Saturday, July 31, 2010

Haarlem and the Picnic Lunch

Holland has been full of surprises. One recent surprise was the city of Haarlem. I honestly knew a lot more about the Harlem in New York City than its Dutch namesake. But there we were, after a mad dash for the train, standing in Haarlem’s art nouveau train station, wondering which way was the town Centrum.

About 12 miles west of Amsterdam, this city is a treasure trove of European history. Occupations, sieges, public executions, black plague, huge fires, divine interventions: Haarlem has it all.

Ahhh, yes, the history, but today we are traveling with small children, so no history for us. We will settle for a pleasant walk.

First stop was the Grote Market. Pretty as a jewel box, it is well appointed with the brick and slate of 16th century Dutch architecture. At one end is the town hall. Behind that is the building that was once the Count of Orange’s Hunting Lodge. Very cool. By chance, today was Market Day, so the town square was bustling with 40 different vendors. The stalls were filled with produce, meat, chicken, fish, cheese, and clothing of all kinds. There was even a stall for bike locks and accessories. We found a “World Market” stall selling fair trade hand crafts from around the world. The kids fell in love with an Indonesian thunder stick and an African animal skin drum.

Next stop, The Grote Kerk of St. Bavo. There has been a Christian church on this site since the 9th century, but this Gothic structure was consecrated in 1559. I loved it because it had an amazing herring bone wooden ceiling dated 1509. The kids loved it because they could spread out and explore. The floor of the cathedral contains about 1600 graves, each one marked with a full body sized floor stone. Jack and Jordan amused themselves by jumping from grave to grave, saying, “Sorry… Sorry… Sorry...”. I pulled Jack aside and told him that he just needs to watch out, because at some point a hand could reach out from under a stone and “GRAB HIM AROUND THE ANKLE”. At this point I grabbed him on the ankle and he jumped about a mile. Gotta love being a parent:)

This day I planned ahead and packed a picnic lunch. Every time I pack a lunch, I wonder why I don’t do it more often. We spread our blanket out on the steps of the statue of Laurens Janszoon Coster and ate cous cous salad and/or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. A Spanish guitar player serenaded us as we ate al fresco. We enjoyed the sunshine and watched the crowd go by.

After quick walk to the VVV (tourist information bureau), it was time to go home. The kids were getting tired. We’ve learned that it’s better to leave a half an hour too early than a half an hour too late.

Haarlem is a great little gem of a city. I’m looking forward to going back, maybe without the kids, and seeing the inside of those antique buildings.

Walt and I saw someone on the train with a bakfiets (Dutch cargo bike) like mine. I wouldn’t have thought that my bike could fit on a train, but his did just fine. Bakfiets by train…. The possibilities are endless.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Zen and the Art of Traveling with Children

Rick Steves, the travel writer, says that people frequently ask him where to take their children during their European vacation. His answer is “to Grandmom’s house on the way to the airport.”

Traveling Europe with small children is chocked full of complications. What will they eat if everything on the menu is French and covered with sauce? How do you fit three children and two adults into a European sized hotel room? What do you do if your six year-old is tired of walking and is now begging to ride in the baby’s stroller? Where will you ever find a bathroom in a country where public bathrooms do not exist?

I would love to introduce you to the women on the playground at my children’s school. They collectively know more about traveling Europe with children than any travel author I’ve ever found. Children throwing temper tantrums in a long immigration line? Pull a latex balloon out of your purse and start a slow motion volley ball game. Worried about your potty training toddler on that long road trip? The best rest stops in Europe are in France. Going to Paris? Don’t waste your time at the Louvre, take the sewer tour and then climb to the roof Notre Dame Cathedral for a view of the city.

My biggest discovery here has been the Giet, or self-catering apartment.

Giets are everywhere in Europe, but I love the ones in the countryside. These rural gemstones can be almost any kind of building, from a modern apartment on a German family farm to an 18th century French pigeon coop. They offer enough space for our family of five, as well as the holy grail of all travel with children, a kitchen. This allows us to cook our own breakfast and dinner each day (saving hundreds of Euros and tons of wasted food).

If you have a willful and frequently defiant three year old, like I do, a giet also offers enough privacy to put that special someone on time-out without disturbing other guests.

When we first started traveling here, I made the mistake of booking a hotel room in an 18th century cloister in Luxembourg. The walls were paper thin. The frail antique doors did not even fit the door frames. Every footfall in the corridor could be heard two floors below. To make a long story short, we left early because our little one acted like a two-year old. On that trip, we learned a valuable lesson: just because a hotel offers a “family guest room” does not mean that they really want a family in it.

While planning a trip to Normandy, I found a recommendation for a giet that was a Pigeonnier, an ancient French pigeon coop. I was thrilled to see that the stone walls were two feet thick! “Ahhh, this is the place for us”, I thought. The kids could make all the noise they needed or wanted to make! We could cook our meals at home. There were two lovely bedrooms on separate floors. The farm offered a swing set, a barn full of animals, and a pond for fishing. Best of all, it was cheaper than a Motel 6. We went and had a fantastic time.

Another thing I’ve learned about travel with little ones is to allow them to be kids. Places that involve running and jumping will become immediate favorites. Distances further than ¼ mile are best covered by stroller for little ones and razor scooters for big ones. (Yes, we bring our razor scooters everywhere we can). Avoid museums where you can’t touch anything and guided tours that involve standing still as if they involved electric shocks.

Most importantly in this year of travel with children, I’ve learned about myself. Those of you who know me know that I am not the most patient person. I can be intense, direct, and perfectionistic. I believe I have been given these three children to teach me about patience.

Lately when I'm traveling and the kids are acting up, (especially my Audrey who is going through a screaming phase), I imagine jumping waves at the Jersey Shore. Jumping waves in the ocean is all about letting go of control. If you fight the wave, stand your ground, insist on having your own way, you are in for a nasty tumble. But if you let the wave happen around you, time your jump, enjoy the rise and the fall, you’ll find yourself on the other side before you know it.

