Thursday, July 18, 2013

California Stars

USA Day in Voorburg, The Netherlands
 July 4, 2013.  Back in Texas, Independence Day festivities are kicking off under a canopy of fireworks, fireflies, and fire-like temperatures.  In The Netherlands, I sit in my kitchen wearing the same full-time Mom uniform I’ve been wearing for ten months: jeans, an aging long-sleeved shirt, and an Old Navy hoodie. The noisy space-heater is running at my feet and clouds hang dismissively outside my gritty window.  Grey:  the color of too many days in The Netherlands.  I search for hope.  The information is usually inaccurate.  (I imagine an eager, but incompetent 22-year-old-meterology intern updating Europe’s forecasts daily).  I also turn to the Dutch weather website, and cross-reference.  Both 5-day forecasts promise glowing orbs of yellow and numbers creeping up the scales in both Fahrenheit and Celsius.  My mood correspondingly brightens.  Besides festive Facebook posts and the New Orleans calendar hanging by my fridge (which, I happily found at the American Book Center in The Hague) – there’s no real indication that I should be celebrating my home country’s most important historical holiday.  Like most of the holidays we’ve celebrated since we’ve been in The Netherlands, I feel like a solo cheerleader trying to arouse an audience of a few, but there is a certain freedom in our isolation.  I ignore the actual July 4th date and plan to celebrate when the weather was more conducive to a commemoration remotely similar to one I’d attend at home.  I matter-of-factly decide that my family is going to celebrate July 4th, on Saturday, July 6th.   To further my quest for recreation of all things authentically American - I peruse the American Women’s Club newsletter and find, to my confusion and excitement, that a USA Day is being hosted by Voorburg, a small town on the outskirts of The Hague, on Saturday.  I’m not entirely sure what that means. . . but it’s perfect timing for my delayed Independence Day plans!  (It must be a sign!)  I am in an over-committal mood fueled by the promise of a kiss of sunshine, and also decide to invite a few American friends over on Saturday night.  Although V has grilled multiple times in the rain, I was looking forward to a drizzle-less BBQ complete with burgers, watermelon mojitos, and tiny plastic American flags I spotted at the junk store in Leiden.
  E-mails sent to friends, visions of my sunny Americanized Saturday dancing through my head, I decided to further research the USA Day on-line.  I soon discovered that Voorburg was celebrating a 20-year sister-city celebration with Temecula, California.  “Temecula!!” I say outloud to myself.  (Or to the dog - the kids are having naptime).  I practically hyperventilated under the cloudy pillow that was incessantly smothering my excitement.   My dog, Tyler looks at me quizzically.  Temecula is home to Ponte Winery.   It’s a beautiful place (which I’ve visited before) but more than that - Ponte Winery is where my brother is getting married in just a few months!  Temecula, California (when you’re living half-way across the world) is like. . . referencing your family’s backyard or something. . . What the. . . how. . . what???  I can’t wait to see what this USA Day has to offer.  I start finalizing details such as attire and train schedules. 
   July 6, 2013.  The intern may be receiving a full-time job offer.  The weather, as predicted, is gorgeous on Saturday morning.  My family arrives in Voorburg dressed in red, white, and blue attire (well, Baby Girl insisted on wearing her pink tropical flower dress V recently purchased in the States.  I shrug, and figure she could represent the Hawaiian Islands).  We meander through the early-morning mingling and I instantly feel at home in the little town.  Maybe it was because of the red, white, and blue bunting hanging across the pedestrian road (it certainly wasn’t the mechanical bull on the sidewalk) but it feels like a small-. 
town American downtown.  Store-front windows dressed to attract, brick streets, and a cozy garden in front of the government buildings all made me think I had stepped back in time to America: 1950
Dutch girls attempting to spin cotton candy
  We stroll down the road eyeing the vendors popping popcorn and attempting to spin cotton candy onto a stick (and later laugh at discarded fluffy cloud sticking to and out of a sidewalk trash bin. . . I guess the Dutch, for all their love of candy, are not fans of the disintegrating pink sugary mess . . . )  The town baker sells doughnuts and apple pies.  We clap along with the marching band, and then, to my utter excitement – a colorguard team, languidly waving their flags, lead the band through the streets (Look, Baby Girl!  Mama used to do that in high school and at Baylor!)  The marching band is followed by a parade of antique American cars including a Cadillac Sedan de Ville 1956. 
