Minimalist was never your thing anyway? Go for a Boho Chic Christmas this year! Choose bold colours, crazy patterns, folklore, floral and gypsy touches and your home will certainly look unique this festive season. Today I am sharing some inspiring boho chic and folklore Christmas decorations that are to awake your inner hippie, even if you haven’t tried such ideas before.
Boho Chic Christmas Tree Décor
Let’s start with a wonderfully colourful Christmas tree. It can be decorated with vintage and folklore styled ornaments, colourful pompoms and garlands and bold lights. No space for a tree? Try hanging a stick Christmas tree on the wall and decorate it with colourful ornaments. Use a crocheted, patchwork or woven round rug as a tree skirt. The more colours and bohemian patterns you add into the mix, the more fun you’ll have. No minimalist less is more here. Go bold!
Christmas Ornaments, boho style
Choose colourful folklore and boho chic ornaments and make some unique ones yourself. You can crochet them, make mini dream catchers with feathers, use crystal pendants or make an ornament garland or wreath. Find some vintage ornaments and make a hanging using an embroidery hoop and bold ribbon. You don’t even need a tree to display ornaments: just hang them on a string or on the window, along your stair banister or pin them on the wall. You can also put them on the mantel or put ornaments into a jar to add to your festive boho chic atmosphere.
Boho Chic Christmas Wreaths
No Christmas is complete without a wreath on your door! Make this year’s wreath keeping the bold boho style in mind: make an evergreen wreath with plenty of colourful decorations, a floral piece wreath interwoven with lights or a wreath in dream catcher style. Macramé and crochet are welcome, colourful pompoms will make also make fabulous and unique Christmas wreaths. You can also make a wreath of sticks and some greenery for a natural feel.
Boho Chic Christmas Stockings
If you use stockings as part of your Christmas décor, you can really push out the boat whenit comes to the boho chic and folklore theme. Adhorn your stocking with vintage fabrics, small crocheted squares or patchwork, beads, buttons, ribbons and bits of lace for a bold and colourful effect. They will spruce up any mantel.
Need some ideas for no plastic gift ideas for children? I’m with you. Birthday parties, Christmas presents, gifts brought by visiting relatives, children get a lot of stuff. And if you have young children like me, this stuff amounts to a lot over the months and years. Boxes full of toy cars, action figures and dolls and a whole lot of plastic you’d rather not have in your house. It’s messy and half of it the kids don’t even play with. I bet most parents would agree. Still, a child’s birthday or Christmas requires a gift as you don’t want to see sad faces. How about not adding to the heap of expensive commercial plastic toys, but bringing something imaginative instead? Here are some suggestions I love.
A Craft & bead box for creative little hands
Got a cute vintage tin or a wooden box with a lid? Or how about pimping up an old shoe box? A lot of children around the age of 5-8 or older love to make things like bracelets or necklaces, so create a beautiful treasure box for them! Fill a box with old beads, ribbons, buttons, scrap fabric and string and let their imagination do the rest. I know I would have loved to receive a box full of things like that.
A wooden tree compatible with Lego
I love it when companies make their stuff compatible with other brands. Smallable, which has a fantastic range of wooden toys for children, sells this plywood tree for a very reasonable £16 that is compatible with Lego bricks. There is also a castle and a space ship in the same series, making perfect no plastic gift ideas. Check out their other beautiful wooden toys here.
Board games and other family fun
I must admit, I’ve never really been one for games, but being a parent I kind of had to get into it. Snakes and ladders, Ludo, Memory, Uno, you name it, my kids love it. I don’t know whether it’s the game itself or the fact that you are playing it with them and they can beat you, but I sure score some brownie points when I get on the floor or around the table for a board game. We were given a great wooden Snakes and Ladders/Ludo combo board a few years back and it gets used every week. Definitely not something that will end up in the forgotten toys corner any time soon. Charity and second-hand shops usually have games in stock, so worth checking. If you rather invest in something high quality and new as a gift for the family to enjoy together for years to come, then John Lewis is a good bet.
DIY Frame lacers for fine motor skills
Frame Lacers are a colorful DIY toy that doubles up as a great fine motor skills activity for kids. Got a tiny child in your life? Make them one of these!
An invention box or ‘robot box’ for explorers
Do you have a child in your life who loves taking things apart or figure out how stuff fits together? Gift them an ‘invention box’ or ‘robot box’! Create a robot box for the toddler in your life using outdated technology. Find old CDs, floppy disks, cables & cords to create a fun bin for toddlers to imagine with. For the older child, fill a large box with more fiddly things they can put together. Nothing better for their creativity than open ended learning and discovery. Check out Research Parent for ideas on what to include in the box.
“Do you know how many times the Spanish eat per day?” I always ask tourists when I guide them around the city. “No? Five times.” “Five times?!” they answer standard in disbelief. Yep, and isn’t it wonderful? One of the great things about living in Spain is the food. And they take meal times very seriously.
I admire the Spanish for their sacred keeping of meal times. Ever got stared at in Spain while munching on a sandwich on the go? Exactly. Nobody does that. The amount of boxed ready made sandwiches full of additives I have eaten from Marks & Spencers in Scotland in my lifetime, is incredible. There I was at 1pm, queuing up to pay for my “meal deal”: a cold soggy sandwich from the fridge, a bottled drink and a bag of crisps or bar of chocolate. Eaten on a bench in the park, or more often back at my desk. Scoffed in about 10 minutes. Plastic waste in the bin. Every day.
Enjoy a beer with your almuerzo
So how do the Spanish do it? What are those sacred five Spanish meal times? They start with a small desayuno, a cup of coffee and a croissant or bit of toast for breakfast, mostly at home. For the kids some ‘galletas‘, thin biscuits dipped in a glass of milk. Then at 10.30 it gets more serious. Almuerzo. Terraces fill up, workers gather at the bar of a cafetaria. Bring it on. Tortilla, chorizo, ensalada rusa, bocadillos with cheese and jamon, ‘tostada con tomate’, croquetas…lots of dishes you can choose from mid morning, all freshly prepared on site. Fresh bread from the bakers. And hey, let’s just wash it all down with a glass of beer or wine. Yes, you read that right.
