Friday, December 21, 2012

I Hear You Knocking

I Hear You Knocking - Dave Edmunds

Sinterklaas visits Leiden

  It’s dark, cold, misty, and I’m standing outside of my house with a grocery delivery crate full of presents.  I carefully weigh my options.  My head instinctively looks to my right.  The Dutch house we live in is similar to the brownstones of Boston or Brooklyn – tall, thin, and we share walls with our neighbors.  “Well, I could ask him.  Perhaps this will be the olive branch I’ve been looking for,” I think to myself.   I’ve spoken to the right-side adjoining neighbor once.  After months of listening to his fabulous piano playing through the walls, I tried to give him a compliment as he was entering his home.  He has an alarm, parks his bike indoors, and ducks his head to avoid conversation.  Everything about him implies introvert, but yet, I attempted determined conversation one sunny afternoon as we were both entering our homes.  With his wild grey hair and thick glasses, he just looks like a concert pianist.  He was trying to shove his bike into his foyer as quickly as he could.  “Excuse me?  You play piano, right?”  He stared at me and his eyebrows furrowed.  “Piano?” I repeat, and I make an air-piano motion with my fingers.  He still just stares at me.  “It’s very good, I enjoy hearing it through the wall.”  He shakes his head, shoves his bike indoors, and shuts the door with a heavy thud.  I instantly became paranoid.  Babies crying all hours of the day and night and/or the agonizing responses to said crying by sleep-deprived mother might not be as melodic through the walls in response.  Besides, for all I know, he’s the principal pianist of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam and I just gave him an ignorant compliment.  He could be.  He’s that good.  And I’m that clueless.   
  I sigh and look the other direction.  Two doors down is a girl whose mom is American and her Dad is Dutch.  She’s nice, does not mind speaking English to me, and I watched her dog for her once.  She was clearly desperate, as her dog just had surgery and she had an emergency meeting at work.  She rang my doorbell, the kids were screaming, my two large dogs were barking, and her poor tiny dog had one of those lampshade things on her neck.  With uncertainty on both sides of the exchange, she shuffled her dog inside my house while I, with Little Man on my hip, corralled my dogs upstairs.  Baby Girl dizzily sprinted from the front door to the kitchen, ridiculously excited about our new furry visitor.  Even my neighbor’s black cat had decided to join in on the party and wandered into the house as well, but after eyeing the conditions of her canine sister’s caretaker’s home, did not approve and scattered back out the front door.  It was a zoo.  The dog, probably scared out of her wits, peed on my rug and I put her in the backyard.  Minutes later, I found the tiny dog had escaped both her lampshade and our backyard.  I called V in a frenzy, “Our only friend on the street!  She trusted me with her dog and now I’ve gone and lost the dog!!” I wailed.  This was the height of the summer, with the limitless sunshine and equally limitless rain, everyone’s back gardens had turned into jungles – complete with tangled, thorny vines and swarms of spiders.  The dog, with the help of the man three doors down, was spotted back her own yard and my husband, using a Swiffer duster as a sword, cutting through the spiderwebs, trespassing through back gardens, bravely rescued the poor little dog from her own yard, put the lampshade back on, and Baby Girl fed her treats as an apology and celebration in our kitchen.  Hum.  Maybe I could ask her.  That whole event ended well, at least.  She’s probably my best bet to help me with this project, and I started to walk towards her door. 
  At that exact moment, the neighbor directly to our left opened his door.  According to the American-Dutch neighbor, a family lives there.  The parents live on the bottom floor, and their two grown boys live on the top floor.  A common living area is in-between.  I’m hoping it’s the Mom or Dad, but instead it’s one of the grown sons.  I’ve seen him a handful of times, usually when I’m wearing whatever shoes are by the door (typically my husband’s) to throw a dirty diaper into the large trash bins outside.  He is tall, with longish dark hair, and probably in his mid-20s.  I saw him affectionately kiss his girlfriend goodbye one Sunday afternoon around 2:00 p.m.  We had been to Home Depot (okay, Praxis – the Dutch equivalent) and I was planting flowers in our front garden.  She leaned in, wet hair and all, gave him a kiss, then hopped on her bike and rode away.  The bike-of-shame is infinitely more efficient than the walk-of-shame.  I watched her go, stared at the closed door, and just reminisced about my youth for a minute while quotes from Old School distractedly flashed through my head, “Maybe Bed, Bath, & Beyond, I don’t know, I don’t know if we’ll have enough time. . .” Sigh.  Youth.           
  Anyway, so he’s walking out his door, ready to unlock his bike and speed off to whatever good-looking 25-year-olds do at 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday nights and I stop him.  Here’s my chance!  “Hi!  Uh, I know we’ve never met, but I’m Celeste and I live next door, and so, I read somewhere that Sinterklaas is supposed to leave presents on the doorstep tonight, ring the doorbell, and then he just runs away.  So.  Uh.  Will you take this crate of presents, wait about 30 seconds, ring our doorbell, and then just uh, run away?” I deliver the whole speech without taking a breath and smile brightly.  He looks at me and laughs.  But not really laughs.  More like the laugh that sounds like air just coming out of your nose.  “Sure,” he says.  “Uh, okay!  Thank you!!” I respond, a little too giddy.  Smooth, real smooth.  Perhaps Beethoven next door would have been more impressed with my American family’s noble attempt at partaking in their Dutch customs.  Or perhaps I have this whole leaving-presents-on-the-doorstep-and-asking-a-neighbor-to-assist all wrong.  (Dang you, Wikipedia!)  Oh well, too late, now.  I hand over the crate and hurry back inside.
  My kids are being so loud and rowdy, I realize I’m the only one who heard the doorbell ring, anyway.  6:00 pm, is the absolute worst time of the day to try and do anything productive with the kids.  But I hear it, and excitedly say to Baby Girl, “I think Sinterklaas is here!” and we open the door.  She’s so thrilled and we bring the presents into the living room to unwrap.  Her attention is short-lived and I can’t help but think about why Santa Clause comes at night when the kids are asleep and then families open presents in the morning when the kids are happy.  Compared to Sinterklaas, Santa Claus is a genius. 
  That was Pakjesavond,  (package evening), the evening of December 5th and the presents on the doorstep represent Sinterklaas’ final farewell.  After delivering all the toys to the children of The Netherlands that night, he supposedly hops back onto his steamboat with his Zwarte Piets and returns to Spain.   Spain?  Steamboat?  Zwarte Piets?  Final Farewell?  What the heck, you say?  Okay – let me back up and explain, or at least try to. 
Sinterklaas arrives in Leiden by boat
  Baby Girl first met Sinterklaas at noon on November 24, the Saturday after (our) Thanksgiving.  There were hundreds of children and parents gathered on the Beestmarkt (a part of Leiden where originally cattle were sold at market – so it’s one of the few largely open and paved spaces in town).  The pavilion is not far from the train station and there are docks in the adjacent canal where tourist boat rides usually depart from.  Dutch Sinterklaas songs played loudly through the speakers and there was a festive feel to the air, although as time went on, the moods of the children tipped rapidly towards unruly and frustrated as Sinterklaas’ hour-late arrival overlapped with most of the children’s lunch and naptimes.   With happy hearts, we all celebrated the moment the bridge lifted and Sinterklaas’ boat arrived into the canal.  The children cheered and sang as the boat, which held Sinterklaas and his gaggle of Zwarte Piets, docked.  They waved and danced and Sinterklaas exited the boat and mounted his white horse, Amerigo, who was awaiting him at the end of the dock.  He wore a ceremonial bishop’s outfit complete with a red alb and mitre.  From atop his horse, he nodded wisely and regally at the children, but definitely did not break into a smile, at least not one with teeth.   I imagine a family reunion in the summer, and Sinterklaas shaking his head in annoyance at his overweight, cheery, loud American cousin who drinks way too much Coca-Cola.     
  According to history, Sinterklaas is based on a Greek Bishop, Saint Nicholas, who was born in 271 and lived in Myra (present-day Turkey).  In 1087, his relics were secretly moved to Bari, Italy, which was later conquered in 1442.   It became part of the Kingdom of Aragon, which later became Spain until the 18th century.  Because the remains of St. Nicholas were in Bari (then a Spanish city), the tradition is that Sinterklaas comes from Spain
  The first known reference to Sinterklaas arriving in Holland on a steamship dates back to a children’s book written in 1850, by a schoolteacher named Jan Schenkman.  The steamboat in 1850 was a new invention and perhaps Schenkman introduced the image while building upon the fact that St. Nicholas is also known at the patron of sailors. 
  Santa Clause enlists helps from hard-working, serious elves who are so dedicated to their professions; they never seem to take a holiday to leave the North Pole.  Sinterklaas, for all his stoicism, is assisted by the mischievous Zwarte Piets.  The Zwarte Piets play in a marching band, constantly give boat-loads (literally) of cookies and candies to any and every child the encounter (at least before the American mother steps in with a panic – no more sugar, Piet!), and they supposedly act as Sinterklaas’ spies to determine which children are naughty or nice. 
Waag Huis - Sinterklaas' Home in Leiden
  The few weeks after arriving in Leiden on the boat were like a never-ending celebration.  Baby Girl made art projects at school and sang Dutch Sinterklaas songs. Supposedly, at anytime between Sinterklaas’ arrival and departure, kids can put their shoes by the fire in hopes of receiving small gifts.  Sinterklaas took up residence in the Waag Huis (Weigh House) near the Stadhuis (Town Hall.) during this time.  Baby Girl first visited him with her Dutch preschool, and then we attended an Expat-only event (marketed as Sinterklaas speaks English!) one Sunday morning.  We all stood outside the Waag Huis freezing in the wind, as we waited (again) for Sinterklaas’ arrival.  (I guess he’s on Spanish time?)  It was a nice event and I’m glad we attended.  The Zwarte Piets were quite friendly, handing out sugar to Baby Girl and even Little Man.  Sinterklaas’ house and furnishings were a bit on the shabby and dated side.  The carpets were dirty from all the crushed Kruidnoten (tiny cookies) from days prior.  I recollected the perfectly built and expensively marketed winter wonderland scenes currently present in every American shopping mall.  This was a far, far, far cry from any of that, but at the same time, spending a hundred dollars on pictures with Santa was not what this was about, either.  Baby Girl chased Sinterklaas around the event – but when he turned to her, she kind of shied away.  Throughout the event, she was pleased to give him high fives, but at the end of our visit, as we were almost out the door, she suddenly turned to V and I and said that she wanted to give Sinterklaas a hug goodbye, and she did.  While tradition says that you can leave your shoes by the fireplace any evening between Sinterklaas’ arrival and his departure on Pakjesavond, we limited ourselves and only left the kids’ shoes out once, and left some water for his horse (Sorry, Amerigo - we didn’t have any carrots).   The next morning, Baby Girl was excited to see the empty container after Amerigo drank it, and the Kruidnoten (still wrapped in the package, but then again, presents in shoes goes along with the Dutch disregard for those things germy. . .) left by Sinterklaas.
  Upon his departure, the whole country shifts its focus from Sinterklaas to Christmas.  While I was afraid I was never going to be able to buy a real Christmas tree or candy canes after searching for these things in preparation for hosting my book club Christmas party on December 1st, I realized that I was just too early.  After December 5th, Christmas tree (Kerstboom) vendors popped up around the foot of the De Valk windmill in town, random street corners, and even some grocery stores. The train station, previously decorated with white lights, added large glowing Christmas trees after December 5th.  I actually enjoy this idea – of separating the children’s celebration of gifts and fun from the actual celebration of the religious and more family-oriented holiday.   Plus it makes the Christmas season and celebration last all month long.   With the snow falling and cold temperatures, it just puts everyone in a happy mood.  Maybe I should bake some cookies for my neighbors.     

