I was chatting with a friend from Dallas a few months back and her son (just a year or so older than my daughter) was asking if my daughter could come over and play. My friend regretfully told him, “I’m sorry sweetie, but she can’t because she’s in The Netherlands.” His eyes apparently grew very large and he became extremely excited, “I want to go to Neverland with Peter Pan too, Mama!!!”
I love the fact that Europe is the land where fairy tales were written. Hans Christian Andersen was Danish, The Brothers Grimm were German, and Charles Perrault was French. As my children and I walk through the ancient streets of Leiden and enter churches built centuries ago, my daughter will often shout “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!” Every building with a balcony or window far above our heads is suspect to her keen assessment. We walk through Liedse Hout (Leiden Woods) once a week and as the delicate trees loom above us I too, picture myself in a fairy tale. I push the double stroller over curvy bricked bridges and rumble along gravel paths and think that grandma’s house with the big bad wolf could be around the next turn. Many streets in Leiden remind me of scenes from Belle’s and Rapunzel’s visits into town, complete with cobblestones, tiny passageways, and leaning homes. As I’ve mentioned before, my daughter’s favorite movie is Rapunzel and I always smile as she packs her ‘mother’s’ lunch for her journey which is to take “3 days time”. She includes a fresh loaf of bread, a block of cheese, and an apple. My family purchases these things at our market each Saturday. Growing up, I never really understood the “This little piggy went to market” or the “Market to market to buy a fat pig” pieces of the nursery rhymes. It was always explained, “Well, he went to the grocery store.” This is the closest thing America has. True. But in reality, “market” is very different. We participate in “market’ each Saturday and have our favorite cheese, fruit, flower, and bread vendors. There are a hundred vendors with portable trucks and stands that set-up every Saturday to sell their goods. They are lined along the Neiuwe Rijn canal in Leiden, in front of our Stadhuis (Town Hall) parallel to Haarlemerstraat (the shopping area). It is incredible that I’m able to buy the freshest, well, everything for my family (at ridiculous rock-bottom prices at that) while participating in an event which has occurred amongst the canal in Leiden for hundreds of years.
So as the nursery rhymes become clearer and the fairy tale scenes unfold before my eyes everyday, I reflect on the position where have been lead. I am half a world away from suburbia and corporate America. This is a dream I had, and choice I accepted. My world has shrunk and expanded in so many ways. I watch Elmo and Disney videos with my children. (Bear with me here and see me through, like I said, my world has shrunk. . . but they’ve got some good messages.) Elmo says I should “Walk with Pride” (along with Beyonce) and “Believe in Myself” (a duet with Ray Charles). I don’t care how gangster you are, this is good stuff. But another scene that gets to me is in the movie, Tangled, about Rapunzel. She and Flynn Ryder (the suave male character) are in the boat, about to witness the lighting of the floating lanterns that she’s wanted to see in person her whole life. “I’ve been looking out of a window for 18 years, dreaming of what I might feel like when those lights rise in the sky. What if it’s not everything I dreamed of?” she worries. He tells her, “It will be.” She turns to him innocently and says, “And what if it is? What do I do then?” He says, “Well, that’s the good part, I guess. You get to go find a new dream.” We all have dreams, but sometimes the day-to-day may get in the way of seeing that we are accomplishing them. When we achieve our dreams, do we even realize it? Are we scared to acknowledge that fact for fear of having to let go and find something else?
Reading storybooks and watching cartoons are some of the reasons I like being a parent. It allows me the excuse to return to childish ways, but coupled with that, The Netherlands, in unexpected flair, allows me to return to youthfulness as well. My friend invited me to a book club meeting this past week and we were scheduled to meet, on our bikes, outside the train station. (Honestly, America, when is the last time you’ve met anyone on a bike? How youthful and fun is this?) I was excited and nervous. I’ve never been to a book club and had visions of passionate people telling me what I should have gotten from the book while I sat there speechless without thought. But she reassured me that the people were cool and it didn’t matter if you had even read the book. She explained that book club meetings typically consisted of eating great food, drinking some wine, and lively chatter. Sounded pretty fun to me, but once I committed to attending, another storm of stress hovered above my head. Everyone was supposed to bring something (I love the idea, I mean, my favorite party is the bring-your-own-brunch-dish event) so I anxiously perused my cookbooks and tried to find something that would impress but not be over the top. It was warm, so I wanted something fresh and light and she told me most of the attendees were vegetarian. I really wanted to bring my staple spinach-artichoke dip, but was unsure if it would stay warm, and I’d have to carry it on my bike. I continued to confuse myself: Perhaps it would stay safe in the carrier, but did I want to drive my SUV of a bike to a girl’s night out? Should I try to take off the carrier and snap on the extra wheel to make it into a regular bike, where I’d have to balance and hop off at stop lights? My husband convinced me that no, I did not want the challenge of hopping on and off while trying to balance anything on my bike and besides, fruit kabobs and fruit dip would be a safe bet. Plus, I could load it up in the carrier and it would be fine. In the end, I agreed. I am a mother of two and an American at that. The SUV tricycle would suit.