Menu del dia, the best thing since sliced bread
A few hours later, somewhere between 2 and 3 o’clock in the afternoon it is time for lacomida. Lunch. Restaurants open, but shops close, and it is siesta time until about 5 for shop keepers and banks. Most office workers go back earlier. Yes, people do work in this country, believe it or not, a lot of people don’t finish work until 7 or 8 o’clock. And no, they don’t go to sleep during siesta. Maybe when you’re 80. People either go home to cook their lunch or meet with colleagues outside on the terrace of a restaurant. For three courses, usually. On week days you can eat a 3-course home cooked Menu del dia for around €10, which includes a starter, main course, coffee/dessert and a drink. Apparently a leftover from the time general Franco was in power, who in the sixties and seventies ruled that each restaurant should provide an affordable meal for people on work days. He may have been an awful dictator, but at least he got one thing right.
Carbs are for Comida
After a few more hours of work or school (kids also enjoy that 3-course meal at lunchtime! I drool when I read their menu each week…), it is time for number four on the list of Spanish meal times. This little meal, or rather snack, is still taken quite seriously, and happens at around 5pm when the schools are out. Merienda. “Quieres merender?” You often hear mothers ask their kids when they tumble out of the classroom, tired and hungry. No kid ever refuses, as merienda involves bread, biscuits, chocolate milk, fruit or other items children could practically live on. Most parents will just have a cup of coffee. And I suppose this bit of snacking is needed, because most kids are ferried off to football, piano or tennis lessons and they will have to sit it out until at least 9pm when the final meal of the day is served: lacena. Dinner. “Wow” the impressed tourists usually gasp by now, when I get to meal number five. But cena is not usually a very big meal. Not like our evening dinner. No plates full of pasta or otherwise carb heavy recipes. After all, you already have that 3-course meal in your belly, right? Exactly. And a tip from the tour guide: paella is never eaten at night. Remember that next time you visit Spain 😉
You either eat or you talk about eating
As I am learning more Spanish by the day I am starting to understand random conversations in the street between people. It is always about food. “We either talk about food, or we eat,” a Spanish mum from school explained to me with passion the other day, while were out for a walk in the hills. “The whole objective of going out somewhere is eating together. It is the most important thing. Got something to celebrate? You go out for a meal. Meeting up with friends? It has to be centered around a mealtime and finding a nice place to eat.” I asked her why Spanish people are not all morbidly obese with all that eating. “It’s not about the quantities”, she said, “I never have huge plate fulls, but I love eating. It’s about tasting different things and appreciating the flavours. And about the social aspect.” I remember being told by a Scottish colleague once years ago that “eatin’ is cheatin’“, when I suggested we should go for something to eat before hitting the bar. I never got into that pint drinking on an empty stomach habit. I love a beer, but give me some croquetas, por favor.
An all day activity and no one knows where the kids are
Needless to say that the Saturday morning hill walk was heavily interspersed with almuerzo (and cans of beer at 11am), followed by a leasurely lunch on the village square….and my new favourite thing: the ‘sobremesa‘, which basically means you all stay at the table after the meal, talk, laugh and keep bringing out drinks and snacks. For hours. The kids were playing somewhere, stole food off the table every so often and nobody really cared. Everyone had a great time. We went home at 6pm, all happy and tired.
I was wondering about what makes Spain such a pleasant and laid back country to live in. Ignore politics and bureaucracy, as these things will make you angry no matter how much vitamin D you’re soaking up, but Spanish people really know how to enjoy life. The climate helps for sure. Sunshine year round brings everybody out of their houses and together in the street. No staying indoors or in cars all day. Being outdoors, chatting and eating. Did I mention food? Spanish meal times take a bit of getting used to, your old schedule gets thrown out of the window. But it’s pleasant, as long as you go with it. “No pasa nada” is a great expression and used all the time in Spanish. “It’s OK”, relax, don’t take it all too seriously, here, have some olives.
We emigrated at the start of 2018 from Scotland to Spain. A big transition in many ways. The climate, the language, the settling in, the school searching, the paperwork. It is a lot to tackle when you first set foot in your new foreign country. An eternal holiday? Yeah right. Someone mentioned to me the other day: the first year of moving here? Forget it, it’s a write off, don’t try and get anything done for yourself. I wish I had heard this when we first landed. Being energetic but impatient and keen to get everything and everyone organised within 5 minutes, I was exhausted by the end of year one. A learning curve.
Moving house is always stressful, especially when you have young children who have to adjust and settle into their new environment and potentially a new school. It takes time for everyone to be happy and calm. Moving to Valencia, Spain is of course a whole different ball game. Not only do you leave friends and family behind, you are dealing with a completely new culture. The sunshine made us happy, but the language barrier was huge when we arrived and we felt very unsettled – and still often do after now 20 months of living here. For the children this was no different.
A bumpy ride on the Spanish school roller coaster
The school search in Valencia was stressful. After we had made our decision on one school, it turned out it was full. We had already moved into the right postcode area, but alas – in the end there were no spaces. We were handed two spots in a local Catholic ‘concertado’ (semi-private) school nearby and we just had to accept. I remember feeling very anxious about it at the time, making last minute visits to highly expensive private schools because I wanted the best for my children and thought I was ruining their lives. In the end, after being put off by monthly fees, the traditional school atmosphere and too many Porsches parked outside, my husband and I opted for the local concertado and hoped for the best.
