Friday, June 29, 2012

Ridin' Solo

Ridin' Solo
We spent our first few months finding dog sitters, dog groomers, babysitters, daycare, where to buy paint, trash cans, ant killer, rugs, Duraflame-like lighters so I could stop using matches to light my stove, birthday candles, kids clothes, light bulbs, lamps, a toaster, a mop, and a vacuum cleaner.  Finally, my last and final frontier to step over into the world of the Dutch service sector:  a hairdresser.  It seems simple, enough, but it is not.  My friend who lives in Germany is terrified of getting her hair cut.  She admits that she nearly cries through the hour and a half ‘trim’ as she sees her hair becoming shorter and shorter with each visit.  Another friend here in The Netherlands told me a story of highlights-gone-wrong.  It took at least 3 tries to fix the disaster and she explained that last years summer’s pictures were just all, well, not cute.  To sum it up, an international hairdresser is a BIG deal. 
  My hairdresser at home:  he’s my college roommate’s uncle, but he treats me as if we were family.  He went to my college graduation.  He took me from brunette to blonde years ago and we’ve never looked back.  He performed miracles for me and my bridesmaids’ hair when the Louisiana 100% humidity was upon us on my wedding day. This man has heard countless dramatic stories about work, love, family, and friends as I sit in his chair. This man knows me.  He also understands that I default to him.  I’m a CPA and I’m okay with that.  HE is the hair professional.  I sit in his chair and say “Oh, whatever you feel like today, just make me look pretty,” and he does.
  I peruse the Expat website and find that there’s a hairdresser highly recommended in Haarlem, a town outside of Amsterdam.  In April, 3 months after my beloved last visit to Uncle Oscar in Dallas (and probably at least a few weeks overdue for my roots), my husband makes me an appointment and we drive the 30 minutes to Haarlem on Good Friday, the kids in the backseat.   We’re already running late because, well, we have two kids under two and then the GPS tries to direct us down a street that has been blocked off as pedestrian only.  I’m starting to stress as we maneuver the car through a market and I realize there’s no hope of getting any closer via vehicle.  This is it.  I kiss him goodbye and with little piece of paper in hand, I jump out of the car while memorizing his verbal directions as the horns honk on the cobblestone road behind us.  I high-tail it through the market and pedestrian footpaths and I find it:  Toni and Guy, my destination.  I open the door, flustered and 15 minutes late.  The concrete steel grey interior of the salon is bathed in an industrial light, and every employee is dressed in black.   I am SO out of my element.  I tell the receptionist my name, apologize for my misunderstanding of the pedestrian-only streets and she leads me to my chair.  She kindly asks if I’d like something to drink, perhaps a tea or cappuccino, and I nod a thank you and pick out a tea bag from a large wooden case.  I am introduced to the woman who is in charge of the highlights.  She’s tall with dark flowy hair, dark eyes, and bright red lipstick.  She is Dutch and speaks superb English.  In her Dutch (direct) way, she tells me that we will have to hurry because I was late.  I apologize again and explain the GPS mishap, but she is less impressed than the receptionist, who didn’t seem to mind too much.  I mention that I had gotten her name off of an Expat message board and she admits that she had a lot of Expat clientele.  “Oh yes, I’ve seen all SORTS of horrible circumstances come through that door. Horrible.  It’s amazing what some of these Dutch hairdressers will do.  But I fix all their problems,” she says, with a wave of her hand.  “You are used to highlights using foil, correct?” she asks me.  I’m still processing the ‘horrible circumstances’ comment, but manage to mumble a ‘yes, foil” in confusion.  What are the other options?  Reading my mind, she explained that some Dutch hairdressers use a “board.”  I don’t know what that means.  And I don’t really care to find out.  This girl, whether intentional or not, is dishing out a scare tactic, ensuring herself some long-term job security, and I’m buying it hook, line, and sinker.  She continues, “What type of shampoo do you use?” I swallow.  Oh goodness.  This is a trick question that I don’t even know enough to be able to lie and give a good answer.  At home, I used Toni and Guy, actually.  But I haven’t seen Toni and Guy products since I’ve been here, not even in this Toni and Guy salon.  I panic and just tell her the truth.  “Dove,” I mumble.  She frowns.  “Well, you know, you have to be careful with those products.  They can strip away your highlights,” she says tactfully.  I sip my tea and I miss Oscar.  I miss the fact that he knows I’m going to be 10 minutes late for every appointment I make, and will always show up to his salon panicked and apologetic.  He doesn’t ask me silly guilt-ridden questions about my grooming habits; he’d rather know what the latest gossip is.  I miss the fact that I know where his salon is and it doesn’t require a 15-minute sprint down cobblestone roads.  He gives me a glass of wine when I arrive.  After the highlights and the rinse (another girl is in charge of the hair rinsing process), I am introduced to the person in charge of haircutting.  I’m starting to feel like a Chipotle burrito or something.  But I don’t doubt.  If this is what it takes to avoid hair-disaster in this country, okay.  She’s an American and she has a voice of a yoga instructor.  I ask her suggestions of what to do when my family visits Paris and she says she could spend days in the Louve, just looking at art.  I giggle at this, thinking of spending hours on end at a museum, just breathing in the beauty and swallowing the information around me.  It is clear.  None of these people have children.  I don’t even think they know a child.  I used to be oblivious, too.  But seeing as this is the longest I’ve been out of my house by myself since I had arrived here, the out-of-my-element-feeling-continues-to-rise.  I ponder briefly about the professional career I left in the U.S. but yet how vulnerable I feel now in a strange country without a stroller in tow.  I shake myself out of my daze.   Her voice is soothing and beautiful, and in the end, she makes my hair look and feel fabulous.  I’m pleased with the result and buy a ridiculously expensive bottle of shampoo on my way out.      
