Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Whine and Chocolate or The Great Ghent Christmas Disaster

My kids love history… sometimes.

It’s hard to predict when they will embrace something, or when they will start marking the minutes until we return to the car and start the journey home.

Yesterday was a freak show.

Ghent is this lovely little Flemish city. It is filled with charming 16th century architecture, three rivers, medieval bridges, gothic churches, and art masterpieces. It was even rated one of Lonely Planet's Top 10 Cities to see in 2011.

I tried to sell this little Belgian daytrip to my kids by offering a trip to a castle, a climb of a historic tower, Belgian chocolate, and later, as my arguments fell on disinterested ears, french fries.

I knew we were in trouble when we had not even left the parking garage before Jack started asking how long it would be until we could go back home.

In their defense, it was cold: damp and cold.  But surely we should be able to see a few things?

The castle Gravensteen is everything you’d want in a medieval structure. It was rough and ragged around the edges, “a Keep” Jack called it. It was built for defense, but later used as a prison.

Unlike the Tower of London, there were was no glossing over of the Gravensteen’s gory history here. They made it very clear that this place was used for torture and execution. They had a very informative display of torture devices, how long the torture could be endured, and which room was used for which application. When they started using life sized manikins to make their point, I had to get Audrey out of the room. They did have a cool guillotine complete with a burlap sack to catch the head. You don’t get an education like this every day. Any questions, kids?

The whole place made me glad that we live here and now when places like Gravensteen are museums and any form of capital punishment is debated, considered and reconsidered.

My kids, on the other hand, were wishing themselves dead.

The whining had been a background noise throughout the castle, but now we were back out on the street. The thought that we would just wander around the old city until we saw a few things was too much for Jack. He started to plan a mutiny. When Audrey started crying because her hands were cold, I thought it was time to pack it up and go home.

Thank God for Belgian chocolate. We ducked into a little shop called Van Hoorebeke on Sint Baafsplein. This Victorian chocolate shop had curved glass counters and shelves filled with fresh chocolates. The aroma from the kitchen below was absolutely divine. While Audrey warmed up, Jack and Jordan made selections from the counter. For five euros in chocolate, I had bought myself some time.

We ventured in to the Gothic church of St. Bavo, where I had heard the Flemish masterpiece “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” had recently been restored. Access to the side chapel with the “Adoration” was four euros per person. I approached Walt and made my pitch. “Walt, there is a very famous early Flemish masterpiece here. It’s four euros to see it.” I watched Walt’s eyes glass over as I spoke.

There is an advantage to 15 years of marriage. You tend to be able to read your partner. I changed my tact and offered, “We could pay that four euros, or I could show you pictures of it on-line when we get home.” Walt broke into a large grin and we moved on.

If you’ve seen the “Adoration” by the van Eyck brothers, let me know if it was worth the money. I’m dying to know.

So that was our afternoon. The kids outright refused a trip up the belfry of the Cloth Hall, a world heritage site. We spent a few minutes at the merry-go-round. Then it was time to pack the kids up and head home. Jack smiled for the first time that afternoon.

Later, I had an interesting conversation with the kids about what kind of travel they like to do. They agreed that all trips should involve an amusement park with roller coasters, oh, and lots of kitty cats.

I think Flemish and Dutch Medieval cities are done for while. Too bad considering that there are about 50 amazing cities just like that around here. Sigh…

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Snowed In

Northern Europe has been paralyzed with snow.  Here are some pictures of our village this morning.  We've gotten about 8 in. (20 cm) of snow since Friday.  I'm so grateful that Walt was able to fly in from Africa Friday before the snow and we are all happily snowed in together.

A Dutchman told me this morning that in his 60+ years in Holland, he's never seen snow like this.

Because this is what they do...

Since no one here plows or shovels, the roads are fit only for pull sleds.  I'm asking Santa for two ponies and a sleigh for Christmas.

Merry Christmas, Everyone!

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Sint

The Netherlands has some pretty unusual holidays.

