Monday, December 22, 2008

66.6% of our parenthood + 25% of my aunthood = over the cute quotient

Although the circumstances of our presence in the States aren't the happiest, it's great to get to see everyone and introduce Avery to people who we thought wouldn't see her for months or years. While most of the kinfolk are happy to see the baby, I have to say that Avery's cousin, Miranda, has taken the excitement to entirely new levels. At lunch yesterday I was inundated with questions interspersed with exclamations over the baby's cuteness and wistful comments about how great it'd be to have a baby in her house. She was clearly arming herself with information for the full court press on her own parents...

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

I am well aware that baby slings aren't necessarily the norm, but I think they're even rarer here than in the States. In my neighborhood and that of the kids' school, to carry my baby around in some piece of fabric instead of a €500 strol-- pardon me, pram, well, clearly I'm some sort of hippie. But doesn't she look cozy in there (in her little Dutch flag hat that Jenny crocheted for her)?

Aunt Meg got Avery a little snowsuit with teddy bear ears that's not only adorable, but very warm. The other day she was wearing it whilst facing inward in the sling, only her head sticking out although her face was buried in my chest. As I walked the couple of blocks to pick up Dylan from school, I first got the full head swivel from two old people walking past me. I then passed three Dutch kids of about junior high age getting into a car who unabashedly stared as I walked by. I heard one of the girls say to their mom (in Dutch), "Mom, was that lady carrying a stuffed bear?" After I stopped being all proud of myself for understanding enough Dutch to get what she was talking about, I now regularly crack up thinking about all these people who think I'm some crazy lady who can't stand to leave home without my dear stuffed animals strapped to my chest.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Big siblinghood

Both Aisie and Dylan are getting into this whole big sibling thing, and now that Avery's getting a little head control it's a little easier for them to get to pitch in. Dylan loves to hold her as long as I'll let him:

...and Aislin is educating her in song and dance. She's an excellent babysitter while we're making dinner.

Friday, December 5, 2008

It's Sinterklaas time again...

The whole Sinterklaas phenomenon has been a different beast this year now that the kids are surrounded by peers who know how this whole thing works. Dylan's singing Sinterklaas liedjes in Dutch (although he's not singing these by Fifty Sint and Snoep Pietje Piet), Aislin's making a surprise (pronounced "surpreeze") for a buddy at school which involves some really complicated wrapping of a very small gift in something like a pinata, and there are generally some expectations of the old Sint this year.

Just as a refresher for anyone who might not have experienced this Dutch holiday tradition, Sinterklaas rides his steamboat from Spain up into Amsterdam each November and then wanders the countryside making sure the kids are behaving and putting candy in the shoes of good little girls and boys. With him are his horse Americo and dozens of Zwarte Pieten ("Black Petes"), Dutchmen in blackface makeup who perform acrobatic feats -- including slipping through mail slots to deliver candy to shoes -- and hurl tiny gingerbread cookies at the crowds awaiting Sint. (Avery is officially a Dutch baby now, having been clocked in the head by one of these pepernoten when energetic Piets flung them into the crowd at Dylan's school celebration... although I suspect a Dutch mom would've had better pepernoten reflexes than mine.) They're generally mischievous -- one of the Piets who showed up at Dylan's school actually broke a window in their classroom, although we're told this really was an accident -- and are warned when they misbehave that they will be reported to Sinterklaas. We are repeatedly assured that there are absolutely positively no racist or slavery overtones to this beloved tradition; I rather like this recent article from Expatica:

When it comes to discussing the Dutch phenomenon of Sint Nicolaas and his feast day, Sinterklaas, on 5 December, many expats go straight for the jugular: his black "helpers", (Zwarte Pieten, singular Zwarte Piet) are really a caricature of black slaves.

A libel, say Dutch traditionalists. To them, Zwarte Piet is Sint's valued companion; his black hue may owe more to his clambering up and down chimneys than his ethnic origin. (Although it is unclear how soot can bring about frizzy Afro hair and big red lips.)
Indeed. Lots of little Dutch children dress up (eek) in their Zwarte Piet costumes for school in the days preceding the December 5 holiday. Well, if the kids are doing it...

And speaking of, they made little Zwarte Piet hats as crafts in Dylan's class this year. They got to bring them home after Sint brought their gifts on December 5. Here's Dylan surrounded by his booty and proudly wearing his hat backwards.

Ach, any holiday that involves consumption of as much sugar as this one can't be all bad. Aisie and Dylan liked getting the huge chocolate initials that are de rigeur for Pakjesavond, the evening of December 5 when Sinterklaas brings gifts for everyone. Note the traditional bottle of wine for each child as well. Yes, that's a joke.

Monday, December 1, 2008

She's figured out how to keep us feeding her.

Grandpa (aka Bongo) got these great pictures of four-week-old Avery smiling today.