  Two months later, it’s time for another visit.  V makes me another appointment and this time, I’m going to take the train.  I’d taken the train in The Netherlands by myself when we had visited years ago.  I’ve even ridden the train in Paris and Tokyo solo when I worked at AA.  Now that we live here, sometimes I feel like a version of myself that's been Xeroxed too many times.  You can see the outline and know it used to be sharp and clear, but now, well, it’s just a little grey and there’s some dust in the picture.  V writes down the times for the train and the platform.  I walk briskly over to the station and as I approach the top step of platform 5a, the 10:28 train pulls away.  That’s okay.  Geez, it looks as if it’s only 10:26, according to the clocks, I wonder if they’re running a little early.  V had written the next train, just in case, which would still get me to Haarlem with time to spare.  I needed to catch the 10:42 train.  A train pulled up at 10:38.  Oh good, this must be it.  I jump on, proud of myself for being proactive and I sit.  I brought a book, but I’m too anxious to read it so I just look out the window.  I pass through fields of farmland but the peaceful countryside does little to calm my nerves.  I have only ridden the train a handful of times since we’ve been here, and unlike most subways, there are no announcements or maps above the doors for you to track your progress.  I start to panic when I see the Kyocera building.  This doesn’t look right.  Finally, finally, a voice comes on and says – Amsterdam Schiphol Airport in both Dutch and English.  My heart drops.  My mind is thinking and saying things it shouldn’t.  I took the wrong train.  I’m at the freakin’ airport!  Oh no.  This is bad, bad, bad, bad.  I exit the doors and am met with crowds upon crowds of people.  I rush up the stairs and am met with more crowds of people.  I’ve been doing yoga for a week straight but my chi is no longer centered, rather, it has exploded into a billion pieces and has been scattered all over the universe.  It’s 11:02 and my appointment is at 11:20.  I am SO upset.  “Get Celeste a cell phone” had been on our list of Things To Do for months.  I had one in the states, but I needed a new phone and plan here.  There are a million reasons why we just hadn’t gotten one yet, but at that moment they all seemed pretty weak.  My husband had written the salon number on my piece of paper, but it was hardly helpful without a phone.  I see myself from above, a tiny wandering speck of confusion in this large, industrial type airport.  I am trying to find a ticket desk, an information booth, a payphone, anything.  There are so many people and nothing is clearly labeled, it takes me forever to find a smidgen of help.  I finally find and race over to the train map and although it’s completely confusing, I see a small red and white striped line between AMS and Haarlem, complete with a tiny man with a construction hat on.  Fabulous.  The direct route, which looks like it’s the distance of a centimeter, is under construction.  I’m panicking because I know the salon is going to call my husband’s cell phone.  No one is going to know where I am and to top it all off, these Toni and Guy girls are never going to want to see me again and I’m going to have horrible hair for the next two years.  I’m about to cry, but the tears just won’t come.  The Me Party I’d been looking forward to for weeks – the Me Party where my husband gave me some money, kissed me goodbye and told me to have a good time - the Me Party where I have the day to myself, got a fabulous haircut and strolled around the women’s clothing stores at my own leisure, was gone.  All the attendees for the Me Party had gotten lost.  I race around and find an information booth.  With my biggest sorority girl smile and confidence, I walk up and ask, “Could you please tell me how to get to Haarlem?” (I’m sure I even added a head nod in there)  The printer is having trouble printing my directions.  She’s humming and tapping on the machine.  The people behind me start to get impatient, “Excuse me, may I ask you a question while you’re waiting for that to print?” they ask anxiously.  Her smile flips upside down.  “NO!”  She shouts.  “NO you may not!  You may not ask me a question, I am waiting on HER.”  It was nice.  Thank you, fake flag-girl smile, or rather. . . maybe she just likes doing that to people because she can.  Dutch authorities are confusing to me.
  I get my directions.  I have to connect to get to Haarlem.  I’m not scheduled to arrive there until 11:42, and then, it’s probably a 10 minute walk from the station to the salon.  I race around and discover the long-abandoned pay phone booths.  I frantically start shoving Euro coins into the machine and dial the Toni and Guy number.  I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, but a Dutch recording is playing.  Apparently this lady is very pleasantly explaining to me that the stupid phone is just going to eat every coin I feed it while refusing to connect my call.  Cha-Ching!  The phone eats 3 or 4 Euros before I decide it is pointless.  I feel so defeated, alone, and confused.  I’m about to give up.  I want to go home and be doomed to highlights gone wrong for the next two years, but I don’t even know what train to take to give up and go home.  I’m not going to stand in the information line again.  I decide to take the train to Haarlem and try to save face.  I’ll walk to the Toni and Guy and apologize.  I have the scene in my head: “I’m sorry, I know there’s nothing you can do for me today, but I apologize for wasting your time, it was not my intention.”  And then I just walk out.  I don’t know if there’s a penalty fee for canceling on an appointment.  I hope not.  But yes.  That’s what I’m going to do.    
  I arrive at Toni and Guy 40 minutes after my original appointment.  The salon is almost empty, unlike my previous visit.  I deliver the script and to my surprise, they take pity.  Well, at least the American does.  They say they can fit me in and they call my husband (whom they had called previously) and told him I was okay.  I endure the typical small talk questions such as “So, how are you adjusting to the country?” as if it wasn’t obvious that I’m struggling, and more tedious personal hygiene habits questions.  The Dutch highlights lady seemed pleased with my response to the “How do you blow dry your hair?” and she had already given me the appropriate response last time to “How often do you wash your hair?”
  I arrived safely and without drama back to Leiden and later that evening, we biked the family over to the shopping district to comparison shop the cell phone options.  6:30 p.m. was hardly the ideal time, but Thursdays are the only evening the shops are open past 5, Saturdays they are a zoo, and Sunday they are closed.  As I fed my children their dinner in the stroller, my husband negotiated with the salesmen and we left with a cell phone and plan.  The rain started to pour as we attached the stroller to my bike.  My perfectly and expensively styled hair-do didn’t even last 3 hours.  As I pedaled home, squinting through the raindrops, I decided that perhaps, it was time to go back to my natural hair color.  I’m looking forward to my visit to Oscar in Dallas during the holidays.  I think he can help me.  So if you see photos of me in 2013, don’t be surprised at the brunette looking back at you.  I’m not sure if blondes have more fun in The Netherlands, anyway.                   

