Sunday, April 26

Full Stop

*original writing date: June 2006*

In addition to my wonder and awe for the Dutch and all they are capable of carrying and/or undertaking while riding a bicycle- eg: full cup of coffee in one hand, mobile telephone in the other- is the ability to stop the bike with full grace and dignity. This is yet another facet of the bike envy I feel here.

Most of the Dutch vrouwen (women) and many of the men have an absolutely stellar technique for disembarking. This is accomplished by the subtle lift of the behind from the saddle of the bike and ever so expertly lifting one foot off the pedal, crossing it over and through the bike frame, and finally sliding it effortlessly to the ground taking a smooth step-step-step forward, as they coast the bike to a tender halt.

In similar manner, when mounting the bike they do so with the lead foot crossed over the other and balanced on the pedal. With one foot in contact with the road, the fietsenvrouw will give a kick-hop and swing her foot through the frame, reaching for the opposite pedal while simultaneously placing her derriere upon the saddle. And thus she is expertly on her way.

I have yet to master this enviable feat. Rather, my stops consist more of a white knuckle pull on the handbrakes, leaving several inches of tire skid lines on the path.

Additionally, when my rear end leaves the seat, there is no grace applied. But, with a grunt I fly off the saddle and do some sort of awkward jump-jump-jump forward, generally clipping my tailbone on the front end of the seat. Therefore, my start up tends toward a tearful re-entry as my tender coccyx alights and I attempt to find the least intrusive position for the pain. And then of course, I pray with all my might for no more stoplights.

Oh, to be Dutch.

Thursday, April 23

In the Land of Bikes

*original writing date: 12 March 2006*

There is no doubt about it, we live in the land of bikes. Sometimes, in transit to Emma's school when we've missed a bus and have some time on our hands, we have a count-the-cars-and-bikes contest, just to see if our observation can be backed up by statistics. From our very scientific study--sitting on a bus stop bench and counting out loud-- Emma and I have determined that bikes rule.

Our first counting poll indicated that in a 10 minute period, 101 bikes passed our bus stop, but only 47 cars. The second time we tried our counting, it was a 15 minute period and we were passed by 86 cars and 151 bikes! (Lately, we’ve been arriving at the bus stop in a timely manner and so haven’t been twiddling our thumbs. I mean to say, we haven’t had opportunity to continue our study.) Our findings show that all can rest assured that the bicycle is boss here in Holland.

There are three levels of biking here. First, you have your standard, peddle it yourself bike: the “fiets”. This is powered only by your own strength and stamina. I have commented before on the strength and stamina of the average Dutch person who can strap on myriad number of items and/or children to the bicycle and ride for hours on end. Even after six months here and taking this as the norm, it is still a marvel.

Next, there is what I've heard called the “broomfiets” (pronounced: Broam-feets) which is a regular peddle it yourself bike outfitted with a small motor, so when your strength and stamina just aren’t enough, you can rely on the motor to power you onward.

The third level of all things fiets is the Brommer (pronounced brrroam-errrr) which is your full-on Vespa or Moped kind of thing. These machines though fully motor powered enjoy all the benefits and shortcuts of the ‘level one’ bikes. Brommers are not my favorite. Or rather I should say there are some brommer drivers who do not make the list of my favorite things. It is not uncommon to be mowed over by an inconsiderate brommer driver while pedaling along in the bike lane.

But that should be a whine for another day.

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

And that speed is just right for me.

Tuesday, April 21

O Christmas Tree

*original writing date: 20 December 2005*

Attention one and all! Please add the following to the “Things the Dutch Can Carry While Riding a Bike” list.

Christmas trees. Yes, that's right, friends. Christmas trees.

More than once or even ten times in the last few weeks we have witnessed our city mates balancing atop their bicycles with fresh Kerstboem just purchased from the corner lot, on their way to home or flat to make the place festive for the season.

My own experience in finding a tree for our home goes like this. Just a short distance from our place is a set of shops, which I have described before. Just in time for the season an area has been cleared along the walkway and a tree lot has been established. This tree lot comes complete with a caricature of a little Dutchman selling trees to the neighborhood residents day after day. He wears a full set of snow trousers and parka as he spends his day outdoors trimming and wrapping trees for customers to purchase and carry off.

