Learning to live with the New Normal.

Phew! What a week. I don’t know about you but I feel like I’ve gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson over these past few days, with news coming at me from every direction. There was the travel ban in America, the huge protests against Trump being invited on a state visit in the UK, and then there was the Brexit debates and vote in London. It just seems like every time I check the news something else has happened….

But somehow, with all this going on, we have to learn to carry on.

In all honesty, I am finding it inceasingly difficult to focus on anything. I have plenty of work and am in the middle of an essay-writing course with a view to increasing the amount of freelance work I do. I also have this blog to keep up! Never mind all the normal, daily routine work like shopping and dog-walking that you can’t just forget about. But on the other hand there is Facebook and Twitter and another check of the latest news and before I know it half the day has gone. I also find my mood swings all over the place with the increasingly worrying information we are getting on a daily, nay hourly, basis.

But I know it’s just going to keep on coming so somehow we have to find a way to live with this new normal. And one of the ways I have been doing it is talking to people who have been surviving for years, decades even, in the sort of uncertain political environment that we in the UK and the US (and other stable democracies) perhaps haven’t ever had to contemplate. In particular, I spent last weekend in Harare visiting with relatives.

For those that don’t know (which hopefully is few of you!), Zimbabwe has been living under Robert Mugabe for more than 35 years. I am not about to go into a plotted history of the country and its politics – especially as, to my shame, I am actually pretty ignorant as to exactly what is happening in that country despite living righ next door and having relatives there. But if you are interested to learn more, here is a link.

holding-up-boulder-in-zim

Trying not to get crushed in Zimbabwe

However, what is true is that life in Zimbabwe has become increasingly difficult for many of its nationals and change still seems elusive. It is that lack of WHEN things will improve that I think is the hardest to deal with – many people can cope with difficulties if they know it is for a limited time. If nothing else, contigency planning is easier when you have an idea how many months, years or even decades you are planning for.

It obviously isn’t easy and there aren’t any simple rules but it certainly seems that trying to get involved, in one way or another, in any opposition to the ruling government can make you feel a lot more positive. Just to feel like you are DOING something can certainly lift your spirits. How much you are actually able to do will of course depend on where you are and your particular situation – but in the UK and the US we are still in a position to be able to petition, march, write, donate and share information pretty widely. Hopefully all of those things will continue.

Otherwise, distraction is a great way to deal wth whatever is going on around you – epecially when you feel so helpless to change it. Change does and will come – we only have to look at history to know that we won’t stagnate in this situation forever. But it may be slow, a lot slower than we would want – so in the meantime we need to find ways to cope with the wait. Whether that be writing or crafting or sewing or baking or even burying yourself in work, it is always going to be healthy to take your minds off things for periods of times.

Getting together with like-minded friends is another thing that can really help when you are feeling despondent. As an expat I do sometimes feel quite isolated from everything going on in my home country, especially as I am surrounded by American expats so the news of Trump does tend to dominate. But every so often I get together with another sympathetic British friend who reassures me that no, I am not alone in feeling like this (I know the internet and Facebook in particular is another way to bring people together but there is nothing like a proper, face-to-face get together).

Finally the other thing that really helps me is what this blog is really all about – which is that many people, in many countries have been living with these uncertainties for years and whatever happens we will still almost certainly remain some of the most privileged people in the world just by dint of our passports. Although I speak about Zimbabwe, South Africa also has been going through interesting political times with a difficult and unpopular government, student riots, allegations of corruption right to the top of government…..

But I look around me and people are getting on with their lives. They are shopping and cooking and drinking wine and selling mobile phone cases at traffic lights and sweeping leaves and walking dogs and going to business meetings….in other words, life goes on. It is frustrating, incredibly frustrating, when you feel that you can’t do anything to bring about the immediate change that you crave but actually what you do need to be doing is living.

Now I am going to take my own advice and go and make a cup of tea. Please let me know your thoughts – these are interesting times.

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Delicious recipes from around the world: Ansa’s curry from Pakistan

When we were living in Pakistan (for the short time we were there before being evacuated after the Marriott bombing of 2008), we had a wonderful domestic helper called Ansa. She was brilliant with the children (specifically the baby, who she would get to sleep by rubbing her tummy), she cleaned the house beautifully and best of all she was a fantastic cook. Her mother also worked on the British Embassy compound and there was a bit of rivalry between them as to who could make the best curry – but given that people used to “borrow” Ansa to come and make them a curry, I think she was a nose ahead of her mum.