  A small stage is set-up in front of the church and Voorburg government buildings.  We listen attentively to speeches from representatives of Temecula as well as the Ambassador of the U.S. located in The Hague.  We snap photos of V and Baby Girl along side the antique army jeep (driven by a nice young Dutch man wearing a U.S.A. army uniform). 
U.S. Ambassador & Voorburg Mayor
    The sun is reaching a quite-warm stage of the day.  My entire family is starting to sweat and I relish the unfamiliar beads of moisture appearing on my arms as if they were photographs of my childhood.  To further my quest of a synchronized, long nap time (we’ve got to prepare for the BBQ!) I spot an array of small American children’s games nestled inside a hedged courtyard.  Plastic horseshoes fly through the air while bean bags are hurled toward small plastic cans set up on t.v. tray.  With this blog post in mind, I put on an imaginary reporter’s hat and start to chat to a couple of the teenagers entertaining the children.  I quickly discover that a large part of the sister-city relationship is a student exchange between Temecula and Voorburg every two years.  50 students from Voorburg (and surrounding areas) submitted a motivation letter and were interviewed.  The beaming girls I was speaking to were two of the 24 students who were selected for the program, which meant they would be visiting Temecula in June 2014.  She excitedly continued to explain that 24 students from Temecula would be visiting and staying in their homes during next March. (My first thought – oh my goodness, those poor California kids are going to freeze.  But second thought – well, their adrenaline and excitement of a once-in-a-lifetime-trip might keep
Classic Car Parade at USA Day
them warm, too.)  Their enthusiasm for the program was contagious.  I couldn’t help but gush to them about how beautiful Temecula is and to share my personal story of my brother’s upcoming nuptials to this audience who (at least pretended) to care.  I congratulated them both on their acceptance into the program and again, expressed my appreciation for this fantastic travel and cultural experience hosted by the two cities.  Little Man is knocking down all the red, white and blue plastic cans out of the corner of my eye.  He’s not using the bean bags though – he’s bulldozing the TV tray.  Another privileged Dutch student is trying to corral the disaster while V helps her.  They seem to have everything (relatively?) under control.  I’m hyper with excitement as I shout over to V – “I’m going to try and catch one of the representatives from Temecula!” and he raises a hand and nods distractedly. 
  I find an approachable red-headed woman smiling and standing off to the side as the Ambassador and Voorburg Mayor chat to each other.  I feel a bit like a goofball, but I also know what it’s like to stand in a sea of Dutch-speaking people.  I introduce myself and like I thought she might, she lit up with happiness at
meeting another American in a foreign country.  She told me that she wasn’t with the government stuff, but rather, she was in charge of the exchange program.  We swapped a few stories and she invited me to call her next time I was in Temecula, which I thought was really sweet.  My kids’ (and husband’s) energy levels fading, I wished her good-luck with thanks for the conversation and my family departed USA Day complete with an (American) patriotic feeling.
   Once settled back at home, between putting the kids to nap time, prepping the mojitos, and starting the grill, I quickly researched Voorburg day in Temecula:  October 26, 2013 (the weekend before my brother’s wedding).  We will probably just miss the festivities, but I hope that there’s at least one Dutch person who has been to Voorburg wandering amongst the crowd. 
Baby Girl, V, and Little Man in Voorburg
  Although the fireworks didn’t blast, the entire day was one of the most memorable Independence Day celebrations I’ve experienced.   I’ve put the American flags away until next year, but I am happy to report that the sun is still shining.        
For more information about the Voorburg-Temecula Sister city associations and how to support education and cultural awareness – please see the following:


