How Italians Raise their Kids: An Italian Education by Tim Parks

16 February 2017

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I’ve been spending more time in Utrecht recently. Last time I was at the station, I was lured into the glass-fronted ‘Boekspot’ in the Hoog Catharijne mall. The boekspot is a free library swap-shop where visitors are welcome to pick up a book and leave behind ones they’ve finished. I found myself face to face with a book I’d intended to read years ago and had never got around to – An Italian Education by Tim Parks. It hopped into my bag.

While you might think Pamela Druckerman and Amy Chua invented the foreign-parenting memoir, you’d be wrong. Parks got there earlier, in 1996 to be exact. An Italian Education describes the way Italian families live and how they bring up their children, from the perspective of an English translator-writer married to a local and raising three kids. I found it interesting, enlightening and constantly entertaining. I’m also rather glad I read it after Rina and I had written our book, The Happiest Kids in the World. It sets the bar high, certainly in literary terms.  

Early in the book, Parks broaches an issue I struggled with myself when attempting to describe Dutch character: ‘I have always been suspicious of travel writing, of attempts to establish that elusive element which might or might not be national character, to say in sweeping and general terms, this place is like this, that place is like that.’  And yet he comes to realize that places are different: ‘Once one has discounted individual traits, class attitudes, generation gaps, and of course the myriad manifestations of different personalities, still a substrate of national character does exist. The French are French somehow, the German are predictably German, the Italians, as I was slowly discovering, indisputably Italian.’ Parks decides to describe only what he knows intimately, his surroundings and his own experiences.

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So how do the Italians bring up their children? Well, with ‘immense caution, inhibition and a suffocating awareness of everything, but everything, that can go wrong.’ Woe betide they catch a chill after a dip in the sea. Although protected and confined, children can be spoiled rotten and bribed without guilt. Babies are public property – everyone fusses over them. And nobody minds their own business in an Italian family with everyone arguing around a noisy dinner table. Naturally, Italians are food-obsessed: ‘spoon-feeding their children years after the English have stopped, just to make sure they have enough of everything. It’s almost the only issue over which they seem willing to stoop to physical coercion.’

A few more choice details: there is no word for ‘bedtime’ in Italian since children don’t have them. Parks bucks the trend by sending his to bed by 7pm, British style. Houses are to be kept pristine so playing is discouraged. Play in itself is tricky too. There aren’t many playgrounds and parks (or at least not in Park’s region) and schools don’t have playing fields. If kids want to play football, they have to join a local club. Dads are not considered trustworthy enough to look after children. There’s even a lullaby in which children sing their fathers to sleep rather than the other way round. Suffering from a desperate lack of sleep at the time of writing, the author describes this all with utter hilarity.

Italy’s cult of la mamma is probably its most famous parenting cliché. ‘But beyond diet and swaddling and coddling and funding, Mamma has something else to offer: a suffused eroticism.’ Parks mentions a grown man who still shares a bed with his! The obsession with mammas means that dads don’t need to feel guilty about time spent away from the home. Childcare is not their responsibility. ‘The whole mythology of Italian bourgeois life,’ the writer describes, ‘is the small-time artisan slaving (but creatively, in his own workshop) for the sake of his wife and children.’ Gender conditioning is rife. Little girls must stay safely in the shallows while boys are allowed to dive from the rocks. There is more, much more, in this book but I’m not going to summarize it all.

The funniest thing is his conclusion: children in Italy never grow up and become independent. Their parents continue to support them long after they have reached adulthood, subsidizing their rent and even looking after their children, so that now the situation has become absurd. ‘One only fears that if they (my generation) have to look after their grandchildren, they won’t be equipped for it, having had so little experience.’ And the book ends with an encore of the joke – no better place to grow up than Italy? No, no better place NOT to grow up.italian-parenting-3

Gezelligheid vs Hygge

9 January 2017

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Hygge is being pitched as one of the reasons Danish adults are the happiest in the world. My first thought is that hygge is a brilliant marketing concept plus an appealing interior decorating trend. To me, hygge suggests wrapping up warm inside while it is snowing outdoors, lovely chunky knits, candles, log fires, pork roast, mulled wine and gingerbread, hearts and fairy lights. What’s not to like? It’s kind of Christmas but without the stress. On the other hand, when I read descriptions of it suggesting it’s not just about being warm and cozy but also about togetherness, I’m strangely reminded of that supposedly uniquely Dutch concept of gezelligheid.
Mind you, gezelligheid can’t really compete on the design front – you’re more likely to see anoraks and waterproof trousers since we get more rain than snow. And though Dutch people like blankets, they’re rather fond on the fleece kind. To make matters worse, they are still wearing onesies long after that trend was declared as dead as old Marley. My kids bought new ones again at Christmas. Incidentally, yesterday I came across an article by a Dutch journalist who moved to Denmark. She struggled to fit in at first, before realizing she dressed more scruffily, with stains on her clothes and mismatching accessories. The Danes are described as neat and tidy, law-abiding, and more formal. They didn’t get her silly jokes or her Dutch bluntness.

