Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Inburgering update, but here's what happened

This was written almost a month ago right after my exams...just posting it now. Hopefully I corrected any strange time references. Still awaiting the results of the integration exams. What I took is the Staatsexam I, which counts for my Inburgerings requirement to be allowed to stay here. I just automatically say 'integration' to all my American friends and family so they know what the heck I'm talking about. It takes 6 weeks (!) to get the results by mail, but you can also check the internet at 5 weeks. This is week 5. I've been checking way too many times a day every day, but no results yet.

Here's the details of the days themselves: I was scheduled to begin at 10am on April 14. Another girl from my classes was taking the same exams on the same days and her husband was already planning on driving her. They graciously let me tag along. She's Russian and a translator by trade (English/Russian), but we spoke Dutch to each other the whole way there to try to get into the right mindset.

The exams were held at the offices of the IB group in Zwolle, only a couple blocks away from IND, the immigration offices. It's right across from the train station and had I taken the train, I could have gotten reimbursement for the ticket. We got there a half hour early on the first day and found our way to the waiting room. The same group does the basic Inburgering exams, so the room was quite full, with people being called out for testing at regular intervals.

Our group was finally called and we headed for testing. There were about 15 people in our group. I had expected far more, picturing a huge room filled with rows of desks. Instead, we headed into a small room that had desks along the long walls with small mini-walls between desks for privacy.

After finding our assigned place, having our ID and our dictionaries checked (you could bring up to 3), we began with Lezen, or Reading. We were given booklets with 8 text passages in it and in front of us we had a computer with the questions and answers. It was straightforward multiple choice questions based on the text. Almost all of the questions involved a simple search of the text for specific information as opposed to asking for an overall understanding of the material. I only used my dictionary once or twice to make sure that a few odd words were what I thought they were. The reading exam lasted 110 minutes.

We got an hour break for lunch, which we spent in a nearby cafe that we had discovered while initially walking along the street the wrong way when trying to find the right building. After lunch, we had to do what we both considered the hardest task - Spreken, or Speaking. We put on headsets with attached microphones and again received a booklet, this time with short blurbs and drawings. For each question, you heard (and could read along in the booklet) about a situation and what you needed to say out loud in regards to it. Sometimes there was a drawing that gave more information that you needed to incorporate in your answer. The first section involved very short answers, just a few words or a short sentence. The second section involved longer answers of 3 or 4 sentences. For this exam, the playback started at the same time for everyone, so everyone heard everything at the same time and all had the same start and stop beeps for speaking. I was a bit worried at first because I would say my bit and stop speaking, but I could still hear everyone around me speaking. It seemed like perhaps my answers were too short, but I reminded myself that the more you try to say, the more chances you have to mess up and stopped worrying about it. Luckily, the speaking exam only lasted 30 minutes.

After the speaking exam, we headed back home. This time her husband (who had gone all the way back after dropping us off) arrived with their dog and a friend in the car, so I got to have a boxer half-sprawled on me the whole way home. I took it in stride up until we were a couple of blocks from my house and the dog turned to look at me and sneezed directly on the side of my face. There was a smattering of droplets all over the inside of the car window, except for the outline where my head was. BLECH. At least we got home around 3:30 in the afternoon, so I got some extra relaxation time off work.

The next day, we headed out at the same time, but traffic was actually a lot lighter and we got there an hour early. We decided to walk around because surely there would be a cafe nearby since the Dutch so love their coffee and tea. (We knew the cafe we had lunched at wasn't open yet.) Surprisingly, there were absolutely no other cafes nearby, so we just kept walking the neighborhood until it was closer to exam time.

This time we started out with Luisteren, or Listening. All the passages to listen to were based on interviews. We heard a piece of the dialogue and then had to answer a multiple choice question based on it. This was actually easier than we had done in our practice exams where we'd hear some Dutch and have to answer 2 or 3 questions over it. There were 5 interviews with around 7-8 questions per interview. Like the reading exam, the questions and answers for this were on the computer and you could go back or read ahead at will. We also received a piece of scratch paper in case we wanted to jot anything down during listening. I think listening lasted 90 minutes, though we got two small breaks during the exam (couldn't leave the room, just get up and stretch).

After a lunch break, we came back and did Schrijven, or Writing. This one lasted 120 minutes and I needed all of it. The first section consisted of small writing assignments, like finishing off a sentence or describing something in a drawing. The more important aspects to get correct were using the right verb tense and putting the parts of the sentence in the right place. I used the dictionary a couple times for this one, to look up irregular verb tenses or whether a word used 'de' or 'het' (the Dutch equivalent of 'the', there are very few rules as to which words take which, you mostly just have to memorize them!). The second section had 3 larger writing assignments. I tried dividing out my time but still ended up scribbling madly at the very last minutes for both sections.

