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.

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.