Friday, December 14, 2012

We Gather Together

We Gather Together (Christian hymn of Dutch origin)

Boats like these sailed from Amsterdam to Leiden.
Engraving by A. van de Venne, ca. 1630.

May 1, 1609 – I imagine a grey, dreary day but the trees are in bloom, their soft petals delicately showering the ground as the wind blows.  The sun hides behind the clouds but teases to kiss the city below with its warm rays:  a promise of happier times ahead.  A large-sailed boat carrying poor but hopeful refugees arrives into Leiden.  It had been a carefully orchestrated move, complete with permission granted by the city to allow the group of approximately 100 people to reside within its borders.  In response to their application, the city of Leiden replied that it, “refuses no honest people free entry to come live in the city, as long as they behave honestly and obey all the laws and ordinances, and under those conditions the applicants' arrival here would be pleasing and welcome.”  I imagine the lot as nervous, anxious, weary but yet, excited.  They view the world around them with wide curious eyes, but yet they carry themselves with confidence and purpose.  They maneuver their boat through the narrow canals and dock.  They carefully exit the boat.  At the time, about 1/3 of Leiden’s population were refugees, mostly from Belgium.  Compared to the other thousands of refugees in town, their small group probably attracted little attention.  But in response to the few passerby’s whom may have witnessed the disembarkment, I imagine the determined members of the group objectively holding their heads as they passed through the cobble stoned streets, giving away nothing of their feelings, amongst the inquisitive whispers in a language they did not understand. They have come to Leiden with hopes of peace and prosperity, because the town is famous for its industry and Calvinist University
Delfshaven, where the Pilgrims embarked for New England in 1620.
Engraving by Abraham Rademaker, 1725
  These men and women are Christians who separated from the Church of England, otherwise known as the Pilgrims.  They had fled England to The Netherlands in 1608 and after spending a year in Amsterdam, a controversial split forced the group to divide from the Amsterdam Separatists.  Leading the charge, John Robinson and William Brewster decided to move their remaining Separatists (about 1/3 of the original population) to Leiden.  For 12 years, the congregation lived and worked in Leiden.  Of the 100 members, about half of the Pilgrims worked in Leiden’s booming cloth industry.  The textile industry lived and thrived with the immigrant population and in 1612 more than 95,000 large pieces of cloth were made and stamped with Leiden’s unprecedented seals of quality.  Starting in 1620, the Pilgrims started to emigrate.  They left to Delftshaven (a suburb of Rotterdam) via the Speedwell, which took them to Southhampton, U.K., where they met up with the Mayflower.  The Speedwell turned out to be leaky and had to be sold; therefore, everyone climbed aboard the Mayflower to make the famous solo voyage across the ocean.   The Pilgrims created the first English settlement in America, Plymouth Colony.  One year after the Pilgrims left Holland they dined and gave appreciation for a plentiful crop alongside their Native American neighbors.  This harvest feast of 1621 is commemorated annually in America on the fourth Thursday of November, Thanksgiving Day.
  The day after my family and I returned from America, my good friend from Germany, Amy and her roommate, Andrea arrived in Leiden.  The plans were to celebrate Thanksgiving in Europe, no matter what.  In anticipation of their arrival, I had excitedly and purposefully cleaned my house all day.  That’s the thing about living in The Netherlands – I’m not sure if it’s my old home which isn’t properly sealed, the fact that there is no central air or heat, and/or because we do not live far from farmland (I always recall memories of my Grandmother complaining about trying to dust her home in Lubbock, Texas) but when we go on vacation, no matter how much I clean beforehand, I always come back to a dusty house, smelling like dirt.  Which, by the way, is exactly what you want after you’ve traveled halfway across the world, or rather, not-so-much.   Either way, I was motivated to clean and by the time my friends arrived on Wednesday evening, the house happily smelled more like flowers than potting soil. 
Precious plunder courtesy of the American base 
  My friends have friends who have access to the American military grocery store outside of Frankfurt, Germany.  They came armed with the most precious of plunder – French’s Fried Onions, Stovetop Stuffing, Jiffy Cornbread Mix, and canned pumpkin.  To my excitement, I found cranberries (marketed as “De power-bessen uit de USA!”) and sweet potatoes at our local C1000 grocery store.  Unfortunately, the only turkey I have ever seen in the country was walking around a petting zoo in Merenwijk, located within a bike ride (or extremely motivated stroller walk) not too far from our house, so I had already decided months ago, that the Barefoot Contessa's Lemon Chicken recipe was going to be our main dish of choice.  (Side note:  I did learn from a fellow mother that The Netherlands does have turkeys around Christmas time.  You can find them at a special butcher, for a special price.  After hearing the details, I think we will still just opt for chicken at Christmas again.)  Who knew turkeys were so. . . American?
Our Thanksgiving Meal!  (with chicken)
    We shopped at the grocery store the night before Thanksgiving with ease.  Baby Girl went to school on Thanksgiving morning, and after a full day of work, V arrived home around 6:30 p.m.  With that, it wasn’t quite the typical Thanksgiving Day off, but the new format had its advantages.  Amy, Andrea, and I divided and conquered the menu, and while rotating who was in charge of entertaining the kids, we cooked the entire meal in just a couple of hours.  We gave the kids a small sample of each dish and put them to bed by 7:00.  After Skyping my brother in California and wishing other family members a happy holiday, the four of us sat down to a grown-up and uninterrupted meal around 8:00 that night.  (Which was kind of appropriate, since my family always ate our Thanksgiving meal early in the afternoon – Central Standard Time). 
  Leiden still celebrates the American-Dutch relationship and can proudly boast that no fewer than nine of the American Presidents, including recent Presidents, George Bush and Barack Obama, descended from the Leiden Pilgrims.  Every year at 11:00 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning, a non-denominational Thanksgiving Service is held at the historic St. Pieterskerk in Leiden.  The Leiden American Pilgrim Museum was founded in 1997 and illustrates the daily life of the Pilgrims while living in Leiden.  
   The weekend was a successful and happy one.  I enjoyed being able to mesh an American holiday with a life-long friend, on a new continent.  We missed the Macy’s Day parade, but didn’t miss the Black Friday (or what is this. . . now Black Thursday afternoon?) specials.  Amy and Andrea toured Amsterdam during the day, and we all feasted on leftovers and played card games at night when they returned.   As any fabulously creative elementary school teachers would do – they took my imported American Christmas decorations and helped me find the perfect method of decorating my Dutch home with them, all of which occurred, the day after Thanksgiving!  The Dutch are apparently pressured to not decorate their homes for Christmas until after Sinterklaas on December 5th. . . A rule we broke, of course, without knowing (like so many others), so in the end, with our fake Christmas tree already up before beginning of December, we had a jump-start on everyone else.  
Map of Leiden (detail) showing the Pieterskerk.
John Robinson's house was just south of the
free-standing bell tower.  Engraving by Pieter Bast, 1600.
  A few hours before their train was scheduled to depart we even attempted a family photo-shoot in hopes of obtaining a Christmas-card-worthy-photo (nevermind the logistics of such things. . . there’s always email, right?).  Amy, an amateur photographer, in a desperate attempt to turn the darkest room of our house into a successful photo, turned on all lights, brought in lamps from the other rooms, opened curtains, and then setup the family in front of our Christmas tree for the event.  We all dressed up, but unfortunately, Mama’s excessive primping routine overlapped into Little Man’s morning nap time and while we did attempt to take what seemed to be about 500 photos, I can’t say there is a single one where both kids are smiling.  (This is the fact of life, right?  My mom always shook her head wisely. . . the more children and more dogs you try to take photos of. . . .)   Oh well, the memories of my Thanksgiving ‘family’ making ridiculously goofy faces in attempts to entertain my children resulting in only making me and V laugh in spite of ourselves is priceless. 
  They rushed out the door and we said brief but meaningful goodbyes.  Behind them, they left a multitude of happy memories and a precious box of Jiffy cornbread mix in my pantry. 
  There is little doubt in my mind that the Pilgrims may have learned a thing or two during their stay in Leiden, which perhaps influenced their thinking when creating the ideals and traditions of a new land and the Mayflower Compact. One theory I ran across in my research is that perhaps the Pilgrim’s idea of having a specific day dedicated to thanksgiving was influenced by Leiden’s Onzet – the October 3rdcelebration of the Relief of Leiden from the Spanish, which of course, they witnessed if not celebrated alongside their neighbors, for at least 12 years.  Like the Pilgrims, I am thankful for the perspective life has given me, the friends and family I have, the beliefs I hold true to my heart, and to be able to celebrate it all, no matter where I am.     