Most of Ansa’s recipes weren’t complicated – although I am sure had we lived there longer, we would have been treated to some more elaborate dishes. But their secret, I think, were fresh spices. We brought some of those fresh spices back to the UK with us when we had to return but of course they don’t last forever,

When we left Islamabad, Ansa presented me with a brown envelope. Inside were four lined pages, with all our favourite recipes of hers lovingly written out in broken English. It was the best gift we could have asked for and we have been cooking them ever since. And as those of you who follow this blog know, I recently made a visit to one of the parts of Johannesburg where you will find shops stuffed with spices – a great excuse, thought I, to cook up one of Ansa’s curries. So I did. And it was delicious.

curry coollage

Ansa’s Chicken Karhi

Ingredients

Chicken brust          1

Chopped tomatoes  2

Green chilli              2

Ginger and garlic paste  2 tablespoon

Onion chopped         1

Yugurt                       Half a cup

Karhi powder             I tablespoon

Red chilli                   1 teaspoon

Tumeric powder         half a teaspoon

Corinder powder        1 teaspoon

Oil                              4 tablespoon

Patatoes                    2 chopped if you want

Method

Heat the oil and add the onion when its brown add the chicken keep stirring when chicken water is dry and add ginger and garlic paste and tomates when all the thing get mixed add the spices in it. Fry it for ten minutes. Then add the yogurt and green chilli and patatoes. Dry the yogurt water when the oil come out add the half cup of water for garvi (gravy) cook. it for five minutes then its ready for eat.

The finished product - with yoghurt added

The finished product – with yoghurt added

To check out another delicious recipe from around the world please read my banana bread from Jamaica post. And do let me know if you have a recipe you would like to share with my readers.

People Who Live in Small Places #10: Roatan

I am so glad I started this series because I am finding out about so many interesting and beautiful places – and have so many people I can now look up if I ever decide to visit! The latest Small Place is a teeny sland off the coast of Honduras. Known as a holiday and diving destination extraordinaire, it’s certainly on my list of places to get to one day. Contributer Deb blogs at Mermaid on a Raft and has this to say about herself:
I am a 60 something retired banker. I used to wear fancy clothes and high heels every day. I used to do my job work at home because there wasn’t enough time in the day. When our kids were grown and on their own, we flew the coop and moved to a small island. We came here for vacation for 7 years, then finally made the move. It’s not always dolphins and gorgeous sunrises but it’s pretty damn good. Life on a rock is always different and interesting.
By the way, I wear as few clothes as possible now, no more fancy bras (only wear one in public because I must) and no high heels, ever again. Most days you can find me in flip flops (I have 7 pairs) a short cotton skirt and the loosest shirt I can find. I often only wear a handful of clothes for weeks on end..Life has changed.
I’ve wanted to be Ariel the mermaid since I can remember, so living here and being able to fulfill my “mermaid fascination with the sea” on a whim is pure magic for me.
Rock life is not for everyone BUT it may be for you..
So now we know a bit about Deb, let’s hear about her island:

First of all, can you tell me a bit about your “small place.”

We have lived on the island of Roatan Honduras since October of 2013. The island itself is approximately 40 miles off the coast of Central America and it is about 35 miles long and 5 miles wide at the widest point. The island is surrounded by the 2nd largest barrier reef in the world, the Meso-American reef, which makes Roatan a divers paradise. There are well over 80,000 people living on this rock. There are no chain stores, except Ace Hardware, no chain restaurants and the shopping is mainly tourist related items as we have 2 cruise ship docks. During the winter months there are often 5 cruise ships here on one day, adding 10-15,000+ more people A DAY. Cruise ships are a huge part of the islands economy.

And what are the good and not so good things about living there?
The good things about living here are the slower pace of life, the gorgeous sea and reef that surrounds us, the nice island people and the simpler lifestyle. It’s so different from living in the states where everyone dresses to impress, drives big flashy cars and spends more money than they make. Living here, the only place we spend a lot of money is buying groceries and dog food. The bad things about living here are the slower pace of life (yes I said it was a good thing but not when you are trying to get someone to finish a job for you), the limited items in the grocery stores, fresh peaches, yummy strawberries, never..Often times it is very difficult to find the simplest things, and when you do find them they are 4 times the price that they were in the states. Overall, the good outweighs the bad. You learn to make do or do without.

 
What do you find to do to occupy yourself in your spare time?

I have very little spare time; to begin with I have 3 four month old puppies, a 9 month old puppy, an almost 3 year old dog and another dog that has 3 legs, maybe 3-4 years old and is the mother of the puppies (she had 7 but I found homes for 4). She was pregnant when I rescued her, had to have her leg amputated then she blessed us with the pups. All of my dogs are rescues. I also have a cat. I spend a lot of time cleaning up dog poop and feeding and cleaning up after the dogs.