Our youngest went to the 4-year old infantil class (Spanish nursery has three stages – for 3, 4 and 5 year olds) and our 6-year old to 1st year of Spanish primary school. They enrolled in March and while the little one adjusted fairly quickly after a few weeks of tears and meltdowns, the big boy cried till summer. The school wasn’t bad, the teachers were lovely and trying their best, it was just too overwhelming for him. Nobody spoke any English. Imagine needing to go to the bathroom and being unable to ask for directions. Exactly. He was lost, lonely and scared. And Spanish school days are long: from 9am to 5pm. Being the only foreign child, he was also a celebrity and he soon got annoyed with all the unwanted attention. He sat timidly next to the teacher at every break time, overlooking the gigantic typical Spanish concrete playground, where the boys play football and the girls stand on the sideline. The classroom was chaotic, as not only my son was new, his teacher was a maternity cover and didn’t have a clue either. It is fair to say, my son picked up some Spanish and worked a lot on his life skills, but did not do any school work between March and the end of June. Followed by 2.5 months of summer vacation.
I thought I had left the rat race
Our eldest got a space in our school of choice in September last year and thank god, he liked it. His little brother joined him the following school year after we had been tackling two different schools for a full school year, about 2 kilometres away from each other, but with similar drop off and pickup times. Every morning and afternoon we were stuck in rush hour, trying to deliver and collect them on time, at two different locations and nowhere to park. It was like being in the rat race all over again.
Fast forward, Autumn 2019. My now 7-year old is repeating the second year of primary – a careful decision made by us after advice from his teacher – and I am so grateful we have done this. Sure, I felt it was all our fault when we had to consider it, because we ‘dragged’ him to Spain and ‘dumped’ him into the Spanish education system with zero Spanish. But it wasn’t just because of the language, being the youngest pupil in his class he was always going to be more immature and potentially behind in Spanish, but also in other subjects. He is much happier now.
From anxiety ticks to the dust settling
Up to then he was demonstrating signs of anxiety (constant need for reassurance, strange OCD type ticks, being annoyed about his clothes, labels, and having a persistant cough), which were clearly caused by stress, as during the summer holidays they disappeared. My youngest, having been fully immersed in Spanish from the start, is taking like a fish to water in his new school. He is learning to read and write just like his Spanish classmates. The dust has settled. At last.
I was so impatient that first year after moving to Valencia. I always want to have everything sorted in no time, rather than breathe and observe. Roll up the sleeves and get going. I suppose it was somehow due to the irrational feeling of being judged from afar by friends and family. “Will they make it? What will they be doing? Have they found work yet?” This pressure, whether true or just in my head, forced me to do too many things in a short amount of time. I set myself up as self employed, frantically looked for work, networked like mad, was anxious about building a social life from scratch and I even joined a new band so I could continue singing. God forbid I would take a break. I had to create the perfect life and prove I could do it all. But seeing the kids struggle, my husband trying to find his feet (he hated me for putting so much pressure on myself and the family), having to deal with stuff in a foreign language, it was no wonder that just before we reached our one year milestone of living in Valencia – I collapsed.
When words fail and you fall to pieces
I have been a singer in a band for more than twenty years and never have I walked off stage during a gig. It was December, ten months after we moved, when I had a panic attack in the middle of a concert. Both my parents, my sister, husband and children were visiting Valencia, and were watching me. The people who mean most to me in life and love me unconditionally. I lost my lines, blood rushed to my head, I felt I was going to faint, I wanted to dig a hole and disappear. I walked off stage and cried in the bathroom of the venue, comforted by my sister. The mean machine had finally broken down. Smoke coming from the bonnet. I managed to pull myself together and finish the performance, but hell, was it awful. I do remember singing my autobiographic song ‘Nothing’s gonna bring her down‘ from the bottom of my heart with tears in my eyes that night, but feeling so loved by all of my family right there supporting me.
The first year of living in Spain with children is a write off. It is true. Forget about continuing life as you knew it. In our case, having a young family and no 9-to-5 jobs to go to, we literally jumped in the deep end. You need time to figure it all out. To be with your children, to guard their only safe place they know right now: the family. We were totally out of balance. I ran myself to the ground, carrying it all, and expecting my family to run at the same pace, and “just get on with it”. I couldn’t see straight, it was all a blur. But while I pretended I had it all under control, I was slowly losing grip. I guess sometimes you need to fall on your face to finally see what’s going on. I didn’t come to Valencia to feel stressed out, but then I did.
I reached out to a psychologist for the first time in my life at the start of this year and it was so good to talk. To release. To be heard. I went on an all women yoga retreat, which was pure bliss. I promised myself not to be so hard on myself, to practice self-care. I kept a journal, set intentions. Things shifted. Positive things happened since this Summer, including the school changes. We also moved into a different house which we all love. Most of all, I have accepted that I don’t have to do a million things at once and I don’t have to please anyone. I am getting better at setting boundaries for myself and expressing my own needs, something very hard for a person who has always taken pride in being strong. It is OK to be vulnerable. Creating more time and space in my weekly schedule allows me to breathe and observe. Something I should have done much earlier. But hey, nobody is perfect. Onwards and upwards. Little, by little. Poco a poco.
Moving abroad means meeting people from all over the world, all with different backgrounds and customs. You chat to them about life, family traditions and “what are you doing for Christmas?” and soon discover that people have all been brought up with different things. It is very educational to say the least, and wonderful to learn about what everyone celebrates from October to December. Here are some of the known and lesser known traditions you can find around the world this season. Some rather scary ones too.
Halloween. No, it is not an American invention
An American lady here in my hometown of Valencia posted in a Facebook expat group how she was keen to “organise the typical American experience of trick or treating” in Valencia and invited us all to take part. I don’t think she saw what was coming next, namely a whole host of Scots and Irish expats telling her that she “didn’t have to show them, thank you very much, as halloween is a holiday of Gaelic origin – not American.” I guess that was her told – ouch.
Halloween, or the ancient Samhain, is considered the time of year when the veil between our world and the spirit world is at its thinnest. Samhain (pronounced sah-van or sow-in) is the traditional Gaelic festival marking the change of seasons and the approach of winter. Dead and departed relatives played a central role in the tradition, as the connection between the living and dead was believed stronger at Samhain, and there was a chance to communicate. The idea that souls return home on a certain day of the year is repeated across many cultures around the world, including the Day of the Dead in Mexico around the same date. During Samhain or Halloween eventually, mumming and guising (going door-to-door in disguise and performing in exchange for food), or pranks, were a way of confounding evil spirits. Pranks at Samhain date as far back as 1736 in Scotland and Ireland, and this led to Samhain being dubbed “Mischief Night”. The original lanterns in Ireland and Scotland were carved from turnips, not pumpkins.
