The Magical Art of Talking to Dutch Doctors

24 January 2017

 

talk-dutch-doctor

 

One of those most challenging aspects of living in the Netherlands as an American expat is getting accustomed to the Dutch healthcare system. Specifically, adjusting to the Dutch huisarts – general practitioner – infamous among expat circles and fodder for complaints. “Why go to the Dutch huisarts when chances are they will just prescribe you paracetamol?” is the common complaint among many foreigners about the realities of life in the Low Countries.  

 

Paracetamol is another name for the active ingredient acetaminophen, also known as Tylenol back home in the United States. I’ve popped so much paracetamol since moving here nearly ten years ago that I should have bought stocks in the company.  But here’s something worth considering:  According to the Euro Health Consumer Index 2015 (CHCI), the most recent report available, the Netherlands ranks as the best country in Europe in terms of health care.

 

The Netherlands is “the only country which has consistently been among the top three in the total ranking of any European Index the Health Consumer Powerhouse (HCP) has published since 2005”. Apparently, not only are the happiest kids in the world found in the Netherlands, but also the best healthcare system in Europe. This speaks volumes since we all know how serious European governments are about caring for their sick.

 

Being an American  married to a Dutch guy and having young children adds another dimension to tensions in regards to health and healthcare. The moment one of my sons has a fever of over 39 C (102.2 F), I’m ready to rush straight to the doctor’s office. It’s what most American doctors would recommend, especially for babies. My Dutch husband, on the other hand, would prefer to wait a week or two before even calling the doctor. Yet once I acknowledged some key truths, I came to appreciate the Dutch healthcare system, especially my huisarts. Here are some useful survival “tips” for better understanding the Dutch healthcare system:

 

1 Understand the Dutch (medical) culture and view towards sickness

“Americans go to the doctor to prevent themselves from getting sick, while the Dutch go to the doctor when they are actually really sick,” observed journalist Margriet Oostveen during a recent coffee date. Oostveen lived in Washington D.C. for six years. We were chatting about the differences between the two cultures, and she agreed that one of the major differences is their view on health. Americans try to avoid getting sick at all costs, seeing sickness as a form of weakness and are much more into prevention. The Dutch, on the other hand, see sickness as simply an inconvenient part of life. They just get on with it really, and wait till they are absolutely sick in bed before they manage to drag themselves to the general practitioner.

 

2 Date before making a commitment

Or in other words, “try before you buy”. In the Netherlands, the general practitioner will basically be the physician that you have the most contact with. Unlike the US system, specialists such as pediatricians and gynecologists are only seen based on the referral of a general practitioner and usually if there is a serious medical condition. Chances are there will be several practices available near where you live. The website www.kiesuwhuisarts.nl provides information on all the available options. It is possible to change doctors but best to have a trial appointment with them first before actually signing up. Don’t be shy and date around for the “right match”.

 

There’s nothing wrong with finding a general practitioner who is culturally sensitive. I totally adore my current huisarts who I affectionately refer to as -“Dr. Google” (We actually have Googled together at his clinic to confer on a diagnosis). I am, and will probably always be, more the neurotic American with a soft spot for medicines and medical tests to make sure that I have a clean bill of health.  My huisarts understands this and knows when to comfort me and send me away for more paracetamol.

 

3 Communicate in a clear, direct pragmatic manner
Dutch general practitioners and specialists, like most humans, are not mind readers. In a perfect world, they would have impeccable bedside manners, give you their undivided attention, and understand what you really mean. Dutch doctors, however, are only human. A simple approach when visiting the general practitioner would be to give them a detailed history and to be as direct as possible. If you’re really sure that you may need further treatment, do not hesitate in asking for a second opinion from one of their colleagues.( Hence, it’s crucial to take my second tip of carefully selecting your general practitioner seriously.)

 

4 Dutch doctors take the threat of antibiotic resistance seriously

Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to our modern day life. We have to remind ourselves of a simple truth: Antibiotics are medicines used to prevent and treat bacterial infections. The flu, which can leave many people sick for weeks on end, is a virus. Antibiotics cannot kill viruses. Dutch doctors recognize this threat and are aware of it, and thus only prescribe antibiotics if they can diagnose a person with a bacterial infection and not a viral infection.

 

5 Wait two weeks with any minor ailments before going to your GP

Dutch doctors are very pragmatic and not keen to waste time and resources, so the chances are if you have a minor ailment like a cough or stomach ache, they’ll tell you to simply wait two weeks and come back only if it doesn’t go away on its own.