I am also very involved in a group here on the island called Because We Care. We provide food and Christmas gifts for over 1500 families during the holidays, we fit over 9000 pairs of TOMS shoes this year so far to needy school children, we give out school supplies and back packs and we also raise money for school desks. The government does not do anything for the schools, many kids have to stand for classes or sit on big bags of beans or rice. Today we are delivering more desks to a school and passing out flip flops to the kids.

I also am a volunteer for Helping Paws Across Borders. They are vets and vet techs from all over the US, Belize and the Bahamas who come here and do free shots, spay and neuter, flea and tick and mange management and treat all other type of medical situations for animals. This last trip they even neutered a pig! They left their meds here so a friend and I have been setting up shop weekly and we do shots, clean ears, remove ticks, de-worm and treat for fleas and mange and ringworm. The vets were here in Feb., July and are coming in November again. I also volunteer on art days at a school called Cattleya. It is for mentally challenged or physically handicapped kids. They have downs, autism, some can’t walk well or talk, it’s a great school. They even take them to Zumba classes, so much fun. And last but not least I volunteer for the Bay Islands Visitors Association as a greeter at the International airport. I work two, sometimes 3 Saturdays a month and am the first person people see when they enter our immigration building. It’s great fun getting to meet people from all over the world. When I do have spare time I am kayaking, snorkeling and am waiting for some extra spare time for my dive refresher course so I can start diving again.

How easy is it to “get away” and where do you escape to? Do you feel the need to escape?

I have been back to the states only 3 times in 2 years, to see my elderly parents. We actually are very limited to where we can go because of the animals. Either my husband or I have to be here to take care of them, so escaping is not something we do. At this point in the game, we don’t feel the need to escape, it’s pretty serene here. That could change in a few years but if we have had a hectic week or two we go to the beach with some beers and chill.

What is the local community like? Have you felt welcomed?

There is a huge, well connected ex-pat community on this island. We have friends from the west end to the east end. (we are middle islanders) There are several ex-pat hang outs and everyone is welcomed. The east-enders have Mondays Don’t Suck days at a beach, Fridays it BJ’s where the Banditos play music and people dance and enjoy each others company. There is a lot to do, but we are usually too busy to do all the partying stuff. We have also found the islanders to be fabulous people and are very close to many of them. They are warm, kind, happy people who live very simple lives but would still give you the shirt off of their back if you needed it. We are very proud to be able to call some islanders our best friends, people we totally trust. The woman who runs Because We Care is an islander and one of the most incredible women I have ever met, I adore her.

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What advice would you give to someone thinking about moving to your small place or somewhere similar?

RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH. We have several friends that built or bought homes on one end of the island but they prefer the lifestyle on the other end of the island so they spend a couple hours each day driving to where they would rather be. Visit the island for a few weeks, stay in resorts in different locations, talk to people, go to the ex-pat hangouts, look at the different areas of the island and what they offer. Island living is certainly not for everyone, many think it is paradise but after a few years are disillusioned, unhappy and they leave. It is what it is.

Can you tell me a bit about yourself and why/how you came to be living in your small place?

After out 2 sons were grown and on their own my husband and I began traveling to different islands for a few years. Once we were PADI certified for diving we traveled more, to Mexico, the Caribbean and the South Pacific for several years. We considered a few places in Mexico but the difficulty in actually owning land there was an issue. I have always wanted to live on an island, I love everything about being near the water. In 2007 on a whim we came to Roatan.

I had been reading and researching the island for a long time and was interested in retiring there. We contacted a reputable realtor, met him the second day here and traveled up and down this island looking for land or a house. He took us to a piece of land and we fell in love with the view. After seeing more properties and homes we kept coming back to this one piece of land. We made an offer and it was accepted before we went home.

My husband and I both had very stressful jobs in corporate America, working 45-50 hours a week was normal. Fast forward to November 2012, I had hand surgery and was no longer able to do my job so I retired and I moved to Roatan alone with my cat for 4 months to get a feel for the island. We were at the point of starting to build our home so the groundwork began. After 4 months on the island, I went back to the US with my cat and a dog I had rescued down here. We sold our home on 30 acres, our cars, dump truck, tractor, airplane, most of my husbands tools and all of our furniture. My husband made 10 crates filled with the things we wanted to bring, clothes, artwork, tools, things that meant something to us and we shipped that down by boat from Texas right before we were leaving.

