The Netherlands – the honest land

I work three days a week and two days I am at home with the boys (so I work even harder!). As a twin mama I have come to terms with the limitations I have with regards to the activities I can do with two babies. While other mums go to playgroups or have coffee in cafes, I pretty much stay home. I attempted coffee once in a cafe with other mums…it was a total disaster. I had two babies howling and in my lap and I made no conversation with the other mums who sat coolly feeding their one (quiet) baby. I never attempted the cafe again. Instead I take the boys out for walks on my own, let them crawl/walk on grass in neighborhood parks, do grocery and play with them all day. During my two days I hardly have any adult conversations and it gives me time to reflect on things like Netherlands and what this country symbolizes for me.

On one of our walks through the beautiful suburban neighborhood of The Hague (where I live) there is a little farm house. Outside the gate of this house there is a rack full with eggs, fresh vegetables, plants etc. and prices next to each item. You pick what you want and put money in a money box that hangs at the end of the shelf. This concept though quite common in Europe and other ‘first’ world countries still amazes me. It is a simple little thing (that most people wouldn’t even think about) but it encompasses for me the values and ethos of this country and its people. Honesty.

True you could argue that in a country where wealth and good standard of living is abundant, such a simple system that relies on trust works. But it goes beyond that and I believe it has more to do with values. I think first you develop values in a nation and then develop social structures upon that to have a good working system. It is why education is so important and crucial.

Having good basic values sounds simple enough yet I believe speaks volumes through the behaviors and actions of a society. A simple ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ or courteousness such as orderly queuing, etc. can help to instill in citizens good behavior. These qualities shouldn’t depend on income, race or place in society. In fact even in developing countries with high status families, these qualities are not always distinctive. Many a time completely absent. Somehow the wealth gap in some countries has the opposite effect where by the privileged, by right of wealth, feel they are not obligated to simple courteousness to others not equal in their social setting (and queues don’t exist for them! They bypass and get full service).

Recently I read an entire chapter in Pamela Drukerman’s book, ‘French children don’t throw food’ dedicated entirely to teaching children to say hello and goodbye. She analyzes that this creates the order of mutual respect between adults and children (not just establishing respect in children for their elders!). And what a key difference this is culturally because where you have polite adults and children that start their very first contact on this basis surely paves the way for all future interactions?

I know I make a general statement about the how things are in this country but so far, I have come across many examples of the good values that I see instilled within the citizens of this country. So much so that I can only hope to pass on as well as I can the same to my little boys so that they carry on the tradition of honesty and good behavior that I come across many a times in my encounters here in the Netherlands.

Confessions of scaredy cat flyer

Image courtesy of Airport - Travel Icons Design” by bplanet FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Airport – Travel Icons Design” by bplanet FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When I first mentioned to my husband that I wanted to take our 11 month old twins to visit my mother for two weeks, he looked a bit skeptical. Knowing he couldn’t go with me, he wondered if it was wise for me to be a solo parent for so long (given the boys are lovely but a handful). When I mentioned I would be flying his mouth dropped open…the reason being: I am scared, VERY scared of flying!

Traveling the short distance from the Netherlands to UK means that there are varied possibilities of travel one has i.e. plane, train, ferry etc. I did my research and weighed my options on what would be the best for a mother traveling alone with two babies (from a purely logistics point of view). I pushed aside the feelings of nausea that creep up when I think of flying, and made my choice rationally (even though the mere thought of flying makes me completely irrational). It was a simple decision – plane. The advantages?

  • Shortest travel time;
  • My husband could assist me till check-in offloading extra luggage immediately;
  • I could go to the loo on the plane and leave my babies with a passenger/cabin crew  member without being concerned someone would run off with the babies.

There was the small issue of my being scared silly but I ignored that and booked my flights and that’s why my husband looked at me like I was completely insane.

On our previous (short) flights together I had broken down in the waiting area before boarding. En route (in the air) I was an emotional mess, crying, heart racing, panicked at every sound, movement. Two years ago on a flight alone from Zurich I literally held the hand of a passenger next to me. He was a kind soul who talked to me the entire journey to distract me (his sister had fear of flying) but when we landed he made me promise I would seek help. That was a turning point for me and for all future flights, I got pills to knock me out (although I am certain that was not the kind of help he was referring to).