Thursday, November 29, 2012

That's What's Up

That's What's Up (Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros)

  After a nine hour flight from Amsterdam Schiphol to Minneapolis, a two-hour layover where I changed my children into footed PJs at 2:00 p.m. local time, my family greedily stuffed our faces with Chick-Fil-A sandwiches and chicken nuggets while ignoring the groans of our fellow Delta passengers: “Oh my, that smells so good!  Can we have some?” Like a starving vulture devouring its prey, I could only keep myself from glaring at the woman across the aisle while thinking to myself – “Honey, you have no idea how long I’ve waiting for this meal.”  Baby Girl, despite my snuggly efforts, was too excited to sleep during the last 2 ½ -hour leg of our journey, but I didn’t mind.  There was electricity in the air of this 4:00 p.m. Delta flight reminiscent of a Southwest-Airlines-5:00 p.m.-on –a-Friday-atmosphere.  The friendliness of the plane hit me like a bolt of energy.  Obviously war weary, V and I had paraded onto the tiny plane holding Little Man in his car seat, while I carried Baby Girl in my arms. Eyeing my husband and the seemingly-large infant carrier in the small confines, a tall gentleman in a bulk-head seat boisterously commented, “You sure you don’t want to gate-check that thing?” which resulted in an eruption of laughter from the first five rows of passengers.  My husband smiled, walked past, and the man turned to me and comfortingly said, “Don’t worry Mama, your journey is almost over.”  I smiled and nodded at the honest statement and enjoyed the recognition of my efforts from this stranger.  In my jet-lagged, exhausted state, I gave a word of thanks: English.  I’m so glad I knew what he said.  He was being rather nice and harmless.  In my experience the Dutch usually just ignore everyone around them but will take the opportunity to point out what you’re doing wrong.  If he had spoken Dutch to me, I would have assumed he was making fun of my children in footed PJs, everyone would have laughed, and I would have ducked my head in embarrassment because I wouldn’t know what else to do.  God Bless America and the English language.  I breathed a sigh of relief and the 2 ½ hour flight breezed by.               
    We arrived at DFW as the sun was setting and took the shuttle over to the rental car offices.  “I’ve never rented a car in DFW before,” my husband snickered.  As he was talking to the pleasant woman behind the counter, I told him I wanted to get some water out of the vending machine.  He handed me a five-dollar bill we’d had in our kitchen since last January.   We didn’t have any other American cash.  I eyed the machine suspiciously and tried to insert the bill, but it wouldn’t accept it.  All the drinks were $2.25.  I walked back over to him and told him the machine wouldn’t take it, but that it accepted debit cards.  He smiled, “Of course it does.  This is America!”  I put the card in, only to notice the minimal charge on a debit card was $2.50.  My $2.25 bottle of water cost me $2.50.  Of course it does.  This is America.  I shrugged my shoulders as all other Americans do and walked away with my water, the price of convenience.  The Dutch would never have accepted the machine stealing .25 from them. 
  We loaded the car:  three large suitcases, two car seats, a travel crib, and two carry-ons with room to spare.  I grabbed the keys out of V’s hand, “I’m driving!” I said with a wink.  “Have at it,” he smiled back.  We exited DFW and zoomed down the highways.  I haven’t driven on a highway since January and the experience thrilled me.  Everything was jumbo-sized: the cars, the parking spots, the wide lanes for traffic.  I felt so confident and happy knowing where I was going.  I turned up the radio. 
  My two prior blog posts were dedicated to songs from a mixed CD Nikki had brought me when she came and visited me in October.  I picked them out from the CD thinking, “Oh wow!  These songs are great!  I’ve never heard them before and not only do they speak to what I’m feeling right now, but the world needs to know about them!”  The 3rd and 5th songs I heard that night on the radio were “WhatDo I Stand For?” and “Make This Place Your Home”, respectively.  Oh-kay. . . so The Netherlands is (and therefore, I am) a little behind-the times.  Whoops.  Oh well.  I still like the songs and I wouldn’t have changed anything.
   We picked up Chipotle on our way to my friend’s house, where we were going to stay for our week in Texas.  Both kids had fallen asleep and we carefully transported them from the car to the baby cribs set up in the bedrooms upstairs in her house.  It was great to see my friend and be in the comforts of her home.  She has a daughter in-between my children’s ages, so her home was appreciatively equipped with baby gates, kitchen locks, and multiple toddler toys.  “Mi casa, su casa,” she said.  She gave us a tutorial on the alarm, showed us the snacks and breakfast foods in her pantry, and equipped her kitchen table with two extra highchairs borrowed from her sister’s twin boys.  We said goodnight and V and I headed upstairs to crash along with our children. 
  4:00 a.m. and both kids were up; therefore, V and I were up.  Jet lag bites.  Everyone knows this.  I traveled a lot overseas when I worked for American Airlines and jet lag was a bit of a beast on the first few days of any audit I conducted.  Jet lag with two children under three years old is multiplying the beast times three.  At 4:00 a.m. the four of us were in my friend’s playroom, building foam alphabet mats and trying to find the quietest American toys we could (not an easy task).   The openness of American homes is desirable to Americans.  Our Dutch home is narrow and each room has a door that segregates each living space.  Not exactly airy and spacious, but at the same time, the noise that comes with small children (or noise while children are sleeping) can be contained.  My friend has a lovely, large home with high ceilings and of course, no doors connecting the living areas.  4:00 a.m. equates to 11:00 a.m. Netherlands time and my children were being as rowdy and loud as they would have been across the ocean.  After an hour of playing with them, trying to shush them and with the rest of the morning looming like a marathon before me, I turned to V and said, “We’ve got to get out of here.”  At 5:00 a.m., we loaded up the kids in the car and drove to Wal-mart.  Oh yes.  We did, because we could.  I despise Walmart, but at 5:30 a.m. it’s not that bad.  Plus, we needed a temporary pre-paid cell phone because our Dutch cell phones wouldn’t work in the U.S., anyway.  (At least, not without some seriously horrific roaming charges.)  After running errands before the sun was up, we headed over to Chick-Fil-A for breakfast at 6:00.  (And yes, for those of you keeping track, that’s Chick-Fil-A twice within our first 24-hours of arriving in the country.  Healthy.  I know.)
   By 10:30 a.m., we were at the dentists’ office, which means we were taking care of business before we had seen my parents, but it had to be done.  We hadn’t been to the dentist in a year.  Yes, there are Dutch dentists, but do you really want to go to a dentist in a foreign country?  Do you really want to go to a dentist you don’t know in your own country?  This was the first of many doctor’s visits we’d attend to during our week-long visit to Texas
  At 2:30 that same day, I had my hair appointment with Uncle Oscar.  Blame it on the jet-lag, being up at 4:00 a.m., or just the relief of seeing this man so special to my life, I cried when I saw him.  I think he almost cried too.  As he put foils in my hair, his co-workers fired question after question to me about life in The Netherlands.  I answered them and he told them that I had written a blog post about him.  As the next question was about to be asked, he stopped his co-worker short and told me he had stopped smoking months ago.  I was so happy for him and glad to be talking about life in DallasC to D!  Pay attention and focus, this is why you are here.  Reconnect and embrace!  He made my hair look beautiful (and, to the delight of my husband, I’m not as brunette as I thought I would be).  Later the next week, he cut Baby Girl’s hair (fixing the haircut she gave herself the first time I left her unattended with scissors – add that to the list of things Mom’s Only Do Once) and he also gave Little Man his first haircut. 
  We planned to host a party for all our friends and family in Dallas.  In my excitement of preparation, my sister, nephew, V, the kids, and I made a trip to Costco.  The experience can only be equated to visiting Oz.  We were like Japanese tourists taking photos of Baby Girl sitting next to her cousin in the double-wide grocery cart, their four legs dangling from the seats.  (So this is how you grocery shop in America with two kids.)  We threw bags upon bags of snack mixes, Pirate’s Booty and chips into the cart.  We added platters of pre-sliced cheeses, meats, boxes of crackers, cases of beer, and bottles of wine in the cart.   In the end, the cart was almost too heavy to push through the parking lot (Ha!).   The party itself was a whirlwind of an event, and so many of our friends from all over DFW and even friends from Waco came to see us.  I am still humbled by the love shown by so many people who made the effort to come and visit with us for the brief amount of time.  I wish I could have spent hours with everyone that was there, but it just was not physically possible.  I later relayed the event to a friend and she said, “It was probably like a wedding, where people come from all over but you only have time to say hello, thank you for coming, and to give a hug,” and she was right.  I guess I’ve been to a lot of weddings like that as a guest, and its okay.  Hopefully everyone that was there felt the same.
