The Netherlands, one year on

It has been a while since my last post. When I was tidying up this blog a while back I happened to notice that over 200 people are now subscribed to my posts by e-mail, which managed to fill me with enough fear to delay writing another post for… over a year.

I have no idea who these people are or why they subscribed. Are they supporters of Camp Quest? Friends? Family? Random people on the internet? I began to feel hounded by hundreds of imaginary people, angry that I’d be cluttering up their inboxes with cat videos or pictures of the latest dress I sewed, instead of SERIOUS ATHEIST TALK ABOUT ATHEISM.

Well, I guess I’ll be disappointing someone no matter what I end up writing about, so I may as well talk about my experiences after just over a year living in the Netherlands. We have both adapted so well that living here just feels so… normal. I don’t think either of us have ever even thought “Hey, I wish I’d never left London”, let alone expressed it. It doesn’t really occur to me on a day to day basis that what we are doing is actually relatively unusual – living in a country where you don’t speak the language, just because one day you decided you wanted to.

What’s good

Living a car-free existence, and being able to get to most places by foot, bike or public transport.

Haarlem is a small enough city that you can have a network of friends rather than individual friends dotted around, and that you can bump into people you know on the street.

Haarlem is large enough that you don’t have the small-town syndrome of everybody being all up in everyone’s business.

The intellectual stimulation of learning a language keeps my mind active every day.

Dutch people are happy, especially kids. It’s not uncommon to see a women cycling with 4 young kids on the front of her baksfiets and everyone is beaming at you. This sort of happiness is infectious.

Despite trying to shake off the stigma of being labelled an “expat”, I’ve come to terms with the fact that expats are a rather wonderful and unique community. You meet people from all sorts of countries, who tend to be open to new experiences and making new friends.

Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but I’ve found it far less stressful than expected to deal with going to the doctor, dentist, vet, optician or even the gemeente (council). The people I’ve come across in professional positions have been helpful, courteous and friendly – but actually friendly, not the American “Have A Nice Day” brand of faux-friendliness.

What’s less good

Food. This is probably due to living in the city centre, but the range of food available in supermarkets is pretty restricted compared to London. Also as most vegetables are grown hydroponically, things like tomatoes just taste like crunchy water. Gluten-free food still hasn’t quite reached the mainstream yet either, so my eating out choices are pretty limited too.

Clothes. The stylish Dutch women you see tend to be aged 18-30. At some point, whether it’s after having kids or just generally not giving a shit about what others think, Dutch women’s style devolves into some sort of perverse pseudo-practicality. They give the illusion of being practically dressed, and I admire the intention (if it is such an intention), but you know what’s not practical? White trousers. Also, jumpers/cardigans/capes with strange tassles hanging off in every direction, when you have to cycle. Maybe I’m just bitter about having to get every single pair of trousers I buy here hemmed by at least 20cm, but Dutch fashion sucks.

Tiny packaging for things that you want to buy in bulk. See: detergent, fabric softener, deodorant, cat food. It’s such a little thing and yet so infuriating.

There seem to be fewer restrictions here about how charities can raise money, so I have noticed more and more people accosting me on the street trying to get me to give them money, whether the “chugger” variety, or the good old “shake your money box and shout at them” sort. I’ve also noticed some charities engaging in a form of “flirty fishing” – using attractive (probably not Dutch) guys to approach and try to flirt with young women as they leave the station.

Forgetting how to speak your native language. I may write in more detail about language learning at some point, but all I will say is when you lose the ability to speak both your native language AND the language you’re learning, that’s when you’re actually learning the most.

But enough of this silly listicle disguised as a blog post

After a year, I can more easily see myself living here for another 30 years than I can ever see myself returning to London. My mother always used to say “horses for courses” (as a non-native English speaker she would pride herself on absolutely correct usage of English grammar and extensive knowledge of obscure idioms and sayings). Well, for now at least, this horse has finally found a course to run around.

Why move to the Netherlands?

It’s been a long time since I last updated this blog, mostly because I’ve been working my ass off at The Happy Coeliac and my own personal ramblings seemed a little pointless. More than 6 months after we decided to make a move to the Netherlands, we are now here in Haarlem, and I think that my life might have got sufficiently interesting to start writing about it again.

A surprising amount of people have asked me this, as if it is a random and unexpected decision. It was actually rather carefully considered. Our conversations went something like this:

Me: We need to get out of London/the UK.

Alex: Yes.

Me: What about USA?

Alex: Cars, pollution, ignorance, religion, healthcare costs, violence.

Me: Canada?

Alex: Maybe. Quite far away though. Might be tricky to move there permanently, not sure if there is work out there.

