Dec 18, 2014

Let's Not Talk About Christmas

This post is not about Christmas.

But I bet Christmas is going to think it is. That's just like Christmas, you know? Thinking everything is all about it.

I'm not really on speaking terms with Christmas right now.

I mean sure, Christmas acts all sweet and innocent, like everyone's darling, but in reality, Christmas will borrow your favorite sweater and then return it with a big stain. Like we're not going to notice. So there, Christmas, everyone knows now.

But I'm not talking about that.

Instead, you know what is way more interesting than Christmas? Dutch bathrooms.

That's right. Just about every Dutch house has a WC (pronounced vay-say)-- a small room with only a toilet and an adorably tiny sink. There is an entirely separate room for the shower and vanity. Again, Europeans seem to understand bathroom needs so much better than Americans.

Exhibit A: our WC. Sorry, I didn't clean it for you. 

Oddly, however, the Dutch use their WC as the display spot for the family birthday calendar. Why? So you can always associate the birthday of your loved ones with pushing out big turds?

This is why I love Dutchies.

The Dutch love modern bathrooms, or at least, Amsterdammers do. You don't see French Country bathrooms, or Craftsman style, or shabby chic. It's all ultra-modern, sleek, and minimal. I've never seen so many open showers and Ikea cabinetry.

My husband broke the toilet seat on our ultra-modern, hidden-cistern, square-shaped toilet recently. You can imagine the nicknames we have for him now. I assure you, they are all exactly what you're thinking. We looked into the replacement. 220 euro.

Two hundred and twenty euro for a toilet seat. And it doesn't wipe your bum or do your taxes.

I don't even understand the world anymore.

By the way, did you know you can buy used toilet seats on Amazon?

And let's just add to all the potty talk with this tidbit: if you're putting together a puzzle of the Sistine Chapel, chances are absurdly high that on any given puzzle piece there is going to be a penis. I'd say at least a 75% chance, from personal experience. Just really makes you think of the Sistine Chapel in a different light.

Take that Christmas. And guess what? On Christmas Eve, we're going to Istanbul. Not many people care about you in Istanbul,  if you can imagine. And when we come back, I'm going to put away all your stuff, and not think about you again for at least 11 months. Maybe 10 1/2, because dammit I need to get started earlier next year.



Dec 10, 2014

When I Grow Up (I Should Really Have This Figured Out By Now)

In the 2nd grade, I wanted to be a stand-up comedian.

By 3rd grade, I predicted in an essay that I was going to be a "computer whiz" while married to a prince, and running my own clothing store.

Pretty big dreams for a young girl in America, whose only computer experience involved Typing Tutor and making greeting cards on Word Perfect.

Eventually, I went through a mid-childhood crisis, lost all sense of direction in my big bangs phase, and at some point thought I might be an actress. Toward the end of high school I was briefly fixated with Music Therapy. Problem was, I couldn't ever figure out exactly what Music Therapists do.

In college, I started out in Psychology, at one point dabbled in Biology, thought about Geology, Interior Design, and finally ended up with a degree in Performing Arts. By the time I graduated, I was working as a personal trainer at a women's gym, while managing the apartment complex we lived in.

Mia came along, then 2 more children, and it's now been 11 years since I've been in any paid employment position. So what now? Computer whiz?

What were you going to be when you grew up?

Fun fact: Francine Pascal, author of the Sweet Valley High series, didn't go to her own prom, and wasn't that into High School. She preferred writing political commentary.

Dec 5, 2014

I Have a Reading Disorder

My "Oh I didn't know I was taking a picture of myself" selfie.*

Literally, my reading is disordered. Specifically, it happens in this order: beginning, end, middle.

Yep, I skip ahead and pre-read the end of every book I start. I never read the end last. Never. And, yes, every single book. Doesn't matter if I'm enjoying the book or not. Doesn't even matter if it's non-fiction.

Are you freaking out now?

When you see a spoiler alert, you probably cover your eyes and run away? Not me. I love them. In fact, please do tell me how your favorite book or movie ends. Actually, let me guess: he gets the girl? The beloved dog/horse/mythical creature dies? The world is saved? They figure out the secret code just in the nick of time? She becomes a vampire and has vampire babies?

**Spoiler Alert** I'm going to go ahead and tell you how this blog post ends: I kill off the character you've grown to love. Sucks, but that elf on the shelf had it coming. And then I ask a question, like all good blog posts, and that question is: can you believe how much more complicated the actual US criminal investigation and prosecution system is than its TV counterpart?? Guys, I feel betrayed.

Back to the reading thing-- I know, you are horrified. You think it's wrong, unnatural, immoral maybe. And I tell you I was born like this. I can't help it; I'm chronologically challenged. Even as a child I couldn't understand why Grover didn't just peek at the last page to get a glimpse of the monster. Why, Grover, why?

You know what's horrible and unnatural? People reading an entire book that they hate, just to see how it ends. Recently, my husband was reading a terrible book**, and he complained constantly about how awful it was, how it was literary assault and battery. And then he would pick that book right back up and read more of it, groaning and writhing the entire time.

Me: Why do you keep reading it?

Mark: Because I have to find out how it ends. No matter how painful it is. What if the end makes it worth it?

Me: Maybe you should just peek and see.