 

 

P.S. We wrote a book called “The Happiest Kids in the World; Bringing up Children the Dutch way.”
P.P.S. If you happen to have already read the book, please share your thoughts! Sharing (your thoughts) is caring!

Publication Day of The Happiest Kids in the World (United Kingdom)

12 January 2017

Today is officially publication day of The Happiest Kids in the World in the United Kingdom and Ireland! The English edition is also now available in Australia and New Zealand, the Netherlands, India, Singapore, Malaysia, Switzerland, Hong Kong and Lebanon!

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So far, we’ve garnered a bit of attention with our friends from across the pond and a couple of nice reader reviews on Goodreads.com (please add more if our words resonate with you). Here’s what some people have to say about our book:

 

“Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant!” Chris Evans on BBC Radio 2, Breakfast Show

 

“Clear and concise, with plenty of anecdotes from family life to illustrate the argument, this is one of the most convincing parenting books to come across my desk in the last year.”

                                               Sian Griffiths, education editor of The Sunday Times

 

“An eye-opening and badly needed dose of perspective. In my next life, I want to be Dutch.”   

                                                Pamela Druckerman, author of French Children Don’t Throw Food

 

“A fascinating book – one I wish I had read sooner! In fact, the more I read the more I became tempted to move our entire family to the Netherlands…”

                                                Sarah Turner author of The Unmumsy Mum


A major serial piece ran in
The Telegraph Weekend:  They raise the world’s happiest children – so is it time you went Dutch? And there was a glowing review in The Sunday Times

 

From the bottom of our hearts, we would like to thank you for your continued support and readership.

 

If you happen to be in Amsterdam this Saturday and want something gezellig to do, come join us for our book launch at 3:30 pm! Or if you can’t make it, we’ll be in the American Book Centre in the Hague on February 11th.

P.s. If you like to procrastinate a bit more from work, come join our Facebook group or read some of our recent blogs at FindingDutchland.com. These past few weeks we’ve written about Gezelligheid & Hygge, The Dutch vs the Danes, The Case for Giving Kids a Basic Income, Oliebollen, Papadag and much more!


P.p.s And come join our mailing list. We promise not to be annoying and rarely send those out anyway.

The Case for Giving Kids a Basic Income

4 January 2017

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On January 2nd, the Sociale Verzekeringsbank or Social Insurance Bank, transferred two payments of  €198.38 into my bank account. One for each of my two boys, both of whom are under the age of six. The extra cash appears like magic every quarter (January, April, July and October), courtesy of SVB with a simple one-word note: kinderbijslag or child benefit.

Every family in the Netherlands with kids under the age of eighteen is entitled to the child benefit. The universal kinderbijslag is independent of the parents’ income. The amount increases when children get older to accommodate for extra expenses –  €240.89 for children aged six to twelve and €283.40 for children thirteen years old up to and including seventeen.

As an American mom living in Holland, having regular cash allowances for my children is such a foreign concept. The Dutch universal child benefit is not a unique scheme either. A 2012 UNICEF report on child poverty evaluating thirty-five economically advanced countries notes that the United States is the only one that does not have any form of cash allowance policies. (Interestingly, the United Kingdom is currently one of the very few countries in Europe that don’t offer the benefit for all children. Households earning more than £50,000 are subject to a tax deduction.)

A recent longitudinal study from King’s College London makes a compelling case for introducing universal child benefits. The study tracked more than 1,000 people from ages 3 to 38 years, confirming associations between childhood adversity and negative life outcomes such as falling deeper into poverty as adults, committing crimes and developing addictions. That’s thirty five years of observations. Researchers suggest that decreasing adverse childhood experiences may be able to influence more positive outcomes. By implementing a universal child benefit, parents may be able to provide more secure and stable households – using the extra cash to pay for diapers, food, and clothes.

My initial American bootstrap-intuition considered the universal child benefit a case of European socialism gone wild. And who is to say that parents won’t use the extra cash on themselves instead? The reality is – supported by tons of research –  parents, especially those who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, really do use the child benefit allowance for their children.

What should be more shocking is how the United States tolerates one of the highest rates of child poverty in the industrialized world. Approximately 20.1% of children live in poor households in the United States as compared to only 6.3% in the Netherlands. Even more shocking – nearly one in three American families struggle to afford enough diapers. A universal child benefit like the one in the Netherlands can dramatically make a difference, giving more equitable access to necessities like diapers.

