Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Standing on the outside looking in...

On our weekend trip to Assen to visit family, I had a revelation. I think it is worth documenting my little story, in case it helps any other expats.

I come from a big family and until recently I thought this has stood me in good stead to adjusting well in life. The interplay of family dynamics and differing personalities in our family of eight has taught me to how to socialise in group settings. In the past I have been comfortable managing multiple conversations at once and the hive of activity that occurs when a group of people get together after not having seen each other for awhile. Since living in the Netherlands I’ve felt a different part of my personality come out (the quiet and introverted side) and I haven’t enjoyed social situations nearly as much as I would have in Australia.

I’ve had my challenges settling in to life in the Netherlands. The six months of winter has probably been the biggest challenge for me, as I’m a person that loves summer, warm weather and the great outdoors. The kids also suffer from cabin fever and last winter we went out on bone chilling cold days which if they had of occurred in Australia, we may not have left the house. Given winter went on so long here, I had no choice but to get on and live life regardless of the weather, and I’m impressed by the Dutch who do just that.

Summer has been wonderful, and I’ve loved experiencing a real change to the seasons. If summer was longer and winter much shorter, living in the Netherlands on an ongoing basis would be a more attractive proposition. I love that it is warm enough now to have a more outdoorsy life. We leave the back door open all day, the kids roam inside and out, they dig and play, and drag all the dirt back inside. Fine by me, they are happy, I’m happy.

Next from the weather the biggest adjustment for me has been the social barriers that I’ve encountered. I think the Dutch are in many ways quite like Australians, and while there are different customs and norms, they like to have fun (well the ones I know), celebrate with food (don’t we all) and are up for embracing life. The Dutchman and I strike a good relationship because we have very similar values. This is even though we were raised in different cultures, in different decades and about 16,500 kilometres apart. The biggest social barrier for me has been the language and lost freedom of expression, and the feeling of isolation I’ve had when a conversation takes place and I’ve had no clue what is going on.

I think my Nederlands comprehension is at a tipping point. While I still struggle to make myself understood with my poorly constructed sentences and mispronunciation, my comprehension has improved markedly over the last eleven months. So in the past when I would have completely checked out of conversations and tried to hide my embarrassment, while praying my face wasn’t going red (stupid really that I was embarrassed because I didn’t understand a language I’d never learned). I now listen and even dare to make eye contact. I’m not smiling as much like the village idiot, instead my clogs are whirring and with a duh duh duh twenty second delay (up to five minutes or maybe even a day), I finally get it. While I tend to get the topic of conversation I still have a good knack for missing the point or the joke.

So this is my revelation that occurred. On Sunday while having a really pleasant day sitting outside in glorious sunshine with family and listening intently to the conversations (95% of which were in Dutch unless I asked questions or they were directed at me). I realised I felt like I was standing on the outside looking in. For the first time I realised they were not being rude mostly speaking Dutch. They were just being a family, enjoying each others’ company, laughing and having fun and speaking freely (albeit brutally honestly) in their native tongue. I almost cried and wished I was my sister who is good at communicating her feelings with others. Instead I made an offhand and somewhat abrasive remark (well probably not for people who like directness) about speaking Dutch all day. My brother in law responded with, “oh I think you can speak Dutch when you say grote dikke buik” (big fat stomach), my father in law apologised and my sister in law said "but you do understand". The penny dropped even further. I think the Dutchman's family are more comfortable now in my presence, to talk freely and have fun, without having to stop and translate, or fill in the gaps for me. This revelation that the reason I have trouble fitting in is hopefully less to do with my personality and more about my poor Dutch language skills. It was a double edged sword because while I was pleased/relieved to finally articulate what has been a source of previous frustration I also felt really upset and isolated.

It triggers my flight or fight response. I want to flee this country and return to the familiar and the loving fold of the family I grew up with. I want to escape hostile winters and live in a far more agreeable climate. That said, I am a resilient person and will keep trooping on. I think this revelation just has to increase my resolve to improve my Nederlands language skills, so I can also be a fully fledged member of the Dutchman’s fun loving family and so they also feel at ease with and accepting of me and hopefully get my jokes.

No more feeling sorry for myself. It’s time to adopt the great human resource principle of FIFO (fit in or fly away). I think even though we can try and embrace diversity as human’s we naturally find it easier to relate to people like us, particularly if there are no communication barriers.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Fashion Police, it’s time for some arrests...

