We were privileged to live in the Netherlands for almost two years 1988 – 1989. We were in an expat situation – which also had its merits – but I’ll concentrate here on the European experiences we had.
Although our children, aged six and eight at the time, went to a British school and socialised with a lot of other English speakers, including going for sleepovers, because we lived a long way out they also mixed with the Dutch children in the neighbourhood. At first the Dutch children tried to help them be speaking English. Our children did have Dutch lessons at school but the Dutch have a slightly strange attitude to their own language. Why should they expect anyone else to speak it? So, they use English as a lingua franca and their own language as a secret one. Not so much the children though – before long the Dutch kids were speaking only Dutch and so were ours though they didn’t realise it.
“Why can’t the kids at school speak the extra English like we can?” asked my son soon after we returned to the UK and he’d tried to speak Dutch to his friends at school.
Great excitement, too, when both of my children heard a little girl counting in Dutch in the English playground as she skipped.
It wasn’t just the language, though. It was other things we learnt as well. We were able to look at a different but equally valid way of life. I’ve written here the first ten examples that spring to mind. There are many, many more!
1. The Dutch royal family go out on their bikes at the weekend. Could you imagine ours doing that?
2. Bikes anyway. All those cycle paths. The bike is a little like the holy cow. The flat land helps, of course. But it has been made really safe there and is certainly extremely healthy.
3. The cycling proficiency test is very strict.
4. Swimming is taken very seriously and is part of the national curriculum. Children are taught to fear and respect water and deal with it effectively. Not a bad idea with all of those canals …
5. Banking was years ahead. We’ve just about caught up to where they were then.
6. Great ways to create birthday treats for the kids. Again, we do it now but we didn’t then.
7. Four day evening walking events for young people in the summer.
8. If you invite friends round for the evening you’re only expected to provide coffee and cake followed by drinks and snacks later.
9. Always have cash on you and visible in your home if you’re away. This can stop you being robbed violently.
10. You can have a garden delivered on a tuck in the summer and no one will think you’re a slacker.
All of those things, and the many others* changed us forever, even though we were there for such a short time. We could never be exactly the same as before. We cherish our right to call ourselves European.
*I’ve thought of three others as I’ve written that last paragraph but I could go on forever.