Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Walking the tightrope

Although I was pleasantly surprised that Utrecht isn't nearly as seedy as I remembered Amsterdam being, I was still prepared when we moved for the occasional need to distract Aislin's attention away from a newsstand here or there. You know, to preserve those conservative family values we hold so dear. Evidently, however, I need to expand the parameters of my vigilance...

I've been trying to pick up as much Dutch as I can, and the quickest way to do that, I've found, is to read as many of the free newspapers as possible that clutter the morning trains. There are at least four different papers to be had each day, so I usually try to scan each to see if I can pick up on what's going on in the world. Of course, my Dutch isn't great, so I usually have to check the English language websites when I get back home. There was the day that I thought Hillary had declared former General Wesley Clark as her running mate, only to discover upon fact checking in my native tongue that I had merely misunderstood the Dutch reporter's cleverly ironic headline in an article saying the 2004 candidate and Hillary supporter had just visited the polderlands to take a gander at some alternative energy options, viz. windmills.

So this morning I was sitting there trying to decide if I was really understanding the article to say that Dutch men spend more time in front of the mirror than Dutch women (which I was, as it turns out). Then my darling 8-year-old, who was sitting across from me finishing her homework, cleared her throat, "Ahem, Mom?"

"Yes, dear?" I responded absentmindedly, nose still buried in paper.

She continued, delicately, "Um, that picture might not be too appropriate for me."

This is roughly the top half of the picture I was holding in front of my daughter's nose, minus the thigh-highs and stilettos:

So much for vigilance, but at least she self-censors. My daughter, that is.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Saturday morning blues

Here's the polymusical Dylan at work on his newest composition with his muse and assistant, Dad.

Monday, January 14, 2008

O What a Beautiful Moooorrrning

This, folks -- this excerpt from the weather report for tomorrow pretty much sums up what it's like to live in the Netherlands in January.

Hours of Precipitation: 7 Hrs
Hours of Daylight: 7.3 Hrs

Yes, I can attest that the two do, in fact, correlate almost perfectly. It rains only when I need to be shuttling the kids several kilometers to and fro by bike, and then it rains copiously. Comically. In all fairness, the word "Daylight" really should be in quotes given the cloud permacover. Oh, and don't forget the other key statistics:

High 44°F
RealFeel®: 28°F
Winds: S at 26mph
Wind Gusts: 52 mph

Is that really a 16-degree difference between actual temperature and wind chill? And gusts of fifty-two miles per hour? Surely they jest. There have been several occasions on which Aislin and I have been sure we were literally being blown backwards as we pedaled, and those winds were estimated around 40 mph. Maybe if the wind's blowing the right way we can just open our umbrellas and float into the station like Mary Poppins. Hopefully when there aren't any actual trains approaching.

Nothing in the world like a Dutch commute, I tell you.

He told me so

We bought a car. After much debate (and a bike ride on which Jeff rode my bike with the boy on the back -- but without the added 20 kilos of groceries we always do), we decided (he was convinced) that there are certain things that you just have to have a car to do. It didn't hurt that our neighbor was selling a beater for a song. I decided to test drive it.

Ah, the test drive.

How did I get elected for this? I know nothing of Dutch road rules. Literally nothing. I had noticed there were no stop signs, like EVER, but I had no idea what the round blue signs with the slashes and "X"es were all about. It's a good thing the neighbor let me in on this little rule of yielding to traffic on the right. Talk about a sea change in the way you process what's going on on the road -- argh! It doesn't matter how fast you're going or how large the road you're on; if someone is approaching on a blind street from the right, you'd better believe they're just going to roar the heck out there in front of you without so much as a glance to their left, that is, in your direction.

So there I was driving my neighbor's car with my neighbor in the front seat as nervous as my mother when I got my learner's permit. Truly, he was so apprehensive I tried to call the whole thing off, but he insisted... and then went on to use the nonexistent brake pedal as we went through our neighborhood, then the nonexistent accelerator as we merged onto the A2. "You have to go faster, FASTER!" he exhorted me while pushing down on my right knee (!) although the pedal in his ancient Golf was already pressed entirely to the floor. I could tell the poor man would have smoked an entire pack simultaneously, Guinness World Record-style, in the ten minutes we were in the car if I hadn't mentioned being asthmatic. Me, I haven't been that nervous driving since I was nine months pregnant the first time.


But we bought the beater. So we are now the proud(ish) owners of a completely impractical, rust-spotted, two-door Golf that is the same model year as my very first car sixteen years ago. Hey, at least there are four wheels and an engine.

