Dec 6, 2011

Last Christmas I Gave You My Heart, But Never Got Around to Posting It

I found this post in my queue from Christmas last year, which I never published (and we all know by now, that's just one of those things I do). Sinter Klaas festivities are over now, which means that today everyone puts away the shoes and the kidnapping sack and puts up the Christmas trees, as the two holidays are entirely separate here. So to kick off our Christmas celebrations in Holland, here it is, a blast from our Christmas past.


December 2010:
Sometime between all the chestnut roasting and fa-la-la-la-la-ing going on around here, I opened up the pre-heated oven to find a plastic plate of play-dough creations Sam had put in there a few days earlier and forgotten about. I can't believe we didn't smell all that plastic melting, probably due to the overwhelming stagnant water aroma coming from our flooded crawl-space. So I did what any responsible blogger would do and ran for my camera. Only the battery was dead and the charger has been missing for months. So when I picked up my cell phone (which was also dead; do you get the feeling things have been going very smoothly here? Good.) to take a picture, Sam's reaction, naturally, was "Mom, are you calling the police?"

No, but that might not have been a bad idea. This woman seriously should not be baking with small children present.

So, yep, the Holidays are in full-swing around here.

In fact, Sam just sat down with me and told me the Nativity story, using our supposed "unbreakable" nativity set (ha- my kids never met a nativity set they couldn't break). According to Sam, Mary and Joseph's story also involves some elements of Mary Had a Little Lamb, and at the end, one of the Wise Men needs to go off and be alone. I can relate to that.

I have a theory about Christmas: it goes better when you do most everything in advance. I also have a theory about doing things in advance: actually, no, I almost never do anything in advance, so I wouldn't know much about it. Therefore, Christmas and I will always have a very strained relationship. If Christmas and I could go to couple's therapy, it would go something like this:

Me: Your expectations are too high! My life is not a Hallmark commercial!
Christmas: Your not trying hard enough. I don't see why you can't find the exact perfect balance between meaningful spiritually-infused experiences and non-stop fun for 25 days straight, all while avoiding the trappings of blatant and empty consumerism. It's really quite simple.
Me: Well, how exactly do you do that?
Christmas: Easy. You either stay awake 24/7 from November on, or you work on it 1 hour each day starting immediately after Valentine's Day. Also, it helps to be insane. And, drinking lots of egg-nog. 

Speaking of insanity, we decorated the tree with the kids last night, and thereby began my favorite Holiday tradition. Admittedly,  I'm not putting in nearly the effort I have in years past. I've maybe moved 2 or 3 ornaments out of Nate's reach, and haven't even put on my glasses to look at in high-def. In fact, if you want to know what it looks like to me, here it is, courtesy of our camera phone and poor lighting (thanks to the aforementioned camera issues).


It's fitting this pictures gives the tree an awesome 70's vibe, since while decorating the kids were inexplicably singing Funky Town. That's right, one of the worst songs of all time was our soundtrack for decorating our Christmas tree.
You're singing it now too, aren't you?
Technically Funky Town is from 1980, but it reeks of the late 1970's. You know what else reeks of the late 70's? This picture of my very first Christmas:

1977

Are you loving that couch?

If my kids think Funky Town is acceptable holiday music, or any kind of music really, I've utterly failed them. So why not just go with it? If you can't fight it, embrace it. I've been thinking about how to expand on the 70's Christmas theme. 5-course all jello dinner? Instead of pajamas, matching polyester leisure suits from Santa? Did the Bee Gees make a Christmas album? Instead of acting out the Nativity story, we can have an evening of Performance Art and Interpretive Dance. Sea Monkeys and Pet Rocks are timeless gifts right? I'm not sure those are even from the 70's, but it just feels right, and tacky.


Tacky, like that melted plastic and play-dough I found in our oven. Maybe I should go hang it on our Christmas tree. And then I'm hitting the egg-nog. 


How are your holiday celebrations going? And what were you doing last year at this time? Anything different?

Dec 5, 2011

Sint in Sepia

Holiday Rule #57: Disguise bad photos in sepia tones. Added bonus: instant nostalgia!  

Sinter Klaas drops off a sack of presents on the doorstep after dinner. 
But only if the kid's rooms are clean.  