I approached him armed with my standard phrase in Dutch “Mag ik in Engels spreken?” (May I speak English) which generally goes a long way with the shop keepers and store attendants, and then I am able to ask my questions in the language I understand best. However, to my query, this man said “Nee” (No) and then continued in a jabber of Dutch.

So picture me, standing stock still, eyes as big as saucers and mouth agape, tiny patch of drool forming at the corner, as my brain clicks into gear and I try to sort through the jumble of words pouring from his mouth to translate the ones I recognize into English and make some sense of what he is saying. Ding! The light goes on and he is telling me that he prefers to speak Dutch and I should practice mine. So, actually no, I can’t speak Engels but I am welcome to speak Nederlands to him. (This all takes a bit, as the sorting processors in my brain are quite slow.)

“Nee??” I said

And he nodded at me.

So, digging as deep as I could into my 10 once-a-week language lessons, I did my utmost to conduct a tree buying conversation in Dutch. At some level communication must have taken place, because a few minutes later I had a beautiful little tree, which had been taken from its display stand and properly netted, tucked under my arm and I was on my way home with my first Dutch Christmas tree!

*It here must be noted that having exhausted my vocabulary in getting the tree, I neglected to ask for a “stand” and Don had to go back a little later in the day to seal the deal, so to speak.*

But I was off with my small Christmas bush under one arm and a special delivery package I had just picked up from the post office under the other. I must say, I felt rather festive schlepping them both through the streets to home.

Monday, April 20

Bicycle Balance

*original writing date: 26 August 2005*

Do you remember this passage from the CAT IN THE HAT by Dr. Seuss?

“Look at me! Look at me! Look at me now!
It is fun to have fun but you have to know how!
I can hold up the cupAnd the milk and the cake!
I can hold up these books! And the fish on a rake!
I can hold the toy ship and a little toy man! And look!
With my tailI can hold a red fan!
I can fan with the fan as I hop on the ball!
But that is not all.Oh, no.That is not all…”

Well, I hereby give witness that the Cat in the Hat, as wily as he may be has absolutely NOTHING on the Dutch and their ability to balance ALL while riding a bicycle. It is an amazing thing to watch, actually, as the locals pedal home with their shopping bags full. That’s impressive alone, but I wish I had a photo of some of the things I have seen them carry whilst cycling down the bike lane.

For instance, one man last week was obviously on his way to pick up a child from school and he pedaled his own bike while holding another bike alongside and steering both through the traffic so that when he arrived his child would have a vehicle to return home.

A common practice which we have also adopted is to haul a passenger on the back end or rack end of the bike. It is not at all rare to see a passenger sitting side saddle on a bike, but the racks are most often home to packages of all sorts; groceries, books, briefcases, flowers, etc.

Often, there will also be a bag attached-or in Dutch: fietstas which is like a trunk for a bicycle. That’s where a full load of groceries can be carried, or a picnic lunch, or school books. In our case, it’s a handy place for diapers, wipes and extra jackets.

Of course there are the seats for the babies and toddlers and though I can cart Andrew around on my bike, my mouth hangs agape as I watch the parents toodle by with a child not only on the back of the bike but also one strapped in a seat at the front! I was deeply chagrined recently when, as I walked my bike through a sharp curve and up a sloping canal bridge, because I didn’t have the leg power to negotiate the curve or the hill, I was passed by a somewhat rotund Dutch woman carting a toddler on the front and a Kindergartner on the back of her bike and not even breaking a sweat! Ah, me.

Also, Netherlanders, not to be outdone by commuters in the States are very handy with a cell phone while negotiating traffic on the bicycle. I haven’t yet seen anyone trying to do their make-up while riding, but I am certain that too could be done. Eight-year old Emma’s observation tonight is actually quite a tell all of this culture. She said “I guess you know you’re in Holland when you see someone riding a bike AND smoking a cigarette!” In her estimation, the two activities are usually mutually exclusive, but not here in Holland. No, the cardiovascular benefits of riding are cancelled out by the inhalation of nicotine.

It also should be mentioned that it is entirely possible for the locals to carry and consume a steaming cup of coffee while pedalling along.

Yes, these are the bits of the culture for which we will always stand at the outside.

