3 hours was a good challenge for us all.

Our last day in Tuscany my husband and I set off early for our next stop. We headed up the coast to France, stopping for a wander in Monaco, taking in the famous square in Monte Carlo and enjoying a walk around the harbour where we ogled billionaire’s boats. (Seriously, a yacht with its own helicopter?).

The Cote d’Azur

Our destination was Villefranche-sur-Mer, a small resort nestled between Nice and Cannes. That evening we walked to the beach down many steps. It was swelteringly hot (as it had been all week) and we were desperate to swim in the sea. The pebble-beach was packed, but the best respite was in the water, which was warm.

The next day we took a bus into Nice, our first port of call being the museum. I was delighted by the exhibition running, L’Amazones du Pop – all about the women in the pop art movement. 

Next, we hit the beach. There was a strong breeze, creating a heavy surf, and with the beach’s natural formation of a steep incline at the shoreline meant getting into the sea whilst walking on hot stones was somewhat tricky. Once in, bouncing in the waves was fun, but getting out was equally challenging. When we’d had enough of the wind and intense sun on the beach, we wandered through the town. The small streets bustled; this was the busiest place we’d seen all summer so far. Nice Centreville was very appealing, bright colours, shops, restaurants with terraces. 

I had a flash back to my last trip to Nice, 32 years ago, whilst backpacking around France by train with my friend Cathy. That was a trip on a budget, full of simple pleasures, taken in our student days. There were no mobile phones or instant bank debit cards. Just us, our backpacks, a budget in francs, and Walkman’s with two cassettes between us. Those were days when a plain baguette, slice of gruyere and a bottle of Evian whilst sat on a jetty in the sunshine made us feel rich. 

Dijon

After Nice we were pointed for home, driving north through France. This was the route de Soleil in reverse, and we were grateful for the quiet motorway as we sped homeward. Our final stopover midway was in Dijon, again chosen for its location rather than anything else. We wandered into the city before heading to our Airbnb, and a visit to the museum. Dijon, home of the Dukes of Burgundy who had once ruled north-west Europe. And the home of mustard, of course.

A lovely surprise at the end of our trip was our wonderful hosts for the last night of our adventure. This French couple opened their home as if we were not just guests, but friends. They cooked for us in the evening, and we all ate together in their large garden, ‘parlant francais’, trying anyway. It was a delightful encounter and repeated in the morning at ‘petit dejeuner’, fresh croissants from the patisserie accompanied by our basic Franglais. The night before, on discovering my husband played the piano, they invited him to play for them. There we were, sat in a beautiful living room with antiques and modern art, Valentin banging out Bohemian Rhapsody and Billy Joel’s Piano Man, with our hosts both dancing and filming him at the same time!

The rest of the drive home was uneventful, France, Luxembourg, then Belgium and finally the Netherlands. Home is always good but travelling awakens the soul and creates memories to store up for the dark winter days ahead.

Sorry, I’m English

My most repeated phrase of the last 18 months since living in the Netherlands, often felt like an apology rather than a statement to indicate my Dutch language skills were not quite up to the mark.

Despite my best intentions, learning a language during a pandemic is not easy. Various levels of lockdown, shops and amenities being closed, visits with other people disallowed – all these factors do not help to immerse oneself into a new culture.

My weekly language classes I had started at my son’s school were cancelled in the first lockdown and never reinstated. My son home-schooled for a large chunk of the last year and this, which changed the priorities at home, with well-being and outside exercise to break the day up becoming the priority, not more learning. 

I tried an online class, which was good, and I made progress, but these were only available in the evenings, and after busy days running my business (which is entirely online and with UK clients) I found it hard to take it all in. 

Frustrating too were the mouth-masks, or ‘mond-kapjes’ in Dutch. Any attempts at conversing in Dutch with shop-assistants through layers of masks and screens went awry. One trip to the orthodontist to discuss a sensitive matter around health insurance was a complete failure when she could not hear/understand me, and I had to go home and get my husband to telephone instead.  

I tried to teach myself. I have text-books, story books, apps, audio-books and podcasts. I’ve tried them all. Teaching yourself isn’t easy. On my own I struggle to structure the learning and with no-one to be accountable to other than myself, I drift.  

As I’m just a little over 18 months here, I feel I need a system that will work for me. I decided learning for me must be one on one, with a teacher to meet me at my level, giving me nowhere to hide. 

