Saturday, March 31

15 Things I Love About Spring



Friday Fifteen

Friday, March 30

Holland's Own

To my good friend in Hilversum who email linked me to this new fodder for my blog-- Dank je wel!

Is the next Dutch Idol among them?

Thursday, March 29

Celebrating Friends

Yesterday we got a package in the mail. A no customs charges, tax-free package, I must add. It was sitting on the doorstep when Emma arrived home from school and she immediately called my mobile phone to tell me it was there. I assured her I would be home within a very few minutes and we could check it out together.

I was and we did.

Inside was a birthday present for me from a friend in Phoenix. A lovely book, A Year by the Sea: Thoughts of an Unfinished Woman written by Joan Anderson, which I am very much looking forward to cuddling up with as soon as possible. As I was tenderly reflecting on such a thoughtful gift, reading the inscription she left inside the front cover, I found myself getting misty in the missing of a friend who is physically so far away, but hardly a step out of sync in simply being there for me. As she has always been. Interrupting my reverie was the whoop and holler from my 11-year old as she finished inspecting the contents of the padded envelope.

"oh, yeah! SKITTLES! Skittles, Mom! Oh! YEAH! These are for me, thank you very much. Oh, yeah!"

A pause for breath and she added:

"...and bubble gum easter eggs! Oh, aren't they sooooooo cute?"

Everyone has that certain something that makes them go 'Whoop'. If you ask my kids, a breakfast of bubble gum with a skittles chaser just might be the nearest thing to tasting heaven they could imagine. Except for possibly a big scoop of American peanut butter (any brand will do) smothered on Bisquick batter pancakes.

And for me? A book, a note, a sweet surprise in the mail. This is the type of thing that plasters a grin on my face and calls the 'woo-hoo' emotion right to the top. Which is generally evidenced as a tear rolling down my cheek.

Which one did.

Gosh, aren't friends great?

Wednesday, March 28

It Just Keeps Getting Better

wordless wednesday

On Acquiring Dutch

From the initial moment we began discussing plans to move across the ocean, I was eager and anxious to acquire the language of the Dutch. This would be a first experience for me in international living and I was excited about the opportunity to learn a new language and use it daily. Not long after we arrived, I found a Dutch language class and enrolled. The course title 'INTENSIVE DUTCH I ' was in no way a misnomer. It was a once per week, three-hour, evening class held at a local college and it was INTENSE. The moment I stepped into the classroom there was no language other than Dutch spoken. No translations, no explanations, no nonsense. All grammar, all vocabulary, all everything was explained in Dutch. And hoo-boy that makes it intense. At that point in time I understood a sum total of perhaps three Dutch words and these did not include any of the vocabulary for the idea 'to understand'. When my teacher would ask the class if we understood what she had spoken or explained I would just sit at my student desk with that doe-in-the-headlights stare in my eyes, and nod vigorously with a sloppy maniacal grin on my face, pretending I totally got that. Any of it.

Somewhere along the intensive line I did manage to get it. Some of it, anyway. I emerged from that 10 week course able to ask a few questions and follow simple directions when spoken in Dutch. Which frankly I was pretty darn proud of, this being my first go at new language and all.

I did not follow up that course with 'INTENSIVE DUTCH II' because of a schedule conflict but instead sort of threw myself into the 'learn it as you blow it' trial-and-error method of speaking a new language. The Dutch for their part are first and foremost excellent linguists and are willing to speak English to any expat, so it's not as if I have ever had a minute of trouble communicating in this country. (Well, other than the time I wanted to buy a Christmas tree; but even that ended up a success, and a funny story to tell.) In fact, even with my rudimentary attempts to speak the native tongue of this land, a Nederlander hears my accent and readily switches to speak to me in the language of my comfort. I usually allow that to happen and don't really insist on speaking Dutch, because well, it's just so much easier to speak my familiar English.

That's not to say I haven't kept at it and I have continued to make an effort to speak Dutch. I think that it's simple courtesy to speak the few words that I can. I am not fluent, but I am able to conduct business at the market and I can ask or answer simple questions. And I can follow slow and straightforward conversation. I get frustrated when the conversation moves at rapid fire pace, or Dutch-speed as I like to call it. I also get stuck when conversation moves to topics and ideas outside of my vocabulary. And stuck is the best way to describe how it feels to me when I get lost in the mish-mash of sounds; words losing their meaning as my brain processing slows down to a crawl.

I get stuck.

It's as if I am standing in swampland and I cannot move my feet to make headway in moving through the muck. I am trapped in the twilight world between understanding what I hear but being unable to answer or keep up my end of the conversation. I heard a fellow expat describe the feeling as "the dumb factor". When comprehension gets mislaid in the banter of a language that is not your own, you tend toward that simple stare as you plaster a grin on your kisser, not unlike the one I used in my language class, and you nod and smile, nod and smile. And you hope to God that you are not agreeing to some radical political stance or promising your first-born child to a whimsical elfin creature.

