Thursday, May 31

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

I find inspiration in the old adage "big things come in small packages". I have always taken it to mean that one didn't have to be big and ahem, tall in order to make a difference. From my hardly-over-five-foot vantage point, I have taken the proverbial statement to heart.

But then again, there's that good ol' "size doesn't matter" phraseology out there and that's the one I have a little protest with.

Because it does indeed matter.

When it comes to the size of your kitchen.

I have mentioned it once or twice that a typical Dutch home follows a typical Dutch pattern. Houses tend toward the narrow and tall; just like the physique of the Dutch themselves. Our home is three stories of row house height, including two sets of narrow twisting stairs between floors. We call them the stairs of danger, but that is fodder for another post, another day. I shall make a note of it and share the story behind the moniker soon. But the house? The house has 5 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms (meaning two rooms where one can take a bath or shower), 2 toilets, a living room, a dining room and the world's tiniest kitchen. t.i.n.i.e.s.t.

Possibly that last is an exaggeration since I have been in homes here where the kitchen is so tiny it is nearly non-existent. Like an afterthought perhaps. The builders stepped back and surmised all that their hands had rendered and then hit their foreheads with a resounding thud admitting "Doh! We forgot to put in a kitchen!" And then they converted a closet.

One of our first family outings after our arrival in The Netherlands was to the city of Dordrecht, where shortly after disembarking from the train we were adopted right off the street by the sweetest Dutch Oma in the world. She asked us if we wouldn't like to walk along with her and she would show us some lovely gardens near her home. I guess we had starry eyed tourist written all over our awe smacked faces as we wandered along the street. We accepted her invitation and she chatted away in Dutch to us as we walked along the streets and alleys. It goes without saying that the prattle was nonsensical to me as she happily pointed out shops and details about her city.

As we approached her house, it became very clear that she was residing in what once was a cloister for a convent there in Dordrecht. The snatches of Dutch my husband was understanding and translating confirmed this theory for me. We wandered through the gardens which were indeed lovely and arrived at the front door of her domicile. She eagerly invited us inside for some refreshment.

Placing her skeleton key in the lock, she swung the door inward and we all filed in. Into the tiniest house in the world. t.i.n.i.e.s.t.

Her living room was possibly a 10x10 foot space, crammed with furniture--a reclining chair, an end table, a round dining table with 4 chairs, an armoire full of books, a sidebar for storage, 2 or 3 lamps, a tapestry foot stool, a wooden chest under the single window--and knick knacks stacked on every possible surface. She chatted away to us about the photos prominently displayed around the room and insisted that we make ourselves comfortable while she served us some snacks. I turned to watch her work in her kitchen area. It couldn't be referred to as a room proper. It was literally an alcove in the side of the living room which had been updated to include plumbing for a sink, electricity to run the hot plate, a single small counter along with one small shelf above the sink for storing dishes and a tiny refrigerator in the corner. From that minuscule space she produced coke and cookies which she placed on the round table, and then bananas, and some grapes. Then little cakes. It was great, so great to be there and to be taken in and taken over by her hospitality. I only wish we could go back now and find her again, so that I could actually converse with her, rather than only being able to offer my paltry Dank u wel over and over again.

So, in truth that has to be the tiniest kitchen in the world. But the size of mine has to run a close second.

Galley style, recently remodeled (but not enlarged?) it is a sleek and lovely design with it's white cabinets, large storage drawers and 4--count 'em 4 cupboards. I have a gas top stove, a half-size dishwasher and a combination microwave/convection/electric oven which has the capacity to hold, exactly one 9x13 inch casserole dish. Or a small cookie sheet. What it cannot hold is a full size muffin tin, a deep dish roasting pan, or a turkey for Thanksgiving. Believe me, I didn't even try.

This will be telling. When I tried to take photos of this itty-bittiness to post alongside these words, I couldn't even get an angle in the room to take a picture of my tiny appliances and my tiny work space. That's how small my kitchen is.

But I don't mind so much really.

In this as with most everything in our lives, we have just learned to adapt and make do. Preparing for dinner parties is always an interesting sight, wherein I use every available space including the top of the refrigerator (which is also small) to hold plates and trays full of food not quite ready to serve, but which need housing somewhere until it's time for the table. The shelves of the fridge will be bursting with containers which I have expertly arranged and balanced so nothing gets squished. Or at least not squashed beyond recognition. I have even been known to ask one of the children to "just stand there and hold that for a minute" as I make space on my counter top for one more mixing bowl or cutting board moment.

I do regret that the space is just not conducive to lengthy chef lessons for my kids. I have very fond memories of cooking side by side with my Dad in the kitchen as he prepared meals for our family. I learned to cook under his tutelage and I am sad that there just isn't the space to have the kids in the kitchen with me. At least not all of them at the same time.

The one true upside I see to having such a tiny space is that I don't do a whole lot of baking here. That's not a bad thing, as the cookie eating monster that I am can do without a daily dose of snickerdoodles.

Trust me, these hips don't lie.

Tuesday, May 29

Are you Havin' a Laugh?