Now, finally, I mention the piece de résistance in balancing all things a top a bicycle. Don and I, with Andrew in tow were on a bike outing last week when along the bike path came a man, one hand on the handlebars and one hand holding a rather large object alongside as he pedaled down the road. It was about 3 feet tall x 2 feet wide x 2 feet deep. He had a rope strapped around it and he held onto that with one hand as he maneuvered down the path. Friends, it was a small filing cabinet! I literally stopped my bike and stared as he passed.

That kind of balance is, in my estimation, the sum total of being Dutch.

Thursday, April 16

Accidental Exposure

*writing date: 25 October 2005*

It's October now and the outside temperature is steadily cooling down every day. But before the shift in the thermometer and the onset of the rains, we woke not-so-long-ago on a Saturday morning to a blue-sky-high-wispy-clouds-very-warm-late-summer-day and thought “Ah, good day for the beach!” So we prepared our beach bags, donned beach attire and climbed on the bicycles ready for the ride out to Katwijk.

(It is an unbelievable pleasure to be only a few kilometers from the ocean.)

As we approached the beachfront town and followed the streets down to the shore, we became slightly suspicious that we were not alone. No, indeed, it seemed as if ALL of Holland had the same “Ah, good day for the beach” thought that we had. As far as the eye could see in every conceivable direction, there were people! I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that there must have been a million people on the beach that day. Okay, maybe I am exaggerating a little bit, but it was at least thousands. There were beachcombers, sunbathers, swimmers, surfers, seashell hunters, footballers, picnickers, sandcastle builders and beach babies occupying a spot in the sand and sun.

Undaunted, we locked our bikes, gathered our towels, our toys and our courage and set off to stake out a tiny bit of sand to call our own. As we walked through the sand toward the shore line, literally making our way through a sea of people here, we (meaning Don and I) became quite aware that there appears to be no dress code for beach wear in Holland. I think it reads something like this:

Rule1: If you just don’t want to wear a suit to the beach, well, you just don’t have to.

Yes, that’s right I am talking about *gasp* nudity. Mostly just topside nakedness, except for some of the toddlers who were completely buck naked—but as for shock value that doesn’t count at all, does it? But indeed nakedness all the same. I realize that this makes me sound like a bit of a prude, which I don't think I am--in fact most certainly am not, but I was feeling especially protective of my kids, who to this point in their lives hadn't experienced such a thing before.

So we exchanged a look, grimaced just a bit and wondered in whispers together what to tell our pre-adolescent, American born and raised son, and postured that perhaps not saying anything at all might mean he wouldn't notice. (yeah… it could happen!)

You’ve got this pictured in your head right? And you are getting a good giggle from the story, yes?

Well, we opted for the ever courageous, “don’t say anything” stance and pressed forward to find a spot to plant ourselves. Once found we sent the kids off into the water and waited it out. After some frolicking in waves and water, Ian came back up the beach from the water and ever so casually said “So...I guess no one has to wear a shirt here” to which we mumbled something of an ascent while surreptitiously checking his facial expressions to make certain we hadn’t overdone the exposure (pun intended) to European culture. All that said, he took it in stride and went back out to enjoy this stolen day in the sun. We, of course being the sophisticated parents we are, giggled. Until our shoulders shook.

I suppose this, the attire and the attitude, is all in keeping with the “nothing to hide” tradition of the Dutch. In general, the Dutch seem to have a much greater ability to embrace the uniqueness of their own bodies and don't seem to feel the need to “cover up” that we seem to feel excessively in the States. Indeed, it seems a much healthier sense of self image. That day at the beach, those who were clad in beach attire, didn’t seem to mind that their bodies didn’t fit the model thin image some feel necessary to possess before donning skimpy swimsuits. As a result, we saw a parade of people in clothing not exactly at the cutting edge of fashion and taste, but they were having a damn good time hanging out on the beach for one of the final summer days of the year. Enviable and perhaps something to aspire to, if ever I can shed the shadows of the culture I come from.

All that being said however, I really have to draw the line at middle aged pot-bellied men in Speedos.

Sorry, gents. I am so American.

