Tuesday, April 8, 2014


Note: Yes, I know it's April. . . and it's a post about Thanksgiving.  Told you I was behind :)  Either way, the next few weeks I'll be posting flashbacks mixed with current events so you'll just have to keep up, Time Travelers Wife style.  But isn't it always a good time of year to feel the warm fuzzies of Thanksgiving and Christmas? 

Thanksgiving (Steven Kellogg)
Monument in Leiden dedicated on the spot where Pilgrims departed for America
 “The history of the Netherlands and the USA come together in Leiden where the Pilgrims lived from 1609 to 1620. Their marriages, births, and deaths are recorded in the Pieterskerk and their minister, John Robinson is buried here. The Pilgrims remained in Leiden because life was free and tolerant.  The so called Separatists who left the England of James I could practice their more simple faith. They conducted services in the home of Reverend John Robinson, located opposite the Pieterskerk. 

Though life was without objection, the people began to fear assimilation. For that and other reasons, they outfitted a 60 ton vessel, The Speedwell, and made plans to depart for “The New world.”  On Friday, July 31, 1620, the Pilgrims left from The Vlietburg in Leiden, via the Vliet to Delfshaven where The Speedwell lay ready. Before embarking, they knelt on the quay and prayed with their minister who stayed behind. . . Those same people eventually boarded the Mayflower at Plymouth, England on September 16, 1620. Their arduous voyage ended at New Plymouth in what is now the state of Massachusetts. 

The following year, to give thanks for their survival on a wild, endless continent, the Pilgrims, the Separatists from Leiden, dined with Native Americans at the first Feast of Thanksgiving in a land that was to become the United States. It is thought that that feast was inspired by the Thanksgiving Services which took place in the Pieterskerk to commemorate freedom from Spanish rule in 1574.

More than three centuries later, Americans all over the world celebrate Thanksgiving. However, in the City of Leiden, a very privileged group gives thanks at the site our founders knew so well.  They are welcomed with the same tolerance bestowed upon The Pilgrims.” – Program, Thanksgiving Day Service, St. Pieterskerk, Leiden

I throw open the curtains to find the sun hiding behind low clouds.  I open the back door to let the dogs out, and the rush of cold air awakes my senses.  Although the day is grey, there’s a crispness in the air and I’m feeling excited and festive (as opposed to gloomy and depressed like I will be in January).  I flip on the lights in the kitchen and begin my typical morning routine – coffee, kids’ breakfast, and a mental agenda for the day.  I shuffle groceries to find what I’m looking for and smile with anticipation.  The pantry is full, the fridge is stuffed, and V is home for the holiday. He decided to take both Thanksgiving Thursday and Black Friday off, even though most of his Dutch co-workers have no clue as to what either of those events are, and are confused by the prospects. “It’s an entire holiday to eat?” the pencil-thin men and skinny-as-a-rail-women ask.  “Well yes. Eat, shop, and watch football,” he replies.  This explanation remains insufficient. 
The entire family is dressed, loaded into and onto the bicycles by 10:00 a.m. The early dress and departure time is a high irregularity for a Thanksgiving holiday (except for that one time I ran the turkey trot in downtown Dallas.)  We pedal down the street. The kids are happy, I’m happy, and well – if we’re all good, then of course, Daddy is happy, too.  If we can’t be in America for Thanksgiving, we plan to re-create it as best as we can, expat-style.  Taking the best of both worlds - we've got an entire itinerary, guest list, and menu plan for the day.     

We chain our bikes to each other outside the St. Pieterskerk in Leiden. I can hear the other Americans yards away, because by now, my ear is sharply attuned to English-speakers. That, and because they’re very loud.  We unload the kids, and no matter how many times I’ve passed the St. Pieterskerk, I’m still in awe of the size, the history, and the beauty of the building. Hand-in-hand, we head towards the castle-like doors and enter. 

Chandeliers glisten, rows fan out from the pulpit, and ancient columns divide spectator’s views.  I spot the color guard, boy scouts, and Girl Scout troops lined up for a procession. Everyone is smiling, everyone is in admiration, and everyone is very, very far away from home.  We find some chairs strategically close to the back and the exit. Our previous experience with Holden in train stations, museums, or any other number of beautifully acoustic-enhancing cavernous spaces in Europe has taught us that our baby boy loves to hear his
Daddy and Little Man inside St. Pieterskerk
voice echo, and has a gift for determining an exact inopportune time to exercise his loud and amazing talent. 
The organ begins, the color guard advances, and the entire audience begins the Pledge of Allegiance. “to the flag, of the United States of America. . .” My eyes pass quickly to V, the vaulted stone ceilings, the audience, to my program. “and to the Republic for which it stands. . . “ I feel like Clark Griswold at his Christmas dining table.  I was expecting a blessing, but put my hand over my heart, and repeat the words I know so well.  “With liberty and justice for all!” Amen? 

