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Friday, 28 September 2012

The drawing of the three


I admit that I haven’t been feeling like a good blogger recently.  But there is a reason for this and it has a lot to do with the number three.

You see, 2012 is the year of the threes (how much is 2+1, I’m asking you?). It is the year in which I hit a certain age that involves a three. The same year, my husband reached another age that involved two threes. And, the same year, we celebrated Klara’s third birthday.

Of course, this has nothing to do with why I haven’t been feeling like a good blogger lately, but I am getting there. You see, 2012 is the year that I found out that I am soon going to be a mom of three. And, the new baby will be born in March (yes, the third month) of 2013 (another 3!).

Not that I am superstitious, because being superstitious brings bad luck. But I can’t help but wonder that there are so many threes involved- a coincidence, but an uncanny one! So I will be a mom to three children, and I am in equal parts overjoyed and close to panic.

I am overjoyed because I already have two beautiful, bright, wonderful girls, and I can’t wait to meet the new little person. I know how much fun it is to have children, and how happy I am to have them.

I am close to panic because sometimes I think that I just can’t make it, and if I can’t make it with two, why would I make it with three?

Also, this particular baby seems to feed off my brain waves. I already wrote that I didn’t have pregnancy brain with the girls, and if I felt confused or chaotic in pregnancy, it was my normal state- I am always confused and chaotic.

But this is really different. I realized that something was off when I missed my dentist’s appointment. I started to mark all the dates in my agenda, only to realize later that I forgot about two more appointments. Seriously, I can’t remember my name. At the moment, everything seems a little overwhelming, and the only reason I can write this blog, it is because I get to rant about how absolutely forgetful, confused and chaotic I am right now. Please bear with me while I rant some more.

Before I knew that I was pregnant, and in the early stages, I had wonderful, intelligent ideas for blog posts all written up in my head, waiting to be poured into a blog post. I was excited to share my thoughts and experiences with you. These posts have now been eaten by the baby growing in my belly, but I hope I can still access them in the nearest future.

Otherwise, I feel fine. There are days where food produces an explosion of taste in my mouth. The banana I ate yesterday was the bananiest banana I have ever eaten. On other days, food can be divided into food that makes me sick, and food that doesn’t. The day where the world runs out of cornflakes and milk will also be the day that the sky will fall down on our heads. My mood is similar: I either feel energized and ready for anything or exhausted. Also, there is the ever-growing belly, and at 15 weeks I am already showing, and it scares me.

However, it could be worse and right now, everything is going well. I hope it will stay that way. And, in case you’re wondering where I got the idea for the title, look no further than Stephen Kings “The Dark Tower”. I couldn't have thought of a better title for this post.
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Wednesday, 26 September 2012

A great book idea to promote diversity!



I have just discovered a great book for children and I am very proud to tell you that it comes from Poland, my own country. The idea is as exciting as it is simple: look for expat children in your hometown. Interview them, take their pictures, and let them tell you their favourite story or fairy tale. Combine this with gorgeous, stunning illustrations short life stories of the families, and publish.

This great idea was conceived by Anna Hejno and  Martyna Piątas-Wiktor, two women working at Teatr Lalek in Wrocław (formerly known as Breslau). They contacted embassies and ask to get in touch with expat families. Their motivation came from an article about crimes committed against foreigners in Poland. On the other hand, Wrocław is a fairly multicultural city which made it a perfect location for this project.

You will find the pictures of the featured children in typical Wrocław locations: on the market place, for example. The children are often dressed in traditional attire, or shown during their favourite activities. The pictures are then accompanied by a short story about the families featured in the book, and then you can read the fairy tales.

The children come from many countries and cultures, they speak different languages. Some of them were already born in Poland; others came to Wrocław with their parents. In most cases, they come from mixed marriages. Also featured is a Roma singing and dancing choir. So in this book, we can find tales from: Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Cameroon, Germany, Japan, France, Palestine, the Czech Republic, India, the US, Poland and from the Roma people.

Some of the children were old enough to tell their favourite fairy tales themselves, in other cases the parents did the work for them if the child was very little and couldn’t speak yet. In most cases, there were typically traditional tales but Helena, an American girl or Lula, a French girl, even wrote their own stories! I am happy that so many wonderful, creative children live in my country!

Add the gorgeous illustrations by Karolina Maria Wiśniewska, and the photos by Krzysztof Wiktor, and  you’ll get a delightful, colourful, exciting book where everything works together to promote cultural diversity and understanding. I love everything about it and I can’t wait to read it to my girls.