I found this game over at Julia's place. She confesses that she borrowed the idea from Toni. The way Toni tells it, she got the notion from Kelly. I don't know the lineage of the entertainment past that point. You want more than that? You'll have to do the research yourself.

But this particular brand of fun goes like this. Into the Google search bar you type your name and the word 'needs'. And then you sit back for your education and enlightenment. Multiple pages of hits appeared for me (can't miss with a name like Jenn) but I will list only the top five which also share the spelling of my name. That double 'n' thing is important, you know.

And now without further ado, I give you,


1. Jenn needs coffee.
This being the first hit for me was hilarious, given my recent coffee confessions and all.

2. Jenn needs help filling out the capital expense report.
Uh... yeah. And while your at it, could you explain to Jenn what a capital expense report is in the first place? Keep in mind that I'm a dancer, not a business whoop-de-doo. I don't have a whole lot of experience in this kind of thing. The last I checked, no instructor counted down the beginning of a combination with a gusty '5-6-7-capital expense report'. At least not in any of the classes I attended.

Admittedly, it's been awhile. Things might have changed.

3. Jenn needs a puppy. Badly.
This is a fully loaded truth. The reality is that Jenn's kids want a puppy. Badly. Unfortunately, before that happens they will have to swap this mom for one of the not-allergic-to-animals kind. There are days they just might do that if the trade off is a dog.

Actually, there is new hope in some of the new non-allergenic breeds they are doodling around with. Like that Labradoodle? Just might work for us.

4. Jenn needs a vacation.

Totally true. And before you launch in and remind me that I just had a weekend in Milan without kids, may I remind you that the get-away included a sad, sad announcement. So how this one really should read is: Jenn needs a vacation WITHOUT BAD NEWS.

5. Jenn needs a healthy dose of sweet caffeine.

Seriously, how do these folks at Google know me so well? A dose of sweet caffeine sounds like just the thing, and so I will now wrap this up and get to the unwrapping of a bar of chocolate.
Ah, sweet, healthy dose.

And now, I ask you. What is it you need?
And then I answer for you with another question. Why don't you go Google it and find out?


My darling daughter has created a blog page of her own. Please visit her here and enjoy the read!

Monday, May 28

That's What Friends Are For

I dreamt last night that I was at Ikea trying to make a decision about a new bookshelf. I hemmed and hawed over the choices before me, wondering where I would put the new shelf. Should it go in the living room? Shall I place it in the office? Is there a short one I could put in my bedroom?

When I woke, I remembered that Marloes would be here today. Bearing gifts.

I made scones (or for you American English speakers: biscuits) and set them out to serve with butter and my sister's homemade pomegranate jam.

I brewed coffee. Then I waited.

Marloes arrived with her husband and together we carried into the house two large boxes of books.

Books. Books. Books. Wow, books!

The three of us sat down together at my table and shared a pot of coffee and a lot of gab. Andrew did his best to entertain in his special 4-year-old way. He plopped his diaper clad bottom down on the living room rug and watched Dutch cartoons while he ate full chubby handfuls of Honey Loops directly from the box. Doesn't sound like laugh-a-minute entertainment? Then you just don't know Andrew. For an encore to the breakfast show, he snatched my glasses from the dining room table, put them on his face, and strutted around the house--Mick Jagger style--fully aware that all the adoration and attention was his and his alone. I'm telling you. That is entertainment.

Marloes is everything I anticipated she would be. I enjoy reading her blog immensely and she has been so cyber-supportive to me at mine, I knew the heart behind the words would be a warm one.

We had a delightful time, for the few minutes they lingered in my home. It was as if we had been friends forever and the conversation and the laughter was so natural and easy.

And the coffee was good. Good conversation will do that to a pot.

The best part of it all today--besides the books, books books!--is knowing that this first meeting in the real world won't be the last. Indeed, I believe this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship

Sunday, May 27

On Lots of Ideas; and Nothing to Say

Inspiration is a funny thing. I feel the need to write this morning; my brain is literally buzzing with thoughts. But nothing is lining up to march down my fingertips at the moment.

It's raining as I write this and the sky is low and gray. Which probably has something to do with the mood. Things like that swing me. Markedly.

I just discovered a new blog and have been reading it voraciously. The author shares my name, Jennifer, and is also currently an American expat. That's about where our similarities end, other than the basic we both have a nose and two arms kind of sameness. Or maybe not. I look forward to knowing her better and finding out what else we share. She lauds the fact that she is a stream of consciousness writer, and having been swept into the magnetic pull of her words, I am fully in support of the style.

Maybe that's why nothing is lining up this morning. It all wants to come at once.

I have been in close e-contact this week with another Jenn (just what is it in my life with all these Jennifers?) who sent an incredibly touching note after reading my post about Grandpa's passing. She and I share that experience now; the heart wrenching experience of losing a loved one when you are far away from home. In her email she told me,

"One of my friends described grief of someone important to you as a perennial emotion. That it comes in intense waves, even long afterwards. I thought it was a good way of putting it."

I think it's a perfect description.

Sometimes those waves seem capable of pulling you under.

Generally in my life, I respond to events and happenings with emotion. I wear them all on my sleeve, so to speak. When something is pleasing to me, or I like what I see, I get goose bumps on my skin; and tears in my eyes.

