Finding My Niche in My Family History by Olga Mecking

Today we resume the Finding Your Niche series with a post from Olga Mecking. What I love about her essay is how this global upbringing is embedded in her DNA. Read on and you’ll see what I mean! Her story spans generations and nations. You can read more about Olga at the end of the piece. 

finding your niche map

I like the idea of seeing places as possessions, of something that you can collect and show off to everyone. I felt the same way when Poland wasn’t a part of the EU yet, and I revelled in seeing the number of stamps in my passport, steadily growing.

Now, as an EU citizen, I don’t get stamps anymore, but I collect other things. Someone once described me as a language collector because I love learning languages, just for the sheer pleasure it brings me. Another thing I collect, is memories and family stories.

When I tell my story, I don’t even know how to begin. I usually can’t tell it without mentioning multiple countries, languages and cultures, which confuses my listener to no end. But today I will start with my grandparents.

Both sets of them were diplomats. No, let’s go even earlier than that, to the place of their births. Or should I say, places, in plural? It should definitely be “places”. My paternal grandmother was born in Kiev, Ukraine. She married a Polish man- my grandfather and after a while, my father was born.

My maternal grandfather was Polish, and actually Jewish but he was born in Lviv, a city that used to be Polish, is now Ukrainian, and when my grandfather was born, belonged to the Austrian Empire. That’s European history for you.

As diplomats, both sets of grandparents travelled a lot, but for the time frame that’s of interest to us, they settled in two different but neighbouring countries: my mother’s parents in the Netherlands, where she went to an International school and learned to speak perfect English on top of her native Polish and my father’s parents in France, where he attended a French school and fell in love with the French way of life. My mom and my father led separate lives until they both came back to Poland, my mom with her family, my father alone. They met at school. They started working at the university. They got married. And years later, they had me.

When I was 3, they got the chance to go to Germany for two years. They were both working at the University so I went to a German kindergarten where it took me a mere 6 months to speak perfect German. My parents spoke Polish to me at home, and German when we were outside.

And then we came back home. We spoke German every Sunday, and I think this is the first time it was clear to me that I somehow had an obligation to keep this language alive. I didn’t like this idea but I agreed and spoke German, only to continue learning it at school and later studying it at University.

Speaking of University, I had the chance to learn Dutch there. And I very clearly remember saying: “I’ll never ever need Dutch so why should I learn it?” I can laugh about it now, obviously, because where did I end up? In the Netherlands, of course.

But before that, I went to Germany for a study exchange. I met a German man, whom I later married. He found a job in the Netherlands and moved there. Our first daughter was born in Germany but we moved to join my husband in Holland when she was 6 weeks old.

And so I found myself in a country that to me was at the same time new and old. New because I have never lived there before. Old, because my mother had lived there as a child and still remembered some Dutch, reminding me of that heritage.

My other two children, my little girl and my son were born in the Netherlands and are now 1 and 3 years old. All of them feel very comfortable here and speak fluent Dutch but they have a heritage of languages and stories – so I hope to retain their multilingualism and their multiculturalism (as they also speak Polish and German and my eldest has begun to learn English).

Sometimes it is very confusing, not knowing where you belong, or not belonging anywhere but feeling that you should. Other times I feel history’s breath on my back and I wonder about the intricate ways that everything got woven together to being me where I am now.

But my family story is a huge part of what I am now, a Third Culture Kid, among other things. I have a niche within that family history. I’ve realized that I feel at my most comfortable with people with similar experiences: having lived abroad, speaking multiple languages, passionate about raising global citizens. This is my niche, the place where I thrive most. This is my home.

Olga Mecking is a Polish woman living in the Netherlands with her German husband. She’s a translator, trainer in intercultural communication and blogger. She blogs at The European Mama about raising multilingual children, expat life, and culture. She can be found on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest.

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The Magic of Sinterklaas

Earlier in the fall I asked readers for submissions on Christmas traditions around the world. I am delighted to offer you this post on Sinterklaas by Annelies Kanis who wrote the popular post The Trunk That Traveled the World.

Bright December moon is beaming

boys and girls now stop your play

for tonight’s the wondrous evening

eve of good St. Nicholas day

There is nothing quite like the magic of Saint Nicolas. Or as we say, Sinterklaas.

Nederlands: Sinterklaas tijdens het Het Feest ...

Saint Nicolas was a Turkish Saint from the 4th Century A.D. In the Netherlands we celebrate Sinterklaas on the evening before his name day, which is December 6th. The original Saint Nicolas had a reputation for secret gift giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out. And as it goes with legends, the legend of Saint Nicolas got bigger and bigger and somehow turned into the very typical Dutch Sinterklaas celebration that it is today, with elements added on and left behind as we went along. So why is this tradition described in Marilyn’s blog series of Christmas traditions? Sinterklaas is at the root of another tradition,  the Christmas-related tradition of Santa Claus.

The build up for Sinterklaas starts halfway November when Sinterklaas arrives on his steamboat from Spain. The local mayor will welcome him with an appropriate ceremony (he is after all, a Saint). Sinterklaas comes with his helpers, Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) He is a very wise man who knows all the children in the country by name, and he brings them gifts. When you leave your shoe out and sing by it, he’ll notice and give you a small gift by sending his helpers down the chimney. Not during the day, but when you’re asleep at night, when he travels over rooftops with his horse Amerigo and his helpers. The big celebration is December 5th, when he brings more gifts to families gathered together.

The magical thing about this feast is that all children really believe he exists. It’s a belief stronger and more convinced than the belief in Santa Claus, and it lasts longer. All adults help children believe. For example: Sinterklaas pays a visit to all the Dutch embassies on December 5th. In Islamabad, he used to arrive by tonga (horse-drawn carriage).

Usually kids start asking questions about how it works when they’re around 7 or 8. My eldest son is 7, and I’m dreading the day he doesn’t believe anymore and the magic partly disappears.

But until he and after him his little brother stop believing, we’ll help keep the magic alive. On December 5th, my parents and sister with her family will come to our house. They’ll bring gifts that they’ll smuggle up to the attic. Not just gifts for the kids, but also gifts for the adult whose name you’ve pulled out of a hat. Or more recently, the person that the online tool has picked for you.

We’ll sing Sinterklaas songs, eat traditional candy and Sinterklaas or his helpers will knock on the door and leave gifts behind. He’ll move on to the next house really quickly, because he has to pay many visits. We’ve never really seen him, but my kids say they’ve seen shadows of his helpers on the roof.

But here’s what I love most about Sinterklaas. Gifts, even though they can be well thought out, are in the end easy to purchase (especially online). The attached self-written poem is one of the things that makes this holiday special. We add a poem to at least one of the gifts, in rhyme. The poem is supposedly written by Sinterklaas and his helpers, and reflects on the past year. It can be sweet and loving, but it can also be about specific character traits that you don’t want to address directly and want to tease someone with. The poem is  a great way to reflect on the year behind and it takes time to write a good poem – more time than to shop for gifts. When time is precious, the poem is a gift of attention, of really thinking about the person you’re writing for, what they’ve experienced and who they are.

Advent for me starts after Sinterklaas. Advent and Christmas hold many traditions of their own, enough to fill another blog. But by giving gifts with poems at Sinterklaas (and leaving them out at Christmas), Advent and Christmas are more focused on light that Christmas brings.