Friday, September 28, 2012

I Will Wait

I Will Wait (Mumford & Sons)

I move the seat up then adjust it to the proper height.  I fasten my seatbelt and look into the rearview and side mirrors.  “Daddy’s seat!” Baby Girl protests from the back seat.  “I know Honey, but today it’s Mama’s seat.” I respond, careful to mask my nervousness and the fact that I completely agree with her.  This is Daddy’s seat.  I again, check my sideview mirror and wait for six bikes to pass me.  With my hands on “10 and 2”, I cautiously wedge the car out of its paralleled parking spot.  I feel 16 all over again, except I’m not driving a 1967 brown army tank of a Buick down a 3-lane boulevard in Plano, Texas.  I’m painstakingly maneuvering a black 4-door tiny Honda on a brick street in The Netherlands, with two little children in seats behind me.   I take a deep breath as I crawl down the road behind the pack of bicycles that had just passed me.  The road widens.  They move to the right and I slowly pass them.   Every muscle in my body exerts happiness as I press the accelerator gently.  I am moving down the road without exerting physical effort!  This is so wonderful, so lazy!  I continue my pep-talk as I pass the windmill at the end of our block and approach the stop light.  “Honestly, Celeste” I say to myself, “Which is scarier?  Driving through Leiden at the speed of approximately 20 miles per hour (32 Kph) with the possibility of hitting a cyclist, or flying down the Dallas North Tollway in a 2-door convertible topping speeds at 80 miles per hour (130 Kph)?”  I nestle myself in my plush seat.  It’s so comfortable.  It’s so…upright!  I glance at my kids in the back seat as I’m waiting for the light to turn green.  They are so safe, surrounded by car seats and doors!  I adjust the A/C just because I can, take a sip of my coffee, and turn up the new Mumford & Sons CD my husband recently purchased and had put in the car stereo.  Old habits die hard.  I always tuck a jumbo-sized cup of coffee in my bike when I take my daughter to school across town with the intentions of taking a sip while stopped at a light, or finishing the cup once I’ve dropped her off.  But the logistics of commuting are different when biking vs. driving.  A cup of coffee is hardly what you want to drink after pedaling 2 ½ miles (4 kilometers).  But it is what you want as a reward after you’ve successfully dressed yourself and two kids and dropped your daughter off at school.  See: conflicted.  I continue to drive through Leiden and follow the same route via road that I would have followed had I biked with the kids, as close as I can.  I know where the cyclists will be coming from.  I am one of them.  There is understanding and respect in what is familiar.  I brake to let pedestrians pass at the cross walks.  I make room for the bikes as people do for me.  Cars creep through the city at a painfully slow pace.  Drivers are always conscious of the possibilities of bikes coming from all directions, sometimes with the right-of-way, sometimes not.  After six months of being the cyclist, I know the difference between the rights of ways, and I am confident with my driving abilities on the familiar roads.  My daughter’s school is in the middle of a park in the middle of a neighborhood.  With everything here, there are pros and cons logistically.  On my bike, I pedal up to the front of the school, leaving my son in the carrier of the bike as I kiss her goodbye and hang up her jacket.  Today, I park the car.  I load my son in his stroller then push him and hold my daughter’s hand, while we make the 100-yard trek to her school.   I’m happy that it’s not raining or snowing.  The thrill of driving may be tempered with other emotions in a few months when this is the end of the line and the weather is harsher.   I drop her off, exclaim my accomplishment to her teacher, “I drove!” who luckily, like any good teacher does, applauds me in my elementary efforts.  My son and I drive back home, no sweat (literally!) and I turn onto our street.  My elated aura of triumph diminishes rapidly and I exclaim outloud, “Oh NO!  I’m going to have to parallel park!” (which by the way, I could do. . . seamlessly. . . when I drove a 2-door convertible) but as anyone who has to parallel park regularly knows, it takes awhile to get the rhythm down with each car.  Luckily on this Monday morning at 10:00 a.m., there was a space in front of my house wide enough to park an 18-wheeler, so I simply and happily just drove into the parking spot.
   What prompted this overwhelming surge of confidence?  Or wait, why is driving such a big deal?  Why haven’t I driven a car in nine months?  Okay, so, you can read my previous blog post, or I can offer the Cliffs Notes version here:  The bikes.  In The Netherlands, people bike everywhere.  It’s a fantastic and efficient method of transportation.  The Netherlands is small and compact (our home is only 6 yards wide!) and everything stems from there.  This is not a land for the claustrophobic (believe me, because I am!) and with that, bikes fit the bill.   There are a handful of parking lots, few multi-lane roads, and bike lanes are available everywhere.  You can traverse a city driving 20 MPH or more efficiently weave your bike down cobblestone alleys.  Biking is the primary mode of transportation in Holland.  This is what people do.  Rain, shine, or otherwise, this is part of the culture.  Driving with the bikes all over the place is a nerve-wrecking experience, even as a passenger riding shot-gun as my husband is behind the wheel.  They have the right of way, so seemingly, at any moment of time, one can dart across the road, you must yield, and for months, I had visions of me driving while cyclists flew across my windshield.       