When I am angry, I cry.

When I am happy, I cry.

When I am sad, I cut my hair.

I stepped into the bathroom yesterday to put some finishing touches on getting ready for the day (at noon, after my shower, which was at eleven.) and in studying my reflection knew I was overdue for a trim. It's been on my mind lately, this need for a haircut. In fact, I dreamed that I was pulling great handfuls of hair from my head just the other night. But as I stared into the mirror, I figured I would just give it a whirl myself. Who needs the salon with its trained technicians when what you really need is a cathartic experience in the privacy of your own home?

I started at the front with my bangs and then moved to the longer bits at the outer edges of my head. Soon great sweeping strokes were being made with the scissors and hair of varying lengths was tumbling into the sink and onto the floor.

The sound of the scissors cleanly swiping at my locks was fabulous. It was electric and charged and I was having a blast of the most personal kind.

After the cut, I colored it with a box of "warm blond" hair dye I found at the back of the bathroom supplies shelf. And strangely enough, after changing the length and altering the color I looked in the mirror and felt more "me" than I have felt in awhile.

It was fun. Really.

And now I am a red head.

And I survived that wave.

Today, my husband is on his way to the States to reunite with his family and support his Mom and pay honor to his grandfather. It was a virtual impossibility for all of us to go. A flight across the ocean is no small matter, and traveling with a pre-schooler, makes it an even bigger deal. So we send the dad of this clan with our prayers and hopes. And our well wishes for everyone in the family as they celebrate the life of our dear Grandpa.

I have my concerns about the week I am facing of single parenting. Usually in our lives, the children have reserved the moment of head injury, or stair tumbling, or emotional meltdown, to coincide with there only being one parent around to manage the crisis. I really hope we break with that pattern this week. Also, I love the company of the man I married, and find that when he travels I just don't sleep as well. In spite of the fact that no one is hogging the blanket.

Tomorrow I get the chance to meet a blogging friend in real life. In person. For the first time. Marloes is driving across the country to rescue me from reading boredom, and has promised she will arrive with boxes of books. I am really looking forward to the moment; to sharing a cup of coffee with her; and to chatting in person with a supportive new friend.

That should carry me through the next wave.

This is pure honesty here isn't it? And after all of this putting it out there, my brain buzz is quieter .

That feels good.

Friday, May 25

15 Shots of Duomo (that's in Milan)

Friends, I bring you Duomo di Milano.

Wikepedia has this to say about it:

The cathedral is famous throughout the world for its significance in the promulgation of the Christian faith, for its role in the establishment of Catholic traditions of worship, its outstanding musical heritage and the splendour of its Gothic architecture.

And I add only this. This post is a celebration of that outstanding, incredible, amazing, splendorous architecture. No words can equal what the eye takes in. You of course, will have to settle for what my eyes took in and what I chose to post for your eyes to see. Plan to see it yourselves someday, trust me, you will be delighted when you do!

Now, on to the fifteen.















Thursday, May 24

Comparable and Corresponding

Before he could speak, Andrew signed. First it was just the few trendy words that everyone who was anyone was teaching their babies. Signs for 'more', 'drink', 'cookie' ,'please' and 'thank you' were the first to enter his vocabulary. But as it became apparent that his spoken language was not developing according to the norm I stepped up the education in signing. I bought books and videos, attended classes and spent time at the sign language sites online. His abilities grew exponentially and soon he was saying/signing dozens of words and phrases. For my part, my signing vocabulary, a step ahead of his included hundreds of signs. Mostly nouns, to help him assign names to the things he saw, but also the adjectives and the verbs so he could also tell us the hilarities of his life, like when he farted! Around here the only thing better than doing it is being able to say you did it. My eldest at this age, (also a boy) used to say "pardon my bum" after he passed a little wind, which just cracked him up royally. Andrew's pattern would be the sign for fart and then the sign for surprise followed by a loud giggle. Oh, boys!

Once language arrived, the signs slowly were replaced with words. One by one the signs dropped away as speech emerged. The best part of his developing skills was his hilarious insistence on speaking in the opposite. For a time we called him Antonym Andrew because no matter what was said, his retort would be the reverse. I must mention, he acquired this ability on his own, as no one ever trained him in the lingo of contrariness, well, not on purpose anyway.

We noticed the propensity beginning with this conversation with his sister one Saturday morning. Big brother Ian was playing a game on the PlayStation; Emma was lounging on the couch. Andrew was sitting alongside Ian in front of the television with the second PlayStation controller in his lap. It was becoming painfully obvious to him that his controls were not working properly. Indeed, they were not even plugged in.

Andrew turned to Emma and said, "Take it on".

She patiently explained "Andrew you don't say 'take it on', that doesn't make sense. You can say 'take it off' or you could say 'put it on'."

To which he replied "Put it off".

And thus we launched into the phase of language development wherein he said it his own way, thank you very much.

If we said "pick it up" he said "pick it down";

If we said "take this out" he said "take this in";

If we said "put it in" he said "put it out".

