Dec 22, 2013

2013: The Newsletter

2013  "In quotes"

"We did not come to Morocco to play video games!" 
-Donna, in our hotel in Marrakesh. Need I say more? 

"Mom, I wish I was in your heart...but that would be pretty gross." 
-Nate. Sometimes I wish I could peer in that kid's head, but that would be pretty gross. 

"Oh man, I just can't look at any more gold things!"
-Mia, in the middle of Versailles, just saying out loud what we were all thinking. 

Donna: "I just need you to be on my team." 
Mark: "But sometimes I just want to be on a winning team." 
I think this short conversation perfectly sums up our attempt at parenting this year. Better luck next year? 

"If you think about it, swimming pools are pretty gross; you're just floating around with other people's butt barnacles."
-Sam, in the perhaps the best mistaken use of barnacles, in place of particles, ever. 

"Actually, this is pretty cool." 
-Mia, in Budapest. She denied it afterward, but I had witnesses. Budapest for the win.  

"Why do we have all these emails?" 
-Nate, referring to a stack of envelopes. What kind of aliens are we raising? 

"You'll smell what I did later."
-Our 10-year-old niece, Nicki, with us on a train in Italy, and my vote for best quote of the year. 

Sam (8), Nate (5), Mia (10)
Cologne, Germany
Because we love old buildings now, right Mia? 

We wish all our family, friends and loved ones near and far a wonderful holiday season, and blessed 2014.

Dec 17, 2013

2013 Year End Review, Part I: That Day I Got Stuff Done

On January 14th, 2013 I was super productive. Seriously, I produced the crap out of that day. To-do lists the world over were cowering in fear at sheer tour de force of my task-squashing prowess. I probably got like 3 solid things accomplished that day. I even wrote about it in my journal. Which was another thing I got done. Bam. 

My children tried to get my attention, and elderly women in the check-out line thought she could derail my glorious efficiency streak by taking forever to load her frozen peas, but on January 14th, my mantra was NOT TODAY! The customer service rep was a formidable opponent, but when he heard the not-even-your-incompetency-will-stop-me-today-sir tone of my voice, he crumbled into a pathetic pile of failure.

The headlines ran: "Local woman writes grocery list, makes some phone calls, and finally recycles those old ink cartridges-- all in less than 24 hours."

That was the day I got stuff done in 2013. I've spent the rest of the year making up for it, but I'll always have January 14th. 

Dec 13, 2013

Lost in Translation

I think I forgot to mention that the kids graduated from the Dutch immersion school last December, and have been attending a regular public school for over a year. They're now fully fluent, and most of their friends are local Dutch kids who they run around with happily chatting in Dutch. Yes, even Mia. In fact, a while ago, she told me that she now thinks in Dutch instead of English. Mind blown.

Sam invited one of those friends over after school yesterday, and as we all rode home on our bikes, they were talking the whole time in Dutch. Though I understood very little of it, I did hear Sam say something about America and English, and then his friend replied something about President Obama and Benjamin Franklin. Then Sam started talking about (I think) the atomic bomb, to which his friend repeated the thing about Obama and Benjamin Franklin. I'm not even sure if they understood what they were saying.

Not understanding your children's conversations can be problematic. For Nate's 5th birthday this year, we took him and his two closest friends to a popular indoor play place on the outskirts of Amsterdam. Without a car, we had to take public transportation to get there. While waiting for the tram, trying to corral three rowdy and hyper five year-old boys whom I had no way of communicating with, it occurred to me that I hadn't fully thought the situation through. When I watched the boys point and laugh at the older man sitting across from them, I was horrified that I had no idea what they were saying, though I could guess that it was not a compliment. The boys probably spent that entire ride talking loudly about farts and poop, while the other passengers inwardly judged my overly permissive parenting. 

Since then, I've made sure to add potty words to my small Dutch repertoire.Which is appropriate because my Dutch is right about at a 2 year-old's level. I feel like my communication ability is stuck at the equivalent of me thirsty, mine, and you're a poopyhead.

In fact, earlier this year, in one last-ditch effort to learn the language, I started watching a lot of Dutch children's television. I don't know how much it helped my Dutch progress, but I made big strides with learning to share and count. My kids are really pleased. 

To get by, I rely a lot on Google translate, which I've written about before. But it's an imperfect solution, as the syntax and idioms don't always translate well-- which can also be hilarious. Just this morning I got an email from a parent in Mia's class, who, according to google translate, is a Mrs. Windbag.

This is from a review I read of a bike shop: I can always walk so the bicycle here are quite susceptible to female beauty; tip for the ladies so!  WTH? 

And this was a description of a Groupon vacation offer: Routine begins as a welcome rhythm of rest and regularity, but degenerates into an unguarded moment in a chubby syrup dripping from the bank, on television and through frosted mandatory family visits. It's almost poetic. 

My favorite though, is translation from a school website: Do you not live in the school area? Well, for that you can shoot yourself! 

We speak English at home, as our kids absolutely hate when we try to speak Dutch, but there are some Dutch words and phrases that we've adopted into our everyday conversations.  My favorite is ja hoor, which means yes, of course! and is pronounced exactly like yah whore. Mark and I use it so much, I'm terrified that I will slip and say it to someone when we move back to the US. I'm imagining saying it to the principal at the kid's new school, or some elderly lady at church, and I'm preemptively cringing at the awkwardness of it.