The service continues.  My children grow restless, but I relax into the songs, the speeches, and find comfort in the service.  We sing “God Bless America”, “America the Beautiful”, and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” – the words and music bouncing off the 1,000 year-old stones and raining down on us, inspiring child-like wonder.        

Holden lasts eight minutes before V and I start taking turns chasing him around the back of the church. After forty minutes, we are accompanied by ten other American parents and about thirteen other children. We cross-reference our program with the clock, and are disappointed (and shocked) that the service is only about half-way done after nearly an hour.  We eye our two bored and agitated children.  It is a quick decision to leave and an even quicker execution.

Last summer I had stumbled upon a statue around the corner from the Leiden Archive Center. It’s hidden among shrubs on a tiny, quiet canal. The plaque commemorates the date and members of the Separatists
Americans at the Pilgrim statue on Thanksgiving
who left Leiden on way to America and is erected on the spot in which they stepped aboard.  After the service, we headed over to snap a few shots.
On our way home, we ran into a couple of our friends’. It’s a funny thing – passing your friends’ while riding bikes. You never see each other until you’re past, then there’s the inevitable pulling over and backing up, trying to not block traffic of the other bikes. We’re all sitting on our bikes, talking to our friend Alexandra, when Erin cycles past. We congregate on a bridge above a glistening canal. We’re all happy, excited, preparing for the evening.  “What shall I brings?” and “See you tonights!” are exchanged.  

I’m in the kitchen all afternoon – baking, cooking, tasting, and preparing.  The kids watch Charlie Brown Thanksgiving after nap time. The table is set. The computer is hooked up to the TV – V’s job is to find a live stream of the Thanksgiving Day parade.  Friends arrive and gather. Wine is poured, appetizers served, and Baby Girl and I are competing for ‘best hostess’ award. (She loves parties). 

V is successful and we crowd into the living room to witness balloons floating above 42nd Street in New York City. The timing is perfect for our Thanksgiving dinner.  We eat and eat.  (We don’t have turkey, to the disappointment of our Estonian friends) but we have baked chicken, sweet potatoes, cranberry salad (that didn’t quite congeal – but Jello is hard to come by over here), mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, pumpkin bars (mix imported via Target), muffins, and more.    

Thanksgiving dinner in Leiden
We push back our plates, wipe our mouths, and groan with the happiness. The computer/TV is now streaming the Dallas Cowboys football game and we’ve moved from the dining table to park ourselves on the couch, sipping our wine, letting our food settle.  Tradition. Complete.  

As the evening passes, V and I escort our friends periodically to the door. We chat as they dress themselves for the cold – hats, coats, and scarves. We hug each of them goodbye. As the heavy door shuts behind the last guest, V and I settle onto the couch, in front of the fire, to watch the 4th quarter of the Cowboys Game. We’re in a new place, with new friends, but celebrated the day with even older traditions.    

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Stand By Me

View of Big Ben from Nelsons Column & National Gallery

V is hesitant.  “What is it?” I ask. 
“Well. . . I’m supposed to be out of town for work.  For three weeks,” he calculates. I gasp.
“But not three weeks straight,” he rushes to reassure. “Just a few days each week, for three weeks.” He takes a deep breath. Watches me weigh the news. Waits for the verdict.

My Elle Woods pep-talk reels through my head. I’m more than capable of taking care of the kids by myself. I’ve been doing the full-time Mom gig for quite some time now.  I have loads of work to do, friends to call on, places to go.  I’ll still cook, clean, go to work, bathe the kids, run errands, take them to museums, pre-school, the farm, etc. I’ll feed the dogs – maybe even take all 5 of us for a walk to the park.  As I remind V when I’m angry, I don’t need V here to make things okay.  But.  In reality.  Everything is just better when he is. 

I remember our wedding day. I had dreamed of an outdoor ceremony on the steps of a gorgeous plantation home outside of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. As the hour grew nearer – the rain and the tears flowed. We had planned to take photos together before the ceremony (to expedite our arrival to the party, naturally). He was dressed in his tux, ready for photos, and arrived at the bridal suite.  A soft knock.  In between sobs, I opened the door, and he stood there – shyly smiling at me. We embraced, I put my weepy head on his shoulder, and as my mom recalls, “You just calmed down as soon as you saw him. He just made everything better.”  

Three weeks.  Alright. I can do this. “Good news is,” V starts. (Ah – he’s learning. Bad news then give me the carrot to keep me motivated and happy.) “The good news is that I’m going to London. So I thought it would be nice if we all went up the weekend before.”  (Hum.  Nice carrot.)

“Sounds good to me! Let’s do it!”  I gleam. Three weeks of stress are pushed to the back of my mind. 