He may have had to take about 30 to get these perfect 2, but who's counting?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving... sort of

I've got to say that Thanksgiving just isn't the same when the kids have to go to school. We let Aislin play hooky and would have let Dylan do the same, but when it became clear to him that going to Leiden meant missing both show and tell AND the coveted position of line leader (which equates roughly to being the class despot for a day), there was no question that school would win out. I'll tell you, true love is adding two hours to your Thanksgiving commute so your five-year-old can be first in line three times that day. Ms. Karen let me know that Dylan made the most of his status that day, though. Once she found him standing on a chair clapping his hands in the manner that the teachers do to get the kids' attention, utterly in vain, not a single student heeding his call. Another time she overheard him chastising another classmate that he was going to have to send her to the principal's office if she committed some unknown offense once more.

But I digress. It was gratifying to get to repeat our trip to Pieterskerk in Leiden again this year for the polydenominational "service of remembrance" since most of our American holiday rituals aren't replicable in the Netherlands (my kingdom for a pumpkin pie) and there's something extraordinary about getting to walk in the Pilgrims' footsteps on a day that otherwise goes unnoticed by everyone around us. We swear that someday before we move we will visit the Pilgrim archives to see if we're related to the Pilgrims. It was especially cool to get to share it with Mom and Dad, who my siblings were kind enough to share with us for the holiday. I spent a good chunk of the service having to feed Avery in the bathroom, but Dad took over after a while and stood with her at the back of the church.

As it happens, Dad had one of the consummate Dutch experiences while walking three-week-old Avery around the back of the church. An older Dutch woman approached him to coo over the baby. At that moment he happened to have Avery up on his shoulder, gently bouncing her. Like any Dutchwoman worth her salt, she couldn't resist conveying her wisdom and passing her judgment. "You know," she informed the pediatrician and emergency room physician who has testified in child abuse cases, "bouncing a baby like that damages their brain."

I have a little too much of the Dutch in me because I know I would've given her the deep satisfaction of engaging her; I have already run that futile gauntlet in numerous instances in which my childrearing was brought into issue by complete strangers in this country. My father is a far better person than I. His response was something along the lines of a wide-eyed, "Really? Oh my! I'd better be really careful, then."

Unfortunately we hadn't tried to procure a turkey before Leiden, so we were left to seek one out at the largest grocery store in Utrecht at about 4 p.m. on Thanksgiving day. Of course, it's not like Utrechtians are all out there beating down the doors for turkeys or anything... So Jeff and I went into the Albert Heijn and sought poultry. I took my usual tack of searching quietly amongst the refrigerator cases, but he took the bull by the horns and made the most of his Dutch language classes by approaching the guy with the big chef hat behind all the roasting chickens and asking, "Heeft u een hele kalkoen?" (Do ya have a whole turkey?) Despite Jeff's impeccable (?) Dutch, the gent responded in English, "Oh, are you celebrating Thanksgiving? Sorry, we don't have any left." So we got a big roasting chicken instead.

At least Mom brought us both pumpkin and Crisco, so we had a real honest-to-gosh punkin pie with homemade crust to save Thanksgiving from culinary ignominy and prove that a holiday ain't a holiday without Mom.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Playin' the Bongo

Yes, she's already got Bongo wrapped around that fat little finger. I mean, do you see that knowing smugness in her eyes? She knows she's set.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Dylan waxes poetic about Avery's feet

You have to figure the last few months have probably been a little confusing for Dylan. When we were going to get the 3D ultrasound in July we psyched Dylan up for the few days preceding the appointment, explaining that we were going to get to see little sister. During a long silence in the car on the way to the appointment, our oversight became clear when his little voice piped up from the back seat with exquisite trepidation, "So are we getting little sister OUT today?" We got that one explained relatively easily.

Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that when we left for the hospital and told Dylan we were going to bring his sister home with us, his response was along the lines of, "Naaaawwww, you're joking!" Caitlin accurately caught the tenor of his initial response upon meeting his new sister for the first time:

He warmed to her quickly, however, and within minutes was asking to hold her and explaining to her all the things he, the big brother, would be teaching her about -- trains, dinosaurs, cooking. He also inspected her various parts and carried on a running commentary about her soft hair and tiny fingers until reaching her little, pink bare feet upon which he exclaimed sweetly:

"Oh, and her feet are like little rats..."


When I clad Avery in these soft leather booties for the first time a few days later (they're fantastic for holding socks on)...

...Dylan inquired:

"Mommy, are these shoes made of couch?"

Yes, Dylan, we've reupholstered Avery's rats.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Daar komt Sint Maarten aan

Our kraamzorg nurse let us know about this Dutch holiday that we somehow managed not to hear about until now -- Sint Maartens Dag (St. Martin's Day). She even hooked us up with the obligatory gear: a fishing pole kind of thing with a light on the end from which you suspend a paper lantern. Ours came as a freebie from a local grocery rather than being painstakingly crafted by hand because, let's be frank, we've lowered the bar a bit around here in the last few weeks. The kids go around much like trick or treating, and in fact, it appears that Halloween -- which isn't celebrated here -- might be bleeding over a bit because the dominant colors of St. Maarten gear were orange and black, and Dylan's lantern was a jack-o-lantern. At any rate, the kids typically run around in groups and have to sing the St. Maarten song at each door in exchange for a piece of candy or a tangerine.

