Ten Reasons Amsterdam-Noord is the Perfect Post-Hipster Paradise

20 July 2016


First a confession: I’m not a hipster, even though I live in North Amsterdam aka Amsterdam-Noord – the equivalent of Berlin’s Kreuzberg, London’s Hackney or New York’s Williamsberg. It’s been the place to live in Amsterdam for about five years now and has been lauded the hipster capital of the Netherlands There’s plenty that’s as hipster-clichéd as the marketing term, from the restaurants and bars around the graffiti-covered industrial terrain at NSDM-wharf, to Oedipus microbrewery which has built itself a make-shift bar in an old factory building [Gedempte Hamerkanaal 85], to Café de Ceuvel which is a cool bar and simultaneously a project to reclaim and cleanse polluted land. Long gone are the days when Noord was the place the gallows hung and criminals and anti-socials were housed in an experimental closed community.* Urban wasteland regeneration, here we go.

The thing is, I moved here nine years ago, upscaling to give us space for our second child. I’m a bit too old to be a hipster but hey, even the hipsters have settled down and had kids by now. So here are the reasons Amsterdam-Noord is great for both pre- and post-hipster generations:


1. Space and light. The massive Noorderpark [http://noorderpark.nl/] runs right through the centre of the neighbourhood. If you cycle just 10 minutes further north you hit rural Waterland with its polders, dykes and windmills. You can’t get more Dutch.  


2. Few tourists. Fortunately, most tourist maps cover the area south of Central Station.


3. Free ferry across the IJ to blow away the cobwebs as you enter and leave your paradise. The river forms a psychological buffer to the stresses of city life.


4. Culture. EYE film museum & cinema, the Tolhuistuin complex (Paradiso, for great bands), plus there are all kinds of musical and theatrical activities going on in, e.g. at the Roze Tanker [http://www.hetisnu.nl/], and Noorderparkkamer. Readings at bookshop ‘Over het water’.

Great primary schools like Het Wespennest, De Bijenkorf, Elzenhagen and Montessori Boven ‘t IJ.


6.Great secondary schools like Hyperion Lyceum, Damstede Lyceum, De Nieuwe Havo, Clusius College.


7. Idyllic Dutch streets full of crooked houses such as the Nieuwendammerdijk and Buiksloterdijk give a real village feel.


8. Friendly neighbours. My street has its own Facebook group and plenty of joint activities for young and old such as barbecues, in-house concerts and Easter egg hunts. The pavement becomes a massive communal living room in the summer.


9. Safe places for children to play away from busy traffic. Lots of parks and playgrounds, a skateboard park, paddling pool, new outdoor swimming pool. And lots of bike paths!


10. Waterfront restaurants providing a fantastic view plus reasonably-priced, delicious food like Hotel Goud Fazant, Stork, Il Pecorino Wilhelmina Dok, Loetje aan ‘t IJ. And near-the-waterfront restaurant, Café Modern.



Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Friesland

7 July 2016

I’ve just spent a week on the beautiful island of Terschelling learning the second official language of the Netherlands: Frisian. Friesland is a northern province with a long coastal line and a cluster of stunning islands. The archipelago of islands forms a chain along the coast of north-western Europe and belong not just to the Netherlands but also to Germany and Denmark as you proceed further north. Terschelling (Skylge in Frisian) has long been my favourite holiday destination in the Netherlands. It combines sweeping sandy beaches with dunes, pine forests and a large nature reserve. Think elaborately-layered skies, huge expanses of sand, and seabirds.




I was one of four Dutch-to-English translators invited on a beginner’s crash course in Frisian. A forthcoming anthology of Frisian literature needs to be translated for a British publisher and we’ll be rolling up our sleeves. The plan is to continue to improve our Frisian over the coming months, but luckily there will also be a Dutch translation we can consult. No one in their right mind would agree to translate from a language they’ve learned in a week. Years of exposure and cultural immersion are necessary to understand all the nuances of a language and produce a good translation. That said, the course was pretty intensive – right from the start we were taught in Frisian by the brilliant Anne Tjerk Popkema (Frisian men tend to be called either Anne or Tjerk – he has both), the translator of The Hobbit, amongst other books.

