challenges of motherhood, Dutch language, Holidays/ Celebrations, Netherlands, School, Sinterklaas

Sharing our Roots – an interview with Charlie Raemakers

Continuing the series about passing on culture and traditions to children who were born or who live in a different birth country to one or both parents –  this week Charlie Raemakers shares her experiences.

Charlie was born in Scotland and currently lives in Hollands Kroon in the Netherlands. She has two children who were born in England and Scotland. Her eldest is six and her youngest is five and they had just turned three and two respectively when the family moved to the Netherlands. Both children have British nationality but the intention is to obtain dual nationality for both of them now that they are living in the Netherlands (their father is Dutch).

Charlie has no doubts at all that it is important that her children know about Britain, despite moving away,

“My nationality, language, heritage and culture are all very much part of who I am and therefore part of who my children are. When we lived in the UK I also felt very strongly that they knew about the Dutch culture and language (my husband is Dutch).  Traditions across the nations are so diverse and for us family is very important, so I think for our children to be able to share in the traditions with their families on both sides of the North sea and to be able to communicate with both sides of the family is part of the glue that keeps us all bonded and connected.”

With this in mind, Charlie has a solid plan for sharing the British culture, traditions and holidays with her children,

“During the big holidays such as Christmas, Halloween & bonfire night it is relatively easy to continue the traditions I grew up with. Once Sinterklaas has been and gone we start to focus on the count down to Christmas.

The tree goes up, the kids help to decorate it, they write to santa with their wish list.  They always get a personal message from Santa in the week before Christmas via the Portable North Pole website and we track Santa on Norad on Christmas eve.  They put out milk and cookies for Santa and a carrot for the reindeer, hang their stockings up and always find new pyjamas on their pillow that the elves have sneaked in whilst they are having a bath.  We put reindeer food (oats with glitter) out on the street so the reindeer know where to land.  They hang a sock on the end of their bed in which they always find a satsuma and chocolate coins on Christmas morning.”

Charlie also makes sure that the Christmas meal remains a British tradition, even if it means scouring the shops for ingredients and asking for the help of family. She explains,

“I have gone to great lengths in the past to source a turkey for Christmas day and always manage to get hold of parsnips.  These are things that are not easy to come across in the Netherlands but so far, every year we have had a traditional British Christmas. I have been sent Christmas crackers every year as well, so you will find us all sitting at the table wearing our paper crowns listening to the Christmas hits I grew up with. We went back to Scotland last year for Christmas, I couldn’t wait to take them to a grotto to meet Santa and have all of the family around over the festive period – so magical for the boys!”

Christmas is not the only holiday that Charlie shares with her children. Whilst Halloween is growing in popularity in the Netherlands, it’s not yet marked on the same level as in Britain.

“Last year I threw a halloween party for the kids and their friends. My mum was visiting so we decorated the house with cobwebs and spooky banners and went to a lot of effort with the food to make it as gory as possible.  Mum also brought some halloween decorations over and my Dutch mother in law, who now lives in the UK, sent a box of halloween goodies over.  We did “dooking for apples”, ate candy apples, listened to halloween mash ups and played games and of course dressed up.  For the Dutch kids & our adult friends this was their first taste of Halloween and everybody really enjoyed it. I love the fact that our traditions aren’t just about us and our family but they are stretching out into our friends lives as well.”

Charlie raises an interesting point. When expats travel they not only learn about a new culture, but they share their own cultures with new people. November 5th is a special day in Britain, but it means nothing to the Dutch. Dutch friends and family, as well as the children, are often eager to learn about the origins of Bonfire night too. Charlie makes sure it’s marked in her household, even if it isn’t easy,

Hard to celebrate Bonfire night abroad – but sparklers
are always a hit
Photo Credit: Jenny Sliwinski

“Bonfire night is tricky because legally you can only set off fireworks on December 31st in the Netherlands.  Sparklers however are easy to come across and we talk about Guy Fawkes and look at bonfire videos on You Tube.”

Sharing holidays, traditions and culture is not always straight forward. Sometimes it clashes with what the children already know and like,

“For Burns night I had a tin of haggis I bought from a deli in Scotland…nobody liked it though, except for me! On shrove Tuesday (pancake day in the UK) I decided to make a batch of scotch pancakes in place of the traditional Dutch ones we eat most of the time.  I put a load of sweet toppings on the table… sugar, jam, lemon, golden syrup.  My youngest son was appalled that I would dare put such tiny pancakes on the table and defiantly declared “Where is the cheese and icing sugar?” but hey, you can’t win them all!”

Like Vinita Salome, Charlie finds that food and tastes are an important way to share her culture with her family. British food is often served in the Raemaker household,

There’s not much more English than scones!
Photo credit: Ariel C

“I love nothing better than spending a Sunday afternoon in the kitchen preparing a big roast dinner. Again this is something I have initiated my Dutch friends and family into. From time to time I make stovies, shepherds pie, mince and tatties and chicken pie. We bake scones every now and then too.”

