Friday, July 6, 2012

The Times They Are A-Changin'

They Times They Are A-Changin'  

 I’m closing in on 6 months: 25% of this project down, 75% to go.  The cell phone incident was kind of a turning point, if you will.  Up until now, I think I’ve been thinking this is some (albeit, ridiculously stressful) vacation or maternity leave stint I’m on.  On vacation, you don’t necessarily try to make friends or answer your cell phone.  But you also don’t have to make hair appointments.  As I wandered around AMS desperately I realized, no, this is no resort hotel.   This is life.  So, 6 months into this gig, I’ve decided/have been catapulted to shift from surviving to living.  I remember talking to one of V’s co-workers last December at his company Christmas party.  She and her husband had completed a 2-year rotation in London a few years back.  She nodded wisely as I explained my excitement about the upcoming opportunity.  “It takes 6 months before you’re. . . okay,” she said.  I was surprised.  Six months seems like an awfully long time.  A few months after we moved here, while struggling with my new role as a stay-at-home mom, I reached out to one of V’s friends who is a stay-at-home-mom in Louisiana.  She too reiterated that you need the 6-month rule to really find your groove.  Closing in on the end of June, I was starting to get nervous.  6 months?  Well, I was hoping that by July everything would be okay.  I didn’t even feel close.  Or is it compounded?  Six months plus six months – oh good Lord, is it going to be December when I find my sanity again?  This better not be so. 
  Luckily, the sun has been shining for four straight days. (Previous to now, the record has been 2.5 days.  Once.)  It’s amazing what that kind of energy will do.  I’m ready to run a half-marathon, clean out all my closets, and stop eating cheese at every meal.  Not really, but it does make me happy, so that’s always a good thing.  Reflecting on the progress so far, I believe there are three categories that I can conclude on: Things I’m Feeling Pretty Good About, Things I’m Still Getting Used To, and Things That I Still Don’t Get.     

I’m Feeling Pretty Good About:  Shopping. is a website that I love.  It has been an invaluable resource to getting us adjusted to life in Leiden as a family.  It has a lot of resources to help find daycares, which restaurants are family-friendly, lists of playgroups, playgrounds, parks, babysitters, etc.  It does have a small list of stores as to where to find children-related stuff such as clothes, highchairs, and books.  But as far as where to find just everyday things, we were on our own.  After months of searching and exploring, I can point you in the direction of pretty much anything you might need on a daily basis.  I can proudly say that I have recently purchased ant bait, teacher’s gifts, and organic face scrub without having to go into multiple stores to find such things.  Not everything is intuitive and not all stores are the same.  For example, just because the Kruidvat on Haarleemerstraat in the center of town has travel size products, it does not necessarily mean the Kruidvat by the train station has travel size products.  The Blokker in Rotterdam has lamps.  The one in Leiden does not.  The stores do strange things like that, which just keeps you guessing.  The following is my list of what I’ve found to be Dutch equivalents to stores back home.  Total Disclaimer:  There is no store in this country that can compete with the amount of square footage in America.  So, each of the entries below is an extremely rough comparison. 

Media Markt – Best Buy
Blokker – Bed, Bath, & Beyond
Kruidvat & Etos – CVS & Walgreens
Albert Heijn – Tom Thumb
Jumbo – Kroger
Xenos – Garden Ridge
V&D – Dillards
Gamma & Praxis – Home Depot & Lowes
Hema – Target(ish) 
Dille & Kamille – Williams Sonoma
Expo – Hallmark 
Hunkmoller – Victoria’s Secret
Prenatal – Babies R Us
Bart Smit & Intertoys – Toys R Us

I’ve even gotten the hang of the sizing.  After successfully getting to the department store and finding the appropriate children’s section (meisjes kinderen), my other challenge was the European sizes.  In March, while my daughter was at school, I bought her a Minnie Mouse t-shirt dress that I thought would fit.  It was size 104.  In a rush of excitement to dress everyone in the family for our first social event, I put it on her only to realize I was WAY off.  Too late to change her, because as anyone with children knows, once the cartoon character is on their body there is no taking it off, we attended a 1st birthday party with my daughter wearing a dress down to her ankles that she will most likely be able to wear when we return home to the states in 2014.  Once you know the system (the numbers correspond to the height of your child in centimeters), it’s actually simple.  She is an 86, which means, a 104 is more the size of a 4-year old than a 2-year old.  I’ve hidden Minnie Mouse in the back of her wardrobe to avoid a repeat.    

"Macaroni" packet
I’m Feeling Good About:  Cooking.  I LOVE cooking in this country.  All vegetables and fruits are the freshest I’ve ever tasted.  There are fields upon fields of greenhouses, so even in the wintertime; the produce is far superior to anything I would get at home.  It’s also great because you can buy produce pre-washed, pre-cut, and in combinations that make it very easy to cook.  For example, you can purchase “macaroni” packets, which include chopped leeks, red peppers, onion, and mushrooms.  You just dump it in a pan and go.  They also pre-cut chicken into pieces, which is fabulous, because I hate touching chicken.  I mean, I don’t know anyone who does like touching chicken, but Kip blokjes is standard in this country.  It does seem a little contradictory – you have to carry your pre-cut chicken pieces home on your bike.  But whatever, it works.  .  So easy and I’m getting used to the fact that all produce will go bad within a few days of purchasing. 

Still Getting Used To:  We have a mail slot in our front door.  It is old, metal, and clangs.  The first time I heard it, I thought someone was trying to break into our home.  If you’re lucky enough to be in the hallway when the mailman comes, then you get to see a hand actually reaching through the door in addition to the vault-like clanging.  For my American friends, let’s picture this again for just a moment.  There’s a hand reaching through your front door.  It’s enough to make you scream with surprise.   Well, enough to make me scream with surprise.  After my previous grocery store adventures, I'd imagined my photo up at the Jumbo break room with a caption that says ‘Crazy American Woman.” After screaming at the postal worker a few weeks ago, I’m sure my address is also up at the postal office break room with the same caption.      