I would love to say that I have a fabulous sense of style. However in truth, as a mother, my favourite fashion accessory is a set of hand prints on clean pants. I once regularly wore matching necklaces and dangly earrings, but now I do so at the risk of being strangled or ending up with earlobes bigger than a Masai warrior. I have been known to wear blue and black at the same time, and also double denim (but that was so long ago it doesn’t count). And thanks to the Stacey and Clinton version of “What not to wear”, I’ve weaned myself off the teenage boy look of jeans, hoody (albeit one with a cool logo) and coloured trainers (when you see my feet you’ll see the reason comfort is a must). So now that I’ve fully justified the hypocrisy which is about to unfold, let me embark on a rant about the fashion wardrobe of travellers.

We have just had the most amazing holiday in the South of France (sounds so divine, and it was) and to Spain (tapas, oh tapas my friend, you are delicious). Now if this statement alone doesn’t conjure up enough jealousy in you yet, let me post a couple of pictures to rub it in...

Back to the topic... What I don’t understand about people on holidays in gorgeous locations, is that for some reason their sense of taste goes out the window (assuming they had anything to begin with), and they seem to think its okay to wear the most horrid things.

To make things easier, I’m going to start with some generalisations by race. The Pommy and Irish tourists I saw (I’m sure they are going to just love being put in the same fashion disaster basket) certainly took the biscuit when it came to ugly bathing accessories. There must have been a kaftan sale on at Heathrow/Dublin airports on hot pink kaftans which were then worn over chunky bodies (they are see through people, you are not hiding anything). There was the girl with the tattoo on her bum (well if you going to get a discreet tattoo your left butt cheek is not a bad choice) but she was wearing a transparent tankini (also in an ugly shade of pink). The most common fashion feature of the Pommy/Irish tourist category was the burnt redder than you can ever wish to imagine skin, bearing tell tale white marks where legs had been bent, sunscreen missed or man boobs which had created shelter.  But the standout highlight from this category, was the Irish lady who came to the pool each day in black and white leopard print bathers, an almost matching black and white skirt, and an almost matching velour shawl that handily doubled up as her beach towel.

Let me move on to the people of my kin, the Dutch. The Dutch can be congratulated because with the exception of some older couples wearing coordinating khaki (what is it with holiday makers wearing khaki?), the Dutch for the most part seem to wear the same as at home. I don’t know if this is because they are too tight to buy ‘holiday’ outfits, or whether the casual wardrobe is the domain of many Dutch people. This made it very easy for me to spot the Dutch people before hearing them. And no, it wasn’t the blonde hair and being tall, and all looking the same that gave it away (tongue planted firmly in cheek here). For the women it was leggings!

I’ve been pondering for ages why Dutch vrouw’s are so committed to wearing leggings (they look tres cute on 4 year old girls, but grown women?). I have reasoned they wear them so they don’t show their knickers when they are wearing a skirt and riding their bikes. However they didn’t seem to be on bikes while on holidays. For the Dutch women not wearing leggings it was the white pants that gave their nationality away. In the Netherlands no sooner has than the sun coming out on a pleasant day, the vrouws are out and about looking carefree and happy in their white pants/shorts/skirts. This has been some form of fashion culture shock for me as the well known but unspoken rule in Australia is this... If you are over a size 10, you do not, I repeat never, wear white on your bottom half unless it is white shoes, and even then they are questionable.

But the final fashion feature of the Dutchies was their brown skin. While I was away, I loved to scoff at their sunburnt skin, but no sooner had the evening past and the sun arisen the next day, these people would come out sporting a fabulous suntan. Not like the Pomms/Irish that looked much worse on the second day, the Dutch people I saw looked gorgeous and bronzed after hours in the sun. And yes I have repressed jealousy as my sun damaged Aussie skin is covered in moles and spots due to a misspent youth at the beach.

The Spaniards regardless of their age or sagginess of their boobs clearly saw that bikini tops were not required. And the slim young French girls were big fans of butt accessorising super short denim shorts. The kids under 5 wore with a mantra, “I shalt not be seen near the pool without floaties securely attached to each arm”. And crocs (how I hate crocs) were the most common child footwear. Havaianas (how I love ‘em) have clearly become a great Brazillian thong export (that is the thong that gives you toe cleavage rather than bottom cleavage). For those with young babies Bugaboo’s were mandatory, and those with older babies/toddlers (and the smarts to work out big prams are a pain in the proverbial) then Maclaren strollers were the absolute must have beach/pool accessory.

So while the fashion police were not present on my holiday. They would have been seriously busy handing out tickets and taking into custody people for fashion crimes. They could have started with this person who looks curiously a lot like me.