We have Queens Day, where everyone celebrates the Queen’s birthday by wearing orange and selling items in a flea market. We have Second Christmas, where everyone shops for furniture at Ikea.

And then there is Sinterklaas.

Much has been written about St. Nicholas.  Many cultures celebrate him calling him by names such as “Santa” or “Father Christmas”. But no one, no one, comes close to the imagination and creativity of the Dutch.

In Holland, Sinterklaas arrives well before his feast day, usually in mid November. Does he arrive by sleigh with elves from the North Pole? Don’t be ridiculous. He comes by boat, from sunny Spain, with his white horse, and his troop of Swarte Piets (read here, white Dutch men in black face).

Swarte Piet
 So starting in mid-November, Sinterklaas and his troop of “Black Peters” travel from house to house at night. The Piets jump to the rooftops and climb down the chimneys checking on the behavior of children in the house. They may leave a small treat in a child’s shoes left by the fire. Or, if a child is bad, they may leave a small bundle of sticks, a reminder of the beating that Piet may give that child if the offending behavior continues.

If a child should meet with the Sint at school or at a party, he will read from the “Big Book of all the Children in the World”. In that book, the Sint has a list of all behavior good and bad. The Sint will lean into the kids a little about what needs to be done differently and praise the child for what has been done well.

On the eve of December 6th, Swarte Piet comes to the door, rings the bell, and throws in a burlap bag of gifts and poems, along with a shower of ginger cookies.

If a child has been bad, so the legend goes, Swarte Piet will grab that child, throw him in the sack, beat him with a switch, and carry him off to sunny Spain. Personally, I wouldn’t mind the sunny Spain part, I haven’t seen the sun since August.

Gifts wrapped to identify the recipient
 I love this holiday for many reasons. First, in Dutch style, it is family oriented not gift oriented. A Sinterklaas celebration is a time to gather the family. Even families with older children have fun writing poems that tease the recipient. Gifts may be disguised as almost anything. If a person loves the guitar, the gift may come hidden as a giant paper-mache instrument. Or a gift may be hidden in the house with only clues given for the location. A meal is shared. Traditional songs are sung. Families with children of all ages look forward to this night all year.

The Piet Band
Second, it is NOT a politically correct holiday. In the United States, traditions are frequently so politically correct that they have all of the texture and diversity of oatmeal. The Dutch know that Swarte Piet is shocking to many people. But they value the tradition over political correctness.  This mischievous character is the Ying to St. Nicholas’ Yang. He is foolish and playful. At our church service on Sunday, a Piet amused himself while the priest spoke by walking along the altar rail like a tight rope. The children love him; and the children within the grown-ups love him as well.

Third, as David Sedaris wrote in his essay “Six to Eight Black Men”, the Dutch have the very best bedtime story.  I have personally had the privilege of telling my 10 year old son, “Well, The Sint is coming tonight. He might bring you presents, or he might throw you in a sack, beat you with a stick, and drag you off to Spain. You might want to pack a few things, just in case.”

A gift tagged with a poem for Jack
 So now we've moved on to decorating for Christmas. My three year old Audrey is thoroughly confused as to whom Santa might be versus Sinterklaas and if any Swarte Piets might be coming down the chimney to fill her stocking with candy. 

All is well, though. My children have learned a little about a completely different kind of holiday, cultural diversity, and bonding as a family over a few small gifts tagged with a poem from St. Nick.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Mind the Gap

The Tower at night
We finally did it.

We took the kids on a full-fledged metropolitan holiday.

I admit I’ve been avoiding it like a third rail. I had deep seated fears of losing a child in some horrible way: a misstep off a curb, separated in a crowd, a tumble down a retaining wall into the river. I’ve got a good imagination and cities just always seemed so, well, big and full of hazards. Farms and old battlefields seemed much more reasonable.

My kids proved me wrong.

Here are the top 15 things I learned about taking kids to London:

15. Massive seething crowds in Victoria Station will stress a mom out ten times more than husband or kids.

14. Kids will always eat “fish and chips”.

13. The 30 minute London Eye “flight” will entertain your kids for approximately 15 minutes.

View from The Eye
 12. Your three year-old will run for miles in underground tunnels, jump up and down stairs, and launch off escalators with boundless energy. If you ask her to come into the next room to get her hair brushed, she will complain it is too far.