Me: Germany? France? Denmark? Italy? Australia? New Zealand?

Alex: Too many rules, too socialist, too cold, too difficult to get anything done, too far away, too slow internets.

[Some time later]

Me: What about the Netherlands?

Alex: …

Me: …

Alex: I really enjoyed my time there before.

Me: I like the cycling and the laid-back culture.

Alex: They have a good work-life balance.

Me: It’s pretty, with good air quality.

Alex: It’s not too far away from our families.

Me: The quality of housing is better.

Alex: They have superfast broadband.

Me: I can start a line of gluten-free hash brownies and become a squillionnaire!

Alex: Are there any downsides?

Me: …

Alex: …

Me: We don’t speak Dutch?

That was actually the only downside we could think of, aside from moving away from our families. Everything else just seemed like a positive. Now that I’ve had a good 3 days experience of the life here, I am pleased to report that my expectations seem largely grounded in reality. Our landlord is friendly and helpful. People smile at you. Bikes and pedestrians rule the roads. The air is wonderfully clean, and my chronic sinus inflammation has gone down (after flaring up in 2009, when I moved to London).

That’s not to say things won’t be difficult as we learn the language, make friends and start a new life here. I’ve been feeling an unexpected culture shock, as I am tongue tied whenever a shop assistant asks me a question. I feel I have to apologise for not speaking the language. I am not used to the fact that cars will slow down for pedestrians, so I have developed a kind of twitchy walk.

But overall I feel that this has been a positive step for Alex and I. London never really suited either of us, so I hope we’ve found a place that we will one day, without hesitation, call home.

Round up from the 6th World Skeptics Congress: See me, hear me, read me

Last weekend A month ago I had the honour of being invited to speak at the 6th World Skeptics Congress in Berlin. For those of you who missed it, here is a round up of my talk. I had a wonderful time, and was delighted with the positive response to my talk.



Listen to the Token Skeptic podcast where I was interviewed by Kylie Sturgess.


Read the JREF Swift article by Kylie Sturgess.

Gearing up for the World Skeptics Congress

It’s been a crazy few months, and I’m trying to get back into the swing of being an atheist rockstar. Luckily, the World Skeptics Congress is right around the corner (May 18-20th, Berlin), where I shall be speaking on the subject of “Engaging Children in Science”:

Children and young people are becoming increasingly disengaged with science, and in the UK in particular we are suffering a dearth of engineers and scientists. Twice as many A-levels (the school leaver’s exam) were taken in humanities subjects than science subjects in 2011. What can be done to reignite the natural curiosity of the world around them – that is seemingly innate in young children – to ensure that scientific literacy is not lost to the next generation?

I think you’ll agree that this is a hugely important topic and I am very honoured to be invited to the Congress. Other speakers include Chris French, James Randi, Eugenie Scott, Simon Singh and Rebecca Watson, so I’m in very good (and intimidating) company.

Tickets are selling out fast and I need some more fanboys and fangirls to complete my entourage. So book now! 🙂

I’m on a list!

Alex Gabriel has compiled a list of 100 atheists (mainly UK based) who aren’t old, white, privileged, straight men.

I am honoured to be included! My next business cards will definitely say: “Samantha Stein, interesting”

And no, I haven’t forgotten this blog. The combination of working full time, learning to drive, commuting, and (supposedly) working on my upcoming e-book combined with absolutely CRIPPLING writer’s block has left very little time to post here. However, progress is being made, however slowly. I have commissioned a cover for my e-book which is very exciting, and makes it all a bit more real!

Now I just need to get round to finishing it!

Back from the Denkfest!

On Sunday I arrived back at London City airport, whimpering, clutching a sick bag, and sniffling into my boyfriend’s shirt.

I should point out that this was not representative of my experience at the Denkfest in Zurich. 😉

But let me rewind to the beginning.

About a year and a half ago, I met Andreas Kyriacou in Copenhagen, who was to be the organiser of Denkfest, a science and critical thinking festival to take place in Zurich. He asked me if I could come and talk, and I jumped at the chance! When I saw the line up: Lawrence Krauss, Eugenie Scott, Cristina Rad… I couldn’t quite believe I was there on the poster with them.

So on Thursday, I headed to Zurich, prepared with a workshop for the Thursday evening and a general talk for Friday morning. My workshop was a “hands on” session – allowing the participants to really experience how the sessions are run – I gave examples of projects we had done from some of the 5 CQUKs that have been run.

On Friday I talked more generally about the camps, and also about the philosophy of education at Camp Quest. People seemed very engaged with this talk, and it was so nice to hear so many positive comments afterwards – so I hope we’re doing something right with regards to the way we run the camps! (And especially glad that my huuuuge nerves didn’t show during my talk!)