 I don't know why, but all Sinter Klaas wrapping paper is unbelievably ugly. 
Trust me, it's an assault on your eyeballs. 

Hey kids, remember that time when we celebrated Sinter Klaas in Holland? That was awesome. Right? And you're not going to forget on Christmas morning and complain that you didn't get anything, right? Because we all agree that one gratuitous gift-giving holiday in one month is enough? Right? Good.

Nov 29, 2011

Movember


It's that time of year once again, when bullet-point summaries become necessities. Here's everything you might or might not want to know about the goings-on here in November:

  • They don't celebrate Thanksgiving here in The Netherlands, but don't worry, they have their own calorie-dense, racially-charged festivities going on right now, so we're good. Sinter Klaas has arrived, and if you follow the link, you'll find out why this Thanksgiving I was especially thankful for David Sedaris. But really, who isn't? 
 
Putting their boots in front of the radiator. Hey kids, try not to think about getting
 stuffed in a sack and taken to Spain. I'm sure you've been good this year, right?  
  • My husband has been participating in Movember, bless his mustachioed heart. Only 2 more days until we can go out with him in public again. We tolerate it because it's for a good cause. Just let me know what disease or issue needs awareness-raising by me not shaving my legs for a month, and I'll be sure to sign up. Oh right, it's called winter. 
 
  • I really miss eavesdropping. I did not anticipate this. What's more, it's not fair; most people here speak English, and can therefore eavesdrop on us all they like while we're in public. For example, passersby would have had the pleasure of overhearing this conversation I had with Mia while walking to the bus stop recently: "Mom, has anybody ever eaten a chicken penis?" (Short pause while I try to recall everything I've ever learned about poultry genitalia, which is exactly nothing.) "Um, I honestly have no idea, but my guess is that somewhere in the world, on some reality show, somebody has, yes." "Eeeewwww, I would rather die than eat a chicken penis!" "Well, you might want to avoid chicken McNuggets then." Eavesdropping, don't take it for granted.
  • I love the radiator/towel warmer in our bathroom. It's officially made my list of things I know I don't really actually need, but I tell myself I really actually need. 
  • On November 11th, 2011 at 11:11 AM, I was here: 

 
Hamburg, Germany. It was cool. 
  • I've made some friends. We greet each other with the customary 3 kisses on the cheek, and I try to act like it's totally normal. Hello! Oh, going in for a hug- wait, no, kiss on the cheek, OK- oh, once more, no two more- are we done? I think we're done now- Awkward. 
  • This was my birthday present. I've only ran into a couple of things so far. 
 
It's the mini-van of bikes.
  •  Do you remember my piano? Well, here's the before:
 

And here's the after:
 

The lighting doesn't make it quite as dramatic as it could be, but it is now distressed Canary Yellow. Thanks to my talented friend Andrea! (And if you are in my family, you might be shocked interested to know that it has been tuned.) 

  • Was the word mustachioed your favorite part of this post? Mine too. 







Nov 27, 2011

That Time We Went to Belgium


Waaaayyyy back in October, we managed to squeeze in a quick trip across the border to Belgium.  In 4 days, we went to Brussels, Brugges, and Ghent. It mostly involved the following:

1.  Seeing and photographing a lot of really old things.
2.  Listening to our kids complain about all the "dumb, stupid" old things. 
3.  Realizing we are truly adults because we now enjoy dumb, stupid old things.
4.  Eating Belgian Waffles, and becoming true believers. 
 
(Note: they're considered dessert, not a breakfast item there. But nobody said you couldn't have them for dinner.)
5.  Having my first panic attack in an elevator, making this our first vacation where most of the hysterical screaming, crying, and hyperventilating was done by me.
6.  Walking right past a Michelangelo sculpture in a cathedral and not even realizing it.
7.  Hearing Nate refuse a chocolate sample by shaking his head and saying "I only eat food." Seriously, who is this weirdo and what kind of freaks raised him?
8.  Speaking of freaks: what kind of parents see this and say, "hey kids, go stand over there so I can take a picture"?
 

Well, we do, of course. What else do we do? We teach our kids songs and corresponding dances meant to embarrass them while we film them. Here's our Ghent theme song:
(If you need a hint, it's the word Ghent, set to the opening guitar riffs of Eye of the Tiger.)

video

And here's a slide show of Ghent, set to our theme song. You'll have to sing along yourself though.

video

While procrastinating doing other, less interesting things (see the laundry pic below), I made this little collage of Brugges. You had no idea I could waste time so well, did you?