  So again, after six months of cycling, what prompted me to drive my children across town?   Was I granted the seemingly-unattainable Dutch drivers’ license post-multiple hours of supervised study?  No: luckily for me, we were issued licenses without a multitude of tests, unlike some unfortunate Expats.  Did the Zigo have a flat tire?  No.  Although, I do admit, in June my bicycle tire was flat, and my daughter did not go to school that day.  (Add that to my list of things I’d never say/do in America.)  It was something simpler than that.  “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.  What can you do without?  What do you cling to?” Rhiannon Paine writes in Expat Women’s True Tales of Life Abroad.  Last week, after our grocery delivery was cancelled, I biked (with Little Man) to a local grocery store.  My father-in-law was coming into town for the weekend, and I had multiple meals to prepare (dining in public with two kids under 2 ½ is just not an option I prefer to exercise, plus I love cooking, especially when there are extra hands in the house to entertain the kids.)  After traversing through the tiny aisles, my son about to jump out of the grocery cart as I pack my own groceries (of course they don’t have grocery cart seat belts, they bike their kids around atop handle bars without helmets. Seat belts, like using your turn signals in New England, are for wimps.)  I load my bike with a 7lb bag of dog food, 2 bottles of water, a kilo of salmon, a kilo of chicken, multiple bottles of wine, multiple cans of food, and a cornucopia worth of fresh vegetables and fruit.  Little Man, is packaged in the carrier amongst the groceries, another bag of groceries is slung over my shoulder.  Exasperated, I flag down a teenager on her way into the store.  I don’t even bother with my cursory “Spreekt u Engels?” as I hand over my cart I say to her, “Do you need this?”  Luckily the Dutch youth are fluent in English and she doesn’t even skip a beat, “No, I’m going into work,” she says.  I nod to her, “Please.  Will you return this cart?  Just take the 50-cents.” And I wave her and the cart away desperately. As far as I’ve seen, The Netherlands has this tedious system to encourage cart returns and prevent cart stealing.  The grocery carts are locked to each other, and in order to unlock them, you must put a 50-cent or 1 Euro coin into the slot to unlock it and use it.  According to the Xenophonbe’s guide to the Dutch, “Accumulating money is a virtue.  Spending it is a vice.” I did not want to be the only person in the country that ever failed to return their cart.  No one leaves their carts unattended in a parking lot.  That one 50 cent coin is so much more than a 50 cent coin.  This would be the equivalent to forgetting to get your change out of vending machine.  The sweet teenage girl, after sublimely telling her, “please, just take the 50-cents, I can’t possibly maneuver groceries, a baby, a bike, and a grocery cart at the same time,” returned my cart and as I was throwing my leg over the bike, anxious to flee the scene, flagged me down and brought me back my 50-cent piece.  I smiled, shook my head at her angelic honesty and I pedaled my baby and 90 Euros of groceries, wearing my poncho, in the rain.  After that, I told myself, I am no longer giving in easily.   I’m taking the lead in this dance of resistance and submission.
   I drove my daughter to school.  I drove my son to the grocery store.  I drove my family to a garden center to buy mums to plant in our front yard to celebrate the arrival of autumn.   I did not run over any cyclists.   I almost felt. . . American. 
   The unfamiliar becomes familiar.  The impossible become possible.  With exposure comes understanding and acceptance.   Then the familiar surfaces again.  Transformed, like a butterfly, it is more beautiful in its newly enlightened state.  The process takes time and patience at a pace that only you can be comfortable with.  Sometimes we are waiting for the world.  Sometimes the world is just waiting for us.     

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Tighten Up

Splash, splash.  My booted feet are briskly tromping along the rainy streets of Leiden at 10:30 p.m.  A black umbrella is in my right hand.  As I look right and left at the pedestrian cross walk, I’m glaring through the street-lights and raindrops.  I cross the quiet street, turn left, and as I work my way towards the center of town, I reflect on the scene I left just minutes before in my home.  “Fine!  I will go,” I shout above the baby’s cries.  My husband is attempting to console the bright red-faced baby by rocking him back and forth, loudly shushing him.  The room is dark except for the light coming from our closet, but despite the attempt of creating a soothing environment, there is no stopping the baby’s madness at this moment in time.  I’ve opened every cupboard in our bathroom and kitchen searching for it, but it was a pointless search.  I already knew we did not have it.      
