Thursday, August 30, 2012

Eye of the Tiger

Eye of the Tiger (Survivor)

"Londen Park" at Leiden Centraal Station
“Geaux Tigers!” my daughter shouts at the TV.  She excitedly runs into the family room, grabs her stuffed tiger, her purple LSU hat, and her green and gold pom-pom.  (Yes, this Baylor graduate has to at least try to make an attempt at competing).  We have our standard background noise going, ESPN America.  We have many channels on our cable television, but of course, most of them are in Dutch.  We’ve caught glimpses of some American channels such as the history and travel channels, toy around with watching the BBC, and have disappointedly searched for sitcoms other than Home Improvement and Frasier.  So, usually, in the evenings as I am preparing dinner and my husband is playing with the kids, ESPN America is what’s on.  This is not quite the same as the ESPN we had at home, but rather, it’s an international version.  Many times, we are simply looking for the lullaby of summer to accompany our evening: the relaxing noise of a professional baseball game, something you would always find on ESPN at home.  While ESPN America sometimes airs a Tampa Bay Rays game?!?! (I don’t think people who live in Tampa Bay care, much less Expats around the world), ESPN America also inserts Little League World Series games, Nascar races, and Xgame competitions during primetime, which are all somewhat anti-climatic.  There are no commercials on ESPN America, so during the breaks, they air sports highlights and memorable moments from years past.  Currently they are gearing up for the college football season, and unfortunately for my husband, will be playing the LSU-Alabama National Championship 2011 highlights for months.  (And for those readers who may be unfamiliar, LSU played in the National Championship last winter against arch-rival Alabama.  LSU lost after an extremely sub-par performance that most crazed-LSU fans would really rather forget).   Nevertheless, my daughter is extremely excited to see her favorite team lighting up the living room television and my husband can do nothing but laugh at her enthusiasm and pat himself on the back for brainwashing her at such a young age despite my attempts of prevention.  (Sigh).

  There’s a strange feeling watching live daytime sports in the evenings, but then again, sometimes ESPN America airs recorded evening games, which is just weird.  Despite your desperate attempts, you never quite have the lush, fuzzy feeling that you’re really partaking in something other people are seeing and watching, and feeling connected.  Coupled with that, the Dutch do not celebrate American baseball or football, of course.  And while we were here for the Euro cup, watching our neighbor pack 16 of his closest friends onto his railing-less 2nd floor porch outside our bedroom window, we just could not get into cheering for European soccer.  “Oh man, will someone score already?!  What do you mean it’s OVER?  It’s only 1-0?  Geez man, where are the commercial breaks, I need some popcorn, etc.” 
Picnic Tables at Leiden Centraal
  So, with that, you can imagine my excitement that the Summer Olympics were being hosted in nearly our time-zone.  Sure, growing up in America, you realize the “whole world is watching,” but to experience it was something different.  The Leiden Centraal Station went all-out for the event.  They spent a week preparing for the event and in the end, they had transformed the station into a fantastically lovely recreation of a London Park.   A green carpet stretched the length of the station.  The tables and stools were covered with red and white checked vinyl.  Colorful birds and delicate butterflies hung from the light fixtures.  Topiary plants had been sculpted into discus throwers and other athletes.  A tree with 8 colorful birdhouses and piped bird music greeted travelers on the west side of the station.  And to top of the transformation, two humongous flatscreen televisions hung above the crowd, poised to entertain.  If you weren’t excited about the Olympics before traveling in and out of Leiden Station, well – you definitely caught the vibe. 
  My husband and I were prepared for Opening Ceremonies – Kids were in bed and snacks of cheese, crackers, fruit, with wine were on the coffee table.  As the BBC coverage started an hour before the event began, we viewed the members of the audience getting soaked.  I looked outside our window.  Yup.  Across the North Sea, it was raining here as well.  Luckily for them and us, the rain stopped just before kick-off and we viewed our first live, truly international event since we’d been here.  I personally thought the Opening Ceremonies were insightful, creative, intense, and magical.  I’m not sure of the reviews it got around the world, but at the same time, I needed the event to be all these things.  I felt connected – London is only 221 miles from Amsterdam (as the crow flies), which is like Dallas to Austin and the coverage was in English. 

