Saturday, December 29, 2007

On Convincing Family that Holidays Abroad are a Good Idea...

When our brother-in-law found out he'd gotten a paper accepted at a conference in the Netherlands in December, we knew it was time for the full court press. We managed to dupe Jeff's sister, her husband, and our one-year-old nephew into believing that sticking around afterward and spending the Christmas holidays in the Netherlands was an outstanding enough idea that they'd have to experience it for themselves. Little did they know... in our lobbyings, we left out the part about the joys of transatlantic flights with toddlers and the subsequent joys of toddler jet lag. By the time we got around to talking about it, it was far too late for them to cancel the flight. Thank god they're as intrepid as we are, and some of the most devoted parents you'll ever meet.

We had so much fun watching the three kids run around together -- nothing says Christmas quite like a houseful of screaming kids (or at least that's what my parents used to say ruefully as they surveyed the post-Christmas battlefield...). Our nephew is the only kid I've ever met personally who could read before the age of two. I frankly wouldn't have thought it possible, at least not to parents as mellow as these two. We had to put the little guy back in his place, though, when he started in about how the canon has really overstated the role of Christian morality in German idealism. I mean, clearly he needs to read a little more Kant before making such sweeping pronouncements...

But we had a grand time wandering about the city, enjoying the first snow we got here (and the first in our nephew's short life!), and sharing the nuttier aspects of expathood with kindred spirits. It was also great to have Aunt Jessie's creativity around; we have a houseful of colorful decorations courtesy her hours upon hours spent with Aislin transforming a tableful of construction paper into art. We found the best €5 faux Christmas tree in the Netherlands at the secondhand store and, once we added paper chains and stars, it started looking like we might actually be celebrating something.

We also took a trip to Artis in Amsterdam the day before they flew out. Not the most progressive or impressive zoo in the world, but surprisingly varied given its location in downtown, and definitely a worthwhile way to spend a day or two. Artis has a planetarium, a little natural history museum with dinosaur bones, an aquarium, a butterfly garden, reptiles... tons to see. The kids loved the sea lions best; someone was tossing an orange around at their underwater windows, and one of the sea lions came over and was looping about at the window and snapping at the orange as if it could catch it. Later, it was following a coin someone was rolling along the base of the window, much to the kids' delight; of course, the coin thing quickly degenerated to other kids pelting the window with coins... such is the life of a sea lion in captivity. There's something metaphorical and profound in all that, I'm sure. Somebody come up with it for me.

So thanks, guys, for sacrificing being home for the holidays so you could make it feel like home for the holidays here. How 'bout next year? (heh-heh)

Monday, December 17, 2007

O, the humanity

From "The Daily Mail" online:

Dutch police complain it is their right to smoke cannabis while off-duty
Last updated at 00:53 15 December 2007

Police in Amsterdam are complaining over new rules banning them from smoking cannabis while off duty.

Officers in the Dutch capital, famous for its liberal drugs laws, have been told they must set the public "a good moral example".

The ban, due to come into effect on January 1, will make the force the first in the Netherlands to bar officers from using drugs when not at work.

Frank Gittay, the city's police council chairman, said: "Until now police were only banned from showing up for work stoned or drunk.

"But now we are telling officers they should also behave like the police at all times.

"That means not taking drugs and not getting excessively drunk whether on or off duty."

But Dutch police union chairman Hans van Duijn said: "Many of our members are opposed to this.

"They are not paid for 24-hours a day. What they do in their free time is up to them."

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Transatlantic Cruise

After a day in Barcelona it was all aboard the Norwegian Gem, a brand new cruise ship christened on October 1 of this year, for a 9-day transatlantic repositioning cruise that would repatriate us for the first time since this whole adventure began. After passing through the Strait of Gibraltar and closer to Africa than we've ever been (although we're hoping to change that while we live here), we made one stop at Madeira -- what a gorgeous island. (There's our formidable ship in the bay.) That was the last stop before crossing the pond to Boston. The trip was far less choppy than expected and a great deal further south than the Titanic's voyage so no iceberg-dodging, although one had to have a slightly hardier constitution than my own to brave the swimming pools... but plenty of people did. Aislin and I played shuffleboard and oversized chess, the kids made friends at the playground and happily bowled at the bowling alley despite some unpredictable rolls, and we read copiously (I managed to get through this rather depressing but fascinating read; as well as these barely passable, short-ish stories by the author of the much better Life of Pi). But it was the easy availability of American food that made it a real vacation. Mm, sausage. Jeff may as well have been one big sausage gravy-boat (that's a confusing thing to punctuate, much less be) as much as he slurped down. I kept watching for signs of heart attack, but it'll take more than a paltry couple of pounds of straight lard to take down generations of Midwestern breeding.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