“They’re not going to have it either,” V had told me, “there’s nothing we can do.”  But I am crazed with determination.  I have my American Thinking Hat on.  This is the hat I wear when I say, “Okay, if I had this problem at home.  What would I do?” and then I attempt to solve the problem using the same solution I came up with, but with the Dutch resources available to me.  This methodology is rarely successful.   Splash, splash.  The sounds of my boots on the wet sidewalk are muffled.  There are few people out.  I find a small refuge from the dark, rain, and loneliness as I pass quickly through one side of the train station and out the other.  I continue my march.  Little Man is having stomach problems of considerable pain.   If I were in Texas, at 10:30 p.m. on a Thursday evening, I would get in my car, drive the 100 yards to the 24-hour CVS pharmacy around the corner (okay, Dutch readers, go ahead and snicker, but yes, I would have driven around the corner because it was dark, rainy, and CVS has a parking lot.  In my defense, there isn’t a sidewalk linking my neighborhood street to the store.)  Either way, I would have driven, made a bee-line to the baby products at the back of the store, picked up the infant gas medicine (Mylicon), paid the cashier, and raced home.  A few drops of the liquid relief, and done.  My baby boy would be happy and asleep before 10:45.  Problem solved, efficiently and effectively.  As I sat on our bed wringing my hands and watching my husband rock the baby, the options ran through my head.  Pharmacy where I can purchase Dutch-version on infant medicine (Infacol):  Closed at 5:00 p.m.  Can I get Infacol at the grocery store:  No.  And even if I could, grocery stores closed at 9:00 p.m.  What about the train station drug store?  Doesn’t the train station drug store stay open later that 5?  Yes.  It stays open until 6:00.  No. No. No.  I need to tighten up on my emotional reigns, but I no longer even have them in my hands.  They are flapping around me uncontrollably, whipping myself and everyone else around me.  I refuse to give up.  I am an American!  I am a survivor!  I am a think-outside-the-box-Mother!  So what do I do?  I had already communicated The Solution to V, and while he did not say no, I could tell he was wearier in his eagerness to participate in The Plan.  Not able to take the baby’s crying for a minute longer, I jump off the bed, grab my boots in frenzy, and shout ridiculous nonsense to my husband, “I don’t care if the Nightmarkt doesn’t have it.  I’m going to be the parent at least finds out!  There has GOT to be something we can do!  He is a tension increaser!  Even AskMoxie describes it!  He will NOT cry himself to sleep.” and I rush out of the house with my dog Tyler looking at me pitifully from behind the foyer glass door.  I’ve never been to the Nightmarkt before, but I knew of its existence.  Questionable characters were lurking in darkness of neighboring store doorways, but I wasn’t scared.  My eyes focused on the ground and I gritted my teeth.  I may be only 5 feet tall, but I imagined myself walking with the fierceness of Rocky.  Just go ahead and say something to me, I baited, in my head.  You with have the Wrath of Mama reigning down upon you like a hurricane you’ve never seen on this continent.  I passed the youths without attracting any attention and I switched my focus back to the task.  I knew the shop wasn’t going to have the Infacol.  But that didn’t stop me.  I had to KNOW.  I walk in.  It’s like a 7-11 with nearly as many goods in a space a tenth of the size.  After a brief visit to the baby section:  Diapers, wipes, formula (not the kind we use of course, but good to know, anyway).  I don’t see it and I ask the guy behind the counter.  I’m not sure if he speaks English.  I’m not even sure if he speaks Dutch.  He kind of looks and me quizzically, then bends down behind the counter.  Yes.  All the medicine is hidden from view.  “Infacol – baby medicine.  Gas.” I say slowly. . . he rummages around for what seems like half-an-hour, and he pops back up with a “No.”  My shoulders drop and the breath I didn’t realize I was holding escaped from my lips.  Still not willing to admit defeat, I run back over to the baby section and pick up two bottles with Dutch labels reminiscent of old-fashioned whiskey bottles.  I bring them to him.  “Are these herbal remedies for gas?” hopeful and doubtful, I ask him.  He pretends to read the labels then just shakes his head in confusion.  I put the mystery bottles back on the shelf, notice but ignore the large end-cap wine display out of the corner of my eye, duck my head, and wander back out into the rain.  I’m not even past the large window of the Nightmarkt before I stop in my tracks, pop my head up, and place an imaginary slap on my forehead.  “Chamomile” I whisper to myself.  I have an entire box of chamomile tea in my pantry on the suggestion from my nurse friend here in The Netherlands last time Little Man had a stomach ache.  Like the people who turn down the car radio when they’re trying to find a house number, in the midst of the howling child, I just hadn’t been able to think of the solution before.  The baby was still crying in my husband’s arms when I returned twenty-five minutes later.  Frustrated, I enlightened him on the simple solution neither one of us had thought of before, and brewed the tea.  I put a few ounces in his bottle and within minutes, Little Man’s stomach had calmed and he was fast asleep in my arms, to the wide-eyed amazement of my husband.  I placed the baby in his crib and quietly closed the door, but the next battle was brewing.  I faced my husband. . .
   How many times have I talked with my new friends here in The Netherlands and I’ve heard, “He just doesn’t get it,” and well, to be honest, how many times have I said that exact same phrase to V, to his face?  Ugh.  I don’t even want to admit it.  Through all my (limited, I’ll admit, I’m a mom of two, when do I have a lot of time to) research. . . I have found a lot of information, pats-on-the-back, giiirl-it’s-going-to-be-okay-just-hang-in-there support for the stay-at-home-mom (and really, ALL moms) and the stress it takes on your self-esteem, identity, and relationship with the kids.  But I can’t find a lot about the relationship with your husband.  This is a huge piece of being a Mom, right? 
  Back up a minute.  One of the things I loved most about V when I met him was his transparency to love – his friends, his dog, and me.  We communicated everything from the very beginning.  He always encouraged me to tell him what was on my mind, and he listened in a way that solved problems and made me confident in our love and respect for each other.  Before and after we got married, V and I always did everything together.  There were no - your chores, my chores, back in the States, especially pre-children.  We rebuilt a fence together: slugging that sledgehammer was exhilarating for me.  We’ve painted three different houses together.  We both mow laws.  We both do dishes.  We both take out trash.  Even during our wedding-planning days, he would call and make the appointments with the florists.  I was traveling a lot with my job and didn’t have a very private cube at my office, complete with a few eavesdropping co-workers.  The conservative Baton Rouge florists would actually smirk and ask him, “Why are you making the appointment?” He would simply respond, “It’s just easier this way,” then make an asterisk by their name. 