But it wasn’t always like this. You are reading the blog of a seasoned flyer! Since almost birth my family has had an extraordinary history with country hopping and trips. As a little girl, flying was a part of our lives. In my mind, you didn’t just buy a ticket on a plane, you bought a ticket for a new adventure! The very sights, sounds and smells of airports, check-in desks, transit lounges, aeroplane cabins etc. had me excited beyond control! These very travel experiences have contributed to moulding my personality into one of openness for the new, unknown. So imagine my own disappointment in myself that today these very same travel elements turn my legs into jelly and my eyes into water taps.

It started off around 6-7 years ago as a little jitter during take-off and landing. Then I began booking aisle seats because I didn’t want to be crammed in the space next to the window (claustrophobic I told myself). I started noticing more and more my body remaining tense and sweating during the flight and a sense of relief when the plane finally landed. But then during one flight, full blown phobia hit mid air and I was convinced we would not make it. All flights after that have been a disaster!  So please readers, if you notice these little symptoms, nip them in the bud before irrational thinking takes over completely.

Recently I have realised that there is actually a cure to this fear of flying … (it takes nine months to develop)…but it works like a charm! Have your baby(ies) on your lap. I have taken four flights with the babies and I have held it together beautifully. Something about motherly instincts kick in – if I pass on my fear to the little ones then that will be hopeless parenting on my part. And something else – they are teaching me to think rationally again because they have no fear and looking at the world from their perspective has liberated me to fly fearlessly once again.

Travel log: Athens and Tinos island

Greek Harbour

Greek Harbour – Photographed by Nida

It’s strange that amidst the Grexit crisis, we are living very much shielded from it (ironically) in a little Greek paradise. With the sun, the clear sea, the local dining, music, and dancing it is difficult to imagine the brink of impending crisis that the country is facing.

We arrived on a Thursday in Athens and were picked up by my best friend Yota who drove us to our hotel on the port. Yota had booked a double room with necessary baby arrangements and it crammed up pretty fast with two baby beds, two car seats, a double buggy, and about 60 kg of various pieces of luggage. We quickly dropped our luggage and traded in our full sleeves and jeans for t-shirts and shorts and headed out for a bite. Before Yota left, she ordered for us Gyros, Souvlakia, Greek salad, Greek beer and sat with us briefly as the boys gnawed on their first taste of Greek bread.

The next morning we took an 8am ferry to Tinos island. The highlight of the ferry trip was the Chinese tourists and their paparazzi-like fascination with the boys who fast became little celebrities and the subjects of a lot of cameras.  On arrival a short taxi ride brought us to Akti Aegeou, our little Greek paradise. Simply beautiful with white and blue apartments built around a swimming pool and a view of the clear Aegean sea just a few steps reach away. The apartment, though simple was clean. The owners made us feel immediately welcome and together with babies we settled down fairly easily.

With the babies it’s not really a holiday (so to speak) and we quickly discovered that if we kept up a regular routine on a daily basis, we found time for us to also relax and enjoy.

Below is our rough day plan:

  • 0700hrs: Boys wake us up for milk
  • 0830hrs: Walk on the beach (one sling per parent was very handy).
  • 0930hrs: Snack for boys, play time and nap (giving us parents time for breakfast and showers etc.).
  • 1200 – 1330hrs: Family beach time which involved lying on towels under shade while mum or dad took turns to swim and snorkel. The babies didnt take to the sand or sea and stayed on the towels sometimes back in fetal position (it helped to wrap them up with something so they felt protected and played under a sheet etc.).
  • 1330 hrs: Baby bath time in a tub on our verandah (now they love water?!)
  • 1400 – 1600 hrs: Family nap time – I cannot stress how important this was for mum and dad to recharge for the second half of the day.
  • 1600 – 1830 hrs: Playtime either on towels on grass outside apartment, or on verandah.
  • 1830 – 1930 hrs: Dinner for babies on verandah (two baby chairs had been kindly provided to us).
  • 1930 hrs: Babies bedtime (thanks to the wonderful Greek architecture of having (blue) shutters, the room blacked out nicely and babies knocked off quite soon – that and the outdoor activities and bath ensured they were tired and slept well all night)
  • 1930 hrs onwards: mummy daddy free time where one of us went swimming in the swimming pool or a quick dip in the sea followed by showers, a drink on the terrace etc.