Olympic Topiaries
  Throughout the next three weeks, we enjoyed the sounds of the swimmers splashing, the shot-putters grunting, the audience cheering, the British commentating, the buzzers buzzing, the start guns shooting, and the national anthems playing.  We viewed all these things live, even before America was off work.  We walked to the train station nearly everyday, just to experience the sights of everyone crowding underneath the large screen television, to feel like this is perhaps, the one event that we can really all understand and get excited about.  Sure, the big screen played events I’d never seen before (women’s field hockey?) but it was equally as exciting. 
  The Games ended.  The decorations came down.  A large sign communicated “See you in 2016” and with that, life went back to normal:  Dutch and American, soccer and football.  I am glad I was here to experience the event. 
  V has already researched the ESPN America college football coverage and to his delight, it will be playing many of the LSU games.  Personally, I am a little excited about being able to see College Gameday, and truth be told, I think it might be even better at 4:00 p.m., when our day is winding down, as opposed to 9:00 a.m. when we need to gear up to go to market and run errands around town.   Living in Dallas, a state away from most of his closest friends, he always became a little bit crazy around this time of year, which in turn, challenged my own sanity.  But after years of gaining understanding and perhaps, even being able to say that I have successfully bridged a large gap and have some LSU friends as well (not an easy accomplishment for a Baylor graduate), I too, am really excited about the upcoming football season and the connection it provides us to “home”.  So with that, you know we’ll be cheering from our Dutch living room.  Get your game face on, Tigers.  And eat some Cane’s chicken for me!     

Monday, August 27, 2012

When You Wish Upon a Star

I was chatting with a friend from Dallas a few months back and her son (just a year or so older than my daughter) was asking if my daughter could come over and play.  My friend regretfully told him, “I’m sorry sweetie, but she can’t because she’s in The Netherlands.”  His eyes apparently grew very large and he became extremely excited, “I want to go to Neverland with Peter Pan too, Mama!!!”

I love the fact that Europe is the land where fairy tales were written.  Hans Christian Andersen was Danish, The Brothers Grimm were German, and Charles Perrault was French.  As my children and I walk through the ancient streets of Leiden and enter churches built centuries ago, my daughter will often shout “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!”  Every building with a balcony or window far above our heads is suspect to her keen assessment.  We walk through Liedse Hout (Leiden Woods) once a week and as the delicate trees loom above us I too, picture myself in a fairy tale. I push the double stroller over curvy bricked bridges and rumble along gravel paths and think that grandma’s house with the big bad wolf could be around the next turn.  Many streets in Leiden remind me of scenes from Belle’s and Rapunzel’s visits into town, complete with cobblestones, tiny passageways, and leaning homes.  As I’ve mentioned before, my daughter’s favorite movie is Rapunzel and I always smile as she packs her ‘mother’s’ lunch for her journey which is to take “3 days time”.  She includes a fresh loaf of bread, a block of cheese, and an apple.  My family purchases these things at our market each Saturday.  Growing up, I never really understood the “This little piggy went to market” or the “Market to market to buy a fat pig” pieces of the nursery rhymes.  It was always explained, “Well, he went to the grocery store.”  This is the closest thing America has.  True.  But in reality, “market” is very different.  We participate in “market’ each Saturday and have our favorite cheese, fruit, flower, and bread vendors.  There are a hundred vendors with portable trucks and stands that set-up every Saturday to sell their goods.  They are lined along the Neiuwe Rijn canal in Leiden, in front of our Stadhuis (Town Hall) parallel to Haarlemerstraat (the shopping area).  It is incredible that I’m able to buy the freshest, well, everything for my family (at ridiculous rock-bottom prices at that) while participating in an event which has occurred amongst the canal in Leiden for hundreds of years.       

  So as the nursery rhymes become clearer and the fairy tale scenes unfold before my eyes everyday, I reflect on the position where have been lead.  I am half a world away from suburbia and corporate America.  This is a dream I had, and choice I accepted.  My world has shrunk and expanded in so many ways.  I watch Elmo and Disney videos with my children.  (Bear with me here and see me through, like I said, my world has shrunk. . .  but they’ve got some good messages.)  Elmo says I should “Walk with Pride” (along with Beyonce) and “Believe in Myself” (a duet with Ray Charles).  I don’t care how gangster you are, this is good stuff.  But another scene that gets to me is in the movie, Tangled, about Rapunzel.  She and Flynn Ryder (the suave male character) are in the boat, about to witness the lighting of the floating lanterns that she’s wanted to see in person her whole life.  “I’ve been looking out of a window for 18 years, dreaming of what I might feel like when those lights rise in the sky.  What if it’s not everything I dreamed of?” she worries.  He tells her, “It will be.”  She turns to him innocently and says, “And what if it is?  What do I do then?”  He says, “Well, that’s the good part, I guess.  You get to go find a new dream.”  We all have dreams, but sometimes the day-to-day may get in the way of seeing that we are accomplishing them.  When we achieve our dreams, do we even realize it?  Are we scared to acknowledge that fact for fear of having to let go and find something else?       