I’ve set something up with family members. I speak to a sister-in-law two evenings a week for half an hour (or mostly she speaks to me). She lives in the US and is happy to get to speak Dutch. She’s great as she speaks slowly so I can follow and make out the words. And I can mostly get the gist of what she’s saying. Anytime there’s a word I don’t know she types it into the chat and I make a note of it. So, my vocabulary of ‘regular’ conversational words is growing. I’ve been floundering in putting sentences together in response, so I’ve asked another sister-in-law, trained as a primary school teacher, to help me out with some more structured sessions. So now two mornings a week, at 9am, we work through basic grammar. 

From my arrival here to now I feel like I have forgotten more than I have learnt. I feel like I’m going round and round and not moving forwards. But learning a language is one of those things where there is no quick fix. There is no learning ‘hack’ that can take the place of hours of study and practice. Last year I read a lot of books about learning, how the brain takes in information, sorts it and recalls it. My ‘day-job’ for many years has been corporate learning & development. Knowing how learning works does not necessarily make learning easier. But I am aware that I will need structure and a system to learn, and then lots of repetition, and practice at recall. I’m also aware of the importance of ‘mindset’. Thinking that I can’t do it, being afraid to try, not wanting to look stupid and make mistakes – these are all self-limiting beliefs. I am fortunate enough to have people around me where I feel safe enough to try out my learning. It may just take me a little longer. 

And in the meantime, I’ll have to keep saying, ‘Sorry, I’m English’.  

Flags and ‘feestdagen’ – how the Dutch celebrate life

Every country has its calendar of celebrations, as well as its own customs to mark birthdays and other life events. The Dutch are no different. Having been here for over a full-year I have witnessed the full calendar cycle, as well as birthdays, weddings and other celebrations. Here’s my take on the Dutch-style of celebrating.

New babies

The Dutch have some lovely traditions to celebrate the arrival of a new baby. One time I was in a jewellery shop being served and the owner presented me with a small plate with a large round thick cracker, covered with blue sprinkles. I had no idea what was going on, until my husband said that their colleague had just had a child, and this was the tradition. It’s called beschuit met muisjes (biscuit with mice), and has pink or blue sprinkles depending on, well you can guess. These are served to the first visitors when a new baby is born. On our walks round our neighbourhood, sometimes there are large signs in the front gardens of houses, or in the windows, announcing the birth of a new baby. Usually the name, and maybe a picture of a stork, make up the display. 

Birthdays

This signage continues for regular birthdays. The Dutch have no issue with having big banners in front of their houses, announcing the birthday of the inhabitant. Last year my husband turned 50, and I discovered just in time the tradition that when you turn 50 you’re said to have met ‘Abraham’ if you’re a man, or ‘Sarah’ if you’re a woman. This is based on the Biblical reference John 8: 56-57. So, it’s not uncommon to see a giant inflatable cartoon style Abraham in someone’s garden. I was a little nervous about going all out for my husband’s birthday, having not actually seen anything similar at that point, so I opted to play safe and just make a banner. I enlisted the help of two of my new nieces, we wrote a little poem, and surprised my husband on his big day. It brought a few congratulations and smiles from neighbours and passers-by. It said: ‘je kunt het niet aan hem zien maar onze Valentin is vandaag vijf x tien’.

When it comes to regular birthdays, I had been very confused by the limited amount of birthday cards in the shops. Apparently, the Dutch don’t give birthday cards generally, only when they’re not actually going to see the birthday boy or girl. So, turning up at a party with a gift but no card is just fine. I was equally flummoxed when Valentine’s Day rolled around. I’m used to this being a full-on commercial event with the shops reminding us weeks before with arrays of pink and red gifts stocked on shelves every time you go to the supermarket. Valentine’s Day isn’t such a big deal here, and I even struggled to find a card in a card-shop. 

Weddings

It was a huge surprise to me that the Dutch cannot get married in Church. It is purely a legal contract, and is done at a town hall, by a civic representative. There can be no hymns or prayers said. Of course, there are hotels and other venues you can pay to host your wedding, just not in a Church. A lot of people, however, opt to have a church blessing after their civic ceremony. That said, my sister-in-law’s wedding (trouwerij) last December was a wonderful affair, with words spoken by the ‘trouwambtenaar’ (marriage officer) and talks from chosen family and friends. 

Kings Day, Liberation Day & Carnaval

Of course, the Dutch have celebrations we don’t have. Kings Day (Koningsdag) is a big thing, which sadly was cancelled last year and this due to the Corona outbreak, although I was here for a visit the year before so caught glimpses of everyone in their orange costumes, and I look forward to when I can experience the ‘vrijmarkt’ or ‘pavement sales’ that take place, where anyone can sell anything (books, games usually) on the pavement in front of their houses, a bit like a giant communal garage sale. 

Vrijmarkt at Kings Day

Flags are a big thing, and most houses have a flag-pole. Flags are hung on Kings Day and Liberation Day (Bevrijdingsdag). The flag-poles are also used for graduation – a student finishing school hangs his books and school bag on the pole or out of a window to signify that they have finished. 