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Anyway, let’s look at the attributes of gezelligheid. In Holland it takes place in ‘brown cafés’ where you drink beer or genever or at home with a borrel with bitterballen and croquettes, or while skating together on natural ice. Gezelligheid is claiming a section of the park by stringing bunting in the trees and having a barbecue or picnic on a rug, or stopping at market stalls selling oliebollen. A bustling street market is always gezellig. Gezellig shouldn’t be expensive or pretentious. It should be accessible to all. It’s a biscuit tin on the table and a mug of coffee. It’s a spontaneous ‘koek –en-zopie’ stall selling warming refreshments for after your ice-skate. It’s hot chocolate or pea soup and the sound of lively chatter. It’s hygge but without the fairy magic.

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My uncle married a Danish woman so I grew up with a half-Danish cousin, Lotte. She tells me hygge definitely existed in Denmark when she was young. ‘You would have a hygge evening on your own or hygge with friends – an enjoyable cosy get-together. It’s not a new invention, though I’m a bit surprised it’s suddenly everywhere (Maybe all the Nordic dramas!)’

In his beautifully-produced and well-written The Little Book of Hygge – The Danish Way to Live Well, Meik Wiking writes that the word hygge originates from a Norwegian word meaning ‘well-being’ (in comparison, gezelligheid originates from the word for ‘companionship’). In fact, he even goes on to discuss the similarity between the two concepts before concluding that the Dutch variant is more sociable, while the Danish one is more insular. He writes that as a researcher at the Institute for Happiness, being with other people is perhaps the most important ingredient to happiness, so I’ll take that as a bonus point for gezelligheid.
The dark side of hygge is that since it is close-knit and home-focused, it’s apparently hard to break into Danish society as an outsider. But there’s plenty of positives too. It’s appealing to introverts, and simplicity and modesty are central tenets. Ingredients for hygge are light (though the Danes are unwittingly poisoning themselves with all the candles – oh no!), warmth, equality, togetherness, comfort and shelter. They sound like the perfect ingredients for happiness and getting through the dark days of winter. It’s not surprising that Brits are jumping on the bandwagon.


How to have the happiest life in the world? Grow up in Holland and then move to Denmark

5 January 2017

Why I Moved to Dutchland

photo by Gelya Bogatishcheva

So here’s the thing, Dutch children are the happiest children in the world according to UNICEF (their findings were based on World Health Organization/HBSC long-term research results). Rina and I attempted to figure out why by writing our book, The Happiest Kids in the World. We found plenty of factors that would account for childhood happiness such as little pressure at school, good relationships with parents, lots of autonomy and time to play. The Netherlands is also a relatively safe and affluent country to grow up in.

However, according to the United Nations World Happiness Report, Danish adults are the happiest adults in the world and the Dutch rate at only seventh place. Strange isn’t it? Obviously, the best environment for being a happy child is not the same as for a happy adult. Having greatly enjoyed Helen Russell’s The Year of Living Danishly, I can pinpoint a couple of areas in which the Danes are ahead of the Dutch. For example, Danish adults are very trusting of each other and trust in society provides a sense of security and belonging. What’s more, Danish fathers are even more hands-on than their Dutch equivalents and Danish society seems further along the route to gender equality.

I decided to go through the WHO results published as Social Determinants of Health and Well-Being Among Young People and compare what it said about young Danes. What could be holding them back in childhood? For a start, there is a big difference in their reported relationships with parents. Danish teenagers are down at 18th place (out of the 29 countries surveyed) in relation to ‘finding it easy to talk to their mothers’ and at 15th for ‘finding it easy to talk to their fathers’, whereas the Dutch top both those charts. I’ve heard said that the Danish are more formal toward each other than the Dutch, perhaps they are more authoritarian parents?

Both Danish and Dutch children share a culture of older children not tending to go out with friends during the week – probably because they are doing homework and playing sport, at least that’s my experience here. Incidentally, Greenland is party land for teenagers and the country with the lowest number of teenage virgins in the world. Twice the number of Greenland’s teenagers surveyed have had sex at 15, than in the second country on the list – namely, Denmark. The Dutch, on the other hand, don’t tend to lose their virginity at a young age, they rated near the bottom. Early sex education clearly puts them off!

Teenage drinking is similar in both Denmark and the Netherlands (around average), though more Dutch kids use cannabis, unsurprisingly. Danish boys are significantly more likely to get into a fight than Dutch boys at the ages of 11 and 13, but at 15, Danish boys are less likely to get into a fight. Perhaps the Danes hit puberty earlier? Perhaps they are frustrated at secondary school but calm down later? Do they rebel early and grow to love the system?

