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.