   We surprised my mom at her work.  After hanging out at the Dallas Zoo with my friend we were staying with, V and I decided to stop by the Highland Park Library where my mom works.  I cleverly sent Baby Girl into the library check-out area.  She ran around the circulation desk as V, Little Man, and I hid behind the stacks.  My Mom instantly recognized the crazy running infant as her granddaughter and elatedly chased her down and embraced her in a huge hug.  It was the most precious moment! 
  After the wonderful visit to the library I eyed the houses in Highland Park as we made our way back to Central Expressway.  I had always considered the houses in the area as the ‘old’ and majestic part of Dallas.   It’s still majestic, but I was shocked at how fresh everything looked.  Considering Highland Park was incorporated in 1915, years after the house I live in now was built, and that with the final major land development in Highland Park was completed in 1924, the city and its houses are just babies compared to the architecture I pass through on a daily basis.
   I noticed other strange things, like how a lot of public buildings have carpet and how the sidewalks (in comparison to The Netherlands) are impeccably clean.  Our patio in our Dutch backyard always has a constant film of green moss (think, pond scum?) and I’d never think of going outside without my shoes on here.  We pranced happily shoeless around the pool of my friend’s house.  On the flip side, while the sidewalk leading to Five Guys was spotless, I noticed a layer of grease covered all surfaces upon eating there.             
   Our small family hit a major milestone during our visit.  Little Man had taken a few tentative steps before our flight, but he really started walking when he reached America.  My Grandma (affectionately known as “G.G. – for Great-Grandma” by Baby Girl and Little Man) was witness to even more confident steps in her living room.  I was so proud that Grandma could see his first few steps before he tore through all her Gone With The Wind DVDs that were at eye-level to a 13-month old.
   V and I were invited to a happy hour with his Dallas co-workers (an event I thoroughly embraced considering I have not met any of his Dutch co-workers.), while my Dad and his girlfriend were affectionately responsible and privy to the exhaustion that is: Get Little Man ready for bed.  Maybe it’s just him or maybe it’s just all little boys, but it takes two people to dress a restless little boy in his pjs for bed.  Either way, I was thankful for Dad and Barbara taking care of Baby Girl and Little Man on our one night out.       
   We shopped and shopped.  I went to Target and bought Crayola Washable markers, Goody hair rubber bands, Johnson & Johnson bath soaps and lotion, and Playtex sippy cups.  Do they have markers, rubber bands, kids soaps, and sippy cups in The Netherlands?  Of course. . . but they’re just not washable, effective, pleasantly-smelling, or spill-proof as their American counterparts, respectively.  I went to Bath and Body Works and stocked-up on a cornucopia of lotions to last through the next year.  As I entered the store, I couldn’t help but notice the exuberant lighting, the inspiring displays, and the stimulating color explosion, all of which assaulted my senses.  I picked out “short” jeggings from American Eagle and entertainingly watched my daughter eye the disco ball that adorned the entrance of the store.  I shouted across Little Man’s stroller as the bar-like-volume of music screamed through the speakers in the store as I handed my coveted jeans to my husband and told him that I’d wait outside with the kids as he paid for my long-awaited plunder.  America wants you to spend money and they will stop at nothing to catch your attention, alarm your senses, and speak to your psyche.  It’s kind of fun, especially if you’re aware of it.                  
   It was a wonderful, but difficult week in Dallas.  Even when we were on vacation around Europe, I stood fast in my determination to stick to naptimes and bedtimes with the kids.  Once we were back in the U.S., we pushed the kids.  We had naptime in the car, and put them to bed later than normal so we could spend time with family and friends.  Like the saying, “You give them an inch, and they’ll run all over you. . . “, the same can be said for the reverse.  Push them an inch, and they’ll come back at you like a hurricane.  It was hard on them, and therefore, was hard on me and V, but as an Expat, there is little choice.  But at the same time, I’m so proud of my little travelers.  After a week in Dallas, we boarded and American Airlines flight to Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  After 11-plus hours on a plane, the 55-minute flight was cake.  At 2 ½ years old, Baby Girl snapped her airplane seatbelt on like a pro, and that night fell asleep in her travel crib without a fuss (the 4th unique house she’d gone to bed in that week.)  Our hostess commented how admirable that was. 
   As I’ve mentioned before, my husband went to LSU and has family in Louisiana.  A 10-day trip to the U.S. is challenging in and of itself, but we also felt that it was important to visit Baton Rouge during our visit.  Even though I grew up in Dallas and never attended LSU, I spent three months in Baton Rouge when I worked in public accounting.  Three months was all I needed to get me hooked to the culture, the food, and the people who lived in Baton Rouge.  V and I were married at the Houmas House Plantation outside of Baton Rouge.   Our celebration was complete with an 11-piece jazz band, crawfish etouffee for dinner, and the 2nd line as a wedding procession.   When we were planning our trip home this year, we decided that a trip to Baton Rouge was a “must do”.
   When I was pregnant with Baby Girl, I told V that we weren’t going to brainwash our child by wearing LSU gear before she could talk.  When we were packing for The Netherlands, I told V that he could just leave all his LSU stuff in storage, it wasn’t necessary.  But in our secluded, a little-bit-homesick-state, I will reluctantly admit that our small family marches around our Dutch home to the LSU fight song every Saturday morning.  (The fight song obsession was confirmed by his college roommate this visit, V was apparently THAT guy who aroused his hung-over roommates by patriotically playing the LSU fight song just a little too early on gamedays. . . glad he has a sober group of 1 and 2 ½ year olds to embrace his enthusiasm, now). 
  We walked up to the tailgate and were welcomed by friends we had not seen in years.  I received hugs, my daughter received an LSU tattoo on her cheek by a new-found friend and fellow-stay-at-home-mom I love and admire, and my son tangoed with a friend I spent Mardi Gras with years ago.  After months of hearing the LSUdah-da-da-duhhhh song around our home, V fulfilled a life-long dream, and after chasing the LSU Marching Band down to the heels of Death Valley, he put Baby Girl on his shoulders as The Golden Band from Tiger Land kicked-off the fight song.  Her smile of recognition was unforgettable.
   It was an exhausting, but comfortable trip.  I was happy to be home but yet, anxious to come home.  An American friend of mine visited me in Leiden last week for Thanksgiving.  She lives in Germany and she said, “I call both America and Germany home.”  I’ve made the reference before, but I’ll make it again.  Living in The Netherlands is similar to being in college.  You love going home to where you grew up because it’s familiar and you know what to expect.  You can reconnect to your past. Some things and people have changed, but it’s still relatable and you can embrace the changes.  College and The Netherlands is full of challenges, unfamiliarity, a little bit of loneliness and isolation.  In the end, you know you’re going to be transformed.  I read a passage in a book recently that referred to a town as “the place that tore me down and built me up.”  Armed with the love of friends and family I saw during my visit to the U.S. and my plunder of American goods (not limited to the party supplies for Baby Girl’s 3rd birthday from Party City) I feel more confident and excited to face the year ahead.  LSU was a place that changed V’s perspective and identity. I may be premature in saying so, but I do believe that The Netherlands may possibly be the thing that ultimately defines me.  My freshman year is over and with the love I received from my friends and family, the reminder that, this is only temporary, I feel like in 2013 I will be more prepared and more confident. 