The Dutch remember all who have died in war situations since the 2nd World War on Memorial Day (Dodenherdenking) which is commemorated on the 4th May – with 2 minutes silence at 8pm in the evening. The 5th May is Liberation Day for the whole of the Netherlands, to celebrate the end of the German occupation. These days aren’t bank holidays but flags will fly and schools will teach about it. Military parades with veterans will take place. In the south of Netherlands, where we live, a sort of Liberation Day is celebrated in September as that’s when the southern part of the Netherlands was liberated during Market Garden. I was lucky enough to be here in 2019 for the 75th anniversary celebrations and saw an array of tanks and other military vehicles descend on the City in an impressive parade. There were many veterans taking part and the whole experience was very moving. To see all the people out in the streets, paying their respects to those that liberated them from Nazi occupation. 

Carnaval takes place 40 days before Easter, and originated from a Catholic feast dating back to the Middle Ages, when fasting began before Easter, much like the British pancake day. That is where the similarity begins and ends, however. Carnaval has become an all-out party, where people dress up, drink beer and sing silly songs, like ‘er staat en paard in de gang’ (there’s a horse in the hallway). This goes on for a long weekend, and the fancy dress shops are busy providing people with different outfits for a weekend of partying. Carnaval is only celebrated ‘under the rivers’ in the south, as the Protestant north frown upon such festivities (although people travel down to join in the fun – which is what led to the Netherlands first spread in corona transmissions last year).

Christmas versus Sinterklaas

Christmas is a bit different, and again not such a big thing here. Presents are traditionally given on Sinterklaas, which is on the 5th December, and Sinterklaas is like a Father Christmas equivalent, arriving instead by boat from Spain with his helper, Zwarte Piet. The Dutch refer to what us Brit’s know as Boxing Day as ‘Second’ Christmas Day, but, unlike the British, they don’t get the bank holidays carried over if these days fall on the weekend. This is a travesty in my opinion!

Whereas Christmas in the UK is characterized by turkey and trimmings, there is no set meal here. Of course, I have introduced my traditional Christmas dinner into our Dutch life, although we nearly ran into difficulty my first Christmas here when the turkey we’d pre-ordered didn’t materialize. Clearly something was lost, not just in translation, but in custom – when the Turkish wholesale butchers we’d ordered it from, offered us two chickens instead, or suggested we come back the next day (which was Christmas Day). This was nearly the scene of my first ‘new-country culture shock’ meltdown. I’m sure a semi-hysterical woman having a rant in English did nothing to help proceedings. We drove to a regular butchers’ shop who had one last (enormous) turkey in the window which we promptly purchased and our Christmas was saved.

My book project – 1 year in

I started last year with a goal to write a book. Not just any book, but a biographical memoir of my late Father. I have not written a book before, and certainly not anything as complex as an account of another person’s life. Still, it was something I felt compelled to do, and, thanks to the encouragement of my husband, I ‘announced’ to my family what I was doing. That was the first step, and it took some courage.

I had no idea how to go about it. The longest thing I have written, in a long-time, is a blog, like this. That I know how to do. A biography? No idea.

I did some research, I tried to find a guide or how-to manual. There wasn’t one for this kind of book. I have read quite a few biographies and autobiographies, and took my early steps following some of their formulas – start with the background of the person in question, their parentage.

This set me off on a quest to gather together as much information as possible. That done, I started writing, and I soon discovered that for something like this, a biography, written by a close relative – I am not ‘neutral’. I wanted to include my thoughts, my insights, my analysis. I needed to find my voice.

While I have been struggling with the process, I have had moments of wonder. There were characters in my Father’s family tree where information was a bit light, and I had this feeling that it does not tell the whole story if you only talk about the known rather than exploring the unknown.

I took some time to investigate the key characters where I had less information, and I had a few delightful surprises to my enquiries, including responses from the school where my Grandfather attended, including a detailed cricket match report that described his unique left-handed bowling action. I also had replies from the London Transport Museum clarifying the jobs that my Great-grandfather (on my Grandmother’s side) had.

Still, there were serious questions that needed to be asked about one of the principal characters in the piece, my Father’s father. He died when I was 5 so I don’t have many memories of him, and my Father didn’t say too much about him, and his carefully chosen words revealed more in what they didn’t say than what they did.

My natural curiosity kicked in, and I wanted to understand this person, their upbringing, and see them as three-dimensional. I looked closer into his family life, and one discovery led to another, finally bringing me into contact with my late Father’s second cousin, Mandy. She has this last year done a forensic job in researching my grandfather’s family tree, finding the missing link to my South African great-grandmother’s parentage. This was a staggering find, and something my father and his mother had searched for on and off for over 50 years.