Postscript The very, very first time we tried to start the car after we bought it from him, the battery was utterly dead. Even after replacing the battery we were forced to spend the rest of the life of the car carrying around a portable battery/jumpstarter so that when we inevitably stalled out in the middle of the road we could get ourselves started again... since no one would stop and help the first time it happened, but rather preferred to drive around me honking one long, constant honk as if I'd just stopped in the middle of the road to have a picnic on the hood, specifically to inconvenience them. When we attempted to trade it in the following August, a mere ten months after buying it, it was junked. Our neighbor was clearly offended, obviously believing that we were somehow responsible for the Golf's demise and reviling to our faces the new beater of a van we were forced to purchase after its untimely death. "Do you even like that color?" he sneered, "And look at those spots on the bumper where the paint is peeling off; that is just unacceptable," opined the man who had sold us the rust-covered car less than a year before. Indeed.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Getting themselves some edumication

So we're no longer on the lam from the long arm of the law. No more sitting up night after night waiting for that knock from the truancy SWAT team (do SWAT teams knock? but i digress...). The kids are officially back in school.

As with everything our family attempts, we decided to make it as challenging as humanly possible. Go to one of the five adorable local schools to which we could walk or, if we're running late, bike? Nah, that's for pansies who take the obvious route. We're interesting; we're thoughtfully inefficient. So it's off to the international school in Hilversum each morning for us.

It's been about an hour's commute in the morning, but only because I'm a complete maniac about missing the first train and make us bike to the station so early that we end up sitting on the platform for almost 30 minutes before dawn breaks (keep in mind that dawn cracks at about 8:15 these days). I'm rethinking that strategy after this morning's 25kph winds. So we bike to the station, take a train downtown, switch to a second train, and then walk about 15 minutes (at 4-year-old legs' pace) to the two schools. In terms of satisfying our complication quotient, we were pleased to discover that the kids would be in two different buildings a few blocks apart and that the closer building doesn't open until well after the one further away, ensuring that aforementioned 4-year-old legs are dragged an extra six blocks or so before they can fold into semi-exhaustion on his little carpet square in his classroom. I have a feeling that his teacher will be wondering what we're doing to this kid to make him pass out over his apricots at snack time.

Despite the vicissitudes of the commute, the kids are both ecstatic to be in classrooms again. Although she put on a show of complaining about having homework, Ais buckled down and completed almost two days' worth of it last night. Dylan was uncharacteristically stream-of-consciousness chatty after being back in a classroom, being particularly impressed with the dinosaurs and the kitchen area with faux dishwasher. This school is so well organized and geared toward expat families' needs that the crazy mornings are a very small price to pay to meet kids and parents who are in a similar situation.

The weirdest part was taking the train back home this morning after dropping them off. I had a strong pang of, "Holy moly, my children are in one city in a foreign country, and I'm going to another... what am I thinking?" But then there was that guilty sense of relief that I now have a few daylight, weekday hours in which to get stuff done for the first time in months. Of course, rather than grocery shopping or revising my CV, here I am...

Friday, January 4, 2008

Houston, we have progress!

We can do Mississippi Stop-Stop -- or a reasonable approximation thereof -- on all four strings now. We've got a passable bowhold, and the bow even stays between bridge and fingerboard. We're practically professional. To anyone who hasn't lived in a household with a nascent violinist, the following will probably be excruciating; to be honest, I can't believe my own parents lived through this stage three times, but I'll tell you, this is music to this novice violin teacher's ears.

Dr. Suzuki's rolling over in his grave, but we'll be on to Vivaldi soon enough.

Note, too, the tragic overzealousness [or undertrainedness] of the hair-shredder, er, stylist to whom I entrusted Dylan's innocent little head when we were stateside. For the record, I most emphatically did NOT ask for a buzz cut, and further, they need to train people that the one-inch guard on the electric clippers does NOT leave an inch of hair. At least my looks-like-she-used-the-lawnmower haircuts are free. Sheesh.

Fur-ners, indeed

When I was telling people at my old office that we were going to be moving abroad, my friend April remarked in her joking emulation of a Tennessee accent, "Wow, Amy, you're going to be a 'fur-ner!'" As silly as it sounds, that was the beginning of my comprehension of the difference between the considerable amount of traveling I'd done previously and actually living abroad for an appreciable period of time. I started to realize that the expectations of my family and me would be significantly different than those of tourists. In the course of years of travel, I have grown comfortable with the discomforts of difference one encounters as a tourist in another country where one doesn't speak the language. I was used to the occasional smirks of the people behind coffee counters when I didn't order in impeccable Italian or Spanish or what have you. While I tend to be a little oversensitive about such things, I've managed to acquire enough humility and perspective (and a tiny bit of humor, tho' I'm still working on that) to get over it for the duration of the trip.

We're now, however, in a position where the trip's not ending for quite a little while. Moreover, we have to take care of the quotidian details -- carpet installation, bill payment, doctor's visits -- attendant to family life, and we're finding that our inability to get by in Dutch is finally proving problematic. Utrecht isn't known for its high concentration of expats, so we're something of a novelty in this area of a country struggling with issues of immigration. (This absolutely brilliant book should be mandatory reading for anyone emigrating to the Netherlands inasmuch as it seems very effectively to lay out the nature of the changing Dutch identity. I'm going to ruminate further on the book in another entry because its issues are all-pervasive here, and they're certainly relevant beyond these borders as well.)

