Monday, January 31, 2011

Bring the Kids to Holland

Arriving to live in a new country is usually a big adventure, and complexities can mount when children are added to the picture.  Find a school, find some new friends, and everything will be OK.  Right?  That is, of course, where it all starts, and the Netherlands is turning out to be a good destination for our young expatriates.  

Many expats are familiar with international schools in the country. The European School at Bergen is a slightly different type of institution that was created especially for expat kids.  Operated by the European Union, the school came to exist for kids of the often foreign staff of the EU research center 20 kilometers away at Petten.  Now having around 600 students, the school also accepts other students on a space-available basis, and is comprised of nursery through secondary school-aged students from around Europe and the world.

Students at the European School are grouped into class sections by their home country and classes are conducted in their mother tongue, but with heavy emphasis on speaking a second language.  Most kids seem to converse in English on the playground and after school.  Dutch and other languages are often overheard as well.

The school at Bergen is about 45 kilometers north of Amsterdam, and there is transportation available at extra cost.  The curriculum appears to be complete so far, and our kids are not complaining about having less homework here than in Paris.  We’ve asked some Dutch friends, and heavy homework is apparently less of a Dutch tradition than in other parts of the world.

While this expat educational island exists for kids living here and easing into the Dutch culture, life is pretty bright for many other children in the Netherlands.  A 2007 UNICEF report on the well-being of children in economically advanced nations ranked the Netherlands number one in average scores across several categories.  The areas surveyed included material well-being, health & safety, education, family and friends, behavior and risks.   

Here are a few things that we have seen so far while living in the country with ‘the happiest children in the world.’  Of course most of the following examples exist in other places, it is just that these things appear more common, and attention and acceptance of children here is more evident.

Retail stores and restaurants often have play corners with books, toys and games for children.  One women’s clothing store has a large tree house in the center of the store.  This is great for the children while waiting for their mothers, and must be good for store revenue because customers may have more time to find things to buy instead of wrestling with bored children.  Our kids also pointed out the frequent toy surprise basket that is brought to the table by staff at local restaurants.   

There is a respect for children here that is not as evident in some parts of the world.   We often bumped into other pedestrians when walking the sidewalks of Paris with our three young children, and would be met with annoyance and comments like how we should sedate our children before taking them in public.  However, there has been more understanding and compassion when one of our bunch steps on someone’s foot or sends an inadvertent elbow into a strangers sensitive parts.   One passerby stopped for a couple of minutes to ensure our son was alright after they had simply bumped into each other.  

Kids are treated more as people here, even before they start to act like real humans.  This goes also for an earlier independence.  We’ve seen 8 year-olds driving boats by themselves while speaking on mobile phones, and it is not uncommon to see a small kid riding an XL adult bike alone while crossing from one small town to another.

Sports are routinely parts of children’s lives here.  Activities like soccer, field hockey, speed skating, martial arts, baseball, handball and fencing are not only popular, but played with at least as much enthusiasm as I have seen in other locations.  And don’t forget the bicycles.  While many Dutch children see their bike only as a means to travel from A to B, they still get the exercise benefits of cycling.    Our kids have taken to the bike lanes with gusto, and sometimes complain when they have to be driven by car during rainy or below-freezing weather.

Our ten-year old daughter played violin back in Paris.  She was happy when the eleven-year old girl living across the street invited her to the local children’s orchestra.   This eleven-year-old is always smiling.  We have speculated that she could actually be the happiest kid in the world.   And the orchestra and lessons are rolling along well so far with occasional concerts with music that is progressively sounding better.  Our son is tapping away also with drum lessons at the same music facility.

So the unsurprising conclusion is to not be afraid to bring international children to live in the Netherlands.  Just do be prepared to give those facts of life speeches a year or two earlier than originally planned.  We’ve encountered a few challenging questions when walking past the odd sex shop window or coffeeshop with our kids.  “Go ask your mother,” becomes a flimsy way to dodge their growing curiosity after a while.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Bringing Back the Beach

Everything seemed normal in the North Holland beach town of Bergen aan Zee as we bathed in the sun and the sea late last August.  Of course the beach season was winding down soon after with school starting and temperatures dropping.  But it was a curious sight last November to see large metal pipes running parallel to the coast line above the sand.  And then in December when the metal pipes were gone, two ships were anchored just off shore spraying something high into the air.

The Dutch government decided in 1990 that the coastline should not move at all inland from its position at that time.  This beach is an essential barrier protecting  
populated areas and farmlands that could be at risk from flooding from the North Sea and its rising water levels.  Wind, waves and currents are perpetually assaulting the coastal barrier and the Dutch have not been hesitant to fight back against Mother Nature.

So the large pipes and spraying ships were part of an ambitious engineering project by the Rijkswaterstaat to replenish sand that has been washed away by currents and other natural forces.  The pipes were quite obviously in the way of some activities on the beach, but the ships just off-shore were interesting to watch.

I spoke by telephone with Pieter Zoon, a spokesman for the grand project.  He explained that the ships were depositing sand into the sea in places where the currents would naturally transport the sand onto the beach in places where it’s needed.  Mr. Zoon said this process is called the rainbow – due to the visible arc launching from the ships – and is the preferred method of beach replenishment.  Pumping the sand directly into the beach using the high-pressure pipes is more costly and the sand has to then be moved by bulldozers to the proper position.  The pressure pipe method is used in more urgent cases where more of the beach has been lost.  The sand is pumped in mixed with water, then the water is extracted leaving the new sand in place.

A document provided by Mr. Zoon stated that this sand replenishing project could also lead to new islands or coastal land being formed in some cases.  He said that 3 million cubic meters of sand is being relocated in just a 3 kilometer stretch of North Holland coastline between Bergen aan Zee and Egmond aan Zee.  I asked him if this was actually a discreet plan to expand the land mass of the Netherlands, but he assured me that the project’s aim was merely to maintain the coastline at its location as surveyed in 1990.  Perhaps it was not such an outrageous question given the country’s ambitious history and engineering prowess when it comes to moving land and water.

I also asked about this project’s effect on marine animals and their habitat.  Mr. Zoon said that studies had been done, but no further information was available.  An employee at the aquarium at Bergen an Zee said by telephone, “Of course every touch by humans disturbs the fish life, but the impact is not that dramatic.”  He said that there had been no major protests over the project’s effect on marine life, and that “when they put the sand on the beach, the birds gather and we presume there are crabs and other things moving around for them to eat.”  Imagine being a crab scurrying along the sea floor, and suddenly being sucked into a high pressure pipe and transported like an invading marine onto the beach just to be quickly eaten.  Anyone having information on the project and marine life is welcome to leave a comment.

And for more information on the reinforcement of the Dutch coastline, see the document “Because the Dutch love their coast.”