Monday, May 20, 2013


V had decided that a telephone call with detailed explanation was necessary – a text or e-mail, our usual method of correspondence, just wasn’t going to get the point across.   Our landlord only had one question after V had called and calmly explained what we needed from him.  “So.  You mean, you want to be American t.v. stars?” I pictured the tall Dutch man leaning forward with his elbows on his desk, his ear pressed to the telephone, his face a void of expression except for a small hint of puzzlement on his eyebrows.  “Um, yes,” my husband replies, as humbly as he can, he breathes in and out – waiting for the response.  “Oh-kay.  I sign the form and send it to you.” With that, we received permission for House Hunters International to film at his home. 

Because of this lovely blog – a casting producer for House Hunters International found our story and emailed me wondering if I, or someone I knew, would be interested in auditioning for the show.  We had just finished dinner – Baby Girl and Little Man were at the height of their crazy-evening-time.  My computer is setup in the kitchen and I had clicked on the ‘refresh’ button between carrying dirty plates to the sink, desperate for a brief distraction - trying to tune-out the shouting and whining of my children.  The swift maneuver is like a nervous habit and usually, the ‘refresh’ results in nothing note-worthy.  But this time - my jaw dropped as I read the email, and then a wave of denial rushed over me. “There’s no way this is even true!” I shouted to V.  My husband is struggling to get my squirmy son out of his high chair safely.  My daughter is chanting “I’m finished!  I’m finished!” incessantly.  My husband, a mere three feet away from me, squints as if trying to focus on something upon the horizon – the distractions are thick.   “What?  What is it?” he calls out. 

After putting the kids to bed, we google the email address and discover – Leopard Films DOES produce HGTV’s International House Hunters.  As the reality seeps in. . .that a real-life casting producer has emailed me. . . that they found me because of my blog. . . I become really, really excited.  You could pretty much say that I started jumping up and down (literally) with the enthusiasm of a homecoming queen from a West Texas high school.  I was SO excited. 

House Hunters International was one of the two shows I watched religiously before moving to The Netherlands (Good Morning America being the other one. . . I miss seeing Robin Roberts in the morning about as much as I miss my college roommate).  The most popular question amongst co-workers and friends upon announcing I was moving overseas was, “So. . . are you going to be on International House Hunters?” – which was followed by a chuckle, and an elbow to my ribs, everyone proud of their ‘little joke.”  I just smiled, and tick-marked the umpteenth time I’ve heard the spiel.  I loved HHI though. . . and secretly was confused how to even get on the show.     

We arranged a Skype video-interview with the casting producer at 5:00 p.m.  We strategically setup the computer to accommodate the best view of the house, we changed our clothes, allowed Baby Girl some ‘relax time’ in her crib and gave her a few books to read.  (Sounds harsh, but she really was being a bit crazy and likes her alone time).  Little Man was awake and in his high chair – at 17 months, I’m at a loss as to what I should do with him.  There is no ‘relax time’ for him.  During the ‘interview’ the lady explained she had a 7-month old at home.  A wave of relief came over me.  At least she had a clue about how hard doing anything with a baby is.  We talked.  We smiled.  We listened.  Little Man screamed to be let out of his high chair.  More talking. . .Little Man is now running around our living room screaming (and due to our ‘strategic planning – it’s all in full view).  We answer her questions.  Little Man is now rocking the screen in front of the lit fireplace back and forth.  I have to run and get him and put him on my lap.  She’s asking more questions.  Little Man wriggles out of my grip in his usual 2-second-sit-still-style.  I smile apologetically and he’s on the floor like sand falling between my hands.   She’s still asking questions and we’re trying to answer her as best as we can.  It’s V’s turn to prevent Little Man from climbing onto the coffee table (a stunt, amazingly, he only pulls when he knows tensions in the household are at a climax) – of course, all within. . . full view of the camera.  In conclusion, she smiles and tells us to produce a casting video.  V and I both smile in return, thank her for the phone call, and we sign off.  I shut the computer and look at my husband, not able to decide whether to cry or scream.  If I’m a homecoming queen, I’ve just tripped and fallen face first in the mud on the 50-yard line on my way to accept the crown.  Embarrassment and frustration starts flooding out of my mouth, “You know. . . I used to be able to have a conversation with an adult!” I shout to my husband.  I do like being a stay-at-home-mom, but I’m also a CPA.  Sometimes. . . like that moment right there. . . I feel about a thousand-times-removed from my former self that I left a mere, 14-months ago.  “That was one of the most important conversations in my life and I couldn’t even talk!”  The tide has shifted - I’m on the brink of tears now.  “Honey,” V tries to console me, “You may not have seen it, but every-time Little Man was on the camera, she stopped listening to us, anyway.  She couldn’t take her eyes off of him.  She loved him!”  I pause for a minute to consider.  I must admit, Little Man is pretty cute.  His little blond curls dancing in and out of the screen were comical, if you’re in that sort of mood. . . “Really?” I sniffed.  “Yes.  Trust me.  It was okay.  And she told us to make the video – she would have told us another line if she didn’t think we had potential,” he looked me square in the face and held my hand, as Little Man threw all the pots and pans from his play kitchen across the family room.  I smiled.  Okay.  We’ll give it a shot.           

