Sunday, December 13, 2009

A bit of Christmas repartee

Just now as I was getting lunch ready, Dylan came in and asked:


"Mom, can I crawl under the Christmas tree and pretend to be a present?"

"Er, no objection here, Dylan."

"Okay, I just want to see what life is like under a tree for a while."


He proceeded to lay quietly under the tree for a few minutes, gazing up through the branches and humming. Not a bad way to pass the last bit of a December Sunday morning.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Evolution

We've been living here in the Netherlands more than two years now, which amazes me. In some ways I still feel like such a novice, but I suppose that sense is less feeling like a novice and more feeling like an outsider. Learning the language certainly mitigates the outsiderness, but there is always that undercurrent of feeling resented and/or tested by the locals that I can't quite get past. Nevertheless, we're a far cry from the people we were two and a third years ago when we landed on this continent with the eight suitcases carrying all our "moving budget" let us bring from home. Heck, we've actually managed an intranational move in that time, and that alone would have been unthinkable a few years ago. But it's the more ineffable ways in which we've absorbed this culture that have me thinking this week.

This week I sat in astonishment after hanging up the phone with the doctor -- this time not so much because of what they said as what I did. My daughter has a prescription from her neurologist for a medication she has to take every day. When we moved from Utrecht to Hilversum I was told that all prescriptions would "automatically transfer with the files." Great. Well, despite requests filed in triplicate, no files arrived in Hilversum. I have proceeded to spend literally weeks phoning doctors and pharmacies trying to get two of them in any combination to speak to each other, something that is evidently impossible. When she was down to only three days' supply of the medication this week, I called the neurologist's office again.
Hi, I've moved and I need to get my daughter's medication refilled, and my huisarts says he needs to have something from the neurologist because the prescription didn't transfer.

I hereby quote the receptionist's response:
What do you want me to do? Do you think the doctor is standing here just over my shoulder?

This is one of those responses that would have left my jaw hanging two years ago, so I was astonished to hear myself delivering something along the lines of the following:

No, I don't, in fact, think the doctor is there over your shoulder, but I have been to your office and do know that you have my daughter's file within arm's reach behind you, and I also know that you're on the phone with me right now, so you could easily pick up the same phone and call the huisarts to confirm my daughter's medication and dosage as it reads in the file. Although this requires you to expend some effort on my part, it does not require the doctor to be standing over your shoulder.

In case it's not immediately obvious, this is not something that well-mannered people say to each other where I come from. In some areas close to where I come from, such responses in the tone in which I delivered this one may, in fact, encourage receptionists to reach for the panic button or firearm concealed in a desk drawer. Nonetheless, without missing a beat the receptionist responded casually:
Indeed you're right. Let me see if I can get Dr. Janssen on the phone.

And, badda-bing, I was on hold and she was making a phone call. Of course, Dr. Janssen wisely did not answer the phone on her day off (this is the land where even anesthesiologists work 8-5 after all) so I had to make a second plea for this receptionist to call my doctor. Didn't expect it to happen. It didn't happen. But I actually got someone to do something, and this is long-awaited progress.

Because she didn't make the call, when I showed up at the apotheek for the refill I was informed there was none. I was able to talk to our doctor again, who said he wasn't comfortable prescribing this medication without having some sort of confirmation she was actually supposed to have it. This is the point at which, I believe, it would be in order for him to make a phone call -- doc-to-doc, as it were -- to the neurologist's office, or have one of his staff do it, right? No. I was supposed to conjure up something for him. No amount of wheedling or cajoling worked here because I simply didn't understand the finer points of the Dutch medical system (what, the doctors don't talk to each other??!?). Fine.

Using my honed Dutch sensibilities, I came back after doc had left for the day (this was Friday) and talked to the receptionist at his office. In standard fashion, despite having made eye contact with the receptionist I did have to step forward and rudely interrupt what appeared to be an extremely important conversation with the mailman about what the weather was likely to be over the weekend and whether they would have to use the wool scarf or something else. That done, receptionist said she could write a stopgap prescription, and did. I walked across the hall to the apotheek and gave it to the pharmacist. She said she didn't have the medication, but she could order it... on Monday. I said my daughter needed the medication before that.
"Oh well," she said, "it probably won't hurt her to go without it for just a few days."