The reason we could understand enough Frisian to be taught in it is because it is from the same language family as Dutch (Germanic). The two languages have existed side by side throughout the centuries and given that all Frisians are bilingual and also speak Dutch, there’s been a fair amount of linguistic seepage. So far so good. But there’s an added complication. There isn’t just one type of Frisian. Broadly speaking, there are actually three different regional variations of the language. And like many minority languages, it tends to be spoken rather than written, so spellings vary individually. What we were learning was a kind of standardized Frisian that no one actually speaks.

Many of the words sound like Dutch words but once they’ve been written down, it’s harder to recognize them. And as in many related languages, there are ‘false friends’. Net in Dutch (just) is not the same as net in Frisian (not). A humorous advert plays with this distinction by having Frisians say ‘Het kan net’ (It’s not possible) to Dutch tourists who refuse to go away. Frisian is sometimes described as English’s first cousin, though to be honest, modern Frisian would be completely unintelligible to monoglot English speakers and more likely to be understood by Dutch, Germans and Danes. Old forms of Frisian are clearly related to (old) English, however, and have shared words like the and that.

Most people have heard of Frisian cows and there is a link: the first Frisians were cattle farmers, though the cows came in all shapes and sizes back then, around 3400BC. They weren’t the pretty black-and-white variety we have today. Other famous Frisian exports include horses (Dan Brown and his wife breed them), the dancing spy Mata Hari and supermodel Doutzen Kroes. The islands of Terschelling and Vlieland also produce cranberries. ‘Cranberries: good for pissing’ was printed on the stickers from one gift shop I visited to buy a thank you present for my mum who’d been looking after my kids all week. By then I’d learned enough Frisian to figure out the mistake – the Frisian verb to pee is pisje.

A surprise test on the last day of the course revealed my geographical ignorance of the area. The famous 200km-long skating tour, the Elfstedentocht, goes through eleven Frisian towns. I’m going to learn them off by heart in both languages in case I ever get tested again. Repeat after me: Ljouwert (Leeuwarden), Snits (Sneek), Drylts (IJlst), Sleat (Sloten), Starum (Stavorum), Hylpen (Hinderloopen), Warkum (Workum), Boalsert (Bolsward), Harns (Harlingen), Frjentsjer (Franeker), Dokkum (Dokkum).



With thanks to AFUK, the Dutch Foundation for Literature and Provincie Fryslân.

Dutch Birthday Treats (Traktatie)

9 June 2016


The pragmatic Dutch approach life as sensibly and realistically as possible, without too much fuss, stress or pomp and circumstance. But birthdays are an entirely different phenomenon. The Dutch are refreshingly sentimental about them, “congratulating” the birthday celebrant, parents, siblings, significant others and anyone close to them really. I initially found it strange that a congratulations was in order for simply surviving another year.


The Dutch even have the cultural practice of having a ‘birthday calendar’ perfectly posted on the bathroom door so you can inspect it when you’re sitting on the toilet first thing in the morning. It’s a faux pas not to give birthday greetings to loved ones and even acquaintances.


There’s a tradition of bringing a traktatie, a little treat, to school (and work). But here’s the caveat: there doesn’t seem to be any overachieving Dutch moms who foster silly social expectations about the heights these school traktaties should reach. (Though maybe there really is a traktatie production behind the scenes that as a foreigner I can nonchalantly ignore.)


It’s actually often a bragging right if a mom (or dad) discovers an easy, cost-effective and time efficient manner to make the treats.  


The fourth birthday is an important one. It’s when a child informally “graduates” from preschool (or créche) and heads over to the local elementary school. So the fourth birthday is both a celebration of the day of their birth and a bittersweet farewell to a special stage in their life.


