Once I had arrived in Holland, not only did I gain an obscene amount of weight from eating white bread, butter and hagelslag (chocolate sprinkles) multiple times a day, I also gained a lot of frustration not being able to communicate.
As a teen, I was quiet, but could be very animated and had a lot of fun being silly, and making people smile. Talking with people was also a way for me to get free therapy, to vent, be heard. As soon as I arrived in Holland, all of that stopped.
You’re probably thinking: but don’t most people in Holland speak English? And to that I say: don’t most people in Canada speak French? The answer is no. In fact, the further north you go in Holland, the less English is spoken, and Dutch branches out into its more of its own dialects, and other languages (hello, Friesian!)
I tried my very best to listen and learn everywhere I went; I loved learning French as a child and teen, and while I was not amazing at it, suddenly it all came flooding back any time I would try to utter a Dutch word. Which made me even more frustrated. Why wasn’t I getting it?!
Sometimes it did make for some great laughs: I recall going to a restaurant one evening, and I was reading the dessert menu following a delicious dinner. I was told what was on the menu and I said, ooh that sounds great! (I chose strawberries and ice cream). I thought I would put my developing language skills to the test by reading said menu selection out loud.
Instantly, the ENTIRE restaurant burst out laughing. All I could do was look shocked – why was everyone laughing, and dammit, why was everyone laughing?
I looked at the waiter, tears streaming down his face. His cheeks were bright red. The company I was dining with were this close to pissing themselves; they were laughing so hard they could barely catch a breath. It reminded me of Will Smith in the Fresh Prince of Bel Air – when something was funny, he’d take in this monstrous breath, pause for effect, and then push out a laugh so forceful, you knew it was funny.
So now I have realized I said something funny, but everyone was laughing so much that they couldn’t even compose themselves to tell me. Finally, one friend turned to me and said: You just ordered “Haemorrhoids and Ice Cream”. Note to self: strawberries in Dutch (aardbeien) is eerily close to haemorrhoids in Dutch (aambeien). Mistakes were made, laughs were had, and now we definitely know the difference on how to pronounce the two.
So now I have realized I said something funny, but everyone was laughing so much that they couldn’t even compose themselves to tell me. Finally, one friend turned to me and said: You just ordered “Haemorrhoids and Ice Cream”.
The Simpsons as a Teaching Resource
I began drawing with pencils and pens that were lying around, and lost myself in creating art. I also would watch Dutch game shows to learn new words, and found myself viewing The Bold and the Beautiful as well as The Simpsons – because they had subtitles. Slowly but surely, I was starting to understand what was being said, but still had difficulty saying things back.
Overtime, I was given the opportunity to learn Dutch at a language school. I caught on so quickly that I decided that year I was going to do something with my life. What to study when in a foreign country ? The safe bet was “anything in English” and since I was great with kids, I decided that the combined aforementioned qualities would serve me well as an English Teacher.
However, the classes weren’t all in English – part of becoming a teacher requires a degree of psychology, as well as other classes – and they were all taught in Dutch. I had only been in the country for 1 year and I was already taking exams in psychology – in Dutch. Oh, if teenage me could have looked into the future; back then I was obsessed with getting high marks and studied for fun; all I wanted to do now was pass, and that meant I needed a 55%. I think I got a 58%. I was never happier with a mark, let me tell you!
FUN FACT: Most of my studies required me to think and work as though I was from England. All of my exams that required phonetic translations were all executed in proper British English. Thankfully I did not get my knickers in a twist, jolly good!
In my 2nd year of school, I went to Amsterdam one Saturday night. Walking sheepishly into a bar, I instantly laid eyes on a bar tender, and that was it. I was done for. And that is the story of how I met my husband, Dennis. Eventually, I moved in with him and I began working as a nanny alongside my studies.
This is where art came back into my life. One of the families I cared for was pivotal in encouraging me to invent toys or write books for children. I would spew out ideas by the handful. They convinced me to make drawings of them. I made them look quite professional, too, even placing them on pretty black backboard. And voila! I had created a portfolio of unique toys, children’s gear, and more, which no one ever really saw. However, the mother was – and remained – such a cheerleader. She helped me not only feed my neurotic imagination, she pushed me outside of my comfort zone.
But I had a degree in Education, not in creating and developing toys or books for children. And so, when my husband came back to Canada with me in 2007, I began working as a teacher for ESL adults students.
“Present, Ms Straatsma …”
Teaching adults is a lot more fun than teaching high-school students, by the way (my degree was for High School English, so teaching adults was a treat after some, erm, interesting experiences teaching briefly in Amsterdam). The students wanted to be there, and that really encouraged me, too. I became good friends with many of my students and in turn, they taught me a lot, as well. Many of them had fled to Canada for refuge. Doctors and engineers, now fighting to keep a roof over their heads by delivering pizzas all night, coming into class with bags under their eyes. Of course, all I saw at first was the unfinished homework and it wasn’t until we got to talking that I began to see how difficult life was – and still was – for so many of them.
Eventually I became pregnant with my firstborn, Sam, and a few years later with Norah. When I was pregnant with Norah I was put on bedrest and needed to quit my teaching job, though I was assured there would always be a place for me.
My husband had his own business at the time, and being stuck at home actually proved as a great way to help him out, and his business began to flourish. Norah was born, and life was amazing.
Just When Things Were Going Great
And then, when Norah was 6 months old, she and I were rear-ended while stopped at a red light. I looked in my rear-view mirror and could see the truck coming – and it wasn’t stopping. I tensed up my body and put my foot on the brake so I wouldn’t ram into the car in front of me, and prayed that Norah would be ok.
I remember the sound, and that my brain felt like it was floating back and forth multiple times. It didn’t hurt, but it was an odd sensation. Initially things seemed fine at first, but then they weren’t. The next day I could not move at all. For almost 2 years, I could barely care for myself, let alone our kids. Norah was fine by the way! Not a scratch!) Dennis had to now care for me, both kids, himself and somehow run the business that were were now effectively running 50/50. With me out, it became overwhelming and the business suffered, meaning our finances did, too.
After a few years, the mental injuries began to surface. What I thought was just a physical injury (whiplash etc) now turned into memory loss, aphasia, and depression, to name a few things. I was a potato, sitting on the couch all day, unable to move, in incredible chronic pain. Some days I would think: I can get a few groceries – it will be fine. The task of doing just that would have me out for a good week, both mentally and physically. I would cry – how could this be my life? It was a constant cycle of wanting to move forward, but every step ahead only seemed to set me back further.
One day, I made a homemade card for a friend. It was her son’s 1st birthday; I knew how much she appreciated cards, even more than presents. I shared a photo of the card on Facebook – it was nothing special – but it created a spark within me. I began to play around with some computer programs I had bought to learn photography (when my eyes could handle it – vertigo was a close friend of mine those days, too). But instead of photography, I was now editing and creating art.
I would draw or paint something, then load it into a program, changing colours, fixing things. It was literally just being creative and I taught myself how to use it by just playing around.
After a while, I had accumulated a collection of art, so I decided to open an Etsy store. And the rest, as they say, is history. That was in 2015. My business has grown but has also dealt with the ebbs and flows of life. Seeing my art in stores around the world has been a dream come true – the first time, I was shaking so hard I could barely breathe. My mouth became so dry, and I asked a lady if she could take a photo of me holding it.
This is just the beginning – luckily my creative passion has remained, any setbacks have not deterred me – in fact, they keep pushing me forward. What the future will bring – no one knows – but I am grateful to have you come along for the journey.