Reading storybooks and watching cartoons are some of the reasons I like being a parent.  It allows me the excuse to return to childish ways, but coupled with that, The Netherlands, in unexpected flair, allows me to return to youthfulness as well.  My friend invited me to a book club meeting this past week and we were scheduled to meet, on our bikes, outside the train station.  (Honestly, America, when is the last time you’ve met anyone on a bike?  How youthful and fun is this?)  I was excited and nervous.  I’ve never been to a book club and had visions of passionate people telling me what I should have gotten from the book while I sat there speechless without thought.  But she reassured me that the people were cool and it didn’t matter if you had even read the book.  She explained that book club meetings typically consisted of eating great food, drinking some wine, and lively chatter.  Sounded pretty fun to me, but once I committed to attending, another storm of stress hovered above my head.  Everyone was supposed to bring something (I love the idea, I mean, my favorite party is the bring-your-own-brunch-dish event) so I anxiously perused my cookbooks and tried to find something that would impress but not be over the top.  It was warm, so I wanted something fresh and light and she told me most of the attendees were vegetarian.  I really wanted to bring my staple spinach-artichoke dip, but was unsure if it would stay warm, and I’d have to carry it on my bike.  I continued to confuse myself:  Perhaps it would stay safe in the carrier, but did I want to drive my SUV of a bike to a girl’s night out?  Should I try to take off the carrier and snap on the extra wheel to make it into a regular bike, where I’d have to balance and hop off at stop lights?  My husband convinced me that no, I did not want the challenge of hopping on and off while trying to balance anything on my bike and besides, fruit kabobs and fruit dip would be a safe bet.  Plus, I could load it up in the carrier and it would be fine.  In the end, I agreed.  I am a mother of two and an American at that.  The SUV tricycle would suit. 

  I met my friend at the train station and she led the way, google maps app on her phone, in hand.  We are talking, riding our bikes, I’m admiring the way she can handle her phone and ride her bike simultaneously, and she’s explaining how, while she lived in Amsterdam, she had accomplished the ultimate feat – riding her bicycle while holding an umbrella.  This is so Dutch.  I love it! 

  We arrive at her friend’s house and I’m already enchanted.  One of the things I miss most about being in America is diversity.  I know, it seems weird – you’re living in a foreign country, what do you mean?  Back home, my best friends are Mexican, Puerto Rican, South African, and Indian.  Here, I am amongst Dutch all the time, but it’s just not the same.  The hostess is Finnish and the other attendees are British, Irish, German, and my friend, who is from Minnesota (which might as well be a foreign country from my perspective, considering Minnesota is nearly same distance from Texas as say, The Netherlands to Budapest).  We talked about the Secret Life of Bees, but more than that, we talked about life.  We are all Expats adjusting to life in The Netherlands.  Each story was animated, lively, and full of insight.  The fabulous vegetarian salads disappeared and the tea lights dimmed as the conversation went on. 

  After many laughs and thank yous to the host, the five attendees headed out the door and unlocked our bikes.  The mothers admired my bright green bike that converts into a stroller and we started pedaling down the ‘fietspad’ (bike path) towards town.  This is not far from where I bike my children regularly to the local farm.  “Turn left!  Turn right,” my friend and I called out to the others who live closer into town and aren’t as familiar.   We pedaled our bikes under the dark night sky and shining street lights.  It was near 11 p.m. and the air was crisp, but not unbearably so, and trees and grass rustled in the wind around us.  We playfully rode alongside each other chatting, then gracefully merged into a line to let another group of cyclers pass.  I felt like Wendy flying through the night air for her first time with Peter Pan.  “I can bike, I can bike, I can bike!”  It was fun and magical.  I waved goodbye and parted ways from the girls, up and over the steep bridge where my daughter always shouts “Go Mama!” and sped excitedly towards home.     