As a Dutchie who didn’t grow up with Halloween, I went around my local Spanish neighbourhood with an Irish friend this year, as well as a group of Spanish parents and a Swedish mum, who also felt a bit out of place. It was a laugh, and kind of odd trick or treating in a T-shirt in still 24 degrees at night. For the Spanish this halloween thing really is a novelty. Hilarious and entertaining to see everyone learning from each other and adapting to new customs.
All Saints Day in Spain
The day after Halloween the Spanish celebrate All Saints’ day, or Día de todos los Santos, where they remember their dearly departed and bring flowers to the graves of their deceased loved ones. Of course nothing goes without eating in Spain and there are a few traditional sweets that the Spanish eat on All Saints’ Day. The most common are the so-called huesos de santo (literally, “saint’s bones”), which are made of marzipan and sweetened egg yolk. Another treat you’ll find are buñuelos de viento, puffy fried balls of dough filled with pastry cream, whipped cream, or chocolate. Yum!
Day of the Dead, more than just a costume
Day of the Dead, taking place in Mexico the first few days of November, is currently a bit of a fashionable theme for people choosing their halloween costumes, but is actually an ancient celebration that is way more than a bit of makeup and a lot of flower displays. Some of the earliest origins of the tradition can be traced as far back to 2,000-3000 year-old rituals honouring the dead in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Celebrating the lives of deceased family members and friends, people believe that during this part of the year, loved ones can return from the Chicunamictlán – the land of the dead – because the border between the real and spiritual world melts away.
When Spanish colonisers came to the region, they carried the Catholic holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, celebrated on the first two days of November. Day of the Dead was moved to correspond closer to these days. In 2008, UNESCO added the country’s “indigenous festivity dedicated to the dead” to its list of so-called Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
St Martin and the paper lanterns
In the Netherlands, at least the north where I grew up, as well as parts of Germany, we celebrate Saint Martins Day on the 11th of November. The day is named after St. Martin of Tours, a Roman soldier who became a monk after being baptised as an adult. He was eventually made a saint by the Catholic Church for being a kind man who cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar during a snowstorm – although as a child I never knew this part of the story. All I remember is that we went around the streets after dark with paper lanterns knocking on people’s doors, sang songs about St Martin and received sweets and oranges in return. It often rains that time of year, so you can imagine the sight: soggy lanterns and frozen children.
Saint Nicholas or ‘Sinterklaas’ in the Netherlands
Staying in the Netherlands, we are also the first to kick off the festive season with our Saint Nicholas on the evening of 5th of December, or 6th of December in Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and Northern France. This saint is a legendary figure based on the historical figure of Saint Nicholas (270–343), a Greek bishop of Myra in present-day Turkey and the patron saint of children. Saint Nicolas, who is believed to also be the predecessor of good old Santa Claus, introduced to the United States of America by Dutch immigrants, who, just like myself, couldn’t shake off some of their old customs. Some people refuse to believe this, but Santa Claus actually received his jolly, cuddly image from Coca Cola, who felt the old bishop needed a non-religious makeover.
In the Netherlands however, we have kept the St Nicholas tradition alive and well. It is also the cause of wide eyes and disbelief among the international community when I try and explain what in my mind has always been a very innocent tradition. St Nicholas is depicted as an elderly, stately and serious man with white hair and a long, full beard. He wears a long red cape over a traditional white bishop’s alb, dons a red mitre and ruby ring, and holds a gold-coloured crosier, a long ceremonial shepherd’s staff with a fancy curled top. For some reason the old man with the beard no longer comes from Turkey, but he now arrives every year on a boat from Spain. Until recently our St Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, was assisted by a large number of Zwarte Pieten (“Black Petes”), curious helpers dressed in Moorish attire and in blackface, who would take naughty kids back to Spain in a sack. Wowzers. As a child I know for certain we thought nothing of it: they were just the Saint’s helpers, not a racist imitation of people with a black or brown skin colour. Their black colour was because they climbed through the chimney, obviously. And somehow they ended up wearing gold earrings and curly black wigs with it. Cue: gasping audience. You will be glad to hear that Zwarte Piet has left the scene and was in recent years replaced by Rainbow Pete…
Did Black Pete made you cringe? Meet Krampus, his evil Austrian brother
A beast-like demon creature that roams city streets frightening kids and punishing the bad ones – nope, this isn’t Halloween, but St. Nicholas’ evil accomplice, Krampus. Just like in the Netherlands, in Austrian tradition, St. Nicholas rewards good little boys and girls, while Krampus is said to capture the naughtiest children and whisk them away in his sack. In the first week of December, young men dress up as the Krampus (especially on the eve of St. Nicholas Day) frightening the living daylight out of kids with clattering chains and bells. Holy shoot. Give me back rainbow Pete any time.
Hide your broom in Norway
Perhaps one of the most unique Christmas Eve traditions can be found in Norway, where people hide their brooms. Yes, that’s right. Nevermind the manic last minute gift wrapping or preparing the Turkey for Christmas dinner. Get that broom safely in the cupboard. It’s a tradition that dates back centuries to when people believed that witches and evil spirits came out on Christmas Eve looking for brooms to ride on. To this day, many people still hide their brooms in the safest place in the house to stop them from being stolen.
You want to live abroad? What is the secret of settling in and being happy in your new country? In a nutshell: being open-minded and proactive. Oh, and cycling. I started as a tour guide on a bicycle this year and I love it. It never crossed my mind to be a tour guide in the past, but somehow it came on my path and it suits me. Tour guiding is social, it is outdoors and it keeps me fit. It is the perfect job alongside my other job: writing.