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Monday, 24 September 2012

GIVEAWAY Xpat Journal and Holland Handbook ends September 30th, 2012


I have two things to give away this time. One of them is the Holland Handbook which is a great source of information for all people who just arrived in the Netherlands or want to stay informed about all things happening in this country. Some of you might already be familiar with it, for others it might come as a novelty, but it is always good to have the newest edition at home.

The other thing is the Xpat Journal. It is a monthly lifestyle magazine, covering all types of information. This issue focuses on education and employment, and it is a topic of interest for all expats. Especially in this particular issue, you can find out how to set up your own company; read about the dos and don’ts of networking and get good information on Dutch employment laws.

The education part tackles really interesting and important topics. For example, did you know that Dutch children are considered to be the happiest in the industrialized world? One of the articles discusses this very phenomenon, and also takes expat children into account. Also, you might feel inspired by the American School of the Hague where students can take part in the growing Arts programme, which focuses on enjoying the arts, creativity and active participation. Another article presents the international school of Breda that offers high-quality education and an experienced team of teachers. Have a look at a highly successful international school!

Other areas of expat life are also covered and discussed.

To enter, please do the following:

1)      Follow Xpat Media (@xpatmedia) and me  (@TheEuropeanMama ) on Twitter and retweet this giveaway.
2)      Like both the Xpat Media and The European Mama Facebook pages.

The winner will be chosen randomly using www.random.org. 
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Thursday, 20 September 2012

Yes, expats can be friends!


I’ve been thinking about writing about expat friendships, but this post in the Telegraph tackled this very topic, thus giving me the motivation needed for this post. The author basically claimed that expat can’t make friends because they never stay in one place for enough time for friendships to develop. Another argument was that expats often tend to hang out with people from their own countries, even though they don’t like these people at all. The third argument was that the term “friend” has been blurred by the use of social media so it is not clear who is a real friend.

To this, I can only say: “No, no and no”. And yes, even though expats tend to move around a lot, they basically make strong connections out of necessity- it’s not always easy to access the locals, and so, expat form their own support groups, playgroups and meeting events so that they get the chance to get to know each other. Often, we do make new friends- and for that we don’t even have to abandon our friends at home!

I joined the Delft MaMa playgroups when my second daughter was born and I was ready to climb on walls. I’ve never realized that I was feeling lonely, but with two children, I needed the support of other people. And I met wonderful, inspiring women, and many of them became my friends.

I also have Polish friends. We occasionally meet for playgroups and chats- and I like hanging out with them because I miss speaking Polish. And I think it’s great to have somebody who can understand what situation I am referring to, without me having to explain it.

Being from the same country is not what makes people become friends. Talking about similar experiences, interests and problems is. Maybe it is true that expat bond easier than locals- when they arrive, they usually have to start from the beginning. They have to learn how to function in a new country, how to deal with culture shock, where to learn the majority language and how to choose a good doctor. In this, they need support and encouragement.

You know what they say: ‘A friend in need is a friend indeed”. And are you not in need when you are alone, confused and don’t have any idea how to get things done in a culture totally different from your own? This is where other expats come in.

They are here to help. They know about organizations, support groups, shops and restaurants. They have the experience a new expat doesn’t yet possess. Through this, friendships are forged and maintained. After a while, the tide changes: now it’s you who can help a newcomer get settled. You know what they’ve been through and what problems to expect. So now you become the helper, but you still become friends with the new person.

As for social media, it is a great way to stay in touch with both old and new friends. It doesn’t mean that everybody on your Facebook friend list is your real friend. It doesn’t mean that friendship became meaningless. Facebook is what you make of it- and so is your stay in your new country.
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Monday, 17 September 2012

4 unexpected and sometimes hilarious benefits of raising a multilingual child


I hope you have all read Ana Flores’ blog post that she wrote for Babble. In it, she described all the important benefits that stem from raising a bilingual child. The reasons she listed was: Opening up a world of opportunities, the fact that you might regret it if you don’t pass on your language to your child , comfort for the parent that gets to speak his or her own language, as well as connection with the extended family. And I can’t help but agree with these valid points.