On this journey I have had time to properly reflect on precious letters held in the family. Letters written by my great grandfather to his wife, written in the trenches from the Battle of Ladysmith, in South Africa, where the British Army were be-sieged by the Boers for 17 weeks. Letters the same man wrote to his son 25 years later, after he left for Capetown, South Africa to start a new life. Written weekly, they show my great-grandfather’s demise as he gradually becomes ill and eventually writes his final letter, shaky and in pencil.

I still have many unknowns in writing this book. How to weave together lots of information to form a narrative. What to put in, what to leave out. How much detail. What to do where there are gaps. How many chapters. What chapters. How will I actually publish it.

There’s so much still I don’t know. But all I know is that even part-way through, this has been a fascinating project for me, and I have learnt so much.

So, if you have a project in mind, personal or work-related, don’t be put off if it is big and scary. You can chip away at it one step at a time. You can learn as you go. And sometimes the rewards are great before you’ve even reached the finish line.

The BBC and other things I miss about British culture

Not long into my arrival in the Netherlands, I felt a gaping hole where certain elements of British culture used to be.

The radio has long been part of my existence, BBC Radio, to be precise. Which channel would depend on who was in the car. My older children would switch on the thumping beats of Radio 1, whereas I preferred the steady rhythms of Radio 2. There were certain key times of the week that were a highlight for me, in radio terms, like catching Jo Whiley, with her smooth vocals and warm manner, interviewing the latest bands while driving home of an evening. Her infectious enthusiasm for new music, hearing the stories behind the songs, the personalities behind the band members, was enough to keep me up to date.

Jamie Cullum with his weekly jazz show was another treat, delving into the archives and giving us a historical lesson on the importance of a particular Jazz artist. Saturdays brought Dermot O’Leary’s show, regularly featuring musicians, followed by Graham Norton’s show, with a mix of celebrities and stars from the latest West End musicals. There was many a time that I booked a theatre ticket (Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard for example) off the back of hearing an interview with said star. 

This was the first big thing I missed. I missed my kitchen radio, slightly spattered with cake mix or whatever I’d been baking. This had been my friend for weekends alone over the last few years. ‘Friday Night Is Music Night’ transported me, from my kitchen in my slippers, to the Royal Albert Hall, or wherever, to listen to the BBC Concert Orchestra’s live performances. 

New radio

Thus, one of my first purchases, on arrival, was a new radio that would work in my new Dutch kitchen, picking up both Dutch and British radio stations. The Dutch stations are good at helping me to feel grounded in my new space, giving me a chance to pick up the language. But when I crave some more variety in the music, I can switch it up. The BBC Sounds App has been a godsend, with the ability to ‘cherry-pick’ the programmes I want to listen to. 

The summer brought Glastonbury, although this year’s festival was an impressive re-run of previous years. It became vitally important for my son and I to communicate to my new Dutch husband just how important Glastonbury is. It’s not just another festival. Yes, it’s more iconic than the Dutch equivalent, PinkPop. Of course, it may not actually be to the Dutch, but to us Brits, it is. We found ourselves watching loads of the Glastonbury re-runs, and made my Dutch husband, who loves classical music, sit through the entire Stormzy set of 2019, as we felt this was an appropriate introduction to our ever-evolving British/London culture, complete with Banksy’s Union Jack stab-vest. 

Banksy

That set us off on another track – introducing Banksy. Trying to explain an anonymous artist, whose artworks pop up in unconventional places with political messages that can underscore a nation’s mood with just a few strokes of spray-paint, doesn’t quite capture the pride and the ‘cool’ factor that us Brits have bestowed on him.

It was my own cultural arrogance that everyone else would ‘know what I know’ and ‘like what I like’ that led to my shock that no-one in my Dutch circle of acquaintances had heard of my favourite British (actually Welsh) band, the Manic Street Preachers. However, hearing my Dutch family members belting out the Dutch classic ‘Ik leef niet meer voor jouw’ by Marco Borsato at our New Year’s karaoke party was an eye-opener. It wasn’t the case that the Dutch were missing out on things from the British cultural experience, they had their own.

Making room

Of course, when you arrive in a new culture, you have to make room. You have to let go of some things to make space for new things. At times in those early weeks, it was too much, immersing myself in a language I didn’t yet understand, and saying goodbye to habits and things that had filled my life before coming here. I wanted to be open so that I could appreciate another culture but letting go of familiar things takes time.