Monday, July 8, 2013

Rise To The Sun

  The consequence of a month’s non-stop carousel of activity was apparent.  My head unfocused, my body sore from miles of walking with children strapped to my back, and the dirt on my un-mopped floors created a film on my needed-to-be-laundered-slipper-socks.  I shuffled around my kitchen in a daze, sipping coffee, opening the fridge, eyeing the dishes in the sink, asking the contents of the pantry for advice as to where to begin to start my regular routine, but half-heartedly listening to the answer.  Like a sleepy child who had over-exerted herself at a State fair – I was still soaring with the memories created over the past month.  On the flip side, I was also like the parent, facing the mounting tasks of housework and administration neglect.  It was Sunday morning.  The house, in direct contrast of the recent weeks, was quiet.  Although the kids were eating breakfast in the next room, I felt alone.  V was gone.  The heavy front door sighed after V shut it.  He solemnly rolled his suitcase down the sidewalk, leaving his family behind, en route to Amsterdam Schipol Airport.  Destination: America
   We had recently hosted three rounds of visitors: A two-week visit from my Mom, four days of film crew, and then 12-hours after the House Hunters film crew said goodbye, two long-time friends from Waco met V at the airport – extremely excited about their first (ever!) visit to Europe for two weeks.  I matched each visitor’s giddiness armed with train tickets, guidebooks, self-created walking tours, insights into ‘life in Holland’, and a menu plan of home-cooked meals.  I could not believe my luck and good fortune to have a month full of festive daily events and friends from home living and experiencing the day-to-day and with me.  Between my Mom and my friends from Waco, we did it all – the Eiffel tower, tulip gardens, Bruges, the Jumbo grocery store, canal cruises, Amsterdam, Anne Frank House, Delft, the beach, train rides, brunch, canal rides, the library, the Paris Metro, The Dutch Resistance Museum, Baby Girl’s preschool, souvenir shopping, stairs, laundry, the Rijksmuseum tunnel, naps, squeezed into Paris apartment elevators, Amsterdam Centraal Station, home-cooked, delivery, more stairs, De Burcht, dishes, and much, much more.  V’s business trip resulted in him leaving 24-hours after mania-month ended.  I was exhausted, a little sad, and more than a little weary of my 2-week stint in single-motherhood looming before me.  I had no doubts about my ability to get through it alone.  It was the little things he does for me everyday to just make life better that I’d miss the most - like how he makes coffee for me every morning.  With a deep breath, I turned back to the contents of the pantry: the peanut butter in the cupboard told me I was nuts, but things would smooth out in the end. 
  Night 1:  I decided to start things out on a good note:  Go to bed early.  Little Man had other ideas for my strategic planning. Up at 11 p.m., 12 p.m., 2 a.m., 3 a.m. and then the dogs were up with the sun.  Being mid-June in The Netherlands, that would be 5:00 a.m.  Side-note: There are two things that people just can’t understand unless you’ve been through them:  1. The mental and physical anguish that comes with hearing your baby scream through the middle of the night due to teething (and in turn, not only does your heart just reach out to your pained sweetie - your sleep is limited to 2-hour increments if you’re lucky, which kind of jacks with your mental well-being as well).   2. The exhaustion that comes with a sun that sets at 11:30 p.m. and rises at 5:00.  I get it.  I do.  On paper, it’s like, what’s the big deal?  But really, it’s weird.  The yin-yang, the rest-energy cycle, or whatever it is, is  All.  Out. Of. Whack. Too much light is too much energy which means not enough rest.  Animals feel this energy imbalance, so while the clock may say one thing, reasoning with dogs is about as effective as reasoning with a 20-month-old.  Yeeeeeaaaahhh.  The next morning at playgroup, I was about as social as a floor lamp. 
Meanwhile. . . .  (Side pan to V arriving in America with two Dutch co-workers).  Dutchmen: “Oh no! Our luggage has been lost!  What’s this?  A voucher to go buy clothes?!  But it’s Sunday night at 8:00 p.m?  Oh, you mean stores are OPEN at 8 p.m.?!?  Even on a SUNDAY?!?!  What is this wonderful place you speak of where you can get anything you need including business attire?  Kohl’s?!?  Whoo-hoo!  We LOVE AMERICA!” 