Wednesday, April 15


*writing date: 30 August 2005*

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

Tuesday, April 14

Welcome Abroad

**Original publishing date: 1 March 2007 **

As I have been working on getting this blog ready for publication ie; pulling up old emails and sorting through journal entries from the past year and a half, I have been struck by just how very typical my adjustment as a foreign national has been. The expat help books all talk about the inevitable surge and wave of emotion a person will experience regarding his/her host country. At the beginning of the experience, the books promise, the expat will feel great admiration and love for the new place. Everything will be a grand adventure. All will be wonder, mystery and awe as the new resident discovers things about the new culture and country.

Inevitably to follow such a honeymoon experience is the fall from grace for the adopted locality. Mind you, nothing about the country changes directly, but in phase II the expat will feel quite differently about the host country. Thoughts such as "how does this place even FUNCTION?" or "this country can do NOTHING right" creep in. Sometimes these are voiced aloud. More to the point the expat may rant: "These people are strange. This food is terrible. This weather sucks. I WANT TO GO HOME!" or some such diatribe rife with emotion. Big swirling, deep emotions.

Ultimately a balance is struck, probably tenuous at best, wherein the expatriate settles into life in the new culture, no longer idealizing it nor demonizing it. Just letting it be.

So, very typical am I. Reading things like this, this, and this points the way clear to my absolute LOVE of ALL THINGS DUTCH. Months later, admitting things like this show the beginning of the decline. As for the decline itself? I didn't write about it then, and haven't yet written about the chasm of grumpiness I was in for a few months while I adjusted to the idea of becoming a more permanent resident of this country, rather than a one-year adventurer. I tend to be a "glass half-full" person and have been oft-accused of having a positive outlook. Not writing about the negative things let me hang onto that image. I will say that I am out of the abyss now and have struck my bargain balance with living in The Netherlands. Perhaps I will write about the void someday; but for now, understand that this blog for me will be the outlet I am seeking to write about, well, everything. The setting to express my emotion about living with the Dutch which can be simultaneously stimulating and deeply disturbing. The venue to point out what works so well here, and what simply does not. The spot to tell the things on my mind.

This will be the place for me to say my something about all of it.

If you care to comment, I welcome your words.

Welcome to my life.

Monday, April 13

Right Down the Line

In between the moments that I am clearing closets, throwing out the junk, and determining which of our many accumulated items will be moving across the ocean with us, I am contemplating the experience of this life abroad. I don't know that there will be time at this time to reflect in writing the wanderings of my emotional mind, but I am enjoying the memories of the time spent here, the adjustments to life as an ex-pat, the adapting to another culture... all of it.

What I want to do next with this blog, I just don't know yet. But what I want to do now is this. I want to wander down the memory lane of my life in Holland.

And I want you to wander with me.

For the next few days (weeks, even?)I am pulling from the archives some of the early observations I took time to write down. Maybe you've read it all before, but indulge me and read it again, won't you?

I have liked it here. I have liked it a lot. And before I leave, I want to like it all over again.

Thank you dear readers and friends for being with me through this experience.
There's no doubt in my mind, it's been you who've made all the difference.

SMID's Music Monday

Sunday, April 12

Step by Step


Step one:
Trim the branches from the grapevine

Step two:
If you are using kitchen shears to do your gardening, expect them to shatter.

Step three:
Switch to proper garden clippers to finish the job. Bring branches inside.

Step four:
Trim branches and arrange in vase.

Step five:
Hang eggs on the branches!

Use a steady hand.

Focus with all your concentration.

Giggle sometimes.

Step six:
Set your tree and add some extras.

Now, you are all ready for Easter surprises!

Happy Easter everyone!

Thursday, April 2


Don says: "Hey buddy, I hear you're going to the zoo today with your class at school."

Drew says: "Uh... yeah, I am. I'm going to the zoo!"

(*Andrew punches the air for emphasis*)

I say: "Hey Drew, tell Daddy about your name tag for the zoo."

Drew says: "Um. It says my name."

I say: "Right, what else does it say? Does it say you speak English?"

Drew says: "Uh, yeah, it says that. But I speak English AND Dutch."

(*I giggle*)

Don says: "Ah, spreek je Nederlandse?"

Drew says: "Ummmm...yeah, I said I speak English AND Dutch."

(*I guffaw*)

Wednesday, April 1

Back at ya, baby


What are the words Wednesday?

USA here we come.