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.)   


  1. Tights/hose are so UNCOMFORTABLE! You cannot be a SAHM in PANYHOSE! Come on now.

    Also, I'm no fashion icon (understatement), but I simply cannot do Chuck Taylors. I mean, not that it should deter YOU, but honestly if you start rocking the Chucks I'm going to need an action photo of that. xo