Category Archives: Being expat


Stille Nacht & Astro del Ciel

One of my favourite German Christmas carols is Stille Nacht (heilige Nacht), not only because its message and the sweet memories singing it with my parents at Christmas when I was a child, but also because there is also an Italian version of it, with the same melody, but different words.

The lyrics of this carol are by the Austrian priest Joseph Moor in 1816 and it is believed that Franz Xaver Gruber produced the German melody in only a few hours (in 1818), written as a guitar accompaniment. The melody and words altered slightly over the years, but this is the carol like many sing it today:

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Hirten erst kundgemacht
Durch der Engel Halleluja,
Tönt es laut von fern und nah:
Christ, der Retter ist da!
Christ, der Retter ist da!

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Gottes Sohn, o wie lacht
Lieb’ aus deinem göttlichen Mund,
Da uns schlägt die rettende Stund’.
Christ, in deiner Geburt!
Christ, in deiner Geburt!

Words: Joseph Mohr, 1816
Music: Franz Xaver Gruber, 1818


Silent night, holy night
All is calm all is bright
‘Round yon virgin Mother and Child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace

Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight.
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heav’nly hosts sing Alleluia;
Christ the Savior is born
Christ the Savior is born

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light.
Radiant beams from Thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth

The Italian version follows the same melody, but the lyrics are completely different.
Don Angelo Meli (1901-1970) published a set of Italian lyrics in 1937 that were supposed to accompany the melody of “Stille Nacht” under the title of “Astro del Ciel” (Star of the Sky)

Astro del ciel, Pargol divin,
mite Agnello Redentor!
Tu che ai Vati da lungi sognar,
Tu che angeliche voci nunziar,
luce dona alle menti
pace infondi nei cuor!
luce dona alle menti
pace infondi nei cuor!

Star of the sky, divine Child,
Redeemer meek Lamb!
You, whom the Prophets dreamt about from far away,
You, whom angelical voices announced,
give light to the minds,
bring peace to their hearts! x2

Astro del ciel, Pargol divin,
mite Agnello Redentor!
Tu di stirpe regale decor,
Tu virgineo, mistico fior,
luce dona alle menti,
pace infondi nei cuor! 

Star of the sky, divine Child,
Redeemer, meek Lamb!
You of pride of regal descendancy,
You virginal, mystical flower,
give light to the minds,
bring peace to their hearts!

Astro del ciel, Pargol divin,
mite Agnello Redentor!
Tu disceso a scontare l’error,
Tu sol nato a parlare d’amor,
luce dona alle menti,
pace infondi nei cuor! 

Star of the sky, divine Child,
Redeemer meek Lamb!
You descended to atone for our errors,
You born only to speak of love,
give light to the people,
bring peace to their hearts!
give light to the people,
bring peace to their hearts!

I wish everyone a peaceful Christmas


How to volunteer in a healthy and efficient way


I lead several volunteer groups in the past 20 years and have helped many volunteers who were close to give up to change their way to volunteer into a more healthy one, for them, their family and the organization or group they were volunteering for.

Here are 6 question you should ask yourself:

1. Why are you considering to volunteer?

Do you want to help the world, your community, your children?

Do you want to hone your own skills, maybe learn new ones?

Do you want to make new friends?

Do you like what you do?

Do you want to share your skills with others or give something back?

– Before starting to volunteer, try to find out what you want to achieve. What is your goal? What are your expectations? For how long do you think you can or want to commit?

I volunteered for several reasons: to connect with the community, to hone my skills, learn new ones. The advantage of a volunteer job is that it’s usually time limited. You probably won’t volunteer in the same position for more than 2 years – I always recommend to change after 1,5 or 2 years as staying too long in the same role can take its toll on us: as it is usually an unpayed job, if we do it for too long, we tend to do more than necessary and not feel satisfied anymore. When you feel this, it’s time to say goodbye or to change something…

2. Choose the right role, the right organization…

Depending on what you answered under 1., choose the right place to volunteer. If you want to hone your skills (or learn new ones), and maybe want to gap a period where you don’t have a job, choose an organization that gives you the opportunity to grow and learn. If your intent is to socialize, a more flexible and relaxed setting is better (some volunteer works at schools, communities etc.)

