The Kos Earthquake: Our Story

We were four days into our fourteen day vacation in Kos Town, on the Greek island of Kos. We had been looking forward to this holiday for months. It had been a tough year. My father in law recently passed away and we had therefore invited my mother in law to join us on this much needed family holiday. We had booked a two bedroom apartment on the ground floor in a fantastic resort with an amazing pool. We were over the moon when we arrived, as both the resort and our room exceeded our expectations.

That day was just like the previous three, we lazed by the pool of our resort, swam, had a siesta, then swam some more. In the evening, we walked into the city centre where we enjoyed a fantastic dinner in a picturesque little Greek restaurant, then went to our favourite little place near the main town square for some ice cream. We walked through the centre, taking in the atmosphere around us. We marveled at the ancient buildings and structures, the marina and the old castle walls. We then walked back to our apartment (a ten minute stroll from the city centre) and put our two kids to bed. My husband, my mother in law and I sat out on our terrace and enjoyed a glass of wine, then went to bed around midnight.

It was around 1:30am when I was suddenly woken in the most terrifying way. There was an overwhelmingly loud rumbling sound as though a massive jet plane was about to crash nearby. Then the entire four story building above us began rocking and shaking violently in such a way that it was sure to collapse and crush both my family and I (before I even knew what was actually occurring at that moment). I cried out with confusion and I felt my husband put his arm around me in a reassuring way and tell me it’s ok, in an attempt to calm me. The bed was shaking so wildly hat I had to hold on to it so that I wouldn’t be thrown off. After about ten seconds, the shaking finally stopped just as suddenly as it had begun and I sprung out of bed, turned the lights on and ran to my six year old son in the next room (who had thankfully somehow slept through the entire ordeal!!). The power went out and everything went completely dark. I then found my way to the second bedroom to check my eight year old daughter and mother in law, who were already up and out on the terrace, planning their next move.

The next thing I heard was a man shouting “Out!! Everybody Out!!” over and over, and over again. An employee from the resort was running from room to room, floor to floor, getting everyone out as quickly as possible before the first aftershock hit. The five of us quickly threw on the first clothes we could find, and ran outside, jumping up over the terrace wall and onto the street, where we joined over two hundred other half-dressed (or not dressed at all) guests from our hotel. We followed each other like a line of shell-shocked ants away from the building and towards an empty block of land close by.

It was at this point when I realised, my god, that was an earthquake. A really big one. I was just in an earthquake. Holy crap! The shock began to set in, as did the emotions. The fear of what happened and relief that we were all ok. Tears spilled out and my legs were weak and shaking like jelly. I hugged my family.

As we stood there on that dark, vacant block, I looked around at all the wide-eyed people surrounding me. Families with crying toddlers and babies, young naked couples wrapped in a bed sheet or towel, elderly couples in their pyjamas and bare feet. We were all standing there trying to comprehend what had just happened and, most importantly, if it would happen again.

There were whispers that we might have to wait there for an hour before they could declare the building safe for us to go back inside. Little did we know it would be days. The local people living near the resort thoughtfully brought the waiting guests bottles of water and offered support. They were used to earthquakes on the island, but at the same time, they said they “had never in their life experienced one that big”. I let my family members in Australia know that we were safe, and although we were very shaken up (literally), we were all ok.

We were told there could be aftershocks and that it was not safe to go back inside the building. We also learned that that the earthquake measured a whopping 6.7 on the richter scale! Within 25 minutes, a second tremor measuring 5.1 struck. I held my family tight and tried my best to stay strong for our kids. If I showed panic, it would not help them in any way. However, on the inside, I was on the edge of a full blown panic attack. What the hell had I gotten myself into this time!? Will I survive this night? Will bigger quakes come? It was my very first earthquake experience and I had no idea what to expect. We found a spot to sit down on the kerb. It was to be a long, long night.

After an hour or more of waiting on that kerb, our bums numb from the concrete, we came to the conclusion that we would be waiting outside longer than initially anticipated and decided to look for somewhere a little more comfortable. We walked back closer to the resort and found some chairs outside the restaurant. There we waited; three tremors measuring 4.6, 4.5 and 4.7 and the many more slight tremors ensuring that we did not sleep one wink. The sun came up and we realised that we had been sitting there for almost five hours. But it was in a way, a relief to see the sun rise that morning. Somehow it all seemed a little less scary.

Photo taken around 4:00am on July 20, 2017

We were all completely exhausted. We had all been awake from 1:30-6:00am and we desperately needed sleep, especially the kids. We walked over to our apartment building and were relieved to see that it was completely intact. Apart from a few broken plates in the restaurant and some fallen pot pants, the hotel remained undamaged. It was built in 2003 with concrete and iron; built to be flexible and study in order to survive earthquakes just like this one. We were one of the lucky ones. Others had not been as lucky. We had heard that just a few kilometers away in the city centre, hundreds had been injured and two tourists had lost their lives when buildings collapsed during the earthquake that night. As we had direct access to our room, and had no need to use the stairwell or lift, we decided to return to our beds for a couple of hours sleep if we could manage it. We kept our clothes on and the doors open in case we should need a quick exit. Never have I been more grateful for a ground floor apartment. We all fell into a deep sleep, hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.