On October 26, 2013 we packed up 2 dogs and a cat, 5 checked bags, 4 carry-ons, drove to Seattle, boarded a plane and moved to the island. We rented right next to where we were building and in March of 2014, we moved into the first floor of the house and July of 2014 we moved upstairs, there are  much better views of both sides of the island from the second floor. We also have a rooftop deck with amazing views of sunrise and sunset. The lower level is a guest condo. The house is a work in progress, still have some kitchen shelves to build, we are building a workshop for my husbands tools and a pool for me to do my mermaid thing in. I also blog at www.mermaidonaraft.com. My blog is filled with my take on our island life. As the saying on the rock goes, “You can’t make this s*it up”.
Thank you Deb for another fantastic contribution to my series about people who live in small places. If you want to read more in this series then do click on the tag below. And if you live somewhere small (an island, a village, a rock…) and would like to feature on this blog, then do get in touch 🙂

Watching sport as an expat: does your heart expand with every country you live in?

When I was pregnant for the second time, I went through that thought process that I suspect every parent goes through: how am I going to love this one as much as my first? How will I find room in my heart for another? And of course, when the new baby comes along you do – because, as the saying goes, your heart expands.

For me, it’s like this with the countries that I have lived in. Every time I go somewhere new, my heart grows and I let it in.

Now don’t get me wrong, I have never loved everything about any of the places I have lived. Whether it be the food, the weather, the people, the shops – there is always something that I grouch about. But I know that deep down I still have a huge affection for each place because whenever there is a major sporting event, I find myself cheering on the athletes from Jamaica, Pakistan, the Philippines, St Lucia….and now, South Africa.

As a huge lover of athletics, this tends to be the Olympics or (as it is at the moment), the World Athletics. I am lucky in that, having lived in Jamaica, I get to do quite a lot of cheering. Usain Bolt beating Justin Gaitlin in the 100m last weekend was one of the highlights of my watching career. Almost up there with Mo winning an Olympic gold in London, or seeing Jessica Ennis-Hill finish first in the Heptathalon just one year after having a baby…

Usain_Bolt_Olympics_Celebration

But I also enjoy sportsmen and women doing well in the more obscure events: boxing, weightlifting, hockey….it doesn’t matter what it is, I feel pride in my once-adopted countries whatever the sport. Yesterday, for example, I watched the highlights of the World Athletics from the previous day and found myself willing on the South African runners in the 400m hurdles. And these are runners I have previously never even noticed. It doesn’t matter if I have been cursing all things South African moments before (which I actually haven’t been – so far, I have found very little to dislike about this country…), as soon as those athletes hit the track/pitch/pool, I am back in love with my new home.

It probably helps that most of the places we have lived DON’T feature too much in the Olympics: Jamaica really is the only flag we see raised more than a handful of times. But whenever they do, I’m there, cheering them on. If there is a Brit in the race with them I will them into second place, or at least not to come last. And if they finish first, then I feel national pride like all the people of that country. Even the next best thing counts – I have been enjoying the Caribbean nations doing particularly well in these games. And when they don’t do so well, especially if they are expected to, I feel the pain of the nation. And I will them to get up and try again.

Just like a proud mum!

Do you cheer for your adopted home in sporting events? What about countries you used to live in – do they still have a place in your heart? Or are you loyal to your home country?

Usain Bolt picture courtesy of Richard Giles via Wikimedia Commons

People Who Live in Small Places #6: The Scottish island of Unst

I’m so excited about this entry into my Small Places series because it’s in my own country! As I’ve posted this series, I have learnt so much about so many different places. But when you get a post like this you realise how many places there are really close to where you live that you just knew nothing about! To be honest, the northern islands of Scotland are as alien to me as some of my other “small places” (in fact, I have visited the Seychelles and lived in Gibraltar so they are a lot less alien!), which is what makes this post so fascinating.

A joint mother-daughter effort, this post about Unst, a small Scottish island, comes to you courtesy of Rhoda (mum) and Morag (daughter). Morag blogs at Wir Unst Family.

Please tell me a bit about your “small place”


Unst is an island in Shetland. It is Britain’s most northerly inhabited island and is closer to Norway than the mainland of Scotland. Often when you see a map that includes Shetland, it is in a box due East of Aberdeen, but that’s not actually where it is! There is a whole facebook group determined to get Shetland correctly on maps!

Unst has an interesting geology with multiple bands of different types of rock, all found in the area of Unst which is only 12 miles long. As a result of this diverse geology Unst has a wide variety of habitats giving a rich diversity of flora and fauna. Having said that, trees are not in abundance on the island, due to the combination of wind and salt air.

