Dec 22, 2014

2014: The Newsletter

...even though it's not actually a newsletter... Wonder when the kids will figure out that I do this every year? 

2014 "In Quotes"

"Can you just walk in a straight line? Please? Just walk straight?"
-Donna's constant refrain to Sam and Nate anytime they are walking, ever.

"That's right, I'm a contrarian!" 
Mia, gleefully discovering a label she can fully embrace. Tweendom, we have arrived.

"So we're staying? Moving? Which is it again? ...Have we decided?" 
-This was more or less the bulk of all our conversations from January through April, indicating our prolonged indecisiveness about returning to the US. Looks like we'll be moving back in the Summer of 2015. Right Honey? We're sure about that?

"Mom, look how brave I am."
-Nate, sitting on the couch, picking his nose.

"Can I get a drone?"
-Sam, moments before his first crushing disappointment.

"In my defense, they were very heavy pancakes."
-Mark, attempting to justify tearing his rotator cuff while lifting a serving platter full of pancakes.  

"But I have really bad goosebumps." 
-the reason Sam couldn't get off the couch to set the table.

"Missed my flight from Budapest (haha). Send cc#, urgent." 
-Donna, in a text sent to Mark at 2 AM outside of the central train station in Brussels. Long story. 

"What's a twinkie?"
-Mia, Sam, and Nate's unison response to an offhand comment. Not sure if we're failing or winning as parents.

"He doesn't like to hear people chewing. It's a thing." 
-Our explanation to guests as to why Sam sits in another room wearing earphones while we eat. Good times.

"That's OK Mom, we all know that you just say 'mmm-hhhmmm' when you're not really listening." 
-Mia, after Donna was caught not listening to Nate go on and on and on about Star Wars. Just one of the billion times Nate went on and on about Star Wars this year. And on and on and on...

"I think we've lived in Europe too long. I was eavesdropping on an American couple with Southern accents, and I couldn't understand a word they said."
-Donna, shocked to realize that after three years in Amsterdam, American accents now sound foreign. Win? 

Not technically a quote, but no annual review would be complete without Nate's sweet dance moves:

We wish you all, near and far, a wonderful holiday season and a joyous 2015. 
Donna, Mark, Mia (11), Sam (9), and Nate (6) 

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. And for centuries, Silesia was kind of a big deal, and extravagant buildings, country houses, palaces, and castles dominated the countryside, mixed in with 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. 

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. 

Sep 5, 2014

That Time My Life Was an Episode of The Amazing Race

Most good stories don't start with I arrived at the airport in plenty of time and calmly proceeded to the gate. 

This one doesn't either.

You know when you have just enough time to get the airport, but only if things go absolutely perfectly, and the universe is like NOPE? That's how I ended up at the Budapest airport, standing outside the gate with fifteen minutes to go, being told that the gate was closed and I was not allowed to get on the plane.


I had been in Budapest visiting a longtime friend. The kind of friend who you started a Unicorn club with in the fifth grade, wrote notes to in a secret language, and cried with over your first break-up. So when this friend ends up in Europe for one year, and just happens to give birth to her first baby, you go visit her for a weekend. And when your husband sadly loses a brother just a few days before, and books a last-minute flight back to the US for the funeral, you just divvy out your kids to friends, and you still go to Budapest. Because Unicorn Club alum stick together, yo. Also, because of non-refundable flights, and two days to hold this bundle of adorableness:

You see what I'm talking about.

Back to me missing my flight at the airport. 

It was a Saturday, early evening. Mark was in the US, and I was supposed to pick up my kids by Sunday morning. I needed to figure out a way to get to Amsterdam as quickly as possible. Suddenly, it was just like The Amazing Race, but for realzzz. And with a disappointing lack of Phil Keoghan. Sigh.

I walked back to the ticketing area, and gave the departure board a good, long stare. Of course there were no more flights to The Netherlands that night. Summoning my inner Catherine O'hara from Home Alone, I walked to the ticket counter, and sobbed.

"I will do anything! Whatever it takes to get me on a flight, I will fight, kill, prostitute myself... I will sell my soul to Kim Kardashian's baby, wear high-wasted jeans for the rest of my life...JUST GET ME HOME TO MY KIDS."