Speaking of awkward, that word does not exist in Dutch, which is really unfortunate because it perfectly describes most of my experiences here. Especially the ones where strangers make an off-hand remark to me in Dutch, and I respond with a overly enthusiastic nod which I hope communicates, "I agree with everything you've just said, and since you said it so well, I have no need to verbally comment!" Then I chuckle and look away, hoping that they didn't just ask me a question, or tell me about the sudden death of their mother. 

In the last month, I've been yelled at by strangers three times. As they shake their fist at me and spew out angry Dutch words, I shrug and happily walk away, oblivious to anything they are saying. Sometimes it's better to not understand. 

Nate singing in Dutch for Sinterklaas to put candy in his shoes.

Now, I know many of you have also learned a 2nd language, or lived in a foreign country, and are dying to tell me your funny/embarrassing/awkward stories. And would I like to hear them? Ja hoor! 

Dec 9, 2013

This Week in Unintentionally Phallic Artwork by my Five Year Old

I have this semi-official goal of publishing more blog posts this year than I did last year, which I obviously have not been taking too seriously. (I did say semi-official, right?) This means I have until the end of December to post 12 more times. And we are talking about the craziest month of the year, so I'm going to have to go for quick, easy, and inappropriate.  You're welcome.

Recently, Nate's stick figures have taken on a new shape. A shape that happens to resemble male genitalia.

Here's the first one that caught my attention: 

And then there was this:

This self-portrait might be my favorite. When you see it, feel free to fall out of your chair laughing. 

This one was entirely INtentional. When I asked him if he had drawn 
his belly button, he said, "no, that's my penis!" 

We did see Michelangelo's David while in Italy recently. Perhaps it left an impression.

Dec 5, 2013

Get Me Off This Crazy Holiday Train

On November 11th, we celebrated the holiday of Sint-Maartens, originally a French holiday, now observed in various regions around the world. In The Netherlands, it's similar to Halloween in that it involves children going door to door soliciting for 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. We also celebrated Halloween a few weeks prior, and while it is almost entirely an American and British expat affair here, more and more Dutch locals are joining in each year. This made Mia furious. It's not fair! They shouldn't get to celebrate Halloween with us! But Mia, you get to celebrate Dutch holidays. I know, but we also have to live here! A 10 year old's life can be so tragic. 

Just a handful of 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 Sinter Klaas, it is not associated with Christmas in any way, and is instead an entirely harmless, joyful celebration of cardboard-inspired cookies, sweaty 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. Every year there are heated discussions, and every year the use of hideous wrapping paper continues, with blatant disregard for good taste. I get that they're not trying to be offensive, but it's 2013-- we should be a little more evolved by now.

Sinterklaas parade in Amsterdam

This year we've learned more about other fun aspects 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, cavernous void they are trying to fill. And 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. 

(Speaking of good fun: last year we went to a festive Zwarte Piet village, about an hour North of Amsterdam, located in an old fishing village-turned outdoor museum. 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, until a woman came in, seemingly alarmed, and asked what we were doing. Looking around, I was about to answer, well, we're just sitting here, writing poetry with two white women who are dressed up like black Renaissance pageboys. Of course, 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 excessively-enunciating-all-three-syllables kind of way. BELOVED. It is associated with fun and frivolity, and all things happy and silly. Most every adult in the country has such happy memories of it from their own childhoods, there is an shocked outcry when outsiders throw out accusations of racism. There's no denying that the tradition has racist origins, and continues to propagate those stereotypes in an alarming, if also a bizarrely well-intentioned, way. Criticizing Zwarte Piet is similar to suggesting to Americans that apple pie tastes like communism, or more realistically, that Thanksgiving can be a painful and unpleasant day for Native Americans. But, but-- carbohydrates!! will be all they can say in an outraged stupor. And besides, it's not like we continue to propagate hurtful stereotypes of Native Americans. Now, shhhh, the Redskins game is on.  

I love the Dutch people, and I'm sure that, thanks to their commitment to inclusion and the Polder Model, eventually they will find a way to uphold the spirit of this unique holiday while modernizing the implementation. And by the time they do, I promise you, America will still be cheering for the Washington Redskins.

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 simple carbohydrates, 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 it might have happened. 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 tomorrow, December 5th, and on the 6th, Christmas in the Netherlands will officially begin. At which point I will blast some holiday music, pull out the decorations and my to-do list, and in the true essence of Christmas, stick my head in the dryer and cry. 

And because I'm me, there isn't a single picture of the turkey, but here's a bunch of astoundingly amateur cell phone pics from the most of the recent festivities. 
Sint Maartens with friends, lamps, and one blinding reflective decal. 

Oh yeah, we took a short trip to Germany and stumbled on a Christmas Market in Bonn.
It was while I was trapped in an ornament store for 10 minutes that I realized I hate
Christmas stores. Bah humbug.

So worth it.

Thanksgiving Amsterdam Style, served at 7 PM with nary a green bean casserole in sight. 

Mia's Disco Club surprise box. I told her it was amazingly accurate, based on my extensive clubbing experience. 

Singing to their Dutch clogs, complete with carrots for Sinterklaas' horse. (If I wanted to be accurate, most Dutch children leave out regular shoes, not clogs-- but then, when have I ever wanted to be accurate?) 

Enjoying the Holidays so far?