I had bought Baby Girl a London ABC book last spring when I had visited.  It’s the type that says “C is for Crown Jewels, P is for Piccadilly Circus.” It’s cute.  It’s educational.  And we’ve been reading it for a year.  We’ve watched Disney’s Peter Pan movie and gleam as Wendy and her brothers fly around Big Ben.  I knew she’d get a kick out of going to a place where everyone “spoke English” – her first excited observation after landing at DFW last fall.

The kids and I by the River Thames
We book our flights, reserve the apartment using Air B&B, and start planning our visit.  I knew it was going to be lovely, with one small logistical caveat.  Considering the infrastructure of the city and our plans to see it via undergrounds without lifts, buses, and taxis – the big double stroller just isn't feasible.  Baby Girl would walk while Little Man rode in the single stroller, but inevitably she’d get tired, and we’d have to switch.  Little Man, though – doesn't walk.  He either runs (usually in the opposite direction) or doesn't move. He throws himself on the ground. He refuses to hold your hand.  He begs to be carried, then struggles to get down if you do.  I see Dutch children half his age walking through shopping streets calmly. All. The. Time.  And I just can’t help but glare. We used to carry him on our backs, but between my subsequent chiropractor visits and the promise of having a wriggly, uncooperative child on your back, as opposed to the ground, we just gave up on that idea, too.  Nevertheless, I knew, for the duration of the trip – we’d be OK.  Everything is better with V there.  With a 2-to-2 ratio of kids to parents, even a tired walking one or a screaming wriggle one – we’d survive.  I was nervous, though.  Seeing as V was going for work, I’d be flying back to the Netherlands by myself with the two kids.  Getting to the airport would be okay, the flight would probably be fine, but it was the train journey from AMS to our home that worried me.  I’d have at least one suitcase to roll, a stroller to push, a purse and a diaper bag to carry – and two kids.  No hands or arms would be left for Baby Girl.  As we pack the London ABC book into our carryon for our flight the next morning, I smile at my nearly 4-year old.  Hopefully, we’ll be able to do it all – the promise of a great weekend is too strong to say no.

After a whirl-wind morning, we arrive in London Heathrow and both kids fall asleep at baggage claim.  Baby Girl in the stroller, and Little Man in my arms.  I eye V.  “Well – what do we do now?” he asks.  “We wait.” I smile – and settle myself as comfortably as I can on the bench and watch a carrousel rotate for half an hour.  Little Man is the first to wake, and we throw him on top of the luggage cart to wheel him through immigration.  Lunch and a train ride follows.  Our first stop on the Heathrow Express – Paddington Station.  The little girl in me giggles at the thought.  “Just like the book – Paddington Bear!” V stares at me, uncomprehending.  “Okay – we’re buying a copy while we’re here.  You’re clearly missing out.” I reassure. 

B is for Big Ben
We discover London is in the middle of a tube strike the day we arrive.  Rain is falling, traffic is at a gridlock, and we’re in an expensive taxi on our way to a home south of Cricklewood Station.  We arrive at an adorable house with a lovely hostess – but I’m a little turned-off/freaked out by the fact that we’re sharing a bathroom with the hostess and her husband.  (Thanks for the fine print AirB&B?  Or perhaps V just missed the detail – either way, I think we’ll be sticking to our tried-and-true FlipKey in the future.)  The tube strike has motivated us to learn the bus system; however, as we head south on the double-decker red bus, the traffic forces us to cut our journey short.  We see “H is for Hyde Park” from the corner and head down Oxford Street - gawking at the size of the glittering stores, and the fact that they’re open at 7:00 p.m.  (Ah, Netherlands – what have you done to us?)  We find the nearest Wagamama – our out-of-town favorite – and recharge.  We feast on spicy noodles and edamame and the yummy goodness turns the evening around.  Riding the wave of positive energy, we exit the restaurant happy – ignorant of the puddles and drizzle – and head straight to the Disney Store.  

The next morning, the sun is shining – the tube strike is over, and we take the Underground to the Westminster Station.  Baby Girl and Little Man take turns reading the ABC book on the tube.  When we pop out of the underground, I recognize the building in front of us.  “But where is. . .” I trail off.  Then I look up.  “Oh! There it is!” I exclaim to Baby Girl.  “Look!  There’s Big Ben, right above us!” and she screams with excitement.  “Mama! Mama! There’s Big Ben!”  (and yes, I know Big Ben is technically the bell inside
the tower, etc. but let’s just go with the ABC book and 3-year-old excitement for a bit).   We snap photos
Transportation Museum
and continue our quest for more sights – the London Eye, the Tower of London, and Nelson’s column.  We tour the London Transport Museum, which is the biggest hit of the trip being both interactive for the kids and educational for V and me.  I imagine we’re characters in Downton Abbey as we duck in and out of the antique train cars.  We climb to the top of wobbly double-decker buses.  The kids pretend to drive V and I through the streets of London in taxis and trams equipped with moving television screens and steering wheels.  We exit the museum, pleased with the investment of time and money, and then cash in all our American chips and eat dinner at TGIFridays.