The ultimate triumph in his contradictory speech came the day he shadowed his sister as she walked up the stairs to the second floor of our home. She was quietly singing a Bob Marley tune (could I be any prouder?) as she mounted the steps.

"get up, stand up..." she sang as she climbed.

And on her tail, without missing a beat in the rhythm, Andrew intoned behind her,

"get down, sit down..."

I fell over laughing. Or did I stand there crying?
Who really could say?

Wednesday, May 23

Tuesday, May 22

Knapsack on Her Back

The day of much anticipation and early packing, planning, shopping and re-packing has finally arrived! Yes, it is time for the ISH four-day Year 6 camp.

Traditional in Dutch schools, and our own International school, this yearly excursion with students and teachers is the highlight of the year for the oldest students of the Primary school.
This week is something they have been thinking about and planning for all year long.

In a very few minutes from the writing of this post, Emma will board a chartered bus along with 54 other children and 3 teachers and will journey to the east into the province of Gelderland for a never-to-be-forgotten camp experience.

Parents weren't even invited.

They will be staying at a hostel in Gorssel, The Netherlands which was once a residency for the royal family. In my estimation that makes it pretty grand digs for camping.

The activity roster for the week includes cycling tours, canoeing, swim sessions, lots of outdoor sports and a talent show. Educational outcomes are non-specific, but you can bet that some bonding time, team-building experience, and autonomy are chief among the goals of such an outing.

My guess is that there will be more than just a few giggles, pranks and shenanigans going on before lights out.

Because when you house a bunch of 11-year olds together, stacking them in bunks three beds high, just what else could happen?
Emma has been ready to go for days, weeks maybe. Her bag was packed long before I had even begun to think of what to take along to Milan last weekend. But of course in her thrill and excitement she dashed out the door this morning without a jacket and had to come running back, red-cheeked and breathless, to retrieve her coat.

I miss her already.

I know this will be a stellar experience for her. I remember my sixth grade camp experience at Mill Hollow back in oh, 1978. Fun things like tire swings, and nature hikes and campfires with marshmallow roasting. And not-so-fun things, like the moment I left my brown paper sack behind in the girls' bathroom. As an early bloomer I was menstruating already at age eleven and mistakenly left my supplies in one of the stalls. Then it was found, and I was found out. With cheeks flushed, I had to lay claim to the bag full of private, embarrassing things. I felt mortified and exposed and deeply self-conscious that my status as "woman" had been so blatantly uncovered.

But the girls in my cabin? Worshipped me. I had boobs and a period. My rank and position in little girl world was elevated to wow proportions. I was envied and admired and rode the fame wave for months until a couple of others joined me in the bra wearing brigade.

Emma thinks that story is hilarious.

She'll have her own story like that one day soon. That she doesn't find nearly as funny. Growing up is like that though and I can't wait to hear her every tale.

Happy Camp Week, Emma.
Valderi, Valdera!

Monday, May 21

Farewell to a King

My dearest Grandpa-

It was late Friday evening in Milan, Italy when we got the call. [Don's brother] in Maryland had managed to track us down via Skype and with [his] Mom on speaker phone from Utah we had a Transcontinental-International phone call. I thought it would tickle you to know that this call was actually made through the computer. For a man who spent years laying cables and checking miles and miles of phone line, I figured the idea of this wireless phone call would make you smile.

But it wouldn't be possible to share that with you. The news from the across the pond was that you were slipping from us.

We scrambled to dial out to the U.S. to reach you in the home, hoping that we might get the chance, with a telephone held to your ear, to say a last I love you and tell you goodbye.

But you were already gone.

Quietly, silently, peacefully.


Immediately the tears poured and I let them come, unhindered, undirected, uninhibited. I cried alone. I cried with my husband. I cried with siblings across the sea. In truth, I haven't stopped crying since the news came in. And it's fair to say that the emotions accompanying the waterfall have been as diverse and innumerable as the tears themselves. I cry in grief, in joy, in peace, in celebration and in sorrow. Most of all, I cry for the missing of you Grandpa.

I cry remembering you.

Sometimes I have to remind myself that I am not an actual flesh and blood granddaughter, because I have never felt anything but unconditionally loved and adored from the moment I stepped into your Mesa home more than 20 years ago. As I have reflected often over the years since first meeting you, and Grandma, I know I am deeply blessed to have had your influence and your love in my life. My relationship with you has been everything a granddaughter ever dreams a friendship with Grandparents could be. Ours was a reality which because of circumstance and illness, I wasn't so fortunate to have with my own grandparents. But I had you.

I had you to talk with for hours on end after Grandma's sudden passing 10 years ago. Our weekly dates for lunch, or a quiet walk, or holding hands on the living room couch are priceless treasures to me.

I had you to teach me that jalapenos are meant to be snacked on like candy, eaten straight from the jar. And that any meal could be improved by adding a side of pepperoncini. I am certain that my pregnancy craving of a hot dog smothered in jalapenos has a direct link to your training of my taste buds.

I had you to challenge me to wonder about where I came from. Your standard question when meeting new friends was "Who are your people?" and it sent me on journeys through journals and family records to understand who I was by understanding who had preceded me.

