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?

Rent-An-Oma

6 October 2016

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“Oma Mieke, Oma Mieke” exclaims my four year old son Julius. “Let’s go to the boerderij (farm) to pick up some eggs and then the bakery to pick up croissants. Then you can make me lunch!”

 

Julius is on his bike on our driveway, restless and impatient while sixty-two year-old Mieke bundles up his one year-old brother Matteo in his stroller.

 

She hands Matteo a package of baby cookies which Matteo gobbles up happily.

 

“Okay, no problem.” responds Mieke. “Rina, we’re headed out. Be back soon!”

 

Mieke isn’t our children’s biological Oma (grandmother). Rather, she is our version of a Rent-an-Oma – a surrogate grandmother to watch our children for a couple hours during the week. She is my secret to how I get any writing done.

 

I was actually inspired by this idea when I lived in the sleepy, retirement community of Doorn. Everywhere around us were Dutch people of sixty years and older. They would often stop us – at the local Albert Heijn grocery store or the playground in the woods – to chat and admire the boys.

 

And of course, there were also lots of grandparents either toting their grandchildren around at the weekly farmer’s market, visiting the local zoo, or simply out on the sidewalks pushing babies in strollers and chasing after toddlers on their walking bicycles.

 

Often referred to as Omadag (though Dutch grandfathers are just as hands on and involved), many Dutch grandparents dedicate a day or two a week to help care for their grandchildren. It’s the Dutch version of the modern day village, and the Dutch take it to heart. The ideal childcare structure in Holland comprises of the responsibility spread out during the week. For example, when Michele’s children were young, her mother-in-law would take the kids a day a week, her husband Martijn on his alternate Fridays off, and she’d take them for two days and the rest went to créche.
It’s a healthy mix  allowing children to develop meaningful relationships with their grandparents but not becoming too much of a burden. Even the Dutch government fully supported the idea of Oma and Opa involvement, And I have the sneaking suspicion it’s one of the reasons why Dutch children are so happy.

 

As a Dutch-American family, we are not in the privileged position to have grandparents live nearby, or who are not interested in taking care of their grandchildren a once a week.  So why not just “Rent-an-Oma”? There seemed to be a lot of older Dutch grandmotherly types who took  a lot of joy in being with my children and I obviously needed help.

 

Apparently, my brilliant the idea of “Rent-an-Oma” was already fashionable two to three years ago – you can either have a Oma nanny or even adopt an Oma.  And the Dutch government was behind the idea, even providing a subsidy for Omas and Opas who are registered as guest parents.

 

I couldn’t, however, just invite any stranger to my house of course – careful screening, a list of requirements of what we wanted,  interviews and background checks had to be conducted. When we found Mieke, we wished we had done it sooner. As a former kindergarten teacher and a nanny with over twenty-five years experience, Mieke is the Dutch Mary Poppins of our dreams (yes, she also sings). Her  authoritative but kind handling of the children and overall love for toddlers and babies puts our mind at ease.

 

The idea of Rent-an-Oma is more than just hiring a nanny, a babysitter or even an au pair. It’s about hopefully fostering a lifelong connection with someone who can pass down their own wisdom and culture to the next generation. It’s about sharing with my children stories from the past, of continuing the oral tradition of stories that will enrich my children’s imagination. And it’s about creating our own village, of being honest with ourselves that we cannot continue to parent alone and need the support of kind souls around us.

 

There’s been a lot of interest in the news lately about how the Dutch and even Americans incorporating their elderly population into modern day society. There is the story about college students living in retirement homes and even a preschool program that’s part of a nursing home.

 

My own friends who heard about my rent-a-oma experience on Facebook were quite positive. One friend enthusiastically responded, “Holy sh*t. I want a Rent-a-Oma here. In fact, I once made a joke about how may I should have tried to rent a grandparent.”


Let’s consider making Rent-an-Oma a trend around the world.

 

P.S. Did you know we have a book called The Happiest Kids in the World? If you live in the UK, you can pre-order a copy! (For American and other international readers, please wait till our American publishers gives us more info!) Thank you for the continued love and support.