Here’s another thing. Danish children feel significantly more pressured at school than Dutch kids – perhaps there is a more aspirational culture, like in the UK? Danish children find their classmates reasonably kind and helpful. They come in around 10th place, whereas Netherlands is higher at 3rd. If you’ve got a competitive system, it affects relationships between peers. Nevertheless, both countries have low figures for bullying.

Healthwise, the scores are similar. Denmark and the Netherlands share the lowest stats on obesity. There is something worrying, however. Denmark rates top in 11, 13 and 15-year-olds engaging in weight-reduction behaviour. (The Netherlands is second to last on this). Why are so many Danish kids on a diet? It’s not that they don’t cycle – there’s a similar cycling culture in Denmark as the one here. They also eat more fruit than the Dutch kids. Is there a kind of health food drive in Denmark that is putting pressure on them? Perhaps they dislike healthy food as kids, but then reap the benefits of having learned to eat healthy as adults?

Finally, here are the results on children who report high life satisfaction:
11-year-old Danes are way down the list #26 (NL is at #2 after Armenia)
13-year-olds climb up slightly to #24 (NL #1)
and 15-year-old Danes suddenly reach 5th place (NL #1)

So what is going on between the ages of 13 and 15 in Denmark that can explain this sudden improvement in life satisfaction? After this, it keeps climbing until they reach number one as adults. I’d love to know what these stats represent, so if you’re Danish or have lived in Denmark and have any ideas, do drop me a line!

My Dutch Life: Maaike Koning

9 December 2016

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Maaike Koning is a Dutch photographer living in Amsterdam with her partner, a photo editor, and their two children, Sam and Sverre, aged twelve and nine. She loves to be outside: biking, gardening and hiking, and enjoys visiting museums and collecting photography books. The entire family travelled through Australia for four months a couple of years ago. She is currently working on several assignments for design and communication agencies and researching a new portrait series.

How long have you been a photographer?

I started studying photographic design at the art college (KABK) in The Hague in 1995 and graduated in 1999. So somewhere in between, I probably ‘became’ a photographer. I got my first job just after I’d graduated. My boyfriend and I took pictures of the kitchen staff for a restaurant guide to London and Amsterdam. We had a great time enjoying all the free food we got in those restaurants.

Was it difficult to find work at first?

Difficult but not impossible. I was really eager to make money out of it… I was lucky enough to get a scholarship (startstipendium) in the year I graduated, so I had time to work on a nice portfolio and buy a good camera. It made things easier. My graduation project was a book about different phases of women’s lives. Making a book was unusual in the pre-digital period. I sold quite a lot of books to design agencies, which meant they did not forget my work and remembered me when they had a suitable assignment. I also joined a photographers’ agency in my first year. But still, the first eight years were off and on, with either having lots of jobs and being incredibly busy, or looking for jobs for months. The last eight years, I have worked for clients who give me enough space for my own style. I also published a book about people and places in Amsterdam Noord. It reflects the identity of this part of Amsterdam, long known as an underprivileged area. Below is a picture from the book. Mr and Mrs De Vries have been married for seventy years, have always lived in Noord and experienced the severe flooding in Oostzaan in 1960 when they witnessed their home-made furniture floating out of the house.

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Have you been influenced by any other Dutch photographers? 

There are so many fantastic talents, not only in Holland. I did my internship with photographer and director Yani. He inspired me a lot. His playful approach to assignments is enviable. Bertien van Manen is one of my favourite documentary photographers. I love the book she made about Russia: A Hundred Summers, A Hundred Winters.

Ed van de Elsken is pretty unique and great. He is one of the documentary photographers who shows that you don’t need to go far away to make great series. Alec Soth, an American photographer, is one of my favourites these days. I love his style and light and the subjects he chooses.

What do you think makes a good photographer?

Difficult… It can be many things. First I would say it’s quite crucial that a photographer develops a style that makes him or her identifiable and recognizable. (This is also important for clients.) Photographers that know what they are doing and why. The photography I love is where the use of daylight is stunning without claiming the entire picture and where the people or animals or moment intrigue me. Then, there is always one very important thing: how people react to the photographer. It all has to do with ‘taste’ and it’s great if it feels like the perfect expression or moment. This does not necessarily mean the sitter has to think it’s a great picture of him or her, but it usually means the viewer is intrigued by the picture, because of something in the picture.

Dutch photographers, artists and architects are all famous for being good with light? Is the light special here? Or is the lack of light in the winter a reason to seek it out and cherish it?

Some people say the beautiful light has to do with the reflection of the sea in the clouds, which makes the light great in a big part of Holland, and also because of the ‘flatness’. I don’t really know. I do know it can be a real challenge. Winters are dark, you really have to search for the light sometimes, but when there’s a sunny day, the light can be awesome. In summer, there is totally different light, so Dutch photographers are experienced in lots of different types of light.

You lived in Australia for a while, would you rather live somewhere other than Holland?