  So with all that information, the two-income family back in the States suited that part of our relationship quite well.  I was responsible for dropping our daughter off at school and picking her up, but that was a job I enjoyed quite a lot.  It was more time with her and I got to see her smiling face when the day was done.  We were basically always home at the same time, so all duties were shared.  Or at least, “Okay – you give her a bath while I clean the dishes,” with two, it’s a little more difficult. “Okay – let’s give them both a bath, and the dishes will just have to wait,” but the point is, work time was work time for both of us, and family time was family time for both of us.  It was equal and shared. 
   Here, as a stay-at-home-mom, in the heat of a discussion, I actually find myself saying things to him like, “You get to leave this house without the kids everyday and get paid for it.”  I know.  Hardly helpful, and I hang my head.  I love my kids and I love spending time with them.  Again, I’m learning more about them and myself that I ever would have had I still been working.  But the limitations of where I can go with both of them and the fact that I’m not contributing to the household income (which, I must say, has caused more than a few hyper-ventilating episodes by this CPA), sometimes makes me think and say and do things I wouldn’t otherwise do if I was able to find a job here in The Netherlands that didn’t require me to speak Dutch, and paid me more than the daycare costs of doing so.
  Is it fair? As stay-at-home-moms, we are around our children all day long but sometimes feel resentment towards our husbands when they just “don’t get it?” Is it a communication failure or are we holding them to a standard higher that is humanly achievable?  It is because the kids are ours that we feel like they should innately understand all the nuisances and jobs that come along with raising the kids?  Do we understand everything that goes on at their full-time job?  I am very lucky in that I have public accounting experience and that V is a very involved Dad.  I do think that we can talk each other’s language, which is a huge starting point.  I can put things into his daily terminology if needed.  I can say things like, “Okay. . . so your partner calls you up during dinner on Friday night and tells you that you’re going to have to pull an all-nighter on Monday night in order to get the report out on time. . . do you think you’d be happy with that message?  Was it delivered to you in a timely manner?”  (This line was in response to a conversation during dinner on a Friday evening telling me that he was going to be at a client on Monday and Tuesday, which would require an over-night stay – with a baby that wakes up in the middle of the night, this news was not received without due consideration) and once I put the situation in the context of a public accounting assignment, we kind of laughed at the analogy and he agreed that letting me know sooner would have been a better way to approach the news.  But I think for the most part, V DOES get it.  He just does things different than I do.  His focus is not always with the kids and in the end, it is probably okay.  “Why was the baby crying?” I asked him last Sunday afternoon.  “Crying?  When?” he said.  “Yes.  Crying, when I was upstairs with Baby Girl.  You were down here with him and I heard a crash and he started howling.  What was that all about?” I asked him.  V looked at me blankly.  “He was okay.  I don’t remember why he was crying,” he said dismissively.  I was amazed that he could eliminate the cause of his screams from his memory – if only, I was able to do such things. . .  “You don’t remember?  What was the final score of the LSU game you were watching this morning?” I asked.  I saw the hint of a smile and a quick evaporation, “I don’t remember,” he answered, staring at me intently.  “I don’t believe you.  I’m pretty sure you can remember the exact score of the game, but yet, you can’t tell me why our son was screaming his head off, I heard water running, a shuffle of feet and other movement – all of which I could hear from upstairs, but yet – you can’t tell me what happened?!?!”  In his defense, he did remember.  And to be honest, it was not a big deal.  I just made it one.  Because I was emotionally involved with every cry my baby exerted, even from the second floor. 
  I think being a mother is hard.  Your babies are physically part of the woman’s body for forty weeks (give or take) and so with that unequal beginning, add a ton of wacky hormones, we women are already put in an extremely emotional place that our husbands are not privy to.  If you’re a stay-at-home mom, this gig is unlike any job you’ve ever had because the results of your hard work are not instantly tangible.  You’ve turned in your badge and there are no raises, no bonuses, and no promotions.  Even on a day you’ve worked your absolute hardest, stayed focused, multi-tasked like a pro, and physically exhausted yourself, there’s still no guarantee that your boss or your clients (aka your children) are going to be happy at the end of the day.  Actually, chances are that they won’t.  Because that’s what kids do.  That’s tough.     
  Do we really want our husbands to be as emotionally involved as we are?  To be honest, would that make things better or worse?  Isn’t that why we were attracted to them in the first place?  Their ability to keep their cool, offer an objective perspective, and give logical advice when we were irate about pre-children problems such as, bridesmaids dresses or shoes? 
   I don’t have any answers to any of the questions I posed above.  But I do have hope.  I think that as the tiresomeness of The Jobs of raising two small children become less tedious, more fun, less labor-intensive, and more rewarding, everything will get better.  SuperNanny says, (Your toddler) “wants more attention than it is humanly possible to give, and he wants it for longer than there are hours in the day.”  That helps me feel better about the task we’re facing.  Individually and together, it’s a seemingly impossible one, but every day is a learning experience and we’re getting better at it.  As the months pass, the physical demands of the children lessen, the emotional relationships grow, and my husband and I are able to spend more time focusing on each other.  Even now, we spend a few hours in the evenings together, sitting and talking uninterrupted, which is a welcome change compared to the first few months of being here, when our baby boy was just three months old.  We may argue more than we had in our previous life pre-children, but our smiles are deeper and have been compounded on the tiny faces around us.  My Director at my previous job, after breaking the news to him that I was pregnant responded with the following, "As a parent, you will have your highest highs and your lowest lows," and to this day, I think there is no truer statement that describes parenthood.  With time, everything improves.  Someday V and I will be able to hold hands again walking down the street, instead of pushing strollers.  Our family will be a line across the sidewalk, all four of us, Red Rover Red Rover style, before I even know it.    In the meantime, I’m going to keep a mindful eye on the new roles we play in our Netherlands life: the balance of work, family and self needs we both face.  While I’m at it, I’ll see if I can trade my American Thinking Cap in for a Dutch one.  And maybe get a matching one for V.    

