Top 5 What The. . . ??? Moments. . . Since Moving to The Netherlands

By: Celeste Bennekers

After moving our family to The Netherlands 14-months ago, there have been at least 18-handfuls of oh-my-I-don’t-know-if-I-can-do-this-moments. My husband and I moved excitedly and exhaustedly. Our two large dogs moved apprehensively. Our 21-month-old moved confusedly and our 3 month-old moved obliviously. But we arrived. We said goodbye to our Ford SUV, flew over the great big ocean in January of 2012 and our furniture arrived a few months later. We’ve learned a lot of things. We’ve climbed to the highest highs and endured the lowest lows while being on foreign soil – a trek not exactly expected. . . (at least the lowest lows part) but embraced, nevertheless. We’ve been challenged, but the first lesson quickly learned, if not instantly realized, that living in a foreign country is intensely and fabulously more involved – emotionally, physically, and soulfully – than just visiting. It’s been a beautiful journey, with plenty of scraping-the-bottom-of-the-car speed bumps you didn’t even see coming.

  1. Frozen Canals. Our third week in The Netherlands, the canals froze over and my childhood friend came to visit. She’s an experienced Expat – an elementary school teacher in Germany for 2 years, and she was on a mission to shock me out of my OMG-What-Did-We-Just-Do-Coma and show me the beauty of my town. We went on hunt for warm winter clothes for my children. “Kids wear tights under their clothes. Even the boys,” she told me. (Tights? What? My kids sizes in centimeters? What?) As we neared the department store she spotted an opportunity. “Let’s go walk on the canals!” she exclaimed. “Are you Crazy?!?!” I asked her. I was the primary caregiver for my 3-month old and 21-month old. I already had my apprehensions about the competency/cooperation of the Dutch medical system. “Look – there’s a lady pushing a stroller!” she pointed. I saw the woman in knee-high boots prancing around the frozen canals pushing a pram. It did not provide comfort, but we walked on the ice and snapped photos of my bold move. She applauded me, like any good elementary school teacher would.

  2. Packing Your Own Groceries. It sounds like a simple concept, but it’s not. Like winning a Super Bowl, it requires planning, anticipation, and execution. You will encounter obstacles and distractions. You are responsible for the rhythm of the entire line, and if you fail, people will notice. I began to understand the logistics behind lining your groceries up on the conveyer belt – heavy stuff first, boxes lighter, and then eggs, bread or herbs for the top of the bag, then repeat for bag two. Month two, I threw the Jumbo grocery store checker for a loop. Weary of chicken salmonella, I put the packaged chicken in a produce bag. I fumbled. It was a bad call. The checker called me out on it. After a failed attempt at scanning the chicken and a tear of the plastic bag to reveal the barcode, she lectured me in Dutch. . . apparently telling me what a pain in the boomsie I was being, thus delaying the play of the game (her mad checking execution skills). “I’m sorry – I don’t speak Dutch, yet. . . “ I replied, although, her message was clear. I had not meant to be rude or condescending. . . I was in a very vulnerable state but she rolled her eyes, like the haughty opposition, and as I efficiently packed my groceries like the pro-I hoped to become, I chirped a happy “Dank U Vel” and tried to forget the whole incident. “So. You speak Dutch now, huh?” she scoffed. And she turned to the next customer. I walked my son, stroller, and precious nutrients for my family back in the snow, unsuccessfully fighting back tears. Yes. I let a grocery store employee make me feel like total crap because I put my chicken in a produce bag. She doesn’t work there anymore.

  3. Biking in The Rain. Sleet. And Snow. A huge part of the Dutch culture is riding a bike. Awesome. Athletic. Add two kids and the whole formula becomes exhausting. I knew, if we wanted to get anywhere around town, I was going to embrace the bike. Considering I hadn’t ridden a bike in 20 years – I figured, if I wanted my kids to survive, I should probably go for a three-wheeler, as opposed to the ever-popular 2-wheeled canoe on wheels. I’ve cycled, in rain, sleet, and snow. The kids, snug in their neon-green cocoon, have no idea the physical effort I’m exerting, the uniqueness of the situation to two American children, or how awful my hair looks after the ride. Their naiveté is precious.