The Netherlands do not have socialized medicine, but rather a hybrid of public and privatized medicine similar to what some have proposed for the States. Every citizen is mandated to have a basic level of health insurance that they must purchase at no small cost (it seems to run around €90 per adult per month). Anyone without insurance can be fined. Those fortunate enough to be able to afford it can opt to purchase better health insurance through their employers. Could this possibly mean that the government of the Netherlands has set up a system committed to least-common-denominator medical care to almost the same degree that managed care has encouraged in the U.S.? Today I set off to find out (although I left my Michael Moore cap at home).

I checked in with the receptionist, whose first question for me even before asking my name was, and I do quote, "Do you even live here?"

An aside: I cannot fathom coming to live in this country from somewhere like Japan where personal interactions are so delicately polite and couched in euphemism; I, the one from the brash frontier country, find that I am continually having to remind (or convince) myself that people are not trying deliberately to offend me.

We (I) got past that and I was ultimately permitted into the waiting room after displaying my insurance card and ID. So far, about what I'd expect an immigrant to encounter in the U.S.

When the appointment receptionist had heard that I was a new patient, she had kindly set up a double appointment for me. This meant that I would get a comparably generous 20-minute audience with the doctor rather than the 10 minutes afforded a typical visit. This did send up a little warning flare for me, but the Dutch do relish their ostensible efficiency, so I resolved to withhold judgment.

The doctor was reasonably prompt, calling me in only three minutes past my scheduled appointment time -- I wouldn't have expected anything less of this culture that expects my 8-year-old to have an appointment calendar at the ready. The doc was friendly enough, but the tenor of the conversation changed after she asked where I was from. This, too, I'm finding typical. There's an edge of something I can only interpret as defensiveness that creeps into a conversation after I have to make this admission. I was treated to a five-minute explanation of how Dutch medicine differs from American medicine -- only to learn that it does not differ. I was told that my huisarts, or primary care physician, would be my conduit to specialists. I remarked that this was exactly how our system functioned, and my doctor responded that she thought that all Americans saw multiple specialists rather than a primary care physician. Well, no, we have the same referral system.

Okay, five minutes elapsed.

Physical examination -- another five minutes.

Then I had a couple of questions about prescription meds for my asthma. We go back and forth to figure out what the equivalent is in Dutch medicine of my first of three meds, and figure it out. When I ask about the second medication, she interrupts me in mid-sentence to consult her clock and say, "If you have so many questions, you need to make a longer appointment." Twelve minutes have elapsed since I walked into her office, fifteen since my appointment time began. I remind her that I had a double appointment and she says, "Good, at least there won't be two or three people waiting," but this is clearly the effective end of the consult. I'm told that Americans are overmedicated and she will not prescribe any further medication for me, that this is what they do in this country. Right then. I am dismissed with two minutes left on the clock and two medications undiscussed, and am told to walk myself out.

Final analysis: Public/private insurance + Dutch bluntness = altogether unpleasant expat experience. I wonder if I'll find any difference if I start claiming to be from Moosejaw, Saskatchewan, Canada, the small town in which my husband's grandmother grew up. I think that might just be my new ad hoc hometown for the duration of my expatriation, or at least when I'm hospitalized with my first asthma attack. Can't wait to try it out.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Happy New-therlands 2008

Aislin decided that a campfire was in order for the New Year. Being that it's a bit too damp for the real thing, she quickly fashioned the pictured substitute out of construction paper. I asked her to cut out some s'mores for me, but I got the "geez, Mom" look and was instructed to pretend. She did deign to "roast" some "marshmallows" for me over the fire, though.

We were warned in somewhat curmudgeonly fashion by another expat that New Year's in the Netherlands can be "an entirely unpleasant experience." Not unpleasant, necessarily, but the few minutes after midnight are sort of like a cross between being the hapless sidekick to a hellbent pyromaniac and a CNN reporter at the siege of Baghdad -- every single human being within a 2-mile radius except ourselves was armed with fireworks, and they're not afraid to use 'em. I think some started aiming for us once they saw us up on the terrace. Afraid we're pyrotechnic snipers, or something. I did manage to get a few seconds of video to record the ersatz carnage:

Dylan had fallen asleep hours ago, and by the time it occurred to me to go check on him, he was sitting catatonic on the edge of his bed in a sort of vertical fetal position. He is not a fan of the show. After we lobbied hard on the "this is fun" end of things, he put on a grim half-smile and muttered resignedly through his clenched teeth after each chest-shaking explosion, "Look, I'm having even more fun now." Aislin, on the other hand, was out there with her shirt over her face to filter out some of the sulfurous smoke that's now so thick that we can hardly see to the other end of our road, laughing every time another one exploded directly overhead and showered colored sparks perilously close to our heads. It's not a shiny ball dropping, but we'll catch that tomorrow morning as we munch our apparently-mandatory, festive apple beignets. I'll toast to that. Oh, and to 2008, too. Happy things all 'round to you and yours.