11. The scavenger hunt in the crypt-filled Westminster Abby is much more interesting than one in the Egyptian rooms of the British Museum. Audrey is still talking about the “dead treasure hunt.”

10. Your ten year-old can become your expert subway map reader.

9. If you are a kid, a taxi ride can be the most exciting part of the day.

8. Yeomen and guides at the Tower of London love to talk about the history of the place. Give them a ten year-old with an interest in the topic and they can talk all day.

7. The moving walkway that pulls tourists along in front of the cases of the Crown Jewels can be its own kind of amusement ride.

6. Poles on subway trains make good places to dance and spin.

5. The Texas Embassy Cantina on Cockspur Street makes a fine Thanksgiving dinner and serves a mean margarita;)   Margaritas may become a new Thanksgiving tradition in this family.

Skating at The Tower
 4. Three rubber bouncy balls can entertain three children in a carpet-free split-level “flat” for hours.

3. You can make your seven year-old daughter laugh out loud by telling her that in England police are called “Bobbies” and trucks are called “Lorries”.

2. Ice skating, even done badly, in front of the Tower of London ramparts at dusk is delicious.

Ok, and number one:

Having your kids fall asleep on the couch in an exhausted heap at the end of an adventure filled day is immensely satisfying.

So, London was not nearly as scary as I thought it would be. But now, where to next? I must think….

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Through the window at night

You would think that a small country stuffed with 17 million people would be obsessed with privacy.

In many ways, it is. The Dutch are very aware of privacy in their gardens and certainly the security of their bank accounts.

But, then there is the situation of the front windows.

Almost every house in our village has a large front picture window. This is a good thing considering how dark it gets here in the winter. We need all the light we can get in these houses.

But almost no one covers these windows. No sheers, curtains or blinds separate passer-bys from the house inhabitants. Every person out for an evening stroll can look right in on the tableau of a family eating their dinner, watching tv, or in the case of our house, having a big argument over why a certain 10 year old should be “forced” to study Dutch.

I’ve heard several explanations of why the Dutch do not cover their windows.

The first was historical, stating that during the Spanish occupation of Holland in the 16th century, all Dutch homes were ordered by law to have undressed windows so that the Spanish occupiers could enforce a nighttime curfew and prevent the rebellious Dutch from organizing.

The second was cultural, that Dutch families were so proud of their tidy and cozy (in Dutch “gezellige”) homes that they encouraged all of their neighbors to look in and see.

The third was a kind of subtle boastfulness. The Calvinistic Dutch, as a rule, do not like to be conspicuous. It is not very Dutch to own a fancy car or wear an expensive watch. Even Princess Maxima will occasionally ditch the limo and ride a bike to my grocery store sans tiara. This does not stop the Dutch from being competitive, though. Maybe they keep their curtains open at night so that everyone can see how affluent they've become.

Whatever the reasons for the naked windows, tradition or pride, naked these windows are.

When we first arrived, Walt looked dubiously at our blaringly empty living room window and it's immediate view of the sidewalk. He’s always been a private person. Of course I naively reassured him, “Oh Sweetie, these people have been living on top of each other for so long, they must know not to look in the windows at night.” I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Do these neighbors, friends, and outright strangers avert their eyes as they parade past my house? No, they look right in. You can almost hearing them asking, “Hey, watcha eating? Is that a cannoli?” I’m surprised I’ve not yet found nose prints on the window. Strangers will frequently stop and admire what we are watching on tv. Friends biking past will smile and acknowledge me as I’m straightening up the house in my bathrobe and bunny slippers. I’ve stopped coming downstairs with a towel in my hair.

The thing is I love that naked window. It’s huge. It brings an extraordinary amount of light into the house on the darkest of days. It looks out on two lovely pine trees. It breaks my heart to think of covering it with sheers and diffusing that low clear light found only here in Holland.

