Thursday, April 29, 2010

Last days

Difficult day today - last day of school. Difficult enough, but it was also "Sports Day" when the whole school traveled to a sport park and ran around in the sun all day - unusually hot and sunny. Then the buses broke down and they had to walk a mile or more back to school. Then the goodbyes...

Then several friends had the gall to try to give me little presents, which was terribly inconsiderate since it only makes me cry. Jeez, guys. I hope you'll understand that my inability to open them until I'm safely ensconced back in the States is only my own personal weakness; for all the English in my blood, I inherited no stiffness of upper lip and I prefer not to make a complete fool of myself. Oh wait, too late. I'm already "that" mum anyway, aren't I?

Violenschool families, we'll miss some of you more than we can possibly say.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Of bikes and belletjes

I remember when we first arrived in this, the land where the bike reigns supreme over all other modes of transport, I brought with me a certain confidence that I'd manage on the endless red bikepaths of the nation without too much difficulty. I mean, I've put in many a mile on my bike, hundreds of 'em on the bike paths and streets of Chicago. Yes, it's a different world here, but how different can it be?

O, the hubris.

The first thing you notice is that everyone is riding around sitting bolt upright on their bikes in a posture that might even have made me snicker quietly to myself in my cool Chicago ten-speed or mountain bike-riding days. I mean, assuming I were the kind of person who snickered. Then you see a huge number of people riding sort of duck-footed such that their heels are situated squarely over the pedal and take most of the weight. You'll also often see people riding with their knees turned out so that they resemble a big kid riding on little sister's trike. Again, let's just say it's not the least amusing thing I've ever seen.

And then I got my Dutch bike and started sitting bolt upright myself, quite simply because I didn't have any choice. The first thing I noticed was that my wrists weren't aching every time I got off my bike. The second thing I noticed was how much my knees thanked me for riding with my heels instead of the balls of my feet on the pedals. Score one for looking silly.

Then you have the rules of the road. We learned those fabulously silly arm signals in elementary school: Right arm bent up = turning right. Right arm straight out = turning left (which was the one I always thought was dumbest... I'm pointing right to turn left?). Arm bent down = slowing or stopping. I was all prepared to dust them off for use here, but I happily found that they use the far more sensible method of pointing in the direction they intend to go as they approach an intersection or roundabout. One more point for Dutch pragmatism.

I have to say, though, that I'm not a huge fan of the rule of the road that allows two bikes riding side by side. Any situation involving human beings having to yield the right of way seems to work out badly no matter where in the world you are, but in this country in particular it seems that right of way on the road or bike path is protected with the same vigor as I would expect for, say, the right to freedom of speech. Or the right to breathe. I also find difficult the mechanics of riding in such close proximity to another person, but that's my own personal hangup. The Dutch seem to manage this brilliantly, probably because they learn to ride literally alongside their parents who keep a hand on their shoulder to help keep them going at a decent pace.

This brings me to the bell. Riding on Chicago's bike paths a decade ago (or so, ahem), the convention when passing was to warn the passee with a nice little "on your left" or the occasional "on your right." Ringing a bell would have been anathema, the rough equivalent of honking a horn at another car before you passed them on the interstate, or "you're in my way so I'm passing and, oh, by the way, screw you." In The Netherlands, the ding of the bell is ubiquitous. It's perfectly in keeping with the value they place upon verbal bluntness: "If you're in my way, I'm going to let you know." Heck, a bell is an efficient way of indicating passing, but do you really need to ding every single person you're passing as you're blowing down the path? Maybe I'm just too slow and that's why I bike along to the accompaniment of a gypsy band of belletjes. (Okay, I'm not quite that slow.)

At any rate, when you hear a ding behind you, resist the instinct to turn around to see where it's coming from. If you are walking, evacuate the bike path and/or brace yourself for the jetwash of a VERY closely passing bike. I've had my handlebars nicked twice by exuberant passers, sending both of us veering unpredictably -- not a pleasant experience. So it's been almost three years, but I still cringe almost every time I hear a bell; I was already habituated or something and am squarely into the age of inability to relearn my stimuli.

All of this brings me to a recent day when I was walking back from Avery's doctor appointment. There we were walking along in a semi-crowded area near the market when I heard a bike bell pinging nonstop. My first thought was that it was a small child whose parents were loathe to tell it nee because I've had that kid behind me on the bike path before... ooh. Then the offender came into view, a middle-aged man on a bike rented from the station who was inexplicably blasting down the bike path with an extremely grumpy expression ringing the bell nonstop although there was no one remotely near him. I had just enough time to wonder to myself whether there was some reasonable explanation for this when the middle-aged woman in front of me said for everyone's benefit,

"Ja, je heb wel een belletje. Je heb 't wel."