For a long period, I thought I could live in Australia. I lived there for a year when I was younger. I love the wild nature and the infinite space. But when we travelled there with the kids, it felt too far away from home for the long term and the space and hot climate was too much for a daily life. I also realized it was too late for the kids to move. We love our life in Amsterdam far too much to move away for a long time. It gave me peace of mind to realize this.

The trip was great. We did a lot of wild camping, fishing, hiking, we stayed at an aboriginal farm for a while. The kids learned a lot. They shared some of their adventures with their classmates on a blog.

What’s your experience of raising children here? Does it mirror your own childhood or are you doing things differently?

Holland is great for raising kids. It’s quite safe and you can find anything you want for them. My childhood was a bit more free than what I can give my own kids in Amsterdam and I think I grew up a bit more independent than them. I grew up on the edge of a small village. Our large garden bordered a wood in which I’d go on daily expeditions with my brother or friends. We’d build huts, run around, jump over ditches and hide in an empty house. We all cycled alone to school, in my case from the age of seven.

When our daughter was born, we were living in Amsterdam West in a third-floor apartment. I wanted a house with a garden before she could walk, or at least a few trees and a lawn, so that Sam could go on mini-expeditions like the ones I’d been on, without me always having to be there. We found the right house in Amsterdam Noord. Now that the children are older, their ‘territory’ has expanded to fields, woods, and cycle and walking paths in the area. I think it’s important for them to go on expeditions alone. I want them to make their own decisions and, most importantly, have a lot of fun, without their parents hovering over them. Maybe that’s something typically Dutch, letting your children off the leash. In the end it’s also really handy for parents when their children are independent.

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What are the main challenges of raising kids in Holland?

I think the pitfalls can be found in social pressure. For a while, it was a trend to send your children to a crèche for four days a week. I really had to defend myself for choosing not to do that. The children went to a host mother (gastouder) two days a week and for the rest of the time we were either at home or the grandparents helped out. Having less money as a result can also be a choice. Anyway, when your children go to school, there’s more time for work again.

The same goes for all the things your kids do outside school, like music, sports and their swimming diploma. In the Netherlands, parents start with those things very early. I wonder whether it’s really the right thing for every child and I think it’s better to wait until they discover their own interests. I find the school days long enough, certainly for young children.

What you do have in Amsterdam is a lot of choice in terms of education. It’s great that everything is possible, but in total that makes a lot of choices and it can be quite overwhelming. It’s nice if parents are able to choose a path that suits their children, without taking too much notice of what everyone else thinks.

 

All photos (c) Maaike Koning, 2016

 

 

The Art of Crafting Dutch Surprises

1 December 2016


One of the skills I never thought I’d need so much as a wannabee Dutch parent is crafting. Growing up in England in the seventies and eighties, I did plenty of arts and crafts stuff as a kid. My mother went through a hippy phase of teaching me and my brother to collect, spin and weave wool (she still has the spinning wheel at home), to craft corn-dollies out of straw (truly hideous things which attracted mites!) and to sew and knit. At school, we made arts and crafts projects out of toilet rolls and crepe paper. But I never expected these crazy skillz to equip me for my kid’s childhood in the new century.
        Glue and coloured paper and crappy-looking creations are a major part of Dutch day-care and primary school. Both the Dutch childminders we have had, have spent the majority of their time knutselen – a handy Dutch verb for doing craftwork – with the kids too. And they’ve loved it. They’ve done more than I ever did as a kid, despite my seventies-style mum. My daughter is currently a big fan of origami and can spend hours in the kitchen making little birds. It’s got to be preferable to spending hours on the iPad (her other main ‘hobby’).

        The parenting crafting challenge comes in the autumn in Holland. First there’s St Maarten’s Day on 11th November which requires a home-made lantern. (St Maarten, patron saint of Utrecht and Groningen – aka Saint Martin of Tours – was a Hungarian-born bishop who famously donated half of his cloak to a beggar.) The children go from door to door, singing songs as they hold their paper lanterns aloft, and collecting sweets. The lanterns are relatively easy to make and don’t require much adult intervention, thank God. Here’s what Ina made on her own this year.


The real test is Sinterklaas (celebrated on 5th December) when children draw lots at school to see who will make a ‘surprise’ for a fellow classmate. A surprise is basically a fantasy holder for a hidden gift (worth no more than €3,50 according to the brief). But if you’d never seen one, your eyes would pop out at the array of expert-looking DIY animals, computers, play stations, sports paraphernalia et al displayed in the class on the day the surprises get handed it. To a foreign parent, it is a truly daunting sight. How the hell do the kids make these things? And how the hell do their parents know how to help them? Checking out Pinterest will give you an idea of the skill and complexity I’m talking about.
         