Two questions I get asked on a daily basis by my Dutch tour guide clients: how did I end up in Valencia en what is life like here? Everyone on holiday always secretly wants to figure out if they could move here too and what it would take to make it happen. “You are so lucky to live here”. Let me tell you.
1. Only sunshine is free
Living in Spain has nothing to do with “being lucky”. It takes a long time and many headaches to make the decision to emigrate, to plan the move, to make it happen. It takes a lot of effort to settle in, to navigate around your new country and all the new rules and systems, to try and speak a new language. And of course, to start earning money. There are a lot of hurdles along the way. If I tell people that the average wages here are around €1,000 net per month full time, a little bit of the glamour soon disappears. Living abroad can be amazing, especially when there are 300 days of sunshine year, but you still got to pay the bills.
2. Reinvent yourself
To live abroad and be happy means you have to be flexible and proactive. The alternative is to be stuck indoors waiting for something to happen.You’ll soon end up being pretty lonely. And broke. You also have to put set ideas a side about who you are and what you do. You have to reinvent yourself a little bit. My career has always been in arts marketing, but when you move to Valencia, you’re simply not going to be able to find a similar job. Speaking Spanish is one thing, but Valenciano, the lingo of the public sector, is another. And then there is the high unemployment rate down here, which basically means saying goodbye to your previous line of work.
3. Be realistic and flexible when you live abroad
This is the second time in my life I have emigrated. Age 26 I moved from the Netherlands to Scotland, to be with my now husband. Not too big a deal when it came to cultural differences, but it still took a while to feel at home. In the Netherlands I had left a pretty decent job in the cultural sector. Expecting to “just continue my career abroad”, ended up being an illusion. I applied for a few jobs that were in my field and at my level, but my English was not fluent yet in terms of professional jargon and I made a complete fool of myself at one interview. I can still recall the shame, frustration and sadness I felt afterwards.
Now I could have done two things: go home and give up, or get back up for round two. What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger, right? I however chose to be realistic and go for something a bit less ambitious that would at least get my foot in the door. I soon got hired as an admin assistant at an arts centre, and a year later I got promoted to their marketing manager. Learning the language however is often the only way to get anywhere in a foreign country. If you don’t, then that law degree or masters in business administration is not going to get you very far. You just got to start somewhere. If that is in a coffee shop as a waitress for a year (nothing wrong with doing that forever either by the way), then enjoy it and pick up the language while you work.
4. Transfer your skills and find your niche
What skills do you have that are transferable? What are you good at? Other than that as a Dutchie I was born on a bike, I have always been a communicator. I am good at writing, am creative by nature and I like helping others. I’m a practical ‘tick those boxes’ kind of girl. Those skills are useful in all kinds of jobs, you just have to recognise them and put them to good use. With high unemployment here in Spain and not speaking Spanish much yet, I decided to set myself up as a freelancer, or autonóma, in marketing for expats.
In a city like Valencia however, there are many other expats doing similar things and the competition is high. Time to zoom in and stand out from the crowd. Yes, I can design a WordPress site, a flyer and I can keep a facebook page alive, but my strength lies in writing. And I am bilingual: I speak and write fluent English and Dutch. Although I focused on English speaking clients at first, soon I received more requests for web content in Dutch. I unexpectedly realised that is my niche. Writing web content in Dutch. Who would have thought.
5. Look for local clients…or go online
If you live abroad and are looking for clients s a freelancer – whether you are a writer, designer or even an English teacher (another job usually available for foreigners), you can do two things. You can advertise your skills locally and try and find clients nearby. The other thing, which I found is what most other expats do over here, is go online – and work remotely. Sites like Upwork, Fiverr and others enable you to attract clients from all over the world. This means you can also do your job anywhere in the world. The digital nomad is born! Even better is to bring existing clients with you. If you set yourself up as a freelancer abroad, then you can offer your clients back home prices VAT free, as countries have a tax agreement for these kinds of payments. And offering things without the added VAT is of course attractive.
6. Talk to lots of people: be visible
Unless you have all your clients online, it pays to show face. Go to network events, especially those with other expats. Talking to people might bring opportunities. If others know you are looking for work, friends, things to get involved with, sooner or later something will come up. For the introverts this is not always an easy thing to do, but it is pretty much essential if you want to get out of the house and integrate.
Even ‘showing face’ in local Facebook groups can help you become more visible. It’s been vital for me, especially in Valencia, to get to know people, look for work, make connections and feel a bit more part of the community. Social media has its flaws, but it has also made it so much easier to find like-minded people in a new environment. If you are self-employed being visible on social media is very important. Advertise your services to other expats or locals and before you know it, you have your first little contract – which, if you’ve done a good job, may lead to more.
7. Learn the language when you live abroad
First it was English and the local Scottish dialect Doric, now it is Spanish – and even Valenciano – it is a constant adaptation process. If you want to live abroad and just be in your own little bubble, not learning the local language will keep you there for sure. And no, it isn’t easy, but what in life is? Lucky to live here? No, hard work, baby. You feel like a right idiot a lot of the times and you sometimes feel you’ll never ever going to be able to hold a conversation…but you just have to keep going, mistakes and all. Tranquila.
Anyone who has ever moved abroad has had to learn a foreign language at some point, if the locals didn’t speak yours. The other day I heard a great phrase that applies to all of us migrants:”A foreign accent is a sign of bravery.” I’ll take that. Bit by bit. Poco a poco.
Last week we decided our eldest son would repeat his school year. It was after much headaches, tears (me) and consideration, and of course after talking with his teacher. Repeating the year? Shock horror. I always associated this concept with the kids who were really at the bottom of the class, somehow had developmental problems or otherwise behind. My kid? How? I felt I had failed him. I had mother’s guilt in ten fold.
