Nov 17, 2014

Get Me Off This Crazy Holiday Train

In honor of the arrival of Sinterklaas in Amsterdam today, here's a post from last year describing the holiday season in The Netherlands. 

On November 11th, we celebrated the holiday of Sint Maartens. It's kind of Dutch Halloween in that it involves children going door to door soliciting candy, but with more singing, and less sexy pizza costumes. Instead of dressing up, the kids carry home-made lanterns while singing songs about Sint Maarten (Saint Martin) and in return, get candy. Or maybe mandarin oranges. Or, if they're really lucky, peanuts and black licorice. 

Just days later, Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) and his Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) arrived in Amsterdam, and the holiday festivities kicked into high gear. If you're not familiar with the celebration of Sinter Klaas, it is not associated with Christmas in any way, and is instead an entirely harmless and joyful celebration of cardboard-flavored cookies, smelly shoes stuffed with candy, obnoxious wrapping paper, and the timeless tradition of dressing up in black-face and then insisting that it's not racist. 
Martha Stewart is offended. 
This year we've learned more about two more components of the Sinterklaas tradition: The Surprise, and what I like to call The Poetry Slam. The Surprise is a small, inexpensive gift that is given as part of a gift exchange, but it has to be wrapped in a creative and handmade way, reflecting the hobbies or interests of the person receiving the gift. So if the person enjoys online Gaming, for example, you might turn a box into a game console, but leave it empty to represent the sad and lonely void they are trying to fill. Then you make a poem where you gently make fun of the person, such as: "You play so many online games, guess that makes you super lames." But you would go on and on until you've crushed their soul and extinguished every last flame of confidence and self-esteem. It's all in good fun. 

We were introduced to the poems when we went to a Sinterklaas event in an old fishing village, turned outdoor museum, turned Zwarte Piet village for the day. Toward the end of the day we stopped in the Rhyme House, where two of the Petes helped the kids write silly poems in Dutch. We spent about 20 minutes in the cottage, just us and the 2 Petes making rhymes, until a woman came in and demanded to know what we were doing. I was about to answer, well, we're just sitting here, writing poetry with two white women who are dressed up like black men in Renaissance clothes. However, that wasn't what she meant-- as it turned out the village had closed 15 minutes earlier, and we needed to leave. Oh, right. We'll just leave then-- not like we were looking for a reason to get out of this entirely normal, and not at all awkward situation...

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are beloved by the Dutch, and when I say beloved it is in an excessive enunciate-all-three-syllables kind of way. BE-LOV-ED. The holiday is associated with fun and frivolity, and all things happy and silly. Do not suggest to a Dutch person that the tradition has racist origins, and propagates stereotypes in an alarming, if bizarrely well-intentioned, way. Criticizing Zwarte Piet would be like suggesting to an American that apple pie tastes like communism. Or more realistically, pointing out that Thanksgiving can be a painful and unpleasant day for Native Americans. This will be equally ill-received. But, but-- carbohydrates!! Besides, it's not like we continue to propagate hurtful stereotypes of Native Americans. Now, shhhh, the Redskins game is on.  

I'm sure that, thanks to their commitment to inclusion and tolerance, the Dutch will eventually find a way to uphold the spirit of this unique holiday while modernizing the implementation. And by the time they do, I promise you, Americans will still be dressing in war paint to cheer for a football team. 

Speaking of Thanksgiving-- here is how you might celebrate Thanksgiving if you are an American living in Amsterdam. First you will have to find a poultry seller, whom you can order a turkey from in advance, and then pay the equivalent of $70 USD for it. When you pick up the bird, it will in no way resemble the prepackaged, sanitized, vacuum-packed meat lump you have bought previously in America, but will look exactly like what it is: a recently slaughtered animal carcass, which you will schlep across town on your bike and drop off with your friend, who will have to remove the remaining feathers and other tidbits before cooking it. You will then make a run to the local American import store to pick up some exorbitantly priced canned pumpkin, and where you might not be able to resist the allure of Reeses Peanut Butter cups, even at almost $4 a package. You will spend the day cooking and baking in your compact European kitchen with your compact European appliances. Then you will load up your family and half of a Thanksgiving dinner on your bikes, and ride to your friend's house while hoping she doesn't hate you for the turkey carcass. The evening will be spent in the celebration of imported Stove Top Stuffing, with friends who have become your family abroad, while thanking God for your innate ability to happen to live in a country where you are blissfully unaware of anything having to do with Black Friday. But the next morning you will arise at 4 AM anyway to head to your favorite discount store, bang on the doors until it opens 5 hours later, and threaten to beat the crap out of anyone who gets in your way. Ahhh, traditions. 

