Wednesday, February 28

Wet Weather Gear

Tuesday, February 27


Friday, February 23

The Picture; Then the Thousand Words

17 June 2006

We set off today for an adventure in the nearby town of Alphen aan den Rijn. There is a bird park there, full of exotic flighted creatures and a few that do not fly. It's a destination which comes highly recommended, and with a fellow bird lover in the house I thought it would be the ultimate way for my sister-in-law Wendy, Ian, Emma, Andrew and I to spend the day.

Sandwiches packed, diapers stacked, and buggy loaded, we took off together for the train station. The neighborhood station is about a 10 minute walk from our house. Andrew was insistent upon walking for this first stretch of the trip, because as we all know, he is now three years old and as such should be considered a big boy. I have mentioned before how Andrew can really keep us all giggling on a daily basis, and today was no exception.

He strutted.
He flounced.
He galloped.
He cavorted.
At one point he was walking backwards up the hill with a little rhythm of step-step-step--JUMP; step-step-step--JUMP! And we started to joke that this short jaunt to the train station was going to take us the better part of the morning.

Ian stepped in to help Andrew hurry along, and had scooped him into his arms and was carrying him as he ran to catch up with the rest of us.

That's when it happened.

The sidewalk is built of stone blocks and Ian's foot hit a spot where the block was raised.

He tripped.

As he began to fall forward his hands released Andrew. Ian fell to the right, Andrew fell to the left. Both boys skidded across the cement blocks. Ian took the impact with his hands. Andrew took the impact with his face.

I apologize to the squeamish readers for the gory details, but I watched the whole accident from trip to skid, and it was an incredibly uncomfortable four seconds, I am compelled to share.

As soon as he lit, I scooped Andrew up. He threw back his head to cry and immediately I knew that something was up, or out, as the case may be. As I looked for a place to sit down to inspect for damage, I called over my shoulder "CHECK THE GROUND FOR HIS TOOTH!"

It was only a few seconds later when the kids arrived by my side where I was comforting Andrew and offered me a sight of TWO perfectly shaped baby teeth, full root showing, cradled in the palm of a hand. I don't remember whose hand it was nor which of their voices I heard saying "Mom, it's two teeth".


Pause for a minute for brain to process the information.

Baby has fallen.
Baby is bleeding.
Baby's teeth are missing.
Baby's teeth are found.

Snap to it. We got up and headed back to the house at double time speed. I shouted out directions as we approached the house.
"Emma! Get me a bowl of warm soapy water. Ian! Make an ice pack. Wendy! Hand me a baby wipe so I can wipe some of this blood off his face before his dad sees him"
I was working completely on automatic at this point. Not feeling. Not looking at the damage to my darling boy's little face. Not thinking about anything past the moment. I just knew that I MUST find a dentist, and I must find a dentist NOW.

Don was at home working in the upstairs office on his thesis, and he heard us coming. It was hard to miss our approach. Through the open window, he heard Andrew bellowing and English being spoken. He opened the window fully and called out to us. I shouted the news to him and he got on the phone immediately to find a dentist who was OPEN ON A SATURDAY.

Then we were in the house where I could asses the situation.

Soak teeth in milk.
Wash Andrew's face, hands and arms.
Get ice on the wound.
Measure and administer Advil.
Contact a dentist.
Find the insurance card.
Inspect the injuries.
1. Road rash on right cheek under his eye.
2. Large goose egg above the right eye.
3. Contusion and bruising across his forehead.
4. The LARGEST fat lip ever seen in the history of mankind. Ever.
5. Two front teeth missing.

At this point Andrew is calm. He has his special blanket balled up around his fist and the whole contraption shoved in his mouth. In this way he has created the perfect pressure bandage for the wound. He's calm, but I can tell he's in shock. He shivers. He whines. He wants to sleep. Oh, boy.

We made arrangements with our visiting friends for the big kids to hang with them, and Don and I set off for the dentist. Toddler in arms, teeth in hand.

We generated a lot of sympathetic looks and conversation as we boarded the bus. And as we entered the dentist's waiting room. And, again at the reception in the hospital emergency room.

Andrew was a stellar patient throughout the day and cooperated beautifully with the doctors. The moment that really got me was when the doctor asked him to open his mouth, and as he happily complied I saw the full extent of the damage.

Words just won't suffice to explain the gaping space in his mouth where his teeth used to be. There were two dark knots of clotted blood in his gums. His upper lip swollen to ten times its normal size and the skin was torn and mottled. The remainder of the teeth on the upper deck appeared to be undamaged. It was an overwhelming sight.

After several hours with doctors, dentists and neurologists the consensus comes down: He's just fine. He's toothless, yes, but he's fine. They won't re-insert the teeth because of potential damage to the permanent ones behind, so he will have "the gap" in his mouth for years to come. But the wound in his mouth looks like it will heal well. He is sure to be a bit black and blue, and slightly sore for many days to come. I figure he can use that to milk the situation to get anything he wants.

Ice cream for breakfast? No problem.

All things considered, we are fortunate the accident wasn't worse. And as Ian told Andrew this afternoon,
"With two perfect teeth like that to put under your pillow--
just think what the Tooth Fairy will bring for you!"

Speaking English

From the email files, before I was blogging. June 2006

Recently, I received an email from a friend asking me about our language acquisition and whether or not the kids were picking up a Dutch accent.

It’s a funny thing here, actually.

Though they are readily picking up the Dutch language, the accent which has a stronger influence on everyone's speech is the British we are surrounded by.
I am fascinated by the whole development of our language and wonder about the evolution of the American accent, since it is so far removed from the English which is spoken in the UK. (I have some working theories, but nothing soundly researched or tested.) That being said however, we have found many moments where the phrase “Divided by a common language” is a dead-on explanation.

It seems that the English that everyone speaks and teaches here on the continent, is the British English, so we have had to make some adjustments in order to best be understood.
This includes both in vocabulary and in spellings.

Imagine 12-year old Ian's surprise the first day of school when a classmate asked him "Have you got a rubber?" And of course the innocuous request for an "eraser" was a total shock to my son, for whom "rubber" means something else entirely!

So now we refer to our "trousers" rather than our "pants" which in Britain means underwear.

And we are careful to watch while in the "car park" for automobiles which are zipping by. We do not wish to be run over by a "tyre" so we hop onto the "kerb" for safety.

To go to the beach we need a “swimming costume” and when the weather cools down we will wear our "jumpers". (This whole idea of jumpers tickles my husband something fierce and he gets a good giggle every time he hears it.)

I have a running conversation with my proper British friends to double check meanings when we discover yet another alternate meaning to words we thought we understood. For instance recently we discovered that a 'fanny' is not at all what we supposed it was. So we no longer refer to our bottom with that moniker and save ourselves embarrassment or offense to those who understand that word in the British way. This includes losing the term "fanny pack" and we have picked up the alternate "bum bag" from our cousins across the pond instead.

It can get rather confusing at times and the misunderstanding can run both ways; as in I get a little jumpy when I hear a Brit inquire "can I bum a fag?" The request for a cigarette just doesn't sound right.