With a little special planning and some good advice, we’ve had a wonderful time traveling with our children. Difficult moments are just waves in a big ocean. They will be over soon, so time your jump, keep your head above water, and enjoy the ride.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Top Five Reasons I Miss The United States

(Not including the people, of course. If I could sweep you up and put you in all the empty real estate around here, you’d wonder what hit you.)

1. The mail comes in English.

I can’t tell you how hard it is to get what looks like an important piece of paper and have NO CLUE what it says. I once got a dark purple envelope in the mail. This is significant because this is what the department of transportation uses to send you those dreaded speeding tickets. There are traffic cameras EVERYWHERE here and the speed limits off the major highways are ridiculously low. (The speed limit ON the major highways is close to 80 which scares the snot out of me considering I do most of my traveling at bike speed). Anyway, I got this purple envelope and I’m trying to figure out where I could have been speeding. I’d been so careful going my 25 or 35 miles an hour on these four lane divided highways. I open the letter and it’s, of course, in freaking Dutch, and for €950.00! This is like $1,500!!! I FLIP out. I couldn’t have been going that fast! Ok, maybe once we were late for school, but €950???? Hyperventilating, I try to jam Dutch sentences in to Google Translate. Thirty stress-filled minutes later, I realize that this is the bill for our annual road tax, the tax on people who own cars.

2. The men wear swim trunks.

This probably does not need too much explanation, but going to the beach here is like a subtly disguised anatomy lesson. The women are occasionally topless, which does not bother me. I’ve nursed my babies. The kids have seen all that before. But, men in Speedo’s is just a little too much information. Not many guys have nice enough tushes to justify wearing lycra with the coverage of sausage skin. Then there are the guys who have to drop their drawers right in front of you to “change their suits”. Hmmm. In the States this would be called indecent exposure and with good reason.

3. You can buy a steak for less than the cost of a yacht.

When I moved here, I brought a HUGE bottle of A1 Steak sauce, since I knew I would not be able to find it here. Little did I know, the beef would be the limiting factor. Beef here is not sold in the grocery store. You have to go to the butcher. The butcher will sing the praises of his beef, so tender, so juicy, guaranteed to make you thinner and better looking. At €4.99 per 100 grams, it had sure better make me better looking. I’d have to do the math, but I bought four 8 oz steaks for a small going away party and paid almost $70.00! Needless to say, my A1 sits unused. And I sit wishing for a nice piece of filet.

4. Wawa.

Ah, Wawa, the perfect store: nicer than a 7/11, good hoagies, great selection of drinks or snack foods, they even sell bananas for the health conscious mom. Public bathrooms! An ATM machine! Gasoline! Need a good cup of coffee before your big road trip? No problem!

Here in Holland life is “BYOC”, bring your own coffee. Forget about a hoagie for that picnic lunch or hungry husband. The gas stations here sell tulips and a large selection of salted licorice, which is poor consolation for a mother with whining children. A bathroom? An ATM? Not likely. I guess the good thing is that the kids have learned to expect less from pit stops on our road trips. Sadly, so have I.

5. Large capacity washers and dryers.

I couldn’t write a top five list and not include the washing machine. Laundry here takes a LONG time. Ask my mom who came to visit and gave me a little laundry to do. She got it back three months later when I came back to Philly to see her. If you really push and shove, the washer capacity here is about ¼ the size of a standard American machine. That does not bother me so much. What really hurts my feelings is the 3 hour cycle time. Every time I have a minute of peace, I have to switch around the laundry or it will be spilling out of the closet sized laundry room and take over the whole hallway floor. Coming home from a laundry intensive vacation is the worst. When we came home from skiing we had two huge duffle bags of dirty clothes, long underwear, and ski pants. It took three days of non-stop laundry to clear the hall. (I felt bad about this until one friend confessed that two months later, her ski pants were still on the laundry room floor waiting to be washed)

At home, the washers are cavernous! They echo when you open them! You lucky women, throwing all of your dark clothes into a machine at one time! I am green with envy!

You know, living here is a good fit for us. On most days we feel very privileged for this opportunity. But there are those days where you realize living in the States was just EASIER. You start to miss home the way you miss a broken in pair of slippers. Because, at the end of the day, Dorothy Gale had it right: “There is no place like home.”

Monday, July 19, 2010

Coming up for Air

It’s all been too much. We, collectively, are exhausted. It is time to stop.

We’ve been on the move for over a year. In American style, we’ve overscheduled ourselves. In ex-pat style, we’ve left no days away from school empty.

There is so much to do here. Day trips to cheese farms, windmills, or museums, weekend trips to Brugges or Gent, week long trips to Paris, Rome, Berlin, Cairo, Morocco, Malta? It is all possible, but when to let an opportunity slip away?

There is a compulsive nature, even an anxiety, to the travel here. There are moms here who have told me to make a check-list of all the places you want to go. Prioritize that list and plan out each school break and long weekend for the rest of your stay. “You never know when you’ll be sent home. Take advantage of every opportunity or you’ll regret it later.”

Regret it later? Don’t get me wrong. I love to travel. It is a passion. I love the people, the architecture, the food, the art, the light, the water of new places. But I look at my family and see that they are bleary-eyed from sleeping in so many different beds. I realize that my children have lived on a diet of hamburgers and chicken nuggets for weeks. I see a house in desperate need of attention: an office overflowing with papers, drawers full of clothes too small.

Putting Audrey to bed one night during our recent trip to The States, she asked me, “Mommy, do we live here now?” It broke my heart to realize that she had slept in four beds in the prior 10 days and was no longer sure where home might be.

So, I’ve postponed our trip to Provence. That 13th century house in the picturesque French village will have to wait for another time.

And we are here, in our little Dutch Huis. Jordan is playing with nesting dolls on the living room floor. Audrey is upstairs trying on play clothes. Jack is sound asleep at 9:00 am. The weather is a balmy 80 degrees and uncharacteristically sunny. Maybe we will bike to the beach. Maybe we will do a tour of neighborhood playgrounds. Maybe we will stay here and read stories, play games, or admire the flowers blooming magically in our back yard.