I had you to share a little "spanish food" such as refried beans, mexican rice, enchiladas or salsa and chips from your favorite El Charro a few blocks from your house. And we could share an order of tamales hand-made and delivered by one of the women in the neighborhood.

I had you to teach me about the nuances of The Lawrence Welk Show broadcast every Saturday evening from the local PBS station.

I had you to "halvers" the last piece of toast, or the last scoop of scrambled eggs, or the last slice of pizza with me.

I had you to smile with as each of my three babies arrived and I placed them into your large and loving hands for the first of myriad kisses and squeezes which would follow. Soon they would know a great-grandpa who loved them intensely and unconditionally.

I had all of this and so much more. As fast as my thoughts spin now through the memories, I know there will be many yet to surface that I can hold in my heart. And with each blessed recollection, I know there will be tears.
Tears of honor, of happiness, and of longing.

I cannot stop them falling Grandpa, and I cannot imagine when it will feel okay to wake up in a world without you. But I want you to know that I love you deeply. I love you fiercely. I love you without end.

Your darling,

Friday, May 18

15 Reasons I Won't be Blogging This Weekend

1. I am going to Milan.

2. I am going to Milan.

3. I am going to Milan.

4. Did I mention that I am going to Milan?

5. That's in Italy.

6. Where both Piazza del Duomo and Teatro alla Scala are.

7. Among other things.

8. My husband is already there; speaking at a conference.

9. I am joining him for the weekend.

10. In Milan.

11. I am traveling without my kids.

12. Repeating that for your benefit.

13. NO kids.

14. In Milan.

15. Italy.

Thursday, May 17

Postcards to Home

Write-Away Contest

11 July 2006

Beste Familie,

I am writing this from a secluded spot in the wooded village of Wassenaar. We are here to celebrate the end of the school year and the beginning of new adventures. Staying for the week we are living in a bungalow home fully fitted and supplied for seven people, so the five of us fit comfortably. If there ever was a postcard moment in this experience of living in Europe, I am having it now. The weather today is ideal. It is a mild seventy-five Fahrenheit degrees outside with faint wispy clouds high in the sky. The sky is that perfect crayola color. You remember the one, a perfect sky blue. As a child it was the color I chose to complete my house drawings, scribbling an inch of azure across the upper edge of the page; an interpretation of the big bright blue sky I saw outside. The front garden here is filled with cone flower, lilac, small fichus trees and crawling ivy. The bungalow itself is surrounded by tall trees; chestnut, oak, pine, willow, ash and others that I do not readily recognize. The sun is shining at that perfect angle causing beams of light to shoot through the branches, reaching fingers of brightness toward the earth. The leaves themselves, nearly transparent as the sunlight radiates through, gently shiver in the breeze. The quiet wind has set yesterday’s wet towels in motion, pushing them to and fro as they hang on the line. Just down the road from where I am sitting there is a small pond populated with ducks, geese and swan. Each seem completely tame and none startle at our approach, but merely continue on about their business. When you are a goose here, it appears it is your business to strut through the camping areas looking for handouts. And quite frankly, I find having a goose approach with its strong beak and fierce determination sways me to be very generous with the sandwich scraps. The whole family is enjoying the meanderings of the water fowl, especially when a duck or two wander into the front yard of our bungalow searching for nibbles. For the kids the ultimate part of this experience is the amusement park and water slide attached to this camping commons. The roller coaster craziness is a five minute walk from our little hideaway home and they have been able to thoroughly investigate the park and the fun it has to offer. Meanwhile, I am sitting in the garden, sipping my cola light and feeling the summer breeze tickle my sun-kissed face.

It is in a word: perfect.

Wish you were here.

* Submitted to Scribbit's May 2007 Write-Away contest.

Link to see more entries!

Comment on dit 'Locksmith' en français?

HONORABLE MENTION at Scribbit's May Write-Away contest!

I am just going to cut right to it. I have the ultimate travel advice here. Truly, this is counsel of paramount importance, the preeminent trekking tip. And I am willing to share it, free of charge. Are you ready now? Then here it is. The best tip for road travel is this: DO NOT LOCK THE KEYS IN THE RENTAL CAR! It's just that simple. Do not under any circumstances make this mistake. Seriously. Avoid it.

This I recommend especially if you are traveling in a rural area of Northern France on say, Easter Sunday. You must understand that it is extremely unlikely you will find a garage open or any assistance available on Easter Sunday. In fact, help may not be manageable until the following Tuesday morning, as Monday will be Second Easter Day and the shops and businesses will be closed. Now if you do choose this particular adventure, you can potentially make it easier on yourself and your fellow travelers—aka your children—if one or any of you speak the language of your host country. Speaking the local language will make asking for help and explaining your predicament oh-so-much easier. However, if you do not possess this skill, charades and over-exaggerated facial expressions—the lingua franca of all stranded foreigners—may help to get your point across.

Our journey began on a Thursday. We left our row house in The Netherlands and hit the road in our hired car, headed for adventures in Northern France. It was now 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—Ian, 12, Emma 10, and a precocious two and a half year old Andrew—we made a stop to eat. The stop was of course at a McDonald's. As is also expected for an expat American family with children who seem to be hungry most all of the time, this is the easiest, fastest, cheapest and most desirable way to eat on a road trip. Also, it provides great space for the toddler of said family to run around and make some noise. It is a family friendly place in a way that other restaurants in Europe are not.