We went on-line.  We found other casting videos.  We found a really good one from a couple in Kyrgyzstan and who were picked for the show.  So we modeled ours after theirs, more or less.  The casting producer said she loved our ‘story’ about how V’s parents immigrated to the U.S. when he was 2, about how he has family still here, etc.  So again, we tried to incorporate that into the video as well.  I wanted to show the differences between America and The Netherlands.  I had started collecting video footage whenever we moved here, with hopes of creating a video to my most favorite song of all time – Home, by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. . . and now was our chance.  I was so proud of the final product – even if we didn’t get picked for the show. 

The producers may have liked it, but they wanted more.  They wanted more of us talking directly to the camera, unscripted.  This assignment was seemingly impossible to accomplish for an ex-accountant and an IT consultant.   We’re planners!  So we had to produce two more videos, thus dragging out the anticipation and acceptance for months.  My nervous-refresh-email-habit-neared obscene levels as I waited for a final yea-or-nay confirmation. 

Finally, as I was enjoying a day to myself in London before my friend’s wedding, I received a phone call.  I was shopping for souvenirs at Harrods.  V was calling me.  With international roaming charges, I knew he wasn’t just calling to say hi.  “Hello?” I turned away from the Harrod’s chocolates I had been eyeing.  “We got it!” he shouted into the phone.  He’s the Quarterback of the high school who just won the State title.  I can feel the radiation from his gleaming smile through the phone.  “What?!?!  Do you really mean….” I say, unbelieving the news and dodging customers.  “Yes!  We’re going to be on International House Hunters!” he repeats.  I’m overjoyed and relieved.  It was an exciting but tedious process to get accepted and many friends in Leiden helped watch the kids, film, walk the dogs, and just give general support for us to even get this far.  I’m so glad that all the hard work had paid off. 

We found out a little over a month ago.  The film crew will be here in two days and will be filming for four days here in Leiden.  The final filming schedule was sent to us tonight and everything is a go.  As I perused through the schedule and read words like “Line Producer, Supervising Field Producer, & Production Coordinator” I found myself slightly hyperventilating.  I’m really going to be on TV!  It’s a little nerve-wrecking, but exciting.  On our end, we’ve had 6 haircuts (the dogs included), organized outfits, and booked babysitters.  On their end, they’ve received permission to film at the DeValk windmill in town with an amusing request that each film crew member pay the 4 Euro entrance fee (can we say ‘thank you for the international publicity?”), at the Leiden Market, at the kids’ daycare, and at a local hotel.   

So with that, my cover is blown.  All my attempts to maintain the privacy of my husband and children are gone.  My husband’s name in Vinny, my daughter is Cosette, and son is Holden.  Luckily, after showing the video to a regular reader (whom I haven’t met in real life, yet) she told me that I was how she pictured me – which makes me happy.  So here we are, probably even more authentic than what you’re going to see on House Hunters (at least, from what I’ve read).  And if anyone out there has connections to Good Morning America and could forward it on to Robin Roberts – that would be awesome.  