Last week as Andrew and I stepped off the city bus and began the short walk to our home we had to cross through an area that is currently torn up and under construction. There are myriad big machines, and lots of big lovely holes which the diggers have dug. Besides being a rather large obstacle to the desire of one particular preschooler to keep moving along, the equipment is also a large obstacle on the sidewalk. Machines, tools and construction supplies are strewn over the area where pedestrians travel and as a result all walkers are forced onto the bike path for a length of about 50 feet. As we were making our way along the path we were doing our best to stay far to the side so we wouldn't be in the way of any cyclists. Despite our noble effort to share space, a grumpy Dutchman swept up behind us on his bike and rang his bell. Repeatedly. Then he scolded the two of us for being on the bike path. Without hesitation I raised my head, narrowed my eyes and barked a retort to his diminishing backside as he cycled past. ALL OF IT IN DUTCH. I didn't even pause when I added the verbal insult at the end.

I actually didn't know I could do that. Not without measured planning and careful English to Dutch translation inside my head. That realization is satisfying in a way I can hardly explain.

I guess my language acquisition is going better than I thought.

Tuesday, March 27

Me and My Shadow

Monday, March 26

Human Fly Trap

"Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom!"

"Yes, son?"

"Mom. Come see Mom. Come see the bee."

"Okay, let's see. Oh, baby, that's a fly not a bee. That's a fly."

"Uh-yeah. That's a fly."

"Yup. See how it's all black? A fly is black. If it was a bee it would be stripey. And fuzzy."

"Uh-yeah. I gonna catch that fly."

"You're going to catch that fly?"

"I gonna catch that fly in my hands like this."

"Wow. What are you going to do with that fly when you catch it?"

"Uh-yeah. I gonna catch that fly and I gonna squish it."

Oh, boy.

Oh, Save Me. Please.

Yesterday we changed our clocks for Daylight Saving Time. It came as a complete surprise to me as in I am wondering how it already got to be the last Sunday in March. I knew that it was coming; I just didn't know it was coming so fast. I feel like I blinked once at the beginning of the month and suddenly it became the end. The passage of time seems to speed up exponentially. That is not to say that I didn't feel its relentless march in February; the horrifically gray, exceptionally cold month of winter in Holland. I found myself facing a winter sadness that surprised me almost as much as it frightened me. Up until moving here I had no current point of reference for what the term winter blues meant. The eternal sunshine of Arizona didn't really prepare me for what the eternal darkness of The Netherlands winter would do to me. It tripped me up. And I fell. Hard.
I won't dwell there though, other than to say that a gift arrived from my parents in late January. A light therapy box to aid my brain in producing endorphins on the days when there would be no sunshine to naturally wake the happy hormones and send them dancing through the gray matter. It was more than a gift really and in explanation as to why the winter blues didn't pull me under and strangle me in madness, I give full credit to a box which emits therapeutic intensive light. And to a father who had the insight to purchase it and send it to me. I have joked recently that I could be the poster child for light therapy. I can certainly say that I would be a marvelous representative to The Netherlands in marketing and selling the litebook. I am that convinced that it saved my life. Yeah, they should probably call me. And offer me a job. A job with really great perks, like winters in the south of Spain. I could totally go for that.

"I'm gonna soak up the sun
While it's still free
I'm gonna soak up the sun
Before it goes out on me."*

Which brings me back to this. We are now in the time of the year called Daylight Saving Time and I am wondering why? Why do we have this thing called Daylight Saving Time? And why is it called Daylight Saving Time when what we have actually done is give away some of our daylight. One whole hour to be exact. All at once, just like that. We spring forward and it's gone. One hour missing and lost forever; or at least until the autumn, when I suppose you could make the argument that we get it back. But I am stuck here at the moment, in the spring, with an hour having been snatched from me without mercy. And the result of that disappearing hour was a fallout of grumpiness and grumbles. This morning as alarm clocks sounded there were groans and grunts; complaints of aches, pains and scratchy throats resounding, and that was only in listening to myself. We were tricked. Losing an hour on that first day may not seem like much until you factor in that children won't be tired at the regular bedtime hour. Especially with the sun still up and shining, it is difficult to make the argument that it is bedtime. It certainly doesn't look nor feel like bedtime. It's the sneaky nature of taking an hour away. An hour that in the end, really matters. We just didn't get enough rest without that reliable hour we had two days ago, but that was lost to us yesterday. Springing forward has repercussions. I know. I live with a pre-schooler, a teenager and a pre-teen girl. Petulance reigned in the wake up hours this morning; and irritability took residence for the day. Bedtime tonight is going to be a welcome thing and I don't believe I will face much hard sell convincing in order to send them off to slumber. We are all tired. All on account of a single hour being snatched away.

My personal answer to this conundrum today was to take it back. At midday I tucked Andrew in for his nap and I wandered out to the front garden with a magazine. I read for awhile and then allowed the sun to work it's magic on me. With comfort hormones released and running through my skull, I lay down on the wooden bench and slept. It was a marvelous, indulgent hour and I now have the sun kissed skin to prove that it was mine.