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Things That Make You Go Hmmmm

Things That Make You Go Hmmmm
Leiden Centraal

  It’s an “in-between” Saturday in spring and my family and I are at the train station, enjoying lunch before we head out to the market to purchase our weekly allotment of cheese, bread, fruit, vegetables, and flowers.  “In-between”, in that, the sun is shining for the first time in what seems like decades, and its radiance is reflected in large, overflowing smiles glowing on everyone around us, which is a stark contrast to the stoic faces we normally encounter at Leiden Centraal.  But yet, “in-between”, as it’s not quite, well, what most people would call, warm.  The crisp breeze whips through the station, down the street, and across all alleyways and canals.  It is the breeze that accompanies us most days (at least, from what I’ve experienced so far) here in Leiden.  Seeing as we have seagulls swarming our house at all hours of the day at night, squawking, crying, fighting with the crows, and thus, confusing me:  “Is that the baby, the toddler, or those ridiculously annoying seagulls, again,” I guess that the coastal breezes are to be expected. 
    I’m anxious to see what the Dutch wear when temperature rises above freezing cold.  I am a keen observer of wardrobe.  I love the expression of self.  It used to be my favorite part of going to work.  Coordinating accessories and makeup while experimenting with combining pieces, well, I just had a lot of fun doing it.  Attending marketing meetings were a lesson on new wardrobe ideas.  So far, here in The Netherlands, my eyes have observed nothing more exciting than wool or weatherproof coats, skinny jeans, leggings, boots, scarves, and a number of other grey, black, and brown garments.  I can not wait to embrace my new European style and with this hopeful change in season, my eyes are anxious to observe.  Like an A+ student on their first day of class, I have my mental pencil and paper ready.  To my shock and surprise, every direction my head turns, my eyes feast on (drumroll, please): black pantyhose.  What?  Black pantyhose?  (Okay.  I have a supply of those in my top dresser drawer, I guess?)  And what have my Dutch brethren paired these with?  Jorts.  Jean shorts.  (Okay.  I don’t have those, at least, not since 1996.)  Or tiny, tiny, black mini skirts that are almost small enough to be bikini tops.  Everyone in the entire station is wearing either Vans or Converse sneakers – of multiple colors.  On top, most coordinate the black pantyhose with spring jackets and then finalize the whole ensemble with a light, springy scarf.  Oh my.  I don’t know if I can do this.  Actually, I’m pretty sure I cannot.  Ah.  Sigh.   
    I’ve made some other observations around town, most of them involving bicycles.    I saw a man air-drumming on his bike the other day.  He was jamming to his iPhone headphones, just rat-at-tatting away on his handlebars.  I couldn’t help myself but smile and reminisce about the opening scene of Office Space.  Another time, I was on my way to drop off the recycling at the end of our block and passed a guy trying to tie a wooden dining room chair to the tiny cargo platform on the back of his bike.  He attempted all sorts of combinations.  I later saw him pedaling down our street, carrying the chair in his left hand, while steering and riding his bike with his right.  It was amazing.  I’ve seen people balance Webber barbeque grills on their bikes while pushing them down our street.  The Dutch can pedal their bicycles while dogs and suitcases keep pace along side.  They hold hands with their lovers and keep a protective hand on their children as they ride down the roads and bike lanes.  I saw a Dad show his very young son the importance of watching the light turn green on the bike path.  (Ugh!  If only I was 4 and not over 30 when I learned such things, life would be so much easier!)  I’ve seen a guy and a girl bicycle around each other, pull their bikes real close, and successfully complete a goodbye kiss without an entangling of pedals, handlebars, or wheels, as one turned left towards the train station and the other went straight.  The feat was beautiful and graceful, like watching a couples ice-skating routine.  I found it equally romantic and impressive.