Monday, May 13, 2013

I Paid My Income Tax Today

“The only things certain in life are death and taxes” – Benjamin Franklin

  What Ben didn’t mention was that the dead still need to complete their taxes.  Even in The Netherlands
  My husband was born in The Netherlands.  He can trace his Dutch family history back 300 years on both sides.  His Grandmother, on his mother’s side, lived and died in Gouda – a small town about 30 minutes from where we live in Leiden.  The story of  her death and burial was a dramatic process and being the only living relatives she has in The Netherlands, my husband has been granted the prestigious title of Executor of The Estate – and for months, has been working through all the tedious challenges of the job description.  The Dutch, and their love of paperwork and challenging efficiency, have been doing their best in dragging out and complicating the process as much as possible. 
  My husband received a 30-page document (in Dutch, obviously) from the government explaining how to complete his Grandmother’s tax return.  He flipped through it, amazed at the heft of the package.  He lugged it up to his father’s relatives, pleading for assistance, and discovered the taxes were due April 1 as opposed to August 1 as he had mistakenly skimming-translated.
  The first step was to contact the tax office to make an appointment to visit with someone in order to complete the tax form.  “Ja.  Okay.  So.  Are you free, Wednesday between the hours of 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.?” the pleasant-sounding Dutch woman asked V.  V leaned his phone on his shoulder, and checked his calendar, “Um, yes.  I can be.  Where do I need to go?” he responded.  “Oh, no, no, no.  Someone will be calling you on Wednesday between 11:00 and 1:00 in order to make an appointment for your taxes,” she explained with an air of factuality and finality in her voice.  V’s eyes lit up and he made an imaginary fist pump in the air.  All the Expat websites and cultural guidebooks had warned us about the appointment-for-an-appointment quirky Dutch custom, and after a year, he finally could say he too, had been indoctrinated into the club.  It tipped the scales from long-term tourist, to local - like getting your bike stolen in Amsterdam.
   Two days later, the phone rang at the appointed time and a man’s voice confirmed the date for the filing of the taxes.  “You free in two weeks, yes?” he said roughly.  “Yes, of course – but isn’t that date after the April 1st deadline to file?” V responded, quite confused. . . his mind reminiscing of Americans driving all over town to find the one post office open late on April 15th, then shoving their stamped envelopes desperately into the mail slots like breathless marathon runners crossing the finish line.  “No. No.  It is okay.  As long as you have an appointment to file your taxes, then it will be just fine.”  Of course.  This appointment business again.   He instructed V to go to the Hogeschool in LeidenHogeschool, isn’t that a college? V thought to himself.  Confused, but humbled by the whole filing-taxes-in-The-Netherlands-process thus far, V left the unspoken question linger in the air.     
  The Hogeschool was within walking distance of our home.  Rain fell softly as he entered the glass revolving door.  The tile floor stretched before him and the odor of cheap cleaning products similar to high schools all over the world (apparently) assaulted his nose.  He followed the low buzz echoing throughout the hall and came upon the gymnasium.  Folding card tables were set outside the gym and he checked in, and then sat in a row of chairs, waiting for his name to be called, as if at the DMV in Texas
  He shifted uncomfortably in the plastic chair until his name was called and a plain, young girl escorted him into the gymnasium.  The room was crowded with tables, ‘tax advisors’, and customers.  A hum resonated throughout the room as she led V to her own spot among the rows of folding tables and plastic chairs.   “Ga zitten” she instructed, and V sat.  She shuffled some papers, shifted in her chair, subconsciously wiped her hands on her jeans, and consciously relaxed her shoulders.  She asked how she could help him – in Dutch.  “Um, spreek ja Engles?” V responded.  He’s been taking Dutch classes.  He can read children’s books and have a decent conversation with people in shops, restaurants, at the train station, etc., but he’d prefer to speak English when dealing with The Netherlands Government - can’t be too cautious.  The girl frowns at him, but responds that she would give it a try.  V continues to explain his position.  Her eyes widen as his story continues.  As he concludes, the look of horrified bewilderment upon her face is solidified.  Her hand shoots up into the air.  Apparently, the chapter that explains: How to file taxes for a Dead Dutch Grandmother of an English-speaking-Expat-grandson had not been covered in her Introduction to Individual Taxation course.  At least, not yet.  
  Her professor comes to her aid.  In rapid Dutch, the flustered student enlightens the woman of the unique case my husband has presented her.  The lecturer pats her lightly on the shoulder and ushers my husband away from the scene like a woman shielding someone from an accident, and towards an older gentleman.  As V handed him a pile of statements, papers, and notes, the elderly man nodded with the calm wisdom of an unfazed tax advisor who had seen it all.  A few flips through the documents, a few keystrokes into his computer, and a couple of penciled digits onto a receipt slip – and Oma’s taxes were filed.  The bill would come later.
  V shook the man’s hand and passed the rows of students on his way out.  With an enlightened sense of self, V danced out of the gym, proud of his accomplishment.  Filing my Grandmother’s taxes in an hour - in The Netherlands – check!  But before he left, V asked the all-knowing tax advisor about how to handle the subsequent inheritance tax.  His response, as if you had not guessed it already – “Oh yes.  Just call the tax office.  And make an appointment!”       