The American mom in me couldn’t resist taking this as an opportunity to let the often repressed, wanna-be Martha Stewart come out. I wanted to give a special treat to my son’s preschool classmates and a token of appreciation to his three teachers. But I also looked forward to the Dutch mentality of not over-stressing. (Starting next year, I’ll definitely get him to help out on making his birthday treats.)


I decided that Bram’s fourth birthday treat would be miniature cupcakes and a 3D pencil giveaway card. I outsourced the miniature cupcakes to my talented baker friend Sweettoot which saved me time and still ticked off on the homemade (read = made with love) taste.


Added bonus: Bringing a birthday treat is also a great way sneak in a little 15 minute party at the end of the day at school. The preschool teachers are experts in entertaining the two to four year-olds with various birthday songs; there’s a built-in, cost-free venue, minimal preparation and clean-up, and no hurt feelings since everyone is invited.


How To Make a 3D Pencil Giveaway Card


Step 1

Take a picture of child with his arm extended into a fist. Don’t hesitate going paparazzi as it may take several shots to get the desired 3D effect that you are going after.


Step 2

Customise picture using whatever photo-editing software you feel the most comfortable with (Photoshop and Pic Monkey are easy).


Step 3

Print however many photos you need.


Step 4

Using a paper knife (or a really sharp knife with a small blade), cut one slit above the first and another slit below the fist.


Step 5

Insert pencil (or whatever it is you want to add).


Step 6

Admire your handiwork and feel like Martha Stewart.




Is it normal…? Parenting a Puppy Part 2

27 May 2016


 “Maaike did an amazing job taking this photo. Like small children, puppies are in constant motion”

© Maaike Koning http://www.maaikekoning.nl/


In my last blog post  I wrote that puppies were now being raised using what are essentially positive parenting techniques. Bad behaviour should be ignored and good behaviour reinforced with praise. I figured it might be easier with a dog than a child since you might not lose your temper so easily – we have lower expectations for dogs than kids (note to self: return to this in a later blog!).  We’ve had the puppy for a month now and ignoring bad behaviour has been the first thing to go out of the window. Positive parenting puppy failure #1. The thing is there are limits, if there’s one word you need with a young puppy, it’s a resounding ‘no!’. This is primarily for reasons of safety – both the puppy’s and your own. Gnawing at electricity cables. No. Biting limbs and extremities. No. Tearing the clothes off your body. No. There are some activities that just have to be stopped right away. I can take away a cushion and give the dog a toy to chew on instead, but when its teeth are sunk into your kid’s arm, it’s another story.

There is some less desirable behaviour that can be ignored. Taking a puppy out for a walk is like going somewhere with a two-year-old. They’re distracted by everything, want to run off all over the place and alternate between racing along as fast as they can and stopping, lying down and refusing to move. They also pick up everything they see, from dirty tissues and random litter to pen tops and plastic bags containing other dog’s poos. When my daughter Ina was two, she wanted to be carried everywhere. She wasn’t keen on walking. My friend Caroline taught me what she called ‘the boring hold’. Have the child walk and when she whines ‘carrryyyy’,  pick her up and just stand there waiting until she asks to be put down again so you can actually go somewhere. When Pippa lies down and refuses to move, I employ the boring hold technique by turning away from her and standing very still. So far it’s been working.

Another thing about being a first-time owner that is reminiscent of being a first-time parent is that gnawing anxiety about not knowing stuff. ‘Shit, someone left me in charge of a puppy and I’m not fit for the purpose’ is what flashes through my head when I have to do something complicated like take the puppy with me to a work meeting that includes getting buses and the metro. Travel plus being in charge of a small, helpless being is right up there in my list of nightmare scenarios. Anxiety also causes a lot of frenzied online googling. ‘Is it normal for my girl puppy to have something that looks like a willy?’ (the answer was yes, she’ll grow into it. Weird, right?). ‘Is it normal for my puppy’s poop to be a different colour every time?’ Sure.