We had the words to the song printed helpfully on the grocery-issue treat bags, but no tune:

Sint Maarten, Sint Maarten,
De koeien hebben staarten,
De meisjes hebben rokken aan,
Daar komt Sint Maarten aan!

(Roughly translated:
St. Martin
St. Martin,
The cows have tails,
The girls are in their skirts,
Here comes St. Martin.

Be it far from me to comment on the bizarre non sequiturhood of the lyrics, much less any ominous undertones...)

Aisie and Dylan dutifully commited themselves to memorizing the poem for the couple of days before the feestdag, November 11. It's amazing what the promise of a few pieces of candy can provide in the way of motivation. Come 5 p.m. tonight, they were ready to go.

Being the parents we are, we put Aisie in charge of Dylan and sent them out into the streets alone (okay, with strict instructions not to leave our little triangle and only to ring the bell where the light was on). Bolstered by the promise of candy, our fearless Dutch explorers happily ventured door to well-lit door. They quickly hooked up with another group of kids and managed to rake in a good haul even with their parentally-limited geography and lack of knowledge of the tune, which they managed to pick up from the other kids.

It bears mention that we
ourselves were unprepared for the St. Maarteners, not having gotten to the store to buy any candy. Thus while our own kids were getting candy from the neighbors, we had to do the grinchy Halloween thing of turning off the lights and pretending not to be home whenever kids rang the bell. We were hoping that we'd be spared the egging it'd cost us at home since it is a saint's day and all. Evidently, annoyed kids can resort to taunting you at the front door with this couplet:

Hier woont Juffrouw Kikkerbil,   //  Here lives Miss Frog's Butt
Die ons niks meer geven wil! // Who refuses to give us anything!
So a festive Armistice/St. Maarten's Dag to you, from Miss Frog's Butt.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Hoera, een meisje!

Proving that she already has an impeccable sense of when best to make an entrance, Avery Sophia Lighter Steill arrived rather quickly this evening at 8:57 p.m. after a comparatively easy labor (I'll take 2 1/2 hours over 17 any day). We all think she's adorable.

At the hospital, we even got the traditional beschuit met muisjes (crackers with little mice, or candy-coated aniseseed) that the Dutch serve when a baby's born. I liked 'em -- although I might have eaten anything at that point -- but I think Jeff might have preferred anything but candy-coated anise seed. Yes, I finished his.

Happy Halloween

Proving once again that my kids are lucky to have the best aunts in the world (all five of them, although only two are implicated here), Meg and Caitlin made sure that they got to dress up for Halloween albeit one day late and while their parents were at the hospital awaiting the newest arrival. I guarantee they had more fun than we did. So here they are: Purrfect Kitty and Kung Fu Stegosaurus. Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Birthday, Dylan

Five years old. It's been a big year what with learning to read and write, as well as every possible factoid about dozens of dinosaurs. And Dylan was especially happy that his mommy has figured out in the last year where to buy more authentic cake mixes (although his aunts did bring some much-loved Betty Crocker from the States!).

Fortuitously, Dylan decided he wanted a Halloween birthday party; this may be the last time in his life he wants one thusly themed. He said he wanted (you must hear this in a sing-songy voice): "costume wearing... and pumpkin carving... and cake eating... and apple bobbing..."

While we didn't manage to deliver on all points, we did celebrate with some dinosaur cakejes, a bunch of craftsy Halloween decorations, and a ridiculously generous complement of gifts shuttled overseas by the aunts -- thanks Bongo and Grammie and aunts and uncles! (This is his "holy cow, that's a lot of presents" face.)

Proving that we're getting increasingly European in our childrearing, here's Aislin toasting Dylan's feestdag with a mimosa (if you can call Fanta Zero in a champagne flute a mimosa...).

Friday, September 5, 2008

Abiding by the rules of travel

We decided on a real adventure for today -- the zoo. I saved this for last so I could dangle its promise over their heads the rest of the week to elicit their best possible behavior and their at-least-feigned interest in our other destinations. You just can't argue with the allure of a tiger.

The Prague Zoo has won all sorts of awards and consistently makes lists of "best zoos in the world." I know my kids were profoundly impressed at the placard at the entrance trumpeting the fact that the Jolie-Pitt brood had recently visited. (Yeah, not so much.) We really did have a great time, even with that whole incident where the kids ended up in the tiger's cage:

Yes, Grandma, I'm kidding.

Animals, great weather, lots of exercise: day well spent.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

It rained today.

And rained and rained. And we didn't feel well anyway. The hotel walls, the view from the window, Czech TV, and a soggy walk to the park sufficed today. Really, there's only so much touring we can take anyway...

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Tourism, part deux (or "dva"?)

After Jeff finished this evening we decided we needed to include him in some of our adventuring, so the four (and a half) of us set off for the other mecca of all Prague tourism: Prazsky Hrad, aka Das Schloss, aka The Castle to End All Castles. Another quick ride on the subway, then we had what the guidebook described as a "short walk up a slight hill" to the uppermost entrance. The pregnant lady found it to be neither short nor slight, just for the record. At least it was relatively picturesque.