   Between the fashion, the funny bike moves, and well, we’ve already discussed the playgroup and shopping observations in prior posts, my husband V, is the member of our household who has the perspective from the Dutch businessman.  He too, has observed a number of things that has made him go “hmmmm”.   (He wanted to be a guest writer, but I told him, don’t worry Honey, you just give me your ideas, and I’ll make them pretty.)  With that said, one of his first phone calls home to me (when I was still in Dallas and he had started his job in Rotterdam), he said, “Have I told you about lunch?”  Now, I’ve experienced a variety of lunches during the ten years I worked in Corporate America.  The Public Accounting Lunch: you must go out to-be-part-of-the-team-and-charge-it-to-the-account-lunch, The Internal Audit Lunch: we-actually-LIKE-each-other-let’s-go-have-Pho-lunch, The Finance Lunch: I-don’t-have-much-to-say-so-I’d-rather-just-eat-in-my-cube-lunch.  So, I said, “No, V, you haven’t, what is lunch like in your office?”  He explained, basically, everyone just works away in their respective offices or cubes until the partner comes by and says “Want to go to lunch? (or rather, “Wil jij iets eten?” in Dutch)” then everyone files down to the corporate cafeteria, grabs a tray, two pieces of bread and the stuff to put on the bread.  Choices: Ham.  Cheese.  OR chocolate sprinkles.  (Sidenote:  He grew up Dutch, right?  He thought chocolate sprinkles were a kid’s thing – like Cocoa Puffs.  Apparently not so.  Good thing we moved here to discover the truth.)  Anyhow, all his co-workers are enjoying their thoroughly satisfying cheese OR ham sandwiches (heaven forbid they have both on the same sandwich, and let’s just call the authorities if a tomato or lettuce wedge attempts to engage), and then, they stare at him.  Not only has he eaten his lunch with his hands, but he has left a bite on his plate.  A bite.   They are bug-eyed, politely making small talk, and finally someone asks him.  “Are you done?”  Embarrassed, he scans every plate around him.  They are all happy plates.  No trace of lunch remains.  This is what the Dutch do.  They eat everything on their plates, with a knife and fork.  (Early on, we once asked for a doggie box at a restaurant, and a flustered waitress brought us an entire roll of commercial-sized foil from the kitchen to pack up our chicken pasta in.  Of course! There are no leftovers, ever, in this country.)   After lunch, his co-workers take the stairs up to the 16th floor where their office is located, because cycling to work and eating bird food just isn’t enough to keep your figure in shape.          
    The next phone call home, he explains coffee at the office.  “I see the coffee machine.  It’s on the way to the men’s room.  I can easily just grab a cup of coffee on my way back, but I can’t,” he whispers to me, as if he’s explaining his desperate attempts to use a Jedi-mind-trick to prevent an accident from happening.  “Really, what do you mean, you can’t?”  I play along, intrigued.   He continues to illustrate, in that every ten minutes or so, a different member of the group visits every office and cube and asks each person if he/she would like a cup of coffee.   “They have a tray and if you say yes, the co-worker pours you a thimble-sized cup of coffee, asks if you’d like cream or sugar, and tosses you the appropriate packet.  So, if you go and get yourself a cup of coffee, you have to get a round for the entire office.  It’s like, if you were at a bar with all your friends!” he says.  I can tell he’s sweating, just reiterating the story.  “Well, why can’t you go and get coffee for all your co-workers?” I ask.  “Because, I don’t know where the tray is!” he says.  He’s clearly panicking.  Either he’s the too-good-to-serve-his-co-workers-coffee-because-he’s-an-American/Manager-type-guy. . . or he’s the Stupid-American-that-can’t-even-serve-his-own-co-workers-coffee.  By the end of the day, he has at least 6-8 tiny cups stacked upon his desk.  He daydreams about having a huge, steaming paper cup of coffee that lasts all morning long.   (Actually, truth be told, he has brought his thermos-sized American-imported travel mug on the train with him.  It’s bright green, kind of like my bike.  People stare.  But anyway, this post isn’t about what makes the Dutch people around us go, Hmmmm.) 
  I ran across this quote in my Expat book, “Life in a foreign country is a dance of submission and resistance.  Self-knowledge comes in small repeated shocks as you find yourself giving in easily, with a struggle, or not at all,” Rhiannon Paine writes.  As me, my husband, and even my daughter continue to navigate our new world, I believe this quote reins true.  We may nod in appreciation, cock our heads in confusion, or just shake our heads violently.  We continue to mesh the two cultures to fit our needs, and at the end of the day, I’m incredibly appreciative of the opportunity to open my mind to new experiences. (But you can hold your breath on the black pantyhose and jorts-combo.)   

Saturday, June 16, 2012

I'll Be There For You

I'll Be There For You

“I’ll be there for you!  As the rain starts to fall.  I’ll be there for you, like I’ve been there before. . . I’ll be there for you, cause you’re there for me too.” 