A Thank You Letter to the Strangers on the Train

14 September 2016

thank-you-letter

To the random strangers on the train,

 

Two months ago (July 14), I had an epileptic episode on the train traveling between Utrecht Central and Driebergen-Rijsenburg. At my most vulnerable moment, you stayed by my side and helped me.

 

For starters, it was clear that there was a good chance I wasn’t one of you. I’m an American of Filipino ancestry – my dark brown skin, short stature and Northern California accent a clear giveaway.  But instead of dismissing me, you all tried your best to give me solace during the most embarrassing moment of my life.

 

I live with epilepsy. It’s an inconvenient disorder that rarely appears, a vague constant threat that lingers around. I’m supposed to be getting plenty of rest, a solid night’s sleep, eating healthily, and avoiding epileptic triggers. Something that’s quite a challenge when you are deep in the trenches of early motherhood.

 

And despite my seemingly extrovert, open personality, I prefer to suffer in silence, the pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality deeply ingrained in me.  

 

On that day, the air was the crisp kind, mingling with Holland’s soft light to make everything look clear, as if you were watching the world through a new lens. I was just coming home from an intense, but productive meeting with my co-author and Dutch publisher in Amsterdam.

I’m an aspiring writer, hoping to put words to all the wonderful (and challenging) aspects of bringing up American-Dutch kids in your country. To what the Dutch are actually getting right – raising the happiest kids in the world.

 

I struggled during my first few years in your country. It wasn’t easy. And it took me a really long time to get acclimated. The infamous Dutch directness and unsolicited advice initially clashed with my overly polite Asian American upbringing. Now I actually appreciate it and prefer the pragmatic style of communication. So I was high on life, finally feeling like I’m not only surviving in your country, but thriving.   

 

When I reached Amsterdam Centraal, I noticed that I had three minutes before my train would leave. So I sprinted. For my life. I was pleased with myself for having made it, not having to wait another thirty minutes. Then my stomach started hurting. A sense of panic rushed over me. I told myself if I just practiced some breathing exercises, perhaps I could prevent the attack from happening. I was wrong.  

 

Thank you for your random act of kindness. For not running away to the nearest polder when you witnessed a random foreign stranger lose consciousness, have violent muscle contractions and wet herself. Twice. You could have easily assumed, having never witnessed a grand mal seizure, that I was a tourist who had taken a bit too many liberties.

 

I’m hoping that these words will reach you.

With gratitude,
Rina Mae

The Grammar School Debate From the Outside

13 September 2016

grammer-school-debate-1

 

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The Happiest Kids in the World, Bringing Up Children the Dutch Way

5 September 2016

HappiestKidsBook

It’s time to fess up. We’ve been keeping something from you. Nothing bad. We haven’t cheated on you or anything, but we thought it best to wait until everything was official. We’ve written a book and it’s called The Happiest Kids in the World: Bringing up children the Dutch way. The British edition is now available for pre-order on Amazon. Doubleday UK commissioned the book, Dutch rights have been sold to Nijgh & Van Ditmar for publication in the spring, and we have an American publisher too – The Experiment who do cool non-fiction books. They’ll be publishing next spring too.

As expats bringing up our kids here – Rina Mae Acosta is American and Michele Hutchison is British – we realized that something truly wonderful was going on. UNICEF had already confirmed our suspicions: according to the Child Well-Being Studies, the Dutch are raising the happiest children in the world. We’re talking about well-adjusted and healthy kids who rate themselves happy, get on well with their friends and parents and enjoy school. . . And these children have managed to come top the two times the comprehensive study into childhood happiness was conducted.

What exactly are Dutch parents doing differently? Could it really just be all the hagelslag, chocolate sprinkles, that Dutch kids eat for breakfast? Or perhaps it’s because of the chilled-out Dutch babies who sleep through the night and the under ten crowd who are free to play after school because they have no homework. And why isn’t anyone else making a fuss about this? Shouldn’t more parents know about this parenting style that’s actually working?

 

happiestkids-2

 

So we put our heads together to figure out exactly why Dutch children are rated the happiest kids in the world.

 

 

In the meantime, come join us on our Facebook page. And if you’d like to support us in letting more people know about our book, please do.