We added toddler confusion to the vocabulary equation when I asked Andrew to pick up his toys one evening and place them in the bin. For me, the meaning of bin was quite clearly the plastic box-like container where we store his toys. For him, the meaning of bin was quite clearly the trash can and he looked at me with wide inquiring eyes when I requested that he pick up his Buzz Lightyear and 'put him in the bin'. I didn't understand his confusion until later in the night when I saw that he had obediently taken Buzz to the trash can in the kitchen. Ah, me. I remember now to call the plastic container the toy box and we all now take our "rubbish" to the "bin".

All for all, I suppose the upshot is that we have picked up a lovely new vocabulary here and when we do 'freak out' or find it 'tricky' at least we give our British friends something to write home about.

We'll just continue to keep it cool man. We're keeping it cool.

Full Stop

June 2006

In addition to my wonder and awe for the Dutch and all they are capable of carrying and/or undertaking while riding a bicycle- eg: full cup of coffee in one hand, mobile telephone in the other- is the ability to stop the bike with full grace and dignity. This is yet another facet of the bike envy I feel here. Most of the Dutch vrouwen (women) and many of the men have an absolutely stellar technique for disembarking. This is accomplished by the subtle lift of the behind from the saddle of the bike and ever so expertly lifting one foot off the pedal, crossing it over and through the bike frame, and finally sliding it effortlessly to the ground taking a smooth step-step-step forward, as they coast the bike to a tender halt. In similar manner, when mounting the bike they do so with the lead foot crossed over the other and balanced on the pedal. With one foot in contact with the road, the fietsenvrouw will give a kick-hop and swing her foot through the frame, reaching for the opposite pedal while simultaneously placing her derriere upon the saddle. And thus she is expertly on her way. I have yet to master this enviable feat. Rather, my stops consist more of a white knuckle pull on the handbrakes, leaving several inches of tire skid lines on the path. Additionally, when my rear end leaves the seat, there is no grace applied. But, with a grunt I fly off the saddle and do some sort of awkward jump-jump-jump forward, generally clipping my tailbone on the front end of the seat. Therefore, my start up tends toward a tearful re-entry as my tender coccyx alights and I attempt to find the least intrusive position for the pain. And then of course, I pray with all my might for no more stoplights.
Oh, to be Dutch.

Dust In the Wind

May 2006

I have been contemplating how best to describe the task of bicycling in the wind, and I think I have finally hit on it. Drop everything you are doing now and head to the gym. Or to the corner of your bedroom if that’s where you keep your stationary bike.
1. Climb onto the exercise bike.
2. Set the tension at highest resistance.
3. Set the program level at most difficult.
4. Choose “Hills”.
5. Strap on 20 lb ankle weights.
6. Balance a 50 lb weight on each leg.
7. Grab hold of the handlebars and,
8. Attempt to pedal!
Are you having trouble? Is it a bit tricky? Ha! NOW you are ready for biking in the winds of Holland!
For those who are not familiar with exercise bikes and how they work, and therefore were completely lost in the previous explanation, let me sum up. Biking against the wind is hard. Really hard. And being at or below sea level in the whole of the country, you are subject here to a lot of wind. Strong wind. Mild wind. Breezy wind. You can have your pick, because in one form or another, the wind is always blowing here. Wind that will bend trees perpendicular to the ground and gusts so strong they will literally sweep you off your feet. And while I am complaining about the wind, I want to point out that the wind suspiciously and mischievously changes directions. It doesn't seem to matter which direction I ride, I find that I am pedaling directly against it. The journey and the return both seem to take me straight into the zephyrs. How exactly does that work? Perhaps I need to invest in a stationary bike for my bedroom and give up on this mode of transport. After all, a bike in the bedroom makes for a really good clothes hanger.

Thursday, February 22

Spring Has Brought Me Such a Nice Surprise

May 2006

I don’t know if I have ever, in the words of Thornton Wilder, “realized life” as deeply as I have attempted to do here. That phrase from Our Town has resonated in my mind more than once as I have felt the surge of life in the returning spring. Perhaps it is because this was the first winter I have spent in many years where the word actually meant something. The dark days, the unbelievably cold temperatures, the fierce wind and freezing rain all combined to give us an experience heretofore unknown in my desert-raised kids’ lives. It was winter of a type that I personally hadn’t experienced since leaving Salt Lake City and its cold and gray winter months, back in 1984. So to say that the return of the spring was a welcome thing is to make an understatement of epic proportions. And now I am here to tell all that Spring Happens. The first evidence that the seasons were going to change was the crocus that began popping through the frozen ground in late February. Little color spots pushing their way through the soil to reach out to the sun. It was an absolute delight to watch those flowers beat the odds of growing in freezing temperatures and hardened earth. Indeed, for me they were little pockets of inspiration along the streets. Following the crocus was the daffodil, or narcis, as they are called in Dutch. Gorgeous bands of yellow and white stretching along the canals and highways, nodding their perfect cup and saucer heads at passersby. After the daffodil the tulips arrived. And let me tell you this; all the postcards, all the photo books, all the legend tales you have heard about the fields of color—it’s all accurate and true. Amazing. Unbelievable. Overwhelming. There is no superlative strong enough to convey the absolute beauty of the tulip fields and gardens. We toured Keukenhof gardens and the open fields of Lisse by bike one afternoon in May. It was absolutely unbelievable. The fields literally look as if someone took a giant paintbrush and swept vibrant washes of color across the land. Even the best photos can hardly capture the intense beauty of that land in springtime.
Not to be outdone by the reputation of the tulip, the final stage of spring flowers brought the lily and iris. These lined the canals and towered over the returning green of the grasses and groundcovers announcing that the majesty of spring had indeed arrived. This phase of the flowering is the spring finale. The arrival of the lily coincides with the temperatures hitting steady warmth and the shedding of the heavy winter coats. At this point in the parade of flowers it seemed something within all of us awakened and opened up for the sun. In the same way that the flowers unfolded and blossomed, the people returned to life. It’s a remarkable thing to witness the reawakening of a city. Streets that stood empty and lonely during the cold winter, all of a sudden were alive with people. The cafĂ© tables moved to the streets for leisure dining in the fresh air. The canal again busy with boats also hosted the occasional adventurous swimmer. Garden benches and front walks became perfect spots for neighbors to engage in pleasant conversation. Just as you imagine those conversations revolved around the weather and generally began with the phrase “Lekker weer, he?” Which means “fantastic weather, don’t you think?”
I used to consider myself a lover of the autumn, but now having lived a springtime in Holland, I have discovered a new identity. The moment that topped it all for me was watching the Horsechestnut trees blossom with perfect cones of pink flowers balanced on the branches. And then when just passing their prime moment of glory the petals fell ever so gracefully to the ground, littering the streets with delicate baby-pink confetti. It’s a Mother Nature party favor.

Yup, I am a spring girl after all.