Luckily for us the apartment restaurant was situated across from our verandah separated only by a swimming pool. We headed there every night with baby phone in hand and had a wonderful dinner with an amazing view of the sea. The owner was delightful in providing fresh dishes and sometimes sitting with us for a chat. Often we were given extra plates of delicious food, dessert or drinks on the house and we thoroughly enjoyed our (baby free) dinners.

Photographed by Nida

It’s also amazing when you are in the right place at the right time because on our last night on the island a huge party was held in the restaurant in honour of a child’s baptism. Tinos is famous for the Church of Panagia Evangelistria and every year on August 15, many Greeks come to Tinos and start their pilgrimage on their hands and knees from the port where the ferry docks crawling up to the church. The baptism took place in the church and the party in our restaurant. The child, named Adionis, had guests attending his party from Athens and Crete.  The party kicked off with Greek dancing, live music, breaking plates, and drinking till the wee hours! The owner set us up for our usual dinner in the corner of the restaurant but we had two tables covered with food just for the two of us. The father of Adionis sent drinks to our table and after a quick wave of his glass in our direction and a ‘yamas’ (cheers) continued to dance. It was a delightful evening filled with entertainment. At some point Nicos, our waiter, sat down next to us and said, ‘look – do you see any Greek crisis here?’.

After our two weeks on the island we headed back to Athens for a few nights the highlight of which was Yota’s wedding. It was a great location for a wedding in the mountains and the food was amazing accompanied with lots and lots of dancing. Yota looked truly breath taking and I got a little teary eyed when I first saw her appear. We ended the night around 3am with a big hug for the bride and groom and a round of goodbyes to the remaining family and friends and then loaded ourselves and our babies into a waiting taxi and made our way back to our hotel.

Arriving back in the Netherlands we were again grateful for having booked valet parking at the airport. Upon arriving home , much to our surpise, our babies shrieked in delight to be back in their play area with their toys and were all smiles and laughter. As parents we looked at each other and questioned if perhaps we had not pushed it a bit too much to have travelled for so long with the two of them (lets be honest, they weren’t always happy or easy babies). Not even one year old, they had so many new experiences in the span of two weeks. However, we concluded that it was good to try and see what lessons we learnt from this holiday travelling with twins and most important of all,  because there was always two of us with the two of them meant that we really did enjoy quality time as a family during our little Greek adventure.

Travel log: pre-holiday

Consider the following two scenarios:

Scenario 1: As a young couple without children, booking a holiday is exciting and a pretty simple process. You pick your destination, mode of transport, dates of travel and choose where you want to stay. 

Scenario 2: As two parents of 9 month old twin boys, the prospect of a holiday is ever more so appealing but once you begin to fine tune the planning and details you quickly put aside all excitement and romantic notions of vacationing until the practicalities are addressed (or at least that is my strategy for a stress free family time)!

Destination Greece

Not wanting to be trapped in a city or on an island crammed with party goers we narrowed down (after much research and consultation) our destination to a little island not far from Athens called Tinos (mind you, this holiday is triggered by my best friends wedding in Athens otherwise we would have definitely stayed near home).

Transport: 

Flying from the Netherlands to Greece obviously! But not so obvious was the baggage and buggy allowance etc. After a few calls to KLM and some online reading on their website, tickets are booked. Buttom line, it wasn’t a simple online search-and-book tickets kind of process.

Accomadation

Tricky! Guess what? All websites I browsed specified that only one baby cot per room is allowed (talk about twin friendly!). However, upon calling, most places are flexible. In the end we picked the place based on the girl at the other end of the phone. Not only are two baby cots organized but she suggested two baby high chairs, an apartment with a larger verandah and closest to beach, and even an early check-in to another room whilst our own might still be undergoing cleaning and being made ready for us!

Other Arrangements

  • We bought a second hand umbrella buggy (means totally collapsible)
  • We booked valet parking at the airport to avoid lugging around our two babies (and half our house) on our backs and I have prepared a HUGE list of what to pack (let me save that for another blog). 
  • We researched on baby formula milk and have found a comparable local brand ensuring half our luggage is not packs of milk.