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Full Circle

Full Circle - Aerosmith
Rhine River, Trechtingshausen, Germany

Our flight is going to be delayed due to the ongoing strike at Frankfurt Airport.  All the gates are currently occupied and air traffic control is not allowing any aircraft to depart towards the airport.  Our cabin crew will be coming around with juice and snacks.  We’re scheduled to depart in an hour, but we will keep you posted if that time is moved up.  Once we are in the air, our flying time will be 55 minutes and we will see if we can make up some time.  Thank you for your patience.

And with that, the Captain switched off the intercom.  I’m sitting in the middle of the plane by the window.  Earlier this week, my husband’s flight home from Norway was cancelled because a maintenance worker at AMS found a bomb from World War II and they shut down a portion of the airport for hours.  I can’t help but think: strikes and WWII bombs, I don’t think these are things that would happen in America.  Either way, it’s a rough week for airline travel in The Netherlands.  I settle back in my chair and for about the tenth time today, I am thankful my children are not with me, and the trip is just getting started.  I hear a small child, about 18 rows behind me, with piercing clarity.  He is not pleased with the news about the hour delay.  Maybe the chocolate “Time Out Cookies” will brighten his mood.  I text my husband and my childhood friend with the information, then sit back and smile.  More time to read my book…alone.  I am okay with this. 
   My husband had pushed the double-stroller to the train station and I said goodbye to my adorable children just hours before.  “Bye sweeties!  I’ll be home in just a few days.  You be good for Daddy!”  Baby Girl blew me kisses from the back seat of the tandem stroller while Little Man just looked at me confused.  At almost 11 months old now, I’ve never been away from him for a night.  Tears streamed down my face as the train doors shut and the train pulled away from my family standing on the platform, but the sadness was short-lived.  I reminded myself that I needed this get-away and I didn’t feel too guilty about leaving my husband in charge for a few days.  He’d gone to Paris with some friends a few weekends back, and he had been in Norway earlier in the week.  He should be well-rested.  My girl’s trip to visit my childhood friend who lives outside of Frankfurt had been my carrot all week during his absence and I was ready to savor it.
   I’ve known Amy since before she was born.  Decades ago, our grandparents lived down the street from each other in Lubbock, Texas.  My dad was best friends with her uncle growing up.  My dad went to high school with her dad.  In a convoluted way I don’t remember clearly, her family introduced my parents to each other.  My mom was pregnant with me when she visited Amy’s mom in the hospital when Amy’s brother was born.  The story goes that the nurse joked, “Oh, I guess we’ll be seeing you soon.” “Oh no,” my mother replied. “I still have five weeks.”  I was born four days later.   My parents dropped me and my sister off at their house when my brother was born.  My Dad apparently shouting, “I’m off to have my 3rd girl!” as he sped into the night.  We’ve spent countless summers growing up together, swimming in their pool, playing house, playing school, and riding bikes.  We had a yearly tradition of attending the Morton Meyerson Christmas concerts in Downtown Dallas together and made bets on which grandparent was going to fall asleep first.  When I was in middle school, my grandma and her grandfather would go dancing.  The thought that they’d fall in love and get married thrilled the five of us kids.  We couldn’t think of anything more appropriate than us becoming real cousins.  We’ve attended each other’s high school graduations and Amy and her parents were at my wedding.  
  Amy lived in Florida for a while and had been living in Germany for almost three years when I moved to The Netherlands in January.  With geography between us, we had fallen out of touch.  I had e-mailed her before my departure, joking that we’d “be neighbors soon,” but I did not realize what a significant influence she would have on my new life.  She has no kids of her own, but she is a kindergarten teacher in an International School outside of Frankfurt, which credits her more than any mom I know.  She e-mailed me after I arrived here and said, “I will come.  I will take care of your kids, while you and V do whatever you need to do to get settled.”  Three weeks after the kids and I moved here - We did not have furniture in our home, but she came and slept on the Ikea sofa bed and ate at our card table.  She looked around our empty house and said, “Take pictures of this – this is part of your journey.”  She made shelters out of our cardboard boxes for my daughter.  She played with Baby Girl while V, Little Man, and I bought paint in the snow. 
Walking on the frozen canals in Leiden
    During her visit in February, she and I excitedly explored my new home town while V looked after the kids.  The canals were frozen over and she encouraged me to walk on them.  “What”?  Are you crazy?!?”  With raised eyebrow, I watched Dutch women push their strollered babies on the ice.  With the dare in her eyes, I responded, “Okay, I’ll do it,” and we walked out on the ice in our boots.  She took me shopping and told me what tights I needed to buy for my daughter to keep her warm. “Kids don’t get sick from cold, they get sick from germs,” she explained.  News to me, I reservedly trusted her teacher’s assessment.  Together, we purchased a bight pink snow suit (1/2 price in February) for my daughter.  Once we were home, Amy played with my daughter in front of our house in the snow, while I watched from the window, shivering and cowering inside, clutching my newborn.