"I'm gonna soak up the sun
I'm gonna tell everyone
To lighten up
I've got no one to blame
For every time I feel lame
I'm looking up
I'm gonna soak up the sun
I'm gonna soak up the sun."*

*Sheryl Crow-Soak Up The Sun

Friday, March 23

Taking It In

I love laundry on the line. I love to watch the kaleidoscope of colors and shapes blow in the breeze. I love the way that sheets snap when the wind whistles past. I love the look of socks dangling precariously on the wire. I love the way air-dried laundry smells. Oh, I love that scent.

In the early years of our marriage, Don and I ventured to parts theretofore-to-us unknown when we moved to the desert town of Tucson, Arizona. Don would be attending law school at the University of Arizona, hence we we would make our home in this desert for the following three years. I fell in love with the Tucson landscape immediately; the desert brush, the towering saguaro, the spindly ocotillo, and the pervasive prickly pear were beauty beyond description in my eyes. Initially, we lived in a beat-up, run-down, roach-infested housing facility for married students, but within a few months we followed a lead and found a two-bedroom duplex home in the center of town. It was perfect for us. And you couldn't beat the rent: $325/month. The house was small, but ample. We had space for a home office/study room and a great little bedroom in the back with big windows overlooking the back yard. We also had a washing machine in the house. Repeating that now. A washing machine in the house. No longer would I have to haul baskets of laundry to and from an apartment complex laundry room. I had a washing machine of my own. There wasn't a dryer, but that was a small matter to me, as there was a laundry line in the back yard. Between the two hefty citrus trees (one orange and one grapefruit) and above the river-rock ground cover, there was a sturdy set of metal poles with three long wires stretched between them. There it was standing ready to do the job; it was as if the apparatus was calling out for laundry to be pinned there, so as to fulfill the measure of its creation. I loved hanging the laundry out on the line. With the first loads that I washed and then carried outside I was flooded with memories of my childhood when I helped my mother with the very same task. I remember standing alongside her as she bent over the basket of wet things and then straightened to her full height to attach them to the clothesline above. It was my job to hand her the clothespins and I took that responsibility very seriously, making certain that I always had one available when her hand reached down into mine to retrieve the wooden clips. Hanging laundry in Tucson was like a little magical trip back in time for me.
On the warmest of days laundry hanging was a time efficient task. I could hang the clothes swiftly, moving from left to right down the line, and by the time I had reached the bottom of the basket I could return to the start and begin removing them. They would be hot and dry in no time at all. When you pull on desert-air dried jeans there is a distinct snap and crack to the denim. You can't duplicate it anywhere. The same goes for the crispness of a t-shirt pulled over your head. It slides down the torso with an unambiguous 'a-woosh'.

And, oh that scent.

Ultimately, we got an electric dryer and I didn't use the line in back as often. With each house move since then we have always had both a washing machine and a dryer and I have fallen more and more out of the habit of hanging the laundry out to dry.

However, just this week our dryer quit on us. Without signal or warning it just decided to stop drying things. Perhaps it was feeling overused and underappreciated as it stood atop the washing machine slaving away day after day, load after load. So it just decided to rest. I understand the sentiment. Entirely. But while we waited for a landlord's decision regarding repair or replacement of the machine, the laundry itself forgot to stop piling up. Consequently, in order to keep up I found myself once again bending over the basket hanging laundry out on the line. At this house, the laundry line is a moderately strong but somewhat floppy piece of wire strung between the walls of the back balcony. Because of the direction it faces, the spot doesn't take in a lot of sun so it was no warm-Tucson-time-efficient drying. But oh, what a great sight to look out my office window and see the colors and the shapes hanging on the line. I sat at my desk and watched the clothing snap, twist, blow, flap, and sway in the wind; the socks looking almost comical as they gamboled in the updraft. The colder temperature and the humidity in the air made line drying a full-day event these past several days but as I have carried the laundry basket through the house to the back balcony I have once again basked in my memories.

As I pulled things in from the line this morning I found myself a little bit sad. The new dryer will be delivered today and let's be honest, I won't be drying my socks outside any more.

So I took that moment to bury my face in the freshly dry t-shirts and towels and I inhaled deeply.

Thursday, March 22

Bring It On

Wednesday, March 21

This Is The Cake That Jenn Built

This is the cake that Jenn built.*

This is the pattern that lay on the cake,

along with the knife to cut out the shapes.

This is the cake that Jenn built.

This is the flower made from cake,

sculpted from the cut-out shapes.

This is the cake that Jenn built.

This is the frosting to cover the cake.

To spread across the flower shapes.

This is the cake that Jenn built.

This is the cake just taking shape.

The frosting is spread on the pieces of cake.

This is the cake that Jenn built.

This is the cake now fully shaped.

The icing has wholly now covered the cake.

This is the cake,

This is the cake,

This is the cake that Jenn built.