3. Start small…and learn to say “no”

If you have already a busy schedule or if you are not sure if the volunteer job is the right one for you, start with only a few hours per week. Then, if you find you enjoy the work and have more time to pursue it, gradually take on more. – If you are too enthusiastic at the beginning, and say “yes” to too many tasks, people will be more likely to ask you more than you actually can or want to give. You may end up feeling exhausted instead of energized and rewarded by the work you’re doing!

When I volunteered for the first time after years, and after a longer break from work, I was so glad to have a new meaning and purpose that I overdid it. I committed to more than I really wanted and I resigned – yes, like in a real job! – after 6 months.

4. Voice your expectations

When you start in a new group, make sure that within a month of time you make clear what you expect from this new role. This might need that you have more meetings than expected, that you have to discuss a lot and negotiate, but it is better to find out asap if the new role fits you or not. – Like in a real job you can get overwhelmed and burned out quickly…

When I started volunteering in my 20ies I was way too shy to speak up every time I felt that something wasn’t going well. I kept on saying “it’s only a volunteer job and I can quit anytime”, but maybe I’m too responsible and conscientious: I once volunteered in a non-healthy position for 2 years and was very close to a burnout. Thanks to a very good friend who saw it coming, I quit on time…

5. Ask many questions…

Ask questions and do your research. What kind of prospectives will you have in the new role? Do you have a say when it comes to decisions? Are you ok with the role that is offered to you? How many hours are expected from you? What if you’ll work more hours?…

Sometimes you need to get your feet wet before realizing that the job is not for you. Don’t hesitate to speak up and quit if it’s not what you need right now.
I have volunteered in positions where I got a reference at the end. This is something you should always ask! Will you receive any kind of reference that you can put on your CV?

With the volunteer groups I am leading, I make it clear that if the role they choose is comparable to the one in a real job, i.e. if they take some responsibilities, use some specific skills, I will issue them a personal reference.

6. It is for you if…

I regularly do for my own business and my volunteer jobs. If you volunteer in a certain position, ask yourself regularly:

– Am I getting the feedback that keeps me going? – If your work is taken for granted and not “seen”, it is not rewarding enough. Getting regular feedback is essential. If you don’t get it automatically, ask for it. And if you still don’t get it, ask yourself why and if it’s healthy to keep on doing it.

– Am I getting the (personal!) recognition I need? – many organizations thank their “volunteers”: thanking volunteers personally is much more rewarding and healthy for a good relationship!

– How do I feel after an intense week? – Volunteer work usually requires a lot of flexibility, which can be very challenging. But it also can be immensely rewarding! If after a week of intense volunteer work you feel exhausted and grumpy, ask yourself why. Is there anything you can change in the way you work, the way your role is defined (maybe you want more responsibility, or less, or do something else). Voice your needs and if you don’t get the response you expect and need, find a way to change your position…

After great accomplishments we should take a time out to assess what went well and what went wrong, what could be done better. Always. – If your volunteer group is lead by a person who feels overwhelmed or unsatisfied, struggling, it is very unlikely that you’ll get recognized for the effort you make and it’s not a healthy environment to spend your energy for. It is very important to take good care of ourselves, to be aware of what we need to be happy to help and volunteer.

– Am I enjoying this? If the job/role gives you more energy, makes you stand up in the morning, it’s a good sign. If you wake up in the middle of the night, worrying or struggling: it’s the time to quit. As simple as that. Don’t feel guilty that you quit, that you speak up. Volunteering is not only giving, it’s also receiving. If you feel that you are constantly giving and not receiving enough in return, it’s not healthy to go on.