Children are sponges
Maybe it was the guilt of having moved to Spain, pulling him out of his comfort zone and plunging him into a whole new and foreign environment. Did we gamble with his future by emigrating? Enrolled in a school at first in which he literally drowned, then since September a different school which he really likes, but obviously everything still is all in Spanish. “It is such a gift to a child moving to a different country, what an experience!” I keep hearing from people who have never done it. “Children are sponges, they pick up the language so fast.” Sure, both my boys speak quite a bit of Spanish after 18 months, children’s language of course. That doesn’t mean they also miraculously catch up in all school subjects in Spanish – and Valenciano. And when even maths becomes a struggle, you start to wonder if perhaps life is going a little too fast for a small boy.
My 7-year old has a vivid imagination, is very creative and loves art. He is easily distracted and has a sensitive soul. He is also terribly stubborn and has never liked people telling him what to do, from potty training to learning to read. But then he is also very social, caring and makes friends easily. He loves to play. Last but not least, he is a December baby. In Scotland that meant he was the youngest in class and in Spain this is no different. For some children no problem. For others it is.
I remember when my son was 4 years old I asked his school back in Scotland if he could have an extra year in nursery. The boy could not sit still and was in my eyes far from ready to do any form of academic learning. Normal right, for a 4-year old child? “No” was the clear answer I got, “His birthday is in December, so he will be going to Primary 1. He has no clear developmental reasons to be kept behind.” Behind. An interesting word.
Sitting still age 4
So off he went to Primary 1, this tiny active playful boy age 4.5. Two months later we received a letter from his teacher. “We are informing you that we are having to give your son additional support, because he has difficulty focusing on forming and recognising letters. “Well yes, I know”, I thought. “I told you so. He is 4.” But hey, the train had left and we were on it. The system required he should do a certain trick by a certain date and he was falling ‘behind’. He continued to refuse any form of homework for the rest of Primary 1. Still he now reads chapter books like the rest of them.
Seeing a child for who he is
Fast forward three years and we are in Spain. Was it the added anxiety of moving that made him struggle so much? Maybe. Is my child less intelligent than the others? Well, no. His teacher said two things: “It is the language, yes,…but it is also his maturity. He is very young. And he wants to play.” When she said those things, it all fell into place. Although hearing that your child is not doing well in school is hard on a mother, somebody finally just seeing your child for who he is, feels like a relief. Somebody recognised that our son was perhaps in the wrong year all along. Pushed ahead because of a silly birth date. “He could go to the next year, yes, he could do it with extra support”, she said, “But why? It will be much better for him to stay where he is, be a little bit older, feel more confident and have more time to adapt.” The train had stopped. Thank you, teacher.
La vida no es una carrera
My son is happy with the idea of repeating thankfully, which is one headache less. When I told the news to the parents in his class however, I received mixed reactions. There were the high achieving parents:”Really? Por que? It is not needed. You should get a second opinion! With extra support he can do it!”. Then there was the majority:”That sounds like a very wise idea, he will be totally OK. And his friends will still be here in the playground.” And then there were quite a few mothers who actually admitted to me that they too felt stressed about school, how their children were hurried along and how they felt the peer pressure.”La vida no es una carrera” (life is not a race), I had written in my message to the class mums, and it obviously made them stop, think and breathe.
Resilience and memories
Life is not a race. Why do we get upset when our child gets the advice to repeat the year? Because we take it personally. Our own ego is playing up. We judge ourself as a parent. We should have done more, we have failed. Our child is lost. Not as good as the rest. What will become of him? Nonsense, of course. But that’s how it feels.
Would he have had the same advice in Scotland? Probably not. Repeating is seen as a bit old fashioned and not usually done nowadays. Still, if it works, it works, time will tell. And what if our children have their own path in life? Something we as parents cannot micro manage? Perhaps it was needed to have this tricky first year in Spain. Maybe it has made my son more resilient, teaching him valuable life skills already, way beyond any academic learning. And maybe it was meant for someone to step in and slow down my son’s childhood. To give him that extra year of being small. To stop the anxiety and feel calmer. Him and me. After all, childhood is precious and memories last. We just have to love them and walk beside them.
Learning happens all the time
How often do you still recall something from your childhood? Those short years have such a big influence on the rest of our lives. What are the best memories you have? I bet a lot of those memories are to do with freedom. Being with other children, running outside, going swimming, camping in the woods, making up stories, building dens, playing hide and seek, just simply having fun and being a kid. Very little adult intervention. School yes, it was there, but for me it certainly wasn’t something I now see as the most important aspect of my early childhood or how it shaped me. And this is how it should be. Learning happens all the time, everywhere. School has its place, but childhood is so much more. Let’s not let that precious time rush by. It goes quick enough anyway. We shall see what September brings. Summer first.
Do you want to lower your energy bill too? I live in Spain so you would think that all energy comes straight from the sun, but no. Unfortunately the big energy companies still have a monopoly on supplying everybody with electricity through fossil fuels, which means the monthly bill is not as low as we’d like it to be, never mind the impact on the environment. Only about 14% of energy in Spain comes from different renewable energy sources. Sun, we have so much sun here, imagine how much energy we could generate! Anyway, while I am waiting for a renewables revolution and the tides to turn (excuse the pun), here are some ways to lower your energy bill right now.
Turn off the standby button
I am terrible at this, leaving my laptop on standby, leaving mobile phone chargers dangling from sockets and keeping the coffee machine on all morning. Do you also leave your laptop or TV on standby when you’re done with it? Switch off all electricity. Always. A lot of power is lost by devices that are not being used, but are secretly still on.
Use a multi-point extension lead to lower your energy bill
Use a multi point extension lead for several devices at the same time. Devices with an adapter or transformer also consume a lot of energy when they are off or in standby mode. If you have them in an extension box, then you can operate multiple devices at the same time with one button and you will noticeably combat sneaky energy consumption.
Air your home: good for health and wallet
Opening windows and airing your rooms: not only good for your health, but also for your wallet so you can lower your energy bill. Ventilate your apartment or house well: fresh, dry air is easier to heat than moist air.
Turn the heating down a notch
Turn your heating down one notch. Or two. Does that really matter? It certainly does! Every notch means a reduction of 7% on your final bill. Always feeling cold? Buy a nice warm cardigan for at home, some matching furry slippers. The lower energy bill at the end of the month will make you glow inside.