This stage was way too big


Thankfully, then, I had the whole weekend to relax and enjoy Denkfest. I took Friday afternoon off to do a bit of exploring in Zurich, and discovered that it is in fact a very beautiful city! For some reason, I had imagined a corporate place, with lots of banks and shiny looking buildings. But it really is charming, and as I wondered around, everyone looked so happy! There was a relaxed and chilled out vibe never found in London. I briefly considered moving.

Zurich - the weather certainly helped!

Saturday was my favourite day. The highlights were, for me, the talks by Chris French, Kathryn Schulz and Lawrence Krauss.  These conventions always inspire me to do more activism, more blogging, and it was probably making friends with Hayley Stevens and Cristina Rad that inspired me to actually use the Youtube account I’ve been sitting on for over a year and actually, you know, make a video.

Which I admit, I cheated at by having it mainly of my cat:


But I promise I will start doing “proper” videos soon! Pinky promise!

Saturday night was also fun… we had the conference dinner, that included a Science Slam, and then a large group of us went out and did the thing that happens on every Saturday night at every skeptic/atheist convention I’ve ever been to…

Skeptics in the drunk

Best parts of Denkfest:

  • “Just because you don’t pay for it, doesn’t mean it wasn’t a mistake” – paraphrasing the guy mentioned in the Kathryn Schultz talk
  • Food – I didn’t get glutened once!
  • Meeting loads of awesome people
  • “Washing our feet with the swans… like Jesus”

Worst parts of Denkfest:

  • Food poisoning on Sunday
  • Post Denkfest blues… everyone just goes back to being little people inside my internet box

Ahoy Zurich!

I have a ridiculous headache, I have to leave for the airport in about 12 hours and I am trying not to make myself crazy with nerves about my impending talks at the Denkfest.

I will be doing a workshop style presentation tomorrow evening, letting people experience first-hand some of the Camp Quest sessions that we have run, and then I’ll be doing a standard talk about Camp Quest on Friday morning. After that I get to kick back for the rest of the weekend in Zurich, hopefully enjoying the forecasted 27C sunny weather on Saturday! Oh, and brushing shoulders with some famous faces. (Well, famous if you’re in the skeptical/atheist/nerd community).

I’ve travelled a lot within Europe, and become rather uninspired with it. However, although I’m sure I have passed through Zurich’s airport before, I’m not sure I’ve ever actually been to the city. So not only do I get to be an atheist rockstar for a weekend, but I get to visit somewhere new!

Not to mention, my hotel has a “wine cave”. Now if that’s not a recipe for disaster I don’t know what is!

If you’re going to the Denkfest, come and say hi! 😀

Reflections on Camp Quest UK after a week at CQ Somerset

I am writing this relaxing on my sofa, resting my weary self after a week away at our third Camp Quest Somerset.

And what an exhilarating week it was! Don’t get me wrong, it was exhausting, but in all the right ways.

We were joined by 22 young people, a small group compared to last year’s 40. It’s funny, when I take care of the admin, the campers are just names on pages, extensions of their parents’ correspondence. And when they arrive with their parents, they are closed books, shy teenagers, unsure of what to expect. But oh, what a difference a week can make!

These open, inquisitive young people have shared their thoughts, hopes and fears with us all, and we have shared ours back. It is always a privilege to work with Camp Questers, but to hear some of them say that Camp Quest now feels like a family, make me very proud indeed.

I was not raised to be noisy about my achievements, but as the stress of the first few years lifts, and we become more established each year, I am able to look back at what I (with the help of some very dedicated volunteers) have achieved.

Children who don’t normally fit in, for whatever reason, have found themselves while at camp. I was one of those children once, and I am so pleased to be able to offer what I needed then, to the next generation.

Camp Quest UK has evolved a great deal from the original US camps. Cultural attitudes to religion (and atheism) are so very different here, that CQ in the form that it exists in the States is simply not needed over here.

But CQUK is certainly needed.

We live in a world where the media is incredibly manipulative, appearance and status are the most cherished prizes, and education has been reduced to hoop jumping, standing on hind legs, wagging your tail at the judges.

The world we create at Camp Quest aims to be the antidote – a nightlight in a darkened room. In our world, education is about mystery and uncovering truths previously unknown, about discussion and contemplation, about support.

Every year the campers make me feel awfully stupid by comparison, and every year I find myself refreshed by that feeling. It is an honour and a privilege to teach and be taught at camp, and on this miserable and wet August day I feel overjoyed to have accomplished what I have.