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...