I woke up around 9am and briefly wondered if the whole thing had been a bad dream. But the sick feeling still in the pit of my stomach told me otherwise. The trauma had only just begun.

That day we experienced constant tremors. Each aftershock raising our heartbeats and conjuring up that same dreadful feeling from the night before. In addition, every time I heard a distant rumble, my anxiety returned. The distant rumble of a truck driving past, a motorbike starting up, or plane flying overhead. To us, they all sounded like another earthquake was coming. It was a terrifying couple of days. I realise now that I was, in a way, pretty bloody traumatized.  We read that two people had been killed and over two hundred injured that night. Terrible. However, imagine how higher those numbers would be if the quake had hit during the day when the majority of people had not been safe in their beds. Just three hours before the quake had happened, thousands of people had been strolling along the old streets of Kos Town. Families with children. My family.

For several days following the earthquake, we were still feeling aftershocks and worst of all, we still had no running water. The water pipes had been damaged and the entire city of Kos was without water supply. No shower. No toilet flush. Not pleasant. We managed by brushing our teeth with bottled water and bathing in either the sea or the pool.

We walked into the centre of town and were saddened by the damage that the earthquake and consequent tremors had caused. Beautiful buildings we had admired were now in shambles. Our favourite little ice cream parlour was so damaged it had to close. Due to unsafe, damaged hotels, apartment buildings and houses, countless people in Kos Town had to resort to sleeping in public parks, on beach sunbeds, or in their cars. Locals and tourists alike.

 

The ice cream shop we had been at just three hours before the earthquake hit

 

Most of the hotel staff and their families were sleeping in their cars, parked on the road by our hotel (and continued to do so for at least a week). Many of our fellow hotel guests left, along with the hundreds of other tourists, and flew back home. The fear was too great to stay. The fear of another big one. The lack of running water was also an issue.

Although my fear remained, I also realised that it was unlikely that another quake of that scale would hit Kos. I was aware that the aftershocks should only weaken, our hotel was very strong, and I was not ready to throw our much needed holiday out the window just yet. We still had ten days to go. Insurance doesn’t cover that kind of situation. There would most likely be no refund. We would also have to purchase five early return flights home at an additional cost, not to mention battle the nightmarish airport crowds of terrified travellers waiting shoulder-to-shoulder for hours on end. We had saved for a year to go on our annual family vacation and we were determined not to let fear get the better of us and to begin re-enjoying our time in Greece!

We decided to rent a car and spent the next several days exploring the island. We came to realise that outside of Kos Town, everywhere and everyone seemed unaffected by the earthquake. No one seemed nervous or scared and life went on as normal, there was no structural damage, we felt no aftershocks anymore (although they continued within Kos Town), and there was running water on the rest of the island. We began enjoying our time on the stunning island of Kos once again. I was still quite anxious and jumpy (for a good week after that initial quake), so it was a relief to get away from the city and escape the continuing and relentless tremors that constantly ignited our fears. During these days, I could feel my anxiety slowly begin to melt away as we explored everything Kos has to offer: the many beautiful beaches, the clear blue water, the guaranteed sunny weather and fascinating ancient ruins.

The kids were amazing. They were scared during that first night of course, but they recovered and put it behind them quickly. Much quicker than I did! They put a set of clothes out on the little table on our terrace, so that they would be ready just in case another quake came. Then all they wanted to do was get back in the pool and play, as though the whole ordeal was one big adventure. Though I don’t think they will ever forget that night. The night we all survived our first (and hopefully last) big earthquake.

Kristen

Before & After:

 

 

Original images © 2017 KristenWoudstra, All Rights Reserved.

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The Battle to Keep our Feet Dry

Most of us are aware that much of the Netherlands is below sea level, but did you know that about a sixth of the land has been reclaimed from the sea? A massive two thirds of the country is vulnerable to flooding. A little scary when you think about it isn’t it?. I’m quite thankful that our house is three stories high… just in case.

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‘The Netherlands’ actually means lowlands, and that description is a very accurate one. Without the dikes and protective systems, a massive chunk the country would be submerged (and of course, the part where the majority of people live!). Therefore, flood control is an important issue for the Netherlands.  Natural sand dunes and constructed dikes, dams, and floodgates provide a defense against storm surges from the sea. River dikes prevent flooding from water flowing into the country by the major rivers, while a complicated system of drainage ditches, canals, and pumping stations (historically: windmills) keep the low-lying parts dry for habitation and agriculture.

Past flood disasters, coupled with technological developments, have led to large construction works to reduce the influence of the sea and prevent future floods in the Netherlands.

Dikes

The Dutch have been known to say, “God created the world, but the Dutch created Holland”. The country has literally been shaped by their struggle against the water. The construction of dikes is one of the key factors in this heroic story. Without dikes, half of the Netherlands would be regularly flooded by the sea and the rivers.