Travel Advice for Road Trips

April 2006

I am just going to cut right to it. This is the best piece of road travel advice ever to be given. Ready now? Okay, here it is: The best tip for road travel in France (or anywhere in the world for that matter): DO NOT LOCK THE KEYS IN THE RENTAL CAR! It's just that simple. Do not under any circumstances make this mistake. Really. Just DON'T DO IT. Especially do not do this if you are in a rural area on EASTER SUNDAY where there are not likely to be garages open or assistance available until the following Tuesday morning, as Monday will be “second Easter day” and the shops and businesses will not be open. If you are going to have this particular adventure, it may make it easier if you speak the language of your host country, as that makes asking for help and explaining your predicament much easier. However, if you don’t have this skill, then charades and over-exaggerated facial expressions can help to get your point across.

Are you ready for the story?
(Admittedly, the lead in is funnier than the actual story, but nonetheless I will now share the details.)

It was Sunday afternoon and we were bound for the province of Normandy to see the D-day beaches. As is common for a family traveling with children we made a stop to eat. The stop was of course at a McDonald's, because as is also expected for a family with children (who seem to be hungry ALL THE TIME) this is the easiest, fastest, cheapest way to eat on a road trip. And it also gives great space for the toddler of said family to run around and make some noise. This so-called ‘Normandy Beach day’ was day four of our trip and we had covered miles and miles of France. The kids generally are fabulous travelers, even on very long road trips, but they were hitting the end of their rope with each other. To remedy the bickering situation in the back seat, Don decided to move Andrew’s car seat to the center of the bench allowing Ian and Emma to sit on either side. Thus eliminating the “you’re touching me” conversations which had become habitual the last 100 kilometers or so. Don went to the car, adjusted the car seat and returned to the restaurant. He had a very odd look on his face as he approached. I queried if everything was set. He raised his hand in front of his face in that “talk to the hand” kind of wave and said
“I’ve just locked the keys in the car”




So, what do you do in the middle of rural France on a holiday weekend when you have locked the single set of keys into your rental car? You rely on the kindness of strangers. Over the course of the next few hours and with the untiring effort of a young McDonald’s (French) fry cook, we were able to find a local garage that could come and unlock the car. This was no small effort, believe me. Yet, when the truck arrived, it wasn't all that big an effort for them to jimmy the lock and open the door. En Voila! Our keys! We dipped deeply into our pockets to pay the fee and then we were back on the road again. And remarkably, NO ONE was fighting. Believe it or not, we were already laughing about it, determined not to let it ruin the day or the adventure.
Just before we left Leiden for that journey, I received an email from a friend saying:

Hope you have a fabulous time in bonjour land!! Happy Easter to you too. Wow, someday you'll get to say "remember that Easter that we spent in France?"
And I say, Yeah. We will never forget our Easter in France.

In the Land of Bikes

12 March 2006

There is no doubt about it. We live in the land of bikes. Sometimes, when Emma and I have missed a bus, we have a count-the-cars-and-bikes contest, just to see if our observation can be backed up by statistics. From our very scientific study-sitting on a bus stop bench and counting out loud- Emma and I have determined that bikes rule. Our first counting poll indicated that in a 10 minute period, 101 bikes passed our bus stop, but only 47 cars. The second time we tried our counting, it was a 15 minute period and we were passed by 86 cars and 151 bikes! Lately, we’ve been arriving at the bus stop in a timely manner and so haven’t been twiddling our thumbs. I mean to say, we haven’t had opportunity to continue our study. But rest assured that the bicycle is boss here in Holland.
There are three levels of biking here. First, you have your standard, peddle it yourself bike: the “fiets”. This is powered only by your own strength and stamina. I have commented before on the strength and stamina of the average Dutch person who can strap on myriad number of items and/or children to the bicycle and ride for hours on end. Even after six months here and taking this as the norm, it is still a marvel.
Next, there is the “broomfiets” (pronounced: Broam-feets) which is a regular peddle it yourself bike outfitted with a small motor, so when your strength and stamina just aren’t enough, you can rely on the motor to power you onward.
The third level of all things fiets is the Brommer (pronounced brrroam-errrr) which is your full-on Vespa or Moped kind of thing. These machines though fully motor powered enjoy all the benefits and shortcuts of the ‘level one’ bikes. It is not uncommon to be mowed over by a Brommer in the bike lane while you are traveling at personal strength speed and someone is tooling along on a mini-motorbike. Brommers are not my favorite. I feel like I need eyes in the back of my head sometimes to avoid collisions, because Brommer drivers tend toward the not caring about others on the path and seem to always be in a hurry. I don't think they give my personal strength and stamina speed much credit as they come ripping past me. My one consolation is that the fact that brommer drivers are going so much faster in the bike lane, and therefore, they are creating more wind in the face, and thus getting red, chapped cheeks faster than me.

The best thing about bikes as travel is that life is lived at the speed of transport. My life is paced by the speed my legs power my bike. As a result I am never rushed, I am merely moving as fast as I can. And that speed is just right for me.

Street Strolling

15 March 2006

My favorite time of day here on our street is the dinner hour. That is not only because the dinner hour signals the approaching bedtime of a certain toddler. But it is because dinner hour means everyone is in the kitchens. Often, I am making a return trip from the grocery shop just as my neighbors are beginning preparations for the evening meal. So, I slow my walk and enjoy the view. It’s my own little multi-channel cooking show; I get little snippets from each home as I stroll past. This one is doing a soup tonight, that one is preparing fish. This one is making fresh rolls, and mmm… this one will have apple tart for dessert. For a people watcher like me, the dinner hour stroll is a feast for the eyes. If only it came complete with smells.

On New Year's Eve

From an email home dated 2 January 2006
A newbie to The Netherlands attempts to discuss the chaos of a New Year celebration!

31 December was a bit quiet around our house. Don was on a trip to the U.S. to visit his family. Ian was spending the day and night at a friend’s house in the neighboring town of Zouterwoude. So it was just Emma, Andrew and I left to our own to celebrate the coming of 2006. Andrew was in bed by his typical 7:00 p.m. and that left Em and I to hang out together.

The two of us had a lovely, quiet evening. We ate dinner, and watched a movie or two together. We both fell asleep on the couch at some point during the second film. When I woke around 11:00 p.m. I sort of puttered around awhile and actually toyed with the idea of just taking Emma upstairs to her bed, and climbing into mine and calling the whole celebration complete…

But I delayed, because Don had mentioned that there would be fireworks at midnight and I thought Emma would like to try and see them. At this point I wondered if we would be able to get a good view of a fireworks show. The night was somewhat cloudy and our house is not right in the city center, so I wasn’t sure we would have a great view. But we would make an effort to watch the fireworks and after that we could climb in our beds and be snoozing by 12:30.

No problem.

11:55 p.m. I stir Emma from her slumber and we switch on the TV to watch a countdown being broadcast. She very sleepily says, “Do you think we’ll be able to see the fireworks?” and I say “I hope so”. Then we join the television party goers and count down “Tien-negen-acht-zeven-ses-vijf-vier-drie-twee…” At our count of “een”, we hear the whine of a bottle rocket zipping skyward to explode above the house. Oh, cool! Fireworks!

So we scurry to the front window to see if there will be more. In the 10 ½ seconds it took us to move from the living room to the kitchen to look out our front windows, it sounded as if war had broken out on our street.