  My husband texted me as I was turning onto our street, not anxiously, but just a little worried, wanting to make sure I wasn’t hit by a car or anything on my bike.  I lightly tapped on the door and walked inside our home.  I excitedly began to tell him about my evening.  As I started to illustrate the enchanting bike ride home with five other women, he interrupted me.  “Wait, wait.  Honey, do you remember?” he asked.  Blankly, I stared at him and responded, “What?” shaking my head.  He continued to explain, years ago, while we were visiting Amsterdam we had wandered hand-and-hand through Amsterdam’s largest park, the Vondelpark.  I remembered the park.  Amsterdam is not a particularly green city, but Vondelpark, similar to Central Park, provides residents and visitors with a tranquil space to enjoy the outdoors.  I remembered the rosy cheeks of the Dutch surrounding us.  I remember the enchanting feel of the air, and how everyone we saw seemed especially happy and enjoying the weather.  But I was seeing only the bright smile of the Cheshire cat.   “Don’t you remember?!?!” he repeated.  “When we visited the Vondelpark years ago?  You saw the pile of bikes and the women picnicking on the grass.  You said to yourself, ‘I want to do that someday!’” I gasped and my hand touched my lips instinctively.  He was right, and the flash of memory, the whole picture, like Alice in Wonderland seeing the entire cat sitting in the tree above my head, its tail languidly waving back and forth, presented itself before my mind with clarity.  This was my dream. I wanted to ride my bike, meet a group of girl friends, drink wine, eat dinner, exchange thoughts, laugh, and cycle home.  But this was even better, because we had chairs and a table! 

  As I readied myself for bed that night, I realized why the evening had been such a success.  We have many dreams.  Sometimes they’re big, but sometimes they’re small.  Sometimes we just need the perspective to realize that we’re accomplishing them.  And sometimes, like Rapunzel, we need a slight nod to the fact that we have accomplished our dream, as perfect or as imperfect as it comes, then find a new dream.     

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Piece of My Heart

Piece of My Heart

  During the spring of 2009, a few months before I became pregnant with my daughter, I co-hosted a dinner-party baby shower for a friend at my house in Texas.  The theme was twinkle, twinkle, little star and I had decorated four card tables in my living room with blue and yellow table cloths and sparkly star centerpieces.  We had planned a four course menu and with each course, my friend moved from table to table in order to have time to speak with each guest individually.   As white Christmas lights sparkled above our heads (my staple decoration for any party I host) and the tea lights’ warm glow glistened upon our faces, I sat listening to a mother of two as she spoke to my pregnant friend.  “Being a parent is the most amazing experience,” she said.  “Your heart is no longer a part of you, but rather it is walking around outside of your body.”  I remember thinking how fantastically poetic that statement sounded.

After two plus years of being a parent, complete with an uncountable number of sleepless nights, ear infections, teething problems, dirty diapers, picking food up off the floor, making sure you have the pacifier, wipes, diapers, the bottles with powder, the bottle of water, the crackers, the blanket, the sippy cup full of juice in the diaper bag, while making sure you have enough formula and baby food in the cabinet and milk in the fridge, the whining, the begging, the questions – why aren’t you tired, why won’t you eat, and really, just why won’t you stop crying. . . while not without its wonderfully memorable and rewarding moments, I think I may, just may, finally understand what the baby shower guest had been getting at.  I was talking to my college roommate on the phone last weekend.  She’s planning a trip to visit me in a few months and I was telling her how much my daughter had changed since she had seen her last.  “She’s just so amazing, you may not even recognize her,” I told her.  She has a nephew just a few days older than my daughter and she replied that my daughter was probably just like her nephew – running around and talking up a storm.  Yes.  True.  But my initial reflexive thought to her statement was “No. No, she’s exactly like me.”

I’ve been a stay-at-home mom and a working-mom.  After both experiences I can say I have total respect for both positions as just having kids period is hard work.  Each job has its pros and cons and still to this day, I can not say with certainty which one I liked better.  I remember driving to my office for the first year of my daughter’s life and as I pulled into the parking garage, I took a sip out of my jumbo-sized cup of coffee, and thought “I feel so defeated.”  Here in Leiden, after feeding my family four meals a day (yes, snack time is important for all of us), washing the dishes and bottles, vacuuming, washing clothes, running the dishwasher daily, as the clock nears 6:00 p.m., I anxiously wait for my husband to return home from work.  Both kids are screaming, dinner is on the stove, and the dogs are barking to be fed, I am once again reminded that I am constantly outnumbered in the household, and I think to myself, “I feel so defeated.”  It’s a different defeated, but both scenarios require large amounts of physical exhaustion, time-management, and either way – you never quite feel like you’re doing a good enough job. 