Why not implement a minimum level of well-being for all children? The child benefit allowance isn’t at all about giving extra money to parents. It’s trying to give every child a starting fair chance. Through all our American policy debates, what we should all keep in mind is that it really is all about the children – society’s most vulnerable. 


P.S. And while we’re discussing a basic income for children, the Dutch are even toying with the idea of giving everyone a welfare allowance, inspired by the Finnish experiment. Now isn’t that interesting?


P.P.S.  Want to know why Dutch kids are the happiest in the world? Pre-order the UK edition of our book here  http://bit.ly/HappiestKids. Or the US edition here: http://amzn.to/2dhGJJT

A Dutch New Year (Oliebollen Recipe)

31 December 2016

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“Fijne jaarwisseling,” says my neighbour Wim as he hands me and my son Bram Julius freshly made oliebollen – fried dough filled with raisins, apples, and currants, and then dusted with powdered sugar right before being served. And nothing else brings as much nostalgia and childhood memories of a Dutch New Year than oliebollen.

In the days leading up to New Year’s Eve, oliebollen are found everywhere – from seasonal stands, bakeries, and supermarkets. There’s even a nationwide competition to see who can bake the tastiest oliebollen. But the best, in my not-so-humble opinion, are always the ones made at home.

Bram Julius and I are in Wim’s and his wife Mariska’s kitchen to get an insider’s view on this beloved Dutch tradition. There are several pots on the stove filled with hot oil. The kitchen counter and island are littered with dozens upon dozens of oliebollen resting on cooling racks, or piled high on plates once they’ve cooled down. They bake over three hundred oliebollen to share among family, friends, and neighbours.

On the last day of the year for as long as he can remember, Wim starts getting everything ready at around 3:00 pm. Gradually different members of the family drop in to help here and there, lingering long enough to grab a bite of a freshly baked oliebol when they can. The scene is relaxed and joyful. The process of making all the oliebollen is a time of being together as a family, reflecting on the year they have had and looking forward to what awaits them in the coming one. It is gezellig – warm, cozy and intimate.

Wim inherited the oliebollen recipe from his uncle who once owned a bakery in Utrecht. Though the bakery has long closed, the memories and tradition are very much alive in his kitchen.


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According to the article “The History of the Doughnut” in The Smithsonian magazine, oliebollen are considered the grandfather of American doughnuts. Dutch settlers in Manhattan, formerly known as New Amsterdam, introduced “olykoeks” or oily cakes to their fellow Americans. Supposedly, the name evolved to oliebollen – oily balls – because of their irregular round shape.

And no wonder they became an instant hit in the New World. Once you take a bite of the crispy outer shell, with the sugar melting in your mouth and the chewy textured center, chances are you’ll have a foodgasm.

Bram pulls at my sleeve, indicating for more.

“Just one more,” I say.

He runs over to Wim who already has one ready for him.

 

Finding Dutchland’s Olieballen Recipe
Ingredients
2 (0.6 ounce) packages of dried (instant) yeast

1/2 cup lukewarm milk

1 teaspoon sugar

4 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cup lukewarm milk

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 cup dried currants

1 cup raisins

2 Granny Smith apples- peeled, cored and finely chopped

1 quart vegetable oil for deep-frying

1 cup confectioners’ sugar for dusting


Directions

In a small bowl, mix the teaspoon of sugar into 1/2 cup of warm milk. Sprinkle the yeast and wait for the concoction to bubble (may take up to ten minutes). Then stir in the mixture really well.

In a separate large bowl, sift the 4 cups flour, 1/4 cup sugar, and 1 teaspoon of salt. Make a hole in the flour mixture and add the 2 eggs, the yeast milk mixture and 1 1/2 cups lukewarm milk. Mix all ingredients well.

“Knead” the batter with a mixer at a high speed for 4 to 5 minutes.

Add the raisins, currants and apple. Mix well with a spoon, or the lowest setting of the mixer.

Cover the bowl with a moist towel or plastic wrap and place in a warm area for about 1 hour. The dough is ready when it is double the original size.

Preheat the vegetable oil in a deep-fryer, or a large pot for frying to a temperature of 180 degree Celsius.

Working in batches, use a metal ice-cream scooper (sprayed with oil so batter won’t stick) to form balls (6 cm). Gently drop them into the oil and bake for 5 minutes, turning them over halfway to cook thoroughly . They will appear golden and crispy.

Remove with a slotted spoon and place on a cooling wrack with a paper towel underneath to catch the excess oil.

Dust doughnuts generously with confectioner’s’ sugar and enjoy with caution (could be really hot and difficult to just have one).