The oldest dike in The Netherlands that we know of is about 2000 years old and is situated in Friesland. It was built by monks and made of piled turf. By 1250 most dikes had been connected into a continuous sea defense. Dikes still exist today in all Dutch towns and cities located anywhere near water.

Dutch legend has it that there was once a small boy who upon passing a dike on his way to school noticed a slight leak as the sea trickled in through a small hole. Even though the boy knew that he would be in trouble if he were to be late for school, the boy pocked his finger into the hole and so stemmed the flow of water and saved the town. There is a statue of ‘the boy with finger in hole in dike’ located in Harlingen Friesland Netherlands

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Windmills – More than just Wheat Grinders

One of the biggest inventions around the 15th century was the use of windsmills for a purpose other than grinding wheat and grain. Wind mills were used to pump the water out of the sunken polders over the dikes and into the rivers that were situated higher than the land. Wind mills were then placed all over the country. It was this invention that made it possible to keep living below sea level and still have dry feet.

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Flooding

In 1421, a devastating flood occurred that actually ranks 10th in the list of top ten worst floods in history. During the night of November 18 to November 19, 1421 a heavy storm near the North Sea coast caused the dikes to break in a number of places and the lower lying polder land was flooded. Over seventy villages were swallowed by the flood and were lost, causing tens of thousands of casualties and widespread devastation in Holland.

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Creating Polders

The reclaimed land areas are called polders. Canals and pumps keep the water out. Windmills used to provide power for the pumping, but now most pumps are electric. In 1820, King Willem I of Orange was the first to reclaim land with the use of steam power. Near Gouda the Zuidplaspolder was reclaimed. The Zuidplaspolder is a polder in the western Netherlands, located northeast of Rotterdam. It reaches a depth of 7.0 metres under sea level.

Flevoland is the twelfth province of the Netherlands. It is located in the centre of the country, where the former Zuiderzee used to be. The entire province is reclaimed land. Just north-east of Amsterdam, this is where the new cities of Almere and Lelystad are now located.

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There are polders everywhere throughout the Netherlands. The Dutch are literally the masters of reclaiming land from the sea.

The Afsluitdijk

One of the most impressive dikes in the Netherlands is the Afsluitdijk. This massive 32 kilometre long dike which was built in the 30’s, protects central Netherlands from the effects of the North Sea. What used to be the Zuiderzee (sea), then became the Ijsselmeer (lake) and this dike was also the first official connection between the Province of North Holland and the Province of Friesland.

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More Flooding!

In January 1953, the North Sea flood occurred. The floods struck the Netherlands, Belgium, England and Scotland. A combination of a high spring tide and a severe European windstorm over the North Sea caused a storm surge. The combination of wind, high tide and low pressure caused the water level to exceed 5.6 metres above sea level in some locations. The flood and waves overwhelmed sea defenses and caused extensive flooding. The Netherlands was mainly affected, recording 1,836 deaths and widespread property damage. Most of the casualties occurred in the southern province of Zeeland. As a result of the widespread damage, the Netherlands particularly, and the United Kingdom had major studies on means to strengthen coastal defences.

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The Delta Works

In 1958, they began to build the Delta Works. The Delta Works is a series of construction projects in the southwest of the Netherlands to protect a large area of land from the sea. The works consisted of dams, locks, dikes, levees, and storm surge barriers. The aim was to shorten the Dutch coastline, thus reducing the number of dikes that had to be raised.

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The Eastern Scheldt storm surge barrier, between the islands Schouwen-Duiveland and Noord-Beveland, is the largest of the 13 ambitious Delta Works series of dams and storm surge barriers, designed to protect the Netherlands from flooding from the North Sea.

In the 90s, the construction of the Maeslantkering was the final stage of the Delta Works. First the dry docks were constructed on both shores and a sill was constructed at the bottom of the Nieuwe Waterweg. Then the two 22 metre high and 210 metre long steel gates were built. The gates automatically close when the water rises too high and it is one of largest automatically moving structures on Earth. This impressive storm surge barrier is close to my home; it protects my family, so it would have to be my personal favourite 🙂

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Another Evacuation – A New Approach was Needed

One of the biggest recent evacuations in Dutch history is the one that occurred one the 31st of January 1995. On that day and in the coming days, 250.000 people were evacuated along the Rhine, Muse and Waal rivers. Heavy rainfall in Belgium and Northern France caused a dangerously high water level in these rivers. If a dike breached, a lot of land would have been flooded and the water level would have been 5 meters high.

The Rhine swelled but fortunately the dikes did not breach, but in the Province of Limburg a lot of cities did flood due to the extreme high water levels.

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Due to increased river flow caused by large volumes of melt and rainwater from the upstream regions, a new approach was needed. Instead of continuing to increase the height and size of the dikes, the Netherlands is now making more room for water.