That's how we might have done it. Who knows really? Glutenous holiday binges leave me a bit confused-- we may have started celebrating Hanukkah somewhere in there too, for all I know. However, I do know that Sinterklaas has his last hurrah on December 5th, and that Christmas in the Netherlands will officially begin on the 6th. At which point I will blast some holiday music, pull out the decorations, write a to-do list, and in the true essence of Christmas, stick my head in the dryer and cry. 

Nov 13, 2014

Dutched Up!: The Book (Pssst I'm In It!)

Did I ever tell you about the time I emotionally wounded a bus driver during our 2nd month in Amsterdam?

No? Well, now you can read it in a new book about expat life in The Netherlands. A new book that my writing is featured in!

Oh, did I ever tell you about the time I was published in a book?

No? Well, crap, it's like we never tell each other ANYTHING anymore.

OK, actually, I've been saving this little secret for a while, and can finally tell you all about it.

A little over a month ago, I found out my submissions were accepted for an anthology of expat stories put together by a group of women bloggers in The Netherlands.
A few months before that, I had been introduced by a new blogging friend to said group of women bloggers, and I decided to submit something.
All because almost a year ago, I met said blogging friend at a writing workshop that I had signed up for in an act of comfort-zone defiance.

And today, I have two stories in a book. An actual available-on-Amazon book! And not the kind that my kids staple together and begrudgingly let me sign as a ghostwriter (though Mia and the Pirates is a work I'm damn proud of).

Are you an expat in The Netherlands? Maybe you're planning on moving here? Perhaps you married a Dutchie, or have Dutch family? Just have an extensive collection of windmill souvenirs? Then this book is for you!

Dutched Up! is available electronically right now through Amazon and iTunes, paperback version coming soon.

I'm honored to be among the contributors-- some fabulous women and writers are on the list-- and thrilled to be part of this project. Thankful, happy, and amazed.

Nov 10, 2014

Amsterdam's Other Famous Windows

photo credit: monsterpants via photopin cc
So Amsterdam has some famous windows. But if you really want to see people in their underwear, or less, there's little need to venture into the Red Light District.

For the voyeurs, those who are house-curious, and the judgmental, there's no better place than Amsterdam-- where homes are adjacent to sidewalks and the windows, more often than not, are clean, bare and tantalizing.

Don't underestimate your latent peekosity* until you live in a place where windows are wide open for the peeking, day and night**. And it's not just the clean houses or the ones with professional interior designers. Amsterdammers let it all hang out, and it's totally refreshing: the piles, the paperwork, the laundry hanging to dry, the remnants of breakfast still on the table, the odd naked person, and the occasional collection of taxidermied Boar heads.

To the Dutch, an open window signals you have nothing to hide. Their lives are open books, and what's more, you can literally read the open book on their dining room window as you pass by.

But if you have just a little bit to hide, there are opaque films you can stick on your windows, obscuring as much or as little as you want. And for those with a lot more to hide, say a dead body, or perhaps a regrettable Ikea purchase, there are sheers***.

It helps, for both the view in and out, that the windows here are huge. Credit given where credit is due: Amsterdam has figured out that the secret to living in a gray climate is to have enormous windows, to keep them as unencumbered as possible, and then not to care. Take note, Seattle.

It's just more interesting all around that way.

*TM. Really wish there was a word for voyeurism that is not sexual in nature. OK, there's nosy, but you know, something with a more positive connotation.
**Generally, only bedroom curtains are closed at night. 
***Actually, after three years in Amsterdam, I don't think there are many things that would fall under the category of "something to hide." Or rather, whatever is behind the odd closed curtain is probably something I really don't want to see. 

Nov 5, 2014

Hook Your Audience With a Pretentious Lead in 4 Steps (or Let's Have Some Tea and Talk About Snarky Things)

Step One: Choose one of the myriad obnoxious sentences available to you when you live in Europe: I recently discovered a little gem of a corner bakery near my kid's school.

Step Two: Review your opening sentence, and raise it one flaunty detail: I rode past it on my bike one glorious Amsterdam morning.

Step Three: Just keep that pretentious ball rolling: And, in this adorable bakery (where I'm sitting right now), next to the adorable rustic counter, is this adorable little sign:

Step Four: Post a picture with a trendy vintage filter.

Congrats-- your audience is hooked.  So let's talk about happy things, and be adorable!

Step Four, part b: Pull the old bait and switch: Except surprise! I'm just not that blogger. Nothing against happy and adorable things here, so long as they're also slightly mockable. But, do go make yourself some tea, and let's talk about snarky things.