I like how this post is different to all other posts that describe benefits of being bi-or multilingual, more personal, and less scientific, and it also mentions things that you don’t really think about, like the regret factor.
And I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I came up with my own 4 benefits to raising a multilingual child. Some of these reasons are pretty hilarious. Here we go:

1)      If you’re lucky enough to speak an exotic language (such as Polish in the Netherlands), and your child says something particularly embarrassing, nobody is going to understand her!  I experienced this first hand, when I took Klara to see a doctor, and she mentioned very loudly that she wanted to go pee pee - in Polish. While such kind of situations will happen eventually, I am glad that I might be spared at least some of them.

2)      Suddenly, all your family will start thinking about language. This happened to my mother-in-law, who wanted to explain to Klara the concept of “Löwenzahn”, German for “dandelion”. The English word for this flower means the same things like it does in German: “lion’s tooth”. So my mother in law tried to explain. She roared like a lion, and pointed to her teeth. Well, while this is not at all how children learn language, it was funny to see her at least giving the issue of language some thought.

3)      Not only does my child know nursery rhymes and songs in all three languages, she also knows many versions of songs like: “The wheels on a bus”, or “Frere Jacque”. Not that she needs to know this right now- especially the English songs, and I’m still not sure how I feel about singing songs in other languages than Polish with her, but it’s funny. Also, sometimes she makes her own little mash-ups, combining all songs in all languages, and that is just sooo cute!

4)     You have one more thing to brag about your child: Your three-year old counts to ten? Mine knows how to do it in three languages. I understand that she can recite poems. But only in one language! What’s your child’s superpower? I know, this one is more for fun. I don’t think monolingual (or basically other people’s) children are worse (or better) than mine. Still, I am very proud of my children- like all moms, I think.   

What would you want to add to this list? Are there any unexpected or funny benefits to raising a bi-or multilingual child? 
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Friday, 14 September 2012

Mixing languages: what does it mean?


If you have studied multilingualism for a while, you know that you can expect your children to mix the many languages they speak. You know that this is not a mistake, but a very creative way to communicate. But what does it mean, exactly, if your child mixes languages? Here are my own experiences.

Each language is a system. And while mixing words is the most common and visible way that children code-switch, this phenomenon goes well beyond that, and into the heart of any language. Language is more than just words. So, when children mix languages, they mix more than words.

Let me give you some examples. I noticed that Klara. She would start a word in one language, and then finish it with another. For example, in Polish there is an ending for diminutives (just like the Dutch –je, the German –lein or –chen, or the Spanish –ito/ita.), and it’s –ek/ka.  So Klara would say: “Pferd, Esel, Schafek”- (“horse, donkey, “Schaf” is the German word for sheep and the Polish ending indicated that this was a little cute sheep).

Another way Klara sometimes mixes languages is by mixing the grammar. For example, to indicate something that happened in the past, Klara obviously used German grammar in a Polish sentence. How did I know? The tense she used does not exist in Polish! She would also use the Polish word order (or rather the lack of it) when speaking German- where the word order in a sentence is clearly specified.

And then, there is a third way: mixing accents. This is the most visible in the case of the “R”. You see, Klara pronounces the German “R” quite well- it’s a little bit like the French “R” if you don’t know German and want to know how it sounds. The Polish R, however, might be harder to learn, and I read that even monolingual Polish children don’t pronounce it well until they are around 5 years old. Till then, they might substitute “r” for “l”, pronounce R just like the Germans do, or leave it out.

The same thing happens with songs: at playgroup, we sing “Frere Jacque” in many languages, including Polish. So Klara would sometimes sing: “Panie Janie, Panie Janie, schläfst du noch”? Later, she might start using Polish sayings and metaphors in German or Dutch, or the other way round. Also, she might learn that some words can’t be translated- “gezellig”, anyone? Or some words just sound better when said in a particular language. And she will learn that some people just mix languages and others don’t.

It’s a fascinating process, and it’s also hilarious to watch. I can’t help but laugh at Klara’s very inventive linguistic creations. What about your children?
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Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The “teacherous” gene

A few weeks ago, I faced another one of my fears: that of public speaking. A few months ago, I applied for a freelance position at KIT Intercultural Professionals. The many benefits to this job are: it’s only when they need me, so I can be with my children. It’s interesting and exciting. And…it’s in Amsterdam.

I have been to their meetings before, and greatly enjoyed being able to go to Amsterdam on my own. I usually make a point of stopping at Starbucks and buying myself a great cup of their delicious chai latte. But this was the first time I went there to do my job- I was there not to be trained, but to give a training myself.

