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

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

 

 

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).