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??