So, the conspicuous arches called to us and we followed the signs, turning from the highway and winding through an isolated and quiet industrial area to find this tucked away McDonald’s, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. All of us were looking forward to the leg stretch. This was the day we had coined our ‘Normandy Beach day’ and it was day four of our travels; four days of road trip wherein we had already covered miles and miles of France, visiting Rouen, Amiens, and Giverney. The sights, sounds and tastes of France had tickled our every sense throughout the week.

Now, our children generally are fabulous travelers, even on very long road trips, but saturation points were met and each was hitting the end of his or her rope. To remedy the bickering in the back seat, Don and I decided to move Andrew’s car seat to the center of the bench, requiring Ian and Emma to sit on either side of him. We hoped this might eliminate the “you’re touching me!” conversations which had become habitual the last 100 kilometers or so. As soon as we had ordered our culinary delights at the counter, 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, shook it slightly in a kind of wave and then folded his fingers into a tight fist.

He whispered “I’ve just locked the keys in the car”




Have you ever had one of those moments where the blood rushes to your face and what feels like a boulder descends into your stomach? I had a moment like that just then. I looked at my husband and knew that he was having his own moment like that too.

Dozens of thoughts and questions began swirling in my head, beginning with the obvious ‘What are we going to do? How are we going to get out of here? It’s EASTER SUNDAY! We will never find any help!’

Underlying the frustration of the situation was the dawning realization of just exactly how spoiled we are as expats in The Netherlands, where although we speak a little Dutch, we rely upon the fact that English is used everywhere in the low lands. And the realization that we spoke no French and were thus woefully unprepared to explain our predicament to anyone—let alone solicit technical help—was overwhelming.

I was frightened. I was nervous. I was nauseous. I grabbed Don’s hand and squeezed hard.

“It’s okay” I said. “It’s going to be okay” I repeated, hoping to convince myself.

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. Our first step was to solicit help. While the kids cavorted around the play land, Don and I circled the restaurant using one of the two French phrases we had memorized. “Pardon et moi, parlez-vous anglais?” A gentleman standing in line to order was able to help us make our situation known to a manager. She in turn determined what we needed was a phone book so we could call for help. But, of course, the phone book was in French and the word for locksmith is not one of the many borrowed from the French and adopted into the English tongue.

Our desperate expressions prompted her to conscript one of her young (French) fry cooks to our aid. This young man was tireless in his efforts over the next few hours to help us reach a solution. Between our lack of ability to speak any French at all, and his limited English, we spent a lot of time making guesses and grunting affirmations of understanding. At one point in the manager’s office there was a multi-language conference call as Don spoke Dutch with the representative at the car rental agency who then spoke French to our young assistant, while I stood at the periphery pestering with questions in English. But somehow, at some point we hit the communication jackpot. A garage was found. A willing mechanic was located. He would reach our location within the hour. As I retell the story I am unsure just how in the convoluted path of phone calls and charades and sign language it was even possible to make it all happen. Perhaps that certain French je ne sais quoi made the magic.

The mechanic arrived in his truck, a stocky French fellow in the classic garb of his profession, wearing dirty jeans fastened below his rotund belly and a t-shirt stained with grease. I remember thinking it funny that the caricature repairman is universal in design. He hitched up his jeans and rubbed his deeply oil-stained hands together as our translator explained the situation and pointed out the errant automobile. The mechanic immediately got to work. He spent a short time assessing the situation and, in minutes, was able to release the lock. En Voila! Our keys! I wanted to reach out and kiss him at that moment. A fitting reaction when you consider just how long I had been sitting inside a McDonald’s play land. And in the spirit of that legendary French romance, of course. Appearances notwithstanding. Instead, we dipped deeply into our pockets to pay the fee and were quickly on the road again.

Before we left home for that journey, I received an email from a friend,

“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?”.

As we drove away—three hours late for our rendezvous with Omaha Beach—I sat in the passenger seat of the rented sedan and recalled that simple, yet profound, message. I started to giggle. Soon all of us were giggling, and a few short kilometers beyond the crisis, we recognized that we had made a memory. We had a new, unforgettable family story to tell.
We carried on down the long stretch of highway, determined to take the next moment—whatever it might be— in stride.

And remarkably, no one was fighting.

*This post was pulled from my archives, re-worked, re-titled, edited, spell-checked and sent to Seal Press Submissions for consideration in this project.. Happily, it also fits the theme for the May Write-Away contest over at Scribbit's place. So I am submitting it there as well.

Wish me luck for both ?

Plain Speaking

My sister in law has a hand-crafted wooden sign hanging in her kitchen. It says,

"If Mama ain't happy,
Ain't nobody happy."

I have giggled over that sentiment for years. And now I believe I have found its Dutch equal.