          Would any trip synopsis be complete without a picture
of the post-trip laundry mountain? I think not. 



Oct 17, 2011

Three Months (I Know, Can You Believe It?)

So our Stuff arrived, and after a few days of blissful reunion when Stuff was on its best behavior, Stuff soon settled back into its old habits, namely being strewn around the house, causing arguments, and drinking straight out of the milk carton. Though we only pretended to be annoyed, because the truth is, we really missed Stuff.

The other night we were sitting around the living room: Mark and Sam were playing chess, I was reading with Mia, and Nate was playing with his train set. Mia looked around and said, "I can't believe it! Everyone is happy! No one is bored, or crying, or asking to watch TV. It's just like you always wanted mom!" Yes, it was. Thank you Stuff. Sorry about my flings with Simplicity. I promise from here on out to be entirely faithful to materialism, and to stop complaining about what a pain you are. Oh yeah, sorry that I used to complain about you being a pain. And to prove how sincerely reformed I am, I promise to go to IKEA soon and come back with a new shelving system just for you. Pinky swear.

Crazy that we've been here 3 months now. Gradually, I'm feeling back to my normal self. Except that it's a new normal self whose daily life is completely different from my old normal self. Unfortunately, my new normal European self is now addicted to two packs of second hand smoke a day. However, I finally beat my old American self's addiction to having two healthy lungs. So glad to get that monkey off my back.

But I digress. This post is meant to be a glimpse into our daily life here in Amsterdam, 3 months in. So let's begin.

The kids and I have to be ready to catch a city bus to school at 8:22 every morning. Back in Seattle, I usually wasn't even awake at 8:22, let alone dressed and on a bus, so this is a tad bit difficult for me. And for Sam. Despite being the first one up every morning, he is always the last to be ready. Often I just have to pick him up and run out the door in whatever state he's in. We have a 25-minute bus ride to school, and I'm betting that before long we'll just be hopping on the bus in our pajamas and getting ready en route.

If I haven't mentioned it, Mia and Sam are going to a Dutch public school here, and will spend this school year in an intensive Dutch immersion program. In theory, they will be fluent enough in a few months to start transitioning to our local school one day a week. I plan on posting more about this later, so for now I'll just say that most mornings I pry them off of me, ignore their pleadings, push them into their classrooms, and then hop on another 25 minute bus ride with Nate, while I try not to cry, or shout for joy (depends on the day).

When we get home, it's time to start thinking about dinner. This means heading down to the grocery store down the street. The local grocery store, Albert Heijn, is similar to a Trader Joe's in size and packaging options. For a family of 5, I usually need to buy 8 of everything in order to not run out by the next day. And keep in mind, whatever I buy, I have to bring home on my bike. When we first arrived and were trying to stock our kitchen, I would go grocery shopping, and 4 hours later the kids had eaten everything I'd bought. This continued to be a problem, until I saw my neighbor getting an Albert Heijn grocery delivery. Salvation! We now get most of our groceries delivered, but I still end up at Albies at least a few times a week. Our newest discovery is the Albert Heijn brand strawberry-rhubarb jam. It has completely revitalized our relationship with toast. However, there is no root beer, and the artichoke hearts are not marinated. Also, we've found that unscented laundry detergent is the way to go here.


Our local Albies. Notice that there is no parking lot, only bike parking.

You might be interested to know that we have an entire shelf in the fridge just for cheese, and that is not just because our fridge is about the size of Gary Coleman (which is why I call it The Coleman). I finally worked up the nerve to walk into one of the two cheese shops on our street and as a result, we are now the proud owners of a cheese knife, and a whole boatload of cheese. When the 13 year-old kid working in the cheese shop knows more about cheese than you know about the entire sum of everything you've ever learned, it's hard to say no. And yep, two cheese shops on the same block.

They both look exactly like this. Surprisingly, they don't carry Kraft.