I met my friend at the train station and she led the way, google maps app on her phone, in hand. We are talking, riding our bikes, I’m admiring the way she can handle her phone and ride her bike simultaneously, and she’s explaining how, while she lived in Amsterdam, she had accomplished the ultimate feat – riding her bicycle while holding an umbrella. This is so Dutch. I love it!
We arrive at her friend’s house and I’m already enchanted. One of the things I miss most about being in America is diversity. I know, it seems weird – you’re living in a foreign country, what do you mean? Back home, my best friends are Mexican, Puerto Rican, South African, and Indian. Here, I am amongst Dutch all the time, but it’s just not the same. The hostess is Finnish and the other attendees are British, Irish, German, and my friend, who is from Minnesota (which might as well be a foreign country from my perspective, considering Minnesota is nearly same distance from Texas as say, The Netherlands to Budapest). We talked about the Secret Life of Bees, but more than that, we talked about life. We are all Expats adjusting to life in The Netherlands. Each story was animated, lively, and full of insight. The fabulous vegetarian salads disappeared and the tea lights dimmed as the conversation went on.
After many laughs and thank yous to the host, the five attendees headed out the door and unlocked our bikes. The mothers admired my bright green bike that converts into a stroller and we started pedaling down the ‘fietspad’ (bike path) towards town. This is not far from where I bike my children regularly to the local farm. “Turn left! Turn right,” my friend and I called out to the others who live closer into town and aren’t as familiar. We pedaled our bikes under the dark night sky and shining street lights. It was near 11 p.m. and the air was crisp, but not unbearably so, and trees and grass rustled in the wind around us. We playfully rode alongside each other chatting, then gracefully merged into a line to let another group of cyclers pass. I felt like Wendy flying through the night air for her first time with Peter Pan. “I can bike, I can bike, I can bike!” It was fun and magical. I waved goodbye and parted ways from the girls, up and over the steep bridge where my daughter always shouts “Go Mama!” and sped excitedly towards home.
My husband texted me as I was turning onto our street, not anxiously, but just a little worried, wanting to make sure I wasn’t hit by a car or anything on my bike. I lightly tapped on the door and walked inside our home. I excitedly began to tell him about my evening. As I started to illustrate the enchanting bike ride home with five other women, he interrupted me. “Wait, wait. Honey, do you remember?” he asked. Blankly, I stared at him and responded, “What?” shaking my head. He continued to explain, years ago, while we were visiting Amsterdam we had wandered hand-and-hand through Amsterdam’s largest park, the Vondelpark. I remembered the park. Amsterdam is not a particularly green city, but Vondelpark, similar to Central Park, provides residents and visitors with a tranquil space to enjoy the outdoors. I remembered the rosy cheeks of the Dutch surrounding us. I remember the enchanting feel of the air, and how everyone we saw seemed especially happy and enjoying the weather. But I was seeing only the bright smile of the Cheshire cat. “Don’t you remember?!?!” he repeated. “When we visited the Vondelpark years ago? You saw the pile of bikes and the women picnicking on the grass. You said to yourself, ‘I want to do that someday!’” I gasped and my hand touched my lips instinctively. He was right, and the flash of memory, the whole picture, like Alice in Wonderland seeing the entire cat sitting in the tree above my head, its tail languidly waving back and forth, presented itself before my mind with clarity. This was my dream. I wanted to ride my bike, meet a group of girl friends, drink wine, eat dinner, exchange thoughts, laugh, and cycle home. But this was even better, because we had chairs and a table!
As I readied myself for bed that night, I realized why the evening had been such a success. We have many dreams. Sometimes they’re big, but sometimes they’re small. Sometimes we just need the perspective to realize that we’re accomplishing them. And sometimes, like Rapunzel, we need a slight nod to the fact that we have accomplished our dream, as perfect or as imperfect as it comes, then find a new dream.