To my surprise, I never felt guilty about dropping my daughter off at daycare in Texas (well, at least not after the first few days).  The women at her school loved their jobs and they loved my daughter.  They had full nights of sleep, had someone to answer the phone, prepare the meals, and had the advantage of years and years of experience caring for children.  My daughter learned to be independent and social and knew her letters and numbers before the age of two.  I got to dress up everyday, meet friends for lunch, use an analytical side of my brain, and help our family successfully complete Dave Ramsey’s Baby Step #2 before we moved here.  Now that I am with them all day everyday, I do sometimes feel guilty about the way I can lose it with my children.  I do get annoyed and angry.  A lot of my dissatisfaction stemmed from the fact that they are both so small (especially when we first arrived) and inevitably, they’d cry at the same time and I would have to pick one to attend to first.  This broke my heart while making me crazy with frustration because I couldn’t meet their needs like I wanted to.  It just wasn’t physically possible, yet I felt an immense guilt and anger about it all.  I wish it were not so, but after many late-night discussions with my husband questioning our place in the universe - why are we here and what’s the point, I think this is a key part of completing this rotation.  We are both facing sides of our personality which are not exactly flattering.  There is nowhere to run and hide and no luxury of ignoring certain qualities, but with that self-awareness and acknowledgement, comes growth and understanding of not only ourselves, but each other, and our children. 

It took a month of training my daughter to not throw her food on the floor (something the daycare tolerated, but drove me insane), and now we were working on “No run off!”  As you know, our lives are very pedestrian and running down sidewalks and chasing after her is not only dangerous but embarrassing.  (As if I needed more reasons for the neighbors’ eyebrows to rise.)  But as both children grow older, there is more understanding and predictability, which soothes my nerves more than a Mozart CD and a glass of Pinot Noir. 

I have a brother 4 years younger than me and I always remember thinking that he was my baby.  I wanted to take care of him and perhaps, do everything my mother did.  My siblings always called me ‘bossy’ and made fun of this undesirable character flaw.  But as my daughter grows, I will often hear her shouting “No baby!” from the other room.  I will sigh, put down the spoon I was cooking with, and turn the corner flustered and ready to scold her for yelling at her brother, but I’m stopped short.  I am instantly apologetic for my near-outburst because she is right.  The baby is about to pull on the computer cord or is crawling too close to an electrical socket.  She’s not telling him what to do to tell him what to do – she’s imitating me.  More humorously, I also hear her telling Tyler (our dog) to eat his food and for Dash to stay away from Tyler’s food.  “Tyler Eat!  No Dash – Go Away!” she shouts from her highchair as she officiates the activities below like a tennis judge.  These are words she has heard for months straight.  (For some reason, we just can’t find a Dutch dog food Tyler will gobble up like we had in the U.S.  So with that, like my children, I have one dog that picks at his food and another that had an empty pit of a stomach.  Each scenario comes with its own frustrations.  We’ll see what happens when the baby is old enough to pick food off of my daughter’s plate.)  She will hold her stuffed Minnie Mouse and bounce her up and down, shushing softly, patting her on her back, as I do the same with the baby.   She sees me in shorts and a tank top and runs to get her play cans of food.  These are her ‘weights’ and she excitedly “works-out” with me regularly in the living room.  She loves ‘cooking’ and I have taught her how to make guacamole using her play avocados, tomatoes, and onions as examples.  After hearing her shout my name all day long for 6 months straight, my son started saying “Mama” when we visited Bruges and has been repeating it incessantly ever since.  I was witness to the 1st time my son pulled up on the coffee table and caught the 2nd go around on video.  These are all things that perhaps, I would not have been able to experience or understand in its entirety, had I still been working full-time in the U.S.  So as life handed me a job during the first year plus of my daughter’s life and a position as a stay-at-home mom now, neither of which was a particularly conscious decision on my part, but rather it was simply the best way to survive in each chapter, I am grateful for the advantages each one provides and the perspective to recognize them.
  Do I feel a slight sense of identity loss as the ABCs, Row Row Row Your Boat and the Wheels on the Bus songs replace my previously-daily phrases of ‘inventory investment schedule”, “in-transit reconciliation”, and “finished goods balances”?  Yes.  I do.  But after months of spending time with my children, I find myself, my true self rather, walking around outside of my body in the form of my children.  My Baby Girl loves to sing, dance, has an excellent memory, and superb sense of direction.  She doesn’t just get tired and go to sleep.  In a sleepy state, unfortunately, her energy level rises and she becomes angry and physically rambunctious.  She’s never met a stranger, becomes ecstatic when people visit us at home, and has adopted our handyman as “Opa”.  Her teachers have described her as “very confident” and “fearless.”  When no other Dutch children would pet the mouse at the farm, she ran up to the front of the group and petted the tiny rodent (not exactly something I would do.)  My Little Man is perpetually laughing and is constantly analyzing his surroundings.  I wouldn’t necessarily describe myself in all these ways, but really, as a parent, isn’t that what we all like to see:  A more confident and happy, version of ourselves?  Moving to The Netherlands, I had fully anticipated learning about different cultures and history and I think we’re well on our way to accomplishing this feat.  But to find and learn more about myself, during a move across the world, was not really a thought I had entertained.  As I watch my children grow and learn everyday, it’s been a surprising but welcomed discovery.  So go ahead babies, take your piece of my heart, and let it soar.  