The Friends theme song is blasting through my kitchen.  Hum.  This is one of SkyRadio’s more recent tunes.  According to my Lonely Planet Netherlands guidebook, the ‘Don’t Leave Home Without. . .” list includes:  “good jacket and scarf” (check!), “appreciation for flowers” (check!), “220V converter for European plugs” (after frying my American Crockpot, neubulizer, and Blue Ray player – check!), “quick reflexes to avoid cyclists” (check!), and “taste for bad ‘80s music because you won’t be able to escape it.” (uh, working on it).  Driving down the road, my husband and I often glance at each other when a song comes on the radio.  After the intro, I’ll cock my head to one side and ask, “Jazzercise song?” and more often than not, he will reply, “Oh yeah.”  It’s one of the things we have in common from our childhood.  My mom was a regular attendee in Texas and his mom was an instructor in Louisiana.  Here in The Netherlands, I’ve heard a range of warm-up songs, increase your heart-rate songs, and cool down songs.  Some of their favorites are, I Just Called To Say I Love You, Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, & Dancing on the Ceiling.  More recently, I’ve heard Ace of Base (All That She Wants), Savage Garden (I Knew I Loved You Before I Met You), and Vanilla Ice in the same set.  (Although, I must admit, my 6th grade alter-ego does appreciate a little Ice Ice Baby while spoon feeding my 8-month old.) 
   So, anyway, the Friends Theme song is playing and I’m smiling.  I have two friends in this country.  And I’ve only been here 4 months.  I think I’m doing pretty well for a stay-at-home mom who is exhausted and overwhelmed and well, a stay-at-home mom in The Netherlands.  I’m used to making and keeping friends at work.  2/3 of my wedding party was friends from work.  So, how did I find friends?  Well, admittedly, there are playgroups and such around here.  We did attend one.  Once.  There were about 200 people in a space about half the size of an elementary school gym and twice as loud.  Kids of all ages and backgrounds were running around and shrieking.  The parents around us were unaffected by the chaos and pleasantly sipped their coffees as the newcomers stood with eyes wide open as the scene unfolded around us.  This was our first month.  My family was still accustomed to the organization of daycare in America.  You enter the cozy room, your daughter sits at a table with kids of her own age.  One teacher leads the kids in singing grace as another one puts a small plate of food in front of each child.  You’re dressed in your suit and heels, quietly kiss your child on her head, and slip out the door while mouthing a silent ‘thank you’ to the instructors.  “Playgroup” was not in our vocabulary.  My daughter looked stunned.  She stood, feet planted, mouth open.  Luckily, my husband was with me.  We decided to divide and conquer.  I took the baby (then, 3-months old) to a very large, but questionably sanitary pillow where other babies were just lying there with their mothers talking.  My husband took our daughter to a large, equally questionably sanitary, inflatable trampoline.  After an hour or so of making straining-to-hear-you-as-if-I-was-drinking-in-a-loud-noisy-bar-but-I’m-unfortunately-not-small talk with people from around the world, it was time for singing time.  The children and parents struggled to make a circle with the chairs as one of the instructors(?)/ lead parents (?)/ zealous volunteers (?) passed out song books and started to lead the choir in their first song.  My husband was one of the few men in the room.  As the chorus began, an extremely excited man wearing a pink shirt and baby carrier, practically tripped over my daughter as he encouraged his other child to get closer-to-the-action in the middle of the circle.  It was clear.  This man loved singing time.  After we sang the Itsy-Bitsy spider in both English and Dutch, we justified that it would probably be ok to slip out a little early, like a Baylor football game in the 1990s: the event wasn’t quite the success we had hoped for. To top it off, I ended up getting a cold for two weeks after the playgroup.  Perhaps it came from somewhere else, but on top of everything, it shook me enough to decide not to go back.  At least until cold season was over. 
  So, we found ourselves hanging out at the library.  The library here has a cute children’s area complete with a Pooh bear, rocking horses, miniature stroller, and tiny shopping cart.  They mop the floor every morning and it’s relatively quiet and organized.  I had been to the library before and heard any number of languages, but on a particular day in early February, my two kids and I entered the children’s corner of the library and heard English. American English.  I had been here three weeks.  I was weary and exhausted and as much as I just wanted to be an ostrich and stick my head in the ground, I knew this was important.  “Look Cosette, they’re speaking English!” I told her.  The girls looked my way.  I smiled, we started talking, and I found out they were both from Minnesota.  One was named Erin, and she had fabulous hair and boots (later, I found out, which were both obtained in Italy, where her husband is from).   The other was named Janelle.  She started her bio, like I’m sure she has, so many times before.  “I’ve been here for 10 years.  I came to The Netherlands to study, but I just never left.”  This rang a bell with me.  Previous to moving here, I had found a blog on of a woman who lived in Leiden.  She had given birth in the country.  Her story (for better or worse) made me decide that was not something I was interesting in doing.  She loved Amsterdam, but Leiden suited her well, as it too has picturesque canals, but a lack of tourists as she described in her post, Amsterdam vs Leiden.  Well, it had me.  All signs pointed towards Leiden, and this mysterious blogger justified all the cosmic forces.  After the playgroup adventure, my husband had suggested I contact her.  “Are you serious?  I’m not going to contact her like a ridiculous groupie!”  But as she reiterated her bio to me in the children’s section of the library, I could not help myself.  “Ten years?  From Minnesota?  You wouldn’t happen to be the girl who writes the ‘BlondeButBright” blog? Would you?”  She threw her head back, slightly embarrassed, and laughed.  “Yes.  Yes, I am.”  I was no longer aloof and far, far from cool.  I was SO excited.  I was a total super-fan and treated her like a celebrity.  “OMG!  Let me shake your hand!” I exclaimed!   She obliged, with a slightly-uncomfortable smile.   She probably thought I was crazy.  I’m sure she did.   But after she had said to please contact her,  packed up her son and left the library, Erin admitted that she too had found her blog on-line, had contacted her about giving birth in The Netherlands, and now they were good friends.  Wheew.  Okay.  Erin gave me her number and email address.  Happy, but still overwhelmed by just, well, moving here, I contacted her a month later.  Ever since then, all three of us have been in touch, meeting up for coffee, hanging out at the library, and anyone who knows me, knows I LOVE hosting parties, and I’m pleased to say I brought one of my favorite traditions to Leiden: Brunch, with my new friends and their families.    
  Although I’ll unfortunately never hear the song on a Dutch radio station due to the decade in which it was written, I am on the same continent of the fabulous Beatles song which resonates, “I get by with a little help from my friends. By with a little help from my friends.”  In a country where language, logistics, and just the daily way of life is completely foreign, nothing could be truer.                                    