I laughed aloud. It's something you might say to a child, so it came off as mildly sarcastic and confirmed for me that, no, this guy was a weirdo. It translates roughly as "Yes indeedy, you've got yourself a bell there." That, in a nutshell, is why I'm happy to have learned the beetje of Dutch I have... confirmation that I might actually, occasionally recognize the cultural outliers.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Stone soup

Dylan and I read the book Stone Soup the other night at bedtime, and ever since he's been relentlessly asking when we can make stone soup for dinner. Well, tonight when I couldn't come up with any reason we couldn't, we finally made it.

The story is, of course, about how otherwise hoarding villagers come together to share their food and make a delicious soup. Our equivalent was the collaborative spirit in which the siblings undertook their task. They hit upon the idea of using one of the rocks we brought from our old house as the stone in question (after a thorough cleaning, of course), and then followed the "recipe" in their Asian-themed book. Although we were fresh out of cloud ear and mung beans, we managed a tasty chicken noodle stone soup... not bad for having no ingredients to start with [wink, wink].

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A bit of Christmas repartee

Just now as I was getting lunch ready, Dylan came in and asked:

"Mom, can I crawl under the Christmas tree and pretend to be a present?"

"Er, no objection here, Dylan."

"Okay, I just want to see what life is like under a tree for a while."

He proceeded to lay quietly under the tree for a few minutes, gazing up through the branches and humming. Not a bad way to pass the last bit of a December Sunday morning.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


We've been living here in the Netherlands more than two years now, which amazes me. In some ways I still feel like such a novice, but I suppose that sense is less feeling like a novice and more feeling like an outsider. Learning the language certainly mitigates the outsiderness, but there is always that undercurrent of feeling resented and/or tested by the locals that I can't quite get past. Nevertheless, we're a far cry from the people we were two and a third years ago when we landed on this continent with the eight suitcases carrying all our "moving budget" let us bring from home. Heck, we've actually managed an intranational move in that time, and that alone would have been unthinkable a few years ago. But it's the more ineffable ways in which we've absorbed this culture that have me thinking this week.

This week I sat in astonishment after hanging up the phone with the doctor -- this time not so much because of what they said as what I did. My daughter has a prescription from her neurologist for a medication she has to take every day. When we moved from Utrecht to Hilversum I was told that all prescriptions would "automatically transfer with the files." Great. Well, despite requests filed in triplicate, no files arrived in Hilversum. I have proceeded to spend literally weeks phoning doctors and pharmacies trying to get two of them in any combination to speak to each other, something that is evidently impossible. When she was down to only three days' supply of the medication this week, I called the neurologist's office again.
Hi, I've moved and I need to get my daughter's medication refilled, and my huisarts says he needs to have something from the neurologist because the prescription didn't transfer.

I hereby quote the receptionist's response:
What do you want me to do? Do you think the doctor is standing here just over my shoulder?

This is one of those responses that would have left my jaw hanging two years ago, so I was astonished to hear myself delivering something along the lines of the following:

No, I don't, in fact, think the doctor is there over your shoulder, but I have been to your office and do know that you have my daughter's file within arm's reach behind you, and I also know that you're on the phone with me right now, so you could easily pick up the same phone and call the huisarts to confirm my daughter's medication and dosage as it reads in the file. Although this requires you to expend some effort on my part, it does not require the doctor to be standing over your shoulder.

In case it's not immediately obvious, this is not something that well-mannered people say to each other where I come from. In some areas close to where I come from, such responses in the tone in which I delivered this one may, in fact, encourage receptionists to reach for the panic button or firearm concealed in a desk drawer. Nonetheless, without missing a beat the receptionist responded casually:
Indeed you're right. Let me see if I can get Dr. Janssen on the phone.

And, badda-bing, I was on hold and she was making a phone call. Of course, Dr. Janssen wisely did not answer the phone on her day off (this is the land where even anesthesiologists work 8-5 after all) so I had to make a second plea for this receptionist to call my doctor. Didn't expect it to happen. It didn't happen. But I actually got someone to do something, and this is long-awaited progress.

Because she didn't make the call, when I showed up at the apotheek for the refill I was informed there was none. I was able to talk to our doctor again, who said he wasn't comfortable prescribing this medication without having some sort of confirmation she was actually supposed to have it. This is the point at which, I believe, it would be in order for him to make a phone call -- doc-to-doc, as it were -- to the neurologist's office, or have one of his staff do it, right? No. I was supposed to conjure up something for him. No amount of wheedling or cajoling worked here because I simply didn't understand the finer points of the Dutch medical system (what, the doctors don't talk to each other??!?). Fine.

Using my honed Dutch sensibilities, I came back after doc had left for the day (this was Friday) and talked to the receptionist at his office. In standard fashion, despite having made eye contact with the receptionist I did have to step forward and rudely interrupt what appeared to be an extremely important conversation with the mailman about what the weather was likely to be over the weekend and whether they would have to use the wool scarf or something else. That done, receptionist said she could write a stopgap prescription, and did. I walked across the hall to the apotheek and gave it to the pharmacist. She said she didn't have the medication, but she could order it... on Monday. I said my daughter needed the medication before that.
"Oh well," she said, "it probably won't hurt her to go without it for just a few days."