On to sunny Spain

So after a long-ish day traveling to Germany and back yesterday, we hopped a plane for Barcelona today. My children have traveled enough in the last year that Aislin is no longer terribly impressed to have another stamp in her passport and enjoys the plane rides largely for the opportunity to read, do word puzzles, or nap. She'll usually pull down the window shade as soon as we're in the air "so as not to disturb those around her" with the bright sunlight. That's not to say that she isn't soaking in the details so as to shock us with her recollection of esoterica weeks later, but she's a veteran traveler for sure. For Dylan's part, he's taken to memorizing the names and logo of each airline so that our visits to the airport are now accompanied by his inquiries, "Will we be riding the Continental or the United jet this time?" or the occasional outburst of, "Ooh, look, Mommy! Clickair!"

The flight to Barcelona was scenic enough that even Aislin had her window shade up for most of it so she could watch the snowy crags of the Pyrenees level off into the Mediterranean. As the plane turned to follow the coastline, she was actually wriggling around in her window seat to try to see out Daddy's window on the other side, enjoying the "ocean here, mountains there" view. It really was stunning, I have to confess.

We ended up at a hotel on Las Ramblas, which was touted as one of the most important areas in Barcelona. I had embarrassingly little time to research the city before we arrived short of the research involved in booking the hotel, so I was amazed at how phenomenally beautiful it was (the occasional gutter stench aside). We were blocks from the coastline and the medieval center of the city, so there was plenty to stumble across even for the uneducated and weary traveler dragging two equally weary children behind.

We wandered into the first tapas restaurant we saw for lunch, which was not what the kids would have picked. Horrible service, "weird" food... Aislin actually wishfully mentioned the KFC she'd spotted up the street, but we stuck it out. When they delivered the various dishes, the selection of which was at the restaurant's discretion, we ended up with -- among other things -- a small bowl of tiny octopi in sauce. Aislin and Dylan briefly pondered the little tentacles curled beseechingly to the heavens and promptly concluded that this was some sort of small aquarium and that such things could not possibly be fit or intended for consumption. Jeff, on the other hand, proved that he is far cooler than I could hope to be by popping one into his mouth without so much as grimacing and proclaiming them very yummy.

After one pass around the table, there were still (surprise!) several of the little critters left in their bowl. Dylan was curious, so I started to lift one of them out of the bowl for him to peruse more closely. This evidently convinced him that the octopus was alive and possessed of the ability to leap at his face, thus eliciting a piercing shriek that was followed by that wonderful and all-too-familiar moment of silence in which everyone in the restaurant checks more or less furtively to ensure that they do not have a duty to report any child abuse, and then returns cautiously to their meals. That moment of silence that tells you you're under observation for the next few minutes.

I explained to Dylan again that they weren't alive and were for eating, then proved it by eating one myself. Not bad. Particularly if you chew very quickly and have a four-year-old whom you want to imbue with culinary adventurousness inspecting your every subtle expression. He eyed the bowl suspiciously and slowly extended a single finger to touch one of the remaining heads. When the finger emerged intact from the encounter, we went for putting one on his plate. In another phenomenal display of courage, I'll be darned if Dylan didn't pick it up unbidden and pop it into his mouth. And then ask for another. Dad caught some portion of this (although not the shriek) on camera; here are the bookends of "fear" and "relish":

Yes, that's my boy.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Finally, a trip abroad... or more abroad... or...

The most comforting aspect of moving to the Netherlands -- as opposed to, say, East Timor -- was the knowledge that we wouldn't be in the middle of a civil war or anything. A very close second was the fact that we'd be relatively near our dear friends, the Richters/Moennichs, who may as well be family. Sisters Nina and Julia were both exchange students with our family when they were in high school, and there's nothing like the high drama of sharing teenage daughters for a year to bring families together.