When time was up, we headed home, minus the dog, and I am still reveling in the fact that I no longer have class 3 nights a week for 3 hours each night. We did head back the next week to tell the class about our experience and let them ask questions.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Quick exam update

I am writing up longer entries about my experience taking the Staatsexams and my driving exam, but here's the lowdown:

In two more weeks, I can check the internet for my Staatsexam results. In 3 weeks, I'll get snailmail. I am sure I passed all 4 sections.

I took my practical driving exam almost two weeks ago and passed! It wasn't as hard as I had expected. Unfortunately, my high only lasted a couple of hours until I went to city hall to apply for the actual physical license. A mixup between the city and Immigration caused a good 24 hours of stress, but it was all resolved and I can pick up my license this Thursday.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I will be assimilated...

After a month of waiting, I've finally found out through the school when my integration exam is scheduled for: April 14th and 15th. I'll receive the official letter next week, as in only two weeks before the exam itself. Apparently they don't think that people need more warning to ask for time off of work.

This isn't for citizenship, this is Inburgering (integration). This is the exam you are required to take within 5 years of arriving in order to be allowed to stay. I'm taking a higher level version, the Staatsexam I, because I like to make life hard for myself. Ok, this time that's not true. It's because then I don't have a 'culture' section to be tested on, just the language. I know several Dutch people who did the online practice tests for the culture section and failed miserably. Just as I imagine most Americans would fail our naturalization test. After I pass all the sections for this exam, I receive a diploma that is supposed to be the equivalent of a high school student's language skills.

One reason to do the higher level is because it's required to be able to do certain things in regards to working, such as taking training classes. Ultimately I'd like to take the even higher level, Staatsexam II, so I can have a nifty piece of paper to waive at any future employers or the University, should I feel like taking some classes. It would have made much more sense to start out working on the Staatsexam II, but for some reason, the city doesn't pay for the exam or classes in that case, just for the level I. Cuz you know, they wouldn't want you to learn that much Dutch.

The exam takes place over two days, as there are 4 parts, each 2 hours long and they think that 8 hours of foreign language exams (plus breaks, etc.) is a bit much. I agree. However, that means that I will have to travel back and forth each day to whatever city it ends up being in. The closest on the list is a bit over an hour away. Since I really don't want to drive so far away to a strange town without an official license, I will likely be taking the train. There's a Russian girl in my class who will be taking it the same days, so likely we'll travel together.

The four sections are reading comprehension, writing, listening, and speaking. Being a very visual learner, I have no problems with the reading and writing. The listening isn't too bad either. My biggest problem (every day) is with the speaking. Dutch word order is yoda-esque in that, aside from the simplest sentences, most of the verbs end up at the end of the sentence. I'm pretty bad at starting to speak and just going through translating word for word, in which case my verbs are always horribly misplaced. There's just something about someone staring at me waiting for an answer that makes me just blunder ahead instead of stopping and assembling the whole thing in my head before speaking.
I don't anticipate any problems. We've practiced in class with exams from past years and I've passed them all. In fact they seemed a bit too easy for what I keep being told is a 'higher level' exam.

Should I pass, I'll be pressed to participate in two Dutch traditions. One, notify everyone Dutch style, which means treating everyone to cake, pie, or vlaai (that pie-esque concoction deserves its own post later). Two, were I a kid who just passed the exam to exit high school, I'd also hang a backpack, books, and other school supplies out the upstairs window, or from our flagpole, if we had one. The latter, I could probably get out of, but I'm sure the former will have to happen. The next few weeks will be chock full of practice and review, then I can be free of 3 evenings of classes a week. Huzzah for having my time back.

5 months of cuteness

We had to take Devin in to get passport photos for his upcoming excursion to Amsterdam to get an American passport and decided we might as well get some extras for us. He looks so big, but in reality, he can't even sit up by himself (my hands are under his sweater, holding him upright).

Friday, March 13, 2009

Driving, part II: Theory, or in Dutch, Theorie

So remember how I mentioned that I like to make things harder on myself than they have to be sometimes? Case in point: I chose to take my driving theory exam in Dutch.

The exam is available in English, but you have to take it in a town about 2 hours away from here and it's only offered a couple of times a year. And the books cost about twice as much. Those reasons and the fact that I did know some Dutch, having lived here for 2 years at that point helped me to conveniently forget that easy is not always a bad thing. What I also conveniently forgot is that each new venture that I undertake in the Dutch language has its own set of vocabulary that I haven't tended to come across yet, making my learning curve steep every time.

Working at an all-Dutch company? Hello university level sentence structure, business jargon and technical documents - in Dutch!

Starting my Dutch language classes? Hello Dutch names for all the parts involved in grammar and words involved in a classroom setting that you never hear at home! And all the grammar words tend to be longer words I've found. Dutch for 'noun': zelfstandig naamwoord.