T is for Tower Bridge
The rest of the weekend we spend visiting friends visiting friends and shopping at Marks and Spencer. The shop attendant is unable to provide me the pair of shoes I’d like in my size. “Oh my, I’m so terribly sorry.  So sorry. Perhaps we can order them and ship them to you. Again, I’m very terribly sorry.”  I am awe-filled at the apparition of the polite British stereotype before my eyes.  I am surprised that I have become accustomed to Dutch-grunt-of-service-stereotype.   “It’s fine! It’s fine! No need to apologize! I live out of town – it won’t be necessary, thank you for trying!” I panic to soothe her nerves in response.  I want to pat her shoulder. Tell her to chin up.  I haven’t felt such compassion for a stranger in years. 

Sunday.  Departure day.  We awake. Take turns with the hostess and husband for shower time.  We pack. Eat breakfast in their kitchen. We retrace our steps: taxi, Paddington Station, Heathrow Airport.  I sit across from V sipping a cup of Costa coffee.  The kids are relatively calm, but I make anxious glances at the security line.  “You’ll be fine, right?” He reflects my nervousness.  “I’ll miss you all.”  I nod.  I’m sad.  The time approaches.  “Baby Girl, will you hold on the stroller while I push Little Man?”  I ask.  “Yes, Mama.” She says and grabs hold. 

We weave through the ropes. I hand the security agent our boarding passes.  V watches everything. “Look! Look! There’s my Daddy!” Baby Girl commands the agent’s attention.  The aging large woman smiles and all four of us wave to V.

We approach the gate – Baby Girl shuffling alongside the stroller clutching her stuffed rabbit.  Boarding passes.  Down the ramp please.  Leave the pram at the curve in the jet bridge.  I unload Little Man.  They run the length of the ramp while I fold the stroller and juggle purse, diaper bag, and boarding passes.  They walk themselves down the aisle.  We find our seats.  They climb up.  “This is how you do it!” Baby Girl instructs her brother how to buckle an airplane seat belt.  I thank her and assist him. 

Little Man will need more time before he understands “all electronic devices must be stowed” rule ten minutes before landing.  (Cue massive melt-down when LeapPad was turned off) but other than that – the kids were quiet and entertained themselves for the length of the flight.  Landed. Parked. I wait until all other passengers are past our seats before I attempt to move.  “Do you need help?” a woman passenger asks, “I know what it’s like to travel with two kids by myself,” she says in way of an explanation.  “No, no – I’m fine.” I say.  Go girl-power.  We waddle down the aisle, passing empty chairs as we go.  “Do you need help?” the KLM stewardess asks.  “No, no – I’m fine.” I repeat.  I round the corner and meet a blast of cold air and a metal staircase cascading to the tarmac.  “Oh!  That’s a surprise!”  I had expected the comfort of a jet bridge – silly me.  With Little Man on my hip, bags dangling from my shoulders, I grasp Baby Girl’s hand and we tromp down the stairs.  A shuttle waits – curiosity outweighing impatience as it eyes its last passengers.  The collapsed stroller lays at the bottom of the stairs.  A dutiful baggage attendant stands guarding my lonely buggy.   Cement stretches. Planes roar. My eyes dart from shuttle to stroller to children.  Quick decision is required - I need help.  “Hi – would you mind holding her hand?” The bored baggage attendant snaps to attention, eager for this temporary promotion.  “Of course, ma’am.”  And with a seamless grace, I balance Little Man, bags, scoop to the ground, and open the stroller with one hand.  We roll behind Baggage Man and Baby Girl towards the staring shuttle bus.  He cradles her hand as she accomplishes the final step and we follow.  “She’s very good,” the man says and I breathe.  Nod a thank you. 

Immigration, baggage claim, customs – Baby Girl holds the stroller as I roll our suitcase, push the stroller, and carry bags.  Little Man falls asleep.  Elevator down to train platform.  Up, onto the train – Baby Girl, stroller, bags and me – three swift movements.  Sit on the train.  Watch the Dutch landscape pass by the windows.  Read Paddington Bear twice before arriving at Leiden Centraal Station.  Doors whisk open – Baby Girl (stay here sweetie!), stroller, bags.  Stares from towering Dutch people waiting to board.  Down the elevator, out of the train station.  Crosswalk. Sidewalk.  Cross walk. Sidewalk. Our street.  Relief.  I look down at the tiny girl who has traveled countries with me - Planes, shuttles, trains, sidewalks – in the span of an hour.  I’m overwhelmed with our success.  “Honey, I’m so proud of you!” I say to her – tears in my eyes.  “I’m proud of you too, Mama” she says – and one spills over.        

E is for London Eye