Nina and Matthias have two boys quite close in age to Dylan, so we've been looking forward to getting them together for years. We finally managed the introductions when my mom, dad, and sister came into town briefly, eschewing a tour of Utrecht for a few hours in a rental van (which trumpeted the name of said rental company on the side in a fashion that probably made it appear as if we were renegade employees on the lam from the airport offices) and a lovely dinner in the town of Bocholt, where Julia and Christoph live. Nothing to test your knowledge of the Dutch rules of the road quite like a large, loud, stickshift van containing three generations of your family hurtling down the A2. We got there with only one small detour; enough said.

Aislin and Dylan don't speak German (yet), and Max and Felix haven't learned a whole lot of English (yet), but the boys quickly found a universal language: THOMAS. Ah, how comforting to see the cross-cultural continuity of backpacks full of small but surprisingly heavy toys being dumped wholesale onto scratchable floors, and the concomitant continuity of mothers pleading with small boys to pick up their trains. In minutes, the boys had retreated to a back room of the apartment from which we subsequently heard only the occasional hoots and chugs of little boys in their paradise of vehicles.

I was encouraged that I could communicate with four-year-old Max, only perplexing him a few times with my rusty German. See, after four years of university-level German, I'm almost as fluent as a smart four-year-old. I'm sure Max will be teaching me what I need to know in no time.

We had a lovely walk through little downtown Bocholt, which was all dolled up for the Christmas season. Aislin enjoyed the Rathaus-turned-advent-calendar whose windows each contained a number in lights for each day in December. A short jaunt down a river path took us to the textile mill/restaurant where we promptly doubled the net decibel level. The boys? They played with trains.

Transatlantic relations, indeed. There may just be a third-generation friendship in the making here...

Friday, November 30, 2007

A Rumination on Cultural Expectations of Sibling Affection in Triptych

The natural state of affairs...

...having discovered the observing eye...

...yields to the culturally sanctioned sibling ambivalence.
(Thanks for the pictures, Dad.)

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Because Jenny asked

Yes, I am, in fact, here in the Netherlands and can prove it visually. I just choose not to put up pictures of myself because, as I explained to a friend of mine, why put up pictures of myself when I have the excuse of children -- by far the cuter portions of my genome -- to serve as my visual emissaries? But here I am, looking like a dyspeptic packhorse on the bridge at Leiden. Happy now?

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving Abroad

From Lincoln's 1863 invitation to make Thanksgiving a national holiday: I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving....

If it weren't for Aislin's history text, I'd have had no idea that the Pilgrims lived in the Netherlands for something like 12 years before taking the long haul over the Atlantic. It's a good thing there was some connection because otherwise we'd have taken it a lot harder that we couldn't find a whole turkey for sale anywhere in the Utrecht area. I was left with lame explanations to the kids about how the whole spirit of Thanksgiving was the fact that the Pilgrims were using what they could find on the land they'd immigrated to... which was why we should have pannenkoeken for Thanksgiving instead. Pancakes as a main dish? I had them at "Pan--".

As it turns out, there are enough American expats living in the Netherlands that there's an interdenominational Thanksgiving Day service organized each year at Pieterskerk in Leiden, the church where the Pilgrims registered their births, marriages, and deaths. They did not, apparently, actually attend church there... I'm supposing because its lofty roof, ogives, and stained glass would have been too ostentatious for Puritan types. (Perhaps they would have approved when the catastrophic gunpowder explosion in Leiden harbor that leveled half the city in 1807 blew out every stained glass window in the place except one.)

Jeff managed the rare day off on Thanksgiving Day, so we wrestled Dylan into a collared shirt, looked up all the bookstores that carry books in English, and sallied forth to the picturesque college town right down the rails. We finally got the obligatory canal/windmill/bike picture, too, although it didn't really catch the bike partially submerged in the canal right there (and you'll have to enlarge the picture to catch the overexposed windmill). We knew we were getting close to the church when we started hearing American-accented English on every side. It was a jarring experience to walk into the church itself and hear nothing but the mother tongue for the first time in nearly three months.