While reading books with 4-year old Andrew an afternoon or two ago, we zipped through our standard repertoire; and then he stepped back to the book shelf for more choices. When he returned, he thrust a book into my lap. It was one I hadn't seen before: Richard Scarry; Eertse Woordjes (First Words). So we snuggled up together on the couch to share it. I read to him the Dutch vocabulary on each page as we watched Little Bunny's day unfold from morning wake up (wakker worden) to night time tuck in (lekker slaap). With each flipped page in the book, Andrew repeated word after word, until we reached the page about breakfast.

He couldn't repeat because I hadn't said a word.
I was laughing too hard.
There on the page before me was printed my new maxim.

The illustration shows Mama Bunny serving Baby Bunny breakfast and above her head the words read:

"Wat Mama maakt,
Dat smaakt."

Literal translation makes that something like: What Mama makes, is delicious.

Or as translated MY WAY: 'You are gonna eat what I give you. No complaints. No groans. No whining!'

Better and clearly the point, right?
It's my new catch-all catch-phrase for all kinds of things around here.

And as soon as I learn to tole paint, I am going to put it on a sign and hang it in my kitchen.

Wednesday, May 16

Tuesday, May 15

Like a Diamond in the Rough


"You tired, babe?"

"Mmmm-hmmm, just a little."

"Why? Just 'cause you went to bed really late last night and then got up really early with [Andrew] and let me sleep in?

"Yeah, that's probably it"

"'You're so nice"

"You got that right. Seriously, I'm such a gem."

"Yes, yes, you are. You are a total Jenn"

Monday, May 14

On Love and Light

I leaned my head back against the the oversized recliner, easing into the luxury experience of a heated massage chair making magic on the tired muscles of my back. The beautiful aesthetician gently lowered my feet, first one and then the other, into the swirling pool of warm water. I would spend the next hour indulging my feet by way of this birthday present from friends. And by way of relaxation I would also be indulging my soul.

I love to have my feet rubbed. Almost nothing compares to the experience for me. It makes me feel completely comforted and loved. Adored even. It is easy to find the source for that feeling. After hours-long rehearsals with bare feet and muscles aching, I would return home to the strong and steady hands of my Daddy. He in turn would spend hours undoing the knots and soothing the pains of this young dancer's body. It was heaven in the experience and is still heaven in the memory of it.

So still it happens that every once in a very great while I treat myself to this very indulgence--an hour in foot rubbing heaven. They are not my Dad's hands, but still they will do. I made the appointment, carried my gift certificate into the Aveda salon, and parked myself in the chair.

As I drifted in and out of the bliss of extravagance, I chatted with the girl at my feet as she rubbed, and scrubbed, and scraped, and dipped, returning my feet to a state of baby-bottom smoothness. And by association melted my stress level to zero.
When the pedicure was complete, but before the happy pink polish on my toes was dry, the technician left me on my own. And with my small cup of strong Dutch coffee as company, I settled in for some quiet reflection time.

That's when it caught my eye.

A wall hanging in the corner of the salon, dyed in black and red with some characters (Chinese?) printed at the top and the bottom of the fabric. Between the characters, this quote:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.

We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be?

You are a child of God; your playing small doesn't serve the world.

There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you.

We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.

It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.

And as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."

~NELSON MANDELA, inaugural speech, 1994*

Of course, I immediately grabbed the notebook from my purse and scribbled it down.

And I have spent days reflecting upon it.

My first instinct was to simply post the quote here at my blog page and let the discussion take its course.
But I wanted to say my piece as well. After all, the masthead on this blog is my declaration that I have something to say. So really, how could I pass on making a comment of my own?

In honesty, words like these hardly need the support of my own to punch them home. I wonder just how amazing it would be to think so clearly and to speak so succinctly that my words could be worthy of a wall hanging. Alas, my brain doesn't work quite that cleanly.

But I deeply appreciate the thoughts of those whose do.

And this person, these words, this quote, is worthy of reflection. It is right that a quote like this should take your breath away and cause you to pause, ponder and search.

This is truth and beauty. We are each such remarkable creatures, and to feel or state otherwise is to make mockery of the miracle we are. The miracle life is. Or could be if we believed in it.

I have reflected before about the joy of discovering that this world is full of goodness and sweetness and good, good people. In spite of the ugliness that I know is there, I like to focus on the beauty which stands in its shadow. And I like to believe that this very beauty could ultimately triumph.

Allow me to expound.

Ever since I posted my wish list about the "things" we miss from the United States I have been blown away by the outpouring of generosity from friends and strangers new friends offering to fill in the gaps for us. Tenderly written words of encouragement and support as well as offers to send over comfort foods, books, and special treats have arrived at my inbox. Also the exceptionally generous offer from an in-country reader, to drive across Holland to our home, bearing gifts for me. Reading gifts!

I am overwhelmed. Truly. Overwhelmed isn't even the right word.
Touched. Moved. Humbled. Amazed. Astounded. Dazed. Blessed.
Maybe there isn't a word to sum up my feelings of gratitude and awe, but I see the entire experience as, yet again, an affirmation of the goodness of humanity.

I see your light shining.

And I thank you all from the bottom of my very full heart.

Now, discuss amongst yourselves.