My very own experience

In the past 29 years (!) I have been regularly volunteering in many different settings and roles. I have created and coordinated student groups, local and international groups etc.
At my childrens’ school for example I first helped out occasionally at festive lunches, school trips etc., then as class representative (in total for 6 classes in 4 years) and PRC (Parent Representative Commitee, a sort of PTA) and finally as Team Leader of a Welcome Team and a Sessions Team at our Family Association. As leader of one of these groups I organized more than 20 talks in the last 2 years: all voluntary work and as a “solo volunteer”, i.e. I did the whole funnel, from finding speakers, agreeing on topics, coordinating the venue and the financial part until the actual speech (including all the technical aspects too). It may sound crazy, but I’m passionate about organizing and planning, so this didn’t cost me much energy – if everything runs smoothly. Wearing many hats simultaneously is what I’m good at, but I must be sure that every hat fits…

I use to say to my volunteers: “make sure that you keep your cup filled, that you fill it up from time to time, because you can’t pour from an empty cup!”… So when it was time for my regular assessment a few weeks ago, I realized that I spent much more time with emailing, double (triple- etc.) checking everything, for my volunteering than for my own business. Two of my hats felt like not fitting anymore – metaphorically speaking, of course… Things had gone out of balance for several reasons; circumstances had changed and required a constant adaptation and “re-inventing-the-wheel” which I was not able and willing to do anymore.
I did the “what if…”–test and imagined how it would feel if I would quit one (or two) of the jobs and decided which ones to keep and which ones to let go.

I am still volunteering, and it’s surely thanks to the fantastic work of my teams, that I don’t spend 20 hours per week anymore, but can keep the time under 8 hours a week– the right amount for me to keep my cup full!




If you would like some help with self-assessment, contact me at I’ll help you to make sure you keep your cup filled.



(this post was also published on my other site Ute’s International Lounge)


5 Fun Activities You Can Do With Your Kids at the Comfort of Your Backyard

kids playing at the backyard

I’m very thankful that Simon Barker kindly offered to write this post for my site on this very timely topic.

A lot of people are looking for a way to escape the busy and noisy city life in exchange for some fun and relaxing activities. However, if you are someone who’s on a tight budget or you have a very busy work schedule, the idea of taking traditional vacations might not fit on your list. Between fancy meals and trips, the cost of a family vacation can surely add up.

Fortunately, there are still ways for you to give your kids the ultimate fun without spending a big chunk of cash. All you need is to prepare your backyard for these fun activities.

1. Sandboxes

It may sound like a lot of dirty work, but sandboxes give your children the opportunity to play with their imagination. You can teach them how to build sand castles, move around toy trucks or create their own army. You can even let them make their own planets from sand, mud or clay.

To start, it doesn’t have to be a great or expensive sandbox. In fact, even 4×4 timbers can work just as great as professionally done sandboxes. You just have to be creative in what you encourage your kids to do in their play area. For added fun, you can load up the sandbox with a few toys or you can hide them slightly under the sand.

When setting up your sandbox, make sure to consider your children’s safety. You should think of how they’ll get in and out of it and how safe they’ll be once inside. It’s also a good idea to consider their comfort. Keep in mind to place your sandbox in a shaded area, too.

2. Camping

Take your camping gears and sleeping tents in your backyard for the ultimate camping experience that isn’t as expensive as an out-of-town trip. To make the experience more realistic, you can start a campfire and cook some barbecues and smores. You can also share scary stories to your kids or go stargazing with them in the middle of the night.

Another good idea is to invite some of their friends or cousins over. This way, you can enhance your children’s social skills while allowing them to have fun.

3. Traditional Backyard Party Games

You don’t need to start a full barbecue or family party just to have fun in your backyard. You can do backyard party games for no reason at all- other than letting your kids have fun.

One of the most popular backyard party games is the potato sack race. All you need to prepare is a burlap sack or pillowcase big enough for each of your child. Set up a starting and finishing point in your backyard and make sure to place some obstacles in between these areas. If you can’t find big pillowcases, you can start a three-legged race instead.

4. Play Cooking Up Games

Take your old kitchen cabinets and turn them into pieces your daughters can use for their mini kitchen. Stock them up with any spare cooking pots, pans and other utensils you don’t use anymore. You can also buy them a set from any thrift store near your area. They can add plastic cups and spoons for their “guests”, too.

If this is an activity you can see your kids enjoying very much, you can designate a specific part of your yard to have these cabinets affixed. Setting your kids’ toys this way can save you time and effort from building and rebuilding. It will also enhance their sense of responsibility since they have a specific area they need to maintain. Encourage your kids to clean up after and store their toys properly.