  4. Diaper Changing. The majority of public restrooms in America are equipped with the Koala Bear changing table easily accessible. Look for the contraption mounted to the side of the wall or in the largest stall on the right. The route is usually google-mapped for you from the front door, thus eliminating conversations about the needs of your digestive system. Our first trip to the Leiden Town Hall to apply for our residence permit simultaneously corresponded with one of my children needing a diaper change. (With two in diapers, it was bound to happen. . . ) We had a liason helping us with getting established with paperwork and finding houses, etc. and I quietly whispered to her I’d be right back. She asked if I needed help. “Help? Um. No, thank you.” I said. . . and wondered why she doubted my diaper changing skills after birthing two kids. I started to wander the echoing tiled hallways. I found stairs. I found art work. In a corner of the building tucked away like a quiet mouse, I found the restroom. There were sinks and a few locked stalls. I knocked, but they were empty. With a screaming baby in tow, I went back to our liaison, now aware of the assistance I needed. We obtained the key to from the security guard. No diaper changing facility was available in the women’s restroom. Flustered, I balanced the baby on the toilet and as I huffed out, I realized that around the corner was the handicapped toilet with a tiny sign that indicated diaper changing facilities. With the curiosity and skill of an archeologist, I tried the key and slowly peeked. Alas! The treasure I was searching for was inside. With annoyance and gusto I returned the key to the security guard and later recreated the treasure-trove discovery to my husband. Now I know. Inside the public library is a handicapped toilet on the opposite side of the building from the other toilets. Once a week I flash a smile to the coffee baristas. Of course you ask the girls in the coffee shop for a key to the handicapped toilet so you can diaper change your baby. I’m sure there’s a logical Dutch reason behind the steps, but as a clueless American I just try to play along.

  5. Dutch Preschool. In the United States, my daughter went to daycare while I worked full-time. Upon arriving in The Netherlands I became a stay-at-home Mom. After being entertained with singing time, art time, outside time, snack time, play time, etc. in Texas, I could tell I was doing a pretty poor job of keeping up with her high quality standards of entertainment in The Netherlands. After searching the options, we discovered that the daycare at the end of our block seemed to be a suitable option. We went for a tour, and like my wedding venue and our home back in Texas – I only had to look at one. We signed her up to go one day a week – Wednesdays. I felt confident with our decision, but as I walked down our block for school the first day, my mixed emotions of wanting to protect my small daughter and knowing that she needed social interaction started warring within my head. I attempted to pep myself up. “This is good for her. She’s going to love it. She needs it and so do you.” I said goodbye to her amongst a cloud of confusion and Dutch conversation. My sweet Baby Girl, who never cried when I said goodbye to her in Texas, was wailing. Her tears were reflected in my eyes as I walked down the narrow hallway toward the ancient, heavy door. Images of the Dutch children surrounding and staring in awe at the cute blonde English-speaking girl were chiseled into my heart. “What am I doing – dropping her off, at a school she doesn’t know, amongst teachers and students she’s unfamiliar with, and more importantly, speaking a language she can’t even understand???” – I berated myself for many Wednesdays for weeks straight. On a sunny day many months later I caught the director locking up her bike in the front garden as I was exiting the school. “Oh, she’s doing so well!” the director told me. “She’s very outgoing. Very brave and fearless, all the children just love her.” She exclaimed. Feedback from teachers who speak another language is rare and precious. Beyond – “Oh, she sleeps good. Eats good.” This was the most information I had obtained in months. I lapped up every word like a thirsty puppy – “Yes? The children like her?” I nodded, coaxing her snippets of precious data bits on, “Oh yes. They LOVE her because she speaks English! Just like Dora The Explorer!” My entire body collapsed with relief. But just to make sure nothing was lost in translation, I continued, “SO. Do you mean that speaking English doesn’t make her the ‘weird’ girl, but instead, the ‘cool girl’?” silently praying that these terms had been successful absorbed after years of watching Seinfeld with Dutch subtitles. . . ‘Oh yes .” The relief I felt was overwhelming. Every parent wants to know that they’ve made good decisions or that their child is being accepted by her peers. In America, Dora’s monkey speaks Spanish. In The Netherlands, Dora’s monkey speaks English. I gave a silent blessing of thanks for cartoons that day.

Although we’ve lived in The Netherlands for more than a year, I know that life and the country will continue to challenge me daily. There have been many overwhelming feelings of love, anger, and frustration, while trying to mesh my American upbringing with surviving in a Dutch culture, but in the end – it’s all about the experience and the lessons learned every day. Just like the saying – it’s the journey that counts, not the destination – and at the very least, the journey via bike and stroller ride is infinitely more scenic and peaceful than an American Highway.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingCeleste Bennekers is an American expat living in Netherlands. Blog description: Celeste is an American Expat currently living in Leiden, The Netherlands with her husband, two small children, and two large dogs.
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Contest Comments » There is 1 comment

Bennett wrote 7 years ago:

An honest account of how you've really felt, so interesting! Completely admire you, especially with the children in tow!

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