Friday, May 15

There's Something Happening Here

It's walk-down-memory-lane time at this blog. As we prepare for another trans-atlantic move, this blogger is reminiscing about the first days and months here in her host country. As a reader, you are along for the ride. The posts which follow are the original entries on this site, which in turn were yanked from emails and notes home when we first arrived. Things have changed a bit since that first year, it would be fairest to say, we've changed a bit.

All for all, it's been a great ride to be an expat. I am glad we were here.


Monday, May 11

Spring Has Brought Me Such a Nice Surprise

*original writing date: June 2006*

I don’t know if I have ever, in the words of Thornton Wilder, “realized life” as deeply as I have attempted to do here. That phrase from the play Our Town has resonated in my mind more than once as I have felt the surge of life in the returning spring.

Perhaps it is because this was the first winter I have spent in many years where the word actually meant something. The dark days, the unbelievably cold temperatures, the fierce wind and freezing rain all combined to give us an experience heretofore unknown in my desert-raised kids’ lives. It was winter of a type that I personally hadn’t experienced since leaving Salt Lake City and its cold and gray winter months, back in 1984. So to say that the return of the spring was a welcome thing is to make an understatement of epic proportions. And now I am here to tell all that Spring Happens.

The first evidence that the seasons were going to change was the crocus that began popping through the frozen ground in late February. Little color spots pushing their way through the soil to reach out to the sun. It was an absolute delight to watch those flowers beat the odds of growing in freezing temperatures and hardened earth. Indeed, for me they were little pockets of inspiration along the streets. Following the crocus was the daffodil, or narcis, as they are called in Dutch. Gorgeous bands of yellow and white stretching along the canals and highways, nodding their perfect cup and saucer heads at passersby. After the daffodil the tulips arrived. And let me tell you this; all the postcards, all the photo books, all the legend tales you have heard about the fields of color—it’s all accurate and true. Amazing. Unbelievable. Overwhelming. There is no superlative strong enough to convey the absolute beauty of the tulip fields and gardens. We toured Keukenhof gardens and the open fields of Lisse by bike one afternoon in May. It was absolutely unbelievable. The fields literally look as if someone took a giant paintbrush and swept vibrant washes of color across the land. Even the best photos can hardly capture the intense beauty of that land in springtime.

Not to be outdone by the reputation of the tulip, the final stage of spring flowers brought the lily and iris. These lined the canals and towered over the returning green of the grasses and groundcovers announcing that the majesty of spring had indeed arrived. This phase of the flowering is the spring finale.

The arrival of the lily coincides with the temperatures hitting steady warmth and the shedding of the heavy winter coats. At this point in the parade of flowers it seemed something within all of us awakened and opened up for the sun. In the same way that the flowers unfolded and blossomed, the people returned to life.

It’s a remarkable thing to witness the reawakening of a city.

Streets that stood empty and lonely during the cold winter, all of a sudden were alive with people.

The café tables moved to the streets for leisure dining in the fresh air.

The canal again busy with boats also hosted the occasional adventurous swimmer.

Garden benches and front walks became perfect spots for neighbors to engage in pleasant conversation. Just as you imagine those conversations revolved around the weather and generally began with the phrase “Lekker weer, he?” Which means “fantastic weather, don’t you think?

I used to consider myself a lover of the autumn, but now having lived a springtime in Holland, I have discovered a new identity. The moment that topped it all for me was watching the Horsechestnut trees blossom with perfect cones of pink flowers balanced on the branches. And then when just passing their prime moment of glory the petals fell ever so gracefully to the ground, littering the streets with delicate baby-pink confetti. It’s a Mother Nature party favor.

Yup, I am a spring girl after all.

Wednesday, May 6

The Dutch Way: drie

*original writing date: 9 March 2006*

So as to be fair to the Dutch, I move now on this list to the things about the Dutch way that I am entertained by, or that I deeply appreciate.

In truth there are many, but I will mention just a few.

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

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

I can never say enough how much fun it is to indulge in the bike culture of this country. The fun of darting through traffic, figuring out how to balance the groceries, carrying a child on the back, and exploring the countryside by self-powered wheels is exquisite.

That's enough to keep me captivated for years yet.

Sunday, May 3

The Dutch Way: twee

*original writing date: 9 March 2006*

Second on my ‘Dutch way’ list is the traditional line or ‘queue’ as the British would say.

The Dutch don’t seem to have a word for it ‘cause they just don’t do it.

Occasionally, you may see a proper line form in front of the cash register at the neighborhood shops or behind an ATM machine, but that’s as far as it goes. In general, while waiting for a turn at the Butcher’s counter, at the cheese shop, or at any of the stalls in the Market, you must be courageous and bold to get yourself positioned at the counter. You must be willing to push past the masses who in turn are trying to push past you and answer the question “Wie is aan de buurt? (Who is next?) with a very loud “Ik!!” (Me!!)

As for boarding a bus or a train? Well, forget everything your mother taught you about courtesy or waiting for your turn. You must join the pressing throng all trying to occupy the same space at once and position yourself so that as soon as the door slides open you can move forward and fight your way in. I think there are points awarded for the number of people you can step in front of or elbow out of the way as you vie for position. And, by all means please begin the press before allowing passengers on the vehicle to disembark. Oh, my, allowing others to “uitstappen” (exit) before you clamor to get on could very well cost you a seat.

As Emma and I await our second bus in the mornings, I grab the back of her coat as the bus approaches, push her forward a step and whisper “be Dutch” in her ear.

This has proven to be an effective method in getting ourselves properly placed in the crowd and we can beat others to the seats on a busy morning bus.

Yup, we're pretty much Dutch.

Friday, May 1

The Dutch Way: een

*original writing date: 9 March 2006*

We have passed our six month mark here in the Netherlands and it would be fair to say we have learned a great deal in the past six months. Collectively and individually we have discovered many things about ourselves and about the world at large. Chief among these discoveries is the realization that there is a ‘way’ to do things in life and then there is the “Dutch way”.

Take for instance: toilets. Not everyone’s favorite subject I know. But it must here be discussed that Dutch toilets are a wonder to behold. In a country where there is no water shortage and indeed no threat of drought, these are the most extreme water saving apparatus on the planet. Indeed, these are low flow toilets taken to the lowest extreme. Most toilets here consist of a tank and seat as you would expect, but the bowl itself is built with a "shelf" above the water, where all leavings must first fall.

I know, ooo-ick, but bear with me please.

I borrow here heavily from “The Undutchables” by Colin White and Laurie Boucke (a must-read for any ex-pat or long term visitor to Holland) to explain the Dutch way of bathrooms and other unmentionable acts within.

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

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