             The first year I just let my son wing it on his own. He made a cardboard climbing wall covered in little modelling clay penguins that looked really cute to me, but somehow didn’t fit in with what the other kids had made. It wasn’t “boxy” enough, a fellow parent tipped me off. The next year he made a cardboard guitar and then it was my daughter’s turn. A skipping rope with massive handles fashioned out of papier-mâché covered balloons and toilet rolls and then painted, looked pretty credible. The gift was hidden in one of the handles. Last year she made a house and a garden on top of a cardboard box base and the girl who she gave it to couldn’t hide her disappointment. “You can always tell which kids have foreign parents,” I heard one mum murmur. I’d finally found the one area of parenting where Dutch parents seemed a little competitive.

           

              And so this year, in her last year of primary school, Ina is determined to ‘win’ at surprise-making. It’s her last chance to make a splash and so it’s been all hands on deck. She decided to make a life-sized dog with a football out of chicken wire and papier-mâché. The gift would be hidden inside the ball. I spent an entire day consulting Dutch parents, googling and purchasing chicken wire, tape and wallpaper paste. At the weekend, we put on our gloves and attempted to bend bits of wire into the shape of a dog, based on a drawing of a friendly-looking dog Ina had found online. It took hours and was one of the most difficult things I’d ever attempted in my life (in craft terms). Just getting the dog to stand on all four legs took us about an hour and a half.

           

                Trying to ignore the fact that it looked like a pig with a long tail, we covered the frame in papier-mâché and left it to dry – which took three days, there was so much glue! (We always do this kind of stuff in the bathroom to make clearing up easier). Then Ina painted everything with acrylic paints and this is the result. It’s not too bad but will her classmate like it? And will anyone comment on her non-Dutch mum?

Getting to Grips with Dutch Grades

23 November 2016

 

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Of all the things expat parents have to get used to in the Netherlands, coming to terms with the bizarre Dutch grading system is one of the toughest. Especially because of the tendency all of us Anglos have to convert what look like marks out of ten into percentages.

First of all, the two systems don’t align at all, and second, it’s harder to get a basic pass grade in Holland than in the US or UK. Third, it’s actually pretty rare to get the equivalent of an A here. So those of us expat parents who have grown up in a culture of As and A+s are in for a shock. (Incidentally, Dutch kids applying for foreign university places can also suffer from the same mental error when those universities try to convert 6s into Cs, 7s into Bs and 8s into As.)

I’ll try to explain the basics first and if I get this right, you’ll realize that Dutch people famously ‘settling’ for a passing grade (6) isn’t what it looks like at all.  

A 6 is a voldoende – satisfactory. Anything lower is an onvoldoende – unsatisfactory (note the term ‘fail’ isn’t used; also, a 5.5 average can also counts as a pass because of a loophole – anything above a half is rounded up to the next full figure at the end of the year). A 7 is good, and an 8 is very good. Anything higher than an eight is still very good, the highest is a ten, but no distinction is made between an 8, 9 or a 10 since getting an 8 already is considered achievement enough.

Now here’s the catch. A 6 isn’t a 6/10. It doesn’t mean your child got 6 questions right and 4 questions wrong. For tests, the teachers usually deduct points (or half-points) for errors from a starting score of 10, rather than adding up questions answered correctly. Emrys, who teaches English HAVO/VWO at a Rotterdam secondary school explains:

“Dutch grading is a complicated thing. Most teachers tell their pupils how many mistakes equals a point off. How many it is depends on the length of the test. Our English department tries to calculate the grade on smaller tests so that a 6 is equal to about 80% correct. On larger tests we usually strive for 70-75% is equal to a six.

When grading essays or letters or other assignments, we usually work with a correction form adding up to a certain amount of points. On a writing assignment I just corrected, the students could earn 14 points. So 14 points was a 10, 13 a 9, 12 a 8 and so on.”

So 80%, an English or American A, could equal a basic pass in the Dutch grading system. If your child is coming home with 6s, he or she is already doing very well indeed by foreign standards! My son has repeatedly told me how strict the marking system is – you should see my face drop when he gets a 5 or a 6 –  I should really listen to him.dutch-grading-system-2For a bit more information, I talked to a Dutch friend Heidi, who has taught across all the different types of secondary school levels from VMBO to VWO. The first point she made is that there is no national curriculum in the Netherlands and there are no agreements between schools about grading. What they do have is kerndoelen – key objectives which should be taught in the lessons. The same applies to primary and secondary education. Usually there are agreements within a school about standards and norms and how much certain tests count towards a final score. She also explained that different types of tests are differently weighted and the tests where students simply have to reproduce information are marked more stringently than those which require interpretation and application of what they have learned.

 

N.B. Rina and I wrote The Happiest Kids in the World  based on our own experiences of raising our children here. My son’s first couple of months of secondary school are covered in the last chapter, but I didn’t have enough experience to write much about grades (there hadn’t even been any at our primary school).