Now time has passed I realise I don’t have to leave behind my culture, I’ve brought it with me. It’s who I am. But as culture itself isn’t fixed, and is ever-changing, so will I be, as I continue to come to know and appreciate more about where I am and the Dutch popular culture that is all around me ready for me to let it in.

Banking, Brexit and Oliebollen

You’ll have to believe me when I say I never imagined I would be writing about banking and Brexit, but as these things seem to have dominated the last few months for me, well here we are. The Oliebollen are thrown in for good measure, a bit of playful alliteration and a reminder of a Dutch tradition that re-appears every autumn.

When I first started visiting the Netherlands, everyone seemed to want to ask me about Brexit. By the time I had moved here, in the final months of the negotiations towards a deal/no deal, I was regularly quizzed on the latest events in the ever-changing saga.

 A few times I was tempted to say, hold on, I’ll just ring my hot-line to Boris and ask him what’s happening. The truth was I was glad to leave behind something that had dominated the national psyche for so long. I was genuinely surprised, however, just how much of the daily developments and political wrangling was followed closely along by our European neighbours. They were well aware of every detail, and its potential impact. It was only then, that I began to understand how as a British person, I had viewed Brexit as something that affects the UK, something we have done to ourselves. Understanding the impacts from a European neighbours point of view is another thing entirely, and while the UK is still going around in circles supposedly negotiating on a deal at the 11th hour, the rest of Europe has moved on and made their plans without us factored into them.

So far, I personally have only had two instances when the looming No Deal has affected me. This summer my son and I were invited to apply for our Residency cards. This was a fairly simple process, with an online application. It seemed all the Dutch government were interested in was the fact that we already resided here, and did we have sufficient financial means to stay. With the application submitted, it was a case of waiting for an invitation to have our biometric data taken. We had to travel to Amsterdam for this, as all the centres near to us were fully booked. Still things seemed to have been arranged with usual Dutch efficiency. We turned up at our allotted time, had our fingerprints, signatures and photographs taken, and a few weeks later a signed for delivery gave me my permit, with the inscription ‘Residence Document Withdrawal Agreement’. 

Banking and Brexit

Things were not quite so smooth from the British side, however. On the 28 August I received a letter from my UK bank, Lloyds, stating that as a result of the UK leaving the EU, some bank accounts (for people that didn’t reside in the UK) would have to close. 

This opened up a whole rabbit-hole of research into banking options for those that want to keep a UK bank account, in sterling, for whatever reason, but reside elsewhere.

A newly-found Facebook group entitled ‘British expats in the Netherlands’ revealed that in terms of high street banks, the only option was HSBC. As an international bank, they allow UK accounts with EU addresses. Others were offering this but are closing down this offer to new accounts. I got straight onto it and started the application process.

Here I am, 10 weeks later, with no account open. HSBC’s service to open an account online, seems to stop once you fill in the initial online form. In that 10 weeks, aside from taking a screen-shot of the original ‘your application has been successful’ information, I have had no letters, emails or any other contact from HSBC. All contact has been from me, calling repeatedly. I have posted through the proof of identification and address required, witnessed by a solicitor (called a ‘notary’ here). This wasn’t accepted, as my notary used a company stamp and signature rather than hand-writing the exact words. My mistake, so I tried again. This time I thought I’d take no chances – I hopped on a plane, armed with ID and 4 examples of proof of address (I only needed one), and visited a branch. 

I was told they couldn’t help me. They weren’t allowed to open accounts in branch due to Covid-19. I was a bit upset having travelled a long way and having called the previous week and being assured I could go into any branch, without an appointment and open an account. All they could do, was to take my documents and scan them through to the team handling my original account request. 

The cashier took a look at my documents and discounted all of them. They wouldn’t accept a bank statement from my Dutch bank, as it was in Dutch. I’d figured a document that was mostly numbers didn’t need translating anyway. Just in case, I’d brought along a letter in English from my Dutch bank. That was discounted too, as it had a disclaimer at the bottom of it. My other documents were discounted as well. I mentioned why I was there, as my Lloyds account was closing, and the cashier suggested I go to Lloyds and get a statement from them. I did, and thought I was clear. The following week, when chasing up on the phone, I was told they did not accept statements that had been printed out in branch (or at home). Others in the Facebook group had had similar experiences, one lady’s bank statement as proof of address was rejected because her notary had not signed each of the ten additional pages.

Back to square one.

Can the internet-only banks save the day?

