The Magical Art of Talking to Dutch Doctors

24 January 2017

 

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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.

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!

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

 

 

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?

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.