  When she offered to have my family visit her in Germany, we had lots of considerations – we could take the train, but do I really want to haul two children plus stuff on the five hour train ride?  (The answer is: no)  We could drive, but is five hours too long for the kids, etc. (Yes, perhaps, it is too long?)  In the end, I decided, I’m going to go.  I want to hang out with Amy.  Me.  Alone.  I think I deserve this. 
   So with that, a KLM ticket was purchased and I was on my way to Germany.  As the plane ascended, I looked out the window and thought – geez, The Netherlands is as flat as Dallas.  With that, if Dallas was old and had some fabulous architecture and a few canals, who knows what it could be. . . . (Think. . . San Antonio Riverwalk???)  I arrived at Frankfurt and was pleased at the EU agreement, as I bypassed customs on my way out of the baggage claim area.  Reveling at the fact that I was in Germany without jet-lag, I found Amy amongst the crowd of people and together we high-tailed it to her car parked outside, toting my pink polka dot carry-on, while dodging hugely large suitcases on the sidewalks.  We snapped our seatbelts efficiently and eyed the parking ticket machine as her car sped towards the gated exit.  Panicked about the requirements of pre-payment, in a frenzy and as a result of her direct instructions, I jumped out with her ticket and Euros in hand, paid the parking ticket, thanking the language Gods there was an English option on the machine, and jumped back into her awaiting car, while other cars and hand gestures were piling up behind us, to the tune of, “Well, I usually park over there, where you pay the attendant as you leave!”  I smiled, pleased with myself.  “Do one thing that scares you every day,” was on a postcard she sent me months ago.  From one Texas Expat to another, it reigns true.  As we maneuvered the German countryside to avoid the pile-up of traffic on the highway (highlighted as red on her GPS with the British voice), I laughed out loud.  She turned to me, my friend from my childhood and said, “What?”  “Amy. . . if you had told me. . . that we’d be running around the German countryside in our 30s. . . because you lived outside of Wiesbaden, Germany and I lived in Leiden, The Netherlands. . . would you have ever have believed. . .” and she just laughed. “No, I never would have believed it.”  
  We toured her school and I explored her Kindergarten classroom at the International School in Wiesbaden.  Prior to moving to The Netherlands, many terms were unfamiliar to me:  Expat, American School, International School, etc.  As we walked through her classroom and outdoor playground with a fantastic view of German countryside, she explained her curriculum.  “There’s this shed, where we keep tricycles, wagons, etc.  The teachers never even bothered to really get the toys out because the shed was in such disarray.  So, I decided to give the primary kids a task.  They were instructed to determine how to organize it.”  I’m looking in the shed.  Each tricycle, wagon, toy, etc. has a predetermined ‘parking spot’ complete with photo and precious 5-year-old-hand-wrtten-sign.  Amy backs me up to the instruction totem-pole, in which, the 5-year olds have determined the optimal order in which the toys should be loaded into the shed, again, complete with pictures and hand written sign.  At 5 years old, these children, via my friend, are learning logistics.  I am in awe. 
  She drove me into Weisbaden for dinner.  She’s determined to park in her regular parking garage, but unfortunately for us, the parking hassles continue.  The garage is closed to all those apparently not driving a Mercedes and we have to ridiculously maneuver her car backwards, up the hill, onto the street.  It is hilarious and exhilarating.  We find a new place to park, and walk to her favorite restaurant.  It is quaint and German, complete with the wooden beams you’d expect in a movie.  She orders in German, and again, I’m impressed.  We split a schnitzel (otherwise known as a chicken-fried-chicken) and I am happy.  I am a small person, but I’ve left more than a few Dutch restaurants still hungry.  I am constantly amazed at the biking required by this country, but yet the small portions of bird food they serve you.  This schnitzel, split, was enough to fill my eternal hunger.  I was happy with the food, and drank my pilsner of a beer (geez man, does this come in a small?) with gratitude. 
Breakfast on the balcony
  I awoke the next day to a sleep-filled night and past 8 a.m.  As I was starting my day, she called to me from the bathroom, “Can we eat out on the balcony?”  Although we are both from Texas, after 3 plus years of living in Europe, her blood has apparently thickened before mine.  “What?  No way.  It’s cold!” I shout as I saunter out of the bathroom.  I turn the corner and see that she already has breakfast set up on her balcony with the fantastic view.  I am instantly apologetic and feel like a master jerk.  “Oh, I’m sorry!  Of course we can eat outside, just let me blow dry my hair.”  Sleeping in and her making breakfast for me has already equated to the best vacation ever.    
Burg Rheinstein Castle
  We tour castles, visit vineyards, and have lunch overlooking the Rhine.  I am in love with Germany and the life she has created for herself.  She hosts a BBQ for her Expat friends on Saturday night.  As I am introducing myself, reiterating my script, “We are on a 2-year rotation to The Netherlands.  We started in January,” every one of their responses was, “Can you extend?”  I think this says a lot about the life they’ve created for themselves.  Amy and her friends are happy, and why not?  They’ve got great jobs and benefits they wouldn’t have back in the states.  They love to travel and have wonderful relationships.  I’m proud of Amy and the life she’s created for herself.  She’s knowledgeable and successful and I’m glad I’m close enough to recognize it. 
  The majority of my visit was light-hearted and stress-free, but we were also able to explore a few uncharted territories from our past, like no one else close to me might know.   I think this was an important part of our journey.  We individually and mutually mourned the family we knew in our youth.  Members have passed away physically and emotionally and we were able to share such intimate moments with each other.  We cried together and nodded with understanding and misunderstanding, but yet, it was good.  Not many people I associate with now know my parents and my sister and brother the way she does, and vice versa.  With time and perspective separating us, it was enlightening.  Although I’ve known Amy my entire life, it’s reassuring that we are still discovering ourselves.  We not only support each other in that journey, but we are just across the border from each other.       