Whilst Charlie is raising her children with an understanding of their roots, she believes it is also important to stay faithful to their Dutch heritage. With that in mind when Charlie got married in 2011 the wedding represented the family’s dual background,

“In October 2011, after nearly 11 years together my partner and I got married. We decided to get married in Scotland, in a big castle near Edinburgh. We had a traditional Scottish wedding with some Dutch twists; there was a Scottish piper, the kids and my Scottish family wore kilts, there was a pipe band in the evening, a ceiligh band and lots of Scottish dancing. We had traditional Scottish and Dutch food, there was a Scottish and a Dutch flag flying on the masts and the kids were totally immersed in the Scottish culture but with a reminder here and there of their Dutch roots too. The master of ceremonies introduced everything in English & Dutch and my in-laws conducted their speech in English & Dutch as well.  The best thing about that weekend was having all of the children’s Dutch & Scottish family together and the two cultures intertwining for a day.”

Sharing culture on a daily basis is a little trickier but with the help of TV, books and the internet Charlie has the tools on hand to make sure her children are keeping up with the English language,

“My kids watch CBBC (the BBC’s children’s channel) and I have some fantastic Scottish kids books, such as Rory McGrory, Clan Mingen and a horrible histories of Scotland book.  With supervision You Tube is a fantastic source of information for young kids and great for watching retro british cartoons, such as Super Ted, Banana Man, Desperate Dan and the Funny Bones.  My kids watch these so that they are regularly immersed in the English language.”

Television also beams British events directly into the family living room, allowing the children to witness historic happenings that they otherwise would miss. Charlie explains,

“The last couple of years have been very exciting times in the UK, with the Royal wedding, the Queens diamond jubilee and the 2012 Olympics. We have followed all of these events on the telly, watched videos on You Tube and discussed these events.”

The family are lucky enough to welcome lots of visitors from the UK, including lots of young children so the Raemaker children have plenty of opportunity to mix with other British people. There is an annual trip back to the UK too.

Raising children in a country you were not born in brings with it many challenges. One such challenge centres around raising children to be at least bilingual. The children lead the way according to Charlie,

“I speak English with the kids and they answer back in Dutch.  However when other English speaking people are visiting they switch to English easily, which is always a relief because they speak so little English at home.  What I have learned from raising bilingual children is that they go through phases of preferring one language or the other but when they NEED to speak English they do it, fluently.”

Another challenge Charlie has faced is that parenting overseas often demands adaptation from at least one parent to deal with cultural differences and that often requires a change in mindset.

“One of the biggest challenges I have faced has been learning about the education system my kids are going through, it is very different to the system I grew up in,” says Charlie.

The abundance of water in the Netherlands requires
a change in mindset from expat parents
Photo Credit: A van Mulligen

“I have had to abandon a bit of my Britishness when it comes to molly cuddling kids.  Here the kids have so much freedom from a young age and there isn’t the same health & safety mentality that there is in the UK. I found I had to be more relaxed about what my kids can and can’t do.  Í frequently mutter to myself ‘that would never be allowed in the UK’ especially at soft play centres and swimming pools.  A good example is that we live a few paces from a waterway and there is a play park for young children on a decking over the water!”

Despite being eager to ensure that her children know about the country they were born in, the country she grew up in, she has no reservations about immersing herself in her Dutch life and making sure the Netherlands feels like home to them all. But it is something she has had to work at by putting herself forward and stepping outside her comfort zone.

“I am a stay at home mum so getting out and meeting people and socialising with the kids was very difficult for the first ten months before my eldest started school.  Communication was difficult and I always had to take my husband to things like parents evenings.  Being the ‘foreigner’ on the playground felt very strange at first as well and I really struggled in the first year. I was always self conscious when I spoke Dutch so kept my head down a lot.

Within a year that changed, I grew in confidence and my language skills improved very quickly.  It is so so so important to learn the language of your new country, otherwise you are totally isolated and I can imagine after a couple of years you end up very miserable.

We have lived here for three years now.  I speak the language fluently, I get involved with everything going on at school and throw myself into taking part in all of the Dutch traditions and festivities throughout the year.  I was class mother last year and I give English lessons at school (on a voluntary basis).  I have made a fantastic circle of friends, both mothers at school, neighbours and some of my husbands colleagues.  There have of course been challenges along the way, moving abroad is never going to be easy.  But with some determination and good support at home from my lovely husband I really feel we have found our place here.”

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1 thought on “Sharing our Roots – an interview with Charlie Raemakers”

  1. I love this series Amanda. Thank you Charlie for sharing how you raise your cross cultural kids in the Netherlands. I lived in Edinburgh for a short time and I remember the crackers at Christmas, I just love scones. When I think of Scotland, I think of shortbread too! It's so nice that you have a plan and that you have a passion to instill the Scottish traditions in your kids. They will love you for it in the future.Cheers Janneke

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