Love it is our shelter!
Love it is our cause!
Love goes on forever!
Love will lead us on…
- Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros

Monday, November 5, 2012

What Do I Stand For?

What Do I Stand For? (Some Nights) - Fun 

In two days we will be boarding a Delta A330 aircraft as a family of four out of AMS, connecting through Minneapolis, and into DFW.  We haven’t set foot on American soil in over ten months and I am filled with anticipation, eagerness, longing, and curiosity.  We have had such an incredible journey thus far and at the top of my list of things to be thankful for behind friends, family, health and adventure, I’m also thankful for e-mail, Facebook, blogging, Skype, and ESPN America to keep us from feeling completely isolated from the people and news we hold close to our hearts and prevented us from going completely crazy. 
   A friend of V’s from Louisiana called the other evening and I talked to him for a little while since V wasn’t home from work, yet.  (The Netherlands changed their clocks back a week prior to the U.S. for daylight savings time and he had miscalculated the temporary 6-hour time difference).   He asked me a simple question, “So, how are you liking it over there?” (I’m pretty sure he hasn’t read my blog).  Tongue-tied and taken aback by my own confusion, I fumbled with my answer.  “Uh, it’s good.  It’s hard.  It’s harder in ways I did not expect.  But it’s fun.  I’ve learned a lot.”  If it was an interview, I pictured him nodding politely and quietly placing my resume on the do-not-call-back pile.  How can I sum up 11 months of adventures, confusion, frustration, excitement, and joys into a simple answer?  What has been the common theme of our year?  I knew I was going to be asked this question multiple times during our 10-day visit home.  What was the answer I really wanted to provide? 
  Later that evening, after the kids had been put to bed, V and I sat down to an adult-only dinner.  While our Paris jazz station played soothingly from our Internet radio and we sipped Italian red wine, I posed the question to V.  “So, how are you liking it over here?” I cocked my head, smiled, and raised an eyebrow.  Like any good interview candidate, he modified the question and corresponding answer down to a more manageable level.  “Well, I think the biggest difference and challenge between America and The Netherlands is convenience,” he responded.  I nodded and waited for him to flesh out his answer.  “In America, the consumer and competition leads the way.”  I agreed with him.  In America, everything is more convenient starting with infrastructure like indoor shopping malls, parking lots, 12-lane highways and supermarkets the length of city blocks.  There are drive-thrus, stores open 24-hours and all shops and restaurants (except Hobby Lobby & Chick-Fil-A) are open on Sundays.  All shops have parking lots without a price.  Convenience isn’t limited to the outside world.  Inside a typical American home, you can find gallons of milk, washing detergent boxes so heavy you can barely lift them and at least the possibility of water and olive oil in 5 gallon quantities.  Dishwashers, clothes dryers, and even some Master-bathroom American showers are created to do twice the job in half the time that the European counterparts are capable.  Focus the microscope one degree stronger and you will notice that every bag of shredded cheese or sliced ham sold in American grocery stores comes with self-locking plastic zippers or re-sealable containers.  We’ve gone through 25 boxes of ziplock bags since we’ve been here just trying to keep our lunchmeat and cheese fresh.    Kid’s clothes in The Netherlands have buttons instead of the standard U.S. snaps and zippers.  (I never knew how hard it was to button a wiggly baby’s clothes until you had to do it all day, everyday.)  These small standards of convenience are just funny examples of how either America has figured it out or Europe is so simply steeped in tradition or just doesn’t care about the consumer’s preferences.  Maybe buttons are cheaper than zippers?  I don’t know, but either way, bottom line, Americans want and demand convenience and choices and are willing to pay the price.   Maybe that makes Americans lazy, or maybe they’re just lazy because they can be.  Convenience, or rather, lack-there-of seeps into my family’s everyday life here in Leiden and is a running thread that connects a majority of our experiences.  I’d imagine, if V and I were here as a couple, we may not notice these things as much, but with two children, one of which who is just now starting to be able to walk herself the distance of the train station and back, it poses a larger impact on our daily life.         
  I took a sip of wine and took his response a step further.  “Yes, I think, if I could piggy-back off of your answer, I think I would say logistics have been the biggest challenge.”  I’m constantly asking myself, in the face of lack-of-convenience – how?  How do I solve this, but it’s a multi-level equation to decipher.  You have a problem, say – Baby Girl needs to be enrolled in school or we need a can of paint.  You must first figure out where to find the information to solve the problem (this is where the internet has been an invaluable resource), then map out where you need to go, then decide how to get there (Car? Train? Bike? Walk? Each answer, by the way, has a different solution and route, unlike in America, where you just drive.  Park.  Walk in.)  Then, do we take the kids, does one of us want to go by ourselves, what about X child’s nap time, if we do go as a family do we take the double stroller, or two strollers, or put one child on our back, make one child walk, etc. etc.  if we drive is there a parking lot close, is parking free, who wants to stay in the car with the kids while we feed the machine and get the parking ticket to put on our dash, etc. etc. etc.  What if it’s raining or cold, do we have the appropriate rain boots, stroller covers, mittens, rain poncho for cycling or umbrellas for walking, etc. etc. etc. 
  But those are the answers to how would you describe living in The Netherlands vs. America.  There is a deeper answer to “How’s it going?” that I’m not sure if I will be able to pin-point until we return from our trip home. 
   I had anticipated missing friends and family, their physical presence and being able to talk to them easily on the phone.  But surprisingly, isolation in terms of being able to relate, not only to our friends at home, but the Dutch, other Expats, and sometimes even my husband, was an unanticipated challenge.   I have many readers, but wherever you call home, who is it that you associate and feel closest with?  As I’ve mentioned before, my husband went to LSU and still considers many of his former fraternity brothers amongst his closest friends.  Why?  Because, they spent four (ahem, or five years) experiencing the same thing at the same time.  Classes, fraternity, football games, dating, socials, drinking, and I don’t even know what else.  Back at home, I still keep in touch with high school friends, friends from my first job, my second job, my third job, etc.  I have friends from college and even a friend from pre-school I count as my closest friends.  Why?  Because we have had the same experiences, traveled to the same places for work, complained about the same boss, went to each other’s childhood birthday parties, or cheered our high school football team to a State Championship many years ago.  The route we were on was similar and familiar. 
  Not many people can relate to a moving a family of four across the world because few people have done it themselves.  Not many people can understand the physical requirements of cycling two kids around town, not for fun, but for purpose, in the rain.  The Dutch can relate to that, but even as I hosted brunch to my husbands’ cousins for Little Man’s 1st bday, they stared at the Farmer’s Casserole (a dish my friends back home and my Expat friends here loved).  They looked at it and said, ‘what is this?”  The Dutch don’t eat eggs the same way we do, and I had forgotten.  They ate it and seemed to like it, but then started asking me why I hadn’t learned Dutch, yet.  Perhaps they don’t understand the complexities I have found living here as an American.  Perhaps they don’t understand the physical requirements of caring for two children under three (Maslow. . . let’s have some sleep and friends first, then we’ll talk about expanding our minds. . .)    
    Understanding comes from experience, and few people can relate to the tears I shed after being berated by a Dutch grocery store clerk for putting packaged chicken in a produce bag to prevent salmonella or how I cried when I fried our American Blu-Ray player (but we imported all these Elmo DVDs. . .they fell through my hands like sand as I confronted V)  Few people can relate to the exhilaration I feel from making new friends, hosting old ones, getting around Delft, Amsterdam and Leiden without a map, or riddling off fun historical facts about the history of The Netherlands to anyone who will listen.  This is the definition of isolation I had not anticipated and I think that it is and will continue to be the biggest challenge.                         
  This past weekend, in anticipation of our visit, we excitedly spent Saturday shopping for souvenirs for our friends back home.  We talked to family and friends in Texas and Louisiana over the phone.  We watched College Gameday being hosted in Baton Rouge and V explained to Baby Girl that we’d be visiting that campus in just a few weeks.  We envisioned ourselves eating at Gloria’s and Whataburger.  We stayed up until 1:00 a.m. to see the LSU-Alabama game kick-off.   Sunday, we stayed inside while the raindrops fell and cuddled on the couch after the kids went to bed and watched a pro football game while the fireplace roared.  We thought of home constantly for 48 hours and planned for the one trip we will take this year where we actually kind of know what’s on the other end of the jet bridge.  We were comforted, happy, and felt a little more like ourselves.  As he readied himself for work this morning and I eyed the clouds looming outside my bedroom window debating, do I cycle the kids across town to Baby Girl’s school or should I drive, a small weight tugged at my heart.  I can do this.  I pumped myself up, or at least tried to. 
  My friend in Germany emailed me this past weekend.  She had been to the American grocery store on the American military base close to where she lives.  It was the first time she’d visited in the three years she’d lived there.  “I’m glad I didn’t go earlier,” she wrote, “or else I might have needed it more.” She asked if there was anything I needed and beyond dried black-eyed peas, I couldn’t really think of anything.  She had emailed me a picture of her haul in anticipation of her visit for Thanksgiving:  canned pumpkin, stovetop stuffing mix, canned cranberries, and fried onions to top off a green bean casserole.  I nearly flipped.  “Oh wow!”  I wrote back.  I didn’t even know how much I missed these things until I saw them.  “This is fantastic!  How exciting and thanks so much!” 
  I’m wondering how I will feel during my trip to the U.S. and feel once I come back to Leiden.  A fellow Expat warned me months ago, “You’re probably going to be sad.  Just be prepared for that.”  I have spent months comparing The Netherlands to America but now that we are going home, I can’t help but wonder how does American look with my Netherlands glasses on?  Visiting two states in ten days will be exciting and rewarding.  As the cultural orientation stated before:  “During the span of your rotation, you start at A and will become B.  Your friends start at C and will become D.”  I’m anxious to learn about the C to D process.  I know 10 days isn’t enough to do it justice and it makes me sad.  So many friends have had babies, changed jobs, have started new relationships and have ended old ones since we’ve been here and I’m stressed with anticipation of seeing everyone and then having to disappear again.  I guess a little face-to-face time is better than nothing and if V and I have learned anything from keeping in touch with friends and family across the U.S., we also know that true friendship, once reconnected, seems like no time has passed.  
   Questions linger in my head:  Will I feel different or will I feel like my old self?  Will my friends seem different or the same?  What will Baby Girl remember?  What will she find exciting?  What will everyone think about Little Man who has grown from a tiny baby into an almost-toddler in our absence?  What have I learned through this experience that I may not even realize I have until I see everyone?  Have I learned or changed anything, or rather just treaded-water trying to keep my head above it all?  If so, what was the point? What values have been confirmed or compromised through the whole experience?  Throughout the past few months, the unexpected resulted in my confidence shaken, vulnerability targeted, misunderstood by many, yet grasping an understanding of others and a culture in a way I never thought possible.  What will I bring back ‘home’?  My longing for the U.S. haunts me, but what do I truly miss and what do I appreciate in my new life?  I don’t know if I will find the answers to all or any of the questions, but I guess we’ll find out.  At the very least, we still have another year to explore and find understanding in the journey we’re taking.  Go home.  Learn about the path from C to D.  Love, share, and reconnect.  Plant seeds for others to explore the A to B path. Our guest room is available, I’m a great tour guide, and will make you a tasty Farmer’s casserole in the morning.      