It is time to breathe.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Why a Blog?

Gentle Readers (I’ve always loved that salutation),

You may be wondering why I’m writing this open diary. Why did I stop writing my letters home last Fall? Why start again now?

Mothering three young children and keeping house (sort of) has left me no energy for a traditional journal. It’s a shame really, here is a defining moment in the life of our family and in the lives of my children and no one is keeping record. We have photos, but they leave a huge gap in the story.

In a way, this blog will be my story: the story of my journey through motherhood in the land of windmills and wooden shoes. It will be my gift to my children should they ever choose to read it.

As to why I stopped writing last Fall…. I had been writing “open letters home” and posting them on Facebook. But as my “friend” list expanded, it became increasingly difficult to write. My letters home were very personal. I was excited about where we were and what was happening. We’d had an exceptional run of good luck. In a time when the bad economy was affecting more and more households, I didn’t want to spam other people’s Home Page with unwanted ramblings about our lives. I became self-conscious.

And, now? I can thank a small number of dear friends that have encouraged me to continue writing. Just the fact that I was still receiving positive feedback about letters I posted almost a year ago was amazing. I like the idea of a blog. You, as the reader, can choose to read my posts or never lay eyes on them again. Even if I am just writing for my mother, that is enough. I no longer feel like I’m spamming some poor grade school classmate’s inbox.

So, if you choose, journey with us. It’s been a fantastic adventure so far.

A brief explaination

The following posts are letters written home during our first year abroad.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Fall in The Netherlands

After six months abroad, I can say that we are finding a sense of routine here in Holland. We are adjusting to small town life where you might see an acquaintance three or four times during a single day as we all run our errands. I’ve grown accustomed to buying my meats at the butcher and my bread at the bakery and reading store labels in Dutch. The kids assume we will be traveling everywhere possible by bike. We’ve learned to plan ahead in a country with no fast food, no convenience stores, and where almost everything closes from Saturday night to Monday afternoon.

Jack has started saxophone lessons with his soft spoken Greek teacher. Jordan has started ballet with no less than five of her little girl classmates.

Jordan asked me the other day how long it will be until she is fluent in Dutch. I said I didn’t know, but why was she concerned? She stomped her foot and complained, “I’m the ONLY one in my class who speaks just ONE language!”. She is not, of course, but she is one of just three.

Walt has become the seasoned traveler. He just returned from a week long adventure in Nigeria. His itinerary this Fall includes: Qatar, Oman, Siberia, and Florence. He’s had to request extra pages for his passport as well as a whole second passport to ease the logistics of acquiring new visas.

As normal as this strange journey has become, there are still days that remind us that we are VERY far from home.

There was the day I took the kids into an innocent looking gift shop in Amsterdam to purchase some postcards. Down one side of the shop was a selection of bongs, down the other was a selection of sex souvenirs. At the counter were lollipops. This is when the kids decided they wanted a treat. “We have not had a treat all day!”, they complained. Looking closely at the suckers, I realized they were cannabis lollipops…. The saleslady rescued me. She assured the kids, “Oh those? They taste TERRIBLE”.

There are pleasant surprises, as well. We have recently discovered the town of Leiden. This little gem of a city is only two miles away. As beautiful as Amsterdam, it is filled with 15 century architecture, antique drawbridges, and rings and rings of canals.

On October 3rd each year, they celebrate the liberation of their city from the Spanish occupation in 1574 with the making and eating of Hutspot. The Spanish had laid siege to the city. At the brink of starvation, the Leidener’s breached their own dikes, flooding out the Spanish armies. According to legend, the citizens found a huge cauldron in the deserted Spanish camp filled with three ingredients: parsnips, carrots, and onions. They created a soup or mash called Hutspot eaten to this day. This year they have a pot where they hope to cook enough Hutspot for 13,000 people. A world record!

If you have read the book or seen the movie, “The Tale of Despereaux”, you know the tale of Leiden celebrating their soup!

One or two days a week, we bike to the local dairy farm to buy milk, cheese, and eggs. In the little farm house shop they speak no English, but are patient with me as I point to what I need and gesture how much. It is a beautiful ride to the farm. The girls love to stop and visit the calves, goats, kittens, and swans. Jack, on the other hand, complains bitterly that we have to go to the farm again and we couldn’t just go straight home from school…. Some things never change.

Since the loss of our Casey-dog this summer, we have been a pet–free family. The kids have been begging for a pet to love here in Holland. I have been resisting, knowing what all mother’s know, that this pet will be my responsibility. As if in an answer to a prayer, a neighborhood cat started visiting our back garden. This lovely Siamese is painfully shy. The kids talk to her and coax her with milk and (of all things) hamburger, but she only flees from their affections. Lately, though, she has become more bold. She approaches our patio doors and looks in. One night we looked up from the living room to see her standing in our kitchen waiting for us to notice her. And so, in a way, we have a pet. The children plan what to put out for her to drink or eat. They watch carefully for her arrival. They celebrate any attention she might pay them. Everyone, even the cat, is happy.

I should go. My house is in painful need of attention.

Please write to us. Another wave of homesickness is upon us, and at one time or another in the past week, the children and I have been lost in longing for things familiar.

White Nights

Spring here in Holland has been cool and breezy. The evenings have slowly grown longer, until now the evening and the morning almost, but not quite, meet around 2 am. At 10 pm it is still bright and sunny, at midnight, you could describe it as dusk.

My kids are sleep deprived. It is so hard to convince them they need to go to bed when the sun is still out. Jack is crushed that I won’t let him back out to play after 8 pm. I would, but I know I wouldn’t see him again until ten. Our house came with these beautiful room darkening curtains in the bedrooms. I don’t think my children would sleep at all except for them.

Today is the last day of school. Jordan has a small graduation ceremony. Jack gets his report card. They are both free at noon. We are off to the beach with friends for the afternoon and then to a Pancake House for dinner. The kids have loved the school. We all will miss it this summer, no matter what Jack claims.

