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’.  

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.