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Dutch Courage

Discover Jo Parfitt experience about settling in a new country with her family and how despite years of expatriation it was still a challenging feat, even with her many years of expatriation expertise to count on.

We moved to Holland just over a year ago, and do you know, it took a year to feel settled?

Don't get me wrong, we love it here, and find the country an easy, friendly place to live. It's just that moving to a new country, however close it may be to your home country is a challenge.

A year ago, when we first arrived I wrote about how I was feeling, and so now I would like to share with you how it felt, back then, in the dark days of culture shock!

My first weeks

Dutch courage is the perfect metaphor for what is happening to me now.  And though the phrase officially refers to how we have an alcoholic drink in order to be braver than we would normally feel, and I have discovered that wine is much cheaper here than in England, this is not about boozing.

It is about being a brave 'newbie' in The Netherlands.

I am frightened and vulnerable. Out of my depth. A fish out of water. There, I've admitted it. I may have lived abroad before for ten years and mastered living in the roasting Middle East and frozen Norway. I may have become an expert in the expatriate experience and made a career out of writing and speaking about it.
I may have edited magazines on living abroad, advised would-be expats how to prepare for the move and been a keynote speaker at international HR conferences.
But now the boot is on MY foot it is a different story. Now I have to walk my talk.

And walk is what I have done best of all. You see, so far, I have been too scared to try using a bus, a tram or a train.

Two days after we arrived I had an appointment at the boys' new school to buy their new school uniform. Their school is next door to our house. I could walk there. That was safe. So we arrived at the reception desk feeling pleased with ourselves. 

'Oh no!' said Mrs Harris on reception. 'It's not at this site. You'll need to drive there. Didn't anyone tell you?'

I froze. My face drained of colour. My jaw dropped. There was no way I was brave enough to drive for the first time here and navigate myself to a strange place several miles away. Mrs Harris suggested we took a bus or a train, or a couple of trams. But that was too daunting too.
Only a taxi would do for me. Mrs Harris arranged it for me. Phew! My two teenage boys were appalled to watch their 'survivor' mother crumble helplessly before their eyes.

The taxi cost a fortune, but was worth it.  Coming back was easier. Though I was still too scared to catch a bus or a tram, by then I felt I could handle a 20 minute walk to the nearest station and brave buying three tickets from a machine.

The kids went to school the next day and I was alone for the first time. My life was now a blank sheet of paper. With no phone line and no Dutch mobile phone I only had myself to please.  I was surprised to find myself walking everywhere. To the shops and back mostly. Every day I would dare to try another route. Every day I would widen the radius from home a little.  I shopped in the supermarket so that I did not have to talk to anyone.
After a week I dared do the same thing by bicycle and then, last week I achieved the ultimate. I drove to town, parked and dared to buy something from a market stall.

Doing familiar things, like shopping, using public transport or talking to people can seem insurmountable in a new country. It can paralyse you with fear. Even the smallest thing, like driving on a strange road, can reduce you to tears. But then you take it one step at a time and, as each task becomes familiar, you can take the
next step and the next and expand your comfort zone little by little.

Then, one day, much sooner than you think, you realise you have done it. That day, I had only bought two duck breasts from a market and allowed myself to make a quacking sound and flap my arms a bit in order to check what I was buying, but I did it. I achieved something that three weeks earlier, when faced with a trip to the uniform shop five miles away, was beyond me.

Remember, you can't run before you can walk.