Stuff Dutch People Think Is Dutch

23 August 2016

stuff-dutch-people-think-is-dutch

 

I’ve long been a fan of Colleen Geske’s entertaining blog www.StuffDutchPeopleLike.com. Colleen, who is Canadian, has lived in the Netherlands as long as I have and has spent time cataloguing all the peculiarities of the Lowlands. Topics include: ‘Speaking in expressions’, ‘Impossibly steep stairs’, ‘White leggings’ and ‘Borrels’. In 2013, she self-published a book of the same title with 60 of these blog posts. It’s fun and recognizable and I definitely recommend it. Just recently I bought her follow-up book Stuff Dutch People Say, which being a linguist, is right up my street. The Dutch language is riddled with often peculiar idiom (they speak in expressions, after all) and Colleen sets about explaining where some of these things come from, as well as discussing Dutch words that have made their way into the English language (coleslaw – kool-sla, for example).  

It’s probably easier for an outsider moving into a particular culture to isolate the things that seem typically Dutch, than for a Dutch person themselves. It’s easy to assume particular behaviours or objects are normal, until a foreigner points them out to you. The same thing happens to me with Englishness sometimes.  A Dutch friend pointed out to me last week that fumbling teenage sex at a bus-stop or in the back of a parked car was not something many Dutch people had ever experienced since most of them lost their virginity at home. A more obvious example of cultural difference is English people abroad constantly having to ask for milk to put in their tea (and then: regular milk, please, not coffee creamer!).

All that said, a new book has just come out in which the Dutch have a go at explaining themselves. The Netherlands in 26 Iconic Objects, edited by Wim Brands and Jeroen van Kan and published by Uitgeverij Balans contains 26 short essays each by a different Dutch writer. I confess to having been an insider on the project since I translated two of the essays myself (‘Ice-Skates’ by Maarten t Hart and ‘Biscuit Tin’ by Maartje Wortel). Although many of the objects chosen weren’t invented by the Dutch, their adoption into Dutch culture highlights something about the natural character. In the case of the essays I translated, ice-skates were probably invented in Scandinavia but became particularly useful in a water-filled country that froze over in the winter. Skating on natural ice in a pair of noren is especially Dutch. Us Brits have got biscuit tins too, of course, but we don’t do that thing of offering our guests just a single biscuit. It’s the single biscuit that exemplifies Dutch frugality.

I’d never heard of a Bolknak (Maarten Asscher’s contribution). It turns out to be a Dutch-produced cigar for the bourgeois classes (not something us foreigners associate with the Dutch – where’s that flat society?). But it also fell out of production many years ago. Clogs, bulbs, herring carts, stroopwafels sure, but ecstacy pills? The writer Renee Kelder claims that cargo-bike mums even take them on occasion, as do Dutch people in their sixties. A ‘drugs holiday’ from the straitjacket of Calvinism. And what to think of geraniums which I always associate with the Greek islands myself? According to Bram Bakker, geraniums are a Dutch cipher for old age as it used to be – ‘sitting behind the geraniums’ as the Dutch expression goes. It’s something modern Dutch oldies wouldn’t be seen dead doing, apparently.

Giethoorn The Fairytale Dutch Village of Your Dreams

9 August 2016

giethoorn-1

 

Taking “inburgering” (Dutch cultural integration) to another level, I decided to take my family to a day out in Giethoorn. Apparently, according to Buzzfeed, Giethoorn is one of the most charming places in the world to see before you die. What is it about this obscure Dutch village of only 2,620 inhabitants that has garnered so much international attention? Why is it that around 200,000 Chinese tourists flock to this unassuming, quaint town every year?  


And what better way to see and experience Giethoorn than taking a two hour private boat tour with Smit Giethoorn. Plus, I hoped to get some insider information, pseudo journalism style. Our guide Jordy was more than happy to oblige.
So here are some reasons as to why I think Giethoorn is to be considered a place where you can live out your fairytale dreams:

 

A Village with No Roads

Who wouldn’t want to see a village that essentially has no roads and cars? Rather, the only way to access the village is by the preferred traditional method of boats, or by bicycle. And thanks to “whisper boats” (boats with a noiseless electric engine) reigning supreme on the canals, the peace and tranquility of the Dutch countryside of Giethoorn is maintained.