*Mother Goose
this is the house that jack built

Finding The Middle Ground

A post from my email archives. Original date for this story: 26 September 2006

As anyone raising a picky eater knows, feeding said eater can be a tricky negotiation. It is a struggle to find and present desirable (read: acceptable) food choices while simultaneously striving for proper nutritional content. It is a veritable balancing act. In this as in many things, Andrew tips the scale full tilt. To rate his picky eating on a scale of 1-10 is to register him as a 15.
His food repertoire consists of:
peanut butter
an occasional banana
I’m not kidding. That’s the list in its entirety. Recently that list has shrunk to peanut butter. To be fair he does enjoy a good scoop of chocolate paste alongside his peanut butter. Chocolate paste is a common spread here; it is a thick spreadable mix of hazelnut and chocolate. You will likely know the product Nutella. It has the consistency of frosting from the can, and undoubtedly beats the sugar content by half. At some point we opted for calorie count over nutritional content, or maybe we just gave up and gave in, I don’t remember.
At any rate, he eats chocolate paste with his peanut butter. Andrew eats peanut butter for breakfast. He requests peanut butter for lunch. On the rare occasion that I can get him to eat dinner, he will take a bite of, you guessed it, peanut butter and be done with it. This morning our breakfast negotiation went something like this:

“How about a pancake?”

“unnng!” (This being interpreted as “no thank you beautiful mother, that doesn’t suit me this morning, but thanks ever so much for your kind offer”)

“Would you like a yogurt?”

No response.

“How about some cereal? Mommy is having cereal. We could both have cereal!”


“Well? What would you like to eat for breakfast?”


I am not surprised of course, but I make one final attempt at a variation on the diet.

“Okay.” I say. “How about a sandwich? I will make you a peanut butter and chocolate sandwich. I will even use white bread. How does that sound?"

And clear as any elocution from the great orators of mankind he says:

“No. peanut-butter-chocolate. IN MY MOUTH.”

Tuesday, March 20

Ik ben Jarig

Today is my birthday.

I am 41 years old.

On the train this morning I stepped into the WC (restroom) for just a moment and that's when I spotted it. My first gray hair. Right there, in the middle of my head, shooting straight out from the crown. My. First. Gray. Hair.
I have to admit, I gasped loudly and then spent several anxious minutes trying to isolate the errant lock so I could pluck it from it's perch atop my head. And then I carefully wrapped it inside my address book so I could show my husband later on. It's still there lying in wait for admission into evidence. In the case of Jenn v. Her Own Youth it will be a crucial item substantiating the case that there are aging invaders moving in to lay claim on my body, my mind and now, my head.

As we stepped back to our seats, I showed Andrew the proof-of-being-in-my-forties that I held in my hand. He looked at me kindly and blithely said "You're funny, Mama".
I told him that when he sprouts his first gray hair at age 41, I will definitely have something to say about it. That is of course if I can remember who I am sitting in the rocking chair at the nursing home.

Monday, March 19


In a Dutch house, the windows are a point of pride. And here I am not talking about intricate colored glass and lead designs. Nor am I speaking of windows which are frosted and elegantly etched. Rather I am referring to windows that are clean.





The technique for getting them thus runs along these lines: The huisvrow soaps up the entire window with a sponge until it is opaque, spending time scrubbing at any sticky spots. At this point the window looks like a giant finger painting; dips and swirls of suds decorating its surface. Then with swiftness and stunning artistry the whole of the soap bubble mess is wiped away in smooth, swooping, perfect strokes with a rubber squeegee. Zip- Zap-Zoom! The windows are clean.




My next-door neighbor has an apparatus for getting it all done without getting your hands wet. It is a telescoping pole with a double-sided rectangular-shaped contraption at the head. One side has a sponge for the lathering step and the other is the squeegee side. It is similar in nature to the device you find at a gas station used for removing bug guts from the windshield of your car. Only this is bigger, badder and gets the job done faster. She even has a rectangle shaped bucket so you don't have to struggle to dip the sponge into the warm bubbles before smearing the foam over the glass. In the world of clean windows, this is a gadget of great worth.

And, she is generous to share the wealth with me and allows me to borrow the marvelous machine whenever the need arises.

I try not to be too offended when she mentions to me that I haven't asked in "quite some time" to borrow the bucket and pole. I take this to mean she has noticed that my front windows could really do with a good cleaning. In this as in many things I am not so very Dutch, and when the rain and the dust have covered the pane in dot-to-dot chaos, I tend to pull the blinds and pretend it's just not there. It works well for me.

Having the sun show up on a regular basis the last week or so has really demonstrated the dire need of clean my windows were in. I have the blinds set wide open at this point in the year to welcome every drop of sun that shines down from the sky. The downside of course being that when that precious sunlight radiates through the glass it has to fight through the smudge and streaks on the window. And I can't ignore that forever. So, the Saturday chores this week included the ritual of window washing. I retrieved the bucket and pole from my neighbor and set to work cleaning windows doing my best to emulate the superior style of the Dutch. I soaped. I scrubbed. I squeegeed. Zip. Zap. Zoooooom. My windows were dirt free.