The presentation went well. I wasn’t nervous or anxious as I would usually have been. It was great fun, and I would love to do this again! The audience was small, so the presentation had a nice, intimate feel to it. They asked questions and I answered them. For the first time, I felt like I was in my element while doing a presentation.

I am not sure what exactly happened. It could be that I was talking about things I was well informed about- after all, I had the experience of living in Germany as an expat and know exactly what may seem strange to newcomers. It could be that doing this was just plain fun. It could have to do with the excitement of going somewhere on my own, and proudly telling my children: “I have to go to work”.

But there was also something else. Somewhere, deep inside of me, something stirred and yawned, and stretched, and said: “OK. You have to educate people. You know a lot of things about a lot of things, and people need to be educated.” I didn’t agree with this voice. I preferred to think that people just like hearing exciting stories and if I could share my experience and help others at the same time, then I think it’s a win-win situation.

However, it still seems to me that I have the “teacherous” gene as well. Yes, I know the word “teacherous” doesn’t exist; I’ve just made it up. Let me explain. My grandfather was a professor of law in Poland. My parents are professors at the University. My brother is not in Academia, but he’s good at explaining things in a comprehensible way. My parents-in-law are teachers, and they also like giving speeches on various topics.

As it turns out, I like doing this. I think it started with this blog. I simply thought my stories could be interesting and wanted to share them. However, only now have I decided to do a public presentation! As a child, I watched my parents give their workshops and seminars and lectures. To them it seemed as if it was the most natural thing to do. I knew I wasn’t like this. I had to prepare and work hard to make this happen. But I think the fact that I did out work into this only made it feel better afterwards.

So, yes I have the “teacherous” gene as well.  I could totally give another presentation on the topic of intercultural communication.

To change the topic a bit, I was nominated for the Expatica “I am not a tourist” Blog Competition. I am proud and excited to be able to take part! You can see all the entries and vote for your favourite blog here! Alternatively, you can use the badge I have added to the sidebar- it links to the same site!
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Monday, 10 September 2012

A proud Rijswijk resident, that’s who I am!

We have moved to Rijswijk in February, and even though it is not as nice and pretty as in Delft (where we used to live), we have found that it is a warm, friendly, international neighbourhood. And especially in Rijswijk, we have found that Rijswijk offers a genuine and heartfelt welcome to all new residents.

A few months ago, I woke up to find a BuurtKadoos, a box full of certificates and gift cards. I loved exploring my new home town. Last week, we were sent a letter, informing us that as new residents of Rijswijk, we were invited to the VIP tent at the opening of the Strandvalfestival- which, in short, means 3 days of concerts, children’s activities, and shopping.

When we arrived at the VIP tent, we were given a goodie-bag, with an information leaflet, a book about the battle of Ypenburg, and two balloons! On top of that, a bottle of rose wine and an umbrella were in the bag as well.

We then could mingle with other new residents, many of them international people, and we met some Dutch residents as well. There were snacks (including bitterballen, because can you have a snack without bitterballen?), and drinks. There was music and dancing (in Klara’s case).

Herman Klitsie, the mayor of Rijswijk, held a speech where he mentioned that he is a new resident of Rijswijk as well- and he was only made mayor in June 2012, so that long either. He highlighted Rijswijk’s many green parks and interesting locations. Of course, he had to mention the fact that we were standing on the very spot where the Treaty of Rijswijk was signed in 1697, making this a perfect location for welcoming new residents.






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In the end, it was a funny, exciting outing, an opportunity to meet new people, and basically to have a great time. Which we did. 
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Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The dark side of being an expat


We all know that being an expat, while exciting, can lead to many problems, ranging from getting used to a new country to struggling with cultural differences, and the feeling of being left alone in a foreign place. There are other issues as well, but in this post, I would like to discuss a problem that I don’t really see discussed much, but that I feel is important, and I’ve experienced this many times, regardless in which country I was.

A few days ago, I went to my local Media Markt to buy a new camera. I planned to buy a good digital SRL, and wanted to get the service man’s opinion on a particular model. While I spoke Dutch, he heard my accent, and automatically assumed that I am stupid and ignorant about cameras. This is not the case: I had an analogue SRL for years, and now wanted to make the switch to digital. I knew all about the photography-related stuff. I just didn’t know all the terms in Dutch. This is just one aspect of the patronizing way that local people sometimes treat expats. It is the opposite of the halo effect: we perceive beautiful people as smart and trustworthy, even though their character traits have nothing to do with their beauty. In the same way, just because we don’t speak the language perfectly, it is assumed that we don’t know anything about anything.