  We zoom down the Germany highways as she assures me, “Don’t worry, Terminal 2 is a piece of cake.”  I’m nervous and shaking my head.  I talk to her like the sister she is, “Amy, your house is 30 minutes from the airport, not 20.  This is an important distinction for you to make when people are departing.”  She smiles and apologizes, yet reassures me it will be okay.  My type-A-personality-with-the-crap-poker-face eyes her suspiciously.  To my relief and surprise, Terminal 2 at FRA is like American Eagle Terminal B at DFW:  A piece of cake.  As I’m wandering around the terminal, waiting for them to post what gate my flight is departing from, I reflect on our goodbyes outside Frankfurt airport.  We said goodbye until Thanksgiving.  She and her roommate are going to celebrate Thanksgiving with us in The Netherlands.  I don’t know if we’ll find a turkey, but she reassured me, “I don’t care if we eat pizza.  You choose your family.  I choose you.”  I couldn’t agree more.                                   

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Bang My Head Against the Wall

Bang My Head - Cross Canadian Ragweed

Baby Girl on the balcony overlooking Lake Zurich

 So…I’ve always been a bit of a stress-ball.  (I can hear my ex-coworkers in America laughing from here. . .)  I like things organized.  I appreciate soothing background music.  I work most effectively by focusing on one task at a time until completion.  I like to be in control and empowered.  I care a lot about what other people think of me.  I do not like to inconvenience others and sometimes have trouble asking for help.   I hate looking incompetent.  I sure I am not alone with these statements.  Anyone who knows me also knows that with all this stress-related energy comes great passion and drive.  I will be the first person to welcome a new employee, take them to lunch, and become a life-long friend.  I will be at the wedding, birthday party, baby shower, and Christmas party, if I’m not already hosting it.  I enjoy trying to understand why people do the things they do.  If I say I’m going to do something, I do it.  I’m forgiving.  I love to dance and give hugs.  So, in the end, there’s a balance:  stress and love.  Energy is the common denominator.
  As a parent, your life is no longer your own.  At least not in the form it was previously.  Your child has a significant influence on when you sleep and when you wake, and then everything else just stems from there.   
  One of the biggest differences between living in America and living in Europe is how public your life becomes.  For example, in America, you’re driving home from work or the store at the end of a long day with two young children in the backseat.  You and your children are tired and restless.  Tensions are starting to escalate while being confined in your 4-door car or SUV.  Perhaps one has pinched the other one and now one or both are crying.  You’re looking into your rear-view mirror, alternating between sympathy and frustration, “Are you okay, sweetie?  Did you hit your brother?  How many times do I have to tell you, No hitting!  This is your warning.  Do it again and I’ll pull this car over and put you in timeout right here on the side of Preston Road!”  At the end, both are wailing while you’re trying to keep your cool, lecture your children, and you’ve got a death-grip on the steering wheel while your foot reflexively accelerates on the gas pedal towards home.  The car next to you at the stop light, on the rare case the driver even bothers to look in your direction, sees a snow globe of activity.  They may smile at the two sweet little children in their individual car seats.  If they do notice the tears streaming down a face, with the screams muted, they may look on sympathetically, and think, oh shame, the poor little dears.  The driver looks forward, perhaps switches the radio station from the traffic report to a song, zooms down the road once the light changes from red to green, and does not give you and your family a second thought.  The blizzard of stress, screaming, and anger is yours and contained. 
    In Europe, in The Netherlands in particular, it is five o’clock and my children are sitting side-by-side in the carrier on my bike.  My daughter is nearing her ‘witching’ hour and she pinches the baby for kicks.  His screams shatter the otherwise peacefulness of the bike path all around us.  Wailing beyond belief, every bicyclist within a ¼-mile radius (and there are a lot of them) can hear the disaster I am pedaling down the road.  We are not in a bubble, but rather, we are a painstakingly clear high definition movie complete with surround sound.  Cyclists are coming towards me and zooming around me and everyone is turning their heads and staring in wonder at the absolute volume radiating from my bright green Bose speaker of a bike.  Within seconds, I pull to the side of the bike path, jump off the bike with lightning speed, lift up the rain cover and have my son unbuckled and in my arms while glaring at my daughter.  A woman cradling her howling baby on the side of the bike path in front of the most colorful bike in the country attracts no less attention.  Walking down the sidewalk pushing a screaming toddler or baby is just as much fun.  I’ve had old women in Dutch, French, and German comment to me and my children about the goings-on of the scene in front of them.  The most intense of all, is the train.  Inevitably, after physically walking all over town to get to the train station, you may or may not have had to carry the stroller plus child down an unbelievable flight of stairs and lift it breathlessly onto the train.  Every train in Europe I’ve been on has a door labeled handicap, but it beats me as to how a wheelchair is supposed to lift itself up two to three stairs to get into the train.  I have yet to see a ramp.  So you’re already low on energy, probably sweating, and your sweet child is not thrilled to be stuck in the tiny space allotted for strollers, suitcases, bikes, and whatever other large device people are taking on the train (I saw a man carrying a stringed bass in Zurich).   Your child’s mood changes from yellow to red and with that, the whining, screaming, kicking, and if you’re lucky, even hitting commences.  As a parent, your energy level is already at low point from the physical requirements of getting to the train and your patience with said child is minimal.  The people around you are stuck listening to everything you and your child are saying for minutes on end.  They don’t know you.  They don’t know that you and your child are 90% of the time sweet and loving towards each other.  They don’t know that you’re on holiday and sleeping a family of four in a one-bedroom hotel room which inevitably results in the day excitedly starting at 6:30 a.m. instead of the normal wakeup time of 8:00.  They don’t know that you’ve flown your family of four to another country because it was important to you to attend a wedding of one of your closest friends.  All they see is one stressed-out Mama and a screaming child (or two). 