Nearly spotless.

Almost streakless.

Somewhat sparkling.

Clean enough.

I stood back to admire my handiwork and was fully impressed with a job well done. I had my own moment of pride gazing through crystal clear windows into the front garden. And then of course, as I have come to expect while living here, Dutch weather struck. And while I lay in bed Saturday night listening to the wind whip and howl outside, all I could think about was my precious clean windows and the raindrops which would inevitably leave trails across the casement the same way the teardrops would ultimately draw a path down a certain toddler's cheek when the patter of rain and the whine of wind woke him from slumber.

Sunday, March 18

Running Out of Excuses

"Wow. So are you running enough these days that you could have done a half-marathon this weekend?'

"Well, yes and no. If I hadn't had the injury I was intending to do it, yes. I am not running that kind of distance right now, no. But truly, you could train for a half-marathon in about eight weeks"



"Ah. But I am wondering. This training to run a half-marathon? Does it entail having to get your butt off the couch? That might get in the way for me."

Saturday, March 17

Laughing at his expense

Remember the gardener?

He called again yesterday and said he would be over at 1:00 p.m. to work on the gardens.


At 11:00 a.m. he rang the front bell and said "I am a little bit early."

No problem.

He inspected the garden front and back for what needed to be trimmed and cleaned and then went back to his truck to get his equipment. Walking back through my house he carried a pair of hedge clippers. Pocket size. Whew! Good thing he didn't bring that through the house on the day it was going to rain ALL day. What a mess that might have made.

And now, the final fun-poking moment. In the 20 minutes he was here working at the house? It rained.

Friday, March 16

City Center

Looking at The Hague

Looking at The Hague through
Rose-Colored Glasses

Thursday, March 15

These Days

"These are the days that I’ve been missing
Give me the taste give me the joy of summer wine
These are the days that bring you meaning
I feel the stillness of the sun and I feel fine "*

This morning I put Andrew on the back of my bike and we cycled to his peuterspeelzaal, or pre-school if you prefer. That's not exactly news as we have managed that task before this. It's approximately a 7 km ride from our front door to the door of his school and takes us roughly 30 minutes to complete. But this is news for the reason that it was the first time we did it without rain, or without threat of rain, or without wind. Indeed, it was a spring sky which greeted us and a spring sky which stayed along for the ride.

Spring's return means the shedding of winter coats. It took a little negotiation with Andrew to wear only his light hooded-fleece instead of his favorite red parka (also with a hood), but ultimately logic prevailed and he made the switch. For my part I was in shirtsleeves knowing that I would be generating some warmth as I cycled. See? This is news. I was in SHIRTSLEEVES. After a Dutch winter this kind of spring warmth is big news. Big good news.

When school finished at noon Andrew and I lingered at the park next door for some luxurious basking in the warm sun and cavorting on the newly green grass which wasn't swamped in rainwater.
On the ride home we watched our shadows play against the road, darting in and out of the landscape's silhouette, singing show tunes at the top of our lungs.
"These are the times of love and meaning
Ice of the heart has melted away and found the light
These are the days of endless dreaming
Troubles of life are floating away like a bird in flight"*

These are the days I have been waiting for. Welcome back Spring.

*Jamie Cullum- These are the Days

Damn, he's funny!

"Oh shoot! I forgot to buy envelopes again."

"Well aren't you lucky that I have some for you?"

"You do?"

"Yup. I remembered that we needed some when I went to mail that stuff, so I got some for you yesterday."

"Damn, you're amazing!"

"Yes, yes I am. I am DAMN-AZING"

Tuesday, March 13

Return of the Spring

Getting It Right

Not so long ago, I was standing in the kitchen on a Saturday evening, preparing food and things for a party we were hosting, when three year-old Andrew strolled in. He had the packaging for his CARS car in his right hand. With his left hand, he patted my bottom and said “this is butt crack”.
I snorted and then sought clarification.

“What was that?”

“This is butt crack”.

Hmmm… Didn’t know he knew such a phrase or the location of this particular body part. I was totally intrigued, but also totally up to my elbows in chicken marinade so I let it pass with a decided 'Huh!' and in my mind chalked it up as proof that having older siblings can really be a detriment to the innocence of toddlerhood.

The next day I was lounging on the couch, recovering from the party we hosted the night before, when Andrew sauntered into the living room. Again, he was holding the packaging for his CARS car. Again he said:

“this is butt crack”

And again, I said:

“what was that?”

This time he held out the cardboard packaging for me to see. On the back are the pictures and names of all the cars from CARS which can be purchased. (COLLECT THEM ALL!)

“This is butt crack” he said, pointing to one of the pictures.

I took the card from him and squinted hard at the tiny writing under a picture of a red car.

“Ah!’ I said “this is DIRT TRACK McQueen”

“Uh, yeah. This is dirt track”

“Right buddy. This one is called dirt track NOT butt crack.”

Uh, yeah. This one is not butt crack. This is dirt track Lightning McQueen”

“Exactly. I’m glad we cleared that one up.”