"Let's see, looks like there's a seat on a flight to Brussels tonight at 8:30."

"I'll take it. What do I have to do?"

"Nothing, just the payment, ma'am."

"Oh, OK. You're sure that's all? Seems a little anti-climactic."

In the actual The Amazing Race, this would be the dramatic part, right before cutting to commercials. Lots of close-up shots of me looking worried, and biting my lip. Suspenseful music. Foreshadowing of tragedy to come. And then after the break, everything seems to have worked out just fine, as if there wasn't really any drama at all, just manipulative editing.

Two hours later I was on a flight to Brussels.

Brussels Charleroi Airport is actually not anywhere near Brussels. It's closer to France. After an hour bus ride, and a quick ride on the next-to-last train into Brussels central station, I arrived to find that the station was closing for the night. Who knew? It was one in the morning. I walked outside, looked at the row of backpackers curled up next to the station, and found a place to sit that didn't look as if it had been peed on too recently.

So there I was. This is the part where my insomnia super power saved the day. It's like I'd been training for this moment my entire life.

Sleep is for wusses. 

Brussels was in the middle of a music festival, so at 1 AM it was loud, boisterous, and busy. Ignoring the shouts in French from drunken passersby, I searched on my phone for ways to get to Amsterdam. Ten points to me for at least having my phone charged, though minus 1000 points for missing my flight in the first place.

Most of the trains and bus services I was aware of didn't leave until the next day, and were either fully booked, insanely pricey, or involved further transfers and waiting. I didn't see how I could get home until at least dinner time.

When was the last time you had to use the second page of Google's search results? I know, right? That's where I found a charter bus that happened to be leaving from Brussels at 4 AM, arriving in Amsterdam three hours later, for just 20 euro. I checked the location-- the bus stop was literally around the corner. And there were still seats available.

Small hiccup: the tickets were only available online, and only by credit card. Guess who didn't bring a credit card? That's right. Mrs Ultra Light Packer.

That's when I sent a message to Mark. "Hey, missed my flight (haha). Send cc#, urgent."

While it was 2 AM in Brussels, it was 6 PM in South Dakota on the day of my brother-in-law's funeral. I had two hours, hoping even a family tragedy wouldn't interfere with smart phone addictions. I really had to pee.

Cue the suspenseful close-up.
(Dramatic reenactment)

At some point, another backpacker arrived and asked in a thick British accent, "so is this where we're sleeping tonight?" He then proceeded to tell me about his day, with a brazen disregard for every word in the English language that was not the f-word, all while undressing and getting in his sleeping bag.

You would think by three in the morning things would quiet down, but no, that's just when the crazies came out. Anyone who is out after that time you just hoped kept walking. And there were plenty of people out, and no police. Which I guess was good for the backpackers sleeping in front of the train station.

A car screeched up on the sidewalk, men hanging out the windows, yelling and honking. After being ignored, they peeled out, only to come back a few minutes later for a repeat. Wasted party goers stumbled past. Teenagers ran down the middle of the street, chasing after cars.

There were the three men who walked up and spent a good thirty minutes alternately screaming at each other in French and caressing each other, until a fourth man joined them, yelled at them, hugged them, and then showed them the contents of his wallet. They all walked off together without even a glance or catcall in my direction. Thank God for gay men.

Eventually I got a response from Mark: "Of course you missed your flight." (We didn't know that three days later, Mark would miss his flight home due to bad weather, he'd spend thirty-six hours traveling due to an airline I won't name but will call Crappy "United" Airlines. But at least he would get to sleep at the airport.)

So, with my credit card number, and just enough cell phone battery, I booked my ticket on the bus and prayed it wasn't a scam. At 4:05 I was pulling out of Brussels on a bus full of sleepy backpackers, thankful I wasn't the stinkiest person there.

Twelve hours after my flight would have arrived, I made it to Amsterdam, or rather the strangest, most remote part of Amsterdam I've ever been to. It took another hour and a half via public transportaion to get home and relieve my bladder.

But it was a non-elimination round! I still had to bike around town retrieving my kids in a nasty storm. Not to mention survive four more days of Summer vacation, alone with the kids and non-stop rain. Thanks Amsterdam, for that.

So Phil, did I win?