Dutchness and Flemishness at the Frankfurt Book Fair

28 October 2016

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One of the things that worried me from the outset when we were writing THE HAPPIEST KIDS IN THE WORLD was the need to generalize. In order to discuss Dutch parenting culture it was necessary to find things we felt the majority of Dutch parents did, even though there were obvious exceptions. You see, not all Dutch people are happy to let their kids play unsupervised outside from a young age; not all Dutch people are immune to the temptation to push their kids to get high grades. And not all Brits and Americans are helicopter parents trying to teach their coddled toddlers to read and write. There will be plenty of readers who point this out to us, I’m sure. But in order to put together an argument and create discussion, generalisation is a necessary evil. Having studied Comp Lit at university, an approach that picks out key features in national literature and then compares them with others’, comparison is now part of my intellectual make-up and I love trying to make out the big picture.

Last week I was on stage at the Frankfurt Book Fair* discussing the differences between Flemish and Dutch literature with Words Without Borders editor Susan Harris and top Flemish writer, Annelies Verbeke. This was after I’d edited a Flemish feature for the literary magazine and attempted to explain what attracted me to those Belgian-Dutch writers and why the regular Dutch were a bit more boring sometimes. Of course, Annelies Verbeke had her own perfectly valid views – Flemish literature is incredibly diverse and includes writers from many different backgrounds, as does Dutch. In fact it’s important to look at the similarities too, especially given the slogan the Dutch and Flemish had chosen to present themselves under – THIS IS WHAT WE SHARE – as joint guests of honour.

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Being guest of honour at Frankfurt is a pretty big thing in terms of cultural exposure. It meant a delegation of seventy writers (several of whom I have translated or will be translating – yay!). The Dutch and Flemish were super proud since it also meant a massive increase in book translations into German in the run-up to the fair, which will open up access to other languages. There was an opening ceremony with both kings and plenty of press coverage. Holland and Flanders also had an exhibition space in which they could market their culture. They opted for a large wrap-around canvas with a projection of a seascape (the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany share the North Sea coast) and an array of deck chairs. White plastic, sound-insulating, crate-like partitions created smaller spaces which contained a book shop, a comics & graphic novels live production area and a theatre for the lively readings, interviews and performances. So the joint guests of honour presented themselves as quiet, calm, thoughtful, design-oriented, occasionally shouty and with a beating heart of graphic culture. If I’m to be allowed to generalize.

*Frankfurt, a word often on a publisher’s lips, but a difficult concept to grasp for anyone who has never been there. Each year the Messe in Frankfurt opens its doors to the world’s largest book fair and probably the oldest, since it dates back to 500 years ago when Gutenberg developed the printing press in nearby Mainz. With more than 7,000 exhibitors and around 277,000 visitors, it forms a high point in the international publishing calendar in terms of the buying and selling of foreign rights. It is particularly intriguing to writers who are not usually welcome.

** With thanks to the Frankfurt Buchmesse Business Club which invited me to attend as an Ambassador. The Business Club was a chilled out place to take meetings, listen to presentations and get lunch without long queues.

How We Became a Writing Duo

26 October 2016

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I’ve just removed the card from Restaurant Moto in Utrecht from my wallet. I glanced to the right when walking down the Drieharingstraat the other night and noticed with a pang that it had gone. In February 2015, I’d visited the Japanese restaurant for the first time on a blind date with Rina. But my behind-the-scenes story goes way back, to 2002 when I’d just started working as a commissioning editor at Doubleday publishing house in London. It was a job I would keep for just two years, until 2004, when thirty-seven weeks pregnant with my son Benjamin, I moved to Amsterdam.

Working at Doubleday was like stepping into a  warm bath. Tucked away in Ealing, it was far from the buzz of Soho, the Strand and Covent Garden, where many other publishers are based. Transworld – the group Doubleday belongs to – prided itself on its friendly atmosphere. Workers were part of a large family with gentle father figure Larry Finlay at its head. Larry was the kind of person who would give you unsolicited advice on breastfeeding, keenly in touch with his feminine side. Marianne Velmans, my direct boss, was also a nurturing, guiding presence, eager to help her young editors make their way to the top of the business. It was the kind of place people joined and never left, there was very low staff turnover. And unusual for the cut-throat atmosphere of London companies, it was understanding of family commitments; many mothers and fathers were able to juggle parenthood and careers there.

I too imaged myself tucked away in Ealing commissioning and editing wonderful books for a great many years to come. But life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. I married a Dutchman and ended up in Amsterdam on maternity leave. And though I was planning to return to my fabulous job in London, the advantages of bringing up kids in Holland got in the way. I ended up finding a job in Dutch publishing and it wasn’t until a merger had me commuting for 2.5 hours a day that I decided to go freelance. I’d been translating Dutch books on the side for some years and now I made this my sole business. Translation would be my career. It was similar to editing but even more engrossing, since you’d spend not weeks but months working closely on a text.