Pan back. . . the rest of the week was fine.  Quiet.  I replaced our usual background noise of ESPN America with a host of my favorite feel-good movies – You’ve Got Mail, Can’t Hardly Wait, Sabrina (the original – with Audrey Hepburn), and threw in Swingers for good measure.  I took care of the kids.  I took care of the house.  I made dinner.  I took the kids to the park, the library, the museum.  I invited girlfriends over for dinner.  I even booked a sitter and went to Book Club. . .

Meanwhile. . . (Side pan to V eating at Friday’s with two Dutch co-workers)
Dutchmen: “What is this?  Spinach-Artichoke dip?!?  This is AMAZING. . . Yum, yum, yum. . . What do you mean ‘you’re sorry it took a while to bring us the appetizer?’ yes, perhaps it took more than 5 minutes. . . this is ‘a while’?  Oh okay. . . what is this FREE word you speak of?  FREE SPINACH ARTICHOKE DIP?!?!?  Whoo-hooo!  We LOVE AMERICA!” 

Pan back. . . I decide to get brave.  Or desperate.  After going to the market by ourselves on Saturday, I just felt a little sad.  It may sound silly, but buying cheese with Daddy is a Baby Girl and Daddy tradition, not a Mama and Baby Girl thing.  After a week of broken sleep and trying to make the best of things in Leiden and after being a bit jealous that V was hanging out with my Dad in Dallas on Father’s Day, I reminded myself to make the most of it.  On Sunday, I finally gained enough courage, after a year-and-a-half decided to put the double stroller (and two kids) on the train by myself, and we headed to Amsterdam. . .

Meanwhile. . . (Side pan to two Dutch co-workers hanging out a hotel pool with Texas girl they met at bar during previous night.  V, is off-stage, hanging out with my family) Dutchman: “Hallo my Texas Angel – you’re quite sociable! You actually talk to me and make eye-contact.  What is this, go-to-bar-and-meet-girls-thing I’ve fallen into?  In The Netherlands we just go-to-bars-to-drink-and-talk-to-guy-friends. . . this is so EASY and you are SO tan and SO friendly!!!  Whoo-hooo!  I LOVE AMERICA!!!!”

Pan back. . . Amsterdam was cool. . . let’s keep on this get-out-of-town-thing. . . let’s go to Utrecht kids! Let’s check out the Music Box museum and have a picnic in the park. . .

Dutchman Pre-Boomstick consumption
 Meanwhile. . . (Side pan to V with two Dutch co-workers at a Texas Ranger’s baseball game with my best friend, Nikki and her cousin, Cody)  Dutchman: “What is this?  A Boomstick?  This is a 2-foot long hotdog covered in chili and cheese?  What do you mean you will buy me a beer if I eat this whole thing, Cody?!  Oh okay – I am up to your challenge (munch, munch, munch)  Ugh. . . I ate this whole 2-foot-chili-cheese-dog-that-was-so-lekker-but-now-I-feel-like-crap-where’s-my-beer?”
After Boomstick consumption

Pan back. . . I’m losing grip on my momentum.  The floors I have not mopped in six weeks are screaming for a clean.  I don’t have any swiffer refills (it’s different here, yes, they have Swiffer, but no bottles.  You buy pre-wet pads and stick them on your mop.)  I decide to old-school it with a pad and a bucket.  Things I learn. . . when it’s 93% humidity and you mop your floors in an environment without central A/C (a.k.a. without any air circulation. . . ) it will take HOURS for the floors to dry.  I feel like Meg Ryan in French Kiss (which of course, I’ve recently viewed in V’s absence) who cleans out her computer keys with a Q-tip while her fiancĂ© is overseas. . . totally. . . lame. 