We got there at the changing of the guard, so there were double the number of soldiers to see my children being completely unimpressed and climbing all over the fountain in the first plaza. (Actually, they both watched nicely, thank you.) Note that I said "first plaza." This is evidently the largest castle in the world, and it is most decidedly imposing -- it's the castle you pictured as a kid when you thought that royalty must live in buildings of endless halls and countless rooms, not the stone-mansions-masquerading-as-castles that dot the rest of Europe's landscape. Pfaff. This one has the imposing St. Vitus Cathedral in its second plaza, whose height managed to impress even our architecture-weary crew. (You should really click on that picture to enlarge it and get a sense of the indescribable scale. It's not La Sagrada Familia, but it's impressive.)

In stark contrast to the last time I wandered the castle grounds shoulder to shoulder with the flocks of summer tourists sweating all over each other, this evening we had the grounds nearly to ourselves and perfect weather in which to explore them. Not much was open, but we only wanted to walk around anyway. The best, of course, was getting to the area that opens onto a vista of the entire medieval city. After taking a million self-portraits against the skyline, we walked the steps down into the cobblestone lanes and red-roofed abodes of Mala Strana and then toward Karlův Most, Charles Bridge.

The iconic bridge is the cultural epicenter of the city (whether its residents want it to be or not). It is open only to pedestrians, so it's the most coveted location for street vendors to ply their wares and street musicians to set out their hats since thousands of people wander over it each day in search of the whole Prague Experience. Yes, there is a McDonald's within 100 yards of the end of the bridge, and I'm sure it does brisk business. Our trek had made us hungry by then, but we eschewed the questionable allures of McDonald's and settled for a couple of pieces of authentic Czech (ha) pizza and moseyed out to the middle of the bridge where we watched the dinner cruise boats and legions of seagulls and pigeons from the bridge while we noshed.

Duly fortified, we moved on to our second visit to Stare Mesto where Aislin happily told Daddy everything she remembered about the Astronomical Clock and the kids got a second crack at the horses. Then a quick visit to Wenceslas Square and it was one last subway ride with some exhausted kids. Me, I was still ready to go the distance. The distance from a taxi to my bed, maybe...

Stare Mesto, ho!

Poor Jeff. Turns out that having actual business in such a lovely city can really cut into your enjoyment of it. Good thing the kids and I aren't weighed down by any albatrosses of guilt over getting to enjoy a city sans Daddy, especially when the weather is as balmy and perfect as it was today.

So we braved the subway. The ticket machines were actually the same as I remembered, so it was just a matter of finding the right coins -- the Czechs are not yet part of the European monetary union, so they still use the koruna. (Parental travel note: small denominations of foreign currency = cheap souvenir.) Armed with our tickets, we hopped the train downtown toward our destination (and that of every tourist within about 100 miles): the old town square, Stare Mesto. As usual, the train provided adequate diversion for the kids...

After navigating through the narrow cobblestone streets of the Old Town, we emerged into the huge square with its ever-so-European fountain and medieval churches. Boy, were the kids impressed. Not. Until, that is, we saw the horse-drawn carriages lined up waiting to take tourists on a short and pricey circle of the area. While I found a shady bench on which to consult my map and shelter my pregnant bulk from the unseasonable heat, I let the kids wander closer on their own to watch the horses (file under "Things I Would Never Have Done A Year Ago").

Another woman heard me admonishing the kids to keep a respectful distance from the carriages and stay in my sight, and approached to strike up a conversation. Guess my American accent stands out a bit in Prague. At any rate, it turns out she was from New Jersey. We had an entertaining conversation about the difficulties of choosing between Clinton and Obama and about how crazy McCain has gotten since the Republican convention. (A digression: I have to say that talking politics has gotten far more entertaining and rewarding since moving out of a reactionarily conservative county in the American South, where my generally moderate political positions are considered anything from merely radical to threatening to their way of life. I realized as we talked that it's been a blessed while since I carried on a political conversation in which I wanted to kill myself or the other party... largely because I'm finally finding others who share my views. Look, I'm perfectly conscious of being as petty and closed-minded as the next guy, okay?)

Needless to say, Aislin and Dylan were no longer in their previous positions by the time I finished my conversation, but after a moment of panic I located them... immediately under the nose of the lead horse. A fairly disgruntled-looking driver was barely tolerating their presence and that of two or three other kids, but he did let them pet the horse's nose. At that point it became nearly impossible to drag them away -- remember the travel rule about animals? Yeah. So much for the intrigue of the Astronomical Clock right around the corner.

At least I managed to get them there about five minutes before the big show on the hour when the doors of the clock open, the apostles file by, and other bits of the machinery come to life. We took our places amongst the throngs of Japanese tourists and waited. After a lengthy explanation of what they'd see, lo, they were actually captivated for a few precious seconds while I kept a paranoid eye out for pickpockets.

