A Dutch Childhood

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Half Dutch, half British toes. Cute in any language or country.

Gezellig (adj): enjoyable, pleasant, sociable, fun, convivial.

I have now been in the Netherlands with my two children for just over 48 hours and already we have seen a room full of relatives, a room full of friends and their children, been to visit an old schoolfriend and dropped by my brother. I think the kids might need a day off with naps. The whirlwind of impressions of the past few days has led me to think a lot about Dutchness, and how Dutch my children are and will be, given that I live in the UK.

The Toddler was having lunch with my friend’s children yesterday and I was sitting back, enjoying the very Dutch process of it: the loaf of bread on the table; the forest of possible toppings, most of them sweet; the mother insisting their two year old should have a savoury “boterham” (slice of bread with topping) first before having something sweet, while the father was liberally coating his son’s bread in apple syrup; the mug of milk supplied with lunch as standard for adults and children alike; and of course the merry Dutch chatter of the little people, alternately sharing and snatching the food on their plates. My son did throw in some English here and there, but generally he seemed to catch on that this little boy spoke like Mummy and he mainly spoke Dutch.

I was thinking: what if we lived here? What would the Toddler be like? Would he be a different little boy? I think he would be much more familiar with bicycles and would be cycling himself very early on. We would go on daily trips to the local bakery to get fresh bread for our very bready meals. He would take little individual treats to school for all the children in his class on his birthday. He’d be rowing around the canals in a rubber dinghy by the time he was nine. And he would be Dutch. I am not sure how to classify exactly what that is, but it is not the same as being British. It something to do with living in a completely flat country without hills, with the wind in your face when you cycle to school, rushing to the beach as soon as the temperature sneaks above 18 degrees, about being normal because that is quite silly enough, about small-scale and sensible and enjoying being a kid and being active and about being thrifty and things being “lekker” and “gezellig”.

A Dutch sandpit. Just as good for writing more numbers in the sand as a British one.

A Dutch sandpit. Just as good for writing more numbers in the sand as a British one.

Then I thought that although perhaps my children are growing up in a different country to the one I grew up in, and there will be cultural differences between them and me, they will only be relatively small. It’s not like I’m living in India or Japan. I watched my son play in a Dutch playground, in a Dutch sandpit. He knew what to do. A slide is a slide and a sandpit is a sandpit, whether you’re playing with English or Dutch friends. He made a sand-Miffy and then diligently shoveled sand down the slide. He was still the Toddler, whatever language he was speaking or wherever he was playing. He still wanted to write numbers in the sand.

This is the life I wanted, the life I embraced. I have always enjoyed being a traveller and a migrator, living in different countries and trying to fit in so seemlessly that nobody will notice I’m actually Dutch. The result is, of course, perfectly assimilated children.

In the evening, when the Toddler snuggled up next to his little sister on the sofa and held her hand, he looked at me with an expression of intense satisfaction on his face and said: “Gezellig!” I wiped a little tear from my eye. That’s my little Dutch boy.

19 responses

  1. A lovely, well written post. I frequently have this conversation with my wife who is British Asian. How are we going to bring the kids up? How do we teach them the importance of tradition and culture at the same time encouraging assimilation. We decided that we will encourage them to embrace all positive elements of both our cultures and give them a richness to be proud of when growing up.

    I empathise with your dilemma. As you note the Dutch and British cultures are not poles apart, but it is often the cultural nuances that make a society or community what it is.

    Good luck and let me know the answer when you have found it!

    • It’s especially hard because one of your cultures is always going to be the ‘minority culture’ – I think kids will either embrace the opportunity to be a bit different or shun it in horror and want to blend in completely. Actually, they will probably do both those things at various points in their lives. I guess there are no answers, but this is an increasingly common issue as we travel more and meet our partners in other countries rather than the next village!

  2. What a lovely post Judith. The wonderful thing for your children is that they can grow up being both British and Dutch, their lives will be so much richer by having a deep understanding of two cultures and your lovely homeland is only a short journey away🙂

  3. I loved reading this – I was only 5 when I first visited my Dutch relatives with my brother and mum and dad. Although I can’t remember much of it your post brought back those hazy memories, thank you xx

  4. What a lovely post. So true that children all over the world have the same desires, to play, to laugh, to learn – a sandpit here just like a sandpit there. Yet there is no denying that cultural differences exist, differences that aren’t measured by distance apart. As Nichola says, how lucky are your two able to grown up as both Dutch and English, or as a combination of both (would that make them Dunglish?). xx

  5. Oh that’s so very lovely! I think it’s a real gift to expose children to different cultures. You’re on to a winner there! Great post.🙂 x

  6. “about being normal because that is quite silly enough,” I loved this line Judith. It says so much and oh so eloquently. I was touched by this post and am left wondering how it must be to bring up a child/ren in a foreign land. I will tell you what I also wonder – how it must be to bring up a child/ren with the gift of two languages, the gift of two cultures, the gift of two homes. Two homes, each where the heart is. Enjoy your holiday. xxx

    • What a lovely comment – you are so right, they will have the blessing of two homes, two places to hang their heart. I can really see that in how my son is enjoying being at Opa and OMa’s house. He is loving all the familiar things that are not like the familiar things in England.

  7. I love this post and I love that your children are multi cultural and the ability to be able to speak more than one language – something I’m certain they will thank you for. Thank you for linking to PoCoLo xx

  8. What a lovely post. My niece and nephew are part Spanish and it has benefitted them so much; the culture and being bi-lingual. Your trip back home sounds idyllic x

  9. This is such an interesting post. D and I want, at some point, to travel with our children, and spend some time living overseas. Just for the adventure. I do wonder what impact this might have on our children.

    I reckon your little boy will always be Dutch because his Mummy is – you probably have more of a cultural influence than anything else around him. For the time being, at least!

    • I think it will have a massive impact and will probably define their lives to a great extent. We lived in Australia for a while when I was growing up and it has given me another language, a love for travelling and for nature. Without that experience, I might not have gravitated to the British girl in my class at secondary school who became my closest friend, who was my maid of honour and is my daughter’s godmother. Without it, I might not have studied English, and if I hadn’t studied English I wouldn’t have moved to the UK or met my husband. Basically, living abroad has defined my life! Go for it, I say!

  10. Pingback: Just a little bit more | Secrets of the Sandpit

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