 

Psst. Want to know why Dutch kids are the happiest in the world? Pre-order the UK edition of our book here:

 Or the US edition here: http://amzn.to/2dhGJJT

Work Life Balance Not a Myth: Dutch Dads Leading the Way

13 December 2016

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Wouldn’t it be amazing if dads could spend one day a week fully in charge of their little ones? It would definitely be a prime example of having the best of both worlds – an opportunity to both be successful in one’s career as well as set time aside for parenthood. An article in the Volkskrant Half of Young Fathers Spend One Day a Week Taking Care of the Children” highlights the growing popularity of Papadag (Daddy day) in mainstream Dutch culture. Rather than being an alternative lifestyle for a select few, Papadag is becoming more the norm according to the Emancipation Monitor 2016, a biennial survey conducted by the Social and Cultural Planning Office (SCP) and the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS).

In fact, 50% of the people surveyed believed that a four-day work week was ideal for fathers with fathers. (Incidentally, some Dutch parents take offense with the word Papadag as they feel that the word implies that fathers play more of the role of a babysitter on that given day. What’s more, why aren’t the days mothers take care of their kids called Mamadags? Kids are everyone’s responsibility.)

While most men can’t officially take a full day off during the week, they are able to manage sneaking in an unofficial Papadag with a flexible work schedule and a 36 hour working week that allows them to work more hours the other four days and from home. According to the latest research, 38% of men work from the comfort of their own home one day a week.

 

My Dutch husband Bram Braakman, a thirty-seven year old entrepreneur and father of two, is one of the dads who happily incorporated Papadag into his life. “I love being able to spend time with my boys. Saturday is usually my day to be in charge of them – from preparing all their meals, to taking them out, diaper and potty duty, etc. Though it’s definitely not typical – most Dutch dads have their Papadag during the week – neither is my line of work.” says Bram. “They look forward to it, and as they get older, especially my four year-old, he understands that it’s the day I give him and his brother my undivided attention. And I also enjoy giving my wife some breathing space to have some time for herself.”

Dutch moms also enjoy the benefits of the part-time work culture in the Netherlands. Many continue working part-time even after all the children have started school full-time or have left the nest. But that’s a whole other discussion.

Parenting is challenging enough wherever you are. However, the Dutch have managed to create an enviable work-life balance. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the rest of world actually caught up with the Papadag trend?

 

Psst…Want to know more about why Dutch children are the happiest in the world? We wrote an entire book about it. You can pre-order your copy on Amazon.uk

 

 

Falling for the Hatchimal Craze: Parenting Fail

25 November 2016

parenting-fail-hatchimal

 

Only now I’m a parent do I realize just how clever and merciless toy companies, retailers and their commercials can be in hyping a new toy in limited quantities just in time for the gift giving holiday season. And in our American-Dutch household, we’re twice as vulnerable as we open our wallets two times in rapid succession  – on the fifth of December with Dutch Sinterklaas and on Christmas morning with American Santa Claus.

The hottest toy of 2016 – a Hatchimal – was staring right at me in the local toy store’s window. Something  between a Tamagotchi and a Furby, a Hatchimal is a stuffed imaginary animal that hatches itself out of an egg with a child’s help. It’s vaguely reminiscent of the strange phenomenon  of those youtube videos featuring anonymous strangers opening surprise eggs and toys that mesmerize toddlers. This unboxing mania is quite unnerving, especially to a mom who prefers her baby and toddler to have a relatively unplugged, old school childhood.

But there was the Hatchimal, an irresistible temptation beckoning me to walk into the store and buy it for my four year-old. Mind you, he doesn’t even know they exist. I felt a momentary smug satisfaction at proving newspaper articles like The Guardian’s Hatchimal – the must have Christmas toy you simply can’t get , Bloomberg’s This $60 Egg Just Cracked The Holiday Market and The Daily Mail’s The must-have toy that is every parents’ nightmare this Christmas: Hatchimal egg is so popular it has already sold out all wrong. Apparently, in Holland, I could easily get one.

€59 poorer and feeling quite foolish, I Whats’ apped my co-author Michele with a picture of the Hatchimal and the words “Dutch parenting fail”.   

“Was the Hatchimal a shoe gift? Is it a bad thing? What is it? Is it expensive?” texted Michele back. “I’m busy getting mostly craft stuff for Ina, school stationery for Ben, and socks for everyone.”