There were rockets being lit from every direction. Firecrackers popping like machine gun fire. Sparklers, smoke bombs, whistlers, fountains… you name it, it was being lit, thrown, launched and fired!

I have never seen a show like this in my whole life. It was SO loud and SO chaotic out on our street. It was hard to determine if the view was better from the back yard or the front porch. So we alternated and watched the firework show from inside the house for several minutes. Then we decided we really had to get outside to experience what was happening, so we opened the front door.

Holy cow! What noise! We thought it extremely loud and somewhat disconcerting while the doors were shut. To be outside in the din was UNBELIEVABLE! What a rush. We joined neighbors on the sidewalk and watched the antics of those who were providing the fire show. If I could I wouldn’t even know how to assign a number to the fireworks being launched. A gazillion? It was amazing.

And it wasn’t happening on our street alone, but this frenzy was repeated street after street, block after block throughout the entire city. The sky was alive with color.

Besides the boom, boom, boom of fireworks popping, the music of the night included friends and neighbors greeting each other with kisses and calling out “Gefeliciteerd!” (Congratulations!) I kissed more neighbors that night, than I even knew I had.

Mostly I just stood and watched the fireworks, shook my head and repeated over and over “I have never seen anything like this before”

Ultimately, the noise woke Andrew (like anyone could sleep through that?) and we brought him downstairs to join us. I thought he might be frightened, but instead he just kept calling out “lights” as the fireworks exploded overhead.

We watched the show for an hour, then at 1:00 a.m. I told my kids we had better call it a night. I tucked them both in and wondered if anyone would actually be able to get to sleep. The festivities were still in full swing and didn’t appear to be closing up any time soon. I kissed the kids and wished them luck for slumber. It actually didn’t take them too long to give in and fall asleep. At around 2:00 a.m it began to quiet. There was still quite a bit of action in the sky, but not near as much as before. I am not sure what time the last firecracker exploded, because by that time, I too had given in to sleep.

Maybe we’ll see fireworks?


The Dutch Way

9 March 2006

We have passed our six month mark here in the Netherlands and it would be fair to say we have learned a great deal in the past six months. Collectively and individually we have discovered many things about ourselves and about the world at large. Chief among these discoveries is the realization that there is a ‘way’ to do things in life and then there is the “Dutch way”. Take for instance: toilets. Not everyone’s favorite subject I know. But it must here be discussed that Dutch toilets are a wonder to behold. In a country where there is no water shortage and indeed no threat of drought, these are the most extreme water saving apparatus on the planet. These are low flow toilets taken to the lowest extreme. Most toilets here consist of a tank and seat as you would expect, but the bowl itself is built with a "shelf" above the water, where all leavings must first fall. I know, ooo-ick, but bear with me please. I borrow here heavily from “The Undutchables” by Colin White and Laurie Boucke (a must-read for any ex-pat or long term visitor to Holland) to explain the Dutch way of bathrooms and other unmentionable acts within.

“Nowhere is the sense of claustrophobia more pronounced than in the water-closet. The Dutch have taken the term literally, and made that most private of rooms the size of a cupboard.… By far the most distressing feature of the Dutch WC is the toilet itself. The bowl is uniquely shaped to include a plateau well above the normal water level. Its purpose becomes obvious the first time you see (or use) one. Why the worldly, cultured Dutch have this sadistic desire to study the recent content of their stomach remains a mystery…”

I know what you’re thinking… you are saying, "that’s just exaggeration for purposes of satire", but I am telling you this is true! And add to this the strange ways of flushing said contents into the nether regions. With the conservative water supply (again-in Holland? Why?) there is rarely enough pressure generated to sweep the bowl clean if you get my meaning. Among the other decorations in a WC the one of utmost importance is the toilet brush. Which oddly enough, is an item "ever present, never discussed, yet always wet."

Second on my ‘Dutch way’ list is the traditional line or ‘queue’ as the British would say. The Dutch don’t seem to have a word for it ‘cause they just don’t do it. Occasionally, you may see a proper line form in front of the cash register at the neighborhood shops or behind an ATM machine, but that’s as far as it goes. In general, while waiting for a turn at the Butcher’s counter, at the cheese shop, or at any of the stalls in the Market, you must be courageous and bold to get yourself positioned at the counter. You must be willing to push past the masses who in turn are trying to push past you and answer the question “Wie is aan de buurt? (Who is next?) with a very loud “Ik!!” (Me!!)
As for boarding a bus or a train? Well, forget everything your mother taught you about courtesy or waiting for your turn. Join the pressing throng and position yourself so that as soon as the door slides open you can move forward and fight your way in. I think there are points awarded for the number of people you can step in front of or elbow out of the way as you vie for position. And, by all means please begin the press before allowing passengers on the vehicle to disembark. Oh, my, allowing others to “uitstappen” (exit) before you clamor to get on could very well cost you a seat.
As Emma and I await our second bus in the mornings, I grab the back of her coat as the bus approaches, push her forward a step and whisper “be Dutch” in her ear. This has proven to be an effective method in getting ourselves properly placed in the crowd and we can beat others to the seats on a busy morning bus.

So as to be fair to the Dutch, I move now on this list to the things about the Dutch way that I am entertained by, or that I deeply appreciate. There are quite a few of those, but I will mention just these few.

The typical Dutch way to greet a friend, to say goodbye or to offer heartfelt thanks is to enact the three-kiss tradition. A right cheek-left cheek-right cheek kiss is typical, along with warm words of expression. Probably for my benefit as a foreigner, I am also reminded after the kiss-kiss-kiss that this is the ‘Dutch way’.

We have sampled and dabbled in a lot of traditional Dutch cuisine since our arrival here and the hands down favorite for everyone in this house is the Dutch pancake. Pannenkoeken are thinner than the typical American pancake, though not as thin as the French crepe. Made with flour, sugar, salt, eggs and milk, they have the most delightful texture! We eat them quite often, even for dinner occasionally. (much to the dismay of our Dutch friends-as pancakes for dinner is NOT the 'Dutch way') Traditional approach to the Pannenkoeken is to serve them with butter and Poeder Suiker (powdered sugar) and to eat them with knife and fork. My personal favorite is to smear them with chocolate spread, roll them up and gobble them down. It may not be the Dutch way, but it certainly works for me.