And then there’s the mad hour she has at a different time every day. A friend who’s a bit of an animal activist and against pedigree dogs (he works at Varkens in Nood – which is like a Dutch pig rescue charity) happened to mention ‘rage syndrome’ or Sudden Onset Aggression which can affect Golden Retrievers and other family-friendly breeds like Spaniels and Labradors.  Apparently, they suddenly go all mental and bitey and there’s nothing you can do about it. Pippa’s mad hour looks a bit like sudden onset aggression, the whites of her eyes appear, she races around with her ears flat to her head and jumps up nipping at everything in a total frenzy. Googling didn’t help assuage my concerns but last night at puppy training, Martijn learned it was normal puppy behaviour. Thank God for that.

One final thing I’ve learned this month is let sleeping dogs lie. It’s when they’re at their sweetest, plus it’s the only time you can get some rest (or work done).


What Disney Can Learn from the Efteling

25 May 2016


For my son’s fourth birthday celebration, we decided to celebrate it at the Efteling in lieu of a party. We would spend two nights and three days at the Efteling Village Bosrijk, a holiday village that is part of the amusement park. We wanted something memorable, easy, convenient, that required absolutely no planning, or creativity on our parts. (Read = exhausted expat parents).


The Efteling is the Dutch version of Disneyland – a theme park dedicated to classic fairytales, rollercoasters, water rides and other attractions. But in reality, the Efteling is actually the original family-oriented theme park established in 1952. Whispers abound that Walt Disney himself happily took notes and inspiration from the Efteling to create Anaheim’s Disneyland three years later (not true).  


Though I haven’t visited any of Disney theme parks with my boys, it’s not hard for me to recollect the memories from my childhood of beloved rides – It’s a Small World, Mad Tea Party, the Matterhorn, and Pirates of the Caribbean. And of course,  Disney Grad Night when my entire high school class flew down to Los Angeles to party with thousands of other graduating seniors from 12:00 A.M. till 7:00 A.M. So when I begrudgingly agreed to go (I had an irrational “loyalty” to Disney), I was quite surprised with just how refreshingly magical the Efteling was.


From an American perspective,  I’m convinced it’s one of the best kept secrets of the Netherlands (What American has actually heard of the Efteling?). I’m actually so enamoured with my Efteling experience that I wished Disneyland would take some notes from this Dutch staple.  In particular, these are the things that Disneyland can learn from the Efteling:



It’s gezellig (Old-fashion charm)

To appreciate the old-fashioned charm of the Efteling, you need to learn about the Dutch concept of gezelligheid. It’s pronounced with a guttural g as if you’re clearing your throat: heh-zel-ick-hide.  Gezelligheid is an  untranslatable word that encompasses the feelings of warmth, love, coziness, and belonging. Imagine drinking a cup of hot chocolate milk by the fireside when it’s freezing outside, or waking up to homemade pancakes for Sunday brunch. The Efteling feels like it’s straight out of a Normal Rockwell painting – good old-fashioned charm and nostalgia centered around family values and children. It not only looks old-fashioned (circa 1950s time warp), but it also feels as if time stood still. It’s essentially a beautifully manicured garden with thousands of flowers, with every single detail meant to make you feel at home right away.  


Unadulterated Fairytales

At the heart of the Efteling is the Fairy Tale Forest, a 12-acre maze of interactive, beautifully designed dioramas designed by illustrator and painter Anton Pieck and engineered by film director Peter Reijnders. The twenty-five dioramas are based on unadulterated fairy tales from the Grimm brothers, Hans Christian Anderson and Charles Perrault. Think of it as what you get if Tim Burton and Pixar Animation Studios collaborated together and created something refreshingly authentic based on tales of yore. I loved seeing old-school fairy tales come to life through the eyes of my toddler – Little Red Riding Hood, Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fairies, The Emperor’s New Clothes, etc. (And it worked – he’s now really into being read fairytales before bed).




Efteling tickets are quite affordable – starting at 35 for a day pass, not at $100 like some other places. And knowing the Dutch love affair of a good bargain, there are often discounts available at local grocery stores at certain times a year and online. It’s wonderful how the Efteling theme park is generally accessible to the middle-class without the fear of going broke.  An added bonus: not only are you allowed to bring your own food and drinks, but there are plenty of picnic tables and benches scattered around to enjoy.