Her response made me pause. A shoe gift refers to the Dutch tradition of children leaving out their shoes, often with a drawing and a carrot placed inside for Sinterklaas and his horse Amerigo in exchange for a small gift. Usually it’s a chocolate letter, or a toy costing no more than €3.50. I hadn’t even thought that far ahead yet whether the Hatchimal would be a shoe gift, or a larger gift from Sinterklaas on pakjesavond (the main gift giving day), or from Santa Claus.

I’m an American and though I can fake-it-till-I-make-it about being integrated into pragmatic, sober and thrifty Dutch culture, my true colors betray me during anything celebratory – birthdays, holidays, you name it. Perhaps it’s because I am overcompensating for past childhood disappointments of never getting any of the must-have toys like Cabbage Patch Kids Dolls, Tickle Me Elmo, and Beanie Babies. Dig a little bit deeper, and it’s really about my deep-rooted fear of missing out and wanting to fit in. And I don’t want my own kids to miss out either, as a consequence.

Intent on getting to the bottom of this holiday toy craze, I did what any parent would do: crowdsource my mommy social network on Facebook. I asked them if whether or not they have heard of a Hatchimal, is it all just hype and if they would try to make any extra effort in purchasing one.

Jennifer Weedon Palazo from MomCave TV responded, “I’ve never heard of it. I’m in Massachusetts. But it looks like another piece of junk I’ll regret buying!”

Another friend of mine Kim Bongiorno from Let Me Start by Saying gave me some insight. “My nine-year-old discovered Hatchimals on her own, and was genuinely thrilled once I found one. Was it worth the extra effort to go through to get it? Yes. She adores it, and it lives in an adorable little nest she keeps by her bed.” wrote Kim back. “But the toy itself is already a bit overpriced in my opinion. It did not hatch on it’s own: we had to help it along the way. I’m glad I only put in extra time –not money–in seeking it out.”

Curious to know if this phenomenon has reached Dutch shores, I turned to Ray van Os, a happily married father of three. “I think I saw a commercial about that toy last week,” said Ray. “ But I am not going to get it for Sinterklaas for two reasons. First of all, they haven’t even asked for one yet so why get it for them?” said Ray. “The child in me says it is really cool, but the Dutch parent in me tells me that it is a very expensive toy. We have three daughters and I’d have to get three of them. We try not to spoil them.”

Perhaps my friend Lucia Bill, a Dutch mom repatriating back to the Netherlands from Doha, would know. “Hi dear! Actually my kids did not mention it and this is the first time I’m seeing one, or hearing about it.” responded Lucia Boll.

Chances are, as Michele and I suspect, the Hatchimals will also be heavily advertised over the coming period and be on the Christmas lists of Dutch children too. Toy trends often start in the United States  and make their way across the pond. And like with almost every other toy out there, the desire for Hatchimals will die down after the holiday season when there are plenty in stock and their novelty has already worn off. The mixed reviews of the Hatchimal, especially from disappointed parents and children, further re-affirm this temporal toy craze.

The problem is, the premise that you need to buy your child this year’s Christmas it-toy is a modern day, consumerist construct deeply ingrained in my American culture. We’ve someone convinced ourselves as parents that getting such a rare toy would make Christmas morning even more magical and earn bragging rights in the world of competitive parenting.

Christmas toy crazes aren’t yet ingrained in Dutch culture because not only are the Dutch much more pragmatic, but they’re also quite economical. The reason I could easily get one in our local store was that regardless of one’s own economic circumstances, it’s traditionally against thrifty Dutch morals to spend so much money on a frivolous toy. And making a concerted effort to purchase such a toy, if demand did ever exceed supply, would be akin to the walk of shame after a one-night-stand – shameful and best kept to yourself.

As I stare at the purple Hatchimal penguala (they come in five species), I’m tempted to return it. But I decided to keep it as a reminder to never fall for the Christmas toy hype again. Perhaps though, the ultimate judge will be my four year old son when he opens it on Sinterklaas morning.

On Writing, Motherhood and Mentorship

15 November 2016

lifteachotherup_libbyvanderploeg

“Hi, I’m Michele” said this impossibly gorgeous and tall British woman. “I’m Rina.” I replied.


I found myself bracing the frigid February wind to meet my new co-author. And like on any blind date, I was anxious and self-conscious. Just three months beforehand, another random stranger, Marianne Velmans, had emailed me suggesting I
write a book. After reading my preliminary book proposal, she asked – ever so delicately – if I would consider working with her former colleague Michele Hutchison.   


