Sunday, November 1, 2009

Nynke Bruinsma in the Hot Seat: Interview With a Dutch Expat

Nynke Bruinsma is a Dutch expat living in England. She co-owns 'The Expat Coaches', a company that helps expats across the world make the best of their life overseas with coaching in English or Dutch. She tells about life across the North Sea and how England, contrary to her pre-conceptions, is very different to the Netherlands.

How long have you been living overseas?
We have moved from Amsterdam to the UK in 2004, so that is five years now.

What brought you initially overseas?
This is not really a glamorous reason, nor a reason showing my independence I’m afraid. It was my husband’s job. He works for NYSE Euronext as Head of Global Employee Communications. He used to work in Amsterdam but got an assignment in London. And I wholeheartedly said ‘yes’. I was ready for a change in my career and our children were still young (1 and 3 years old).
However, at that time, little did I know about the huge impact it would have on my life.
What is your profession?
I used to work as a Head of Facilities departments (housekeeping, reception, catering and maintenance) in the Health sector. Moving abroad turned out to be the moment to change my career. The move was a shock to my system and I started to think about how other expat partners might have the same experience. I thought about what would have helped me most to adjust to my new situation and figured out it would have been someone asking me ‘what about you?’, ‘what is it you want to gain out of this experience of living abroad?’. That’s where the idea of becoming an Expat Coach came from. Now I own my own business ‘The Expat Coaches’, together with my business partner, who moved back to the Netherlands last summer (the husband’s job again!). I formally trained to become a coach and am still training to become a Corporate Coach.

What is the main difference between your host country and the Netherlands?
Obviously people are driving on the left here, while the rest of Europe (the UK is really part of Europe although I have the feeling they sometimes think otherwise!) drives on the right.

Although the South East of England is a crowded part of the country it feels very spacious to me. Only half an hour’s drive from London, you find yourself in the middle of the countryside.
Someone told me the UK is now actually more crowded than the Netherlands (is that possible?)but it doesn’t feel crowded at all here.
Obviously the UK is much bigger in size and number of inhabitants than the Netherlands. And it consists of so many different sorts of landscapes. We really enjoy seeing a lot of the country (although the distances we have to drive to reach destinations are much longer compared to the Netherlands).

The differences between rich and poor seem to be more obvious. There is a huge gap between someone living in a large detached house with a car park of several very expensive cars and the teenage mum living in the council flat. In the Netherlands there is a larger average group with a smaller gap between rich and poor.

What was the most surprising adjustment you needed to make living overseas?
I guess I had to adjust to the culture much more than I expected. I hadn’t realized there would be so many cultural differences. From my perspective I thought two Western European countries, both belonging to the EU, with a language I could understand and speak, would be quite alike. But cultural differences appeared in many situations on different levels. Sometimes it is not even possible to describe or pinpoint exactly what the difference is but you do experience and feel it.

What would you miss most England if you were to leave tomorrow?
We’re living close the London. I would really miss being able to take the train to enjoy a day in London: shopping in Oxford Street, Regent Street and Covent Garden, going out for dinner with friends and enjoy a musical afterwards.

And, more importantly, the bunch of (Dutch) friends we have here. Living abroad taught me that ‘home’ is where you are with your family and where you enjoy being amongst a group of friends.

What do you like least about England?
Liability is a big issue. You have to sign for everything to make sure you can’t make a claim. Another big issue is ‘health and safety’. All the regulations leave not much room for ‘common sense’.
And of course my children are very dear to me and I want to protect them from sexual abuse and pedophiles but I find the plans to have parents of my children’s classmates to hand in a CRB (Criminal Records Bureau Check) if they accompany a school trip, ridiculous. I have the same thoughts about discussions about nursery staff not being able to comfort and cuddle a child because touching a child might be wrongly interpreted!

What is your favourite English word?
English is a very rich language. There are so many words to describe a situation, feeling or thought so precise. I love the word ‘pathetic’. There is no right Dutch translation for it. The Dutch word ‘pathetisch’ doesn’t cut it and is hardly used.

How would you compare the English to the Dutch people?
Of course we Dutchies are very famous for being direct (or is it ‘blunt’?!). I do experience this myself now when I’m back in the Netherlands. It doesn’t have anything to do with being rude but we’re just not used to saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ after every sentence or question. After 5 years in the UK I think it makes life just a little bit nicer when you are polite and friendly.

On the other hand, being Dutch also means ‘what you see is what you get’. This means that occasionally, I find it really difficult here in the UK to understand what someone really thinks and feels behind the polite words and phrases. A friend of mine once said ‘English people are so polite, it’s almost rude’. I can relate to that, because it can drive me nuts when someone stays very polite, but in the meantime there’s no action at all to solve your problem.

And I have to say I was quite shocked to realise the politeness can also be a very thin layer of
Refinement. The first time during the post Christmas sales, I was appalled by the mess people make in the shops. Shops close their dressing rooms during the sales and clothes are all over the floor. I think the famous ‘Drie Dwaze Dagen’ in the ‘Bijenkorf’ (a large 3 day sale in a chain of department stores in cities in the Netherlands) are very refined in comparison.

Another difference is people are not trying to hide their dialect/accent in public jobs (news reporters on television for example). When we arrived here I was under the impression I could speak and understand English. But especially in the beginning when you have to arrange all sort of things like broadband, telephone, energy supplies, bank cards etc I spent so much time on the phone not understanding the other person. And I felt embarrassed to repeatedly have to say ‘sorry’, ‘excuse me, can you repeat?’.

Are there any foods or products you miss from the Netherlands?
Yes of course! Because we can visit the Netherlands by car, I usually have a shopping list of products to bring back to the UK. I always bring sprinkles (hagelslag). We eat it on sandwiches and not only to decorate cakes. I also bring mayonnaise because I haven’t found one I really like here. And of course the sweets that go with our typical Dutch ‘Sinterklaas’ feast.
I usually bring cheese, although you can buy ‘Edam’ and ‘Gouda’ cheese in slices here.

Is there a large (Dutch) expat community in your host location?
Yes, there is, because quite a lot of (Dutch) companies have an office in London. Also a lot of Dutch bankers chose to work here for several years. I guess because there are more interesting job opportunities. Anglo-Dutch oil company Shell even founded a Dutch school here (25 minutes by train from London). The school has become an International School (International School of London in Surrey) since last September. But until now that school attracted a lot of Dutch families to Woking.

What was the biggest challenge you faced moving overseas?
Like I said before, moving abroad was a big shock to my system. I had a career in the Netherlands and shared the care for our family with my husband. Overnight, I became a stay-at-home mum in a country where I didn’t know anyone. Sometimes the postman was the only adult I saw during the day.

While my husband was very excited about his adventure in the City, I suddenly had to figure out everything on my own and make decisions about, for instance, the nursery for our children. Of course this had impact on the balance (or lack of balance) in our relationship.

I really felt I had to ‘reinvent’ myself. Luckily I managed to do so and after the first difficult months I started to feel at home. Now I’m very happy we made the move because it gave me the opportunity to change my career in a way I’m not sure I would have been able to do if I had stayed in The Netherlands.

For me, moving abroad turned out to be a unique opportunity to step out of my comfort zone and enjoy a different environment with new people in a different culture which refreshes your perspective on your home country. And because I truly believe most expats can have the same experience, I love to support others through my coaching.

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