We’ve been biking everywhere. The bakfiets has been such a gift. Shopping for the groceries, or a new rake, or a ton of beach toys is all possible. Last night the kids were rammy after dinner. I piled them all in the bike (with Jack up front for balance) and rode all the way to the Leiden town limit. The bike path leads through these wonderful farm fields, fields without fences, only canals penning the animals. We saw cows, of course, as well as goats and little black sheep. They were close enough to talk to, and we did. Today, my legs are TIRED, but the bike was easy to ride the whole way. People keep asking me if I’m going to join the local gym. Ha!

I’ve continued to marvel at the Dutch on their bikes. I believe if they are not born with a bike, they get one before they can crawl. The Dutch girl down the block is four years old. She rides more confidently than I do! Last night I saw a man reading the NEWSPAPER while riding his bike home. Last week I saw a woman riding a bakfiets like mine on a cell phone towing a kyack! I, of course, am unable to let go of either handlebar without ending up in a canal. I went for a bike ride with a lonely and forlorn Dutch nanny a few days ago. She rode beside me on the bike path. In true Dutch style, she rode 2 centimeters from my left side the whole way. I’m just not that steady on that big beast of a bike. She was taking her life in her hands.

The kids continue to make friends in the neighborhood. At one point during the weekend we had eight different kids in the house in addition to mine. There is a young Dutch family down the street with a five year old boy named Peter and a four year old girl named Laura. They speak no English. We speak no Dutch. Still, they wait in their yard until we come home. They bike to our driveway hoping to entice my children to ride around the block with them. Peter has become quite enamored with Jack and describes him to friends at school as, “my new English friend”. One evening I saw Peter and his mother, Peter on his bike and wearing an American bike helmet. His mother pointed this out to me. She said he wanted to wear a helmet “just like Jack”.

All the good things aside, there are days here that are very frustrating. T-mobile has turned off my cell phone each month on the 7th. This month they were unable to turn it back on for a week. Our bank placed a block on any automatic withdrawls from utilities. They were not sure why. My creditors were not amused. There was the night we returned from a restaurant to find that the parking garage where we parked the car had closed and locked our car in. There are still days when the TOM TOM, our GPS, takes us to an open field instead of the birthday party. Baking and cooking are an everyday challenge. I’ve confused buttermilk for 2%, yuck. All the meats are a mystery. Sometimes when Jack asks me what’s for dinner, I honestly don’t know the answer.

I am tired. The white nights have left me going to bed much too late. The enthusiasm of coming to a new country has faded into the exhaustion of still not knowing how to get simple things done. We are looking forward to coming back to Philadelphia as if it were a month at a spa. I think I might break down and weep when I finally get to a Target.

Biking to the Strand

Another week has passed us by so quickly. Walt has returned from a trip to the States. The weather has been unseasonably warm and sunny. We’ve been quick to take advantage of the sun. Many of our compatriots here have warned there may only be rain or drizzle for weeks at a time. When the weather is beautiful everyone is outside.

Sunday was gorgeous. The temperature may have hit 80. There were a few scattered clouds in an azure blue sky. We biked to the beach.

There is a path that climbs the dunes just for bikes, pedestrians, and horses. Usually the biggest hill I climb here is the dremples ,or speed bumps, along the road. The dunes, on the other hand, is a battery of large sand hills a mile or more deep approaching the sea. They are wild and windy and beautiful. The fietspad, or bike path, to the sea winds its way among the dunes. It is thick with the smell of wild roses, and sea, and horses.

We rode as a family to the beach: the girls in the tag-along, Jack on his new bike. The bike path was crowded with traffic. Bikes carrying every size of people, beach bags, surf boards, and soccer balls massed ahead and behind us. Horses outfitted with wide-tired beach surries trotted past. It was a Dutch celebration of the sun.

The beach was crowded. The restaurant stands were full. Children, tinged with pink, played naked in the sun. My children dug in the sand with new shovels, looking for hermit crabs or maybe China. Jordan swam like a polar bear. Jack made a volcano from sand. Audrey ran up and down the tidal pool yelling, “I run! I run!”

After only an hour, it was time to go. Jordan was unable to get warm after swimming in the water, the first sign of the kidney infection brewing inside of her. We pedaled home with the wind at our backs. The girls slept in their bike carriage. After only 20 minutes, we were home.

Jordan is recovering from her kidney infection. Our second experience with socialized health care was a good one. Each hospital has a “night doctor”, or family doctor who sees those in need during the night. He was quick to order Jordan the necessary medicine and write letters to our personal physician. Although she had fevers through the night again last night, today she is eating a little and fighting with her sister, surely a good sign.

Jack was off to a birthday party at a water park on Saturday. The birthday invite list was a mini United Nations: the seven children represented five countries and three continents. The water park was a blast and we heard detailed descriptions of each slide for most of the rest of the weekend.

Audrey and Jack and I went to a local goat farm yesterday with our neighbors, the Adkins. There were stalls full of baby goats with which the children were welcome to climb in and play. They had little bottles of warm milk to feed them. Audrey was in heaven. The farm also offered row boat rentals on the canal. In true Dutch style, they offered no life jackets and cared not how many people we piled into their little boat. They had a little shop which offered free range eggs and a selection of fresh and aged goat cheese. In a freezer in the corner they offered lamb chops and lamb roasts. I’m glad Jack didn’t ask too many questions.

Today, in an effort to give the girls some fresh air and sunshine, we biked again to the beach. I took some pictures to post here. We came home again and were back within the hour.

Now I struggle to get Audrey down for a nap. Jordan is up sleeping in my bed. It is time to clean up the breakfast dishes still piled in my sink before the little tiny ants carry them off.

Love to all of you back home. I send a special hug and kiss out to my mother, sitting in Abington Hospital after an unexpected fall. I’ve never felt so far away as I do now. I’ll be home soon!

Boem is Ho!

You circle the damp and darkened lanes of a parking garage. Your European minivan can barely negotiate the narrow turns at each end of the level. Finally, you come upon an open spot. But look, it is barely three inches wider than your car…. Sigh. This is your only choice. You pile your children into the back of the van so they can escape from the trunk. You pull in the side mirrors of the car. You carefully back into the spot, hoping you are straight, waiting for the impact of your bumper against the cinder block wall.