I looked at the option of using an internet-only bank account. These operate using a banking app, making the experience truly mobile. There seemed to be lots of options, but because I had particular requirements, I had to really drill down into the detail of what each one offered. Overall these digital banks are like a breath of fresh air, with what they offer displayed clearly, and where I had questions, I was able to message and get answers within a couple of hours. In total I looked at 5 different internet-only banks that operate for EU customers. These were Monese, Revolut, Bunq, Starling and N26. Each had a different emphasis. For example Bunq is aimed at British travellers in the EU, rather than those residing in an EU country. Starling launched EU accounts in 2019, but you first have to have opened a UK account, so I missed the boat on that one. Revolut had no guarantee on funds, and Monese aren’t opening accounts for Netherlands based customers at the moment. I settled on opening an account with N26, although it only holds euros rather than sterling, so it does not meet my main requirement. They do however, have a great package for freelancers and the self-employed, so I will be keeping my eye on that.

Overall however, the difference of experience dealing with an internet-only bank and a traditional one was startling. With N26 I had opened my account in minutes. Literally all I did was take a picture of my passport and a photo of myself, within 20 minutes I was up and running. My card arrived in the post a few days later. 

The internet-only banks seem to be more responsive to what customers actually need and give more flexibility and reduced fees for those that want to bank across borders. I do wonder how the traditional banks are going to fare in the longer term if they cannot get their act together. 

Banking in the Netherlands

Coming to the Netherlands and experiencing a different banking system has been interesting. When you only know one way of doing things it takes a while to get used to a different way. I opened my accounts with ING, one of the country’s main banks. The setup seemed similar to the UK. ING is a traditional bricks and mortar bank, but with a banking app which is easy to use. 

The Dutch seem to have a love affair with QR codes, and anything that requires security usually has a ‘scan from your phone’ stage to log on via a pc. This isn’t just true for banking, but also for accessing your Digi ID – which is the gateway for any dealings that come from central and local government, such as taxation, educational institutions and healthcare.  

Sadly, my ING bank account does not let me purchase anything online that is outside of the Dutch market, there is no VISA or Mastercard element for this. In the Netherlands they have their own system, called iDEAL. This works fine and to me it just appears as an extra secure interface between a customer’s bank and the third party they are paying. 

For all my international purchases however, many of which are for my business, I have had to use my credit card as my ING card will not work for these. I have, however, just been notified that my Nationwide credit card account will also be closing due to Brexit, hence the advantage in opening an account with N26. 

The Dutch however have some handy features with their systems. In my Dutch language class I was due a refund and the teacher asked me to send her a ‘tikkie’. I had to ask my husband what that was as I had no clue! Apparently, from your bank, you can send a request to someone in a text message or email for a specific amount of money. For them to pay they just need to click on the link. No more dishing out your sort code and account number and people having to ‘set you up’ as a new payee. A few days after this I encountered another ‘tikkie’ – the small business that made my curtains sent me an invoice with an accompanying email link I could click through to make the payment easily. This can be used in the same way to split a bill easily between friends – something that I’ve seen some of the internet banks offer. I do like this system as a way of collecting payments as a business and am keen to use it for my customers, although I’m not sure how easy it will be to have a system that works for both UK and Dutch clients. 

Let’s not forget the Oliebollen

Well if you’ve read this far – you deserve a prize! For the Dutch, they love their Oliebollen – basically freshly fried round donuts that appear in special vans at this time of year. They’re a traditional New Year’s Eve treat, and can come filled with chocolate chips, sultanas or apple sauce, or with just a dusting of icing sugar. So go and grab yourself a sugary snack, and the next time you’re here, make sure you try one!

My main thought in writing this piece, was to share my thoughts from ‘the other side’ now I’m no longer living in the UK, but in the EU watching as ‘Brexit’ unfolds. I’m sure the ‘expat banking’ experience is a tiny ripple in a pool of many greater impacts. I hope the UK is ready.

A Year of Gratitude

A year ago yesterday my son and I arrived in the Netherlands. This was a week after marrying my Dutch husband and enjoying a lovely honeymoon in Sicily. We drove over on the Dover-Calais ferry, the car loaded up with our things. A month later we hired a van and drove back to collect my larger items of furniture and valuables from my house.

There started our adventure, in a new country, a new language, and a new family. 

I have since discovered that Eindhoven, like many Dutch cities, is full of people that have left the UK to start a new life. Unlike most others however, we were starting our new life as a newly formed family unit. I have met others that came here for love, not just for work, but unlike them, I’m not a young twenty or thirty-something, carefree with no-one to think of but myself. I was leaving my two grown-up daughters behind in the UK, and (at times) it felt like I was leaving my identity, who I was, my personal and professional self.

That’s a lot of change all at once! 

So how has it been? I have wanted to write so many times over the last year, so many thoughts, feelings and experiences. Those early weeks and months were at times intense, as I was dealing with what can only be described as ‘overwhelm’. Seemingly small insignificant tasks take on Herculean proportions when everything is unfamiliar. From grocery shopping, to banking systems, to road-rules, to taxation. Even riding a bike – something I can do – is completely different here. 