Neighborhood Sky

On Sinterklaas

10 December 2005

We have just experienced our first Sinterklaas holiday. This is the children’s celebration which commences with the arrival of Sinterklaas in November. Perhaps you have heard of this before, or know about the Sint from some other source, but please bear with as I share a little Dutch culture lesson.
Sinterklaas lives in the South of Spain which is not bad digs considering our North American Santa Claus spends his year in the North Pole? Please. If you had your choice between sunny beaches and blue skies, or frozen barren waste land; where would you be? The Sint travels to Holland by steamboat on or about 12 November each year. He brings along his many helpers, the Zwarte Pieten and also his regal white horse. He comes to Holland to celebrate his birthday with the children here, by bringing them gifts and goodies. The legend tells us that his birthday is on the 6th of December. His arrival is an immensely big deal, complete with live television coverage throughout the country. Once he arrives he keeps himself very busy appearing at the shops, at parties, at school celebrations and riding his horse in the parades in each city here in Holland. Truly the man is MAGIC to be able to get it all done in the short time he is here! In truth, I can’t even begin to explain the magic of the season. I will tell you that I am confident that I saw the real, actual, bonafide Sinterklaas in Leiden as he rode his noble steed down the street in the Sinterklaas parade. That is how magic the season can be.
In addition to his celebrity appearances he also rides the rooftops at night and he and his Piets look to see if the children have left their shoes near a fireplace or a window. If shoes are present, it is the job of Zwarte Piet to sneak in and leave a small gift or some chocolate inside a shoe. Usually the children have left a carrot or some straw for the Sint's horse in exchange for a surprise in their shoe. Or sometimes a note, or drawing for Sinterklaas.
If you are naughty it is said that Piet can leave a "switch" in your shoe for some good old fashioned bottom spanking. And if you are really naughty, Zwarte Piet may just scoop you up in his sack and take you away from your family to the South of Spain. (Frankly, this doesn't sound like such a bad deal!) Zwarte Piet is a colorful character dressed in velvet and a feathered cap. He is a fun loving helper, and you find Piets throughout the season walking through the streets and shops sharing gifts with children and throwing out treats.
There are also many songs specific to the season and these you also hear piped through the shops and being sung by children every day.
And then we arrive at Sinterklaas eve, or Pakjesavond on the 5th of December which is the night before the Sint’s birthday. Usually families have a party of sorts and at some point in the evening there will be loud knock upon the door. When it is answered one of the Pieten will have dropped off a sack of presents for the children.
For our celebration that evening, we invited some of Don’s colleagues over for dinner to celebrate with us, as none of them have kids to take part in the Dutch tradition. Around 7:00 there was a knock on the door, and when Emma opened it there was no one there but only a big brown sack filled with gifts for everyone in the house. Even our guests had a little something as a surprise inside. Which Emma thought was incredibly fortuitous. ("Sinterklaas is so smart, Mom, How did he know that everyone would be here?") It was delightful to celebrate this Dutch holiday tradition.... The kids being thrilled of course that they get to celebrate with TWO bearded men dressed in red this year.

On Christmas

20 December 2005

If I mentioned before that my favorite pastime here in Leiden is walking and window gazing, I didn’t fully comprehend what an occupation it would be at Christmastime. The usual displays have been removed from the windows and all have been replaced by fabulous Christmas displays. It is magic and wonder alive in the windows of Leiden! The best summing up I can do is to parrot lyric from the musical Scrooge:

Christmas children peep into Christmas windows

See a world as pretty as a dream
Christmas trees and toys
Christmas hopes and joys
Christmas puddings rich with Christmas cream
Christmas presents shine in the Christmas windows

Christmas boxes tied with pretty bows
Wonder what's inside
What delights they hide
But 'till Christmas morning
No one knows
Won't it be exciting if it snows?”

There are stuffed Santas hanging off the outdoor balconies, Angels sitting atop trees, and lights, lights, lights everywhere! Nativity scenes, trains, poinsettias, candles, festive signs declaring “Merry Christmas” or “Happy New Year” both in English and in Dutch are tucked onto window ledges or clinging to the windows.

So in order to keep pace with the Joneses, or the Van Dijk’s as the case may be, we have made our home as festive as possible. The front windows are adorned with lights and homemade paper snowflakes. Our front door boasts a Christmas wreath, the banister is wrapped in tinsel and the tree has been trimmed. We are ready for the holiday. Bring it on!

“I suppose that children everywhere

Will say a Christmas prayer
'Till Santa brings
Their Christmas things
Christmas children hunger for Christmas morning
Christmas day's a wonder to behold
Young ones' dreams come true
Not so young ones too
I believe that story we've been told
Christmas is for children young and old”

Oh, Christmas Tree

20 December 2005

Attention one and all! Please add to the “Things the Dutch Can Carry While Riding a Bike” list; Christmas trees! Yes, more than once or even ten times in the last few weeks we have witnessed our city mates balancing atop their bicycles with fresh Kerstboem just purchased from the corner lot, on their way to home or flat to make the place festive for the season. My own experience in finding a tree for our home goes like this. Just a short distance from our place is a set of shops, which I have described before. Just in time for the season an area has been cleared along the walkway and a tree lot has been established. This tree lot comes complete with a caricature of a little Dutchman selling trees to the neighborhood residents day after day. He wears a full set of snow trousers and parka as he spends his day outdoors trimming and wrapping trees for customers to purchase and carry off. I approached him armed with my standard phrase in Dutch “Mag ik in Engels spreken?” (May I speak English) which generally goes a long way with the shop keepers and store attendants, and then I am able to ask my questions in the language I understand best. However, to my query, this man said “Nee” (No) and then continued in a jabber of Dutch. So picture me, standing stock still, eyes as big as saucers and mouth agape, tiny patch of drool forming at the corner, as my brain clicks into gear and I try to sort through the jumble of words pouring from his mouth to translate the ones I recognize into English and make some sense of what he is saying. Ding! The light goes on and he is telling me that he prefers to speak Dutch and I should practice mine. So, actually no, I can’t speak Engels but I am welcome to speak Nederlands to him.
This all takes a bit, as the sorting processors in my brain are quite slow.
“Nee??” I said
And he nodded at me.
So, digging as deep as I could into my 10 once-a-week language lessons, I did my utmost to conduct a tree buying conversation in Dutch. At some level communication must have taken place, because a few minutes later I had a beautiful little tree, which had been taken from its display stand and properly netted, tucked under my arm and I was on my way home with my first Dutch Christmas tree! It here must be noted that having exhausted my vocabulary in getting the tree, I neglected to ask for a “stand” and Don had to go back a little later in the day to seal the deal, so to speak. But I was off with my small Christmas bush under one arm and a special delivery package I had just picked up from the post office under the other. I must say, I felt rather festive schlepping them both through the streets to home.

Tuesday, February 20

October in Paris

27 October 2005

Half-term break arrived for all of the students at our house and we thought we’d take advantage of the time off to enjoy an extended weekend somewhere else. We caught the Thalys train from The Hague and set off for an adventure in Paris! The three hour journey took us through some amazing countryside. First, views of Holland, then Belgium, and then France. We arrived in Paris around 3:00 in the afternoon, dropped our bags off at the hotel and hit the ground running. With only three days in the city we wanted to be able to see as much as we possibly could. We walked and walked and walked that first day covering the ground between the Tour Eiffel and Arc de Triomphe with much finesse. Then strolling down the Champs-Elysees, we stopped for a very luxurious Parisian dining experience at Quick Burger. Following that cuisine delight we took off on our final trek of the evening to Cathedrale de Notre-Dame. I really can't explain what a wonder it was to see, other than to admit that I burst into tears at the sight of it. (It wasn’t the last time I would do such a thing over the course of our stay in Paris)
Next morning we attended Mass at Notre-Dame (loved it) and then spent a few hours at the Louvre. We lingered at the Venus de Milo and then lingered longer at the Mona Lisa.We ended our day with a stroll under the Eiffel Tower sparkling and glowing with the night lights illuminated.