There is a phrase the Dutch use when parking a car, “Boem is ho!” Loosely translated this means, “BOOM means stop!” In a country of 16 million people in an area a little bigger than Massachusetts, space is at a premium. I feel we are always bumping into someone or something in this crowded place.

Almost every acre of land here was reclaimed from the sea. Slowly and tediously the Dutch built small islands for their homes, connected them with long dams, and then painstakingly pumped the contained sea water back to ocean. These drained fields became fertile farms. The water was carried to the ocean in rivers contained by tall earthen walls or dikes. It still gives me pause to see a huge flowing river coursing 20 feet above the surrounding farm fields. There are shells in the sandy soil of my garden, not left by children, but left hundreds of years ago when this garden was sea bed.

I think the biggest difference between The Netherlands and The United States is a sense of space. Here everything is small: from the playgrounds, to the houses, to the parking spots. In the States, you can drive a big car down a wide road to your large house in the suburbs. Here the dense housing of the village ends and the farm fields begin without any transition. The roads are narrow. I know a woman who brought her Land Rover from the States. All was well until she managed to wedge it between two lane dividers of a draw bridge.

Still, here there is a warm and enveloping sense of community. You know your neighbors. You see them over the hedges several times each day. You know who has company or a babysitter. Getting together is as easy as walking two houses down for a glass of wine. At church the whole congregation holds hands during the “Our Father”. They stretch across the aisles to each other. I’ve never had such a sense of people literally and spiritually reaching out for each other and holding on.

There is also very real sense of “it takes a village to raise a child”. I have no doubt that if my children playing in the neighborhood were doing something dangerous, they would be chastised by any passing adult and I would hear about it shortly after.

Because of this sense of community, the children here have an amazing amount of freedom. Children as young as 7 or 8 can go to the playground alone to meet with their friends. They are free to bike around the neighborhood, to a friend’s house, or off to school. Ninety-five percent of Dutch children bike to school each day. My children have spent an extraordinary amount of time outside since we have arrived. They play for hours with friends on the block, exploring the alleys that separate the gardens behind our houses, or playing hide and seek.

There are days when the density of the people and the congestion on the roads leaves me with a sense of claustrophobia. I can almost feel that I am struggling for air.

But still, this sense of community envelops me. For now, I am willing to laugh about “Boem is ho” in a parking garage, and deal with the tiny shopping carts all chained together, and be patient with the woman behind me in the check-out line pushing her cart into my heels. “Boem is ho”. You are close enough when you are right on top of it. But really, what better way is there to be part of something?

Our New Home

Sorry for the delay in getting this letter out. We moved into our new house last week and things have been hectic!

The house is amazing! It is so bright and airy and cheerful. We have enough room, but no room to spare. Those little rooms filled up so quickly, especially after I realized that we had no closets whatsoever and would be needed wardrobes. Still, the furniture fits so nicely. With the 10 ft ceilings, the house gives a nice sense of space despite the small rooms. It has a little wedge shaped garden in the back with tall hedges providing lots of privacy. I’ll attach some pictures.

The kids are enamored with the house. As soon as we moved in, children from the neighborhood started coming over. I frequently find children (and one time a dog) in the house that I’ve never met. Our kids tear outside almost as soon as they come home. Hide and seek is the current favorite game choice. The kids might be gone for 2 hours. I have given them two rules: they cannot cross the street and they cannot enter anyone else’s house unless I know where they are. This works out well since the other children seem to have the same or very similar rules.

From the third story of the house I have a good view of the yards behind us. Our block is nearly a circle. All of the houses on the block are connected by walls or garages. Our backyards fill the circle within, making wedge shaped gardens lined with tall hedges. In the very center is a HUGE oak tree. The Dutch are very serious about their gardens. All of the yards are filled with flowers, Wisteria vines, hedges, and espidrilled fruit trees. It is quiet and pleasant here.

The kids are doing well at school. Since all of the children are from somewhere else, there is very little in the way of “cliques”. Most children seem anxious to make friends. Jack and Jordan are both thriving.

Walt returned from Malaysia last week just in time for the moving truck to arrive. The poor guy was so tired, but he was a trooper and helped with all of the moving arrangements, trips to Ikea, and assembly of bunk beds. It was not the best timing by any means, but it is over, and now we are settled in the house.

I went out last week and bought myself a boxfiets. It won’t be delivered for two or so more weeks. I can’t wait. I went to the big bike store in The Hague and test rode 5 different types and sizes. Audrey squealed with delight every time we took off on another tour around the block. I’m thrilled I’ll have a bike with a box big enough to hold three children or two children and the groceries. This is my new mini-van! If you’d like to see a picture, go to and look for the box bike with the “long” box.
This weekend we need to get bikes for Walt and Jack.

Oh, a funny story: Jack was invited on a playdate and the mom picked him up after school and took him to their house. Walt and I went to pick him up. The house was way out in the boonies. We ended up on a private road lined with gated houses. The house we were looking for had a closed gate across the drive way and one of those intercom boxes. The gate opened slowly, and before us was the BIGGEST stone mansion. We pulled up to the door to realize it was a TWIN! A twin mansion. I’d have never thought it would exist. Before Jack and I even reached the car, Jack said, “MOM! Did you see how big that house was?!!!”

I should add that most of the families I have met at the school are just like we are: middle income on an expat assignment that includes school tuition. It is the exception to find the diplomat or CEO of a major corporation. For that I am grateful.

Jordan would like me to tell you that yesterday they went on a field trip to a local farm. There were goats, cows, ducks, and sheep. She got to feed a one day old baby goat with a bottle. She was in heaven!

We will not have internet access at the house until May 28th. I will check my e-mail daily at the school, but I cannot check Facebook (they have the site blocked). Our magic jack phone line will also not work. Mom and Dad have our cell phone numbers if there is an emergency.