Conclusion

When you are part of scenario 1 you probably don’t even notice the fields for babies and children when making online bookings, let alone even consider the planning and logistics around them.

When you are part of scenario 2 it does cross your mind why you never travelled more when it was just the two of you. But on a positive note, it’s going to be a lot of fun and airlines kind of force you to look beyond the organizational dimension and travel more with your babies (because at 2 years of age it will be full price tickets)!

Twins – The 0 to 3 (month) challenge

Everybody warns you how life will change when you have kids and you smugly think to yourself that you won’t let it change yours. You imagine yourself as one of those cool parents that will incorporate the baby (babies) into your life and things will carry on as usual (plus a few bottles and dummies). Why didn’t somebody smack that smug look off my face!

The first few days after the twins were born were surreal. From one moment to another we became parents, yet (despite the anticipation building up to this point) reality didn’t hit home immediately. Friends who came over to visit would sometimes ask, ‘So, how does it feel being a mummy?’ and I struggled to reply. I was still the same person. (plus two babies) and so also a mother – how does one express in words this strange duality?

It was only after a few days of the arrival of the babies that my motherhood instinct took over and around the same time the adrenalin kicked in. The only way I can describe the first two months is a blur of bottles,nappy changes, expressing milk, crying and colicky babies etc., and the entire time my husband and I sleep deprived yet coping on sheer adrenalin. Ofcourse there are moments of immense joy as you admire your fast growing and ever changing babies.

As parents of twins you also learn the value of efficiency very soon. Double feeding, changing stations on each floor, bottle warmers to avoid clumsiness and over heating milk etc. and the most important lesson of all, synchronization, synchronization synchronization! We aligned the babies where we could to drink milk, sleep, bathe at the same time (and sighed as some things like poo can’t be aligned!).

Everyone advises to have help at hand. Guess why? Because life, which usually presents itself as a myriad of choices, becomes even more so and on a daily basis. Example: should we do grocery or sleep? Vacuum or sleep? shower or sleep? You get the point. Sleep became very high on our agenda (and still is). Help at hand ensures that you can still sleep but someone else takes the pressure off by cooking or doing other household chores. Believe me, you feel more in control if not every house related thing comes to a standstill (even though the truth is that the little ones are controlling you!).

Our marriage temporarily turned into a shift system where we took turns sleeping, and that too in 3 hour slots. Yet our partnership and working as a team has never been more important than in the months following the babies’ arrival. We divided feeding and chores but most important of all were sensitive towards each other. We knew if we were irritated it was due to extreme tiredness and nothing else.

Then at the end of three months, like a switch, things settled down and for the first time since their birth we actually even said to each other, ‘Who says raising twins is hard?’. I actually remember going out for drinks with friends after the babies were in bed and thought to myself, ‘Now that’s the cool Mama I was talking about!’

Lastly, I don’t want my reflections above to sound negative. The arrival of the babies may have (temporarily) turned our lives upside down, but their (tiny) presence enriches us beyond imagination and makes everything else insignificant. And that is the simple truth.

Why is life in the Netherlands so good?

I am currently sitting in a train in the Netherlands with a great view of the ‘low lands’ outside. It’s very pretty – I can’t deny. Flat countryside with cows, ducks, green houses, and of course little canals dividing the patches of land (and yes, the occasional windmill here and there). However amidst this flatness I miss mountains. I originate from a country that boasts some of the most beautiful and tallest peaks in the world. However, being a positive person I always remind myself that what is missing here qua landscape, is compensated by a good standard of living. On my arrival to the Netherlands four years ago, I realized pretty fast what a good quality of life this country has to offer.

For starters the bicycling that is embedded in the Dutch culture ensures that one exercises regularly outdoors and like the Dutch, it’s practical, money saving and environmentally friendly. Mind you the Dutch don’t consider it exercising. Recently during one of my appointments, my physiotherapist asked me, ‘Do you exercise?’ To which I proudly replied, ‘Yes, everyday to work’. I caught her smirk before she turned her head away. I wanted to clarify that I cycled a fair distance to work (even for Dutch standards) but I held back, because as an immigrant with a different background, I am more aware of the cultural differences (and secretly enjoy observing them).