Maasvlakte

The Dutch are still working hard at reclaiming land. The Netherlands is gradually getting larger thanks to dredging projects such as the Maasvlakte 1 and 2 in the port of Rotterdam. The land here was artificially enlarged by reclaiming land from the North Sea. Maasvlakte 2 is one of the biggest engineering projects in the Netherlands following the success of the first Maasvlakte area. Approximately 20 square kilometers of land was reclaimed! In addition to the economic benefits for the city of Rotterdam, a 7 kilometre-long sandy beach for recreation has been created.  This beach is worth a visit, it is stunning and never overcrowded. You can read more about that here.

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You’ve got to give it to the Dutch. They are masters at water management. I for one, am extremely thankful that my feet are still dry and let’s hope that they stay that way.

Kristen

Kies voor Sport

I have recently become aware of a wonderful sports program for kids, organised by our local gemeente (municipality). ‘Kies Voor Sport‘ (Choose for Sport) is a program that promotes and encourages children to try out as many different sports as possible throughout the school year for a very affordable rate!

This project is open to all students from groep 3 t/m 8 (grades 1-6) within the municipality of Maassluis. At the beginning of each school year, a program is distributed to all families via the local elementary schools. Dozens of different sports are listed in the program on various days and times, and children can look through and choose what sport they would like to try. Parents may then sign up their children for a maximum of three introductory sports courses (5 lessons) each. Best of all, the program is funded by our local municipality, which means that children can join an introductory sports course for an average of just 3 euros per course!  Just 3 euros for five lessons! You can’t beat that.

The project is designed and coordinated by the sports clubs within the municipality. It promotes healthy lifestyle choices to the children, and at the same time, it offers the sports clubs an opportunity to recruit new members. Which means that all local clubs are more than willing to participate! Every year, the sports clubs and gyms in Maassluis provide a fabulous and extensive range from football to yoga, street dance to kickboxing, snorkelling to squash!

Kies voor Sport is a unique opportunity for children to experience sports which they may not have had the chance to try yet. Due to the affordability of each sport course, the program helps parents financially to enable their children to take part in various local sports clubs throughout the year. Inevitably, this program helps students to see how much fun sports and exercise can be! It also helps children to meet new sport friends, and to decide which sports and which local sports clubs they would perhaps like to continue with afterwards.

These days, our children are surrounded by technology. We need to do all we can to promote outdoor activities and exercise. Kies voor Sport is such a fabulous local initiative and I hope other municipalities follow suit to enable as many children as possible to make the most of this wonderful opportunity!

If you are aware of similar sports programs in other areas which are also funded by the local gemeente, I’d love to hear from you. I am very curious if this is unique to our area only, or if it is common throughout the Netherlands.

Kristen

Films for Travel Inspiration

Finding it difficult to choose which destination you would like to travel to next? I have put together a list of films which may help you to decide…

Under the Tuscan Sun – Set in Tuscany, Italy. This movie is about a recently divorced writer (the beautiful Diana Lane) who buys a villa in Tuscany on a whim, hoping it will lead to a change in her life. You will fall in love with the Tuscany countryside and Italian coastline!

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The Blue Lagoon. The film tells the story of two young children marooned on a tropical island paradise in the South Pacific. With neither the guidance nor the restrictions of society, emotional feelings and physical changes arise as they reach puberty and fall in love. Set on an island in Fiji, this movie will make you want to escape the world and move to a tropical paradise.

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Brooklyn. A story about a young Irish woman who travels by ship to Brooklyn, then falls in love with a local man. Set in both Ireland and America, this movie reminds us that we can be torn between two beautiful countries.

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30 Degrees in February. Actually this one is a series (on Netflix). This interesting program follows the lives of several Swedes who choose to move to beautiful, warm Thailand in search of happiness and a better life.

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Before Sunrise & Before Sunset. The story of a young American man (Hawke) and French woman (Delpy) who spent a passionate night together in Vienna. They touch on their failure to have met as planned six months after their first encounter. Jesse returned to Vienna but Céline did not, because her grandmother had died suddenly. Since the pair had never exchanged addresses, they had no way to contact each other at the time. In Before Sunset (the sequel), their paths intersect nine years later in Paris.

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Sleepless in Seattle. A love story featuring both cities of Seattle and New York. A classic with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan that never gets old. After watching this movie, you will want to kiss the one you love most on the observation deck of the Empire State Building in New York.

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The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Follow the adventures of a group of hilarious drag queens who go on a four week tour through the outback of Australia. They drive together on a bus from Sydney, through the Simpson desert, to Coober Pedy, Alice Springs, they visit Uluru (Ayres Rock) then back to Sydney, encountering Aboriginals and homophobic locals along the way.

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Romancing the Stone. This movie will make you feel like you’ve ‘got to get to Cartagena’, a port city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. At it’s core is the walled Old Town, with 16th-century plazas, cobblestone streets and colorful colonial buildings. Follow the adventures of Micheal Douglas and Kathleen Turner through the jungles of Columbia on their way to Cartegena.