Aislin and I found seats and she pulled out her sketch book while Jeff and Dylan hung our coats. The friendly lady in front of us turned around, sized up Aislin, and blustered, "Well you look like a nice, quiet girl, thank God." Aislin looked serenely up from her book. The lady continued, undeterred by my best efforts to demonstrate active disinterest, on a jag about the horrible preschoolers who had sat behind her the last two years and forced her to move in the middle of the service because they couldn't stop chattering and kicking her chair. When she moved on to her son's medical history, I uncharitably found myself suspecting that someone's meds might be in need of adjustment. When she finally paused for breath, I did manage to inform her brightly that my four-year-old would be arriving imminently. Although her visage darkened, she did not move and her attention was thankfully diverted to another victim a few moments later. Dylan behaved angelically and ended up sleeping for most of the hour. I swear there was no Dramamine involved, just the perfectly natural soporific effect of churches on preschoolers.

Afterward we wandered about Leiden a little and basked in the college atmosphere while we sought out the bookstores and a pannenkoeken huis. (Hey, a promise is a promise.) We found the pancakes first, thankfully. Aislin ordered the kids' special, which tur
ned out to involve a pancake served with chocolate and four pots of candy to put on top... and that was just a prelude to the ice cream sundae for dessert. We do live in the land where grown adults consume chocolate sprinkles on bread for breakfast, so I don't know why I was so surprised. Here's Aislin straightfacedly informing me that her pancake had adequate nutritional content to get her through the rest of the day. I'll omit the blurred pictures of her zipping maniacally around after consuming it. Then we found a couple of wonky college bookstores and treated ourselves to two overpriced novels that we're now racing each other to finish. (I got a headstart while Jeff slept on the train.)

So we survived Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie and even got in some Pilgrim cred to boot. Now it's on to Sinterklaas...

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Sinterklaas cometh

Here's Aislin with her shoes (and Dylan's) full of carrots and sugarcubes for Sinterklaas' horse, Americo. You see, each night from now until December 5, Sinterklaas' helper, Zwarte Piet, jumps down the chimney (or through the mail slot in our case) and exchanges the equine snack for kruidnoten, a snack more fit for kiddie consumption... assuming some fairly clean shoes to receive said cookies. I am probably the only mom in the Netherlands tonight making my children enswath Americo's feast in paper towels, but I'm hoping Sinterklaas appreciates hygiene or at least cuts us some slack since we're still new and all. I'm also hoping he might go with the alternative small gift of something like a pen or keychain, which seem safer in terms of avoiding bacterial infection, at least with our shoes.

Note Dylan's absence at this festive moment? He passed out cold half an hour before bedtime, so his big sister, ever his defender, not only filled his shoes for him but also wrote this apologia (it folds in half as per the picture above, hence the upside-downness) disclaiming his questionable behavior immediately before bed this evening and explaining that he really is a good kid. Talk about a good kid... she takes the cake. Or the kruidnoten, as the case may be.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Freewheelin' Dylan

Dylan's favorite form of Dutch practice:

...and the pride of ownership.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Bliss of Materialism

We have furniture.

This is news. I mean, we've had some furniture (mattresses, albeit sans bedframes), but we now have the cornerstone, the new hearth, the principium upon which suburban life is based. We have a couch. (What, you were expecting a TV? We did get that, too.) Or more properly, we have the loveseat-couch set. Or, in my pidgin Nederlands, het 2-zitsplatz-3-zitsplatz combi. Buttery ecru/yellow, leather or a convincing and adequately childproof equivalent. Thank god for Emmaus' used everything store, without which we'd still be camping out in a living room that more closely resembles a high school gym in preparations for the homecoming dance, what with the homemade decorations and chinese paper lantern globe lights (the installation of which prompted A. to observe, "Now everyone will think we're always having a party!"). I didn't like homecoming when I was in high school. Enough said.

After spending about two hours flirting with decorative disaster by moving the couches into all possible configurations over our paper-thin (read: cheapest in the store) linoleum that rips when a Lego hits it the wrong way, we set them down out of sheer fatigue and decided they look just fine where they are. We've now moved on to training D. that our new additions to the dance party decor are not, in fact, cushy trampolines, despite appearances. He and his buddy, Stripe the stuffed tiger, have had a few heart-to-hearts in the Thinking Spot today about the injustice of parental censorship of expression via bounce. He is deeply misunderstood.