 

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Traditional Thatched-roof Homes with Perfectly Manicured Gardens

When you have a cluster of traditional thatched-roof homes with perfectly manicured gardens on their own separate islands only reachable by boats and bridges with bike paths, it’s easy to create a once in a lifetime, breathtaking experience. And what can never be replicated, not even by Disney, are the authentic 18th and 19th century Dutch farm houses filled with local families whose roots go way back. Giethoorn is not a museum or an amusement park. it is a thriving,close-knit community which takes pride in preserving its village and sharing it with the rest of the world.

 

A Nod to Dutch Tradition

Giethoorn was first established around 1230 by a group of fugitives from the Mediterranean. The village evolved when locals discovered a prized treasure: peat, a precursor to coal that can be used as an energy source when dried. The canals and surrounding lakes were actually formed inadvertently as the locals extracted the peat. Hence the canals are only about one meter deep and the surrounding lakes and waterways are not that much deeper. Giethoorn exemplifies the Dutch saying “God made the Earth, but the Dutch made Holland”.

 

Good Old Fashion Gezelligheid

One can’t really escape describing anything Dutch without referring to gezelligheid, an untranslatable Dutch word that embodies the feelings of wellbeing, coziness, love, belonging, and warmth. Floating through the bucolic village on a boat with your nearest and dearest can make anyone a sentimental fool.

 

Nostalgia
Giethoorn and the surrounding lake area also brings lots of nostalgia. The well-preserved homes, canals and bridges really do transport you to another time. It’s also a place where generations of Dutch children and teens spend the summer at nearby sailing camps making memories with thirty or so of their newly acquainted BFFs (sailing classmates). And naturally, it’s also the setting of wistful recollections of puppy love, random hookups and romantic happily ever afters.  

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Enjoying the Chinese Tourists

The Chinese love Giethoorn so much that they are probably the reason why Giethoorn made it to the most recent international edition of Monopoly, alongside glamorous heavyweights Amsterdam, London, Tokyo, Madrid and Lisbon. Their enthusiasm for Giethoorn paparazzi style is infectious. They’ve traveled thousands of miles and across several time zones just to see this unassuming Dutch village (as part of their Euro tour package of course). If that isn’t heartwarming, I don’t know what is. (Brilliant business idea to throw out there: wouldn’t it be amazing if a dim sum restaurant opened up in Giethoorn catering to the enthusiastic tourists?)

 

Genius Marketing

Dutch villages, towns and cities should take some notes with the brilliant marketing campaigns of Giethoorn. While Giethoorn is definitely unique in regards to having no roads, the country is littered with other villages brimming with picturesque canals, wooden bridges and traditional thatched-roof homes with perfectly manicured gardens. There are other breathtaking places in the Netherlands – the star fortified village of Naarden, for example – that remain off the beaten path or are virtually ignored by tourists.

 

Added bonus material we learned thanks to our Dutch guide Jordy:

 

Family Trees

Each house in the village traditionally has a white tree above their front door. The tree symbolizes the family. The size of the tree depends on the size of the family. The Smit family is by far the largest family in the village – their tree is so large that it needs to be against the wall of the house.

 

Goat Coat of Arms

The coat of arms of Giethoorn are two goat horns. Though there are no longer any goats around, it’s still a nod to how it was way back when. It is also the origin of the name of the village: Geytenhorn (goat horn) became Giethoorn.

 

Setting of Fanfare

An absolute must-watch Dutch comedy classic (1958) Fanfare by master filmaker Bert Haanstra takes places in old Giethoorn, way before the tourists.

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And while you’re at it,  come join our Facebook page for more Dutch gezelligheid. Guaranteed to distract you at work and help you procrastinate.

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Friesland

7 July 2016

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Disney Can Learn from the Efteling

25 May 2016

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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It’s gezellig (Old-fashion charm)

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

 

Unadulterated Fairytales

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

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Affordability

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

 

A Considerably Less Commercial Experience

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

 

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BONUS Holle Bolle Gijs – A Talking Bin

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