I fancy that what I felt at that point must be something like what David Banner experiences when he becomes the Hulk.
"Actually, it would be an immense problem. What other pharmacies might have the medication? From whom would you order it? Where else can I take this prescription so I can get it for her?"

She looked up with mild surprise, as if realizing for the first time that perhaps I might NEED this prescription.
"Oh, well, let me make a phone call."

She disappeared for all of three minutes and then sent me about four blocks away to another pharmacy. Again, I know I'm not in Kansas anymore, Toto, but where I come from those in pharmacies do a little thing I like to call active problem solving. My home pharmacist would have suggested unprompted that I try X pharmacy down the street. As I say, lesson learned and mission accomplished. You have to just put on that mantle of entitlement and be pushy beyond belief to get anything done here, and I might just have gotten it figured out.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Ain't sweet, but sure ain't bitter

I have a new pet peeve, and that is cheerful blogs from people who have just moved to this country and want to gush about how wonderful everything is and, better yet, chide any expat who complains because they're not trying hard enough to assimilate and appreciate. I'm not miserable, but I am a truth-teller... and that's ostensibly a very Dutch value. The Dutch do not like Pollyanna and I don't either, so really I have more in common with them than the Pollyannas, now, don't I? (All of these people to whom I refer are also childless, which I believe makes all the difference in the experience of the move. I would probably have sounded more like them had I moved here at the age of 24 as a newly-married young adult ready to take on the night life.)

At any rate, I don't walk through (most of) my days railing about the misery of life, but as it's turned out the more interesting -- and thus, bloggable -- aspects of living here have involved the thorny patches we've had to deal with. There is a great deal to love about living here, especially if you are blessed with a healthy and ironic sense of humor. One of the best parts of moving somewhere perceived as different or exotic is that it makes you more conscious of the humor and preciousness of the quotidian ANYWHERE, even in the town where you grew up. It doesn't matter how exotic the locale, life with children ultimately boils down to obtaining and preparing three squares a day, tidying and doing laundry, and getting them diapered and/or to and from school. Hopefully they're absorbing the values you want them to absorb and seeing some cool stuff along the way.

We are not -- nor are the Pollyannas -- cooler than anyone else for having undertaken the madness of a transatlantic move. We are a bit wiser of the world and immigration restrictions (which might cause me to argue that those who stayed put made the wiser decision for their families), we have gotten more cheap Gouda than we ever believed we could stomach, and we are a bit closer to Italy. And that last one, ladies and gentlemen, just might be enough to make all this worthwhile.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Gezellig? Me??

Jen, you made my day today when you came into my dingy, light-deprived little abode in need of tidying and pronounced it gezellig (cozy/homey). And I didn't even have any candles lit or cookies baked! Ah, the things to which we aspire...

Sunday, November 15, 2009

I had an orchestra in Amsterdam...

Played Beethoven, Schubert, and Saint-Saens in a lovely church in Amsterdam today. I couldn't believe how many people crammed into the church and paid €15 a head to hear an amateur orchestra play, especially when the tempo for a couple of movements of Beethoven's Fourth got so out of hand that it began to sound like a runaway county fair orchestra... but for the most part I was impressed and proud. It was the first time my family has ever seen me play violin in public, too, with the exception of a couple school functions. I do wish for their sake that it hadn't been a three-hour concert, but c'est la vie. The 12-year-old soloist on Saint-Saens was worth every penny even if everything else had been horribly out of tune and tempo -- she is utterly phenomenal. Just picture a tiny little girl playing this, and weep.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Settled.