5. Set Up A Treasure Hunt Game

Setting up a treasure hunt is a great idea if your kids frequently complain about feeling bored or if they’re overusing their computers. Treasure hunts are fun, easy to plan and can be modified depending on your children’s age.

With treasure hunts, all you need to do is set up a bunch of clues in specific parts of your yard. They can be riddles, questions or tasks your children need to complete or answer before they can move on to your next clue. You can let them choose a leader or divide them into two groups to start a friendly competition. Just make sure that they’re aware of the rules and boundaries of the hunt.

As an alternative, you can also start a scavenging hunt. It’s a bit different from a treasure hunt game in that players need to collect as many items on their list as possible within a given time frame. You can create a list of fruits or household items and hide them in certain areas of your yard. For added excitement, you can let your kids wear their favorite pirate costumes.


Author Bio:

Simon Barker is a travel enthusiast who’s very passionate about sharing his thrifty ways of journeying around the world. You can see more of his work in, where you can find his best electric coolbox reviews.



A portable career…my story

This are my reflections on a topic that matters to all accompanying partners: finding a career or a purpose during their international journey. It is the first time I write about this and putting it all “onto screen” has a very liberating effect. (warning: this is a long text…)

When we lead an international life, we’re not always the one who gets to decide the next place to live in. When we moved to the Netherlands 11 years ago, I turned from the breadwinner into the stay at home mum within 48 hours. The first months I considered it a gift, a prolongued holiday.
I didn’t really have holidays the years before that move: I worked at my project and collaborated at three others as a researcher in Italy, so the “new life” in the Netherlands meant for me to finally spend entire days with my son and make up for all that time I didn’t get to spend with him the 2,5 years before due to my work. It really felt like a fantastic opportunity and I tried to fully embrace it.

Identity shift…

Short comments from friends and family like “you don’t need to work now that R. has this great job” or “you’re an expat now…” made me think about what had changed. Family and friends had a totally different opinion on what our life in Italy had been: “I’m so glad to see that you don’t struggle that much anymore… that you have time now…”. It wasn’t easy, but we really enjoyed those years in Florence and if we would have a choice and if the working conditions were different, I wouldn’t hesitate to go back. I didn’t like the comments about me being a stay at home mum: “you’re so lucky, you can just stay home…”, and the worst “what do you do all day now?”…

What hurted the most were the comments of working mums and friends, who  pointed out that they couldn’t “only” stay at home… neither did I but I didn’t really have a choice.

I shifted from hard working person to not-working person and honestly felt puzzled and frustrated about all this new role entailed. – I needed some time to adjust. At least this is what I thought.

After the first months of exploration of our new “home”, I started looking for a job, hoping I could continue my career at one of the Universities here, but I kept on bumping against that hard glass ceiling over and over again. It felt like it was bullet proofed.

I asked former collegues, contacts I had made during countless conferences, people I just met in the Netherlands and who were working at one of the Universities to help me connect with the “right” people, but quickly realized that the academic world was not global (yet), and even a PhD doesn’t help if you don’t have a solid network. – Mine wasn’t ready yet for my demands: the network I builded up in 7 years wasn’t solid enough to support me and help me in the situation I was at that moment. There were many promisses and no real help when I most needed it.

It also didn’t help that I went to job interviews when I was 5 months pregnant with twins. – During this phase I not only experienced the glass ceiling mentioned before but also the non existant support from women. One lady boldly told me not to apply for a job “in my condition”, another one said “see you in five years”.

Being neither… nor…

After the birth of my daughters I took some time off to focus on my family and to reassess all that I had done until then. The fact that I didn’t have a proper night’s sleep didn’t help much as I was in a constant survival mode (I completely understand why sleep deprivation is a method of torture!).