Day three took us to the top of the Eiffel Tower, where as expected the views are inspiring! After the tour, a nap for Andrew on the lawn beneath the tower. Later we took a short walk to Napoleon’s burial place, Hotel de Invalides, and a much longer hike up the hill to Basilique du Sacre-Coeur. At the hotel that evening we put up our feet and gave them a well deserved rest!

Our last day in Paris, we spent the morning in Pere-Lachaise Cemetery and tracked through that incredible piece of history, enjoying the monuments and structures from many centuries. The claim to fame of the cemetery is the myriad famous folk who have chosen it as final resting place. Personal favorite stop for me was the grave site of Isadora Duncan. We also felt it crucial while there to visit Jim Morrison’s final resting place. And by accident we found Chopin’s grave, but the kids were not duly impressed. This was the cue to end the excursion. But, we had a train to catch anyway! We gathered our luggage and our memories and caught a train where at the end of the tracks would be home.

Accidental Exposure

25 October 2005

It's October now and the temperature is steadily cooling down every day. But before the shift in the thermometer and the onset of the rains, we woke not-so-long-ago on a Saturday morning to a blue-sky-high-wispy-clouds-very-warm-late-summer-day and thought “Ah, good day for the beach!” So we prepared our beach bags, donned beach attire and climbed on the bicycles ready for the ride out to Katwijk. It is really a pleasure to be only a few kilometers from the ocean. As we approached the beach front town and followed the streets down to the shore, we became slightly suspicious that we were not alone. No, indeed, it seemed as if ALL of Holland had the same “Ah, good day for the beach” thought that we had. As far as the eye could see in every conceivable direction, there were people! I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that there must have been a million people on the beach that day. Okay, maybe I am exaggerating a little bit, but it was at least thousands. There were beachcombers, sunbathers, swimmers, surfers, seashell hunters, footballers, picnickers, sandcastle builders and beach babies everywhere! Undaunted, we locked our bikes, gathered our towels, our toys and our courage and set off to stake out a tiny bit of sand to call our own. As we walked through the sand toward the shore line, literally making our way through a sea of people here, we (meaning Don and I) became quite aware that there appears to be no dress code for beach wear in Holland. I think it reads something like this: Rule1: If you just don’t want to wear a suit to the beach, well, you just don’t have to. Yes, that’s right I am talking about nakedness. Mostly just topless nakedness, except for some of the toddlers who were completely buck naked—but as for shock value that doesn’t count at all, does it? But indeed nakedness all the same. I realize that this makes me sound like a bit of a prude, which I don't think I am, but I was feeling especially protective of my kids, who to this point in their lives hadn't experienced such a thing before. So we grimaced just a bit and wondered what to tell our pre-adolescent son and toyed with the idea of not saying anything at all and hoped that he wouldn’t notice. (yeah… it could happen!)
You’ve got this pictured in your head right? And you are getting a good giggle from the story, yes?
Well, we opted for the ever courageous, “don’t say anything” stance and pressed forward to find a spot to plant ourselves. Once found we sent the kids off into the water and waited it out. After awhile, Ian came back up the beach from the water and ever so casually said “I guess no one has to wear a shirt here” to which we mumbled something of an ascent while surreptitiously checking his facial expressions to make certain we hadn’t overdone the exposure (pun intended) to European culture.
I guess it’s all in keeping with the “nothing to hide” tradition of the Dutch, so why hide it behind a bikini top anyway? In general, the Dutch seem to have a much greater ability to embrace the uniqueness of their own bodies and don't seem to feel the need to “cover up” that we seem to feel excessively in the States. Indeed, it seems a much healthier sense of self image. That day in the beach, those who were clad in beach attire, didn’t seem to mind that their bodies didn’t fit the model thin image some feel necessary to possess before donning skimpy swimsuits. As a result, we saw a parade of people in clothing not exactly at the cutting edge of fashion and taste, but they were having a damn good time hanging out on the beach for one of the final summer days of the year. Enviable and perhaps something to aspire to, if ever I can shed the shadows of the culture I come from. All that being said however, I really have to draw the line at middle aged pot-bellied men in Speedos. Sorry, guys.

The Old Man is Snoring

20 October 2005

We are now fully into what is a new season for us. It is autumn here in Holland and it is a fresh experience for this desert dwelling family. The temperatures have dropped with the daytime reaching the 60’s and the nights hovering in the 40’s. That's Fahrenheit degrees, I haven't really learned to translate the Celsius thermometer just yet. The leaves on the trees are turning orange, red, yellow and brown and they are falling non-stop, leaving branches bare to battle the cold. Though it has been a moderate October according to the locals, we are adding layers of clothing to keep ourselves warm. We are also trying to prepare ourselves for the real cold which seems imminent. This will be a true test for our thin desert blood.

The change in the weather also includes the arrival of the rain. Rain in Holland is an exceptional thing, I have really never seen anything like it. It's a very quiet thing. The storm makes no loud pronouncements that it is here; there is no thunderclap to signal its arrival and the dark clouds don't even really roll in, they just appear and then silently open up and pour. There seems to be no interruption in the rhythm of the raindrops and I would qualify it more as rain streams rather than separate droplets. Often, the mist is so fine you must tilt your head to catch the full image of the falling water. The ground just seems to open up and receive the wetness. There are no major puddles gathering where ground is saturated and the streets don't seem to flood. The water wends its way into the cracks between cobblestones and disappears into the ground. It actually seems that the earth is just waiting for the water to return so it can gobble it up and send it back through its cycle to visit again another day.

Then add to the rain, the wind, which is blowing fiercely today. As I sit at my dining room table and write I am watching the wind whip the trees in the backyard and send the falling leaves spinning. At this moment I am glad that I do not have to go out in it. However, I am learning that life goes on as normal here, rain or no rain. Though I am not willing to saddle the bike and head out against whipping wind and pelting rain, Hollanders are making their way every morning in the wet cold. This is the culture of which you can say “neither rain nor sleet nor snow will stop us from our appointed rounds." To me, the Dutch seem indomitable.

On rainy days we ride a bus which is a bit more crowded than usual. I attribute that to the other foreigners here who also lack the fortitude of the Dutch and they, like me ditch their bikes at the first sign of discomfort. As we round the corner to Central Station the masses vie for a position to step off the bus. There is a shuffling of feet, packages and umbrellas as the bus approaches the platform. As the first feet hit the pavement there is a “whoosh-pop” of an umbrella going up and over the head. Then “whoosh-pop, whoosh-pop, whoosh-pop, pop, pop, pop, pop” as others embark and raise their own rain covers. What you see then is a tremendous parade of color as the umbrellas surge forward to the protection of the station’s overhang. It’s a visual delight, repeated each time a bus pulls in to the station to unload passengers.

One common saying in Holland that I have heard oft repeated: “if you don’t like the weather, just wait ten minutes” which we have witnessed to be a truism. We have experienced heavy rain, wind, sunny skies and hail in the course of a single hour. It is hard weather to predict, because just as I say “oh, clouds today” they are blown out and replaced by blue skies. Even the official weather predictions are a bit sketchy at times. We have learned to carry an umbrella even on bright sunny days and to always pack along an extra jacket. The learning curve on this has proven to be steep, but slowly we are getting what it means to be in a land of changing seasons and changeable weather.