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Sail Away

Sail Away - Sister Hazel

Venice, Italy
  It’s been a whirl-wind of a month, which, perhaps, may explain my seemingly-radio static on the blog.  After my best friend visited for a week, we celebrated Little Man’s 1st birthday, Texas-style, at least, as close as we could via The Netherlands.  It was a futile attempt, overshadowed by my mother’s haunting words from my childhood, “I treated all my children the same.  I had 1st year baby books for each of you, etc. etc.”  After attempting to order similar Zazzle invitations, only to realize the shipping rates/time just weren’t going to make it worth it/on time for the party, I began to feel defeated in my equalization attempts. With no Party City in sight and nothing but gender-neutral, celebration-neutral, stripes or floral options available at the Hema, we ordered party decorations from
Little Man's Homemade Birthday Cake
While Baby Girl’s 1st bday cake was baked and decorated by a fantastically talented and expensive baker in Plano, Little Man’s was handmade by me, with love.  Duncan Hines cake mix from the Jumbo grocery and a fantastically ugly, but heartfelt attempt at an orange fondant cowboy boot cake topper by yours truly.  Oh well, at least the fajitas, grilled in the rain, turned out wonderfully tasty and we had multiple friends to celebrate with us, which, to be honest, is the most important and biggest, happy accomplishment.  After the huge celebration, Little Man started sleeping through the night and has been pretty successful at doing so since then.  I could not be a prouder Mama.  Year One was our benchmark to happiness and V and I had decided months ago that our family was going to celebrate.  We booked a Mediterranean Cruise back in February. 
  The first moments of our visit to Venice resulted in multiple excruciating humbling experiences.  I think that is the hardest part of being an Expat: on a daily basis, everything you thought you knew, understood, and had accomplished is taken out at the knees.  Your vulnerability is a target.  Oh, so you just thought you had lived in Europe for nearly a year.  You think you know what you’re doing by now, each country border mocks you with an evil sneer.  After tromping around Zurich with a baby on our backs for days while pushing the other in the stroller, V and I decided, while our leg and back muscles recovered from the strain, to invest our funds into a European-style double stroller.  Sure, we had imported one from the US, but with its 6-cup holders, weight of 2 tons, and width of a SUV, it just was not suited for our everyday-pedestrian lives in Europe.  I was excited.  Yes.  We had found the answer.  Our new European-style double stroller was a modestly sleeker version of our old one.  And 17 pounds lighter.  The sucker practically walks itself.  Yes, this is what we need to make our trip to Italy successful, we thought to ourselves.  Our taxi driver in Venice knew better.  We had booked our apartment with 3 bedrooms in the middle of the city.  “It’s probably a 5-10 minute walk from the taxi drop-off point,” V warned me after looking at Google maps.  “Oh Honey, that’s cake!” I responded, confidently.  “Give me a 20 minute walk with 3 suitcases, a double stroller, and a travel crib and then we’ll talk about stressful.  We’ve got this one.”  Venice, like everything you’ve read and vaguely understood through watching Only You with Marissa Tomei and Robert Downy Jr., is a pedestrian only city, complete with multiple canals.  As the taxi driver eyed our luggage and lifted Baby Girl affectionately out of his taxi and into her stroller, he instructed us in his choppy Italian-English: “cross one bridge right, two bridge left, and you be there.”  Still oblivious and translating ‘bridges’ in my mind to the ones I’m familiar with in the Netherlands terms, I thanked him for his instructions and asked “bridges, right?  No stairs?” These questions, did not translate.  He nodded sympathetically, and I brushed his pained expression off as a misunderstanding.  “I live in Europe! I’m not a dumb American, dude!  I’ve got this.” I attempted to assure him telepathically.  We momentarily noticed the beauty of the Grand Canal while I expertly rolled a carry-on suitcase full of Dutch baby formula, toys, and baby clothes in one hand and guided the double-stroller and two children with the other hand (One hand, Mom!  I love this stroller!).  V was following behind like the experienced-pro-he-is-by-now with two full-sized suitcases and travel crib.  As we neared the first bridge, a highly entertaining, overweight, mid-50s, American tourist complete with fanny pack approached us.  She sarcastically clapped her hands and said, “I applaud you!” smiled, and walked past us.  “How did she know. . .” I thought to myself, the compete sentence lingering like the humidity in the air “. . .to speak English to us??”
Then, I saw it.  Bridges in Venice are unlike bridges in The Netherlands, where everyone cycles
One of the many Venice bridges
everywhere and therefore each overpass is steep but smooth enough to efficiently pedal a bike or push strollers over.  I quickly realized the quandary we were in.  Stairs.  Stairs.  Stairs.  Stairs lined the bridge going up and going down.  We started to panic. . . surely this wasn’t how people got around this city. . . but as we searched and found alternative routes, only to be met with more stairs, we quickly realized that Venice, Italy was not a stroller-friendly city.  Okay.  No sweat.  We are strong, we have trained for this.  We’ll just take the pieces up one at a time.  In the 11-months I’ve lived in The Netherlands, I have never, ever felt unsafe.  The handful of times I’ve traveled with the strollers on the trains, I have had honest people give me unsolicited help lifting my stroller or suitcases in and out of the train.  Each has been a surprising, helpful, wonderful, and dismissive act of generosity by a stranger.  As we neared our first bridge, an older man eagerly volunteered his help with our suitcases.  Amidst my flustered panic, it wasn’t until we were on the other side of the bridge that I realized this man had alcohol on his breath and was dirty.  I shoved a couple Euros in his pocket and thanked him earnestly for his help and tried to wave him away.  He pretended to decline the money from me, a woman, and instead decided to threaten my husband in Italian to take our suitcases back across the bridge when V refused to pay him more.  The scene escalated rapidly as my husband started to negotiate and protest with him.  I was shocked and horrified that my children were witness to the threats this crazed man was making.  He was in my husband’s face and next thing I knew, V had whipped out his cell phone and was waving it between them, anxiously repeating “Police, Police!” in English and what he thought sounded like Italian.  My mama bear instinct was kicking in – Protect children and husband - and without warning, I heard my own voice starting to shrilly scream, “No!  Go away!  We will not pay you any more money!  Go away!” No man, no matter how drunk or high he is, wants to hear a woman screaming.  My piercing shrieks attracted the attention of multiple people around us and he slunked away, defeated like an injured animal, with 4 Euros in his pocket, more than enough payment for his feeble attempts of chivalry.   The next bridge was no better and the pleather-jacketed, putty-selling man went so far as to take photos with his iPhone as we attempted to haul our double-stroller down the stairs and then followed us all the way to our apartment.  I’m not sure if I committed a hugely insensitive cultural faux-paux by loudly asking this man to simply leave us alone, again, attracting the attention of a plethora of tourists within a 50-yard radius, but by this point, physically and emotionally exhausted, I didn’t care.  I wanted to be inside the house and lock the door.   We met the owner of the house, a lovely French lady, and after the tour, we cautiously asked her about the locals and specifically about the stalking-encounter we had recently experienced and she looked at us in shock.  “Venice is very safe!” she explained.  I don’t know if her dark hair and lack of double-stroller had protected her from the scene we had just experienced twice, but V and I nodded obediently and quickly decided for the remained of the weekend, we’d leave the cumbersome and seemingly American-tourist-billboard-of-a-stroller parked in the foyer. 