Until I got a phone call from my old boss Marianne. Might I be interested in co-writing a book on why Dutch children were the happiest in the world? She already had one writer, an American expat with a young son, but she wanted someone to write about older kids and add a British perspective to the mix. She’d thought of me because she knew I’d stayed in Amsterdam precisely because of the advantages of bringing up children here, and I had plenty of experience of working closely with authors in an editorial role. Perhaps I could bring both skills to bear.

 

 

“Behind the Scenes of The Happiest Kids in the World” are blog posts that give readers a sneak peak in the making of our forthcoming book The Happiest Kids in The World.

Next time: Rina’s account of what happened in the Japanese restaurant…

P.S. Can’t wait to get your hands on the book and you currently live in Europe? Pre-order here. If you happen to live in the United States, you can get your copy here.

Why I Love Dutch Children’s Films

20 September 2016

Dutch Children's Films

My nine-year-old daughter used to watch noisy cartoons, progressing from Dora the Explorer to Pokemon and Ben 10, and watching all the Disney and Pixar hits on the way. But about a year ago there was a sea change in her viewing. She discovered serialised Dutch children’s book adaptations such as Koen Kampioen (about a young footballer), De Leeuwenkuil (about a family running a zoo) and Hoe overleef ik (about an adolescent girl). Then she moved on to the wealth of Dutch children’s films shown during the ‘Zappbios’ slot on national tv. For the first time, I started eagerly joining her in front of the telly.

 

Dutch cinema tends to be realist and naturalistic; films frequently deal with family and friendship issues, tackling loyalty, betrayal, failed ambitions. While this can make for dull and rather monotonous adult films with a lack of dramatic action, Dutch children’s cinema is often outstanding. The young leads act well (by this I mean subtly) and the issues treated work well within the context of childhood, growing up and learning about how the world works. For example, we recently watched the Emmy-award winning lightly comic Rhubarb about a step-brother and sister who try to fix their parents’ failing second marriage. Interestingly, relatively few of the films contain fantasy elements – examples are Dolfje (‘Alfie the Werewolf’ about a boy who becomes a werewolf on his 7th birthday) and Dummie the Mummy (about an Egyptian child mummy that  turns up in a Dutch village), but even these also feature regular children in a realist setting.

 

I have a hunch that Dutch films are easy to relate to because they feature actual children as opposed to fantasy adults or animals. I’m hard-pushed to think of many Hollywood films with human kids in: Home Alone, ET, Back to the Future all hark back to the 80s, and then there are the more recent Roald Dahl adaptations, of course, but still. It’s almost as if superheroes, princesses and animals have to stand in for children most of the time. The sad reason might have something to do with the lack of freedom American children have while growing up. What makes the plots and premises of the Dutch films possible is the fact that Dutch children are free to play outdoors for hours on end in real life. The young characters portrayed in the films move around without parental supervision. They play outdoors, going off on little adventures in the way the Famous Five and Secret Seven did in the Enid Blyton books I read as a child. They have their own (head)space in which the dramatic action can take place. They aren’t followed about by hovering parents.

 

The other difference is that Dutch parents don’t protect their children from learning about the more challenging aspects of life. They don’t grow up in a rose-coloured bubble, shielded from knowledge of illness, death or sex. Life is not censored. The last Zappbios we watched was actually a German film called Köpfuber (Upside Down). It is about a ten year-old boy losing his joie de vivre as a side effect of ADHD medication. It was hard-hitting rather than a feel-good movie but definitely food for thought. Allowing children to watch Dutch and other European arthouse-style movies prepares them for the real world in a way that no Disney film can.

 

Here are my daughter’s favourite Dutch films:

  1. Achtste-Groepers Huilen Niet / Cool Kids Don’t Cry

A 12-year-old gets leukemia in the last year of primary school. I think this struck a particular chord because one of my daughter’s close friends was suffering from cancer at the time.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6LvdPO07b60

  1. Kauwboy / Crow-boy

A boy and a crow and a violent father, it reminds me of the Ken Loach’s Kes.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2arjDF3hmo

  1.  De Boskampis / The Boskampis

A comedy about a boy who pretends his dorky father is a Mafia boss.

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/120481247

  1. Mees Kees / Class of Fun

A trainee teacher gets put in front of the class. Comedy.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tRragbB5npg

  1. Het Paard van Sinterklaas / St Nicholas’s Horse

Perennial classic about a young Chinese girl hoping for a gift in her shoe.

Trailer (no subtitles): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_MTdLL08Yds

  1. In Oranje / In Orange

Film about a boy who dreams of playing for the Dutch football team and loses his father to a heart attack.

Trailer (no subtitles): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MXUXi9IkwPo

  1. Het Zakmes / The Pen Knife

Cute 1992 film about a six year-old trying to return a penknife to a friend who has moved away.

No trailer but here is an except: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qPz8cvTYjCw

  1. De Sterkste Man van Nederland / The Strongest Man in Holland

A single mum tells her son that his father was the strongest man in the Netherlands. He goes off in search.