Then it was on to the very cool Anagram English-language bookstore where we perused nearly every book in their great little kids' section, bought a very cool fairy tale-ish book about a little girl from Prague, and resisted buying yet another book about dinosaurs for my dino-obsessed darling. Then we spent an hour in three-story toy store Sparky's, at which point it was time for some gelato refreshment. Breakin' every rule. Unbelievably, I managed to keep up with them this whole time, but we three intrepid travelers were mightily worn out by the time we made our way back to our room. Definitely a day to make Daddy jealous.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Prague, ho!

We arrived in the city late at night, which was a very good thing given our large vehicle (by European standards) and the narrow, convoluted cobblestone streets of our destination. Shockingly, the city has changed somewhat since I was last here in 1995. They actually have an enormous IKEA and an even more formidable Tesco out by the airport now, and development has extended well beyond the borders I remembered. Our hotel is quite near the dorm where I stayed, and in fact, we checked our email at the university where Jeff is giving his talk. I hardly recognized the neighborhood except for the subway stop at Dejvicka. Most of the buildings' facades no longer resemble the crumbling Communist apartment blocks I remembered, but have been rehabilitated to some semblance of regional architecture. The district is now thriving with businesses, many upscale -- the Maserati dealership across from our hotel was most decidedly not there in 1995.

Breakfast was very similar to what I remembered from Kajetanka. Everyone got to try some of the yummy Czech rohliky, the rolls that embody the best attributes of croissants and baguettes, and some of the very rich Czech yogurt. Mm.

Then Jeff had to head to the conference and the kids and I set off to explore the neighborhood a bit. Since I'm more waddling than walking these days we didn't go far, but we did get far enough to locate at least one of The Prerequisites. As any traveling parent knows, the Three Magic Prerequisites for successful travel with children are, not necessarily in this order:
  1. playgrounds (the simplest sandbox will do)
  2. animals (zoos if you're feeling fancy, although squirrels and ducks do famously)
  3. ice cream
Granted, there are plenty of other activities that'd be advisable to include, e.g. unusual forms of transportation (cogwheel train, watercraft of any stripe from paddleboat to speedboat, hang glider, etc.), impromptu public performances of music or goofy theater, or any sort of toy store; but the cardinal three are available anywhere in the world one might be going and, we've found, provide a lovely mix of familiarity and local color. So there's the sum total of my travel wisdom.

In this case, we located a modest playground about three blocks from our hotel which happened to be located next to a field through which a steady stream of dog owners walked and tossed frisbees to their assorted charges... in short, a very successful combination of elements one and two. All we needed out of our trek into the Czech unknown for one afternoon.

After Jeff returned from the conference, we went for a longer walk around the neighborhood and found this neat fountainy thing where the kids got to run around with local kids. A highlight for our little naturalists was seeing the mosquito larvae squirming in front of the lights in the water -- yish. They also lingered in front of a store window chockablock with traditional wooden toys, many suspended from long springs so as to bounce languidly in a manner hypnotizing to little brains. Nothing like a little cheap entertainment. Then it was off to bed to rest for the big adventure tomorrow...

Monday, September 1, 2008

We conquer inertia

Off to Prague, only a day later than initially anticipated (look, it takes time to get this stuff done, especially when the resident spectroscopist is on a 20-hour work schedule that precludes anything more than the occasional nap, not that I'm casting aspersions or anything). GPS and Google maps say it's about 9 hours, but it's now looking like just over 12. Unbelievably, the many hours spent sitting in American-made booster seats broken only by the occasional rest area doesn't appear to have strained the good graces of our veteran-traveler tykes except for one post-dinner episode of "s/he's TOUCHING me!" that was quickly rectified by erecting a formidable Berlin Wall of pillows and stuffed animals.

Before passing out long after the 9 p.m. sunset, Aislin remarked that she hadn't really even pulled out anything to do from her backpack because she'd been so enjoying the German scenery that she'd forgotten to get bored. Then she described the sunset out the rear windshield for us: "There's a cloud that's like a golden dolphin diving over the sun." I couldn't make this stuff up.

Quite frankly, it wouldn't take very beautiful country to impress us after a year on the polders, but the A4 traverses some pretty striking landscape in NE Germany. Not striking like the Alps are striking, but actual rolling hills stretching out as far as the eye could see definitely struck at the hearts of these Midwestern-Southern transplants to the flatlands. Easy to see why so many Germans settled in the American Midwest. Oh, and castles every few kilometers the whole way. "Look kids: hills... castle..."

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Dingledodies Hit the Road

"They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn..."
- Jack Kerouac, On the Road, Part 1, Ch. 1

One of the big theoretical appeals of moving to Europe for a coupla years was the possibility of getting to travel around with the kids. After a year of struggles with all things Dutch (immigration, schools, transportation), we've managed a brief trip to Germany and the supercool cruise that gave us one day in Barcelona and one in Madeira. But along came a conference in Prague at which Jeff got a paper accepted, and lo, it was only a roadtrip away. Finally, an opportunity to "burn, burn, burn," albeit in slightly attenuated, family-friendly fashion.