Tonight I’ve been looking out into the darkness, watching my neighbors watch me as they walk their dogs. One stopped to wave.

Maybe it’s time.

The Christmas Market in Aachen, Germany

 I spent yesterday in Aachen, Germany enjoying the Christmas Market there.   Here are a few images of my visit.

Hand cranked Street Organ.  Don't be fooled by his big smile,
this guy was working hard.

The window displays here were so beautiful,
I had to include a few.


Fresh Roasted Chestnuts!  Despite their lovely aroma,
I've learned they are the one food I can't stand.

In this ancient city, this modern fountain added some whimsey.

Detail of fountain

Hand blown Christmas Ornaments

Candy Shop

These Springerle molds remind me of my Grandfather and his
rock hard anise Christmas cookies

The patterns haven't changed much in the last 200 years.

Aachen Cathedral - Contruction of inner octagonal
church completed in 800 AD.

The Throne of Charlemange

Ossuary of Charlemange
Hope you enjoyed the photos.  Aachen was just amazing.  I'm looking forward to going back sometime soon with the whole family!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

This is Halloween

Halloween has never been my holiday.

I’ve never been one for dressing up or planning a big party. Even getting the kids their costumes was a chore. But living abroad changes things. I’ve realized that Halloween, although a Celtic holiday in origin, is part of my American identity.

The Dutch, being Dutch, do not celebrate Halloween. The closest thing they have is St Martin’s Day. On eve of November 12th each year Dutch children carry lanterns in groups and travel door to door. There they sing songs about St. Martin, a fourth century saint, in return for candy. This has not happened at our house yet, but I’m waiting.

St. Martin's Day in NL
In most of Holland and the surrounding Netherlands, you will not find jack-o-lanterns or spooky decorations. Candy corn is a rare and valued commodity. This is mostly procured by families associated with the American Embassy who have access to the commissary at the US military base in Germany. Lucky sods.

Because I live in a bit of an ex-patriot community, the local shop owners try to cater to American tastes. Last year a tiny costume shop opened in our village. Now, for the first time, it is possible to get cotton spider webs and scary masks without making a special order to England. Even the candy shop now has a limited selection of skeleton licorice and ghost shaped marshmallows.

My children’s school makes Halloween happen here by sheer force of its will. They organize candy donations, petition hundreds of families to open their homes, make a map of participating households, and distribute bags of candy to each open house. Each participating family must be registered on-line and then donate 2 ½ pounds of candy per kid to the school collection site.

Our local cemetary
Expats come in from all over the area to trick-or-treat in our village. The street parking disappears. As evening approaches, hundreds of ghosts, fairies, and witches appear out of nowhere. On some streets, you could lose your children in the crowd. The line at the doors can be 10 children deep. Two families I know kept track of how many children came to their door this year. One family told me they had 420. Another said they stopped counting at 500.

 Although Halloween is not uniquely American, it seems the tradition of the adult Halloween costume party is. My German friend is fascinated by the psychological need of adults to create another persona, an alter ego, through costumes. She believes that since Americans do not celebrate Marti Gras or Carnival, they attach their need for an evening in costume to a holiday otherwise reserved for children. Our American need for an alter ego must be very strong here. There were many costume parties and the adults came out in the most amazing array of thoughtful and creative disguises.

This year, we had a wonderful Halloween! Jordan designed her own costume. She and I spend a few afternoons making child sized butterfly wings out of discarded cardboard and construction paper. Audrey spent a happy hours in our dress-up box choosing items for her princess costume, only to change her mind a the last minute and dress as a ballerina.

Walt and our lovely hostess in costume

For the first time in years, Walt and I went to a costume party in costume. We spent the week before Halloween planning and ordering accessories. Walt even bought face paint and started viewing tutorials on youtube.com about applying makeup.

It has become meaningful to me to decorate with pumpkins and jack-o-lanterns, to give time and thought to costumes, and most importantly to participate. There was something so comforting about celebrating this holiday. More than Thanksgiving or Fourth of July, this holiday has come to mean home to me. And I am so proud to share it.