It was a straightforward plan: take our 3- and 1-year-old to live in Europe, stay for a year, maybe two, and then return in time for the eldest to start school.
Six years later, we’re still here and have added a Dutch-born daughter into the mix.
Raising kids in a foreign country has been a fantastic adventure. It has stretched us out of our comfort zone, exposed us to new cultures and ways of living and has changed the way we view the world. On some days it has also been bloody hard work.
Picking up the new traditions of our adopted home has been a highlight of moving to the Netherlands. We’ve met Sinterklaas (Dutch Santa) and left our shoes in front of the fireplace with carrots for his horse Amerigo, waking up to find them packed with treats. We’ve draped ourselves in orange to join the neighborhood’s King’s Day celebrations and bought a three-wheeled box bike (bakfiets), loading it up daily with kids, school bags and shopping. The kids can hold a whole herring by the tail and expertly devour it. We’ve replaced ketchup with mayonnaise when ordering fries and have strong convictions about where the best pancakes can be found.
The real business of integrating into a nonnative English speaking culture however has not gone so smoothly. As a devout monolinguist (not by choice, but doomed by genetics), it blew my mind how quickly my kids picked up a second language. Three months at a Dutch school and they were rolling their r’s and doing all sorts of weird guttural stuff from the depths of their throats. They can chat with shopkeepers, make friends in the playground and, when feeling generous, even translate for me.
Learning Dutch has been great for the kids’ integration and is a fun party trick when we visit home, but it has permanently jeopardized my street cred with them. I am now the mom who doesn’t understand what her kids are saying, or the mom who sounds like an idiot when practicing her butchered Dutch. My daughter’s doctor once asked me, “Is it strange not to be able to understand what your own child is saying?” Yep, it is.
I try to convince my daughters that while my Dutch may be scrappy, at least my English is pretty good. But this holds little weight when we are surrounded by the most gifted linguists in Europe, with most Dutch people fluent in at least three languages.
A year after arriving, we moved into our sparsely furnished new home and I headed out to Ikea to rectify the situation with some Swedish DIY. Desperate for an hour of uninterrupted shopping, I set out to convince the woman in charge of the child-care facilities that my youngest was in fact 3 years old, the minimum age for admission. Meanwhile, my eldest was babbling away to her in Dutch.
The Ikea woman was getting increasingly irritated as I maintained that my daughter was three (“drie! drie!”) and she kept insisting she was two (“twee! twee!”). At last, thoroughly fed up, she pointed to my very chatty 5-year-old and announced, “Your daughter is telling me that her sister is 2.” Exposed by a 5-year-old. Ouch.
As a parent, I’m constantly striving to instill in my children a sense of belonging and self-confidence, which is tricky when you stand out and are acutely aware of it. I suspect that no one is paying as much attention to the foreigner as I think they are, yet I carry around the weight of feeling conspicuous whenever I open my mouth.
If I’m at the supermarket and I’ve forgotten my purse, I’m the English person who’s holding up the line (Americans, Canadians, Australians: we are all English people here). The last thing you want is for your kids to be aware of your discomfort, so living here as an outsider has been a huge learning curve in faking it, putting your shoulders back and getting on with it.
Some days I entertain myself with seeing how long I can go without drawing attention to my outsider status, but the Anglo giveaways are everywhere, even before I open my mouth. I may join in the peak-hour bike traffic to take the kids to school, but my kids are one of the very few wearing helmets. And when I get to school I’m the 5-ft. 5-in.brunette standing on my tiptoes trying to catch a glimpse of the class performance amongst the ridiculously tall Dutch parents and their golden locks.
The rationale behind choosing a Dutch school over the many international schools, apart from the language bonus, was to help the kids integrate into Dutch society. And it seems to have worked. They know the dance moves to the Dutch pop songs, have picked up the adorable Dutch sign for tasty (a sideward wave of their hand by their cheek while saying "lekker") and request chocolate sprinkles in their sandwiches. At the same time they are in an environment where they will always be different.
The jury’s still out, but I suspect I’ve done the right thing by them. I may not be able to read in class or help with homework, but they feel part of the community around them and can switch between the local and expat worlds without missing a beat. This sense of belonging no matter where they are is something I hope they will always carry with them.
Out of the blue, my middle daughter recently announced, “We may not be the most well-behaved kids, mom, but I think we’re the most interesting.” I quickly agreed with the first half of the sentiment and she went on to explain, “All the kids in my class are from the Netherlands, but we’re from Australia and that makes us interesting.”
That may or may not be true, but I certainly like her view of the world.