Fill your fridge to lower your energy bill
Another thing that you probably didn’t know yet: a full fridge costs less energy to cool than an empty one. Make sure the fridge is full in order to lower your energy bill. If necessary, place empty bottles filled with water to fill the refrigerator. Handy to have spare bottles of cool water in summer and your refrigerator will use less energy.
Remove the ice layer in the freezer
In so many homes, the freezer doesn’t get cleaned regularly and soon a thick layer of ice appears around the drawers and the edges. Better be careful! For every 2 mm ice layer, the energy consumption of the freezer increases by 10%. It is worth defrosting it every once in a while.
Swap all your old light bulbs for energy saving ones
Most of you have probably done this already over the years, but you may find some old fashioned energy gobbling bulb sitting in a bedside table lamp. It may be an investment, but it is worth exchanging all bulbs in the long run. Energy-saving lamps require 6 times less electricity and last 10 times as long.
If you really want to lower your energy bill, maybe it is time to review your supplier. You can make the biggest financial savings by choosing the right energy company. Therefore, check whether you have a contract that suits you, your house and your usage. Make sure that you get a well-arranged bill, so that you have a better insight into what most of your energy is spent on.
Do you enjoy traveling solo? I have just spent two weeks in and around Singapore this month. Never been to South-east Asia before, plus I hadn’t traveled solo for longer than a few days, for many, many years. I was so excited! No kids, alone, peace and quiet. Adventure! What a gift. Off I went, to the other side of the world. It was amazing, but I also learnt a thing or two about myself. Things just ain’t the same, two kids later at the age of 40.
I backpacked solo around Latin America in 2002 for three months, at the tender age of 23. Just graduated from university I had been working hard to save money for the big trip. I booked my flights, organised my first hostel, found a Spanish school in Quito to brush up on the much needed lingo. And then I went. Ten days later I ended up with a drip in my arm in hospital in Ecuador, after contracting an e.coli infection, probably by drinking a smoothie made with tap water. Not a great start. Good god, was I ill. My mother was worried sick and suggested I’d come home. No way! I was young, free and fearless and after four days in hospital and being discharged with a large pack of antibiotics in my pocket, I continued my journey. Got sick, now I’m better. I felt immortal! But I understand my mother, now I have children of my own.
I ended up having three unforgettable months, teaching me common sense, resilience, resourcefulness and flexibility. The experiences, the sights, the people, the smells, the colours, the tastes, everything was incredibly intense. Those three months have had a huge impact on my life and gave me lasting memories. I never felt so free, alive and strong as back then. If you’ve been in my shoes, you know the feeling.
Hair pin roads and views to die for
Looking back, some memories now make me both shiver with fear and smile with delight. Being on a tight budget, I often traveled through the night for 12 hours on very old buses in Peru and Bolivia. Buses full of locals in their colourful attire, preaching evangelists and sometimes a chicken. Picture narrow bumpy hair pin roads through the Andes mountains, a struggling engine and steep drops. Some wrecks of cars down below in the ravine. No toilet on board. Brief stops on the way where you could quickly pee in a dirty makeshift toilet with a bucket to flush. I felt like a true explorer, a cool solo female traveler, a tough cookie who dealt with it all. I would share dormitories with fellow backpackers, heard the craziest stories, smoked pot once at high altitude, saw landscapes that were out of this world. Absolute freedom and no responsibilities.
The thought of traveling on my own seventeen years later filled me with excitement to say the least. OK, I wasn’t going for three months nor was I going to be backpacking on a tight budget, but hey, I was going VERY. FAR. AWAY. Alone. Without kids. 12 hours on a plane? Whoah! Films, books, glass of wine. Peace. Couldn’t wait.
A good friend of mine was living in Singapore for a few years and I decided to take the opportunity to visit her, before she would move back to Europe. I knew it wasn’t going to be quite the same as backpacking in Bolivia, but maybe I could just get a tiny bit of that ‘cool female explorer’ freedom sensation back. Or could I?
Being in Singapore is comfortable, modern and safe (oh, and a bit pricey). Staying at my friend’s house of course was also rather nice. Seeing a new city, country and culture is fabulous and Singapore is such a melting pot of skyscrapers and colourful neighbourshoods. But don’t you think everything is more intense when you are in your early twenties and experience it all for the first time? I had a fantastic holiday, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Still, I kept looking for that same thrill I felt at 23, but it was hard to find.
from host to hostel
After a week of Singapore city life and catching up with my friend, I decided to go somewhere else for a few days, truly traveling solo. I took the ferry to nearby Indonesian island Bintan. Indonesia, that surely would be different! And yes, it was indeed, even though it was only a stone throw’s away from Singapore. Whereas nobody even looks at you in Singapore, you get stared at, called and approached as soon as you set foot on the shores of Bintan. I had booked a hostel and luckily got picked up by one of the hostel owners so didn’t have to make my own way. The hostel looked very nice online. It was cheap and basic, but the pictures looked idyllic in a very laid-back, surf shack kind of way and it had very good reviews. I was hoping to meet fellow travelers, hang out with them in the evening, visit some places on the island. Just like the good ol’ days.
It was funny. As soon as I sat in that taxi, no airconditioning and a driver who didn’t really take the traffic rules very seriously (were there any?), I felt nervous. What was I doing here? Wooden huts and jungle lined the road, poverty all around. Scooters and mopeds like flies crossing and passing. The heat was suffocating. I told myself to get a grip and relax. After all, I wanted a bit of adventure and real experiences, right? I was looking forward arriving at the hostel, with its palm trees and lovely terrace, chat to some people and make the most of my time on the island.