The story that Marianne had in mind was best written by two mothers – one who could write about pregnancy, babies and toddlers (early motherhood) and another who could write about childhood, schools, and teenagers. I wholeheartedly agreed with her. And so did Michele.


But could we trust Marianne to be the right matchmaker? The chemistry had to be just right.


Michele and I decided to meet in Utrecht – a city conveniently located in the middle of Holland, between her home in Amsterdam and mine in Doorn. I suggested the Japanese restaurant Moto because of my pregnancy cravings for udon and tempura.


I tried my best to come with no expectations and meeting in a public place would give a convenient exit strategy just in case it got awkward. I had a sneaking suspicion that she had similar sentiments too.

 

But when I saw her, I was already smitten and it seemed as I was saying hello to an old friend I hadn’t seen for a very long time.


I don’t remember much of our first meeting to be honest. But there were two particular instances that I can recall which left a lasting impression.


The first one was her gently letting me know how intense our relationship and contact would be. “You do know that we would regularly have to be in contact with each other,” said Michele.

 

“Sure, no problem.” I said. I could always use another real life friend. After all, most of my friends were what I called online friends – people who I regularly connected to on Facebook groups and messenger without ever having met in the real world, or who simply live thousands of miles away. My life was conventionally boring, filled with domestic chores, running after my three year-old son and being pregnant.

What I only understood afterwards, well into writing The Happiest Kids in the World was just how intense our communication had to be. We really had to be the best of friends, or it just wouldn’t work. Only after I co-wrote our book could I fully appreciate Michele’s kindness, openness and willingness to work with me. She also became my mentor, teaching me actually how to write a book. I’m ambitious (both by nature and as a product of Tiger parenting) but suffice to say, I had no idea what writing a book actually entailed until I started  doing it. And I guarantee you, it is not for the faint of heart to write a nonfiction book filled with interviews and an honest account of a foreign culture.


I also remember just how unexpectedly supportive Marianne and Michele were about me being an aspiring author and a mother. I blurted out, “Before agreeing with working with me, I have to tell you something. I’m pregnant.”


“Oh, I know. Marianne told me,” replied Michele.

I smiled. Marianne also had a similar positive reaction when I told her.  “Congratulations! What wonderful news, Rina.”


“You’re still willing to work with me?” I said.


“Of course!  Why should your pregnancy prevent you from writing this book?” Marianne said.


Where I come from, it seems that
motherhood and writing are incompatible. The creative life – if one wants to take it seriously and do well – is often romanticized as demanding all one’s attention, leaving little room and time for distractions. Motherhood – the all-consuming, martyr mother image that my American culture puts on a pedestal – demands so much energy that supposedly, not much is left over for creative endeavors, or even work at all.


Yet Michele and Marianne knew another secret. That one can reconcile one’s identities as both a
mother and a writer. The subject matter, after all, was about parenting the happiest kids in the world. Surely mothers should know a bit about happiness too. And apparently, Michele and Marianne were ready to show me the way.


(Lift Each Other GIF courtesy of illustrator and designer Libby VanderPloeg)

My Dutch Life: Joanne Lew-Vriethoff

27 October 2016

Joanne Lew-Vriethoff is an Asian-American illustrator currently living in Amsterdam with her Dutch husband and two children. Born in Malaysia, Joanne grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from the ArtCenter College of Design. When she’s not illustrating, Joanne loves to travel around the world with her family, exploring and collecting ideas and stories for her inspirations. Awards include the 2015 Mom’s Choice Award (Gold), 2015 IPA Benjamin Franklin Awards (1 Gold & @ Silvers), 2012 Beehive Book Award (CLAU), the 2011 Gryphon Award, Winner Bank Street Child Study Children’s Book Award Juvenile, and many more.

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What originally inspired you to become an illustrator?

I have always loved to draw ever since I was four years old. When I turned twelve, I lived alone with my older sister in a room rented from a family in Los Angeles. I was pretty much left to my own devices to take care of myself. I went to school and worked three jobs. My childhood was pretty tough and lonely and I missed my parents, who, for their own reasons, thought I would have better opportunities in the States. For me, drawing had always been just for fun but the way I felt about making art changed and became something more important and precious was when life got hard. It was the one place I could go where I was able to make my world different from the one I lived in. It was the only way I felt I could express myself freely and be as wild in my imagination as I wanted. It was my safe haven.

 

Who or what has had the biggest single influence on you?

I am not sure if my parents were the biggest influence but they were definitely my biggest supporters next to my husband. Although my mom still thinks I’m a cartoonist after 15 years, they have always being very supportive and encouraging when it came to doing what I love.