Thursday, June 7, 2012

This Ain't No Place for the Weary Kind

The Weary Kind

   The birds here must be exhausted.  I’ve never lived north of well, Highway 121 in Texas until now.  Currently, the sunrises at 5:23 a.m. and sets at 10:00 p.m., and we haven’t even hit the equinox.  Desperate to understand where in the United States Leiden, The Netherlands is similar to as far as latitude goes, I googled latitude of major North American cities. I found that there is nowhere in the United States that is equivalent to where I am now.  Nowhere.  At 52 degrees north, the nearest North American city is Moose Jaw, Canada.  I don’t even know where Moose Jaw, Canada is – but it sounds pretty ridiculously far from civilization.  So, there we are.  Birds chirping at 3:30 a.m., and our bedroom is not equipped with the black-out curtains which are found in the bedrooms in the front of the house.  This was the driving force behind moving our baby from our room into his own room.  After he started taking cues to start his day from the sun and birds, without ceremonial ado or a lot of heart-wrenching reflections, he started sleeping in his crib out of practicality.   He’s still not sleeping through the night, while disheartening, is completely expected.  Actually, considering I’m the mother of two sweet babies 18 months apart, I have rarely slept through the night since 2009.   
   While I still reminisce periodically about 8-hours uninterrupted sleep, in all honesty, like any mother, doctor, or finals-cramming college student, my body has proven to run pretty efficiently by now on broken hours of sleep.  The biggest challenge and surprise I’ve been overcoming for the past few months, is the total physical exhaustion I encounter on a daily basis.  Most people recognize the feeling.  You’re lying in bed the morning after a difficult workout.  You pushed your limits at the gym or ran a few miles too many before your body was ready.  Maybe you’ve just started a new routine with an intense trainer, picked up a new (or old sport), or perhaps it’s January 2nd and this is the result of a hopeful new resolution.  Your eyes open wide and you stare at the ceiling.  Your eyelids are the only part of your body which can move without pain at this particular moment.  The cause and effect is clear.  You knew it was coming, perhaps, not quite as severe, but you take a day or two off and start to feel great.  You’re stronger, happier, and proud of yourself for accomplishing a small goal.  I remember talking with my co-workers, just a few months ago, about how I’d hope to put the kids in daycare at least once a week to give me a break.  We discussed the possibilities - perhaps I’d ‘work out’ or run errands.  I laugh at this now.  “Work out.”  I would agree - my ideal day to myself in the U.S. included a fantastic run through the neighborhood and a bubble bath at home.  That’s what Americans do.  We schedule time for such events, whereas in Europe just everyday life is a workout.    
    Our first few weekend here, we ventured outside our home to explore our new town.  The double stroller hadn’t arrived from America yet, so with confidence, we loaded the baby in his stroller so he could sleep, and strapped our toddler to my husband’s back.  We grabbed a steamy cup of coffee from the walk-up service, crossed over picturesque canals, and weaved our way throughout the cobblestone streets.  As we navigated through the market vendors, our eyes feasting on wheels of cheese, endless bouquets of tulips, and loaves of freshly baked bread, I prided myself on our resourcefulness of carrying one child.  I smiled at the ladies pushing their love-seat sized double strollers down the bricked sidewalks.  I marveled as to why no one else had a sling.  It seemed pretty handy as we weaved among the stalls and people.   It wasn’t until we returned home and had repeated the act a couple more times before I realized the truth of all this.  Pushing two kids around town (which, inevitably results in at least a 2-mile round trip) is hard work.  Carrying one while pushing another is making a difficult task even more unreasonably exhausting and therefore, ridiculous.  
  So.  To expedite the trip around town, we invested in a bike.  This is what the Dutch do.  We’re going to try it.  Ah, biking.  It still amazes me.  As I’ve mentioned before, everyone here rides a bike.  It’s no wonder that Americans are overweight, but to the same tone, it’s no wonder that Europeans are not.  It’s not a conscious effort on their part or an unconscious effort our part I don’t believe to be healthy or fit - it’s just a result of the system.  Cycling and walking is built into European society, whereas, in America it’s not.  Between the enticing bike lanes, the lack of parking, the fact that you will never drive over 10 miles per hour through town, etc. – it’s just not the efficient way to go.   With that said, cycling myself plus two kids all over town is more challenging than I had expected.  For months I had watched mothers zoom by me in their bakfiets as I pushed my strollers.  They looked happy and healthy, no trace of strain or exhaustion on their faces.  I’ve never seen a Dutch person gasping for breath.  They make biking around town look like an effortless, even pleasurable experience.  Of course they do.  They’ve developed and maintained the muscles to do such things since they were 4.  I’m not afraid of physical exertion – I was in marching band throughout high school and college (insert funny comment here), and ran a ½ marathon 7 months after my daughter was born, but this is a whole new ballgame.  It seemed like such a simple answer – of course I’d bike my kids around town! – We only have one car and I can’t get that American-made 2-ton double stroller with the 6 cup holders on the train.  But yeah, here I am, winded after every time I take my daughter to school on the other side of town.   I’m sure the neighbors have noticed.   On the last turn onto our street, with my two precious babies snug and peacefully asleep inside the neon green carrier, I just stop pedaling.  I am gasping for breath, my shoulders collapse, and hang my head.  I’m happy and tired and thankful that we made it back home again.  Jiggity Jig.  I can only hope that I will gain the endurance after a few months to prevent the laying-in-bed-eyelids-thing from happening every time.                 