“Yeah. This is dirt track NOT butt crack. This is dirt track, Mama. Yeah, this is not butt crack.”

“Okay then, are we done saying butt crack now?”

“Okay, this is not butt crack okay, Mama? This is dirt track Lightning McQueen”


“Yeah, this is dirt track Lightning McQueen. NOT butt crack! That’s funny!”

“Yes, baby. That’s funny.”

Now Serving: No One

The Netherlands; Land of canals, tulips, wooden shoes and dikes. Will you find marvelous landscape here? Absolutely. And history? Yes. Fabulous cheese? Of course. Inspiring Art? Without a doubt.

But, will you find good customer service here? In a word: No.

This complaint about living in Holland will be one of the first to tumble off an expat's lips. Frankly, I have heard many a Dutch person whine this same whine. Customer service here is at it's best quite paltry and at it's worst it is simply abominable. Take for instance my experience in purchasing furnishings for our home here in The Hague. When we moved to The Netherlands in 2005 we came without much; just our luggage allowance of two suitcases each and a carry-on. That was the sum total of our possessions barring a very few items left in storage back in the states. The first house we lived in was completely stocked and furnished but the move last summer brought us to a home without all the added accoutrement. And so to IKEA we ventured! After many hours perusing the showroom and catalog we assembled a list of things to purchase. My first choice would have been to order it all online and have it delivered, but that option is not available here in Holland. So one afternoon I took the tram and then the bus to Ikea where I would make final selections and purchase the furniture for our home. When I called the customer service line to ask about delivery service, the representative assured me that delivery would be available and that one of her colleagues at Ikea would be very happy to assist me in the warehouse getting the items that I needed. I set off confident that it would be an easy trip; or if not easy at least very doable.
At the Ikea warehouse I packed and loaded my trolley with all of the items I could reach, load and carry without assistance. And then I maneuvered my way with heavily laden carts to the customer service kiosk to ask for help with the remaining items on my list. This is how the conversation went:

"Hi. I just need some help getting some things."


"I'm sorry?"

"You understand that this is a do it yourself place. You really should just do it yourself. We are not here to help you really."

Pause for my brain to process this. Is she kidding me? I mean I understand this is a pick it up yourself warehouse, but honestly! Is she refusing me help? Really?

"Right. And I have already picked up most of the items I need by MYSELF. But I need to get a couch. Is it possible to get help with a COUCH?"

"Hmph. It is so busy. Oh. This is such a bother"

"Sure. A bother. But I will still need help getting a COUCH. Can someone help me pick up a COUCH?"

"Yes. Yes. We will help you to get a couch. But this is a do it yourself place."

"Yeah. I got that."

In the end I received assistance from a young man who literally pulled the couch out from the bay, put it on a trolley for me and said "Here you go". At that point I had to wheel that trolley, holding a 6-foot couch standing upright, along with the two others I had been pushing through the warehouse BY MYSELF up to the cash registers for checking out. Just before reaching the registers I realized that this couch wasn't going to clear the signs hanging from the ceiling and had to solicit help from the cashier to finagle the trolley under and around the signage. And I got to hear her grumble about it too.

And thus I found my place. The customer is a bother.

This is also on my list: I have been having trouble with my Internet connection for the past several days. In truth, we have had trouble with the Internet ever since it was installed eight months ago. But finally the annoyances accumulated and Don phoned the customer service line for the company on Saturday. A 'customer service' line, which we PAY FOR at the rate of 50 euro cents per minute, while we listen to the recording about the sensational-services-they-offer-and-why-don't-we-consider-signing-up-for-their-Internet-package, as we wait to be served. This now is where I have to cease this particular complaint, because the company dispatched a repairman to our house this morning and it seems he took care of the problem. I am online at least. And we only had to pay 5,00 euro for the privilege of calling to ask for help.

Maybe the customer is just a set of deep pockets.

Initially, when we set up phone, television and Internet services here it took more than six weeks to get it all activated and installed. I am still not certain why it took so long to get it done. When Don paid for made the customer service call to complain he shared with the manager the experience we had, and told him in rational, calm yet forceful tones that this kind of service was simply unacceptable. The manager's response? "Ah, yes. Something like that shouldn't happen, but it did."

Okay, I am getting it. The customer should be seen, but not heard.

Of course, while I am listing bad experiences I have to mention again the conversation with the customs official regarding the last package we received. His utter delight in telling us that there was nothing effective to be done was palpable, as if the joy of telling people that they are screwed is what he waits all day to do. It was nothing less than frustrating.

Maybe it sounds as if I am a spoiled princess looking for perfect service but that's not it at all. I just want to be acknowledged and considered when I enter a shop. And I would like to be listened to when I make a phone call for help. Oh, and I would like to not have to pay for that phone call. More and more I find myself missing "home" places like my neighborhood Safeway supermarket where at the turn of every aisle there is someone asking "Is there anything I can do to help you?"

Commiserate with me. What is your worst experience with customer service?