Back to this little corner bakery-- it's actually called The Corner Bakery. Which is not at all surprising in a city where the two most important historic churches are called The Old Church, and The New Church. If there was a tradition of naming houses here, like in England, I guarantee you every single house would be named The Brick House.

Speaking of traditions, so it was just Halloween, and you know what that means in The Netherlands? For one thing, it means that we bought our candy at full price, and that this is the extent of the Halloween section at the biggest toy store chain:

It also means that my daughter is blissfully unaware of sexy Ebola Nurse costumes, and that's fine by me. Oh Halloween, you're my favorite holiday, but sometimes you are the worst.

I bought a toy lightsaber for Nate's Darth Vader costume, and it wasn't even 2 hours before that decision became the biggest regret of my life. Even more than my thespian phase in high school.

Oh regret, you demon you. (Dibs for next year's costume, no copying. You can be the Ogre of Guilt.)

In our Amsterdam neighborhood, we do get to trick-or-treat, but only if you find out about the secret registration time-slots, and pay to participate. It's a blast, but my kids got mostly lollies and Haribo gummies. What the cuss! I was only barely tempted to raid their stash. Barely. But I still did.

Speaking of first-world problems, my 11 year-old is starting to get some serious B.O. When she didn't believe me, I tucked her nose in her armpit for a sensory learning experience. She came up gagging, "what is that?!" Oh sweetie, it's the stench of pubescent mutiny beginning to rage in your body. Wait til you start bleeding out of your vagina for days at a time! 

Let's file that under things I need to delete before my kids start reading this blog. Note: the Dutch word for adolescent is puber. Because of course it is.

Speaking of things that smell bad: GamerGate. Why can I not look away? I'm not even a gamer, but I suppose as a feminist and a mom of mini-nerds, who are therefore potential future gamers, there is no way for me to not be fascinated/appalled by the whole thing.

Oh Gam3rz.
Oh commentz on the Internetz.
Oh Gam3rz blaming Internet Trollz and Feministz for distracting everyone from the real enemy: Journalistz!
Oh Train Wr3ckz.

But what's really bothering me is a little more insidious. I was so interested in this that I fell down a GamerGate Internet Rabbit Hole where the stench of Red Pill websites and rotten Reddit threads was so vile it made my 11 year-old's armpits smell like Mrs. Field's kitchen exploded in a lavender field at Christmastime. I won't post any links, in case you happen to enjoy being able to sleep at night.

I think it's time to take my kids and go live in a cave with no wifi.

Maybe I do need to talk about happy things instead. Like this picture of my son rocking his Darth Vader velvet body suit. That's pure happiness right there:

Bonus Step: End with a question, or four: Speaking of other disturbing things I'm obsessed with, have you been listening to the new podcast Serial? Why is Jay not a suspect? And how do feel about Adnan? And are you also alarmed that the entire thing exists because a girl was murdered, and she's barely even talked about??

Sep 22, 2014

Street Market Field Trip: A Cellphone-Camera Photo Journal 20 Minutes or Less*

I tagged along on the school field trip to the Albert Cuyp Market, Amsterdam's oldest street market. There's nothing you can't find at the Albert Cuyp. And yes, I'm talking about lime green shimmery hot pants, life-size replicas of The David's head, and your choice of genitalia in fine assorted chocolates. Those are all on your list, right? 

Local Tip: Go to Sonny's. Best falafel in Amsterdam. Get the fries too.

It's always an exciting day when you see the bike barge, but what happens next will blow your mind.

Praise from critics: "Sesame Street + Rainman + Geiko Commercial + Gigli + Pink Floyd's The Wall= this movie." -- Mark B. 

Not trying to make anyone jealous or anything, but did you see the picture of the Churro stand? 
But are you a little jealous? Just let me know. 

*OK, that may have taken a little more than 20 minutes. I'm a writer, not a writer/movie file compressor. 

Sep 17, 2014

Signs I've Lived in Amsterdam For a While

I was putting away a bag of basterd suiker (brown sugar) recently, and it occurred to me that I've lived here long enough to have certain things become entirely normal. Like being surrounded by a different language, and having grown men pick their nose while making eye contact with you. I said normal, not appealing.