I felt like in limbo: I was no longer the avid reader that could spend days reading, researching, writing, even forgetting to have lunch when completely absorbed in her study. But I wasn’t that happy mom wrapped up in her new role as mother of three either… I was something in between. When getting ready to go out with three children under 4 I longed for my desk and those books that were getting dusty. And when I sat at my desk and saw our babysitter walk out the door with the twins in the pram, I felt guilty and would have liked to go with them. Both felt like done half-heartedly. Getting back and forth between these two me was painful. There wasn’t any balance, but I knew it wouldn’t last forever.

The end of the tunnel

I remember the day when I came out of this neither this nor that and sleepless-survival-mode. It was the second week that my daugthers were at the crèche and my son at school. I sat down at my kitchen table with my kopje koffie that was supposed to help me stay awake until noon, and started to read a scientific book for an article I was supposed to publish and read the whole first chapter in one go.

When I made this attempt months before I re-read one paragraph 5 times without understanding anything. It was all blurry. Some call it the baby-brain, I call it the mother-exhaustion brain… So, when I sat down to read this same book that day, I suddenly felt that the words I was reading made sense, connected in my brain again and literally sparkled. I read that entire book in 2 days (i.e. 248 pages) and finished the article in 2 weeks.

I was reborn.

I started making plans, meeting other mothers from my childrens’ daycare and school, connecting with more people around me. I extended my comfort and action zone, and stretched it until I felt that I was confident enough to “go out there”.

I know now that I was still grieving the life I had “before”. One day I would feel confident, the next day I would feel disoriented and deeply longing for the former me. I was on the rollercoaster ride of my new-life-and-the-new-me. I idealized the before: even if we sometimes struggled to meet the end of the month and if I felt guilty not to be with my son all the time during his first 2,5 years in Italy, that life felt more valuable and more rewarding than this new one, the one where I had to stay at home and didn’t get any recognition of the work I was still doing (I kept on writing). – I know that this sounds ungrateful to some, but not every woman, not every mother, feels fulfilled with staying at home. I know that I don’t and this doesn’t have anything to do with my children, my family or the household (well, at least not entirely…). It has to do with my character, with the way I am “wired”; a friend said to me once “Ute, you’re simply wired in a different way”: I’m a multipotentialite.

I’ve always worked since I was 20 and spending more than 5 years searching for a payed job was daunting. My professional needs weren’t met and not having the support I asked and longed for made it all more difficult. People around me would not recognize my skills. It was tiring to re-explain over and over again why I wasn’t working. I was demotivated and I doubted my skills. And I wasn’t getting any younger.
I withdrew in my comfort zone and silenced that little voice that kept saying “get out there! – you can do it!”.

Being in our comfort zone is important to reload our batteries, “fill our cups”, but if we stay in there for too long we become passive, we end up in the passenger’s seat of our own life.

Everyone who knows me knows that I prefer sitting in the drivers seat. A part the fact that I love driving, I love being in charge, being responsible and doing, making things happen. I like things to happen and to happen fast (I’m quite impatient). So, sitting in the passenger’s seat of a Fiat 500 (old model, the one that goes max 90km/h) instead of sitting in the Ferrari (ok, that’s too much…) wasn’t me. It’s like wanting to run and pulling the brake at the same time.

Re-assessing skills…

When I realized that I was able to read complex texts again and to write intelligent articles, to learn and research again, I signed up for courses, collaborated at new projects and became a freelance translator, editor, author and teacher. Later I did a coaching and counselling course, refreshed my skills in psycholinguistics  and re-read my notes on bilingualism (one of my main areas of interest at University and when I worked at the Dept. of Romance Languages) and catched up with some of my ex-collegues.

Re-assessing my skills and learning new ones helped me to re-define my goal. At the beginning it was very blurry: I wanted to work again, but not for a 9-to-5 job, I wanted to be passionate about what I do. It had to be very interesting and stimulating, and it needed to be flexible and fit into my family routine.

What would possibly be something that I love, what I’m good at, which the world need and which I can be paid for?

Bildschirmfoto 2016-06-17 um 17.17.34

(source: Talking Good Facebook group 7.4.2014; @TalkingGOOD.profiles)

I reassessed my skills, sat my priorities straight and took action. – I felt like Baron von Münchhausen who pulls himself and his horse (!) out of a mire by his own hair (illustration by Oskar Herrfurth).