  The next few days and nights were a more comforting and romantic version of the first experience.  We wandered the alleyways of Venice with our children, ate nothing but pizza, pasta, and pastries in the comfort of our own backyard garden.  We took tons of photos and a few afternoon naps.  We encouraged Baby Girl to put Euros into the violin cases of the Italian street performers and after the kids had fallen asleep for the evening, V and I, in our TV-less rented apartment, enjoyed a bottle or two of Italian wine under the stars.     
  Venice was the departure-point of the Royal Caribbean cruise we had booked and by Saturday morning, we had devised a plan.  We were going to take the double-stroller, luggage, and kids in two rounds, as close as we could, to the cruise people-mover station.  It worked out.  After luggage drop-off, check-in, complimentary water, security clearance, we were on the Splendor of The Seas.   
  V had booked the Splendor of The Seas on Royal Caribbean for a couple of reasons.  A. It had a nursery on board, and B. Your children had to be 1 year old to stay in the nursery.  With Little Man a mere 1 year and 4 days old at the time of departure, we met the minimal requirements.  The trip was the most successful one we’ve had with the kids.  Cruising is a lazy-man’s way of seeing the world, and I enjoyed every minute of being coddled.  The breakfast buffet was stocked with every type of American breakfast food imaginable, including 20 different types of cereal, even Cheerios.  While I think the choice of 700 types of cereal in any typical American grocery store is a bit over-kill, our local Jumbo grocery proudly boasts approximately four options.   I did back flips after seeing the bright yellow glorious box that represents everything patriotic and youthful.  I have not seen that box in 10 months. I grabbed two one-serving boxes of Cheerios with glee.  I glared at the other dining patrons with a secret knowledge. . . you. . . you fellow American tourists. . . have NO idea how rare these little non-sugar coated loops are on this continent. . . you simply expect them to be here, along side the fruit loops and mini wheats, and they are here.  But yet, I can appreciate this simple act for the beat-down that it really took to get these little rarities to this place.  I grabbed another box for my purse.  These will be perfect for snack time, I reasoned.
  The weather was fabulous.  Baby Girl and I sported sundresses left over from August while V and Little Man wore shorts and short-sleeves.  The food on board the ship was plentiful and always ridiculously tasty.  We had signed up for the 6:00 dinner-time and were seated with a lovely couple and mother and son from the UK at dinner.  Baby Girl called the man “Papa” and I’m not sure if this was simply an affectionate term or if she really thought the man was my Dad (while physically similar, I don’t think Baby Girl is able to differentiate between British and West Texas accents, yet.)  My why-do-we-even-try-to-go-on-vacation-with-two-kids-moment began just a few hours before our 2nd formal night on Thursday.  Luckily, by this time, I can honestly say we had made friends with our table mates and after getting up in the middle of dinner twice with my daughter and once with my son, the grandparents and mother-of-an-8-year-old-son just smiled at us sympathetically and offered encouraging words as my tears of frustration tempted to spill over my eyelids.  Papa, not only a Grandpa but a child physiologist, correctly gauged my aggravation at the situation and excitedly took Baby Girl to meet the captain of the ship, so I could finish my dinner.  The mother shared her son’s paper and colored pencils with Baby Girl.  Not only were my dinner mates understanding of my children, but they unconditionally accepted the community effort to help keep them entertained each night during the 3-course meal.  I could not have been more thankful for being seated with these loving people.      

Mykonos, Greece
  We saw bits of Italy and Greece I never thought I’d ever see.  We ported in Mykonos, Greece and the white-washed walls of the town were just as beautiful at the movies.  (Think, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants?)  We had a real Greek dinner as stray cats wondered around the floor, looking for a nibble like our dogs, Tyler and Dash do everyday.  (Animals must have a 6th –sense about children and their sloppy eating styles).  I asked Baby Girl what she wanted to name the grey cat wondering under her hanging feet and she said, “Jump High”.  Which, when she said it, in her 2 ½ year old dialect, sounded more Japanese than Greek, but I liked it.  
Acropolis in Athens, Greece
We climbed to the top of the Acropolis in Athens with Baby Girl alternating between walking herself and being carried by V while I wore Little Man in his carrier on the front of my body.  Hoards of tourists shuffled through the ancient ruins like a cattle drive, but yet, I couldn’t help but feel the significance of the event.  The nursery on board the ship was nice, but there were only a few times in which the opening times corresponded with docking times.  (So our hopes of doing an excursion without the kids were quickly dashed upon boarding the ship), but we were able to put the kids in the nursery during our casual visit to Dubrovnik, Croatia.  V and I wondered through the Old Town and I was mesmerized by the beauty.  After passing through the fortress that surrounded the city, we found the streets were made of marble.  I know people who would kill to have these floors in their house.  And yet, here they are, in the street!  Who knew Croatia would be so beautiful?  Who even knows where Croatia is?  V and I split an exotic pizza and Caesar salad for lunch, over-looking the Adriatic Sea before boarding the ship, headed back to Venice

Marble streets in Dubrovnik, Croatia
  The trip home was an extremely stressful one, mainly as a result of a 5:30 p.m. flight back to Amsterdam, 9:00 a.m. required vacate time via ship, and a 2-hour limit of baggage check prior to flight departure time.  The details of hanging out at the pre-security portion of the Marco Polo Venice airport with two children under 3 for 8 hours are too tedious to get into, but close your eyes and you can imagine the disaster to which the equation results.  But overall, bookends in Venice excluded, the trip was wonderful, memorable, and an event of a lifetime.  I’m so happy for the places we’ve seen, the photos we’ve taken, and the people we’ve met.  I thoroughly enjoyed taking naps with Baby Girl while V and Little Man viewed the Belly Flop contest on the Lido Deck.  The pleasures of life, simple or extreme, Acropolis or the sight of your child dancing to live music, are great and rewarding.  It was the perfect way to celebrate Little Man’s first year.                               