First hurdle: school. There's a €50/day fine levied on parents bold enough to dare take their children out of school for purposes as ominous as travel to European capitals. The indoctrination must be continuous, you see, lest the children miss any wee snippet of Dutch acculturation... Miraculously, our 2-page petition to the bureaucrats-that-be was approved so we got to reallocate the €250 we'd set aside for the inevitable fine -- not that we'd ever disregard authority -- to our travel budget. Score one for the Dingledodies.

Next hurdle: functioning automobile. Our long-suffering, 1991 VW Golf finally blew its head gasket. We'd know for a long time, like since the day we bought it from our neighbor, that the writing was on the wall. The car shook magnificently when idling, sometimes to the point that it stalled itself out, and had less acceleration power than your average lawnmower: in Jeff's words, it purred like a lion and roared like a kitten. Truer words... At any rate, we managed to get it to limp to a crappy used car lot and cool off enough for them to give us €350 toward a new... crappy used car. That's how we ended up with a 1995 Space Wagon, codename: "The Race Van." This came about after Dylan caught sight of us reflected in a window the first day we drove it to school (his little, reverent voice from the backseat: "Oh look, Mom... we have a RACE van...").

I just want to point out here that it's not really a van. Because, see, I do plan to adhere to my vow never to own a minivan. It is a European Compact MPV, multi-purpose vehicle. Worlds of difference. Even Wikipedia says so.

So now, freshly downloaded copy of Lonely Planet in hand, the Dingledodies are sortakinda prepared for a trip to Prague. I studied there thirteen (yikes) years ago for a couple of months, but methinks this trip will be slightly different with two children and the whole being-eight-months-pregnant thing. What's the use of travel without challenges? Na zdravi.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Welcome to the circus, O hapless infant...

Last night, Aislin was discussing with her sister-in-utero what to expect of her family:

"Well, your brother is about as boy as boy gets. He plays with cars and dinosaurs. Then there's me; I'll babysit you when you get bigger."

[Momentary pause for thought...]

"And your mommy snort-laughs, and your daddy sleeps a lot."

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Living in the wild

Okay, I wouldn't exactly call Kiawah Island "the wild," but it's pretty cool to see all the animals wandering around. Probably the main thing we've always enjoyed about Kiawah is how they have carefully developed the island so as to disturb the local wildlife as little as possible. We always have to visit the nature center at Night Heron to take a gander at what animals they have there, but we usually will see a few gators or deer each year. I'm still jealous that Jeffrey saw one of the turtles wandering back into the ocean on his very first visit to the island nine years ago. I've been coming here for fifteen years and still haven't seen one!

This year has taken the cake, though, at least for the deer. Here's what Mom and I saw first thing yesterday morning in our next door neighbor's yard as we headed to the store to get some eggs:

Speaking of eggs (what a segue), about a decade ago there were so many deer on Kiawah that they pioneered a novel program of birth control for them rather than open a hunting season or, I guess, wait for the cars to start picking them off. Rangers go around shooting hormone darts at the females to render them infertile for 2-4 years. Apparently they missed this one.

Later yesterday, Jeff and I took Aisie and Dylan for a bike ride. As we rode the bike path that runs along Kiawah Island Parkway, we first saw a couple of deer grazing a little bit off the path. We passed those, but around the next bend were three more. This time they were so close to the path that we stopped and waited. They were utterly unphased by our presence, at least as oblivious as deer at a petting zoo. Aislin was even able to reach out and nearly touch one. I think she probably could have ridden it if she'd been so inclined. Finally, as we rode back we saw a frighteningly thin buck staggering down the middle of the road toward the new resort hotel. Nothing like a deer safari to keep the kids from realizing that we're making them ride 10 miles.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

High-latitude humor

Correspondence between Jeff and a friend doing a postdoc in England on a day when the sun rose at 5:21 AM and set at 9:57 PM:

from: T.
to: Jeff
date: Wed, Jun 4, 2008 at 2:45 PM

Hi Jeff,

Things are pretty well, it's even starting to warm up a bit here. I could even feel that big yellow thing in the sky giving off heat today, which is a novel experience. Do you also have a big yellow thing in the sky?




from: Jeff
to: T.
date: Wed, Jun 4, 2008 at 3:38 PM

Aaaaacchh! Big yellow thing in the sky, it hates us, Precious, yes it does. It burns us and we curses it! We curses it forever!


Monday, May 26, 2008

O Providence

I performed a particularly stupid google search last week whilst looking for some pointers on Dutch pronunciation. I put in "Dutch tips." Of course I came up with nothing remotely having to do with the Nederlandse taal, but I did get some information on how you don't have to tip waiters/-tresses as well as another expat's blog that gave some tidbits of information about living in the Netherlands, including, for instance, that the way the traffic politie signal that you're being stopped here is to pull in front of you and turn on a little sign that says "Volgen" (follow). Duly edified, I went back and put in a more considered search and found the desired pronunciation tips for those wily Dutch diphthongs (and even a pronunciation engine -- way cool).

On the way home from Hilversum this morning, I was flipping channels on the radio when I realized a Politie Volvo was pulling in front of me. And turning on a little marquee that said "Volgen." This rang a bell somewhere distantly in my brain... aagh! I was going under the speed limit along with all the other bumper-to-bumper traffic, had headlights on... I just knew this little beater of a VW Golf was going to get me into trouble.