There is however, a small wood planted by a renowned Botanist, Dr Laurence Edmondston, in the mid-1800s which has a sheltering wall around it, and so the trees are a decent size. This attracts bird life that prefers trees, although there is a huge range of birdlife which arrives on Unst, some native, some migratory.Unst is often the first land mass they reach on the way south from the Arctic. Over the years we have also played host to some rarities that were blown significantly off course. As you might therefore imagine, Unst is very much a bird watcher’s paradise.

Unst is the home of some unique flora, one of which was discovered by Thomas Edmondston, and named Edmondston’s Chickweed . It only grows on the island of Unst, and no where else in the world. Unst, as with other places in Shetland, has a good population of Shetland ponies, and Shetland sheep. The Shetland breeds of ponies and sheep are smaller and hardier than their mainland counterparts, to better survive the conditions, especially the winter winds. The same has also been said of the people!

ShetlandPonies

Shetland Pony and Foal. Taken at Uyeasound, Unst

What are the good – and not so good – things about living there?

As I suspect may be true on many small islands, Unst is fortunate to have a thriving and close community which pulls together in hard times, and celebrates together in good times. This has obvious good points, the rallying spirit when things go wrong, recent examples include the community pulling together to protest the possible school closures; but also has some not so good points, because everyone knows your business.

Many facets of life have a good and bad side because of isolated island life. Take a simple thing like produce for example, on the one hand there are still many small-holding farmers (crofters are they are called in the Highlands and Islands) who grow vegetables, so you can get produce such as potatoes, cabbage, and turnips which were grown locally, but then, because of the isolation, other things that won’t grow in Shetland, such as fruit, costs more due to freight prices.This has encouraged the creation of a small business on the island, The Unst Market Garden, which produces salad plants, fruit and vegetables in a poly-tunnel.

Unst is an island in between the North Sea and the Altantic and so its weather is very much at the mercy of the elements. Due to being surrounded by the sea, the temperatures are mild, winters, although cold and sometimes snowy, are not anywhere near the harsh winters of the North East of the U.S.A., although the wind chill factor does makes it feel colder than the recorded temperature might otherwise advertise.

In summer we have long light evenings, the Simmer Dim as it is known, and around the longest day, the sun barely sets. We are at 60°North, on a level with the South of Greenland. The reverse is of course true in the winter time when children come home from school in the dark. The on-line shopping revolution has made a huge difference to isolated places such as Unst, so you can order things online that you couldn’t buy on the island. However, there are also some marvellous shops on the island that stock a whole range of goods, and islanders are very good at supporting these shops with their custom because we know that if we don’t support them, we will lose them.

What do you find to occupy yourself in your spare time?

The Oil boom of the 1970s saw Leisure Centres being built all round Shetland, so the island of Unst, with a current population of 600 people, has a Leisure Centre with a 12.5m pool, squash court, three badminton counts, and a gym which is actively used by the community and the school which is located right across the road. Each village on the island has a community hall which is used for events, agricultural shows, evening dances, weddings, and even regular fish and chips nights. These events are always well attended.

ShowVegetables

Winning Veg entry in the Unst Agricultural Show

Since retiring as Britain’s most northerly head teacher, Rhoda had become involved with the Unst Heritage Centre and the Unst Boat Haven which are run by volunteers on a trust. She helps with researching new topics for display at the centre as well as helping to create unique books about the history of the island and the knitting heritage. Many people come to the centre looking for family history information as well, and Morag is currently working on a complete Unst family tree to supplement what is in the centre for those visitors.

Once a week, Rhoda also runs a Fairtrade shop every Saturday afternoon. She says the rest of her spare time, which isn’t a lot (you’re supposed to be retired mum!) is spent reading, walking and visiting friends.

UnstBoatHaven

The Unst Boat Haven has a unique display of Shetland Boats

How easy is it to “get away” and where do you escape to? Do you feel the need to escape?

The north isles of Shetland (Unst, Yell and Fetlar) are linked to the mainland of Shetland by ro-ro ferries, which run regularly through the day. To take a day-trip to Lerwick, the capital town of Shetland, is about a couple of hours from Unst. To travel further afield, there is the choice of the overnight boat from Lerwick to Aberdeen, or the plane from Sumburgh, the southern-most tip of Shetland. In the winter, the seas can be rough, so beware sea-sickness. The planes can be affected by strong winds, but the pilots who man the flights to Shetland are quite amazing, and seem to be able to land them in all sorts of weather.However, Morag feels she has spent many extra hours in airports when travelling to and from Shetland in the winter, due to bad weather delays.