Queen's Day Weekend

We’ve had another action packed week here in Den Haag. The kids are making friends. We’ve had our first set of play dates. We experienced our first Queen’s Day. We’ve again had a chance to learn more about the Dutch.

Jordan and Jack are quickly making friends here at the American School. We took Jack’s buddy Tanner to the beach at Wassenaar after school on Monday. It had rained all day, but just as we left for the beach, the wind picked up and the clouds blew away. It was my first time at the beach where I could see the horizon. In one direction up the beach we could see Den Haag, in the other we could see Amsterdam. It was windy and beautiful with quick moving clouds racing across the sky. The kids built a sand fort in an attempt to hold back the tide. We stayed to watch the ocean wash it away.

Jordan has made friends with a sweet little girl named Norah. Her mother is Spanish, her father is Dutch, she was born in Germany. That means that Norah can speak and understand Spanish, Dutch, German, and this year, English. I am humbled.

Queen’s Day is a huge national holiday here. It celebrates the Queen’s Birthday. At 8 am on Thursday, every bell in Den Haag started ringing in honor of the Queen. Around our house there are at least four medieval bell towers. The bells continued ringing for 15 full minutes. The kids and I went out on the balcony to listen. It was amazing and overwhelming. I’ll never forget it.

Later that morning we went to the children’s flea market. Every Dutch child is encouraged to sell old toys or baked treats to make some money. We picked up a Chinese yo-yo for Jordan.

We spent the afternoon at the carnival near the parliament building. I should have known that something was wrong when I could not find anyone wearing orange (the Queen’s royal color) anymore. The lines for the rides were very short. The trams were empty.

It wasn’t until that night that a friend let me know that a maniac had tried to crash his car into the Queen’s caravan on parade in the town of Apeldoorn. In the process, he plowed his car through a crowd of onlookers, killing five instantly and seriously injuring twelve more. The driver has since died. No one really understands the reason why this happened. It is all so very sad. Please keep the injured and their families in your prayers.

The next day at the school, I spoke with three different American families. None of them knew anything about the incident. The expat community here seems to be very insulated from local news.

On a lighter note, Audrey and I have had a great time riding the trams this week. Walt being away has forced me to go and get things done for myself. I am becoming much better at getting around by public transport. At one tram stop a Vietnamese man started a conversation with us. Using his extremely limited English (better by far than my Vietnamese), he asked if we were from the United States. When I told him we were, he smiled a HUGE smile, gave me two thumbs up, and said “OBAMA!”.

I’ve seen lots of interesting things along the way. Did you know the Dutch love dogs? Dogs are welcome in restaurants (of course!) but not butcher shops. People carry their dogs on their bikes in large milk-crates in front of their handle bars. I’m not talking about little dogs, either. I saw a full grown golden retriever carried this way. Fancy dogs have little dog trailers that tag along behind their owner’s bike. Dogs are welcome to ride the trams and busses, too, if they have their own canine ticket (no joke!). They are not allowed to take a seat though. I guess they have to draw the line somewhere.

We are still keeping track of interesting things seen on a bicycle. This week’s prize winner was a portly sixty year old man riding his bike wearing nothing but a speedo thong bathing suit.

It is time for me to go. The kids are making paper airplanes and sending them down the two story stairwell. I need to help them with some design work.

Back to School

We’ve survived another week here in The Netherlands. Things are slowly coming along, but this place won’t really start being like a home until we move into the new house. Right now we are waiting. Luckily it should only be two more weeks and we will have the keys to the new house and hopefully a shipping container full of our stuff.

Jack’s birthday was Monday. At school, they sang “Happy Birthday” to him in five different languages! After dinner that night we went to the beach. It was so windy! You could almost lean in to it. They were “kite surfing” off the beach. I’d never seen anything like it: they get on a small surf board, launch this HUGE kite, and they are off! They really haul across the water. I guess the trick is figuring out how to get back to the beach!

Jack received some money for Easter and his birthday. He decided that he would buy a “Diabolo” or Chinese yo-yo. I found the one shop in Den Haag that sells them and programmed the address into the Tom Tom. I thought I was so smart! Traffic was horrific. For the second time that week we found ourselves stuck in gridlock, unable to even turn around. The two mile journey took almost an hour. We got there, purchased our yo-yo and started the drive back. This time Tom Tom took us a different way and I ended up missing the entrance to a tunnel. I spent 10 minutes driving around the bus terminal trying not to get hit by a tram as we looked for another way home. Tom Tom, it appears, is useless when you are driving over the tunnel you are supposed to be driving through. I think at some point during the ride I might have said something like, “NO ONE SPEAKS AGAIN UNTIL I SAY SO!” Grrrrrr. Mean mommy. I was lucky, though, and I did not get hit or a ticket for driving in the tram lanes and the wrong way up one-way streets to get back to where we started. Eventually I did get through that tunnel. When we finally did get home, I had sparks coming off my hair.

I’ve decided, the Dutch do not ride bikes for the health benefits or because it is environmentally friendly, they do it because it is FASTER!

For the record, though, Jack LOVES his Diabolo. He’s been practicing with all of his free time and even offers to entertain us after dinner each night. I’ll attach a video somewhere.

Thursday I went to a New Mom Coffee up in Wassenaar. It was all moms from the school. I met my new next door neighbor, Kathy from Chicago, who has a daughter in Jack’s class. I met a woman from Hockessin, DE, who’s husband worked with Walt at Valero. It’s a small world. Once again, I received lots of phone numbers and offers for help if needed. The school, indeed, has been a soft place for me to land.

Walt loves the job. Each night after the kids are in bed, we have a beer and he tells me about the people he meets. His office is like the United Nations. People are from Holland, England, Germany, Spain, Italy, Egypt, Malaysia, Nigeria and Oman. The engineering work is extremely academic and advanced. He is one of the few guys around with actual field experience, though, so he feels he has something to offer the team. They continue to explain about the Dutch concept of work/home-life balance. His boss Jaap is teaching him to bill his hours in such a way that he can take days off after he returns from a trip abroad. I am so very grateful.