So it went for studying the Dutch rules of the road. I started with a book loaned by the driving instructor, with the intention of keeping track of unknown words in Excel, like I did for work. I quickly realized that would be quite unhandy since I wasn't always studying at the computer and I added things too often to have it worth printing out. I went to the local bookstore and ordered a copy and after that, just wrote directly in the book.

It was excruciatingly slow at first. I didn't have a really good Dutch-to-English dictionary at that time and I had to ask T constantly what words meant then scribble them in the margins of the book. Sure, I knew what an 'auto' was, but they used 'motorvoertuig' (motor vehicle) instead. A lot of words to get used to. I diligently studied my way through a book that was at least 10 times as thick as I had used in the US.

One section that amused me greatly concerned how to behave around certain other groups of people on/near the road. It contained such gems as letting me know that kids playing on the sidewalk can make unpredictable movements. And did you know that you have to allow extra crossing time for old people because...they might be slow?? Seriously, an entire chapter.

The book came with a CD of practice exams and here's where my experience really changed. I in no way expected the exam to be paper and pencil. I expected to be sitting at a computer to take a multiple choice exam. Yeah, not so much. You sit in a room with about 50 other people, all at desks arranged into long rows. The desk has a small keypad sunk into it, partially shielded. The keypad has 0-9, A-C, and Ja/Nee (yes/no) and some key to cancel your answer (I forget what it was). There are several hanging TVs throughout the room. The exam appears on the TVs and everyone has the same time limit to answer each question as it comes up. That time limit is 8 seconds.

Each question is a scenario, a photo of a car in a certain situation or in some cases, as if you are looking out from behind the wheel. You read the question and possible answers and give your answer based on what you see in the photo. In 8 seconds. In Dutch. So you aren't just asked 'What's the speed limit outside the city?' No, the question is 'What is the speed limit here?' while you are shown a car and have to determine by road signs, etc., whether it is inside or outside of the city. For the scenarios where you appear to be behind the wheel of the car, you also have to take into consideration such things as what appears on the speedometer of your dashboard. No skipping and going back to a question later. No time to sit and ponder.

The first couple of times I tried to practice at my computer, I failed miserably. You are allowed to miss 6 questions out of 50. Almost every question I missed was because I didn't understand the question correctly. There would be one word or phrase that I didn't know that altered the meaning for me. I began to get panicky about the exam, which I had already signed up for. Luckily T pointed out that likely a lot of the questions would be similar, so the more exams I did and review of the book, the easier it would be. Luckily, this was also true.

After much stress and tears of frustration (thanks, pregnancy hormones!), I passed the exam with 46 out of 50 on the first try. I received not a learner's permit (they don't have those here), but a document saying I passed that is valid for one year from the test date. Assuming I pass my practical exam in April, I take both documents to city hall and trade them in for Dutch drivers license.

Part III, differences in driving here vs. the US to follow...

Oh the lols we'll have...

The word 'lol' existed in Dutch long before the internet.

What does it mean? 'Fun'.

Prophetic, no?

Here, have some lol:

Now I'm terribly curious what exactly a 'swedish dance band' sounds like. Which reminds me: I intend to get together some links of 'traditional' Dutch music to bleed your eardrums with. In the meantime, think 'beer barrel polka' and you're almost there.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

This is what I see every morning:

Every morning I wake up to adorable smiling baby. It's like he's just so darn happy to see me, so happy to start a new, exciting day. It's easy to get bogged down in everyday life and I'm trying to remind myself everytime I see this that I too can have a new, exciting day.

Driving Miss Me, part I

I don't have a Dutch driving license, but I'm working on it. Technically, I already drive all the time. If I got into an accident, I wouldn't get in trouble for not having a license. I would, however, not be insured. My American passport served as my license for the first 6 months. Unfortunately, it took at least that long before I even wanted to try to drive here. I was just sure that I would forgot one tiny rule difference and get into an accident.

It's been 20 years since I took my driving test in the US. I'm going through it all again now, Dutch style. Maybe it's different now also in the US, but for me, this has been a difficult 'adventure'.

In the US, the theory part consisted of walking in to the DMV, standing in the insanely long line, receiving a paper packet and sitting in an area with desk cubbies to fill out my exam. I then dutifully turned it in, got scored and received my learner's permit. With that, I could drive for a year as long as I was with a licensed driver. When it came time to take my practical exam, my mom and I took the parental car to the next town over, as our own town was notorious for having a very hard exam. You had to parallel park and everything! Oh the horror at the idea of having to actually be competent! Instead I took an exam that consisted of driving about 4 blocks in a big square. I got in trouble for not slowing down enough at crossings where I had the right of way, but that was the only glitch. I'm not quite sure what was up with that choice of exam, since generally I'm a person who challenges themselves, who got involved in plenty of stuff when I was younger that makes me now think, "WHY did I put myself through that and do it the hard way??"