My most awesome talented and funny art instructor Dwight Harmon. I was not a good student in art school and definitely not the most talented or ambitious one.  Yet this man took me aside one day and said, “Your artwork has the potential to be really good, what the heck are you doing and what are you planning to do with it?”   I had never really seen him this serious and stern and it was a good kick in the butt.

After having my daughter, I started drawing and painting with her. I realized how much I had missed it. It made me want to go back to making art and telling stories again. For me, it was about capturing the moments and feelings I shared with my children.

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How has living in Holland influenced your views on art or design?

I love the artwork coming out of the Netherlands. There is a total sense of freedom to be completely yourself in the art you make. Design and art in this country challenges the boundaries and dares to go beyond without fear of what others think. It can be shocking but that’s what I love about it. The children’s illustrations are pure, beautiful, quirky, unique and experimental. Holland is a very safe country. I feel  because of that,  kids are generally given the space and freedom to just be kids, get messy, go barefoot exploring in the park, get wet in the fountains without worries of catching a cold,  and make their own adventures. Living here has helped me relive my childhood again but in a more positive way and appreciate a sense of freedom to be an explorer.

 

What is your design process like?

When the publishers send me the manuscript, I usually take a day or two to process the story.  Then I would start with thumbnails/ storyboard sometimes on post-it notes. Other times, it’s a lot of cutting, pasting and playing around with different pieces before I put together what I envisioned each page is going to be. Once it’s approved, I move on to sketches.  This is where I start working out the details, character sketching, the transition from one page to the next. When I move on to final colors, I start laying out all the big stuff first and then build it up from there. None of my final art has ever felt final because while I am working on one piece, I always find myself going back to the earlier pages because I suddenly thought of something that can be added or taken out. This stage can be quite organic. I usually gather my kids to critique my work and my husband who has a great eye and helps me see something I had missed before. The best part is seeing it all come together.

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What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?

The best piece of advice is from my husband. Sometimes you have to say ‘No’. It’s not the end of the world if you can’t do it. Be kind to yourself.

 

What is the best advice you can give to aspiring artists?

Just one. Oh boy. I can’t.

Never take criticism personally.

If you value your work and time, others will as well.

Love what you do or don’t do it at all.

Know how to sell your work because you still need to pay your bills. Believe in yourself but please don’t sit and wait around for something to happen.

Never work for free.

 

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Please tell us about your latest project Beautiful!  

Beautiful is a book about breaking the barrier of what society’s expectations are on what beautiful means for a girl. This book encourages girls of all shapes, sizes, and race to embrace who they are and to realize their endless potentials. It’s showing girls free to be themselves whether it’s playing in mud, conducting science experiments, climbing trees, reading books, or playing sports in a wheelchair. It’s about being free to express yourself without fear of what others think of you. It’s been such a wonderful collaboration and so well-received with enthusiastic praise from parents and children that I’m currently working on two more complementary books to Beautiful called Brave and Love.

 

p.s. My Dutch life is a monthly series featuring inspirational people living in the Netherlands, or who have a very special connection with the country. Would you like to share your story? Connect with us!

Behind the Scenes of The Happiest Kids in the World

19 October 2016

“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.

Sneak peak Happiest Kids

As I am writing this blog post in my home office, the soft autumn light from my window filters through. The leaves are beginning to turn shades of yellow, red, orange and brown – and as they fall, neighbours collect them into piles on the street which children will find themselves unable to resist jumping into.  It’s starting to get dark earlier. The crisp air officially signals the beginning of sweater-and-wool-coat-season.

 

For many, October is still fresh with all the back-to-school energy and momentum of work obligations and deadlines.  For me, it’s a special anniversary.  Two years ago, I received an unsolicited email from Marianne Velmans- a publisher in London. The subject heading: ” Book proposal?” A simple but life altering request.


Marianne had been following my blog and loved what she read. She asked me if I would consider turning my writing into why Dutch children are the happiest in the world into a book. She was particularly interested in me divulging the secrets of Dutch parenting.

 

Me? Rina Mae? The stay-at-home American mom who lives in a Dutch village, scribbling down random observations in my blog? Even more so – I didn’t know anyone who had ever written a book. Being intimately familiar with poverty, my parents – like millions of other Filipino parents – preferred their children pursuing professions with more job security and stability – medicine, law, teaching, or engineering. So wanting to be the dutiful daughter, I had my eyes set on one day becoming a doctor. But “life” happened – I fell in love with a Dutch guy and found myself living in Holland to start a family.