A Considerably Less Commercial Experience

It’s quite a relief that the Efteling is a considerably much less commercial experience – not an endless landmine of temptation, heartache, disappointments, and negotiating with exhausted and overstimulated children. I could only recall two gift shops – one at the entrance and one midway – selling reasonably priced souvenirs, and tastefully incorporated within the backdrop. The focus is on the experience and memories made at the Efteling, not the illusion of purchasing “happiness” though prohibitively expensive movie-tie-in paraphernalia.




BONUS Holle Bolle Gijs – A Talking Bin

Holle Bolle Gijs is a talking trash bin that yells out “Papier hier, papier hier ” (paper here, paper here) over and over again to the amusement and pure joy of toddlers and adults alike. When something is placed in the bin, Holle Bolle Gijs says Thank-you in different languages, or “Dat’s lekker” (that’s delicious). No wonder the Efteling is incredibly immaculate – they’ve ingeniously “tricked” all the little children to collect rubbish to place in Holle Bolle Gijs mouth. Suffice to say, our four year old spent considerable time making sure that Holle Bolle Gijs was well-fed.


Parenting a Dutch Puppy

10 May 2016

One day my husband woke up and decided he wanted a puppy. This was the man who’d always said ‘over my dead body’. My son had gone around telling people, ‘When daddy dies, we’re going to get a dog.’ Well daddy’s not dead but he might be having a teensy-weensy midlife crisis.‘Better than a motorbike’ friends keep saying. But a motorbike doesn’t pee and chew up everything in your house. And barking is a bit like revving. I stalled for a few months but he really, really did want a dog and so now we’ve got Pippa, an eleven-week-old golden retriever. The kids are over the moon.


Perhaps Martijn was feeling nostalgic for the days of clearing up shit and vomit and being in charge of something small and helpless. Ben and Ina are 11 and 9 and, having grown up here in the Netherlands, remarkably independent and self-sufficient. Ben gets up in the morning, makes his lunch and takes himself off to school. He also makes his own way to his dance lessons three times a week. The Dutch have a saying ‘Je hebt er geen kind aan’ (literally ‘it’s not like having a child’) which can be used for many different situations but basically means ‘it’s/he’s no bother’. Very appropriate here. And Ina has just started cycling to and from school independently too. As a freelancer, it means I rarely leave the house anymore, which is quite good because when it’s not sleeting it’s hailing (this week’s heatwave aside).


Only now I’ll have to go out every two hours during the day to take the new baby for a toilet stop. It’s slightly better than changing nappies, but bagging up doggy poop isn’t much fun either.  I’ve started comparing puppies and babies and here are my findings so far:


Raising a Dutch Puppy

parenting puppy

Friends of ours who got a puppy last year tipped us off that rearing dogs had evolved in the same way as rearing children. It is all positive parenting and no punishment these days. Like with the positive parenting method so popular in the Netherlands, the word ‘no’ has been banished from the carer’s vocabulary. Undesirable behaviour should be redirected into desirable behaviour, i.e. give the puppy something else to chew on. And ignore barking.

It’ll be interesting to see how well this works – ignoring bad behaviour and praising good behaviour. I get the feeling it’ll be slightly easier with a dog than with a child. There’s less at stake and it might be easier not to lose your temper. We’ll see. Martijn and Ben have already signed up for puppy school


p.s. Want to get a glimpse of our daily Dutched reality? Come join us on Instagram.

Meternity Leave – What the Dutch Have Been Doing All Along

6 May 2016

Meternity leave


Grab some popcorn and get yourself settled. The mommysphere is up in arms thanks to Meghann Foye’s New York Post article “I want all the perks of maternity leave – without having any kids.”


Faye is a thirty-eight year old self-proclaimed workaholic who just released her debut novel Meternity about a woman who fakes a pregnancy so she can take a much needed break. Faye explains her premise:


“But the more I thought about it, the more I came to believe in the value of a ‘meternity’ leave – which is, to me, a sabbatical-like break that allows women and, to a lesser degree, men to shift their focus to the part of their lives that doesn’t revolve around their jobs.”