We pay more than necessary because we’re foreigners. And, I am sad to admit, my own country is not innocent in this matter: I remember a day when we went to a flea market in Warsaw, and heard a man calling out, in Polish: “Very cheap, very cheap, 25 Zloty!” He then repeated his call in German: “Very cheap, very cheap, 25 Euro!”. Except 1 Euro is 4 Zloty, so if there were any foreigners, they might have overpaid dramatically. This is just as patronizing as the first situation.

And, there is a third case. When I was in Canada, I was asked “Where are you from?”, but very often the question was prefaced with a comment: “Oh, you have an accent!”, with a tone of voice that said: “You have three legs and blue skin”. So I do have an accent, why is it so bad? But I can say “froth” like any English person! Is that not an achievement? Sometimes, even compliments are patronizing. When I am in Germany, people often know I am Polish before they meet me- usually, these are my husband’s friends. And when they do meet me, they listen to me for a while, and say: “Oh, I would never say you’re not German, maybe you do have a little bit of an accent.” It basically sounds as if they’re expecting me to make mistakes. And, just like that, I start making those mistakes. My R’s become more pronounced, my intonation (that according to my mother-in-law is already weird), becomes even weirder. My knowledge of German is on an extremely high level. I can have abstract discussions, and make funny, creative puns, and even make up new words. Instead of seeing this potential in me, my parents-in-law react with: “This word doesn’t exist”. If I were German, they would be laughing, but because I am Polish, they don’t expect me to have this kind of language proficiency. Somehow, I am so proud of my language knowledge, but it’s never enough. There is always something setting me apart from native speakers of this language, marking me as a stranger, a foreigner. I will never belong.

That’s OK. I am used to not belonging. But what I can’t get used to is being patronized.
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Saturday, 1 September 2012

Many languages, many functions


We already know that balanced bilinguals (or even balanced multilinguals) are very rare. Instead, the language they use depends on the context- on the place they’re in, the person they’re talking to, the content of the conversation. This is my experience with being multilingual and how I used these languages.

My mother tongue is Polish. My parents spoke mostly Polish with me; I talked Polish with my brother, and with friends at school. It was the natural language for communication, for fitting in with society.

Then, I learned German. At first, it was a natural language for communicating at my German day care. When we came back to Poland, my parents introduced Sundays as German days. I didn’t like it. I just wanted to speak Polish, and only that. My parents, however, insisted on my bilingual education. Later, I picked a school based on their extensive German program, and continued to learn to read and write in this language. Slowly, German became the language of education and work. My school offered 3 times more German classes than Polish classes (even though other subjects such as biology, chemistry etc. were taught in Polish), and I read a lot in this language. This was even more the case when I went to University and studied German philology (in Poland, we don’t have majors and minors, we just pick one subject), which required even more reading, speaking and writing in German. I also worked in a German-speaking environment. The division was now clear: Polish is for communicating. German is for studying and working. However, I felt that my mastering of these two languages wasn’t really my doing. I didn’t really learned Polish, it just happened. I also felt that I can take no credit for knowing and speaking good German.

Then, English came along. Do you know the reason I learned English? I will tell you, and it’s my dirty little secret. So, when I was a child, I saw ‘Yellow Submarine”. And so begun my love of the Beatles. Later, my father went to Canada for a research program, and brought back a collection of all Beatles CD’s. I loved these CD’s and I wanted to know what the lyrics were all about. How is that not a great motivation? My brother started reading in English because he couldn’t be bothered waiting for the next Harry Potter books to get translated into Polish. Any motivation is good enough for me.

As I was getting more and more fluent in English, I found great joy in reading books in this language. I also worked hard on my English- I attended many English classes, and passed several exams. Not that I think that this somehow proves my use of the language, but it required hard work that was also fun at the same time.

Now, English is the language I use to communicate with my expat friends. This blog is also in English. I read English books- I have a Kindle and the English ones are the most easily available. German that used to be the language of work, became the language I speak to my husband- the language of affection, home-related stuff and conversation. It is also one of the languages our children grow up with. Polish went from being the only natural choice of communication to being my secret, exotic language that nobody understands, save for me, the children and my family and friends in Poland. Which is sad, but also reassuring: I like the idea of having a secret language. 
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