In addition to the cheese shops, on our way to the Albert Heijn, we pass by a bakery, two produce markets, a flower stand, a butcher, a fish market, a cigar shop, an oil and vinegar store, and a chocolatier, most of which intimidate the crap out of me. But then there's Hema. It's right on the corner, and it's like a tiny European Target. We find a reason to go there every day. In fact, we just got back (turns out we needed some Belgian Bon Bons). I recently learned that the Hema-brand smoked sausage is considered a national treasure. This is what it looks like.


I thought it was a dog toy. Can you imagine if Target made the best smoked sausage around? There would be rioting in the streets. According to Wikipedia, Hema is also very popular for its underwear and house paint. Guess I just got my shopping list for tomorrow.

I don't think even the bike riding with 2 kids on board can make up for all of the chocolates and sweets we are discovering here. Say what you will about their taste in sausage, but the Dutch don't mess around when it comes to sweets. Do you know that they consider chocolate sprinkles on buttered bread to be a perfectly acceptable breakfast item? Well, now we do too. 

When we're done shopping, it's time for laundry. Rather, it's always time for laundry. It's never not time for laundry. Our washing machine is really a washer/dryer combo, and it's the cutest little thing you've ever seen. And I don't use the world little flippantly. It's like an appliance in embryo, which is why I call it the Baby Coleman. It's supposed to be super energy efficient, but I cannot for the life of me figure out how something that fits 1/4 of the capacity of our old washer, and takes 4 times as long could possibly be more efficient. All I know is, I put 2 pairs of jeans in, press a button, and 4 hours later they are completely dry. Or they could be completely dry, but we hang dry everything now. If we didn't we would only be able to wash 7.3 items of clothing a week at the rate it takes. But I'm not complaining. My new motto: Keep the Baby Happy.

Occasionally, laundry and shopping and bus rides and eating delicious pastries are all taken care of, and Nate and I find ourselves with an hour or two to spare. At this point we might hop on our bike or a tram, and make our way to a museum, or the American Book Center, or a park if Nate is really lucky. Or, Nate will have some "Dutch lessons" from Professor Television, and I'll research someplace to go on an upcoming weekend (recently, the beach at The Hague, and Belgium this coming weekend), or study my Dutch homework. Or, play on my newly arrived piano that I don't regret shipping here at all, apartment living be damned. But really, mostly it's laundry, shopping, and bus rides. And somehow I still manage to waste plenty of time on the internets, and stay up way too late, just like back in the States. Some things will never change.

So three months later, here we are: we eat chocolate sprinkles for breakfast, we shop at a chic European shop for towels and measuring spoons, and have a dedicated cheese-shelf. We wash our clothes in tiny batches that take 4 hours for every outfit, and I've added phrases such as "back in the States" to my repertoire. I ride the bus for 2 hours each day, we're getting lung cancer, and last weekend our kids swam in the North Sea.

It's our new normal.

Sep 27, 2011

Inventory of Made-Up Statistics

{Our shipment is coming today! I got a call an hour ago saying the truck would be here in 2 minutes. Good to know that delivery time ineptitude is a worldwide phenomenon. So while I wait, here is a post I started back in April at the beginning of this whole adventure, when we were just starting the process of moving. Enjoy, and be glad if you are not currently moving.}


True confession: over the years, I've flirted a bit with minimalism and the simplicity movement. It's all exciting and fun at first, picking up some books from the library, or subscribing to some blogs. The future is bright, and clean, and sparsely decorated. But after a while it just gets to be a lot of work, and pretty soon some simplicity expert is suggesting the need to do a home inventory. It's like having a defining-the-relationship talk with everything you own. That's a pretty big commitment you know? And that's usually the point where I decide that maybe clutter isn't so bad after all. Then I go on a rebound shopping trip to Target.

Well, the first item of business on the Amsterdam list was to get a moving bid. And to do that, we had to know what were taking and what we weren't. Which meant making a home inventory. Super (minimal) fun!

Yet somehow, I had this silly notion that the whole inventory process would translate into some great blog post; that I would become an excel spreadsheet geek and, naturally, a proliferate fountain of entirely unimportant statistics, such as "12% of our pencils are not #2," or "1 out of 5 pairs of our socks are unmatched." But most likely, "100% of our stuff is total crap."

Now that the pain and trauma is over (and when I say that it's over, I mean that we gave up in the middle of the garage), the spreadsheet is complete, and as it turns out, our stuff is very boring.

And there is a whole lot of it.