Friday, August 3, 2012

I Want to be With You Everywhere

De Valk Windmill - Leiden

Sweet relief.  As I walked around Leiden running errands for my upcoming guests in knee high boots, jacket, and a scarf on July 18th, I ran into a friend of mine who reiterated what V’s coworkers had been telling him all week:  The weather is about to get better.  I know little about jet streams, but I’m learning.  Apparently, the typical jet stream in Europe during the summer months rests north of the UK, pushing the cold weather and accompanying depression and grumpiness into the North Pole (only Elves could maintain a cheerful demeanor all year long in this weather). Summer 2012 thus far, had the jet stream resting in France, which led to wet and cold weather amongst most of Europe which resulted in threats between husbands and wives to throw in the towel and move family back to the US where summer = warmth because said wife could just not take it anymore (hypothetically, of course).  But lucky for all of us (my husband’s employer included) the beautiful, wonderful jet stream moved and with it, clouds of doubt and frustration. 
   As we neared the ‘summer’ my daughter’s classmates’ parents started to small talk with me, asking me where I planned to ‘holiday’ during the ‘summer’ months.  I felt immense pressure to answer them accurately, but as usual, I was completely confused by the question and thus, had no correct answer.  I flashed my well-practiced “I-wish-I-knew-what-you-were-talking about-smile” while my mind processed the simple inquiry.  (What the what?  Holiday? In July? Heck no we’re not taking a month-long vacation to, well, anywhere, but especially not back to Texas right now when it has the potential to be 115 degrees Fahrenheit, but what’s that you say?  What do you mean the entire country shuts down?)   In my defense, I had expected at least a small number of people to go on vacation for a month because on previous July visits to The Netherlands, V and I were never able to see all his family, as their holiday vacation plans were staggered throughout the month.  However, in my mind, I had likened the entire summer vacation to be simply a myth, like how people don’t have to go to work on President’s Day in America:  you know those people exist but you personally have little to no experience with the seemingly fictional day off from the office.  Luckily, my husband had gotten clued into this cultural standard at work a few months back, when his co-workers were inquiring about his holiday plans for scheduling purposes.  “You mean, if I don’t take off in July or August, I will be the only one in the office?” he asked a colleague.  “Yes,” he replied.  “Yes, you will.”  So, not to be left out, we decided to play along and planned for V to take a week off, mid-July, and have a true “Staycation”. The goal was to devote an entire week traveling to different nearby locations to explore our own backyard. 
  One of the first things I purchased and have spent months appreciating is the Dutch Museumkaart (Museum Card).  For only 49.95 Euros (approximately $61.00) you can purchase a Museum Card which will give you unlimited access to nearly 400 museums all around The Netherlands for an entire year.  Considering one entry into the Anne Frank House and the Van Gogh museum will cost you about 25 Euros, this is a fantastically good deal.  But beyond the accountant-budgeting-cost-benefit-analysis side of my personality, it also speaks volumes of practicality as a mama – I can just pop into say, the Natural History museum, which is only a 10 minute walk from our house, and we are met eye-to-eye with a taxidermist’s dream, complete with an abundance of previously living stuffed animals gathered together in a formation nothing more elaborate than a standing-room only concert at The House of Blues. I suppose a little fake grass, much less a few displays at least attempting to depict animals in a ‘natural habitat’ wasn’t what they had in mind, but either way, depending on the mood, hunger, sleep schedules, just general-stars-aligning-with-the-cosmos-affecting-my-children’s-moods, we can stay for an hour and a half, or 20 minutes, then try it all again the next week without additional entrance fees.  On Wednesdays when my 2-year old daughter is in school all day, my son and I will often check out the other various museums around Leiden for a few hours in the afternoon.  