From a distance it seems like a brilliant publicity plot. Taking into consideration that Faye is a magazine editor, chances are she may know a bit about garnering media attention. Sadly though, she missed her chance at a mea culpa and redeeming herself to the good graces of American mommies when she canceled an appearance on Good Morning America, and bungled her interview on UK’s This Morning. And given the current real-life struggle that American parents have with even getting paid maternity leave, this whole approach seems inappropriate, self-centred and daft.


Because maternity leave is anything but relaxing. Chances are, maternity leave entails a woman’s body being ripped apart (either their lady gardens or their bellies) and overloaded with hormones while having to cater to a helpless, tiny human who demands constant attention, love and care. Even if a woman had one of those magical births with the baby arriving on a bed of roses at the end of a rainbow with unicorns, fairies and pixies, the first few weeks of a baby’s life is anything but restful. If you ever see a new mom who exudes rest, it probably means that someone else is helping her with the baby.  

meternity leave


Dig a little deeper and this isn’t about maternity leave, another dimension to the mommy wars, or even about children. It’s really about work-life balance.


All of this went largely unnoticed in the Netherlands. I suspect that it’s a moot point here because going Dutch at work translates to: not working all the time. On any given weekday, especially on sunny days, you’ll see Dutch people on the terrace enjoying life. It took me a long time to understand and appreciate the Dutch penchant for not working.


The Dutch prioritize a good work-life balance by being the part-time champions of the world; 26.8% of men and 76.6% of women work less than 36 hours a week. Self-deprecating humour aside, the Dutch have discovered that having a life outside of work allows them to be even more productive at work and more content with life in general. And apparently, the Dutch remain competitive in the global economy.


Dutch women in particular love to work part-time, whether or not they have kids. Childless Dutch women have no qualms about working only for three to four days to make time to work on some personal hobby like photography, gardening, or just hanging out with friends for brunch.


It’s even perfectly acceptable for moms to send their children to daycare as a sort of mental health break. While some may consider it a lackadaisical approach to a career or parenting, Dutch women understand the importance of self-care. Like the airplane analogy of putting one’s face-mask on first in the case of an emergency, Dutch moms have internalised the importance of making time for themselves. And though this may sound selfish, they and their children are much happier because of it.
Rather than aspiring to be stylish like the French or trendily sophisticated like the Scandinavians, perhaps Americans should set their sights on the Dutch. Faye and anyone else advocating a “meternity” leave should seriously consider moving to the Netherlands. Though Foye may have brilliantly coined the term meternity, the Dutch have been doing it all along.



photo of Rina Mae Acosta with her baby by Elma Coetzee

A Love Letter to the Netherlands

3 May 2016

A Love Letter to the Netherlands


Dear Dutchland,

You’re officially known as the Netherlands mainly by the Dutch, but often referred to simply as Holland by the rest of the world, or the Low Countries for those who are more intimately acquainted with you. But to me, you are “Dutchland”, the world in which I choose to see you and turn my face towards the sun (if we’re lucky and it’s around).

Visiting Amsterdam to enjoy your country’s liberal attitude towards certain illicit behaviours is what you’re (in)famous for. But actually moving here and setting up roots, especially in one of your villages, is not a “thing” like moving to Paris, or somewhere under the Tuscan sun.

Celebrating King’s Day, Liberation Day and Memorial Day has put me in a reflective mood. There are several facets of life here that has enriched mine and my family’s life. Let me count the ways.


Being fashionably thrifty

It’s quite refreshing to live in a culture that embraces the virtue of living within one’s means. The Dutch understand that #thestruggleisreal and don’t try to put up to pretenses. Perhaps the best known example is the urban legend about Prime Minister Willem Drees and an American diplomat after World War II. When the American diplomat came to visit the Prime Minister’s home to discuss what America could do to support the Dutch economy, apparently Mrs. Drees served him a cup of tea with just ONE cookie. The American was so shocked at the meager hospitality that he considered it a clear indication that the Dutch needed a lot of assistance to climb out of poverty. Little did the American know that the “one cookie experience” and the modest home was simply Dutch thriftiness.