But I have always loved to write. Motherhood actually made me a better writer. And I also recognise that living in the Netherlands with a supportive husband, healthy kids and access to great childcare when the need arises gives me the space and freedom to develop my writing. Yet, I never imagined that what was essentially a hobby to connect with other moms on the internet could actually blossom into a real profession.

 

Here was my chance to have a voice as a published author, and to write about what I am passionate about – how to raise kind, self-assured, happy children using an intuitive, relaxed approach, the Dutch way.   

 

I managed to collect my nerves and give her a call. Unsurprising, I was a bumbling nervous idiot, rambling incoherent sentences interspersed with thank yous. But Marianne was gracious enough to see my potential. Not only had I “met” my future publishing editor, but I had gained a mentor with a generous spirit to hold my hand and show me the way.
Sneak Peak

Stay tuned for the next blog post in the series: Michele’s story. How we became a writing duo.
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.

The Netherlands- One of the Best Places to Grow Up as a Girl

12 October 2016

Holland one of the Best Places to Grow Up as a Girl

 

A report released on the International Day of the Girl has declared that the Netherlands is among the best places in the world to grow up as a girl. I’m not surprised. Unfortunately, the United States, my homeland, ranks in dismal thirty-two place, trailing behind Algeria and Kazkhstan. Apparently, if you are a girl and want to grab life by it’s horns, you have better chances in Holland.

 

The Netherlands ranks fourth place, just behind their Nordic neighbours Sweden, Finland and Norway. The Girls’ Opportunity Index is based on five indicators – rates of child marriage, adolescent fertility, maternal mortality (as an indicator of girls’ access to good-quality healthcare), Women MPs (in relation to male MPs), and lower-secondary school completion. Suffice to say, I am not surprised.

 

Here are my own musings as to why the Netherlands is an incredible place to grow up as a girl (and be a woman):

 

Rates of Child Marriage

This serious human rights violation where more than 15 million girls under the age of 18 are married is unheard in Dutch culture. The Dutch actually don’t care about marriage. As an American from a more traditional Catholic Filipino immigrant upbringing, I was surprised to learn that marriage isn’t one of the milestones that girls aspire to. The popularity of American programs like Say Yes to the Dress reveals, after all, the idea that getting married is culmination of female ambitions and dreams. Marriage, from a modern Dutch perspective, is simply not for everyone. And not marrying is not seen as a failure or a reflection of a female’s shortcomings, and definitely no longer a prerequisite for having children.

 

Adolescent fertility

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the alluring French that are paragons of comprehensive sexuality education but the pragmatic Dutch. Starting at the age of four, the Dutch begin age-appropriate sex education classes with an emphasis on respecting one’s feelings and others. By the time they are teenagers, Dutch girls (and their male counterparts) have a mature perspective when it comes to their sexuality, establishing boundaries and negotiating terms. They boasts one of the lowest rates of teen pregnancies in the world.

 

Best Place to Grow Up as Girl

 

Maternal mortality- Access to Good-Quality Healthcare

According to 2014 Euro Health Consumer Index ranking thirty-seven countries, the Netherlands has the best healthcare in Europe. With their long standing tradition of home births, a well-integrated hospital and midwifery system and at-home postpartum maternity nurses, giving birth in the Netherlands can be an amazing and safe experience. And as we all know that Europe takes health care seriously, being first place speaks volumes about the quality and access that can be found in Holland.

 

Women MPs

If there is one thing that you will learn about being with the Dutch, it’s that having an opinion is a matter of national importance. Dutch girls are encouraged to speak their minds from the moment they can babble.  Being articulate and opinionated is a trait that Dutch girls learn to aspire to – and they definitely hold their ground on the playgrounds and later in the boardrooms and in state affairs. Whether or not the Dutch actually have any idea of the subject matter is a whole other topic.

 

Lower-Secondary School Completion
The Dutch can proudly boast as ranking third in the world for having the most educated population, just behind Finland and Singapore according to the annual Global Competitiveness Report conducted by the World Economic Forum. And Dutch girls regularly outperform their male counterparts when it comes to high school and higher education.

 

As of now, I am a mother to two American-Dutch boys and intent on raising them to be men I can be proud of. But if I should ever have a daughter, I’d be celebrating being able to raise her in the Netherlands!

 

 

First photo courtesy of Peter Eiking

P.s. Did you know that we wrote a book exploring why all these Dutch children are so happy around us?