Trailer (no subtitles): https://www.filmtotaal.nl/film/19940

  1. Minoes / The Cat That Came In From The Roof

Film of Annie MG Schmidt’s classic children’s book about a young woman who can turn into a cat

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EO8-iDYffdE

  1. Kruistocht in Spijkerbroek / Crusade in Jeans

Another film of a classic children’s book, a boy goes back to 13th century to set a few things right.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uc0aM6Wtr_s

The Grammar School Debate From the Outside

13 September 2016

grammer-school-debate-1

 

For far too many children in Britain, the chance they have in life is determined by where they live, or how much money their parents have,’  Theresa May said last week, referring to the in-built inequities in the British school system. There is a gaping chasm between the quality of state schooling available in the south and what you can get in the rest of the country. And then there are the public (private) schools which are better than any of these anyway (though she doesn’t say that). You’re either rich or you’re f*cked in the UK is how many parents see it. Reform would be welcome to most.

But May’s first speech as Prime Minister promising plans for new grammar schools is causing a furore. ‘Theresa May entrenches segregation and privilege with her education reforms’, was one such headline. ‘We will fail as a nation if we only get the top 15 per cent to 20 per cent of our children achieving well,’ Sir Michael Wilshaw, Chief Inspector of Schools, declared on Radio 4, underlining the typically Anglo-Saxon ambition for all children to achieve great A levels.

What’s the problem with grammar schools then? In the Guardian, Sam Freedman argues that only a tiny minority of children from disadvantaged backgrounds actually attend these schools and, really they cater for the middle classes. (Hang on: what’s wrong with the middle classes? They can’t always afford private school fees either.) He goes on to state that ‘all the top education systems in the world are comprehensive,’ which is where I get all bristly. It’s patently untrue when you consider the Netherlands which does have a selective system and scores excellently in the OECD report he himself quotes from.


The Dutch system is a great improvement on the British one and it’s one of the main attractions of life here as a parent. Born into the non-affluent middle class, I attended a small-town grammar school in the Midlands myself. It wasn’t all it was cooked up to be, as I later found out when I went to uni. The privately-educated kids were way ahead academically and it took me a couple of terms to catch up. So as I see it, if you want the best education in the UK right now you have to pay for it, grammar schools or not. The Netherlands on the other hand, has a
unified school system, paid for by high taxation. You don’t need to be rich to attend the top schools.

Dutch children attend primary school from 4 to 11 years of age and are streamed into different types of secondary schools after that. I’ll explain but bear with me, it’s complicated. There are grammar schools – ‘gymnasiums’ – which provide an academic education (VWO)  including Latin and Greek in preparation for university entrance. There are mixed schools which offer the academic stream (VWO) and the professional stream (HAVO – preparation for higher non-academic education). There are schools offering just HAVO. And there are schools providing the various types of vocational education (VMBO). That’s not all though. If you want more mobility, there are large schools that offer all of the education types, the equivalent to the British comprehensives. Children are divided into these streams around the age of 12, after aptitude tests throughout primary school, and character assessment. If a child isn’t interested in knuckling down to bucketloads of Latin and Greek, they won’t be recommended for a gymnasium. You don’t want to set them up to fail. Children who do better than expected can move up a stream.

‘Achievement’, ‘academic’ and ‘meritocracy’ seem to be the catchwords of the grammar school debate. ‘In a true meritocracy, we should not be apologetic about stretching the most academically able to the very highest standards of excellence,’ May says. ‘Every child should be given the opportunity to develop the crucial academic core.’ Everyone must achieve is the subtext and academic studies are preferable to any other kind. But it’s not like that in Holland. The Dutch school system aims to keep pupils engaged and happy and as a result achieves high attendance figures and good pass records. Although the upper middle classes can get hung up about getting their kids into gymnasiums, in general, there is no shame in going to the HAVO or attending a vocational school. The point is, the other schools provide a good education too! There’s a vocational school a couple of hundred yards from my house that teaches plant and animal science.  It’s got its own greenhouses and mini-farm out the back. My son and I often peer over the fence in envy at kids grooming ponies and planting bulbs.

The thing is, the British have become trapped in their own ideology – a utopian desire to believe that a meritocratic society might be possible, while having one of the most entrenched class systems in the world. Surely the point should not just be to build more grammar schools, but to provide a better range of education across the board and do away with the socially-divisive private school system? This seems to be what May herself wants: ‘Because if the central concern ordinary working class people have is that their children will not enjoy the same opportunities they have had in life, we need to ensure that there is a good school place for every child, and education provision that caters to the individual needs and abilities of every pupil.’ (Though she should certainly add the middle classes to the working classes.) She also makes it clear she doesn’t support the binary system of secondary moderns picking up the slack once grammar schools have taken the pick of the crop, but welcomes a more diverse selection of schools. Come and take a look at the Dutch system, I say. Don’t just build grammar schools but other types of successful schools that kids actually want to go to.