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

All I Really Need

All I Really Need (Raffi)

  The overwhelming task that lay before me – each step to be approached and passed like mile markers on a stretch of highway in the desert – prevented me from indulging myself in too many heartfelt, tearful, fully-aware goodbyes.  It was a sunny day in January 2012.  I had less than 12 hours remaining in my hometown – Dallas.  The place I was born, raised and visited during college holidays.  It was the city where I returned, fell in love with my husband, bought my first house, birthed our children, and worked for nearly ten years.  My entire house had been packed up and the goods shipped across the ocean.  My two dogs and husband anxiously awaited the reconciliation to occur the next morning.  In a smart black skirt and fishnet tights I saw my husband’s 2000 Explorer being hauled away from my office building at lunch.  The security guards dancing with excitement, waiting for a confrontation with the suspicious tow-truck driver, until I informed them of my plans to move to The Netherlands the next day – thus the need to get rid of everything that was not necessaryWe had already haggled with CarMax over the value of my car – a fair but lower-handed struggle considering we had no return purchase as a bargaining chip.  The Cars for Kids tow truck driver waved goodbye as I stood in the warm parking lot, grateful for the donation.   Later that afternoon,  I packed up my last few belongings in my cube, hugged my co-workers one last time, pressed the lobby button in the glass elevator, and greeted my Dad, who was waiting to pick me up from my last day at work.  “You okay?” he asked suspiciously.  “Yup!  Just fine.  Let’s go pick up Baby Girl,” I said determinedly.  My To-Do List still running through my head.
  We weaved the SUV through the familiar streets of my childhood, and arrived at her school.  I’m sure I passed the building every day on my way to high school.  I never noticed it until I was a mother.  We pressed the individually assigned security code and entered – for the last time.  My daughter started attending daycare when she was 3-months old.  I cried and cried the first day I dropped her off.  As Miss Betty held her arms around me, she talked to me in a honeyed-voice dripping with years of experience, “There, there.  During the first week, we don’t worry about the babies, it’s the Mamas we worry most about.  Don’t you fret, child – your Baby Girl will be just fine.  You take care, now.” and she handed me a tissue.  To my surprise and delight, she was right.  My little Baby Girl was just fine and I too, improved in a weeks’ time.    For the next 19 months, my daughter was showered with an endless supply of affection from these wonderful, caring ladies.  We spent Baby Girl’s first birthdays and holidays together.  They celebrated my 2nd pregnancy and anxiously awaited the birth of our son.  They sunk with disappointment and cried when I told them our plans to move overseas.  I adored these ladies as much as they adored my daughter – they made my apprehensions and confusion of being a first-time parent, a hugely less stressful experience in so many uncountable ways. 
  My Dad and I entered her classroom and there she sat – playing in a circle with all her friends.  My innocent Baby Girl – what was I doing?  Taking her away from everything and everyone she knew?  She was only 21-months old – too young to understand, but old enough to know that things were different.  I hugged her teachers, the principal, secretaries, everyone as we left.  Tears brimming over everyone’s eyes – for the first time – my heart got the best of me.  My To-Do List nearly complete and crumpled deep in my pocket – completely forgotten during this significant moment of time.   We drove to my Dad’s house, my Baby Girl oblivious to the huge blow that would be coming to her tiny little world.  I knew a move overseas would be a positive experience – the lessons and opportunities would be boundless and amazing.  Everything would work out and be wonderful.  But as we drove to my Dad’s house with her tiny voice singing the ABCs from the backseat, my head and heart ached.