Dutchman Bull Riding in Uptown Dallas
Meanwhile. . . (Side pan to V living it up in Dallas Uptown Bars with more of our mutual friends. . . without kids. . . ) Actually, I don’t even know or want to know what happened. . . I’m happy he got to hang out and see everyone. . . he was glowing sunshine every time I talked to him on the phone. . . it’s good for him.  It really was.  Yeah.  I’ll keep telling myself that. . .   

Pan back. . . It’s Saturday morning.  Months ago V signed Baby Girl up for dance class, with the intention of taking her every week.  He wanted it to be their bonding-time together, while I stayed at home with Little Man, which is endearing and cute.  Unfortunately, if he’s out of town, that means I’m rushing around before 9:00 a.m. on a Saturday, trying to get three of us out the door so she’s there in time before the class starts because girls running around speaking Dutch kind of freaks her out if we’re not there on time. . . “We’ve got to move it move it!” I chant as the front door closes with a sigh. . . and I hear the sound of a suitcase being rolled down the sidewalk.  V appears a second later, in front of our house.  I smile, relieved.  “Hi.  I missed you.  I’m so glad you’re here.  Drop your bags and jump in the car – it’s time to go to dance class.” I fire rapid instructions to him.  “The coffee I made this morning was horrible - it’s the color of iced tea.  I was doing ok, making it for myself, but I added more water because I knew you’d be here soon, but not enough grounds.”  I throw Baby Girl’s ballet slippers into the car and snap Little Man into his car seat.  I’m a machine of efficiency at this point.  “No problem,” he shrugs, “Let’s take her to dance class and go to Starbucks,” he shakes his head with an undertone of arrogance in his voice. “What?  Starbucks?  You know how overpriced that is?  Oh wait. . . where have you been for the past two weeks?”  He smiled.  We dropped Baby Girl off at dance class and indulged in the Starbucks coffee at the train station.  A nod to the present and past – time to get back to routine in our Alternate-Reality.              