Nonetheless, he and A. had a grand time this evening rocking out in the new digs. A. made good use of the new couches (and television) by making a new Dutch-speaking friend and inviting her to consume some tasty Sinterklaas kruidnoten whilst hanging out on the new couch. Rather than watching the newly-available Dutch channels, A. decided to try introducing her new buddy to some of the finest American culture has to offer the tween set -- Hannah Montana. That lasted about five minutes before the girls decided that perhaps digging moats in the playground sand was a better, er, bridge-builder. Three cheers for eight-year-olds' intrepid approach to interlingual communication.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

What we learned today

Just another edifying day of high culture and critical life skills here in our household.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Missing the point...

We bought water balloons for the fourth birthday celebrations and never quite got around to using them. Needless to say, it's not exactly water balloon weather at this latitude so the opportunity isn't really presenting itself. This has never kept our children from messy fun, so we came to find ourselves playing with them tonight -- where else -- in the bathtub. While A. was enjoying trying to get them to burst (which took real effort), D. decided they were alive in some fashion and was hysterical at the mere thought of them being popped and rendered nearly catatonic when A. finally succeeded in dispatching one. Here he is guarding the remaining ones with his life.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Makin' friends

Our front yard is wavy. Not bumpy, but huge rolling swells, as if the contractors wanted to simulate rolling glacial hills to stave off potential mountain-envy in the citizenry. My daughter is undeterred and has taken to punting her soccer ball from one valley to the next, racing up and down the swells like Laura Ingalls with cleats. And a rabid wolverine after her.

She occasionally cajoles her dad into passing with her on the relatively flat (but usually muddy) edges of the communal yard. As they had their fun last weekend, our neighbor came out and informed us -- apparently without malice, but with characteristic Dutch bluntness -- that the reason they'd bothered with the rolling front yard was to keep people from playing football on the lawn. They continued their game nonetheless; no windows were broken, and I think the neighbor's son might even have joined in.

N.B.: I have subsequently been corrected by my dear husband that our neighbor indicated that the point of the swells was to keep the big high school kids out, sort of like those big nails on the eaves of buildings intended to keep the pigeons off. That's where my sardonic humor gets me... in trouble with the neighbors again.

Monday, November 5, 2007

"Overachievers: The Revenge"

In spite of the risk of creating a son as irritating as the kid in Jurassic Park, we are cautiously encouraging of D's current dinosaur obsession. We've just about worn out this website, too. Those LeapPad books teach them ridiculous things sometimes, but isn't it just adorable to hear a small child reciting Latin?

(I know it looks like I have cue cards for him or something, but this is pure, unadulterated... memorization without comprehension.) We're working on a Catholic mass in Latin for Christmas, but the benediction keeps coming out as "Archaeopterae Domini in Diplodicui Sanctui, ah-RAWR!" We'll see how that goes over the next few weeks.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Cheap Dates

Entertainment is rather a flexible concept with our family to begin with. I mean, my household is populated with people who can happily spend half an hour counting how many of the ducks in the canals we're walking past are sleeping, something I suspect may not hold the attention of other (less human-contact deprived?) individuals. Nonetheless, we're always on the lookout for cheap entertainment and are pretty undiscriminating about entertainment that's actually -- gasp -- free. Especially that which doesn't involve the neurotic behavior of passersby in the streets that requires subsequent explanation to the children.

So anyway, we decided today to go look for this map. Yep, a map. Some coworkers touted it as the best map in all of the Netherlands, so you knew that we just had to go check it out. I'll be durned if it wasn't actually pretty cool when we found it, a huge roomful of representational navigation encased two feet under a glass floor. When the kids hesitated to step on it because of the trompe l'oeil, the Dutch guide informed them that Queen Beatrix had been afraid to step on the floor when she visited, too. This (or the sight of their parents cavorting about on it) cured them. I'd recommend a visit, but they're closing in a few weeks so run, don't walk, to the big map of the polderlands at Mobilion.