  We flew over the big huge ocean.  We settled into our house.  I tried my best to entertain her and my 3-month old simultaneously, but even as Raffi belted out of my stereo speakers accompanying us as we walked around our house for hours (her pushing her play grocery cart, and my baby in his stroller) – it was clear that this stay-at-home-mom-gig was a far cry from her regular routine of vibrant learning and playing with kids her own age.  I needed help.  She needed social interaction.  In April 2012 we decided we needed to enroll her in daycare at least one day a week.  
  V and I searched the neighborhood for options and we discovered one at the end of our block that had been rated highly on a local Expat website.  We attended an open-house one evening.  Flustered and running late (as always), the director opened the door.  Confused by the term ‘open house’ – I had pictured a large group of people, mingling, sipping fruit punch out of tiny cups while attempting to hold adult conversations – I realized that it was actually a private tour.  My family, and one other expecting couple were the only ones attending.  Fun fact about me – when I know, I know.  My wedding venue?  I researched online and I had limited the options to one.  We visited and I was sold – it was exactly what I wanted.  Our family home in Texas?  When I saw it from the street, I knew it was the one I wanted.  We walked into the Dutch preschool that cool spring evening and I had that certain feeling.  I knew it was where I wanted my daughter to go to school – despite my anxiousness of enrolling her in a school where they did not speak English and she knew no Dutch.  I knew it was where she needed to be. 
   Despite her love of her preschool in Texas – the transition to her new Dutch preschool was a little rocky.  I saw tears I had never seen before as I dropped her off.  I cried the entire block home as well.  I berated myself – what are you doing?  Dropping your vulnerable daughter off at a school where she knows no one and doesn’t even understand what they’re saying.  Mantras such as “Oh, children are so resilient!” and “They’ll soak up a new language like a sponge,” provided little comfort to me in my equally vulnerable state.  Weeks passed.  Months passed.  Baby Girl started to look forward to one-day-a-week daycare excursions.  We packed her bags, she became accustomed to routine.  Considering I’m at home with the kids all day, I have limited contact with adults.  When I would pick her up at school, I’d talk with her teachers in the garden for much longer than probably necessary.  They indulged me in talking about my daughter, America, and how I was finding living in The Netherlands.  One rainy day in July, my husband had been out of town for a week, and I had had a particularly stressful night and morning with the two kids.  Baby Girl could feel my sadness and she hugged me for an extra-long time during drop off.  As the rain drops fell, she wrapped her tiny arms around me, and in my exhausted-state, I missed my husband.  My eyes watered at her sweet nature as I encouraged her to sit by her friends for breakfast.   I took a deep breath, smiled a little too widely, and hastily said goodbye, trying to mask my unreasonable vulnerability.  Before I was out the door, the director chased me down.  “Are you OK?” she said with a concerned look in her eyes.  “Yes, yes. I’m fine.  I’m just quite tired,” and I turned for the door but stopped and turned around again.  “Thank you, though,” and I nodded.  She nodded back. 
  I reflected as I push my son’s stroller back to our house, and a small, awe-filled smile replaced the frustration I had previously felt on the walk 20 minutes earlier.  I never thought that I would find a school with such loving, caring people to take care of my daughter.  And I had.  Twice.  Like in Dallas, my daughter’s Dutch teachers love her, but they also help take care of me.  A confusing, overwhelming experience becomes manageable and enjoyable – and for that, no matter where in the world we live, I will always be grateful for the love and support of teachers who touch my children’s lives.