View of Zurich from Lake Zurich
  The first Secret of Adulthood Gretchen Rubin writes in her book, The Happiness Project is “People don’t notice your mistakes as much as you think.”  Okay.  Fine.  I’ll take a breath and ponder that one for a minute.  But has Gretchen ever been on a wedding cruise boat with a seasick baby and a toddler who had approximately 1/3 of her normal nap for the day?  Did she see you balancing on the boat in heels and a short dress, alternating between trying to get your toddler to go to sleep and wrestling your fidgety 11-month old to the point where you’re afraid he’s going to fly out of your arms and into the lake?  Did she see you put your glass of wine in the cup holder of the stroller only to have you knock it over and shatter all over the deck while trying to place squirmy baby back into the stroller?   Oh no.  I don’t think Gretchen has seen any of this.  But I have.  In the middle of the absolutely breathtaking Lake Zurich there we were.  I was the guest-trying-to-have-a-good-time-while-at-a-wedding-on-a-boat-with-two-children-under-two-and-a-half-years-old, which only led to Germans whispering to each other about the party foul caused by said clearly unstable American mother of two.  Or so it was.  In my head. 
   Sometimes even Mamas need a time-out.  My daughter, when I can see the restlessness increasing in both of us, sometimes goes to her crib for ‘relax time’.  I shower her with stuffed animals and books and she will read to herself, talk, and play for 20 minutes or so, until she has calmed down.  After the mortifying wine-glass-shattering-event, the boat pulled up to the dock, and as the other guests turned to enter into the reception, I grabbed a stroller and with angry and sad tears about to spill, hugged my friends, told them inconclusively that I needed to go back to the hotel, and marched off, my husband and other stroller trailing behind.
  With every vacation we’ve been on, starting with a trip to Disney World when my daughter was seven months old, I’ve had that break-down crying moment where I say to V, “Why?  Why do we even try?  We have got to be crazy!!  Why do we even try to go on vacation with one/two children?  We should just stay home.  It’s just too hard.”  This was that moment, in the hotel room between the wedding and the reception.  This was the first time my daughter was a seemingly understanding witness to the event and after fighting with me for hours (all I wanted was for her to fall asleep so she could feel better and we could enjoy the evening) she looked at me and said, “Mama’s sad.  Mama’s crying,” which of course, made me feel even worse.  “You can’t just leave it like this, you have to go back to see your friends,” my husband was saying. He was trying to convince me that he would stay with the kids while I went and enjoyed myself.  “Please, I don’t want to go back by myself,” I said, conflicted.  I was very confused as to how I was going to swing this one.  My daughter’s regular bedtime is 7:30 and that’s after her regular 3-hour nap.  It was nearing 8:00 and with a one-hour nap, I was worried that she’d continue down the path of self-destruction she’d been on for the past few hours (which, clearly, leads to my self-destruction as well.  See, we are one.)  But as she looked at me with sympathetic and calm eyes, I think, something may have clicked with her.  My son, too, was surprisingly pleasant.  So I relented.  “Baby Girl, do you want to stay in the hotel, or go to the party?” I asked.  “Go to party,” she said sweetly.  My husband looked at me with a see-let’s-do-this-it’s-worth-a-shot-type of look, and I sighed and smiled back.  I changed out of my short skirt and into pants – a much more suitable attire for chasing children, re-applied my makeup, braided my daughter’s hair, and we were set to make a determined appearance at the reception.                                             
   From the moment we stepped into the restaurant, a magical feeling came over me and I was thankful for my children’s calmness and my husband’s insistence.  We found our places at the table, complete with highchair for my daughter and M&M-filled hearts with all of our names on them.  The wait staff rushed to bring us our salads, but upon completion, we realized we had caught up to everyone else’s soup course.  In between courses, the wedding party and guests launched balloons into the starry night sky with sparklers attached.  The balloons floated across and over Lake Zurich and my daughter watched mesmerized.  “Rapunzel, lanterns,” she whispered with eyes wide.   I chatted with my friends and when they asked if I was ok, I was able to respond, “Sorry, Mama just needed a time-out.”  In the end, we stayed out until 11 and like many times before, my daughter amazed me with her grace and stamina.  After chatting with my friends, we said goodbye to them and the beautiful bride, grabbed a taxi, and headed back to our hotel up the hill.
  Both children fell into bed without a fuss.  My husband had purchased a bottle of wine at the train station across the street from the hotel earlier in the day.  We settled into a couple of lounge chairs on the balcony overlooking Lake Zurich and sipped white wine.  As we memorized the scene in our heads, complete with calming waters and enchanting lights, I turned to him and said, “This.  This is why we try.  Because we love our friends and love moments like this.”  He smiled and said, “I couldn’t think of a more relaxing place to be stressed, but yes.  Today is why we try.”    
Zurich, Switzerland