Lifestyle & Culture

Jackie Harding in the Netherlands: Creating a virtual book club with my international friends saved my sanity in the pandemic

Surviving the past 18 months has been strange, particularly last winter when many of us were living a small life in either full or partial lockdown. As an expat it has been isolating at times, with family & friends scattered in countries around the world. As a means of combating my loneliness my video chatting took an upswing and what did my friends and I find to discuss, other than COVID, the relevant restrictions in each of our countries, the lack of travel and Netflix? Books! So, in a flash of inspiration, I decided to bring a few of my global friends together and form a virtual book club!

We are now into our 11th month and we show no thought of ending what has become a delightful monthly
experience. Most of the group were unacquainted but were aware of each other’s existence through conversations with me. There are nine of us, which is the perfect amount for the Zoom screen and we represent three continents and six countries.

We have three friends from Massachusetts whom I know from my time living there. Mary, Helen and Lena all know each other as we worked together in elementary school. They are the lucky ones in the group as they
get to participate at the civilized hour of 4 p.m. The United Kingdom crowd – Lin in Scotland, and Rebecca and Lesley in England – join us at 9 p.m., still fairly civilized.

I met Lin during her time as an expat living here in the Netherlands, Lesley is a friend from before my expat life started and Rebecca I met in an expat book club in Massachusetts during our life there. Yvonne and I get to stay awake a little later than usual as for us it is a 10 p.m. Yvonne lives in Germany, and we also became friends in the US expat book club many years ago.

Finally, the girl that earns the most kudos is Linda in Melbourne, Australia whom I met whilst she lived in the UK as an expat many, many years ago. She gets up very early on a Sunday morning, 7 a.m. (even 6 a.m. during winter)
to join us. We are always impressed that she can string a sentence together let alone discuss a book!

So how do you organize a global book club?

Technical stuff

• The most important organizational tool is World Clock Meeting Planner. It keeps the time straight with the various daylight saving dates.

Whatsapp is utilized constantly! At the beginning we all shared bios and I explained and shared stories on how I met each of my friends. The app is used to share photos of our lives, children and grandchildren of course, but
also to share thoughts or articles on the book we are reading and in the planning of meetings.

• Lastly, without Zoom this would not be happening. It is such an easy format to use and works brilliantly for all of us.


We pick a member at random at each meeting to pick the following month’s book. So far, we have had a great selection of good reads:

“The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir,” by Jennifer Ryan
“The Dry,” by Jane Harper
“The Gentleman In Moscow,” by Amor Towles
“The History Of Bees,” by Maja Lunde
“The Four Winds,” by Kristin Hannah
“Anxious People,” by Frederik Backman
“The Dining Car,” by Eric Peterson
“The Midnight Library,” by Matt Haig
“American Dirt,” by Jeanine Cummins

Of course, not everyone loves every book, but we have all enjoyed the experience of the different choices. One thing I have loved is being introduced to writers from an individual’s country that I had not heard of before, such as the Australian writer Jane Harper and her book, The Dry. We had a great discussion after that about spiders in Australia and what exactly was a Chocolate Ripple cake.

Another important factor with a global book club is accessibility. Before picking a book we have to check that it has been published in each country and/or is available on the local Amazon country website at least.

Finally, the actual discussion. Surprisingly we do actually discuss the book! Maybe it is because we are video-chatting and not in the same room but our discussions can take up most of the meeting and what makes it more
interesting is the cultural differences and references. Of course we do veer off into personal chat like all book clubs but it is often linked to the book discussion.

Unlike many book clubs, the drinking is varied depending on the individual time zone; tea for the early morning participant and coffee to stay awake for the late evening members. Wine and beer is also of course consumed at various points.

This book club saved my sanity over the early part of the year and has added interest for those of us who miss travel. My friends finally know each other and we have hope that one day we may be able to organize a book club outing and actually meet each other face to face.

Now that sounds like a plot for a very good book!

About the author:

Photographer/writer Jackie Harding was born in the United Kingdom. As a long-time expat, she lived in Boston for 12 years and in the Netherlands for the past 10 years.

Trained as a nurse in the U.K., she worked for nine years in the United States as a special education teacher’s assistant. Since moving to the Netherlands, she has discovered writing and photography.

Contributing to Dispatches since 2016, Jackie has written about her travels around Europe as well as about expat life and issues.

She also covered the Women’s March Amsterdam.

She’s married to British businessman Martin Harding and is the mother of two international adult children.

You can read more of Jackie’s work for Dispatches here.

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