Stairs without railing...eek!
   After walking, pushing, and/or biking the kids around town, I’m at home at last.  It’s time to relax and unwind, right?  Not quite so.  From what I’ve seen, it appears that the Dutch don’t build out, they build up.   Truth be told, I have 35 stairs inside my house, which basically equates to having a Stairmaster workout, all day long.  Don’t get me wrong, I love my house with all its charms.  But as I explored the Dutch version of last fall, eyeing each home, all of them with at least two or three floors, the consequences of living life in a tri-level home never entered my realm of consideration.  The first floor is the living and kitchen areas.  The second is the bedrooms and main bath.  The third is the guest bedroom, office, bath and laundry area.  It’s a nice set-up, to be able to separate the three areas of your life with the floors.  There are 17 stairs from the first to the 2nd and 18 stairs from the 2nd to the 3rd floors. (Believe me, I know - I use them to practice counting with my 2-year old everyday).  The stairs are the width of a dollar bill, so even my petite 5 ½ foot shoe, barely fits.  The height is almost the same size, so if you’re not careful (especially on the stairs to the third floor) your knees can easily hit the stairs above.  After my buns were starting to not-so-much feel like steel, I put a pad of paper and pen at the top of each flight for a week, just to calculate my exertion and I discovered that I averaged climbing and descending the stairs at least 20-25 times a day.  Laundry days are even more (which, due to the largish-size of my family and the smallish-size of the washer, results in an every-other day washing event).  As if that wasn’t enough, while I felt comfortable letting my daughter climb our lovely carpeted, completely railed stairs at home in Texas, there was no way I’d let her ascend the stairs here unattended – as beautiful as they are, there is no railing on the left side of the first flight and there would be nothing to stop her from falling to the tiled floor 8-feet below.  So, I’ve been carrying my two children up and down the stairs for months.  “Hold on honey, I’m going to take your brother up first, and then I’ll come back and get you.”  I know it sounds a little ridiculous, but it took me about 3 months to do this effortlessly.  I’m not sure which I’m more proud of – the ½ marathon in a little over 2 hours, or being able to carry my kids without gasping for breath.  I think it might be a toss up. 

Dash doesn't seem to mind the steep stairs
  This all said, as with everything, it gets better and easier everyday.  I finally had enough of carrying my daughter up the stairs and have started to let her “hold Mama’s hand!” and climb up (but not down) the stairs.  I smiled and began to doubt my first attempt at letting her ascend the stairs as I had a death-grip on her precious hand.  I steadied her as her tiny legs climbed the intensely steep staircase.  We counted - “Fiiifteeen, Siiiixxteeeeen, and SEVVEEENTEEN! Steps” We cheered her accomplishment and then I had to giggle as she collapsed on the 2nd floor landing out of pure exhaustion.  I’m glad it’s not just me.  At least it made nap time easier for her.  