Saturday, March 10

Into Each Life A Little Rain Must Fall

Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head

I am thinking about rain today. Which is really not a big shock considering our locale and the season. Before we moved to the Netherlands I remember reading through an “Everything about Holland” book Emma had borrowed from the public library. There was a section about the climate and a chart of annual rain measurements. I laughed out loud when I read about the more than thirty inches of precipitation annually. Having lived for eight years in Phoenix, Arizona in a dry-as-a-bone-hotter-that-Hades desert climate it was hard to get my mind around the idea of that much rain. I can now. I can also sing every rendition of the plethora of rain songs written, starting with the childhood classic “It’s Raining, It’s Pouring” straight through to Milli Vanilli’s "Blame It On The Rain". This is my attempt to keep our hearts light when the skies are relentlessly gray. And we have definitively found that grey skies are the norm here. Yes, it rains a lot in Holland.

Andrew doesn’t really like the rain. No, let me rephrase that. He doesn’t like the rain AT NIGHT. During the daytime hours he romps in the rain and pulls on his
wellies so he can splash in the puddles. This is three-year old happiness at its finest. Daytime rain is not so bad. Nighttime rain is another story. If it’s raining at night my husband and I can generally count on a bedmate, sneaking under the covers within minutes of the first drops striking his window pane. And then there was the night of drama trauma when I responded to midnight cries on the third floor. I found Andrew standing stock still on top of his bed bellowing at the top of his lungs: “IT’S RAINING GUYS! GUYS! IT’S RAINING!”. He joined us in our bed that night too.

Andrew’s reaction to rainstorms reminds me of me. I have intense memories of a time when I was small; not much older than Andrew is now, during a thunderstorm of epic proportions. We were living in Salt Lake City, Utah and it was a summer storm. I remember grand flashes of light and tremendous rolls of thunder shocking and booming through the sky. I was terrified. I remember trembling, and crying big shoulder heaving sobs as I searched to find a spot where I could hide away from the chaos of the storm. My best option for refuge was to wrap myself into the full-length drapes hanging at the windows in the living room. Maybe if I couldn’t see it, I wouldn’t hear it and then I would be safe.

That’s where I was when my Daddy found me; curled up and shaking, tear streaks running across my cheeks. He pulled me out of my hiding place and asked me about my troubles. I am sure that what poured forth from my five-year-old self was succinct and poetic as I explained to my Pop the sheer terror I was feeling on account of Mother Nature’s outdoor demonstration. I can’t recount the actual conversation we shared but I can vividly recall the feelings of the day. My dad and I sat together there in the living room; my arms wrapped around his neck, and watched the storm. That was the day I learned about measuring the distance of lightning by counting the seconds between the strike and the thunder clap. Counting with him was a good distraction from the tears still, perched at the corners of my eyes, threatening to fall. I am sure we sat there counting for a good long time; or at least 15 minutes. And then, when the lighting and thunder show had ceased, and the rain was falling in earnest, my dad and I took a walk. A long walk in the rain together, hands joined. We walked in the rain, and we talked in the rain. Timid at first and then braver as the journey continued I remember being amazed by just almost everything I was seeing. And I remember getting wet. Very wet; as in drenched and dripping with rainwater. It was marvelous. I do wish I could call up any actual words he said to me as I have no doubts that they were perfect and profound as he talked to me about rain and life, teaching me things it would take me decades to fully understand. All I know is I felt strong and brave walking with my daddy that day and I was no longer afraid.
Not of the rain.
Not of anything.

Thanks Scribbit for the inspiration and the opportunity. Wishing you bright skies and sunny days too!

Friday, March 9

Oh, mercy mercy me

I want to kill a fish.

This one to be precise:

This fish wreaks havoc in the tank and beats the crap out of every other fish in the neighborhood. You would think it had already established territory as the alpha-fish around here when it beat and killed it's first three victims. Each of those deaths I attribute solely to the reign of the terrible tiger fish. I don't have evidence. Don't press me. I didn't witness the murders outright, but I do have eyes and I watch this fish daily chase, bully and intimidate everything else in the tank. It has been known to nose bash it's own reflection. But this morning when Ian came upstairs to tell me "another fish is dead and you're not gonna like it Mom" I sighed heavily and said "I want to kill a fish."

The latest victim of Tiger's aggression was my favorite fish, a midnight blue Betta male; also known as a Siamese fighting fish. He was a lovely fish when we first brought him home with long flowing fins and a tail at least two inches long. I loved watching him strut his stuff in the tank. All the girls just stopped and stared. Or maybe that was just me. He hadn't been in the tank long when the first attack occurred. Tiger must have cornered him somehow and then proceeded to beat the snot out of him. Next thing I knew the Betta's tail and fins had been chewed down to nubbins. It was actually a wonder that he could even stay upright in the water. I was able to rescue him by isolating him for several weeks in a nursery floater while he recovered from the attack. His fins, his tail and his energy ultimately regenerated; never to their former glory, but back to health at least. When I let him out I was nervous and apprehensive but he seemed to fare well back in the general population and so I breathed a sigh of relief. However, I had noticed lately that his tail was looking ragged and his fins a little shorter, but still I thought he was holding his own and I didn't interfere. I should have, because now he's dead and I want to kill a fish.