Last night our friends Betsy and Ben came for dinner. Ben and I were friends from my time in Pittsburgh. Betsy is his darling wife of almost 10 years now. They live in Tilburg, about an hour away. I can’t tell you how nice it was to see familiar faces. Betsy, a Dutch native, spent a long time trying to teach me to pronounce our new street name correctly. Who knew that saying a Dutch street name could be so difficult? I think we might need a few more dinners and a few more bottles of wine before I get it right.

Walt is off to Malaysia tomorrow for a ten day trip. We will miss him, and I am more than a little anxious on how I will solve problems here without his help. Still, it is an opportunity for me to become more independent here. I think as long as we don’t have to shop for any more yo-yo’s, I’ll be fine.

Spring Break

We’ve had a busy week here. The kids were off from school and we’ve been making day trips all around. It worked out well. I can’t think of one place we went that wasn’t worth the effort. We’ve learned lots more about getting around and getting things done.

The first thing you notice when driving around Holland is that everyone seems to be on a bicycle. To pass the time, we’ve been keeping a running tab of things that can be carried by bicycle here in The Netherlands. In the last two weeks we’ve seen people carry on their bikes: yoga balls, cellos, bass (as in “bigger than a cello”), and my favorite, a disabled person in a wheelchair (the bike was fitted with a ramp in the front for a wheel chair, no kidding!) Walt’s personal favorite is the women who ride their bikes wearing short skirts and high heels with another similarly dressed friend sitting side-saddle on the back.

Dutch moms can carry up to five children on their bikes. Most moms have a seat on the handle bars for babies and a seat on the back for toddlers. There is a special brand of bike called bakfiets (or “box bike”) which is literally a large wooden crate on the front of a bike for carrying 3 preschoolers or all of the groceries. I’ll attach a picture. I’m hoping to get one once we get settled. Since they can run up to $2,500, I’m hoping to find one used.

Jack has had a good week, but you wouldn’t know that by asking him. He is responding to the stress of being away by refusing to leave the house. He begins every trip the same way, “I don’t want to go!” He’s SURE he doesn’t want to go. He yells. He stomps his feet. He pleads to stay home.

One such trip was a walk to the grocery store. All the way there (1/4 mile), he told me how he was sick. He was tired. He wanted to lie down on the sidewalk and take a nap! Then we passed the kaashuis, or cheese shop. He stopped mid-whine and walked in. They offered samples. He tried one and then tried them all. He smiled. He laughed. He ran from cheese wheel to cheese wheel telling the kind shopkeeper how much he loves cheese. He was in heaven. The cheese here is not pasteurized, so it cannot be exported. I asked for the name of the cheese, but was told they simply name the cheese after the farmer that made it. We came home with half a pound of aged Dutch cheese made by Farmer Zacht. Jack announced, “That was the best trip ever!” Go figure. He’s said that every day this week.

Last night we made it to the 5 pm mass. I had looked up the time in the English Expat Church bulletin, but I should have known something was terribly wrong when we were the only people under the age of 75 in the church. There were only a handful of elderly parishioners there, and they smiled and waved to Jack as we took our pew. The Gregorian Mens Choir chanting Latin psalms caused me concern, as well. It seems we had found the Dutch mass with the full Latin Rite. Of course I had planted us square in the middle of the front row. There was no escape. A kind grandmotherly type offered us a booklet translating the Latin to Dutch. * Sigh* I was reaching deep for the lessons from Father Sabitini all those years ago, but I never did learn a thing in that class. Poor Jack. He leaned into me about 30 minutes into things and whimpered, “I don’t have any idea what’s going on.” Jack was so good. He even kneeled up straight for the first time ever, although he later confessed that the only reason he did that was because to lean back on the pew was so very uncomfortable. The mass was well over an hour. I don’t know how those Gregorian chanters put so many notes into so few words. We laughed all the way home, but Jack made me solemnly swear never to take him to a Latin mass again. That works for both of us.

Oh, Walt has found us a minivan that seats seven. We hope to have the sale finalized by Tuesday. The supposed “minivan” that we rented from Avis has been much too small. The kids have to sit three-in-a-row. All the way to any place, they bicker. “Stop touching me,” or, the ever popular, “You kicked me in the head!” are frequently heard from the back seat. The bickering increases with the distance traveled. Every time we arrive home, I remember that I need to start keeping Scotch in the house.

Easter Morning

It’s been a good week here. We’ve learned a whole lot about The Hague and the Dutch.

The first thing to know is nothing here is done without coffee. If a plumber comes to fix the sink, offer him coffee and expect him to drink two or more cups. Walt says at work every meeting involves several cups regardless of the time of day. The coffee here is very good and very strong. Luckily they put it in very small cups or I would drink myself into a complete caffeine delerium.

The next thing I have learned is that if you are driving “Big Brother” is always watching. They have speed cameras EVERYWHERE: every intersection and every quarter mile on a stretch of highway. There are frequent speed traps where an officer stands on the side of the road and records your picture and speed. He does not need to pull you over. Every time you are recorded speeding, you receive a little purple envelope in the mail announcing that you have been fined 120 euros or more. Parking tickets are 60 euros. You also receive these in the mail. Unfortunately, I am expecting to get a lot of mail….

My next big lesson was Dutch laundry. They have little tiny washing machines here. The inside is about the size of a bread box. Because all of the instructions were in Dutch and once you start a cycle you must wait the 2-3 hours before the cycle completes, my first load of laundry took 12 hours to finish successfully. Last Sunday we were unable to leave the house because all of our clothes were dirty and I could not get the washer to work properly. I have not yet washed sheets. I am living in fear of the time it might take. We may all be sleeping on the couch that night.

The food here is wonderful. The produce is garden fresh. The meats and fish also have a fabulous amount of flavor. Junk food is hard to find and expensive. There are no drive-thru restaurants. This put me in a panic at first wondering what to buy for dinner and how to cook it, but things have settled down now. Every ex-pat I meet who uses a bike claims to have lost between 10 and 30 lbs since their arrival.

Oh, get this, national dinner time is 6:30 pm. Everyone everywhere has dinner then. Very strange.