In the summer, seas and air flow is much calmer, but sometimes too calm and the flights can be disrupted as much, if not more, by fog in the summer, than any bad weather in the winter. When Rhoda traveled south for Morag’s wedding, they made sure there were a few extra days before the wedding in case of any summer travel delays. Rhoda still likes to get away from the island to see other places, mainly to visit friends and family. She does notice less need to escape than she had in her younger years. Internet shopping has meant that getting to shops is less of a draw than it previously was.

Puffins

Caption: Puffins come on land for only three weeks a year. Taken at Hermaness, Unst

What advice would you give to someone thinking of moving to the island?

The island of Unst has been very used to a flexible population for centuries. In the late 1800s the herring fishing season saw a huge influx of herring fishermen and herring gutter lassies for several months. The population swelled from 500 in the village of Baltasound to 12,000! More recently in the 1950s, there was an RAF early warning radar base on Unst, which brought a new population of RAF families to the island, increasing the population and filling the schools. This base was decommissioned after 2000 and the population decreased accordingly. Nowadays the population is a mix of native Shetlanders and people who have chosen the island life.

If you’re thinking about moving to the island, come to visit in the summer, but also in the winter. Island life draws many people because of the quiet, slower pace of life. Make sure you can cope with this slower pace of life. Winter weather is possibly the hardest thing to cope with for those who aren’t used to it.

WhiteSandyBeach

Caption: Skeotaing Beach – wouldn’t look out of place in the Med, a few degrees cooler though!

Can you tell me a bit about yourself, and your mum?

Rhoda has lived on Unst all her life, apart from attending school in Lerwick which required staying in the school accommodation for a term at a time, and a brief spell in Aberdeen at Teacher training college. She returned to the island as a qualified teacher and got a post teaching at the Baltasound school. Later in her teaching career she became Britain’s most northerly head teacher at the Haroldswick school. When the Haroldswick School closed, the building was re-purposed as the Unst Heritage Centre and Rhoda was back in her old stomping ground.

Morag is Rhoda’s daughter and also grew up in Unst (after being born in the hospital in Lerwick) and lived there until she went to school in Lerwick (which by this time was weekly boarding rather than whole term boarding as it was when her mum went). After finishing secondary school in Lerwick, she went to University in St. Andrews and then got a job in Hampshire. Although she doesn’t currently live in Unst, she is still in regular contact with friends and family who still live there, and is trying to put together a complete Unst Family Tree.

Thank you so much Rhoda and Morag for this fascinating insight into life on a small, Scottish island. I hope one day to visit! In the meantime don’t forget to check out my earlier People Who Live in Small Places posts: Mayotte, Gibraltar, a small village in France, the Seychelles and a small country in Europe. And if you live somewhere small, and would like to feature in this series, get in touch!

People Who Live in Small Places #5: The Netherlands

When I started this series, I wasn’t sure what I would end up with. I started with Mayotte, simply because I had never heard of it so thought it would be interesting to hear about life there from someone who actually lived there. But while in the process of putting together those first set of questions, I kept coming back to my own experience of living in a “small place” and how similar life must be in Mayotte as it was for me in St Lucia – despite being half a world apart. So the concept of People Who Live in Small Places was born. Since then, I have branched out to include a small rock (Gibraltar), a small village (in France) and a small series of islands (the Seychelles). And then when I spotted a blog called Small European Country I knew I had to ask the owner to contribute. It turns out the small country in question is the Netherlands – and Michael is the blogger. So here it is, yet another take on what it is like to live in a small place.

Small places Netherlands 1_1

Thanks for helping me with this, Michael. First of all, can you tell me a bit about your ‘small place’
I live in Rotterdam, a city of over half a million people which can hardly be called a “small place”. It is, however, in the Netherlands, which is a small European country, so you can say that I live in a small place. What I love about living in Rotterdam is that it is a no-nonsense city, where attitudes and poses are not appreciated, it is a rough-around-the-edges port city.

And what are the good, and the not so good, things about living there?
The Netherlands is a very colourful country to live in – the Dutch countryside still looks much like a classic Golden Age landscape painting, and the spring flower colours are amazing. The living standard is quite high, and its a great place for children – playground facilities are superb here! I love cycling so of course I enjoy the world-famous Dutch cycling infrastructure. The downside is that it is a very crowded country, with little wild nature. Especially in Rotterdam, where there is a lot of industry, the air is rather polluted and the roads are very congested.