Either I've wimped out in my old age or the omnipresent difficulty of living in a foreign land has put me in a mindset where I want things to be generally easy. Cue Dutch Driving Instruction twirling its villainous mustache at me while cackling.

The Dutch driving age is 18. You can drive a scooter at 16 and they're pretty popular here among the high school crowd. And much, much safer than driving one in the US. The drinking age here begins at 16 for beer and wine. I rather like the idea that kids can get used to being drunk before they can use a car. Crashing a bike while drunk is not nearly as problematic. And very common, according to T. At least now I know to look forward to it with the kids (sigh).
Driving schools. Multiple. In my hometown, there was just one. Granted we were a rather small town, so the school had a definite monopoly. Here, as long as you are certified and do continuing education and have the correctly outfitted car, anyone can do it. We didn't go with the recommendation of a cousin and picked one based on website.

If you've never driven, you're better off buying one of the complete packets offered by driving schools. These run around 2k, but are intended to give a completely new driver as many lessons as it takes to be competent enough to pass the test. This also includes the exam fee, which is around 200 euros. After my first lesson, they confirmed that I could indeed drive just fine and that I only needed some 'loose' lessons to make sure I could pass the test, knew all the specific Dutch signs, etc. I think I drove a total of two weeks or somesuch in high school. We had 3 students and the instructor in the car. Each person would drive a bit, then switch. You were expected to get the most practice driving with other people using the learner's permit. Not so here. You aren't allowed to drive except with a driving instructor, in their car. They are all clearly marked with a big L on top of the car and outfitted with extra pedals and mirrors and whatnot for the instructor. When you take your exam, you will use their car and they will ride along with you, presumably to know what to fix if you fail.

Not knowing how things really work and having gotten a lot of instruction from T, I just signed up with a driving school to begin the driving lessons. Not having done the theory exam first was a mistake as I spent the first few lessons being yelled at and not understanding why a lot of the time. They have a weird slant on 'conservation' here in regards to driving. Things like taking your foot off the brake while at a stoplight (and putting on the hand brake if you would roll) to save your brake lights. Braking as little as possible to save your brake pads (and instead just letting off the gas, even if that means starting to slow insanely far away from your stop). Driving a very specific speed in each gear to use gas the most efficiently (instead of just switching based on what the motor sounds like or the rpms). These things are actually covered in the theory book and having not read it, I didn't understand the irritation of the instructor.

I didn't like him anyway. He seemed oddly arrogant and kept taking personal calls on his cell unrelated to work. Plus, he was sneaky about the price. He advertised a certain price for 45 minutes, around the same price that most places charged for an hour. What was not mentioned anywhere was that he only would give lessons for 1.5 hours. So you end up paying double what you'd expect for a lesson. It's not illegal or anything, just sneaky. Not to mention 1.5 is really a bit long to try to hold good concentration for such a thing. After about 4 lessons, I got an email saying that they were no longer giving lessons and were instead concentrating on motorcycle lessons. I was getting towards the end of my pregnancy anyway and although I fit behind the wheel, other things were becoming difficult, like turning enough to look behind me.

Post-pregnancy we signed up with the school that the cousin had recommended. What a world of difference! A nice husband and wife team who speak calmly to you no matter what you're screwing up. They immediately put my name in for the driving exam, confident that I only needed a few more lessons and knowing that it would be several weeks before there was an open spot. I finally feel like I am making good progress at filling in those little knowledge gaps and I have an end date in sight.

Part II to follow with my experience taking the theory exam and the differences in driving here and in the US.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Snow? Eh?

Despite our latitude, it doesn't snow very often here. These last few weeks though, we've had enough to keep a small layer of hard packed snow with a perpetual layer of ice under it.

When picking up Larissa from school on Wednesday, I was surprised to see several parents picking kids up via sled. We're not talking the big red plastic things you find in the US. These were all little wooden sleighs with strips of metal on the wooden runners. Very victorian.

Of course grandpa had one in the shed, so when we picked up Larissa on Thursday, we surprised her with a ride home.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Just a bit of info for anyone who stumbles across this who doesn't already know me...

I'm a 35 year old woman who lives in a smallish town, Enschede, in the province of Overijssel in the very smallish country of the Netherlands. I am married to a Dutch man named Tim (I know - about the least foreign-sounding name ever). We have two children, Larissa and Devin. We play with computers all day by trade.

2.5 years ago, I moved here from the United States to begin a family with the man I love. Culture shock and the stripping away of so many things I had previously identified myself as left me feeling quite lost. After going through some identity crises, I decided that blogging might give me a chance to reconnect with people, to share some of the weirdness of being in another country.

It also gives me an excuse to post lots of pictures and video of the kids :)