30 August 2005

This is what strikes me and rings true.
As I meet other ex-pats from around the world
we compare notes
and I realize that there are as many ways of adapting to change
as there are people who face change.
I have discovered a commonality in this international community:
we miss our old homes,
we miss our friends
we miss our families
and we miss our home country.
But we are each determined
to make a go of it in a new place,
learning a new language,
adapting to a new culture,
and making connections with people.
When you know others are out there
who are nothing at all like you,
but who feel exactly like you,
it helps.

On Dutch transport, language and breakfast

28 August 2005

Leiden is indeed a bike city. A bicycle is the most common form of transport here. I mean to say there are a lot of bikes in Leiden. A lot. I love to see the bike parking at Leiden Centraal every morning as the commuters park their bikes and then board the trains and buses for work. It’s hard to explain the sight of hundreds of bikes hunkered together in the garages and racks awaiting the return of their owners. The city's infrastructure supports bike travel as most streets are paralleled by a bike lane. These bike lanes, or in Dutch: fiestspad, wind through the city allowing bicycle riders to get around quite readily. Bikes are king of the road. Right of way belongs to the cycler. Bikes have right of way before cars. Bikes have right of way before pedestrians. I have seen bikes attempt to have right of way before buses. However, this seems to be the exception. I don't know if Dutch driving rules actually reflect that buses have right of way, or rather by default because buses are so much BIGGER than anything else on the road, they win.
As for cars, they are small. There are mini vans and some sedans, but mostly the cars on the road are the compact models. Some are so tiny that they almost look comical. Emma has dubbed the
tiniest of the two-seaters here "Mickey" to go along with the “Minnies”, or Mini Cooper, which are here in abundance. Today while we were waiting for a bus connection we saw a car that looked in shape and style like a minivan, only it was miniature sized. We speculated that it had been washed in hot water and shrunk!
We did spot a Hummer on the road, but that’s a complete rarity and frankly I don’t know where a vehicle that large could park! These roads are narrow and cars are parallel parked on both sides. It’s possible actually that the Hummer we saw last week is still driving around looking for a suitable parking spot!

The chatter around us in Dutch is starting to sound more like a language of individual words rather than a mass of sounds. Every once in a great while, I can actually pick out a word or two that I recognize! Interesting to note is the fact that though we cannot understand the language(s) flying about, at any given time, 90% of the people around us can eavesdrop on our English conversations without a problem! (Note to self: be careful what you say!) Most everyone I have met thus far not only speaks his/her own language but also speaks English with obvious proficiency. It is clear that we are truly lingual slackers! However, when we are stuck (meaning sign language and smiles are not communicating the full scope of our needs) someone nearby will readily switch to using English so we can understand.
I do think we have grown accustomed to the reality that we don’t understand what is being said around us most of the time. The television also offers something of a language challenge. We have channels from France, Germany, and Belgium as well as the UK so there are a variety of choices in feeling illiterate for our entertainment. On the Dutch channels, the programming that comes from outside The Netherlands is subtitled in Dutch. Meaning if it’s a French film, it will have Dutch subtitles across the screen. German talk show? Dutch subtitles. It follows of course that entertainment imports from the U.S. also have Dutch subtitles. But mostly TV is a veritable Babel to us, and we just look at the pictures and try to piece together the story. The other night we were watching TV and clicking around the channels and we stopped to watch a documentary. The subtitles were flashing and after watching for several minutes, Ian said “what are they talking about?” We looked over at him and with a bit of a smirk, Don said “They’re speaking English, dude!” It was hilarious! Our poor overloaded brains can’t process the input sometimes. But we are mutable and we are learning new skills everyday.

Finally, I need to make note of one other reason to “sing praises to the Dutch”. Here is one of the greatest discoveries we have made thus far: CHOCOLATE is for BREAKFAST! There may be a lack of Froot Loops in the country, but in my judgment the Dutch have done one better in their breakfast cereal line up. It is Cruesli with Chocolate!
Cruesli is a granola type cereal that is also offered with the standard additions of raisins and/or almonds but then you have the ultimate chocolate version. Cruesli Chocolade is chocolate granola with chunks of chocolate thrown in. Think "two scoops of raisins" only substitute chocolate chunks for the fruit and you've got the idea. Oh, my, my, my… it is delicious and oh-so-fun! My kids don’t really share my enthusiasm but perhaps that’s just because they don’t have my refined palate.

In addition to chocolate in your breakfast cereal there is also the potential to spread it on your bread with Chocolade Pasta or sprinkle it on your toast with a variety of candy type sprinkles. All of it is totally legal breakfast food.
I’m telling you this is quite a country.

Rollin' Rollin' Rollin'

Monday, February 19

Making Tracks

Sunday, February 18

Bicycle Balance

26 August 2005

Do you remember this passage from the CAT IN THE HAT by Dr. Seuss?
“Look at me! Look at me! Look at me now!
It is fun to have fun but you have to know how!
I can hold up the cup
And the milk and the cake!
I can hold up these books!
And the fish on a rake!
I can hold the toy ship
And a little toy man!
And look! With my tail
I can hold a red fan!
I can fan with the fan as I hop on the ball!
But that is not all.
Oh, no.
That is not all…”

Well, I hereby give witness that the Cat in the Hat, as wily as he may be has absolutely NOTHING on the Dutch and their ability to balance ALL while riding a bicycle! It is an amazing thing to watch, actually, as the locals pedal home with their shopping bags full. That’s impressive alone, but I wish I had a photo of some of the things I have seen them carry whilst cycling down the bike lane. For instance, one man last week was obviously on his way to pick up a child from school and he pedaled his own bike while holding another bike alongside and steering both through the traffic so that when he arrived his child would have a vehicle to return home. A common practice which we have also adopted is to haul a passenger on the back end or rack end of the bike. It is not at all rare to see a passenger sitting side saddle on a bike, but the racks are most often home to packages of all sorts; groceries, books, briefcases, flowers, etc. Often, there will also be a bag attached-or in Dutch: fietstas which is like a trunk for a bicycle. That’s where a full load of groceries can be carried, or a picnic lunch, or school books. In our case, it’s a handy place for diapers, wipes and extra jackets. Of course there are the seats for the babies and toddlers and though I can cart Andrew around on my bike, my mouth hangs agape as I watch the parents toodle by with a child not only on the back of the bike but also one strapped in a seat at the front! I was deeply chagrined recently when, as I walked my bike through a sharp curve and up a sloping canal bridge, because I didn’t have the leg power to negotiate the curve or the hill, I was passed by a somewhat rotund Dutch woman carting a toddler on the front and a Kindergartner on the back of her bike and not even breaking a sweat! Ah, me.