The biking life

The bicycle isn’t some trendy hipster accessory. It’s an actual means of transportation for the Dutch. And I’m a certified bakfiets (cargo bike) mommy which is akin to the suburban American mom with a minivan. Though at times it can be a pain biking through hail, snow, wind, and rain – sometimes all in one day – I’m grateful for the regular dose of exercise and not to be living a big portion of my life stuck in traffic and fighting for parking spaces. I also look forward to the days when my kids can cycle independently to and from school, their various sports practices and whatever it is on their social agenda.


Love Letter to the Netherlands


Yes to sandwiches for breakfast and lunch and pancakes for dinner

A Singaporean expat friend once asked me, “What’s the difference between a Dutch breakfast and a Dutch lunch?”  I was stumped.

She answered,  “The three hours in between the two meals.”

Once you get past the monotony of having sandwiches for breakfast and lunch, you realize how pragmatic and genius it is. No need to think or spend precious time preparing elaborate meals. Adulting with a four-year-old and a baby has been so much easier thanks to the no fuss approach to meals. Just set the table with breads, slices of cheese, butter and hagelslag and they’re happily eating. On days when we just had enough of all the crying and tantrums, we can just serve pancakes for dinner. And since the Dutch are the tallest people in the world, this way of eating can’t be detrimental to the physical development of children.


Refreshingly direct and honest communication

The Dutch are often mistaken for being rude and too opinionated, especially by expats. But after living here almost ten years, I’ve learned to bite the bullet and appreciate it. After all the tears and insecurities, I’ve developed a thick skin. I always know where I stand. And I’m convinced it’s one of the reasons why I’m so much happier – no second guessing, no passive aggressive communication, no uncertainty. If anything happens to be lost in translation, we can all just have a meeting to talk it out. And as they say, all the problems in the world can be solved with a pot of tea and a heart to heart.


Not giving a f*ck

One of the most liberating aspects of living in this country is that the Dutch don’t seem to give a f*ck. They live life according to their values and don’t try to live up to societal standards or bow to the pressure to be perfect and successful. It extends to parenting where they try their absolute best, but at the end of the day, being good enough more than suffices. And their parenting approach leads to their kids being the happiest in the world.



Rina Mae

P.S. If you love procrastinating and want to join an awesome Facebook community, come join our page. I promise I won’t be too annoying.

The Life-Changing Magic of King’s Day

28 April 2016

The Life Changing Magic of King's Day ©Michele Hutchison

Each year my kids get to have their own Marie Kondo moment. As Koningsdag – King’s Day – approaches the time comes  to sort through all their old toys and decide what to sell. Do you still play with it? No. Have you grown out of it? Yes. Onto the pile. Many of these toys were accumulated at previous King’s Day markets for a couple of euros at the most. My husband and I are sometimes glad to see the back of them – particularly those of the cheap plastic, noisy variety.  I admit it, joy is sparked in my mind when I see those go on the pile. Less joyous is the way some of the toys selected for sale mark the end of an era. A Miffy hand puppet, dolls, a beloved train set or a set of Early Reader books. But there is no room for sentimentality – the more the children sell, the more cash they  make to buy new toys.

There is a long tradition of buying and selling your old toys in the Netherlands. Two areas in Amsterdam are set aside for children’s free markets: the Vondelpark and the NDSM wharf on the north bank of the river IJ. Grown-up Dutchies turn the rest of the city into an orange-festooned party zone and random junk market. There’s a lot of loud music and beer and drunken revelry so it’s better for the kids to have their own venues where there is relative peace and quiet.

