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 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.