In my own defense this is not a normal response for me. I am not a killer of anything. I am the one who gently scoops up the spiders in the house and carries them outside to find a better home. I have been known to shrink in fear over moths fluttering around, but I don't strike them down. I like life. I like living things. I just don't like this fish.
This morning as Andrew and I worked to clean the fish tank and fill it with fresh water, I momentarily considered transporting Tiger straight to the toilet bowl for the grand flush which would end my misery and the misery of all remaining fish in the tank. But I couldn't do it. As I dangled Tiger in the net over the temporary housing facility Tupperware bowl, this thought struck me: Maybe I should just start calling him

Wednesday, March 7

Package Police

It's not like it hasn't happened before.
Early on in our living in Leiden experience my sister sent me a box of jeans. Three pair of Gloria Vanderbilt stretch jeans to be exact. They are my favorite jeans in the whole world, soft, easy, and moldable. They are comfortable enough to wear all day and can be considered a perfect complement to the ever exotic, super fancy t-shirts I wear as part of my mommy uniform. These are jeans which can withstand the constant bending, stretching, diapering, chasing, hand-wiping, abuse I dish out every day. It quickly became clear after arriving here that it would be hard to clothe my rather short, moderately squatty, somewhat broad across the beam frame with the jeans that are manufactured and marketed for the extremely tall, exceptionally thin, slightly gangly Dutch. So, I asked my sister if she would send me some new jeans. She agreed. She purchased the jeans (on sale) for $20 per pair, put them in a box, added an address label to the front and took the box over to the UPS store. On the shipping tag she marked the contents as a "gift" and filled in the value as $60. The box was then marked for international shipping and was expedited to me. No problem. Then, my sister sent an email to tell me that the jeans were on the way. Not long after I got, not a box of jeans on my doorstep, but a delivery note from the customs office stating that I could have my box for a fee of Euro 50,00. Ack! We had been snagged by the package police. Not all packages and shipments that come in to the country are subjected to customs fees, but some are. Apparently there are a few "red flags" that will tip off the customs office that a package should be looked at closely. I asked around and this is what I learned:

1. Never ship EXPEDITED. This is a big flag to say "Hey! Look at this box, it's REALLY important and REALLY valuable. You could make a lot of money taxing this box!"

2. A total value over $25 could make an inspector look more than once. The risk here is that if the package contents cost the sender more than that, there will be no reciprocation if the box is lost. This is the chance you take.

3. Marking a shipment as a "gift" can set up a red flag on the box. Not always, but sometimes. I guess the idea behind that is "if you want a gift, well, you've got to pay for it!"

So, let's review and spot the mistakes in that first shipment from my sister. Count 'em with me: 1-2-3! Yes, we covered them all. Ugh. There didn't appear to be much option so I just bit the bullet, paid the fees, and got my box of new jeans. I quickly took to calling them my hundred-dollar jeans because after you factor in the shipping and customs charges, my wallet friendly purchase suddenly got very pricey.
But what is that they say? You live and you learn. I did. And I passed on what I learned and we have happily been receiving boxes and packages without a hitch ever since.

That is until now.

Flash forward to this week. My mom sent two boxes to me a few weeks ago. In one was a gift for me (thanks Mom and Dad!) and in the other was a Grandma-spotted-it-and-simply-had-to-buy-it gift for Andrew. The first box arrived quickly and without a problem. The second box took it's own sweet time coming across the ocean; we even wondered for a time if it had actually gotten lost. But lo and behold, late last week I received a delivery notice for the box, along with a memo from the customs office announcing that it was going to cost me EURO 50,00. to pick it up. Ack! Again? What had happened? What went wrong this time? On Monday afternoon, I paid the postal carrier the fees, signed off on the delivery and brought the box inside for closer inspection. I can't claim that I solved the mystery on my own, but give full credit to my super-sleuth husband who spotted the problem within seconds of examining the customs declaration tag.
Can you see it?

When my mother presented the box at the post office counter she had filled in the customs tag marking it appropriately (diminishing chances of red flag waving) with a value of $25. And somehow by the time the postal worker filled in the TOTAL VALUE slot, the contents of the box had magically increased in value ten times. He wrote in a $250.00 value! Oh, the brains on this one. But again, what is it they say? You live and you learn. And so we have something new to add to the shipping rules: Check the tag. Check the tag. CHECK THE TAG!

There isn't a whole lot of remedy on our end. Don spoke with the customs people today who were quite keen to dismiss his claim even after acknowledging that the error occurred. We can write a letter of complaint, which will take months to review before they deny us and refuse reimbursement. It's good to know we could pursue this exercise in futility. We may just get right on that just as soon as we do all the other equally useless things we have scheduled.

Now then, as to the contents of the box of misery with it's radical customs charge? I have only this to say: it was worth every last euro cent.