Another point to highlight is the good city planning where housing and green spaces are well balanced throughout neighborhoods. If the hustle bustle of the city gets too much, a country side getaway is very plausible within an hour (the Netherlands being such a small country).

Apartments and houses are usually of a good quality (despite being acquired bare and I mean BARE because housing comes – in many instances – without flooring and lighting. You literally walk on cement dodging hanging wiring). However, the large windows most housing boasts ensures better light and ventilation. If you want to imitate the Dutch you can even skip acquiring curtains hence ensuring even better natural lighting.

On a final note keeping an agenda (diary of appointments) is crucial to having a social life here. But what does this have to do with my current ramblings on the good life in the Netherlands? Well in my opinion, having a good structure in life never hurts does it? As most people don’t meet up unless planned well in advance, it means that your agenda is filled up months to come with social appointments with family and friends. Now isn’t that something positive to look forward to?

My adventures of a twin delivery (natural style)

Let me start off by saying the Dutch are bloody annoying when it comes to sharing their feelings. Ok there is no denying that they are very pragmatic but come on, surely the idea of labour is scary for anyone right? When I asked one of my pregnant Dutch friends if she was scared of the labour she said ‘nah, the baby will come out right? It won’t get stuck half way so I figure nothing to be scared of!’

Ok, so here I was, pregnant with twins, and very scared about the upcoming, inevitable delivery day. I didn’t really want to discuss my anxiety with the crazy, pragmatic Dutch women.

Ok here is another interesting fact in the mix – in the Netherlands if you opt to have pain relief, generally you might not get it – gas etc depends on where you deliver. Epidural? Depends if the anesthesiologist wants to swing by. In many small towns you should ideally deliver between Monday and Friday, preferably between 9am and 5pm, if you want an epidural (no jokes). Yes of course if you have complications you will be attended to swiftly but for a normal delivery, don’t expect much sympathy. The majority of women deliver at home on their beds (go natural!) and if you have a normal pregnancy, it is expected you will have your baby at home. So pain relief or requests for it is generally met with raised eyebrows.

Surprisingly my doctor was very open for my requests for pain relief when I brought it up with her early on during one of my checks. In fact when I approached her about a birth plan she brushed it aside, ‘it’s your delivery, you can have whatever you want’. But her reason for not focusing too much on this was that with a twin pregnancy she was concerned more about my well being and that of the babies every step of the way.

So how was my delivery experience? Well let me start off on the positives:

  • My husband was next to me the entire time (moral support always helps)!
  • It was painful but the pain is bearable
  • You forget the pain pretty soon after the birth;
  • Using only tips from an online course, I did good breathing during labour hence I saved $$$ on breathing classes 😉;
  • I had top notch care; double the staff of a normal (one baby) delivery.

A few negatives:

  • I could not get pain relief (long story) even though I was happy and keen to be totally drugged up. Hence things didn’t go according to plan. The good thing is that some where in between contractions I did some mental expectation management which helped.
  • No one tells you about recovery after delivery, I found it VERY hard.

But what is it like actually delivering twins you may ask? Well it’s not double the pain or anything like that (phew). Twin labour is like any labour only you are hooked up to machines more than normal as both babies need to be monitored closely. I guess the major difference is that after baby 1 pops out and you get a brief snuggle they whisk the baby away to give everyone room for baby 2 – no rest physically or mentally for yours truly.

It was an 18 minute delivery for baby 2- the highlight being my water breaking again (but this time just like in the movies…gush)! I had heard that with twins the second baby is free (of pain). Um…not entirely true because the second baby was bigger! Then baby 2 popped out, déjà vu (baby crying, quick snuggle, whisked off) and it was all over. I was a mother of twins, exhausted, happy yet very dazed and overwhelmed and longing for a cup of tea.

To conclude, the overall experience was not all that bad given some horrer stories out there. Also given my 2-in-1 bundles of joy deal, their health and mine was most important. So knowing my babies were in good hands in the baby unit, I lay back into the pillows of my bed completely relaxed and enjoyed my cup of tea in the empty delivery room grateful to be alone, for just a few moments.