Dutch cycling infrastructure is superb

What to you find to do to occupy yourself in your spare time?
As I mentioned, I like cycling, and in the weekends I often go for a ride. I am also a runner, and in the summer I participate in triathlons (not the full one, but the shorter versions). Writing is my creative outlet. Besides my own blog about the living in a small European country, I also write about my favourite spots in Rotterdam for Spotted By Locals.

I have two children one 2 years old and another 2 months old, and they of course keep me busy, so my spare time activities have in the past two years been more centred on playgrounds and petting zoo’s. We do go to museums and exhibitions together. The Netherlands has probably the highest density of museums in the world – there’s a museum here for everything! I have a so-called Rotterdam Pas, which gives me free access to museums in and around the city, so even if the children’s attention span is only half an hour, its still affordable to visit museums.

The Utrecht canals on a sunny day are packed with boats

How easy is it to “get away” and where do you escape to? Do you even feel the need to escape?
As most small European countries, the Netherlands is very well connected to the neighbouring countries and there are flight connections to every corner of the world, so yes, it is very easy to “get away”. As I mentioned, this small European country severely lacks wilderness, and it is of course known for its flatness. I love hiking in the mountains, so I do feel the need to escape the flat Dutch landscape every now and then. Fortunately, there is another small European country just around the corner – Belgium – that is more three-dimensional.

What is the local community like? Have you felt welcomed?
The first years after my arrival I spent studying at the Delft University of Technology. I jokingly say that Delft is a big university with a small town in it. As befits a technological institution, Delft is highly internationalized, so everyone’s accustomed to foreigners. I once checked the newspapers offered at the Delft train station and was a bit surprised to find no less than 9 in Russian – more than in Dutch! Of course, moving to a new place always takes adjustment, and I am not the easiest person to welcome, so my housemates sometimes raised an eyebrow about my habits and customs, but the Dutch have quite a few quirky habits themselves, so I’d say we’re even.

Small places Netherlands 4

What advice would you give to someone thinking about moving to your small place, or to somewhere similar?
Even though the locals, especially in North-Western European countries like the Netherlands, speak fluent English, making meaningful connections in the local community is difficult if you do not speak the local language. And since the locals speak English well, and generally do not understand why would you want to learn their insignificant and difficult language, it is rather challenging to learn it – and the vicious circle is complete! I am fluent in Dutch but local people still try to speak English to me as soon as they spot a slight accent, weird but true.

The Dutch climate is best described as ‘moist’, so be prepared. Especially people from more stable climates and drier places have trouble imagining how the unpredictable weather can effect your daily life. For example, winter temperatures of 5 degrees feel much colder in the wet, windy Holland than -25 in, say, dry and sunny Novosibirsk, where I was born. Sure, here in the Netherlands it can be dry, sunny and warm. But (almost) never all 3 on the same  day.

OK, so the Dutch have their wilderness - on the water

Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your family, and why/how you came to be living in your small place?
I am a “serial immigrant” – I was born in Novosibirsk, in what was then the Soviet Union, and when I was 12 we moved to Israel. I came to the Netherlands more than 12 years ago, to study Aerospace Engineering in Delft. The choice for Delft, and the Netherlands, was a bit random, in short, I could find arguments against studying in pretty much every other place but had no reasons not to go to Delft. I applied, was accepted, and here I am 12 years later, still studying in Delft (doing a PhD by now), married to a Dutch girl, with whom I have two children. My local friends now plague me for being the most assimilated foreigner in the country.

Thank you Michael for that insight into what looks like a really pleasant place to live (despite it’s petit size). Michael does include guest blogs from others living in small European countries on his blog so let him know if you’re interested. In the meantime, don’t forget to check out my review of Dutched Up if you want to find out more about living in the Netherlands as an expat; and to read my earlier posts on People Who Live in Small Places if you haven’t already done so: Mayotte, Gibraltar, a Small French Village and the Seychelles.

When Foreign Aid Can Work

It’s polling day here in the UK, and so many of us will be off to put our x’s in the boxes (I would like to say most of us but the number of people who actually bother to go out to vote have been woefully low in recent years; personally I think it should be compulsory to vote – even if you just spoil your ballot paper in protest at the non-inspiring choices). This has been an interesting election for one reason only – no-one knows what the outcome will be. It’s too close to call between the Conservatives and Labour to win the larger percentage of the vote, and whoever does win will almost certainly then need to form some sort of coalition if they are going to get anything done.

So, it’s been fascinating for that reason – but the campaigns haven’t exactly set the world alight. For the Tories, it’s been “all about the economy, stupid”. Labour have tried to imply that not voting for them would mean the death of the National Health Service. The honest truth is that it’s impossible to KNOW the truth – you can vote for who you THINK will make less of a mess of it, but really it’s anyone’s guess as to how the next few years will pan out.