Quiet weekend

It's odd how homey home becomes ex patria. It's altogether too comfortable to have a cocoon of familiarity with internet, books in English, stuff that's at least become recognizable over the past few weeks (if you were in the know, you'd note that nearly everything in our pictures can be found here). Anyway, particularly for those with my eremitic tendencies, it becomes rather easy to remain in this cozy little enclave of familiarity rather than strike out into the world with two children in tow... so we've been hangin' out at the pad this weekend.

Cooking is great fun here since the produce selection varies daily... and we have to shop daily just to carry the amount of milk the kids drink in a day. What I wouldn't give for an old-fashioned milkman to set a few bottles at our door each morning. It's amazing what my kids will eat when they help fix it: eggplant, zucchini, broccoli, spinach salad (D. requested a second salad after finishing his ice cream the other night... did I mention he's a little mutant [in the nicest possible way]?). Yesterday I found a persimmon and decided to buy it just because it looked so appealing, having no clue how to prepare such a thing. Despite being unable to buy baking soda in this country and having no electric mixer, I attempted this recipe last night. It was probably a little denser than the original, but yummy nonetheless (as is just about anything with that much butter and sugar...).

Friday, November 2, 2007

The quotidian

We had a fun history lesson today learning about Queen Nzinga of Angola who managed at the height of the slave trade in the seventeenth century to keep the Portugese from decimating her people by being a very wily woman, indeed. Then we carved up some potatoes and created some faux adinkra on paper. Lots of messy fun and right up A's alley since she would spend every waking moment creating some form of art if left to her own devices. She took it upon herself to make a "Happy Birthday" sign for D. that morphed into a painstakingly detailed design triumph, and she makes a card for one of her relatives or friends every day. (I'm working on sending these, really; I just can't keep up with her.)

D., for his part, decided that painting with a seagull feather he found outside was more fun than the potatoes. Being the mutant neat-freak that he is, he would paint until he noticed a speck of paint on his hands, then run over to the sink and scrub. Then he'd run back and paint for another minute or two, then back to the sink. It's a miracle he finished a picture at all, but eventually he did.

One of the best things about our neighborhood is that one of the few stores that are actually nearby carries decent art supplies for a really good price, so A. and I are hoping to tackle watercolors in the near future. She also has a huge new sketchbook and has been learning about contour drawing, so we may well have some more fabulous artworks to post soon.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Too quick on the draw

I'm now wishing I had named (or at least subtitled) this blog "A Moveable Fiets." Yes, I'm still a hopeless literature dork, but I'm too bound by inertia to change it now, all of 48 hours in. Shame, really.


So the baby is four. Birthdays aren't quite the same when you can't run to the store and get a Betty Crocker devil's food cake mix and a tub o' frosting with rainbow chips, but we managed. I had to buy a springform pan and puzzle through a cake mix with instructions in Dutch that included adding 2/3 -- yes, 2/3 -- of a beaten egg to the mix. I was sufficiently confounded by that instruction that I decided I'd misunderstood something and would have to head to Babelfish to try to translate the instructions. After entering the step in question and asking it to translate, I realized I'd be on my own when the translation engine returned the following:

Rudder butter the egg beaten in a seizure bowl gentle and joint the mix and 2/3 of.

(Seriously. I just copied and pasted that line. Would someone please work on translation technology?) So what else to do? I whipped out my rudder, seized the bowl, and gently jointed. An hour later, we had something approximating a cake which, when covered in whipped cream, satisfied the birthday boy. We didn't have birthday candles, so we had to light four tea lights and set them around the cake, an arrangement which I'm sure made it look to any passersby as if we were about to engage in some Wiccan ceremony... an effect certainly not mitigated by the fact that it is Halloween, after all. That's probably why we got the only two trick-or-treaters in the Netherlands at our door tonight after seeing no mention of Halloween since we've been here. We had no candy, so we tossed them a couple of muesli bars. They seemed reasonably satisfied, but we'll have to see if our door is covered with eggs in the morning.

But I digress. Again, thank god for four-year-olds who have little consciousness of propriety; Dylan didn't care if his weird cake and candles hearkened to ancient pagan rituals (oh wait, they all do...digressing again), he just loved blowing out the candles. He spent half of "Happy Birthday" looking shocked that we were singing to him and the other half poised to blow.