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The Bucket List. Two terminally ill men escape from a cancer ward and head off on a road trip with a wish list of to-dos before they die. Edward and Carter begin their around-the-world vacation. They go skydiving together, drive a Shelby Mustang, fly over the North Pole, eat dinner at Chevre d’or in France, visit the Taj Mahal, India, ride motorcycles on the Great Wall of China, attend a lion safari in Tanzania, visit the base of Mt. Everest in Nepal, and sit on top of one of the Great Pyramids in Egypt.

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Out of Africa. Starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep, this movie highlights the best of Africa. A couple from Denmark marry and move to Africa to start a dairy farm, but things don’t quite go as planned.

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The Sisterhood of Traveling Pants. Four American teenage girls who are best friends, separate for the summer for the first time in their lives. Lena spends the summer in Greece with her grandparents; Tibby is staying at home; Bridget is going to soccer camp in Mexico; and Carmen is visiting her father in South Carolina. On one of their final days they went shopping together, the girls find a seemingly ordinary pair of jeans that fit them all perfectly and flatter their figures, despite their very different measurements. The girls dub them the Traveling Pants and decide to share them equally over the course of the summer. They part the next day, and the film focuses on each girl’s journey separately.

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So where will your next travel destination be??

Kristen.

Ik Hou Van Holland

‘Ik Hou Van Holland’ is a Dutch game show (which translates to ‘I love Holland’) broadcasted on RTL4 during prime time on Saturday nights. Let me tell you why watching Ik Hou Van Holland is particularly great for anyone learning the Dutch language. Not only will your language skills grow, but you will be laughing your head off along the way. The show celebrates all things typically Dutch. Granted the games are a little corny at times, but I love it, and so do millions of other viewers each week.

The show tests Dutch celebrities on their knowledge of the Netherlands in a fun and entertaining way. There are two teams on the show (the orange team and the red, white and blue team), captained by the same two people every week (Jeroen van Koningsbrugge and Guus Meeuwis).

Each episode, new well-known celebrities join each team. The goal is to win as many points as possible by answering questions about Dutch culture, Dutch artists, tv shows, the Dutch language of course (spelling difficult words etc.) and much more. If you are preparing to take the inburgering examen (civil integration exams), this program would be particularly helpful. You will learn so much more about this country than you thought possible, and in a fun way!

But it is not just your typical quiz show. The questions and games are asked and played in such a hilarious way, which is why this program is so successful and has been aired on Dutch tv since 2008, with 12 seasons so far. Most episodes have more than 2 million viewers, and it is therefore, the most watched show on Saturday nights. The lovely Linda de Mol presents the show and her laughter is contagious.

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You can watch some of the highlights or full episodes here. Ik Hou Van Holland also has an official Facebook page, so you could also head over there and like their page for more fun and interesting facts about the Netherlands. The show has their summer break at the moment, but they will be back with more episodes soon. So the next time you are home on a Saturday night, switch the tv over to RTL4 and check it out. You will laugh and you will learn.

Kristen.

5 Years in Clogland!

It was July 6, 2011 when my family of four arrived in the Netherlands on our one way flights from Sydney, Australia. Five years ago!

To commemorate this milestone, I wanted to write a post where I could reflect on both the challenges I have faced during that time and the positive aspects I have come to appreciate about living here in ‘Clogland’.

The first 18 months after our arrival, I was fortunate to be able to be a stay at home mum with our two young children.  I really enjoyed this time and will be forever thankful for it. Not having to race off to work every day really allowed me to settle in at my own pace, adjust, explore the country a little, attend some language classes, and focus on the kids, ensuring that they too were adjusting well to their new environment and language.

Of course, there was some culture shock, but I took it in my stride and got through it, whilst enjoying the adventure of our new lives. Culture shock is different for everyone but it usually consists of four distinct phases: Honeymoon, Frustration, Adjustment, and Mastery. Some may only experience one or two of these phases, but I have experienced all four within the last five years since arriving in the Netherlands.

When we first arrived here, everything was new and exciting! This is known as the honeymoon period. The differences between my home country and my new country were all seen in a romantic light so to say. I was fascinated by the new food, new culture, the history and age of everything and even the new language seemed cool!

However, this temporary stage eventually ends, the excitement wares off a little and frustration can set in. I’m pretty sure this happened for me during my first Dutch Winter. The days were dark and cold, and I began to miss the things I loved and took for granted back home (..the sun for instance). In addition, the language barrier was indeed a barrier much larger than I had imagined; I felt frustrated, withdrawn and dependent on others. At times I also felt a little lonely as all of my family and friends were far, far away. It was time to make new ones, but the language barrier again was an obstacle. I was missing home constantly and wondering if I had made the right choice by moving in the first place. This is a tough stage to get through, but you do get through it.

I then felt myself adjusting to my new environment and the new cultures. I developed new routines and made new friends. My new country no longer felt all that ‘new’. I began to adapt to and actually enjoy my new home, accepted the changes in my life, and participated more comfortably in my new culture; three kisses and speaking some Dutch become the norm.