I once decided to be adventurous and visited the Boerhaave Museum, named after the famous Dutch botanist and physician who taught at Leiden University in the 1600s.  The further I explore Europe, the more I have encountered museums which, while extensive efforts have been made to made the ancient buildings more wheelchair/stroller accessible, the practicality of those renovations still may cause frustration in order to help preserve the originality of the place which houses the collection.  The Boerhaave museum fit nicely into this category and after half an hour of struggling with the layout of the museum and trying to find the ‘lift’ I leave, noting that science was never my favorite subject in school, anyway.  As I pushed the stroller past the friendly museum attendant who had greeted me a mere 25 minutes earlier, I did appreciate the fact that the building was older than my home country and had originally been a ‘plague hospital and madhouse’ before becoming a University hospital in 1635.  Museumkaart in hand, my baby and I rolled along the Oude Singel canal to my favorite museum in town - The Lakenhal (Cloth Hall) - where we could view Rembrandt paintings while listening to Gregorian chant music.
   We purchased my husband his own Museumkaart at the beginning of our “Staycation” week and started to map out and plan our itinerary.  It was a fun process and with the sun shining everyday and temperatures in the 80s, we couldn’t have picked a better week.  We learned a lot and here were our top adventures:
Makes-Your-Hands-Sweat-But-Best-View-Of-Leiden-Museum:  There are a few words I think my daughter would not use on a daily basis had we stayed in Texas.  #1 is Windmill (to be followed by canals, umbrella-lle-llas, raining, mittens, tunnel, fiets (the Dutch word for bikes) and Lekker! (the Dutch word for yummy?)  For the past 6 months, we’ve been passing the De Valk windmill on our way to the market and library – it was about time we’d show her the inner workings.  We strapped her to my back and parked the baby’s stroller at the base of the windmill (No elevator at all here) and my husband carried him in his arms.  We toured the kitchen and living areas of the family who operated the windmill hundreds of years ago, viewed a video explaining the different types of windmills and history (they originated in the Middle East), then climbed the steep stairs.  The museum, in and of itself, was a fabulous explanation of the history, operations, and purpose behind the windmills in The Netherlands.  We were able to grasp the big concepts and step out onto the platform waving to the boats lazily sailing down the canal below.  After smiling at the closeness of the windmill’s fans and etching the amazement of my daughter’s face in my mind, we painstakingly and nervously followed the museum’s path and carried our children down ladders similar to the ones found in homes in Texas leading into our attics, but even steeper and three times as long.  This was so not safe but yet, this is Europe and it’s how it goes. 

Cheese Market Auction - Alkmaar

Makes-V’s-Co-Workers-Laugh-At-Him-And-Explain-That’s-Only-For-Tourists:  Alkmaar – “It Doesn’t Get More Cheesy Than This,” my Netherlands Guidebook says, but yet. . . we packed the kids and the car for the hour-long trip to Alkmaar to witness the Cheese market re-enactment which is held every Friday morning.  I still can’t say what exactly went on, as we approached the market in the midst of the announcer asking “does anyone speak Spanish” and 10 or so tourists raised their hands.  I can honestly say (with head hung, perhaps?) that I probably understood as much of the Spanish commentary as the Dutch – Queso!  Kaas!  But there were men running around in ‘teams’ complete with heavy loads of cheese wheels (or children, if the photo-taking parents obliged) around the small square.  Afterwards, we experienced the quaint, but informative Cheese Museum adjacent to the square. (Complete with complimentary cheese sample upon arrival).  It too, was very informative and we viewed black and white 1920s footage of the process - milk from Haarlem is transported to the cheese makers in Alkmaar, and eventually, the deals are completed (with a funny slapping of hands) in the Leiden market.  I felt mildly a part of history, even if it was cheesy. 