The last time I checked in with a "here's how I'm adjusting" post was when we had been here just three months. Today is our 3 year + two month anniversary, and a good excuse to revisit that topic. So let's start:

Things I'm entirely used to now:

  1. Dipping fries in mayonnaise. Before, I barely considered mayo edible-- only in the thinnest of layers on a sandwich. Now, I don't see mayo, I just see fry sauce. 
  2. Smaller living space. I saw a picture of a some homes in the US on Facebook, and they looked gigantic. Like really for giants. I could not stop staring. 
  3. Not driving. I haven't driven a car since I moved here, and I don't even miss it.  
  4. Giving my bank account number to people. Everything is done electronically, and is well protected. Another thing I haven't done in over three years: written a check. They're not still a thing are they? 
  5. When my mail is delivered by a man wearing a mesh tank top and tiny black leather shorts. 
  6. New vocabulary. Hanging out with Brits and Irish folks have led to adopting words and phrases such as perfectly lovely, nearly, loads, quite, bits, and lie-in. While renewing our passports in the US consulate, Sam asked where the rubbish bin was, and I nervously laughed and assured the consulate guy, "ha ha, he's just being silly-- we say trash can like real Americans, trust me. Approve our passports please?"
  7. Distance is always measured in cycling times.  
  8. Drinking sparkling water, all the time. And it's one of the few things we can buy in bulk from the grocery store. I beginning to think a lot of Europeans brush their teeth and do their dishes with it. 
  9. No tipping, no shame. 
  10. Toilet stalls. Europeans understand the concept of privacy in public restrooms. Stalls are usually entirely enclosed, floor to ceiling. Note to America: you are losing.
  11. Not ever using 1 or 2 cent coins. This is very much a Dutch thing. When you are paying with cash for an item that is 4.98, and pay with a 5 euro bill, you will not get any change back. Similarly, if the total is 4.02, you can just pay 4 euro and it's good. I don't know why the Dutch just can't be bothered with the small change, but I'm so used to it, I get irritated when we travel outside The Netherlands and I get 3 cents in change. 
  12. Annual pelvic exams only once every five years, after the age of 30. That's right, ladies. Actually, the overall medical culture here is much less invasive, which can be refreshing or irritating, depending on the situation.  

Things I'm still adjusting to:

  1. My doctor (and most other people) typing with two fingers. How do they even?
  2. When the doctor doesn't leave the room when you get undressed. Yes, awkward. 
  3. Remembering that if we stay late at a friend's house, we have to bike home with three kids and everyone can see we're irresponsible parents. 
  4. People dropping f-bombs around my kids, because it doesn't have the same swear weight here. But don't tell someone you hope their mother gets cancer. You'll need to cover the kid's ears for that. 
  5. The mess of keys to keep track of:
    That would be keys for the front door, dead bolt, storage unit,
    and 2 keys each for 5 bikes. 

Things I will never get used to: 

  1. Drinks at room temperature, tiny bottles, no free-refills. It's just wrong. 
  2. Lagging laundry technology. How has Europe not figured out that it is possible to have washing machines that are energy and water efficient, can handle more than five items at a time, and only take 40 minutes? Europe: get it together!
  3. The Dutch "line." In the tradition of making offensive generalizations, it is physically impossibly for the Dutch to queue. Much like it is impossible for the American in me to stop caring about it. Neither can live while the other survives. Pretty sure J. K. Rowling was in The Netherlands while she wrote that line. 

The thing I am totally used to and will also never be used to: 

    It's both totally amazing, and completely mundane. Much like living in a foreign country. 

3 years and 2 months: happy anniversary.
Oh yeah, they have a thing for whipped cream here. 

Sep 12, 2014

Playgrounds in Amsterdam: Let's Hope You're Well-Insured

Playgrounds in Amsterdam are the best.

And by best, I mean dangerous.

It's not just the zip lines (often over water), or the tall slides (make that super tall slides), or the best swings ever (see below). It's that I'm pretty sure the motto of the Amsterdam Parks Department is: Did you pee your pants at a playground today? 

Please America, can you get these swings before we move back?

Until recently, the most amazing playground contraption we'd seen was an inverted, rotating teeter totter, six feet off the ground, with zero safety belts. If this were the US, there would be an entrance fee, a height restriction, safety harnesses, and a warning to pregnant women and people with heart conditions. As it is, there should be a warning to American parents that watching your kids play on it might give you a heart condition.

One of our favorite parks has a mini-amusement park with toddler-sized carnival rides for 1 euro each, including the Bumper Boats-- where kids get to steer their own motorized boat around a small pond, with no life jackets, no supervision, and no waiver to sign.

Now, the boats don't go fast, the water is shallow, and most parents stick around to watch, but it still took me at least five visits to get over the utter amazement that the entire thing was allowed to happen.