Still Getting Used To:  Understanding Dutch.  90% of my conversations can be filed into two categories:  Either people are complimenting me on my children or they’re telling me what I’m doing wrong.  Unfortunately the former is typically in Dutch, which I don’t completely understand, but I smile and nod appreciatively, and the latter is in English, which is just annoying.  In a country where I do a lot of things wrong, the Dutch Directness is sometimes overwhelming.  For example, my first interaction with a Dutch man went something like this:  it’s my first week here and the heater in our bedroom is out. My husband had told me that the repair man was coming by, but I had forgotten because my children and I are still jet-lagged.  My husband is at work and the doorbell rings at 8:30 a.m.  I am in my flannel PJ pants, the ones with the tiny pink reindeer on them.  I haven’t been outside our house yet.  This is my big, empty fortress complete with its folding chairs and cardboard box end tables and I am determined to protect it and my children.  There is no peep hole in our door, and honestly, even if there was, I probably wouldn’t be able to reach it anyway, seeing as I am the shortest female over 12 in this country.  I don’t speak a lick of Dutch.  I’m like that one house in the neighborhood.  You’re on the other side, with your order form in your hand for your school fundraiser.  An old lady opens the door a fraction of an inch, yells something at you in a language you don’t understand and then slams the door in your face.  You think, really?  You’re scared of me?  But you slink away in your green beret and make a mental note to avoid that house during next year’s cookie sale.  That’s me - the crazy lady who is scared to open her door, shouting things in a language not native to the country.  Yes.  I refuse to open the door and start talking to the man through the mail slot.  Luckily, most everyone here speaks at least a little English.  He says enough to remind me that he’s the repair man and is expected and I open the door to let him in.  I’m holding my 3-month old baby and show him where the main heater is.  My daughter (21 months old at the time) starts to cry.  She wakes up and I’m in the middle of changing her on her changing table and the man asks me a question.  Flustered, I show him the heater that’s out in the room next door and he takes the opportunity to lecture me.  “You should never leave her like that.  You never know what might happen.” Even our pediatrician at home only offers advice upon solicitation.  Who does this heater-man think he is?  I was livid.  As if I didn’t know my own daughter.  She’s not 8 months old, eager to flip off at any second.  She knows what’s right and wrong and I know she’ll stay put.  But, the more I’m here and the more I research, this is just part of the culture.  No fuss.  No holding back.  They say what they want to say without fluff.  I have to learn not to take things personally.

Things I Just Don’t Get:  Climate.  Okay, fine.  Call me Goldilocks, I deserve that.  After six months of learning how to cope with the cold, it’s warm now.  I’m excited because I'm wearing the short sleeved shirts and Capri pants that I imported.  I have about 30 sundresses as well, but while Dutch women wear skirts on bikes, I’m just not sure that I’m ready to try to pull that one off.   I wore some Steve Madden slip on shoes while cycling the other day and one fell off while pedaling down the street.  I stopped my bike, picked it up, and pedaled the rest of the way home painfully barefoot as the spokes from the pedals dug into my skin.  I decided to just throw those shoes away.  I have no use for them here.  There will be no blog post about me doing something as ridiculous as cycling with a skirt on.  Pass. 
    Up until now, my experience with living and sleeping with the windows open was limited to the handful of times the A/C went out in Texas and a week-long camping trip to Camp Goddard in the 5th grade.  In The Netherlands, few houses are equipped with air-conditioning, so in order to cool your home during the warm months, you must open the windows.  Surprisingly, unlike those rustic cabins in Oklahoma, there are no screens on the windows.  I was briefly na├»ve enough to think, oh wow, there must not be that many bugs here.  I was wrong.  I’ve been constantly battling flies the size of bumblebees, invisible buzzing mosquitoes, and winged ants inside my house ever since the temperature rose high enough for these critters to join my house party.  The winged ants invading my kitchen pre-7:00 a.m. last Saturday morning prompted another one of my "I'm-not-sure-if-I-can-do-this-moments", but luckily, I am expecting a visit from an exterminator early next week.      
    After coming to terms with nature in the house, there's still the heat and humidity to contend with.  We have large windows in the back of our house, which results in the Greenhouse Effect in our kitchen, living, and master bedroom.  I think my children have inherited one of my husband’s genes.  His cheeks will get red anytime it’s above 75 degrees outside.  My face does not get red until after I run three miles in 100 degree heat and am about to pass out from heat exhaustion.  Like I said, I’m pretty sure my daughter and son have my husband’s genes, but they just haven’t been around long enough for me to feel confident with this assessment.  So as soon as my kids’ cheeks turn pink I start to flip out.  The first time it got to 86 degrees outside, my son was roaming around the house in a diaper, still flushed.  I attacked my husband, who had been chilled like a slab of meat in his office refrigerator all day, the moment he walked through the door.  If there’s one thing this Texas girl knows, it’s that I like to be comfortable in my own home.  The next day, we had a portable air-conditioner blowing and my baby had clothes on.           
  In conclusion, I think we've come a long way in six months in establishing a foundation here in Leiden.  I’m sure the next 18 months will bring new challenges and moments of confusion, but I feel confident that perhaps we are ready to embrace the task with more and more conviction each day. We’ve been thrown into the deep end and after six months of treading water to get our bearings, we could succumb to exhaustion and sink like stones.  Instead, I think we are strong enough to start swimming, but we may still need our floaties.      

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