*UPDATE to give credit where credit is due. It was pointed out to me by a dear friend and regular reader (Hi M!) that the actual author of this quote is Marianne Williamson, not Mr. Mandela. The research I did points perhaps to the film Akeelah and the Bee as the first redirection of the source as in the film these words are attributed to Mandela. . It seems since then it has taken it's own course, since this wall hanging I saw was clearly attributed in dyed ink to Nelson Mandela. Not that the authorship calls into question at all the power of the words.

Friday, May 11

15 Lekker Dutch Words and Phrases

Dutch is a hilarious language to learn. Especially for an English speaker. There are sounds involved heretofore unknown to this English speaker's ears. Consonants like the guttural "g" and dipthongs like "ui" which cause a person to contort her mouth into previously unknown positions. The dead giveaway that you are not a native Dutch speaker is not being able to flow through those sounds without knitting eyebrows together and crinkling the nose into a knot to try and get your lips around it all. Really, the hilarity of it all is knowing the facial antics I run through as I not only try to remember the words to speak, but also the pronunciation rules, is a side-show worthy of Marcel Marceau. Or to update the refererence just a bit: Step aside Mr. Bean! I am speaking Dutch!

Following is a list of some of my favorite words and phrases. Some I chose because they are particularly fun to say, and some are on this list because the 'similarity' to English words which mean something totally different is just too funny to pass up mentioning. Read on and you will see what I mean. I have done my best to give you a pronunciation guide and a definition for each. There shall be no holding me to the mistakes within this post, please. I am not a language teacher, and really only muddle through it myself. The language I mean, not my life. But, you really should try to wrap your trap around these words. After all, I have to.

Oh, where to begin?

1. Goedenmorgen (khoot-ahn-more-khen) Good morning.
Gotta give that guttural "g" a push at the beginning and the middle of this word.

2. Langzaam (Lahng-sahmm) Slowly.
A useful word to use in the phrase "Spreek je langzamer?" (spreak ya lahng-sahmm-er) Will you speak slower?

3. Uitstekend (OWT-steak-ent) Outstanding.
I love this word. It is simply outstanding fabulous.

4. Gereserveerd (Kheh-ress-er-feart) Reserved.
Not to be confused with the word Geserveerd (Kheh-sir-feart) which is Served.
I don't know why but my brain can't keep these two straight. I get confused when I read a menu and it says the entree will be served with a side of potatoes, and I always wonder why I have to reserve the potatoes?

5. Broodje (Brrroat-cha) Bread, or sandwich.
Roll that "r" in the first syllable. It's a lot of fun. And a lot of fun to eat.

6. Geen Geld Gegeven. (Khayn Khelt Khe-khay-vahn) No money given.
I don't know that you would ever hear this as an actual phrase in Dutch, but it's a dandy way to practice the "g" sound. In the early months of living here, this was a constant chant around our house.

7. Vliegtuig (Flea-kh-tukh) Airplane.
Again two "g" 's in a single word. Now that's just silly.

8. Patatkraam (pah-taht-krahm) Frites stand. French Fry place.
Yummy in my tummy.

9. Rond Vaart (rrroant fahrt) Round trip.
Once you get the pronunciation and translation of this one, you alter it slightly and get "round fart". And if you are a 13-year old boy, this cracks you up every time.

10. Aardappel (ahrrt-ahpell) Potato.
Literally: Earth apple. Other favorites on this theme Aardbei (ahrrt-buy) Strawberry or lit: Earth berry; and Aardworm (ahrrt-verm) You guess this one. Yup. Earthworm.
Incidentally, the word for "pretty" is Aardig (ahrrt-ikh) which given the root of the words here, as 'earth' or 'natural' gives that compliment lovely, fresh meaning. As in natural beauty.

11. Hoe heet je? (hoo hate ya) Who are you? or literally 'how are you called'?
This phrase can cause a little consternation on the playground because the benign 'what's your name' question sounds an awful lot like "who hates you?" to a native English speaker.

12. Achtentachtig (ahkht-en-tahkh-tikh) Eighty-eight. As in 88.
Another really great practice word to get your mouth around the 'ch' sound which is oh-so-similar to that lovely "g".

13. Wil je iets eten? (Vill ya eights ate-en) Would you like something to eat?
Seriously this is like my favorite phrase ever, and not just because of the content of the question. I love the way it rolls off the tongue. I look for ways to work it into conversation often. The other phrase working its way into my vocabulary in abundance lately, "Wil je koffie?" (Vill ya kohf-ee)
Yeah, I am pretty much a coffee junkie now. Would you like a cup?

14. Hoe gaat het met jou? (hoo khat het met yow) How is it going or How are you.
Really. That's my question. How are you doing with your Dutch lesson?

15. Gefeliciteerd (kheh-fell-iss-ah-teart) Congratulated or Congratulations.
As in Gefeliciteerd met je verjaardag! (kheh-fell-iss-ah-teart met ya fur-yahr-dahkh) which is to say 'Happy Birthday'. But far more fitting would be U beëindigde uw Nederlandse les. Gefeliciteerd! (oo buh-ayn-dikh-tahn oo nay-der-lahns less) You just finished your Dutch lesson. Congratulations!

Fijne Weekend Allemaal!

Tot straks.