In the meantime, one of the things this election hasn’t been about is foreign aid. Well, it has – but perhaps not overtly, in the same way as the economy, health and education have tried to grab our attention.

Foreign aid in this country has been ring-fenced during this parliament and, to be honest, we should be proud of the fact that we do contribute more per GDP than most countries. But, there are many – and at least one main party (UKIP) – who think we should do away with foreign aid altogether, that the money would be better spent back here in the UK on our homeless, our malnourished children, our poorly educated and our destitute. However, I think what people possibly don’t realise is that foreign aid, ultimately, helps not just the people in some far-off land, but themselves as well. I think the problem is that the people who “do” foreign aid just aren’t very good at explaining it properly.

So, as some of you reading this head off to the polls this morning, let me do my best to explain why keeping our foreign aid budget is a good thing. In my very amateur way!

A few nights ago, I watched a programme about the Caribbean. In it, the presenter visited Honduras, a country which quite honestly should be described as a basket case. Crime, particularly violent crime, is through the roof. Gangs have taken over huge swathes of the country – even the prisons are now a gang-stronghold. The presenter walked around the city surrounded by armed guards, all wearing flak jackets.

After Honduras, he changed direction and flew to Jamaica. Ah, we were able to sigh, a beautiful, friendly country – what a relief after the madness of Honduras. But ten years ago, when I lived and worked in Kingston, Jamaica was Honduras. It was a country on a one-way road to collapse. The murder rate was one of the highest in the world. Drug gangs made parts of downtown Kingston into total no-go areas. We weren’t able to drive to certain areas unless in armoured cars. The police and the military were riddled with corruption. The economy was plunging, the IMF had been called in. Despite the beautiful beaches and the friendliness of the people, it was a difficult and depressing place to work.

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Kingston

Except, while we were there, we – the UK – along with allies the US, Canada and the EU, started a co-ordinated aid effort to work with Jamaica to try and rescue it from the abyss it was heading towards. Why would we do this? Well mostly because the drugs that were passing through Jamaica on their way from South America were ending up on the streets of London, New York, Toronto. And so their problems were our problems. And our problems were theirs – the desire for cocaine in the west was fuelling the atrocious criminality in the Caribbean.

It really was a coordinated effort. Not only did we work with our American, Canadian and EU friends (as well as the Jamaicans), but it was also coordinated between the different government departments based in the high commission in Kingston. So people who understood the politics talked to the people who understood the police and the gangs. People who understood aid spoke to the people who understood military operations. And all of us spoke to contacts within the Jamaican government law enforcement agencies and civil society groups.

Now lots of things happened that I can’t write about here, and I am sure lots of things happened that I was never even aware of, but I left at a time when a lot of what we were doing was very much still in the early stages. However, even by this point a great amount had been done – we had paid for police officers from the UK to come to work alongside their Jamaican colleagues, mentoring and supporting them. The Department for International Development (DfID) had started working closely with the local civil service to try and bring their astronomical wage bill down – and encourage more people to pay taxes. Law enforcement did their bit and eventually a number of the major players, the “king pins” of the drug gangs were extradited to face charges in the US.

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Headlines like this were commonplace

I moved on and lost touch with what was happening in Jamaica. It’s hard to get a perspective when you’re not living there. But the programme we watched the other night was one of the most encouraging things I have seen for a long time. According to the programme makers, the murder rate is down by 40%. FORTY PER CENT. The country is now apparently known as one of the least corrupt in the region. Parts of Kingston that were no-go area are now relatively safe. Youngsters are finding jobs rather than being forced into gangs.

I realise there is a long, long way to go still, and that things could slide backwards as quickly as they seem to have moved forwards. I also realise that the people who really need to take the credit for what has happened in Jamaica are the Jamaicans themselves. But to me this is a major success story. And what it means for us, the people of the UK, is that when Jamaica heals, the drugs stop flowing our way. Which means we all benefit.

The beautiful beach in Negril, Jamaica.

The beautiful beach in Negril, Jamaica.

This is the story of how foreign aid CAN work, as long as it is targeted and coordinated aid. As long as all the players talk to each other and as long as we work closely with the right people in the host nation.

Whoever wins our election tomorrow, I hope this is one area that doesn’t suffer.

The programme I mention above is Caribbean with Simon Reeve. To watch it please click here.

To read more about the UK’s committment to global development click here.

To read where we stand on Foreign Aid compared to other countries click here