The Life Changing Magic of King's Day

©Michele Hutchison


If you opt for the Vondelpark you can take a blanket to spread out on the grass for the kids to display their wares on. Enterprising children can also earn money by singing, dancing or playing a musical instrument, sometimes blowing their very first notes by the sound of it. Or they paint the faces or fingernails of passers-by a clumsy orange. I tend to make a run for it when I see them to be honest.

The NSDM wharf is home to the monthly flea market so you can hire a proper market stall for the princely sum of €7. Or you can simply put down a blanket on the tarmac which we did last year. It was rather uncomfortable, even after the children had managed to acquire an inflatable cushion and a prayer stool to sit on. This year we hired a stall and as the date neared, we began to worry about the weather forecast. Hailstorms and strong winds threatened to put a dampener on the celebrations. We decided to simply brave it, like proper Dutch people. It would instil some extra grit in the kids. Martijn bought a canvas sheet and I transferred all the toys to plastic crates with lids. When we arrived, my hobby sailor husband quickly strung up the canvas, employing his canny way with knots. All Dutch men know how to raise a sail and tie a seaman’s knot, perhaps they are born with the skill.   

The canvas kept us out of the wind, more or less, and protected the stall from the intermittent showers. Between them, Ben and Ina earned €34 which is not too bad, but not a great hourly rate for freezing your ass off in the cold. We got rid of just over half the junk. But no worries. Everything left over simply gets stored until next year’s market.

King’s Day 2016 marked the end of another era. Ben didn’t find anything to buy this year. He’d grown out of most of what was on offer. Ina, however, found herself some off-white cuddly toys, a Sudoku board game and this fantastic bargain. I wonder whether it will still spark joy in her mind next year. Somehow I fear it will.


The Life Changing Magic of King's Day
©Michele Hutchison

How I Ended Up in Dutchland and Why I Decided to Stay

26 April 2016



photo copyright © Gelya Bogatishcheva


Next month I’ll have been living in Amsterdam for twelve years. It’s the longest I’ve lived anywhere. Until then my life seemed to have followed a rhythm in sixes, from birth to six years, from six to twelve, twelve to eighteen, then the six university years of moving every six months, and then six years in London. I didn’t come here for love, though I did marry a Dutchman. Actually, I was married to a Dutchman before I lived in Holland. We had a long-distance commuter marriage and that suited me just fine. (One of my exes once called me commitment-phobic, but we won’t go into that.) In any case, Amsterdam/London on alternate weekends went smoothly, until I got pregnant. And the pregnancy worked just fine, mainly on my own, until it was time to almost give birth. It was only logical for me to take my six-months paid maternity leave in Amsterdam, so off I went, 37 weeks pregnant and about to pop.


The Dutchman (he’s called Martijn* but only proper Dutch people can pronounce that, my mum spent years calling him Mar-tidge-en) picked me up in a van and drove me and my boxes and boxes of books from my publishing job back over the channel to his home city. I didn’t pop. It was six weeks before the baby deigned to make an appearance (another six). But by the time I’d crawled through the lonely isolation of a maternity leave in a foreign country, I realised I was going to have to change my plans.



photo copyright © Gelya Bogatishcheva


What kind of a fruitloop would try to bring up a child in London when all the advantages of a happy, relaxed Dutch childhood were staring me in the face? Friends back home who had become mothers were killing themselves trying to get from the crèche to the office on time and back again in the rush hour. There was no let- up of work pressure, and on top of that there was pressure to be the perfect mum. Perfect mums did things like teaching their kids to read and write before they even went to school, when would I have time for that? When I took a look around me I saw that the Dutch have:

  • a fantastic, non-fee paying school system
  • relaxed parenting styles
  • kids playing freely outdoors
  • a better work/life balance for parents
  • no horrendous public transport issues – you could simply bike everywhere

It was a total no-brainer. And here I am almost twelve years later. I’ve got two children, a son Benjamin and a daughter, Ina, who is two and a half years younger. And my life has stopped moving in sixes. Although in six years’ time, I may be tempted to move again.


*Martijn is pronounced something like Moarr-tey-n. Only the Moarr bit has to be nice and short, not elongated.