So we pulled into the service station (the little marquee handily changing to "Stop" to let me know not to rear-end them) and I prepared myself for the long-dreaded first encounter with the Dutch police. Keep in mind that my immigration status here is still up in the air, so I felt more empathy with my non-green-carded ex-clients than I cared to. (An aside that only a criminal lawyer would notice: Oddly, she came around to the passenger side door to have our little conversation.) Like 95% of the Dutch I've talked to, when I asked en Nederlands if she spoke English she said "a little" and proceeded in perfect English. I asked what I'd done; she asked me for my license. I gave her my Tennessee license -- the only one I have -- and she ran it. (She was not wearing the same fetching clogs as the lad and lassie pictured.)

When she returned she explained that they have a computer in the police cars that alerts them when they pass a car that doesn't have a Dutch license in it, so they pulled me over to make sure I was licensed. We chatted a bit more about whether I have the car registered and the requisite insurance (she took me at my word, no proof required?!) and she let me go on my way.

These onboard Big Brothers mean, evidently, that I can look forward to being pulled over another host of times until I get the rumored Holy Grail of a Sofi number that will let me trade in my American license for a Dutch one... as well as have a bank account, get the tax refunds to which we're entitled, etc. etc.

Of course, after waiting since last September 10 for them to make a decision, we just heard on Friday that we're required to register our marriage at Utrecht Town Hall before they can decide. This despite having provided them a marriage certificate with apostille, the seal internationally demonstrating authenticity per all regulations in the convention drawn up in the Netherlands' own Den Haag. And, not incidentally, despite having attempted to register our marriage at the Gemeentehuis last September and being told that the step was not only unnecessary, but impossible for us. Boy oh boy, am I looking forward to my next conversation with those well-informed and friendly bureaucrats!

Oh well, at least I didn't have to make a souvenir of one of those expensive Dutch traffic tickets.

Friday, May 23, 2008

At least in Hilversum where the kids go to school, they have no driveways for the schools. The streets are quite narrow, barely wide enough to allow opposing traffic to pass politely. This means that parents have to troll for parking as close as possible and walk their kids in.

There are, however, those parents -- I have yet to decide if they are more or less natural selection-minded -- who yearn for a bit more adventure in their mornings. It does tend to be the Range Rovers and Hummers attempting this feat: they careen over to the side of the road, often pulling fully onto the sidewalk in front of the school where countless parents and kids are congregating, and discharge their progeny willy-nilly from the closest vehicle door (which is sometimes the hatchback) regardless of traffic or age of child. There is sometimes, but not always, a pause to ensure the children have gotten safely onto the pavement before this special breed of parent merges full-speed back into traffic. Kinda makes me miss the pseudo-military (or -superhero?) Safety Patrol presence at the kids' elementary school in the States.

Today, though, as I was leaving the first school in a sleep-deprived stupor I was momentarily surprised to see a smaller car pulling onto the pavement immediately in front of me such that I had to pause to avoid being hit by its bumper. I looked into the driver's side window and noted that the driver was a mere child, no more than 8-10 years old. I was astonished, but frankly I've seen such weird stuff in Hilversum that I wasn't shocked beyond comprehension; I noted to myself that the driver's tender age was a better excuse for bad driving than mere possession of a Chelsea tractor and being too lazy to walk a few blocks.

I was several yards past the car before it registered that the car was actually from England. Enough said.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Jeff, the Bird Whisperer

Jeff continues to claim that one of his favorite parts of living here is his commute, the daily bike ride of 20 km of which a beautiful portion runs alongside the huge Amsterdam/Rhine shipping canal. It's an odd mix of bucolic serenity -- gardens in which roosters crow at all hours, some woodlands where you can actually watch pheasants running around -- and postmodern industrial -- at one point there's a conveyor belt that actually unloads sand and gravel from the barges about 10 feet over the bikers' heads. Most important, there's only been one instance in which the winds were so strong that he was blown perilously close to losing his bike in the 60-foot-deep canal in the wee hours of the morning. Usually they just blow him in drunken wobbles all over the path like the rest of the riders.

After he got home last night, the kids were regaling him with stories of their day (like the guy roped to the tree outside the school playground who was hoisting himself into the wee branches with a running chainsaw holstered to his belt -- worker's comp waiting to happen, I say). Then Jeff remembered, excited, that he had one of his own to share.

"What," I asked, selecting a comically implausible scenario, "you got hit by a bird riding down the bike path?"

A pause.

"Actually, yes," he replied, deflated. As I sat there agape, he launched into the story anyway.

The weather was gorgeous; it was only the second time he's been able to ride to work without a coat. There he was on a portion of the path where the trees line either side, riding along, minding his own business. Then he felt something -- sharp somethings -- grab the back of his head and quickly release. Still pedaling, he whipped around in time to see the culprit land in the tree behind him -- a black bird with some markings. His first thought was, "That'd better not be a crow. I'm not in the mood for omens." His second thought was, "That bird's one lucky bugger because there are days when I'd turn around and find a rock." (Jeff is, incidentally, gifted with an almost supernatural precision with hand-borne projectiles.)

