Saturday, July 11

That's Where You'll Find Me

Please come visit the new blog and read the new stories.

I'll see you there.

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."

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.