The Dutch are tough. Go-home-a-few-hours-after-giving-birth tough. Tylenol is the favored form of pain relief, whether you have the flu or have just had a C-section. Think your child has a virus? Best to administer the pain relief at home and wait three days. This, I discovered, was the accepted period after which I could visit the doctor without her asking me “And what do you expect me to do about this?”
Navigating the Dutch reluctance to medicate was one of many parenting lessons I hadn’t anticipated when we decided to move our family overseas. New expats who join one of the many multinationals, embassies or NGOs in the Netherlands are often given a course in learning to understand the local culture. As a stay-at-home mom I wasn’t privy to this formal education, but the cultural differences were nonetheless quickly made very clear.
The Dutch are known for being direct and blunt, often to a fault. It’s one thing to expect this at work, where your boss or underling will both freely tell you if they don’t think an idea is any good. It turned out it was also something I had to adapt to in my day-to-day life. On a trip to the local shops it wasn’t uncommon for strangers to stop and remark on my toddler’s behavior or whether the baby seemed too hot/cold/hungry/tired.
For expats who were raised to either repress any opinions or awkwardly skirt around delicate issues, this takes some getting used to. Initially I was too shocked to reply. After a while I was becoming defensive, assuming it wasn’t just my parenting skills that were under attack but also my status as an outsider. After a while however it became another part of daily life, and I appreciated that while people felt free to comment, they weren’t trying to make me feel bad. If something’s not quite right, the Dutch feel compelled to let you know. It is, after all, the neighborly thing to do. And in a country of 16 million people in roughly the size of Maryland, it pays to be neighborly.
Navigating these interactions was a big part of assimilating into a new way of life, as much as adopting the three kisses greeting (for me) or making eye contact when shaking the teacher’s hand at the beginning and end of the school day (for the kids). The longer we lived in the Netherlands, the more layers we began to understand and appreciate about our Dutch neighbors, at the same time recognizing just how different we were. At the end of seven years I still didn’t belong, but I did come to realize that while it’s easy to be aware of the obvious things that set us apart (language, height, biking prowess) as people and parents there was much to bind us together.
My big revelation about fitting in was realizing that my experience wasn’t necessarily going to be my children’s. I had just assumed that my children would absorb the awkwardness I felt being the ‘English people’ at our local Dutch school. While I often felt self conscious at school pickup, unable to slip into a group of moms and join the Dutch chatter, my children were largely oblivious. They quickly picked up the Dutch language in the way that only young children can: absorbing it, instinctively grasping the sentence structure and mimicking the accent. Their natural instinct to play and connect with their classmates meant that their nonnative status was noted and then they got along with the more important business of learning Dutch games and picking up the best swear words. Whenever anything went wrong at school I was quick to assume it was because we didn’t understand the cultural quirks, or were out of the loop, but being back home has reminded me that it can be just as difficult fitting in with the social politics at home as overseas. Sometimes having an obvious reason for any discomfort or sense of not quite fitting in can actually be a relief.
Living overseas also brought home to us that childhood memories are captured in the smaller moments of daily life. The opportunity to live in Europe seemed like the adventure of a lifetime and, unsure of how long the adventure would last, we committed to making the most of it, even when it involved traveling with three children under 5 years old. We would pack up the car and hit the road, or jump on any budget-airline specials and explore the countries around us. Now that we’re back home the kids enjoy talking about our travels, but what they really miss are the small pieces of their life. Their recollections of the Netherlands are tied up in the details — the cycle to school in the morning through the forest, getting slices of sausage from the local butcher, running into the chilly waters of the North Sea. Escaping the daily routine was a big part of what I was seeking when we left home, but these moments were the parts of our life overseas that made it feel real.
Now that we’re back home I’m enjoying being able to volunteer on school trips, and understand the school newsletters without having to employ Google translate. I blend easily into the crowd, instinctively understanding the rules of social engagement and have swapped three kisses for one. So would I do it all again, uproot our family and navigate a new culture with new rules and have to find my way around the supermarket all over again? In a heartbeat — and I think my children would say the same.
Follow Mihal Greener @mihalgreener.
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