Breakfast and ants included
Then the taxi slowed down and turned left into a dirt road. Wait, what? The hostel was right there, I could see it, but it didn’t quite look like the pictures. We got out and the hostel guy guided me into the reception area. Well, let’s call it the front room of a wooden shed. It was like a sauna. There was a water tank, a kettle and a bread bin with a few white slices in it “for breakfast”. There were ants marching across the table. Did I mention it was hot? There was a shared bathroom, with no actual shower nor a bath. There was one toilet that had to be flushed with a cup of water. I got shown the one dormitory in the hostel, with six bunks and noticed only one bed was taken. But she was out for the day. It was 2pm. There was nobody there but me and the hostel guy. “It was low season.”
heat and panic
I panicked. Sitting down on my bunk bed I frantically started to think. I was going to faint. What if I fainted? Was there a hospital? Would I get rescued? What if I got sick. I got sick before in a hot place like this. Could I get dengue fever? I was on my period. How would I wash? I could see a stripe of daylight in the wall of the dormitory. Were there cockroaches here? There must be cockroaches. Only one guest? What would I do? Was this hostel safe? Where would I eat? What would I eat? I am so hot. I can’t breathe. My heart was racing. I needed to calm down. What if I die? I have two kids. I want to go home. What was I thinking? I started crying. I’m 40 years of age, I have responsibilities. I can’t stay here. I need to stay alive. Am I being silly? I probably am, but I hate this place.
“It’s not you – it’s me”
Unlike in 2002, even this basic hostel had wi-fi. Thank god for wi-fi. I decided I wasn’t going to stay in that hostel. I felt like a cheat and a wimp but I needed to get myself to somewhere more comfortable. “Throw some money at the problem” my husband used to say, whenever you would find yourself in a situation that needed solved immediately. He hadn’t liked the idea of me traveling solo to this island and hostel in the first place. I swallowed my pride, found a resort 3 miles up the road and booked myself a room. The hostel guy was so apologetic and scared I would give him bad reviews, but I just told him it wasn’t him – it was me. “Oh my boy, I am naive, I am 40, I thought I could still do this but I can’t, I have changed. I have lost it.” was how I felt. Instead I said:”I need a shower and there is no shower.”
The resort was bliss. I felt like a spoiled lady of leasure. Slightly ashamed but so happy. A fabulous clean private room with a fan and working airconditioning. A view over the tropical white sandy beach, waving palm trees and blue waters. This was more like it. Just wow. I opened the mini bar, took out a cold Tiger beer and scoffed the two bags of complimentary crisps out of pure relief. Bloomin’ heck. Thank god for that. I might not be that adventurous explorer anymore, but you know what, that is OK. Been there, done that. Got the pictures. Got the stories. I’m still traveling solo, alright – just in a bit more comfort. Tomorrow I go snorkeling.
Eco-friendly shopping and bringing less plastic home, that has been a hot topic for a while. It is not always easy to be very consistent in this, even if you are quite fanatic. Many things are in plastic packaging and before you know it your entire trash bin is full of plastic foil and other non recyclable waste. You probably already recycle your glassware, paper and plastic bottles. However, you can do much more to contribute to the environment, if you do a bit of prep at home. What can you do to reduce your weekly plastic waste?
1. Avoid spontaneous shopping & bring reusable containers and bags
Spontaneous grocery shopping is disastrous for taking home more plastic waste. You probably don’t have a bag with you, so buy yet another € 0.05 plastic carrier bag. And if you normally bring reusable containers, pots and mesh bags with you for bulk items, chances are you don’t have those with you either . So keep random shopping to a minimum and prepare your eco-friendly shopping by making a list of what you need and bringing your own packaging as much as possible.
takeaways in tupperware
In health food shops and on the market, and increasingly also in regular supermarkets, you can simply take your own bags and containers to put in fruit and vegetables, flour, pasta, rice, muesli, spices or tea. Even if you go to a restaurant for a takeaway, you can consider bringing your own lockable tupperware instead of bringing your meal home in single use plastic or foam boxes. Because don’t you just hate throwing all this waste in the bin afterwards?. Maybe you feel a bit embarrassed or self conscious in the beginning, but you’ll be surprised how many compliments you get. And you can at least be proud of yourself! It’s a snowball effect. You’re bound to give someone else the same idea.
If you have an eco-supermarket or health food store in your area, it is fairly normal to buy in bulk. Large jars with pasta and rice where you can scoop out your desired amount, or large bottles or barrels from which you can drain your olive oil or detergent. If you have no possibility in your local area to buy from bulk bins, you can also try to buy large quantities of the product instead, which reduces the ratio between packaging and product. Don’t need that much? Go shopping with a friend and share the costs!
3. Eco-friendly shopping: buy fewer ingredients
You can do many different things with certain ingredients. Bicarbonate of soda for example. Very cheap and a panacea when it comes to cleaning, removing stains, unblocking the sink and of course you use it for baking powder in bread and cakes. Apparently bicarbonate of soda is even effective as a deodorant, just by making it into a paste with a bit of water and putting a little under your armpits (not tried it myself, so don’t shoot the messenger!). With a big bottle of tomato passata you can also go very many ways: soup, pasta sauce, as a basis for chili con carne, etc. You can probably think of many more simple, daily ingredients that you can use for multiple things, which means you throw away less. If you do not want waste, buy fewer items. Also good for your wallet.
4. Limit your disposable items in the kitchen
Kitchen paper and plastic film are standard items in most kitchens. Used for mopping spills up quickly, wiping the counter or the dining table and covering your food before you put it back in the fridge. Alternatives? Replace kitchen paper with your old cotton T-shirts cut up into rags, after which you wash them at high temperatures. Regarding plastic wrap, you can also simply use a plate to cover a bowl. If you want something to pack a sandwich for lunch or keep veggies fresh, consider beeswax cloths as an alternative. These wraps are coated in beeswax and are therefore easily foldable for packaging food. You can clean them with cold water and a little mild soap. Find them in the eco shops or make them yourself.
5. Recycle as a last resort
When plastics are recycled, they are actually down cycled, meaning that even if reincarnated as toothbrushes, shopping bags or more plastic bottles, the plastic ends up in landfill at some point. This is in contrast to glass or metal, which can be recycled over and over again without loss of quality. It is therefore better to immediately make positive and proactive choices when you go eco-friendly shopping and to refuse the waste directly in the store.