Saturday, October 13, 2012

I'm Going To Make This Place Your Home

My decision to live with Nikki my junior year of college and my decision to marry V were the top two decisions that altered the entire course of my life.  Sure, the decision to marry someone, that’s an obvious influence, but a college roommate?  Those can come and go.  This one came and stayed, thankfully. 
 It was an unlikely match starting from the beginning, starting with just where we were from.  I grew up in a suburb of Dallas, as non-Texas as you can get.  I remember the first time I went home with her to Big Spring, Texas.  I felt as if I was on the edge of the world.  Big Spring is not far from where the famous Elizabeth Taylor movie, “Giant”, was filmed.  It is vast, stark, and seemingly void of living things.  As we turned into her neighborhood, our car was surrounded by mesquite trees that were barely as tall as me.  I felt claustrophobic, not able to see past the brush that surrounded all sides of the uncurbed road to her house, but yet I felt a freedom, as the West Texas sky loomed above me in a way I had never seen.  Her brother was the high school quarterback and we had come home for the homecoming game.  As we turned onto the double-laned highway outside of her house, I saw nothing but sky and open road beyond the windshield of the car.  “Where the heck are we going?” I asked.  “To my old high school,” she responded, confused.  I grew up with a high school stadium that had a seating capacity of over 14,000.  We cheered her brother’s homecoming game from the tailgate of a truck her family had pulled up to the fence.  As her brother threw touchdown passes, we shivered on the tailgate, wrapped in quilt blankets, sipping hot cocoa.  Prior to moving to The Netherlands, that night was the coldest night of my entire life, and after the West Texas wind whipped over, around, and through us for an hour, I relented and begged her to let me stay inside the truck with the heater on.       
  Our friendship continued to grow over the years.  I shared her excitement when she read her law school acceptance letter in the living room of our apartment in Waco.  I helped her look for apartments in Lawrence, Kansas a few months before her first day of classes at Kansas University law school.  She helped me decide that Addison Circle apartments outside of Dallas were where I should be after a broken engagement and a start at a new life.  This proved to be a twist of fate, graced by Nikki, as Addison Circle housed my future husband, V, who I ‘accidentally’ met while walking our dogs in one of the courtyards.  She was there, in the happiest moments of my life:  She stood beside me (in a dress!) at my wedding, helped host Baby Girl’s baby shower, and was at my home along with my parents and grandma when we returned from the hospital with Little Man.   When I told her I was moving to The Netherlands for two years, I can’t say she completely shared my enthusiasm.  “But you were in Kansas for three years!  It will be just like that.  Every time we see each other, it will be as if no time has passed.”  I tried to reassure her. 
  I have a tendency to think I can do more than I can.  In January, as V was establishing our new life in The Netherlands, and I was wrapping up ours in Texas, I became distraught.  It was the Sunday prior to our departure and I was supposed to give the keys to our house to our renters in the afternoon.  I was living at my Dad’s house and had dropped my 3-month old and 21-month old off with my mom for the day.  We had movers, but the connotation and gloriousness of ‘having movers’ is deceiving.  All possible things had left the house, but upon my visit in the morning I realized the seriousness of the task I had before me.  When you move internationally/store your things, the movers will not pack up cleaning supplies, propane tanks, lighter fluid, potting soil, and cans of paint.  You’d prefer not to store or ship trash cans (gross!).  My pantry and fridge was stocked full of food that I could do nothing with.  I had 28 bags of trash in my garage.  I had a closet full of clothes I had been wearing to work for the past few weeks.  I had bags of change and wedding photos I just did not know what to do with.  And the movers had left EIGHT boxes under the stairs.  They just. . . forgot to put them into storage.  That was the tipping point.  After I saw those boxes, with no where to put them, I realized I was in serious, overwhelming trouble.  My mom was taking care of my children and my husband was on the other side of the world.  I could throw the food away, but it’s like a zero-balance budget, the more trash you create, the bigger that problem becomes.  With 28 bags of trash already, I knew the city of Plano would not pick them up.  I was going to have to take it to the dump, and the problem was already bigger than one trip in a 2000 Ford Explorer.  As I surveyed the damage, the clock ticking, I realized that I would be there until midnight.  But I couldn’t be there until midnight, because I had two tiny children.   That’s when I lost it.  I’ve only cried that uncontrollable cry, body-shaking, I-just-don’t-think-I-can-do-this-cry three times in my life.  I called my husband in The Netherlands.  Of course, V was distraught.  He would have done anything to be there with me, to help me.  So he did the only thing he could think of.  He called Nikki.  She lives an hour away, but she was there in 45 minutes with back-up.  We loaded two cars full of trash and went to the dump.  She took my authentic 1960’s Beatles records to her cousin’s house.  She took more boxes to her home, she took the cleaning supplies, we took food to my Mom’s house, to my Dad’s house, and she promised to take good care of my wedding photos.   We made plans for the bags of American change which would be worthless in The Netherlands and the propane tank.  We decided to just leave the lighter fluid and charcoal for the renters.
  She came to my Dad’s house the night before I left.  We shared pizza and packed my bags.  She kissed Baby Girl goodbye and then snuck into Little Man’s temporary room as he slept in my Dad’s house.  “Next time I see you, you’ll almost be walking,” she whispered to him in the darkness.  As I hugged her goodbye and she said everything she needed to, I choked, nodded, and mumbled, “I’ll miss you and I’ll see you soon,” all my words unspoken. She hugged me tight, understanding everything I wanted to say, but couldn’t.
  In May, she sent me her flight confirmations.  She was really coming, in October, and the best part of her timing was that she was going to be here for Little Man’s 1st birthday.  I had confidence that we’d at least be able to have a party with friends in The Netherlands by October (unlike Baby’s Girl’s bday in April when we were still establishing ourselves and meeting people.  We celebrated with our nuclear family by visiting Efteling, a Dutch theme park, which was a fun, small celebration, although, if we wanted to host a party, our dog sitter said she would have happily joined in on the festivities). Prior to and subsequently after the confirmation, every restaurant I visited, every museum I explored, every town I traversed, I always had the ‘Nikki needs-to-see/do’ checklist in the back of my mind.
  We corresponded for weeks before her visit and I still couldn’t believe she was going to be here, but upon her arrival, I found that, like every time I visited her in Kansas, it seemed as if nothing had changed.  I was so proud to show her my house, my bike, my local Jumbo Grocery store.
   We took the train to Delft.  I had the kids in my newly-purchased-one-cup-holder-European-double-stroller which-is 17-pounds-lighter-than-my-ridiculously-heavy- American-stroller-with-six-cup-holders and as we exited the train and surveyed the platform looking for the ‘lift’ I started pushing towards the stairs.  “Of course they have a lift!” she said.  “How else would they accommodate the handicapped?” I shook my head and smiled.  “I know.  I know.  But they don’t.   Take an end.  Do you want feet or handle?” We carried the two kids and stroller down the steps.  “At least this is better than Paris,” I said, “there are very, very few metros with elevators in that city,” I explained. 
  By day 5, she was attempting to pack her groceries at the Jumbo like a Dutch pro, and she understood the stress I was under every time I bought bread, vegetables, and cheese.  She pedaled a bike across town next to me.  She hates to cycle.  “Why did you enroll Baby Girl in a school on the other side of The Netherlands?” she questioned me, breathlessly.  “Because, they speak English.  And Dutch.  They say let’s go outside, or please sit, in both English and Dutch – so I think that helps with her understanding and I can talk to her teachers in my native language.”  Without further question, she understood.  She got confused by my washer.  She was irritated by the microwave that beeps incessantly every two seconds post-microwaving.  Yet, she also embraced the architecture, the fabulous food, and the beauty around every corner.   We went to the Dutch resistance museum in Amsterdam and she visited the Van Gogh collection at the Hermitage.  She endured the trek up 35 stairs to her bedroom and loved the view of the train tracks and the quiet neighborhood street from the front balcony.  We met a friend of mine for drinks on Saturday.  “So, you’ve been here a couple of years?  How have you found it?” Nikki asked of my friend.  “It’s been good.  It’s hard.  But it’s good,” she said.  Nikki laughed.  This is what I’ve been telling her.  After a week with me, I can, without doubt, say that she gets it
  We celebrated my son’s 1st birthday last night.  It was a mix of long-time and newly-formed friends.  It was a wonderful celebration, complete with fajita marinade from Texas, lots of photos, and Duncan Hines cake mix and frosting from the Jumbo (at a price).   This morning as Nikki left for AMS, I hugged her again, choked up by tears.  She said everything she needed to say.  I could only manage, “Thank you for visiting, and I’ll see you soon.”  Again, all my words left unsaid.  “Mama’s crying,” Baby Girl was running around shouting.  But yet, Nikki knew.  She knew.  I will see her in just a few weeks.  After months of thinking her visit would seem surreal, once she was here, it seemed unreasonably natural.  It felt like home.