Specifically, a lot of cables. I had no idea, but apparently we are purveyors of cables. Cables of all varieties. We have no less than 5 boxes of cables under our bed, a few more in our garage, cables in random drawers and closets, and I wouldn't be surprised if there were some lost in between the couch cushions and down some heating vents. It seems you can't throw a dead cat in our house without hitting some stash of cables. You also can't throw a dead cat in our house because that would be gross.

Among the things we found that we didn't know we had: a tape I made while working at Mt. Rushmore, before I met Mark. I sound weirdly Californian, and said things like "rad." Oh to be 19 again.

But really, to be 17 again, because according to my old journals, which I found under my bed being strangled by a million cables, I really enjoyed being 17. And that's an actual quote from my journal. My 17 year-old self seemingly had non-stop fun and thought that everything that ever happened was "helairous." Also hilarious, the deep thoughts I had as a pre-teen, such as "I feel older, but young." Wow. However, I did not enjoy being 12, when every entry detailed which of my friends hated each other and one entry included this little gem: "it's sooooooooo hard to hang around with people I hang around with. They hate practically everybody that I like or don't know well enough to hate yet." Thank you, 12 year-old me. Because of you those journals will be meeting their doom in the near future, which is ironic since my first journal repeatedly warned anyone caught reading it to prepare to meet theirs. Reading all the painfully embarrassing things I'd forgotten about myself, but had the foresight to preserve for my posterity, was almost as fun as recording for our posterity all of our embarrassing worldly possessions. Almost.

And that's as uninteresting as it got. According to my spreadsheet, 2 out of 3 minimalists agree.


Sep 22, 2011

Sick Day

The kids are home from school today. We are all having major Immune System Culture Shock. Well, at least I am. I've been ridiculously sick for over a week now. Today, Mia and sam woke up just sick enough to promise to rest all day in bed, but not so sick that they actually did that for more than 5 minutes. So we've been home all day, and we're enjoying some forced writing time now. And when I say enjoying, I mean that I fully expect they'll never want to stay home again.

As for my writing time, the theme is "Sometimes."

1. Sometimes you fall asleep mid-pick, and your mom takes a picture and puts it on her public blog. And you won't even know until you're old enough to google yourself, and by then every potential girlfriend of yours will probably have already seen it. You know what they say: motherhood is hard, but has such sweet rewards.

2. On Sunday, a kind lady from church brought me a 5 lb bag of chocolate chips, which she got at some specialty membership-only store. She must have read between the lines when I told her I was doing "just fine." It was over 20 US dollars. So sometimes you spend insane amounts of money on things you normally only buy on sale, but since you live in a different country that doesn't sell chocolate chips in the grocery stores, you become living proof of the law of scarcity. And now that  I finally tracked down some baking soda (almost $3 a box) at an Indian market this week, we made chocolate chip cookies. This made for 5 extremely happy people. We now have chocolate chip cookie dough in the freezer, and I can face the world again.
You know that Neiman Marcus cookie recipe chain letter that people used to actually mail in the days before forwarded emails?  I'm pretty sure I know how it got started. I'm sure originally it was some expat writing a letter about how much it cost to get all the ingredients to make chocolate chip cookies: $250! But worth every penny. Oh, and send this to everyone you know and tell them to write their name and address on the bottom of the list and soon 46 people will send you absolutely nothing, and 2 people might drive by and egg your house.

3. Sometimes cliches come true. First day of school, and yes, that is a huge zit on Sam's forehead. He's 6.

4. Oh, yeah. Sometimes you have a birthday and turn 6 and your mom doesn't even mention it on her blog. But she still loves you enough to post another picture of you picking your nose on your first day of school. Notice the other kids pretending not to see. Or maybe they're trying not to look at the monster pimple.

5. And finally, sometime while we are here, we'd like to travel. Hopefully as much as possible. In fact, I've been spending most of the day researching tips for traveling in Europe with kids. Here's a great site if you're interested. We have some vacation time in October. Any suggestions? Where would you go if you had 4 days in Europe with 3 kids? Wherever we go, I'll be sure to post pictures of Sam with his finger up his nose in front of something famous.






Aug 31, 2011

Honestly



Nate has an inclination for directness and honesty that will serve him well here in the Netherlands.