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

In a Sentimental Mood

In a Sentimental Mood

    I’m currently reading a fantastic book called Expat: Women’s True Tales of Life Abroad.  Along with the Paris guidebook, it was also a gift from my husband for Christmas (it was an easy-gift-themed-Christmas).  The book has made its way around my house for four months with hopes of being opened and read.  It smiled for some time in the guest room with the other books about travel, rested patiently on my bedside table for weeks, and then started incessantly tapping its foot on the coffee table in the living room before I opened it last week.  I had to be prepared to laugh.  The first few months we were here I just didn’t have the perspective or the distance to laugh at anything, yet.  (Not consequently, is also why the blog began in April, and not January. I just don’t think anyone would want to read what I was really going through and thinking at the beginning in my jet-lagged, sleep-deprived, overwhelmed state.  I was intimidated by everything outside my home, and most things inside: the stairs, the washing machine, my children, and the gas stove which requires lighting with a match.  You get the idea.)  So last week, seeking a literary deviation from the History of Europe book I’ve been exploring, I decided I was ready to open it.  Snuggly settled on our couch, glass of white wine in hand, ESPN America showing a day-time baseball game to entertain my husband, I opened the book after both my children had been put to bed by 9:00 p.m.  I was welcomed to an array of colorful, insightful, and eerily relatable short-stories from women across the globe.  I couldn’t help myself as I laughed hysterically and re-read an essay to my husband about a 27-year old girl who moved to France in the footsteps of her father, who completed the exact same move in reverse to America when he was the same age.  She entertainingly illustrated that despite her French roots, knowledge of conversational French, and numerous visits to Paris throughout her childhood, none of these experiences truly prepared her for the reality which was to become, finding a job and living on her own in Paris.  “I realized that language fluency and love of a culture, even a passport with Republique Francaise emblazoned in gold, do not make for an intuitive understanding of a place.  Real cultural integration lurks quietly in the subtleties, waiting to trip you up when you think you know what you’re doing,” Christina Henry de Tessan writes. Beautiful and insightful, V and I laughed relating her experiences with our naivety of moving to the country in which he was born and where the majority of his family still remains.  We reflected on our struggles thus far, and will continue to have, as we navigate the Dutch culture which could have so nearly become his own, like a simple page turn in a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, had his parents not immigrated during his infancy.
  I’ve been reflecting a lot on my experience here, thus far.  It’s an interesting challenge as not only have I moved across the world, but my job has completely changed.  I never knew life as a stay-at-home mom in the States.  I never really knew life with two children in America, either.  It’s been a challenging transition from all perspectives, and it’s difficult to pinpoint with accuracy what the driving force is behind my frustrations as well as my joys.   But in reality, it does not matter.   We’re here, and we’re living it, best as we can and every day is an improvement upon the last. 
    With that said, I was also thinking about some of my status updates on Facebook.  I’ve cooked fried chicken twice and announced it to the world.  I’ve written about my excitement of finding Dr. Pepper at our local Jumbo and after months of fruitless searches for cornmeal in Dutch grocery stores, my surprise and relief of finding some in France.  I made a Betty Crocker cake for my daughter’s 2nd b-day, after finding the mix and frosting at a small shop in Leiden which specializes in imported goods.  Although, not publicized, I have eaten at Burger King more than once.  (I haven’t even eaten at a BK since I was probably 10 in the U.S., but a lack of Five Guys and an honest attempt at eating a ‘local’ Dutch hamburger, made me desperate.)  Our train station boasts one of three Starbucks in the country and their caramel macchiato is even better here than at home.   I won’t even get started about the Mad Men Season 1 we bought (which we can watch in English, Dutch, or Flemish, if we choose to do so.)  As a self-proclaimed adventurous woman, who prides herself on becoming bored with routine, do I feel a little guilty about all these things?  Perhaps.  Do I feel like a fraud for not completely embracing my new Dutch culture?  At least, a little.  And what in the world would explain my obsessive-compulsive-like behavior of trying to track down cornmeal?!?  How can I possibly justify myself? 
   Luckily, the introduction to the book helped me gain a little perspective. “When we travel, we are craving a break from routine, so we seek out the different and exotic at every turn because we know that in a week or two, we will be back in our safe little worlds.  But when we move away, the home we’ve left behind can tug at us in surprising ways. . . Having wanted to take travel to its furthest extreme, we end up coming full circle as we learn to cope with the most mundane tasks in a foreign place. . . Balancing the need for the familiar with our desire for the exotic is at the heart of the expat experience,” Christina Henry de Tessan writes.  This is fantastic.  I love it!  This justifies my bike-riding in the rain with my two kids with my jumbo travel mug of coffee tucked into the pocket next to the bike lock.  This explains my love of kaas and beschuit for breakfast every morning and fajita cooking at the same time.  This clarifies the pre-sets on my internet radio: 99.5 The Wolf country station out of DFW, NPR, and a lovely Paris Jazz station where I find even the French commercials soothing.  I can alternate my Burger King Combo meal with the Doner kebab kapsalon special across the street without guilt.   And those are the extremes, the opposites.  I’m enchanted by the idea of finding the balance between the two.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in our home.  We were fortunate, as part of the rotation through E&Y, to ship our furniture from the U.S.  Anyone who has been to my home knows that I have an eclectic collection of furniture from my grandmother, parents, and some purchases of my own.  The baker’s rack that spent my pre-childhood displaying pots and pans in a Hemphill Wells department store in Lubbock, my childhood in my Grandmother’s kitchen, and my newly married days in my home in Plano, looks fantastic in a Dutch home built 100 years ago, as does all of the beautiful antique furniture we shipped that once belonged to my Grandma.  After transporting my daughter’s crib, Pottery Barn Kid’s rug, and miniature ice cream parlor table and chairs my siblings and I used to play on when we were kids, we fully rounded-out her bedroom with a daybed and wardrobe from Ikea.  And I have to say, it looks pretty cute!   Newly purchased lamps outfit every room (we didn’t bother to ship any of ours due to the wattage conversion requirements).  I found an antique dealer in a nearby suburb and complemented my style with a few more endtables, one in which was created from antique crates from a Delft salad dressing company (Delftsche Slaolie) which has since gone out of business.   I’m proud to say it is home, with the furniture full of sentimental value and with its three floors and width of 6.7 yards – it’s displayed in a style and setting you’d never find in America.  It’s been fun to decorate and mesh the two cultures.            
    We’ll continue to find the happy medium behind exotic and familiar, as we bike, explore museums, travel to different countries, and cook at home because it’s just easier with two kids.  In the meantime, my husband came home today with a product proudly displayed on the Dutch shelves as “Nieuw!”  With a smile on his face, he handed me a 1000 gram package of “Polenta”.  There are instructions in seven languages on the package on how to make it, including boiling water and emptying the polenta onto a wooden board, but for my practical purposes, it is cornmeal.  Now I just have to hunt down some black-eyed peas.