Also, Netherlanders, not to be outdone by commuters in the States are very handy with a cell phone while negotiating traffic on the bicycle. I haven’t yet seen anyone trying to do their make-up while riding, but I am certain that too could be done. Emma’s observation tonight is actually quite a tell all of this culture. She said “I guess you know you’re in Holland when you see someone riding a bike AND smoking a cigarette!” In her estimation, the two activities are usually mutually exclusive, but not here in Holland. No, the cardiovascular benefits of riding are cancelled out by the inhalation of nicotine. It also should be mentioned that it is entirely possible for the locals to carry and consume a steaming cup of coffee while pedalling along. These are the bits of the culture for which we will always stand at the outside. But, finally, I mention the piece de rĂ©sistance in balancing all things a top a bicycle. Don and I, with Andrew in tow were on a bike outing last week when along the bike path came a man, one hand on the handlebars and one hand holding a rather large object alongside as he pedaled down the road. It was a small filing cabinet! It was about 3 feet tall x 2 feet wide x 2 feet deep. He had a rope strapped around it and he held onto that with one hand as he maneuvered down the path. I literally stopped my bike and stared as he passed. Again, I am quite proud of my mighty efforts in keeping a toddler balanced on the back of my bike. And that’s counting on BOTH hands being on the handlebars to steer; but I had never seen anything like that before and simply cannot fathom the skill it must require to pull off such a feat.

Friday, February 16

To Market, To Market

20 August 2005

Shopping in The Netherlands is an interesting experience. (Okay, let’s say it like it is: EVERYTHING in The Netherlands is an interesting experience) This is NOT the land of sprawling Wal-marts and Super Targets. The stores are quite small and each is specialized. Just around the corner from our house is a shopping center, strip mall style, with a variety of shops. There is the Albert Heijn where you can do your grocery shopping, a post office, a butcher shop, a flower shop, a pharmacy, a cheese shop, a produce shop, a fish shop, a nut shop, a paper store, and more. There are clothing stores and also the
Hema which is a small department store, very popular here in Holland. Also, restaurants and snack stands. We have discovered the Vietnamese snack stand which serves a yummy Loempia—an egg roll for 80 euro cents. Or the small restaurant/snack bar serves a variety of Dutch fast foods: Kroket, frites, Fricandel, or a simple cheese sandwich.

We shop nearly everyday, because besides being smaller stores, everything is packaged smaller as well. Milk comes in 1 or 2 liter containers and costs 96 euro cents for two liters. It seems that fruit prices are comparable to the US but eggs are more expensive. We bought a pack of 10 on our first trip to Albert Heijn for euro 1,40. Meat prices also seem comparable if not slightly more expensive, though there are many meats which are a complete mystery to me. Even with help translating the labels there are cuts and varieties I have never heard of. The Dutch do eat some pretty wild lunch meats, but I don't suppose they are any more wild than the olive loaf or head cheese I have seen in markets back home. The Dutch however, DO know how to make sweets. One favorite treat is the stroopwafel which is a waffle like cookie with caramel sandwiched in between layers. A package of 10 cookies costs around 99 euro cents. I think you can pick these up at a Starbucks in the States for $1.50 per cookie. I dare say, it's worth every cent.

Open Market comes to the city center here in Leiden on Wednesdays and Saturdays. It is a big busy affair with all kinds of things for sale, including clothes, toiletries, trinkets for your home, fabric, and food. Lots of food! Bread stands, cheese stands, meat, treats… you name it, market’s got it! It is said that the frugal Dutch will go to great lengths to save a few cents, and market is generally the place you can count on saving a nickel or two. I love to linger at the market and we really enjoy our weekly outings to shop there. Best treats include fresh fruit samples, Loempia snack trucks, fresh stroopwafel grills and fish stands where they serve a deep fried fish snack called kibbeling. Each trip to market loads us with fresh cut flowers, fresh produce and a kilo or two of cheese, expertly measured and cut then wrapped in paper for storage. Nobody does cheese like the Dutch. It is an absolute tastebud pleasure. Jonge, Belagen or Oude; with spices and nuts or without, it is fantastic.
Man, it's good to live in Holland.

First Impression

17 August 2005

We have arrived in Leiden and tonight marks our first week of living in the Netherlands. The trip here was not without incident but at least it was without drama or mishap. The first leg from Dallas to Houston was delayed because of bad weather in Houston. The attendant was kind enough and keen enough to book us on an earlier flight that afternoon so that we would make the international connection, but somehow missed that she had double booked 2 of the seats. We spent a few nervous minutes as they worked to sort it out on the plane, and finally decided to send the nice couple with the same seat numbers on another flight and leave the family of five and their five carry-on bags and five personal items sitting happily in their seats. The international leg of the flight was also delayed as they were working on a technical problem with the entertainment system on board so we were able to make the connection with lots of time to spare.
The kids traveled well. In fact,our two year old (whom we were most worried about keeping entertained on a 10 hour flight) slept from takeoff to landing. When we arrived in Schipol airport we spent a few anxious moments waiting for the (late) Taxi service which had been arranged for our pick up. Ultimately we hooked up with the driver and as he sized us up and ALL OF THE LUGGAGE he sighed heavily and said “Hooh! Dats a lotta bags!”. We had given fair warning to the company that we were quite a crew with the five of us and all of our luggage, but I guess it’s hard to get your mind around it until you see it! (And we were quite a sight with 10 large suitcases, 5 carry-on bags, 2 laptops, 2 backpacks fully-loaded, a bulging diaper bag and a car seat!)
So, jet lagged and hungry we loaded up the van and headed down the highway to Leiden. We were greeted here in the house by the mother of our landlords. She received us warmly, made tea, gave us the rundown on the house and even drove us to the neighborhood market for our first grocery run. Now, there’s an experience not to miss: Grocery shopping in a foreign country while completely jetlagged! It has since gotten much easier, but that first experience of trying to negotiate the aisles, recognize the packaging, translate the dutch labels and the dollar/euro conversion was mildly disconcerting. However, armed with milk, butter, bread, bananas and cheese we came home ready to face the new experience.
The home we are renting is absolutely perfect. It is a row house, newly constructed with three stories. It would most readily be described as a town home in the States. The kids had a great time that first day exploring all the rooms. Our landlords have been more than generous and the home is completely furnished and stocked for our convenience.

Besides the house wares and furnishings the landlords also left their bikes for us to use. So on our first Sunday afternoon here we set off on our first bike adventure. Not to be swayed by the fact that we are novice Nederlanders we saddled our borrowed bikes. Our destination on this first outing: The North Sea. We biked through some beautiful countryside and towns along the way. We rode and rode and rode over the hills and across the canals. And then, we could smell the salty air and the sky was thick with gulls so we knew we must be close. Once the bikes were parked and locked, the kids got immediately busy gathering sea shells and searching for crabs in the sand. They were more than mildly disappointed when we wouldn’t let them shed clothes and go for a frozen dip in the ocean. As we stood on the beach we watched a big storm approaching so we escaped the cold rain in a Shoarma grill and ate the first of what will become a fast favorite: Shoarma broodjes. It is not a Dutch food per se, but a middle eastern dish which has been adopted into the local cuisine. Delicious spiced beef served on pita bread with a garlic sauce and a spicy chili sauce. We waited out the rain with this perfect cuisine-escape and when it cleared, we headed for home. Our first bike adventure in Holland took us on a 12 mile round trip tour. Not too bad for a group of newbies.