He'd opened most of his presents earlier today (thanks a million to those of you who sent stuff -- he loves the Thomas tent and his stuffed dinos, and A. loved her presents, too!), but last of all we let him open the aptly named "Thomas Giant Set" that Grandma Barbara and Grandpa Bill gave us to carry over here. Then we spent two hours putting it together. Then D. played with it so intently for so long that he forgot all else with the world. Here's our last video of the evening, taken after he had been playing with trains for well over an hour...

Ah, the birthday accident. No fourth birthday is complete without it.

With birthday celebrations out of the way, D. is cleared for his first day of Montessori school tomorrow. Kids here start public school right after their fourth birthdays, so we're off to catch some Dutch germs right after we pack the obligatory cheese sandwich that comprises lunch for every man, woman, and child over age 2 in this country. As one of the myriad expat guides tossed at us said, put more than one slice of lunchmeat (much less lettuce or tomato) on your cheese sandwich at your peril, as your coworkers will look on in horrified fascination at your grotesquely overwrought lunchtime indulgence. We can't have horrified four-year-old coworkers, so conformity it is. Let the indoctrin-- er, assimilation begin.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The first thing to learn before you get on a train in a foreign country... how to read the train schedule, or perhaps more accurately, to overcome the hubris that tells you, oh, you've traveled on enough European trains in your life that this is no big deal, just go see which train heads to your stop next. But be sure to pay particular attention to that pesky little asterisk that means that the crammed-full train you're getting on with your two tired kids doesn't stop at your stop but rather goes sailing right on through it toward one of four or five towns named after cheeses (begging the age-old question: which came first, the cheeses or the burg?).

I told D. before we left this morning that he'd get to ride on four trains: two on the way to the international schools we were looking at, and two on the way home. Well, he got more than he bargained for when we hopped the wrong train and ended up having to take four trains to get home. Oh, the joy. Somehow the intrigue didn't wear off for him, though, and A. plowed through several chapters of her history book and livened up the ride(s) with anecdotes and little known facts about Peter the Great. It only rained on us once -- a good day in the Netherlands -- and we got to see two really cool schools, either of which would be great for both kids. A's voting for the one with the 2-story rock climbing wall, I think.

Both of them are international wings of Dutch schools which is cool because they teach in English, but their private-school tuition is subsidized substantially by the Dutch government because they teach the kids Dutch and integrate them to a certain extent with the kids in the Dutch-speaking stream of the school. I wish there was something like this in Utrecht, but Hilversum is a pretty town -- this duck pond to the right where the kids busied themselves chasing geese is most of the walk to the two schools -- and the commute doesn't seem bad (all together now: as long as you hop the right train). Now if we can just get them to find spots for both kids at one of the schools...

Tomorrow is D's fourth birthday. I had considered taking him on a train ride somewhere, but I feel pretty comfortable ruling that out now. (Isn't this a great picture? A. snapped it on the first train.)

And if you can't tell, I'm getting link happy today. Girl's gotta have a little fun after a day like today...

Monday, October 29, 2007

Les Enfants in the 'hood

All told, we're adjusting to life here in gloomy Holland, land of the 8:30 sunrise. One of the kids' favorite pastimes (fortunately, in light of prevailing cultural conditions) is biking. Here they are in front of the homestead with A's bike, but we'll have to post one with D. tearing around our street on his training-wheeled bike. He'll be riding to school in no time. We also have a fantastic little playground and sandbox on our little triangle where they love to play, their English shouts ringing out over all the little Dutch neighbor kids' demure voices (ha). The Dutch most certainly appreciate a good playground, and our minimal explorations have yielded at least a dozen good play areas within biking distance... and nary a McDonald's. (Thank god for the small favors.)

Up like a rocket...

I decided that one of the better things I could impart to my kids now that I have some extra time on my hands is a little of the violining that consumed such a huge chunk of my own childhood. I've played a lot in my life, but I've never taught anyone else so I've been attempting to dredge from distant memory all the cool games my violin teachers used to do when my siblings and I were learning to play now decades (gasp!) ago. "Up Like a Rocket" was one that I actually remembered the words to, and D. has, er, taken off with it as a means of practicing his bowhold. Here he is this morning; you have to picture the "up like a rocket" part that didn't make it onto the video...

And note, of course, that we always enjoy violin more in our jammies...