And it's not just the playgrounds. See this edge with no safety rails?
It's common. It's like they don't even have a powerful steel manufacturing lobby. 

Another common thing: being able to walk through construction zones. Like right next to the backhoes and cranes-- no hard hat required. And no one bats an eye.

Here's a fun story: within the first two months of moving to Amsterdam, we took a day trip to a nearby lake. While my kids played on the beach, I noticed a young boy by the water playing with a plastic bag.

A freaking plastic bag.

My jaw dropped as I watched him first wrap the bag around his neck, and then stretch it out directly over his mouth. Of the three or four other adults around, no one was looking at him, or paying him any attention.

I looked away. Just mind your own business. Don't worry about the kid playing with a choking hazard. I'm sure he'll stop soon.

Nope. He just kept on walking and playing with this plastic bag as if he was starring in some PSA about exactly what NOT to do with plastic bags. After about five minutes, I was pulling at my hair, chewing my nails, clawing at the sand-- waiting for someone to look the eff up and tell him to stop, until I couldn't stand it anymore.

I approached the boy. "Waar is jou moeder?" I tried to spit out, but I'd only started learning Dutch and it was most likely indecipherable. No matter, as he completely ignored me, to the point that I thought he might be deaf. I noticed a woman looking up from her book, with the suspicion of a mama bear, and as I started towards her, she said something in Dutch. I said, "Oh, I just wanted to make sure someone was aware of him playing with a plastic bag, because I'm feeling nervous about it."

She looked back down at her book, "Let him play. Leave him alone." Cold, blunt.

"Oh, OK, great, that's fine, just... um, no problem." I walked back to my spot, and continued to watch a scene that I was sure would never happen in America.

And guess what? He died.

Just kidding. He survived. In flat-out defiance of plastic bag labels, and helicopter parents everywhere, that boy lived.

I recently asked a neighbor what was the legal age for children to be left alone at home. They were confused. I clarified, "Is there a law stating at what age a child can be left alone?" "Hmmmm, I've never heard of such a thing. Are parents not able to figure that out themselves?"

I still don't know if there is a law or not.  No one seems to be bothered about it.

The concept of child safety in The Netherlands is not really a thing. What's more important is the concept of risk management. Most parents here find it important to help their children learn to manage taking their own risks, rather than shield them from any risks in the first place.

This is not to say that Dutch parents are reckless with their children, plastic bag lady aside. They just don't allow safety precautions to override their parental mandate to teach. Inoculation over bubble wrap.

Which leads me to the best thing about Amsterdam for kids. And by best, I mean-- well, you know.

Over a year ago, Mark took our kids to a park on the outskirts of Amsterdam. When they came home, my husband sat on the couch for a while before he could speak. "I don't know quite how to explain what we just went to, except that it would never be allowed in the US-- and there were hammers and saws."


He showed me the pictures he had taken, an my American brain could not process what I was seeing.

The concept is a "build and play" park where children can check out hammers, nails, and saws, to transform pallets and old boards into huts and forts. There is also a small petting farm, a game room, craft room, a boat dock, and a fire pit. And what's more-- it's all FREE.

We've since learned it's not the only one in Amsterdam, and they're not anything new. Do you remember a few months back, there was an article in the Atlantic about a playground in Wales, and every American had a panic attack? Well, the Dutch were like, YAWN.

So guess where my kids love to go? Yep, the danger parks.  I still don't know what to think of it all. Sure, it's a little Lord of the Flies, but I can't help but think it's pretty cool-- even while I bite my knuckles and hope nobody dies, or contracts tetanus, or maims someone, or descends into lawlessness and chaos-- OK, I'm going to stop now.

*Wanna go? Visit Jeugland in Flevopark, or 't Landje in Rembrandtpark. Go to Amstelpark for the Bumper Boats (and more), and don't miss Vondelpark's Treehouse playgound! 

That's right, a little bit of danger never hurt anyone. Oh wait... crap. 

Just some kids playing with HAMMERS. (And yes, that is possibly permanent marker all over my son's face, but HAMMERS!) 

Zip line over a river? We don't need no stinkin' liability waivers. 

At the dock, kids do have to wear life jackets, but are free to paddle their own canoes out of parent's eyesight. Be sure to pack the anxiety meds, people. 

This ain't Disneyland, that raft is real and so are the piranhas. 
OK, just kidding about the piranha part. Maybe. 

Yay tetanus! 

Hmmmm, how can we make this more dangerous? I know, how about more nails. On the ground, sticking straight up. 

Oh, and kids here ride to all these playgrounds on bicycles, without helmets. 

That's right. All my American readers may totally flip out now.