Bildschirmfoto 2016-06-17 um 14.50.03


When priorities shift…

Like for many parents, my new goals were very different from those I had before having children or when I could count on my husband as house-man. I now wanted to be there for my children and my husband. I wanted to do something where I could see (almost) immediate results. I didn’t want to spend hours and hours in endless meetings where no decisions are made, neither did I want to spend too much time in travelling for work.

I finally was putting “me” first again and I knew exactly what I don’t want (anymore).

Like many accompanying partners, my main need is to be financially independent and to get some recognition for the work I do.

Where to start

The best way to start and bridge the “in between” and the “here” is to volunteer. At least here in the Netherlands volunteering is very common. You’re not payed, but you get to hone your skills and learn new ones. – When I started volunteering  people would comment on saying “I wouldn’t have time for this”, “are you bored?”. It took me a while to manage and actively ignore these peoples’ comments…

I wondered if I could do this for a long time. I was commited, reliable and worked more than others without getting conventionally recognized, i.e. getting paid. Did this gnaw at my self-confidence? No. In these more than 8 years that I volunteer I can only recommend it to everyone; even those in the highest positions should volunteer regularly. Why? Because it makes you understand that you can reach fulfillment with a simple smile and a “thank you”. Volunteering helps to understand the real meaning of society – to give and give and give and give… and take – and to ponder about our core values.

It’s like walking in nature after a day in the office.

A portable career…

Even if we don’t plan to move in the nearer future, I chose a career that I could easily take with me wherever I live. At Ute’s Lounge my main purpose is to help accompanying partners quickly adapt to the new place, connect with like minded people, and find a new purpose. I support and empower them to fully embrace the opportunities they have.

With “career” I mean:

The progress and actions taken by a person throughout a lifetime, especially those related to that person’s occupations. A career is often composed of the jobs held, titles earned and work accomplished over a long period of time, rather than just referring to one position.

While employees in some cultures and economies stay with one job during their career, there is an increasing trend to employees changing jobs more frequently. (definition by Business Dictionnary)


One of the 6 hours volunteer work I still do on a weekly basis consists in organising talks for my childrens’ school community. In the past 2 years I have organised more than 24 talks/workshops with a great success and countless “thank you’s” and “smiles”.
Today it was Colleen Reichrath-Smith turn, co-author of the 4th edition of Jo Parfitt’s “A Career In Your Suitcase“, to hold a workshop at our school about this topic. It was like if I would re-live some of the stages I just described. Some of the 23 parents who came to this workshop were puzzled, wondering what to do with the excellent skills they already have and that they can’t really use in this new phase of their life for multiple reasons. Mainly because they are the accompanying partners and because they have to look after their children, their family, while on this journey. They are torn between what they once were and what they are now, recognizing that all they did “before” embarking on this international journey is gone, somewhere lost in transition.

Living an international life means to make sacrifices and many families can’t afford a dual-career, either because the children are too young or need extra support, the working parent travels a lot, or because they move very frequently. It is very difficult to find a balance that meets everyone’s needs. As parents we tend to put our childrens’ needs first, for obvious reasons, but we shouldn’t forget our owns either. Finding a new purpose during every phase of our mobile life is so important for our very own sanity and health, and I find that it should matter more and be more supported by those companies who post their employees, and by the communities who welcome these families around the globe.

– Having a portable career enables accompanying partners to keep that healthy balance and helps our family to thrive during our international journey.


The Six Must Haves (from Career In Your Suitcase)

  1. KNOW YOURSELF: be consciously aware of your backstory
  2. PLUG IN: Your passion, values, interests and purpose will sustain and keep you going as long as you engage them.
  3. NAVIGATE AN UNCHARTED PATH: Use your personal North Star to guide and keep you on course, as you navigate your way off the beaten track.
  4. RECOGNIZE OPPORTUNITY: Notice unexpected and unplanned things along the way that fit your criteria, and allow room for serendipity to play a role in your journey.
  5. CONNECT: Link with others along the way, support them, learn from them and apply that information.
  6. ADAPT: Adjust to new information and opportunities as everything stays in motion around you.