Mark: WHAT???!! That would be a crime against literature! I'm just going to have to suffer for... 157 more pages.

Me: You're sick. You need help.

Endings don't save books. An unsatisfying ending might tarnish, or even ruin, an otherwise good book, but if the middle (i.e. the plot and characters and conflict and development) is bad, then it's just a bad book. End of story.***

It's not just that I peek at the end to scandalize civilized people, or to see if it's worth it to keep reading. There's a bigger, deeper reason: I skip to the end, because once I know what's going to happen, I can relax, and enjoy how it gets there. Provided I think it's a book worth finishing, of course. (Guys, stop feeling obligated to read bad books!)

So it all comes down to suspense. Suspense, and my supreme aversion to it.

You might say that it's in human nature to enjoy suspense-- isn't that the point of all entertainment? To keep us in suspense until the end?

I say no. Think about a book or movie that you love. I mean, your house is on fire and you grab it before your children and pets LOVE. Chances are you've watched it or read it a second time or more, even though you already knew what was going to happen.

And once you know how it's going to end, by definition the suspense is over. But there is still tension, created by conflict. And that's what's in human nature to enjoy-- conflict and resolution. And we can watch or read that over and over, knowing full well what happens in advance, and it's actually very satisfying.

Like this:
Feels good, doesn't it? 

So after the many conversations I've had with people about my reading disorder, I've decided that there are two kinds of people in the world:

Those who will never skip ahead, and those who always skip ahead.

If you're in the first category, you are in the majority, and quite frankly, you probably waste a significant amount of time.

If you're in the second category, we are soul mates, and chances are you also hate click-bate with a passion.

So, which one are you?


*Crap, selfies are hard. Props to Kim Kardashian.
**OK, not the actual book he was reading, but I couldn't resist.
***Mmm-hmmm. Pun intended. 

photo credit: Michael Kappel via photopin cc

Nov 28, 2014

Silesia: Europe's Forgotten Corner


So far, while traveling in Europe, we've stuck with major cities, and haven't wandered too far off the tourist's path. Until, after a lengthy rabbit-hole session on Airbnb, we ended up heading to the Silesia region of Poland.

The where now?

Yes, exactly.

Guys, you can stay in legit old palaces there, and not like the L.A. Best Western Royal Palace Inn. Your stucco palace facade isn't fooling anyone Best Western.

And in Silesia, palace stays are actually affordable.

They're also half-way run down, but so is everything there. But it's a quaint sort of run down. Let's just call it vintage.

Silesia is here, tucked between the Czech Republic and Germany:
Silesia, more or less.


And it is certainly off the beaten tourist track. We got to brush up on our pantomiming skills, and it was challenging to find places to eat that were not depressingly similar to all-you-can-eat buffets in American strip malls, circa 1992, with the added adventure of all-Polish menus.

On the plus side, my hair was looking fabulous this day. 
But it is also beautiful-- rolling hills of deciduous trees, tiny farms, and towns with medieval walls. For centuries, Silesia was kind of a big deal, and extravagant buildings, country houses, palaces, and castles dominated the countryside, mixed in with the tiny farms and towns.

You see what I'm talking about. I don't think many people think of Poland like this. 


I'm going to go historic on you for a minute, so hang tight.

Before WWII, Silesia was actually part of Germany. But when the boundaries of Poland were redrawn in the aftermath, the three million mostly German inhabitants were suddenly living in Poland-- they were asked, maybe forced, to leave. And as the region emptied, two million displaced Poles from other areas moved in, directly in to the newly abandoned homes and structures.

Am I the only one who finds this fascinating?

Almost the entire population has no roots in the region going back any further than 70 years. The actual people, not just the ruling powers, have completely changed. It's an area with a long history, and no history at all.

After WWII, the Communist government prohibited private ownership, so the country houses and estates, though stripped and plundered, were largely left empty and the majority sat abandoned for decades. Some were used by collective farm workers. Most are now in ruins, or in dire need of restoration. And they are all over the region.
This absolutely gorgeous castle was deserted and mostly unused for 70 years.
It's currently being restored, and open for tours (in Polish). 


Today the beauty of the region pervades, stamped with evidence of past extravagance,  sprinkled with the grit and neglect of communism. It is bleak, and beautiful, and bizarre.

We stayed in one such charming, dilapidated palace dating from the 1300's, currently being restored painstaking detail by painstaking detail, by a lovely British/Polish family with 5 kids. The oldest two girls, hilariously extroverted, ran our kids around the property, showing them all their little magical spots and corners, playing in falling-down barns ("just watch out for the holes in the floor"), and running in terror from the evil cockerel that hated children. We picked the last raspberries of the season from the garden, tossed bread to the geese in the "moat", and explored every last bit of the palace, all the way up to the tower.










Then we drove around and around, in and out of the Czech Republic, and through Polish villages, over hillsides, and came back each evening to sit by the fireplace.

Oh look, another beautiful castle. 


A beautifully restored building on the Czech side.
This was one of my favorites. 


It was absolutely enchanting.

(OK, so I also played a fair amount of Sudoku, did not write a single word for a week, and the kids spent every second of every drive on an electronic device. But still, everyone was happy and our marriage stayed in tact. So I say, enchanting.)

 Just remember, we went there before anyone else.




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, for those who are house-curious, and for those who are just generally 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.