I fancy that what I felt at that point must be something like what David Banner experiences when he becomes the Hulk.
"Actually, it would be an immense problem. What other pharmacies might have the medication? From whom would you order it? Where else can I take this prescription so I can get it for her?"

She looked up with mild surprise, as if realizing for the first time that perhaps I might NEED this prescription.
"Oh, well, let me make a phone call."

She disappeared for all of three minutes and then sent me about four blocks away to another pharmacy. Again, I know I'm not in Kansas anymore, Toto, but where I come from those in pharmacies do a little thing I like to call active problem solving. My home pharmacist would have suggested unprompted that I try X pharmacy down the street. As I say, lesson learned and mission accomplished. You have to just put on that mantle of entitlement and be pushy beyond belief to get anything done here, and I might just have gotten it figured out.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Ain't sweet, but sure ain't bitter

I have a new pet peeve, and that is cheerful blogs from people who have just moved to this country and want to gush about how wonderful everything is and, better yet, chide any expat who complains because they're not trying hard enough to assimilate and appreciate. I'm not miserable, but I am a truth-teller... and that's ostensibly a very Dutch value. The Dutch do not like Pollyanna and I don't either, so really I have more in common with them than the Pollyannas, now, don't I? (All of these people to whom I refer are also childless, which I believe makes all the difference in the experience of the move. I would probably have sounded more like them had I moved here at the age of 24 as a newly-married young adult ready to take on the night life.)

At any rate, I don't walk through (most of) my days railing about the misery of life, but as it's turned out the more interesting -- and thus, bloggable -- aspects of living here have involved the thorny patches we've had to deal with. There is a great deal to love about living here, especially if you are blessed with a healthy and ironic sense of humor. One of the best parts of moving somewhere perceived as different or exotic is that it makes you more conscious of the humor and preciousness of the quotidian ANYWHERE, even in the town where you grew up. It doesn't matter how exotic the locale, life with children ultimately boils down to obtaining and preparing three squares a day, tidying and doing laundry, and getting them diapered and/or to and from school. Hopefully they're absorbing the values you want them to absorb and seeing some cool stuff along the way.

We are not -- nor are the Pollyannas -- cooler than anyone else for having undertaken the madness of a transatlantic move. We are a bit wiser of the world and immigration restrictions (which might cause me to argue that those who stayed put made the wiser decision for their families), we have gotten more cheap Gouda than we ever believed we could stomach, and we are a bit closer to Italy. And that last one, ladies and gentlemen, just might be enough to make all this worthwhile.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Gezellig? Me??

Jen, you made my day today when you came into my dingy, light-deprived little abode in need of tidying and pronounced it gezellig (cozy/homey). And I didn't even have any candles lit or cookies baked! Ah, the things to which we aspire...

Sunday, November 15, 2009

I had an orchestra in Amsterdam...

Played Beethoven, Schubert, and Saint-Saens in a lovely church in Amsterdam today. I couldn't believe how many people crammed into the church and paid €15 a head to hear an amateur orchestra play, especially when the tempo for a couple of movements of Beethoven's Fourth got so out of hand that it began to sound like a runaway county fair orchestra... but for the most part I was impressed and proud. It was the first time my family has ever seen me play violin in public, too, with the exception of a couple school functions. I do wish for their sake that it hadn't been a three-hour concert, but c'est la vie. The 12-year-old soloist on Saint-Saens was worth every penny even if everything else had been horribly out of tune and tempo -- she is utterly phenomenal. Just picture a tiny little girl playing this, and weep.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


Finally, we've settled enough into the new place to contemplate doing things with our spare time that don't involve moving furniture around or trying to magically rearrange 108 square meters of stuff into 75 square meters of space. Oddly, this new place already feels like home in a way that Utrecht never quite did. Maybe it's the old-Dutch character of the 1930s tussenwoning. Maybe it's that we live on a tiny street on which the neighbors all know and actually talk to each other. I think, though, that it's most likely the fact that our immediate environs are now rife with friends. The kids are still reveling in their ability to have buddies from school over to play, to say nothing of having their mother say "sure" when they're asked to come over after school. For our own part, being within biking distance of social evenings that might involve a couple glasses of wine and easy train distance of, say, an amateur orchestra in Amsterdam, has opened up entirely new options. Life.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Verhuizing hiatus

Sorry for the lengthy hiatus, but it's been an eventful few weeks. We've questioned our sanity for making any changes to what often feels like a precariously-balanced existence, but we're almost moved to Hilversum now. Although we've taken a hit in square meterage and are going to miss our outdoor terrace, we think the 1930s condo is quite a bit more sfeervol than the new style architecture in Leidsche Rijn. Even better, school is now just a short (albeit rather nervewracking with Dylan) bike ride away rather than an hour's drive. All that remains now is to get it gezellig enough to have people over...