This brings us to the forth and final stage, mastery. This term sounds a little exaggerated to me. However, I am now able to participate fully and comfortably in my host culture. Let me be clear, ‘mastery’ does not mean total conversion; I have kept many of my Aussie traits, and my Aussie accent has softened but it’s still there. This stage can also be referred to as the bicultural stage.

I began working full time, our children started school and life became hectic. It’s a daily juggle, but I enjoy it very much. So after five years of living here, I’d now like to share with you a few of the things I have come to appreciate about living in the Netherlands.

I love that there is always something to do and you never have to travel far to get there. Particularly in Spring and Summer, you will find multiple events scheduled for every weekend. It is refreshing not having to drive for hours to get somewhere, and since living here, I now perceive an hour’s drive as quite a distance ..ha!. It’s a small country, so to drive across the entire country from North to South takes about three hours. It will take you two hours to get from the beaches on the West coast to the Eastern border shared with Germany. So, coming from Australia, in my mind everything within this country is close and accessible.

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As everything is so close by, everyone gets from A to B by bike. I love it that the bikers have their own bike paths, their own bike traffic lights and their own bike bridges over the highways and canals. It makes biking around a whole lot safer. I’m not much of a biker myself, but even as a daily commuter by car, I too can appreciate the fact that the cyclists have their own roads…even glow in the dark ones!

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Everything is so green and lush! There is definately no lack of water here in the lowlands, the soil is rich and the greenery thrives. Coming from a drought stricken area of Australia, where farmers must pay a fortune for irrigation water just to keep the grass green, this is a pleasant change. I havn’t seen a water sprinkler since I left Australia five years ago.

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Gezelligheid. The closest English word that this translates to is ‘coziness’. The Dutch love lamps and candles; all houses, bars and cafes are super cozy and inviting. No fluorescent lights to be seen. Period.

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The cheese!!! The Gouda and Edam cheeses are well known all over the world, and for good reason. I particularly love the tasty matured cheeses with salt crystals. Nearly every bar and restaurant in the country will have at least one cheesy snack on their menu. Whether it be kaasblokjes (bite-sized cubes of cheese served with mustard for dipping), kaassoufflés or kaasstengels (two types of deep fried snacks which feature melted cheese on the inside) or geitenkaaskroketten (a croquette filled with goat cheese). Even after a meal, you can order a kaasplank (cheese board) as a dessert. I love it that you can visit a cute little cheese shop or the local markets, try before you buy, then buy a section of cheese from one of the large cheese wheels on display.

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Another huge bonus to living here in the Netherlands, is it’s proximity to other countries. Actually, it is one of the main attractions to living here. In the past five years, I have visited Belgium a half a dozen times, the UK four times, Germany three times, Greece twice, Paris, and even Rome. I mean, when London is just a forty minute flight away and flights are under 50 euros, why wouldn’t you? Most of the time, you don’t even need to fly to get to another country (a completely new concept for me!). From where we live, driving for just one hour can take you into Belgium, two hours and you can be in Germany, or three and you are in France! This month, my family and I are off to Spain for two weeks! It’s a luxury that I am certainly not taking for granted.

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Everything is neat and tidy. Alles is netjes mooi. The Dutch have great pride in their houses and their country. Everything is kept clean and organised. In front of their houses and in public areas, flowers are planted everywhere (even alongside roads for example) and lawns are always neatly cut. The whole country is neat, tidy and well maintained. After traveling to other European countries, I am relieved to come back home to the Netherlands for this very reason.

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The church bells. I just love them. It is still a novelty for me, as the churches back home didn’t have bells, or bells that worked. The old church in our home town here in Holland is from the 17th century and has lovely bells that ring regularly and can even play about fifty different songs! On Sundays in particular, I love to open all the doors and windows, and just enjoy listening to the sound of the church bells ringing across the town. It’s like a reality check each time I hear them – I am in Europe and this is amazing.

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I love the exposure that my children are getting to both languages and cultures. They are exposed to both Dutch and English on a daily basis, but also encounter languages such as French, German, Spanish or Greek when we are on holidays, in addition to the several languages they hear at school. They are aware and familiar with cultures other than their own and they respect them.

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I also appreciate the fact that buying a house in the Netherlands is affordable due to the fact that mortgages are much more manageable. In addition to the fact that interest rates are low (always around 2%), we are also given a tax rebate on the interest we pay. So it’s nice to be able to own our own home, yet still be able to live comfortably each month and take an annual family holiday.

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Last but not least, there are no poisonous animals here in the Netherlands!  It’s nice not to have to be constantly on guard for deadly animals when your kids are outside playing. Actually, the only things that could pose a threat here in this country are the ticks and some of the flowers.

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So, after five years, here I am; Not just living in the Netherlands, but living happily in the Netherlands. I have accepted the Dutch, their funny little habits and even their language. I feel content and that is so important. You only live once after all! Here is to the next five years being just as great!