The funniest part: as he described the bird, we realized it was a magpie. Magpies, which are very common around here, are notorious sluts for shiny objects. Hate to say it, but it was going for the sunset glinting off Jeff's balding pate. Sigh. Looks like hats will be de rigeur if he hopes to avoid being carried off by a mischief of magpies. (Er, and that's not Jeff in the photo in case you were wondering...)

Edificatory Postscript: Who knew that magpies had so many collective nouns to describe them (along the lines of "a murder of crows")? I thought I remembered "mischief" but I wasn't sure, so I got curious and tried to look it up and found the following list of terms for groups of magpies:

a charm, a congregation, a flock, a gulp, a mischief, a murder, a tiding, a tidings (is that a double collective?), a tittering, a tribe

Edificatory Postscript the Second: Holy moly, turns out magpies are notorious attackers of bikers and this is their open season on
Homo sapiens. People have put actual thought into preventing the aggressive little buggers from divebombing them (all these links are Australian since I'm assuming most of you don't read Dutch). Looks like Jeff got off easy, particularly since he hadn't taken the recommended measure of wearing an ice cream container on his head (scroll down slightly to the section "How to avoid being attacked").

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Why my kids can't sleep, part II

It is 10:38 p.m. and not yet completely dark. Time to find some old air raid curtains.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Back in the saddle

You know, you leave for two weeks and come back to a totally different world than the one you left. When we left on our jaunt to visit family, we were all layered up and wearing jackets. When we got back yesterday, it was 28 degrees outside (er, that'd be Celsius) and about 35 inside the train we rode home with our myriad suitcases and jetlagged children. They're teasing Jeff at work that he left for two weeks and missed the entirety of the Dutch summer.

Anyway, we made it from Schiphol to Utrecht Centraal with the benefit of a little nap and had to take the bus for the final leg of our now-familiar journey. For those not in the habit of taking public transportation in the Netherlands, I should explain that the tickets are these cards split into 15 strips called, appropriately, strippenkarten. You punch 2-6 strips depending on how far you're going, or on buses the driver stamps it for you. So since we were wrangling all our stuff, we let most of the line go before us. We noticed that no one was getting their strippenkaart stamped, but that's not atypical since lots of people buy monthly passes that you just flash to the driver. I was getting the kids settled in their seats while Jeff talked to the driver and I noted that the conversation was a little weird and uncomfortable, but frankly, that's just par for the course when we attempt most Dutch transactions so I didn't think a whole lot about it but to note, "Yep, we're back home indeed." Jeff showed me the card as he walked by and pointed to the fact that the driver had only stamped enough strips for two passengers. Score -- free ride!

When Jeff got home from work today, he shared something else we missed while we were gone. Evidently the police recently went on strike for higher pay. I was vaguely aware of this, but I didn't see picket lines anywhere or anything. Apparently their version of striking consisted in not pulling over as many motorists.

No, seriously.

At any rate, they were successful, which prompted the public transportation operators to strike. Now I have to mention here that I was in New York when the subway workers went on strike a couple of years ago and it was utter chaos. They happened to choose midnight of the day we were leaving so the traffic was unbelievable on our way out of the city to LaGuardia... mostly in the other direction, thankfully. They knew that by refusing to drive the trains they could bring the city to its knees and get a response. It didn't take them more than a few days before the mayor responded. Mission accomplished.

Here's what I love: I don't know if it's because the Dutch are so averse to being late or if they simply fundamentally cannot abide chaos, but when public transport goes on strike in the Netherlands, the buses still run perfectly on schedule. Yes, you read that right. The only difference is that the drivers refuse to charge riders, i.e. they don't stamp the strippenkarten. Pity the poor passholders, but at least they're still getting to work on time.

So it turns out that the tension in Jeff's interaction with the driver was more one of, "Oh my god, this guy is not actually going to make me stamp his card. Do people not even get the concept of 'free ride' anymore? Jeez, fine. Let's see if stamping two is enough to get him to sit down."

Evidently, Dutch schoolteachers are either considering going on strike or already have done so. I can picture it now. All the kids still show up at school to learn that they will still have to go to class, but there just won't be any homework now...

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Portrait of the artist as a birthday girl

So she's nine. N-I-N-E. And as precocious as ever. The night after her birthday she was reading her Cricket magazine and discovered that they had a poetry contest. Twenty minutes later she came downstairs and presented me with the following, which is even more striking when you see it in her little girl handwriting. I'm punctuating just as she did (except the italics):

The opposite of armadillo.
Why couldn't it be worm?
The opposite of still.
One answer could be squirm.
The opposite of acknowledge.
It could be learn.
The opposite of give away.
Why, that could be earn.
What's the opposite of opposite?
It could be synonym.
What's the opposite of walk?
If you wanted, swim.
Most things have opposites.
Why don't you look around?
Opposites are antonyms
Dark and bright, silence and sound.

I mean, really. How am I supposed to raise a child who can write better than I can at the age of nine? I love the illustrations she did the next day, too...