Some examples:

When I'm telling Nate something he doesn't want to hear (such as, "it's not OK to spit at people"), he usually responds with, "Mom, stop talking."

This morning we had this little exchange while he was in the bath:
Me: Nate, you need to stop turning the water on. You have enough water now.
Nate: OK. But Mom, when you go away, I'm going to turn the water on again.

This was a fun one recently:
Mia and Sam were teasing Nate about being stinky. He looked at them for a minute and said, "Guys, I think we're done here."

But this one takes the cake.

Lady from church: Nate, does Jesus make you feel happy?
Nate: No, he just makes me feel weird.


Honestly.

Aug 25, 2011

Google Reader, Why Do You Hate Me So?

I posted Part 2 last night, but it seems Google Reader isn't showing it. So I'm posting this to let you know.

Another thing you should know: hot dogs in the Netherlands taste like a big tube of bologna. Remember that when you come visit.

Edit: Did I say bologna? I meant to say bologna that tastes like dog food.

Our First Month in Amsterdam, Part 2: Misadventures, Amusing Anecdotes, and the Sad, Sad Truth

Aside from some exploring and a few excursions, the reality is, most of my time here has been spent with my appliance manuals and Google Translate, trying to figure out how to wash our clothes and use the oven. Or translating utility bills, or deciphering what it is that I just bought from the grocery store and how to use it. Google translate is like the Facebook affair for new expats.


"Figuring it all out" has been the main focus of our time and energy for the past month, and trust me, there's been a few mishaps. I'm sure there will be even more to come, but here are a few tidbits so far:

As I mentioned, figuring out appliances has had a steep learning curve. There was the Exploding Butter incident during the 2nd week, in which we learned that our stove here burns much hotter than our old one. Also, that taking time to convert 3 cups into metric units might turn your easiest recipe into a minor catastrophe. Better to estimate. Oh, and just a few pats of exploding butter can really go a long way in kitchen coverage. You'd be surprised.

There was the little "issue" with PayPal, in which I kind of screwed up a money transfer, and I got investigated for international money laundering. That was fun.



There was the day I was yelled at in a park, by an overprotective grandmother who seemingly thought that I wasn't supervising her granddaughter properly. I say seemingly because it was all in Dutch and I didn't understand a word. Funny thing, being yelled at in another language isn't nearly as bad as you might think. For all I know she was telling me much she liked my shoes, just with a really forceful, angry tone. Which is why I responded, "Thanks! $14.99 at Target!"



People keep asking, how are the kids? Super awesome, as it turns out. Mia's thumb sucking has fully regressed; it's almost constant now. Sam has suddenly developed a nervous nail-biting habit, not even neglecting his toenails. And Nate has taken to speaking gibberish while out in public. And the current two most popular phrases at our house are: "I hate Amsterdam!" and "That was off the hoozle." So obviously, everyone is really well adjusted and totally thriving.


I'll be honest; some adjustments have been tough. I'll summarize:
We live in a lovely apartment.
On the 2nd floor.
With wood floors.
And no yard.
Yes, we chose it. It really was our best option at the time.
Since we've arrived, Amsterdam is experiencing an unusually rainy Summer.
Which is to say, we've been stuck indoors. A lot.
Our shipment (with all our toys) hasn't arrived yet, so the kids have almost nothing to do inside besides watching TV.
Amazingly, even that is getting old.
Yesterday I printed out over 40 pages of mazes for them to do.
They finished in 10 minutes.
This combination of boredom, confinement, and copious precipitation has inevitably led to lots of fighting, yelling, door-slamming, stomping, and general dysfunction.
And did I mention that we live in an apartment? With wood floors?
Lord bless our downstairs neighbors with acute hearing loss.

Yes, poor, poor us.


But here's the sad part.
We have absolutely no friends here. None at all.

Which is why I pour my heart and soul out to Google Translate on a daily basis.

It's pathetic. In fact, I've started posting on expat forums, begging for people to hang out with. It's like online dating, but for friends. "Insomniac mother of 3 and suspected money-launderer, enjoys running, Jane Austin, and quoting Bill Murray movies. Seeks friendship with like-minded mother. Must love long afternoons at the playground, political satire, and translating appliance manuals. "

I have some dates set up next week, so the big question is: what should I wear?

But first, I have to tell Google Translate that I'm kind of dating again.