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

I Could Be A King

Queen's Day in Leiden

  Orange Feather Boa – check!  Homemade orange crown – check!  Orange baby overalls – check!  Orange button-down shirt – check!  Orange balloons attached to double-stroller – check!  At 9:30 a.m. on April 30, 2013 – we rolled out into the sunny morning, every cast member fully-costumed and anxious to play his or her part in our family’s second, and, incidentally, The Netherland’s last - Queen’s Day. 
  On January 28, 2013, Queen Beatrix announced her abdication of the throne, after a reign of 33 years – and her son, His Royal Highness Price of Orange, Prince Willem-Alexander would be her successor.   The grand handing-over-the-torch-ceremony, was scheduled at 10:30 a.m. a few months later, on Queen’s Day.  At 46 years old, King Willem-Alexander became the world’s youngest king, and The Netherlands first male monarch since 1890.  More fun facts for you folks reading at home – the King will rule over an actual kingdom, the most magical of geographical terms, including: The Netherlands, Curacao, Sint Maarten, & Aruba.  (As I type this in late June with my fireplace roaring. . . . just dreaming about fairytale real estate on a tropical Caribbean island sounds like a pretty awesome job perk).         
  After last’s year’s experience, we decided an early start would be key to ensure a perfect Queen’s Day in our family’s book: shopping success, crowd avoidance, and a “family naptime” by 2:00 p.m.  We entered into town around 9:45 a.m. and easily soared into the marketplace, scooping down and resurfacing with some prime junk from the peddling children who had set their worldly wares on blankets along the sides of the canals.  Among our plunder: a Dutch Elmo Christmas DVD, a children’s xylophone, & a plexi-glass candelabra – for a Euro each.  
Souvenir shop in Amsterdam
   There was a relaxed excitement as the sun cast morning shadows and the fresh breeze tickled everyone awake. As we mingled casually among the smiling faces, the relaxed interactions felt like an early-morning tailgate prior to a college football game slotted for the 7 p.m. TV timeslot.  The crowds of drunken revelers who would flood the cobbles later were still to awake and migrate into town.  The canal in front of the town hall was covered with a large platform and tables and chairs covered the surface like confetti.  People talked quietly to one another, sipping tiny cups of coffee between closing their eyes and smiling up towards the sun (a seemingly required Dutch custom to partake in when the sun shines).  All chairs were turned towards the Corn Bridge.  The bridge was built in 1642 and for hundreds of years vendors sold corn underneath its one-of-a-kind roof, thus sheltering the precious commodity from the rain.  Today, the roof protected hoards of lighting, sound, and musical equipment for the entertainment line-up as well as a huge flat-screen TV showing the Royal Proceedings going on at the Royal Palace in Amsterdam.  V and I had visited Amsterdam earlier in the week, and enjoyed seeing the Dam Square decorated for the festivities.  Souvenir shops stocked orange everything in anticipation of the event, large crowns sat atop the fancy department store, De Bijenkorf, and stages were already erected in the center of town. 
Corn Bridge with TV coverage - Leiden
Our family grabbed a table and chairs at Einstein’s on the canal, ordered a few coffees, juice, and a typical Dutch snack of sausages and cheeses.  V and I smiled at each other, across the heads of our children.  We have photos of the two of us, taken years ago during our visit to Leiden, drinking beer on the canal boat outside the same bar – the Town Hall in the background.  We placed ourselves back into the present moment, taking in the anxious faces surrounding us as the abdication of Queen Beatrix commenced at 10:00 a.m. that morning.  We sipped coffee – “I can’t believe we’re really here, in this place, at this moment,” I said to him.  At 10:30 a.m., the royal family made their first official appearance on the Royal Palace balcony.  Everyone in Leiden turned toward the TV, watched, waved, and cheered.  My entire family clapped and “whoo-hooed” - Little Man probably the loudest.  The Town Hall bells rang for an eternity in celebration.  For a culture that seems to be pretty stoic most days, the emotion of pride radiating from the country at that moment in time was incredible.  As I took in the scene before me, it was impossible not to feel a few tears come to my own eyes.  “Are you okay?” my husband asked, smiling and a bit confused. . . “Yeah, it’s just that. . . well, the whole thing is just pretty awesome.  It’s a huge moment in history for them. . . and really, for us, too.”  He nodded slowly and reflectively. 
   With the inauguration of the King – the big question was how it would affect future parties.  Queen Beatrix’s birthday is actually January 31st, but no one really likes to party outside when there is a guarantee of total crap weather, so she decided to keep the Queen’s Day party on the less-risky birthday of her mother, Juliana.  Lucky for The Netherlands (and perhaps, a nod to even more planning on her part) Beatrix’s son, Willem, was born in April – just three days before his Grandmother’s birthday.  So, for the foreseeable future, King’s Day will be celebrated on April 27th.  (Unless of course, April 27th falls on a Sunday – which, actually 2014 is one of the exceptions) SO King’s Day will be celebrated on Saturday, April 26th. (Which, is actually kind of cool – since that’s me and V’s 6th wedding anniversary).  The party will go on, without a hitch! 
  Later that evening, we celebrated the Queen in our own way – with some American Expat friends at a house-party BBQ complete with hamburgers & potato salad.  I don’t know if we’ll be here for 2014’s King’s Day celebration, but no matter where I am, I might just have to bust out my orange feather boa in honor of King Willem.     
De Bijenkorf for Queen's Day - Amsterdam