I was really keen to ‘hit the ground running’ with my business – and made that a priority, networking, talking to people to figure out how I could adapt my business here. I soon realized I had to ‘pace’ myself – I couldn’t master the language, support my son in settling in, re-launch my business, decorate the house – all immediately. So, I prioritized, and some things had to take a back seat for a time.

Of course, family comes first, and we were building a lovely ‘safe-haven’ home where we were happy to be together. Not a day went by that I wasn’t thankful to be married to my husband. Facing any challenge was made lighter by having someone to share things with. 

Lockdown came along, but we were all content in our own little family bubble. My language classes got cancelled, priorities shifted, and we played football together as a family most days in support of my son who was not able to see friends at school. 

The summer was great – Valentin is a teacher so we took advantage of the holidays taking a road-trip by car through Europe. 

The summer break gave me a chance to pause and reflect. And prioritise again. Time to re-start Dutch language classes. Time to make a plan for decorating the house. These things are important to me. I love my work and could happily fill my time working – but with a new life in a new country, it’s about balance. 

With the autumn term underway, I noticed I was using Dutch more in everyday situations like a trip to the dentist, and pulling out of a side-road on my bike in front of a car without flinching (yes we have priority when coming from the right). Familiarity. It comes gradually, so imperceptibly it could be missed. But I didn’t. I appreciated those moments.

We are happy here, we are settled. It has been an amazing year. I really like the Netherlands – it is clean, less traffic, very organised. The Dutch are a practical and pragmatic bunch. I love Eindhoven, there is so much opportunity, lots of industry, loads going on – I have found it easy to meet new people. There are many internationals here, people are open and friendly.

Looking back over the year the biggest theme for me is gratitude. I’m grateful I took a leap, marrying someone from another country. I’m grateful for him, every single day. I’m grateful to anyone that has had a conversation with me – at networking events, talks. Feeling seen is the most important thing. I feel seen here, I can bring my whole self to this new life. I’m grateful that my son is doing well at school, that he has joined a Dutch football team where they make him feel welcome. I’m grateful for this new chapter in my life. I’m grateful for new opportunities and challenges (like learning a language) – that I am facing – age 50! I am grateful to all that went before that has led to me being here today. 

Doing Business the Dutch Way

Many people are asking me how I’m settling in here, and what I’m up to – so I thought I’d put it all together, as its been 3 months since I married my Dutch husband, and relocated with my 12 year old-son to Eindhoven, Netherlands.

My husband has a large extended family, that are all local, and we are part of a church community – so life in that regard has been great, we have instant family and friends around us. The first month was spent settling my son into school and finding my way around.  The road rules are different here, for bikes and cars, but I’m comfortable enough now with driving, and biking is always fun. I love that I can get anywhere by bike, bus or train – with the city centre being a short bus ride or 20-minute bike ride away.

For me though a big focus has been my professional life – I set up my business Talentstorm just over 2 years ago in the UK, and while that is early days as a small business and my ‘offer’ is still evolving, I was keen from the outset to continue as an independent out here.

I came over last summer and had a couple of visits at the KVK (Dutch Chamber of Commerce) to help me with the legalities. Things were very straight-forward, and they have a good system of support. I was able to set up as a sole proprietor, not needing a Ltd Co. A sole proprietorship in the NL seems a bit more flexible than the sole trader equivalent in the UK, for example you can have more than one business entity under a sole proprietorship, and you can have employees. One of the clever things they do here is they link up your business with the tax people automatically, so you don’t have to worry about that. 

With my business set up I found some early networking opportunities and was instantly struck by how friendly and welcoming everyone was. Eindhoven is home to multinationals like Philips, ASML and DAF, and therefore has a thriving expat community. A short bus ride from my house takes me to the High Tech Campus – this is the smartest square km in Europe hosting 200 companies and 12,000 researchers, developers and entrepreneurs. I’ve had some fantastic evenings meeting other professionals, and some follow on ‘coffee’ meetups. The Dutch are known for being very direct (I know I married a Dutch man!) – and this tendency to be straightforward and no-nonsense is very helpful in a business setting.

It’s still early days for me in fully understanding how things work here and what opportunities there are, but I have a couple of Self-Development workshops in the pipeline to deliver to some professional women’s groups – and I’m using that as an opportunity to create a follow-on one to one session around Managing your Professional Development. It’s the flip-side of the coin for organisations that want to create a learning culture – raising awareness of the importance of taking personal responsibility for one’s continuous learning. 