Kristen in Clogland

Gapers in Nederland

These strange looking heads are known as gapers. A gaper is a stone or mahogany wooden head mounted on the front of a building in the Netherlands, used since the late 16th century to indicate that inside the store is a pharmacy.  At this time, not everyone could read and write, so this was a convenient way to indicate what type of store was inside. In addition, it was also a quality indicator for the store. Only the best pharmacies would have the gaper on display out front.

A ‘gaper’ is sometimes referred to as a ‘yawner’ due to the fact that the figure always has an open mouth. Actually, he isn’t yawning, but rather opening his mouth to take medicine. Sometimes you can see a pill resting on his tongue. The grimace of many gapers is said to be due to the bad taste of the medicine.

Nowadays these gapers are rare. Outside of museums, fewer than 50 can be seen on buildings in the Netherlands. Most of the surviving gapers are almost all of Moorish or ‘exotic’ in appearance (dark skin, turbans, bright clothes etc.) which actually indicated the exotic origin of the medicines. At that time there was a fondness for exotic things from Turkey, China, Japan, and Africa; spices from these countries were highly valued and therefore imported by the Europeans. Some of the older gapers now in museums, also have white faces.

 

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This Gaper is located on the front of the ‘Van der Pigge’ Chemist in Haarlem (this chemist declined to move for a new V&D department store in 1932, so can still be seen in Haarlem today.

 

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The Zuiderzee Museum in Enkhuizen has an interesting collection of original gapers on display.

 

Does your local chemist still have a gaper out front?

Kristen

Beschuit met Muisjes

Today I met my friend’s adorable little daughter. As is tradition here in the Netherlands, I was served pink muisjes on a beschuit (rusk biscuit) to celebrate the birth of a girl. Blue muisjes are served to guests when a baby boy is born.

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Muisjes are made of aniseeds with a sugared and colored outer layer. Muisjes, meaning “little mice” in Dutch, are named because the anise seed sprinkles are shaped like little mice, with the stem of the anise seed resembling a tail.

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As early as the 17th century, the parents of a newborn baby gave away beschuit with a layer of butter and muisjes to the baby’s visitors. Up until the 20th century, only white muisjes were available. It wasn’t until later that the pink and blue colours were introduced. Muisjes became a tradition and were initially given to new mothers as the anise in the muisjes was thought to stimulate lactation, and they symbolized fertility.

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Beschuit with muisjes are now so popular, that not only are they given to the baby’s family and visitors at home, but they are also commonly taken to school by older siblings to share, or are presented to colleagues at work. Every supermarket in the Netherlands sells boxes of muisjes. “De Ruijter” have been making them since 1860 and is currently the only brand that produces muisjes. It is so lovely to see this tradition continuing on today.

Do you like the taste?

Kristen

 

 

Happy Dutch Music Festivals

Music makes me happy. As it does most people I’m sure. Particularly live music, I can’t get enough of it. I could stand and listen to a band play for hours on end with a massive smile on my face the entire time. This inevitably led me to love music festivals, and the Dutch sure know how to put on the perfect festival.  The thing I love most about the festivals here, aside from the music, is that everyone is happy. As soon as the people enter the festival, they leave all problems and stress behind them. The atmosphere is oozing with positive vibes and everyone becomes friend of all. Violent behaviour is no where to be seen. Only happy and content people, enjoying the moment to the max.

With the worlds best DJ’s being Dutch, such as Tiesto, Hardwell and Armin van Buuren, it’s not surprising that the Dutch love their dance music with a passion. It plays a massive part in their culture. In addition to the many internationally succesful DJs, and rock icons such as Golden Earring, there are so many other Dutch artists that you need to know about, such as Kensington, Blof, Kane, Racoon, Mr.Probz, and Anouk just to name a few.

In true Dutch style, every festival in the Netherlands is a reason to celebrate and party. The music festival season in the Netherlands begins at Easter and runs until Autumn. There are hundreds of festivals throughout the country every year, but I would like to tell you about several of the most popular.

 

Paaspop, Schijndel (Noord-Brabant)

The first festival of the season, Paaspop is held each year during the long Easter weekend (Paas is the Dutch word for Easter). After the long winter, Paaspop is just what the doctor ordered. This festival has been running for just over forty years. It began as a one day event on Easter Sunday, and was then extended to three days in 2011. There are several large circus tents set up, with live music in each. You can wander from tent to tent, finding the music that you enjoy most from rock to pop to dance and more. Each year this festival attracts around 50,000 visitors.

 

Pinkpop, Landgraaf (Limburg)

Pinkpop was typically held on the Pentecost weekend (Pinksteren in Dutch, hence the name), but now occurs around the beginning of June. This rock festival would have to be the most famous open-air festival in the Netherlands and Europe’s longest running uninterrupted outdoor pop festival. There are four large stages and this festival attracts very popular artists from all music genres. This festival now runs for three days (Sat-Mon) and there is space for 60,000 attendees per day. They decided to only sell 60,000 tickets for each day to prevent overcrowding due to the popularity of the festival. In the last forty years, Pinkpop tickets have sold out over twenty times. There are also four large camp sites giving enough room for around 50,000 campers to stay and party on until the end! You can buy day tickets or three day passes.