Makes-Me-Want-To-Take-A-History-Class-to-Keep-Up-This-Information-I’m-Absorbing: Dutch Resistance Museum (Verzetsmuseum) – My first international experience was a visit to Berlin in 2002, when my sister was an exchange student for three months.  She had been studying German and lived in Berlin and I was fortunate enough to visit her during her stay.  She took me to the ­­­­­­­­Deutsches Historisches Museum and to this day, I feel that it is one of the best Historical museums I have ever visited, but the Dutch Resistance Museum is stiff competition.  We are all familiar with Anne Frank’s Diary and her personal story.  My husband and I went to the Museum three years ago when we visited Amsterdam (it was just a block from our hotel) and it was, as expected, overwhelmingly somber.  The energy of the building still resonates with an intensity that made my heart drop the instant we stepped behind the secret door.  The Dutch Resistance Museum was a fascinating account of the bigger picture – how World War II affected the mass population of The Netherlands.  The museum was laid-out chronologically (like the museum in Berlin) with videos, personal accounts (in both Dutch and English), interactive displays, great lighting, intriguing artifacts presented in interesting and unexpected displays, and wall-sized photographs of the Dutch rejoicing as the Allies drove their tanks into Amsterdam.  It was small enough to really come away feeling like you saw and understood most everything in one visit, which is a rarity considering we were still pushing one stroller with us.            
Royal Delft Pottery Factory - Delft

Makes-You-Walk-Slower-And-Enjoy-The-Beauty-Around-You-No-Wonder-Famous-Dutch-Painters-Are-From-Here:  Delft – A charming little town is famous for its tiny gorgeous canals, home of Vermeer, and Delft Blue pottery.  If you’ve ever read or seen the movie Girl with the Pearl Earring, this is the place.   Every corner we turned was breathtaking on that warm day.   After dining at an outdoor cafĂ© in the town center between the town hall and the Oude Kerk, we rounded off our trip with a visit to the Royal Delft (De Porceleyne Fles), the only original Delftware factory still operating since the 1650s.    

Boring-drive-gives-Dallas-to-Lubbock-a-run-for-it’s-money-but-unfortunately-no-Allsups-to-break-up-the-montony:  Venlo is about 2 hours from Leiden and near the Germany border.  My husband has a client there and had forewarned me of the uneventful trip, but the Floriade World Horticulture Expo is currently being hosted in Venlo, which is an event only held every 10 years.  We didn’t know what to expect when we arrived, but upon arrival, at least in my mind, it appeared to be a bit like Epcot, except it is for plants.  There were five themed areas: Relax and Heal (that’s where we spent the most of our time – ha!), Green Engine, Education & Innovation, Environment, and World Show Stage.  The last was quite like Epcot in that each country had a small area in which they created an informational display depicting the local horticulture of that country (whether it was a building with videos explaining olive and wine production, like Spain or a re-creation of a peaceful garden of typical architectural style, like China).   The only difference was that countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan were represented.  I don’t think these two countries are at Epcot.

Floriade Chinese Garden - Venlo

So all in all, the “staycation” was a success, despite by Day 2 at 10:00 a.m., V had already worked 8 hours.  (Unlike his Dallas office which adequately compensated for such changes in schedules, I’m sure no one even noticed.)  So while the sunshine abounded, our hopes lifted, our minds expanded and our sense of adventure enlightened.  We closed the week happy and satisfied.  On Friday afternoon, I still wore the buttercup-yellow sundress which is really only appropriate for the beach or a steamy LSU tailgate at the beginning of the season, as we walked down our street towards the train station for a cup of coffee.  On our way, we ran into a couple of my daughter’s teachers on their way home from work.  Although the sun had been shining brightly that morning at the cheese market, the clouds started to roll in and the sky darkened.  They happily greeted us on the sidewalk and we all agreed what a wonderful week it had been.  They looked up at the graying sky and exclaimed, “Well!  Wasn’t that fantastic, but now summer is over!  I hope you enjoyed it!”  With a nervous giggle and a sideways glance at my husband, I laughed along with them, not completely understanding whether they were joking or not, but my husband and I, responded with a confident, “We did!  We had a fabulous week!”