Of course, I still have my UK clients, and am more than happy to pop back (it’s only a 45-minute flight) to deliver any training or consultancy projects, and as European Partner for LearningPlanet (microlearning training videos) – I can support clients easily over the phone and via VC. 

So all in all – it’s very exciting – and watch this space!!

The rise and rise of women’s networks

It was the ease in conversation and connection that did it, that led me to go home with a buzz. It was striking – the warmth, the empathy, the eagerness to share and support. This was my second event for women in the space of one week, just two weeks after I’d arrived in the Dutch city of Eindhoven.

The first was an event on Gender Equality, organised by a local ‘Stichting’ (Dutch name for a foundation) – called ‘Fight Like A Woman’ – that focuses its support on professional women returning to work and assisting organisations with increasing diversity.

I turned up not knowing a single person and was met with a warm welcome, from those organizing as well as those attending, and by the end of the evening I’d exchanged details with several people.

It was attending this event that led to an invitation to another event, this being a masterclass event for a group called Womelite, aimed at ‘business and professional women of tomorrow’. What was amazing about this group was every woman in attendance had come here from somewhere else – I spoke to women from France, Poland, Zimbabwe, USA and Canada – all had come to the Netherlands for work (or for love and then found work!). As Eindhoven is a tech hub, many worked in professional roles at some of the large employers in the area such as Phillips and Johnson & Johnson. Others had moved here and set up their own businesses.

There is something about having things in common that makes it easy to connect, and all having to strike out in a new country is definitely a leveler! The evening was fun and informal, with lots of laughter. Talking to new people was easy, as ‘where are you from?’ is always a good opener.

These two profoundly positive experiences led me to reflect on my previous involvement with networking back in the UK. I was not located close to a city centre to make face to face networking easy, but I benefited from being part of a couple of ‘virtual’ women only networks. Although not a business group, I’ve been a member of #teamtall, a Facebook group for tall women since it was founded in 2016. The connections I’ve made through that have stood the test of time, and this network alone has led to writing opportunities and, dare I say it, even some fashion blogging. Another one I came to recently is the NOI Club, self-described as ‘a community of women with projects and businesses, powered by kindness’ Their Facebook group keeps connections going in-between in-person events and features a ‘self-promotion Monday’ where members are encouraged to share and promote their businesses.

For me the NOI club has been fascinating to be a part of in my first two years of running my own business, many of my own challenges have been echoed by others in the group, and often I am astounded by the get up and go of so many of the female founders in the platform. The takeaway from this being that even by being an observer you can be inspired.

Social media platforms such as Facebook have made it easy to create groups and networks, and when these work, they can work well. Setting up a successful network – even a virtual one – is not for the faint-hearted though. Having been involved with #teamtall from the outset, I can attest to the hard-work and long hours that founder Sallee Poinsette-Nash has put in to create the community feel. Now running at 3,700 members worldwide, it feels like a ‘tipping point’ has been reached, with content and information being regularly shared by the community rather than the founder.

But why is networking for women so important?

A 2018 Harvard Business Review article entitled ‘Do Women’s networking events move the needle on equality?’ set to put the record straight, with the author undertaking a research study to test the long-term effects of uniting women. The study conducted across 2,600 women set out to examine whether attending a US Conference for Women attributed to either of the two following outcomes – financial (pay raises and promotion) and intellectual outcomes (increased optimism, lower stress levels, and a feeling of connection).

The study found that the year after connecting with peers at the Conference for Women, the likelihood of receiving a promotion doubled. A poll of attendees on their overall outlook showed that 78% of them reported feeling ‘more optimistic about the future’ after attending, and 71% felt ‘more connected to others’.

Laura Dalton White, founder of the Conferences for Women, adds, “Something special happens when you see that you are not alone. Making connections and building relationships with other attendees and speakers helps women form an understanding of their worth, and then they learn strategies to ask for promotions, seek fair pay, and even become mentors to others.’

With the attention on diversity in workplaces that Gender Pay Reporting has brought and the barriers that still exist, it seems there is very much a place and need for women’s networks, and I am personally very excited to have landed in a place that seems to have a strong community culture with active women’s networks that I can be part of.

Check out this great list of UK and worldwide networks: 20 women’s networks to help you thrive,compiled by Miisa Mink and featured in the Noi Club blog. One not mentioned on this list that merits a mention is Found and Flourish – a community for women entrepreneurs.

I’m still new to the Netherlands but have come across the following – feel free to add any more!

Wegate – the European Gateway for Women’s Entrepreneurship – Providing support, learning & advice for women entrepreneurs across Europe

Connecting Women – based in The Hague this English-speaking group holds monthly meetings

For Dutch speakers the site Alle Vrouwen Netwerken has compiled a useful list of Dutch Women’s networks.