 

Parkpop, The Hague (South Holland)

This pop music festival is an unusual one, as it is free!  It takes place annually in the Zuider park on the last Sunday of June. In 2015, Parkpop celebrated it’s 35th anniversary and up until recently, it was the largest free pop festival in Europe (today that is Przystanek Woodstock in Poland). Parkpop nowadays attracts on average 200,000 visitors! Yet it doesn’t feel overcrowded thanks to the fact that the festival is spread out across the large park, with two to three main stages. My husband and I have been four times; one year there were 350,000 attendees! Every year, Parkpop is a great success with a great atmosphere for both young and old. The sun is usually always shining for this festival, and what’s better than listing to some good music in the sunshine, with a cold beer in your hand? It will cost you nothing to go after all, so what’s stopping you?

Dance Valley, Velsen-Zuid (North Holland)

Love dance music? Then a visit to the Dance Valley festival is a must. Held every year in August for the last 21 years, this is the oldest dance festival in the Netherlands and one of the top dance festivals in Europe. This festival, located between Haarlem and Beverwijk, conjures up various dance music styles. While Dance Valley is a pure dance-music event, it caters to a wide audience by not limiting itself to a specific style though it’s heart (as with most Dutch events) is trance. The main stage is reserved for the big names in mainstream dance music. There are also up to a dozen secondary, smaller stages dedicated to styles such as electro, Eurodance, hardstyle and experimental. Dance Valley is also a three day event with camping available. As they say, “We provide the sounds, you provide the energy!”.

 

Lowlands, Biddinghuizen (Flevoland)

This festival is so much more than a music festival. Although the main focus is on music – rock, pop, dance, hip hop and alternative – Lowlands also offers indoor and outdoor cinemas, theatre, cabaret, dancers, and literature. This three day music and performing arts festival has been held each year in August since 1993. Lowlands is attended by around 55,000 visitors, spread over 200 acts and more than ten stages. The majority of stages are inside huge tents – insurance against the Netherlands climate – with the main stage’s tent being approximately the size of a football field.

 

I realise that there are so many more festivals in the Netherlands than those above, these are just a few. What festival is your personal favourite? Which artist did you see live that remains as your all time highlight to date?

Unfortunately, I did not wear ear protection in my teens and twenties, and now have tinnitus in one ear. But I will continue to enjoy live music (with earplugs) and plan to attend another festival this month.

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Keep on enjoying the music!

Kristen

Vermeer Comes Home

The painting, ‘The Little Street’ (or ‘Het Straatje’) by Johannes Vermeer is one of the Rijksmuseum’s top pieces and is rarely loaned out to other museums. Due to an extraordinary cooperation between the Prinsenhof Museum in Delft and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, this masterpiece can now be seen at the Prinsenhof until July 17th 2016. After almost 350 years, this world famous painting has now returned to where Vermeer actually painted it around the year 1660!

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This painting is remarkable for it’s time. It is a portrait of ordinary houses, but the composition is as exciting as it is balanced. The old walls with their bricks, whitewash, and cracks – possibly due to the explosion of 1654 – are almost tangible. Vermeer’s aunt lived in the house on the right, together with her children and grandchildren for almost thirty years until her death in 1670.

 The Prinsenhof Museum in Delft highlights the painting beautifully, by combining it with the other top pieces from the Vermeer collection…

Other famous Vermeer masterpieces such as The Girl with a Pearl Earring and A View of Delft can be seen at the Mauritshuis Museum in Den Haag. I was happy to see a copy of my favourite Vermeer painting at a Bed & Breakfast I stayed at recently, but I do hope to visit the elegant Mauritshuis to see the real deal in the near future.

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Some 35 works by Johannes Vermeer have survived worldwide, yet Delft, the city where the painter lived and worked his entire life, does not own any of his works. It has been at least 60 years since a Vermeer piece was last exhibited in Delft.

The locations that are associated with Vermeer and ‘The Little Street’ painting are all in the vicinity of Museum Prinsenhof Delft. After a visit to the museum, you can literally follow in Vermeer’s footsteps. With a special free downloadable App, you can follow walking routes throughout the city, highlighting locations that inspired his paintings, bringing Vermeer’s Delft to life.

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Then and Now. Location Comparison in Delft

At the Prinsenhof museum in Delft, you will also learn all about Willem van Oranje and the Spanish invasions in the Netherlands. You may even see the bullet holes, still visible in the wall, where Willem van Orange was allegedly murdered.

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This little museum is charming and definitely worth a visit, particularly while the Vermeer exhibition is still on display. Designate a few hours to visit the Prinsenhof and learn about the rich history and devastating wars, which inevitably enabled us to now live peacefully in this country we now call home.

Kristen