Walt has been my hero this week. He bravely tackles all things written in Dutch. With his laptop under his arm and Google Translate open, he completes all tasks from filling out the bonus card application for the grocery store to relighting the pilot light on the heater. I don’t know what I’d do without him

Walt is off to Malaysia at the end of the month for an 8 day trip and then Sakhalin Island (1000 miles north of Japan) in mid May. Look it up on Google. I think Siberia is more inhabited than this little corner of nowhere. Although there is a town on the island, he will be flying to the far northern part of the island. There is nothing there but a pipe coming out of the ground.

He is loving his job so far. It seems interesting and challenging without seeming like it will swallow him whole. He was told he was coming in too early when he arrived at 7:30 am. He was told it was time to go home by 5 pm. On holidays like Good Friday, the building is like a ghost town. No one uses Blackberries or checks e-mail at home. Home is where you spend time with your families. Go figure! Although his job involves international travel, it will be no more than 50 to 60 overnights per year. This works out to four or five nights per month. We both think this is a good deal.

The school has been a very soft place for us to land. Jack and Jordan are quickly making friends from many different countries. Jack has taken up playing soccer and rugby at lunch and after school. He’s amazed at all the different cultures represented in just his class. Jordan has made many friends and has playdates scheduled for the week after break. The other moms have been very supportive of me. I cannot have a conversation with a person without her offering her phone number and an invitation to get together again. Easter week is slow for us. The kids have off from school and a great many of the school families are off traveling. We look forward to hearing their travel stories when they return.

Walt, Audrey and I went out house hunting on Thursday. We saw nine houses and one was more than we had hoped for. It’s nicely situated between the school and the village center. It has five large bedrooms (ok, large around here) and a little tiny back yard.

Last night we took the kids to the beach. The water was cold, but it was a great night to be out. The kids played in the water for an hour. We watched crazy people bungie jump from a crane at the end of a pier. Audrey didn’t fall the water once She’s become quite good at listening to me in the last 10 days.

This morning Jack and I went to the English Catholic Church for Easter services. The mass was a full 2 hours, complete with baptisms of butt naked babies in a large font and an African drum choir. Jack and I both had a blast. (Does that sound strange? We had a blast at church?). We arrived an hour early by mistake, but it worked out well. We became friends with the family in front of us (also an hour early) and Jack has a playdate scheduled with their sons next week. It seems that “Age of Empires” is a universal language of 8 year old boys.

I should wrap this up. The house is a mess. Oh, but one more thing. Before we came I had heard that Dutch women wash their windows every day. I did not believe it. Now, unfortunately, I do. I am completely humbled by how clean and tidy everything is around here. Everyone will know that my house is not Dutch. Maybe I will find out their secrets…

Den Haag

This was a week full of "firsts" for us. The kids had their first look at the school. We saw our first windmills and royal mansions. The kids had to use their first bathroom in a grocery store. Audrey was the first to see a canal up close and personal. And, poor Audrey again, was the first to get bitten by a dog.
The school was everything we expected. They were serving sushi for lunch that day, which was a curiosity for the kids, but they also offered noodles. The food there is actually pretty nutrious, always offering a variety of fresh foods and even soups (which is very Dutch). They have PB&J, but they hide it behind the counter:) The school is otherwise very American. They don't have to do any standardized testing, which is nice, and they can celebrate Christian holidays like Easter, which I also love. The kids go to school for this coming week, have off for Easter Week, and then have a three day week due to the celebration of "Queen's Day", Queen Beatrice's birthday. More on that later. I think in the next month, they will be home more than at school, but maybe that is good.We've had very little chance to get outside and look around, mostly because we don't know what to go see.
We had one drive from Leiden into the city of The Hague. The kids were facinated by the villages, the green fields full of farm animals, and the random windmill. The royal estate for the Queen's son and his daughters is along the road, as well. We hope to be invited for tea! I explained to the kids that in Holland, the city of The Hague is pronounced "Den Haag". Jordan asked why they called their city "Dead HOG".
After seeing the school on Thursday, we were off to Albert Hein, the local grocery, in a desperate search for milk. The minute we stepped foot inside the store the kids needed to use the bathroom. This place is small and very old and there were no signs for a WC. I asked a man stocking produce if the had a restroom. Of course he spoke no english. He signaled for us to follow him and he took us up the largest, tightest spiral staircase I'd ever seen. I've seen lighthouses with fewer steps! The kids had never seen anything like this and celebrated each step LOUDLY by jumping, dancing, and singing both going up and then again, coming down. Our elderly host was clearly unimpressed. Could he tell we were new around here? Hmmmmm.
Poor Audrey has had a week full of tough lessons. While feeding ducks at the canal, she leaned too far forward and went head over teacup into the slimy black water. She was sitting between my legs at the time. I don't know how I could have prevented the whole thing. I pulled her out immediately, but it was too late. I carried her at arm's lenght back to the hotel room. All the way she cried "I slip!" "I fall!" "Yuck". I had to throw out her clothes. She had a very long very soapy tubby and all was well again.
Yesterday we went back to the Albert Hein. While Walt and I wrestled with a shopping cart, Audrey walked up to a strange dog and, don't you know, he bit her! He did not break the skin, but he gave Audrey, Walt and myself a terrible scare. I'm hoping that she will be more cautious in the future. We are brainstorming on ways to keep her safe. Good Lord, the child is a magnet for trouble.
We moved out of the hotel yesterday and into our temporary Shell housing. We have the 2nd and 3rd story of a pre-war brownstone. It is huge, offering us 12 foot celings, floor to ceiling windows, and five bedrooms. It's so nice to spread out after two weeks of living on top of one another. The kids are feeling the stress of all of the changes, though. Putting them to bed last night was like game of "Wack a Mole". Everytime I put one down, another one popped up. The great thing about the house is that it's 50 yards to Walt's work. It's nice to know he's right here if we need him.
I shoud go, I've been hogging the computer. Jordan and Audrey are playing on the stairs again. These stairs are more like a steep sliding board than a staircase. They love the novelty. The baby gates come on Monday....