Finally, we've settled enough into the new place to contemplate doing things with our spare time that don't involve moving furniture around or trying to magically rearrange 108 square meters of stuff into 75 square meters of space. Oddly, this new place already feels like home in a way that Utrecht never quite did. Maybe it's the old-Dutch character of the 1930s tussenwoning. Maybe it's that we live on a tiny street on which the neighbors all know and actually talk to each other. I think, though, that it's most likely the fact that our immediate environs are now rife with friends. The kids are still reveling in their ability to have buddies from school over to play, to say nothing of having their mother say "sure" when they're asked to come over after school. For our own part, being within biking distance of social evenings that might involve a couple glasses of wine and easy train distance of, say, an amateur orchestra in Amsterdam, has opened up entirely new options. Life.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Verhuizing hiatus

Sorry for the lengthy hiatus, but it's been an eventful few weeks. We've questioned our sanity for making any changes to what often feels like a precariously-balanced existence, but we're almost moved to Hilversum now. Although we've taken a hit in square meterage and are going to miss our outdoor terrace, we think the 1930s condo is quite a bit more sfeervol than the new style architecture in Leidsche Rijn. Even better, school is now just a short (albeit rather nervewracking with Dylan) bike ride away rather than an hour's drive. All that remains now is to get it gezellig enough to have people over...

Monday, July 13, 2009

What's that sucking sound?

That'd be every last cent leaving your pocket while you try to make any sort of business or government related phone call in The Netherlands. I am continually amazed and appalled at how businesses here try to suck money out of merely-potential consumers in a way that'd be a death knell for an American business. I'm not thrilled about it, but I understand that actual physical space here is limited enough that I can't expect free parking everywhere I want to shop. I will thus happily trade proximity to my parcels for historical and environmental preservation. Paying money to find out when a business is open, though? Are we the only ones who find it a bit counterproductive for a business owner to charge us to find out when we can come in and spend our money?

Here, in no particular order, are my favorite (most ignominious) examples of having to pay for phone calls.

1.) The website that touts itself as having the cheapest airline tickets available does not have the capability of searching multileg flights (a la every non-Dutch travel website I've ever checked). If you want to book city to city, you have to call their 0900 number and pay 45 cents a minute. Yes, that includes that half hour you have to hold before they answer.

2.) When we first moved here, we purchased the majority of our new little European household at IKEA. We didn't have a car and couldn't quite get the beds and bookshelves onto our bikes (ha), so we paid through the nose for delivery several days hence. On the appointed day, the kids and I sat in our curtainless, light fixture-less, telephone-less (don't even get me started on utilities) condo for eight hours waiting for the delivery truck to arrive. After hours of sitting on bare concrete floors, the truck never showed. My only option was to call their 0900 number and pay an additional 25 cents per minute to be told that our delivery truck driver LIED and told them he came and we weren't there and that we'd thus have to pay another exorbitant delivery fee plus a penalty if we wanted the thousands of euros of our stuff we'd already bought. Talk about adding insult to injury. In the end, we (Jeff) convinced them that it'd be in their best interests to attempt delivery ONCE before attempting to charge us more money for our stuff, but they got their money for the phone call, by golly.

3.) After having paid over €800 in fees, we were still required to pay 25 cents per minute to make the mandatory phone calls to check on the status of our immigration applications. That really added up when you figured in that we had to call an office to make an appointment for a slot of several hours one day when we would have to sit by our phone waiting for a call from another person at that office who would... make an appointment for us to call the person we needed to talk to. I honestly could not make this stuff up if I tried.

4.) And last but not least, my absolute favorite: If you witnessed a crime and want to assist the police in solving it, you can pay 20 cents a minute (that's a discount!) to call their crime solvers line. Yes, I'm sure it weeds out some of the false leads, but I have a feeling that there are a few people out there cheap enough that they don't particularly feel like paying a witness tax to help the police do their jobs. Holy counterproductivity.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Best things to do with a euro

I'm making a list. I'll be checking it twice, but spending it only once. I'm collecting a list of the best kid-friendly things to do with a euro. Here it is so far:

6.) Go to a kinderboerderij.
5.) Go to a speeltuin.
4.) Shop at a vlooienmarkt.
3.) Shop at the kringloop.
2.) Get a kunststof bloemetje to wrap around the handlebars of your fiets.

And my favorite for last:

1.) Get an ice cream cone at the gelato shop on the Groest in Hilversum.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Avondvierdaagse: another lesson in Dutch culture

Aislin was begging me to be able to do the Avondvierdaagse event this year with all her buddies. Since I (usually) can be cajoled into doing activities that have no equivalent back home -- for the cultural value, y'know -- I agreed to go along with it despite a few logistical issues for us.

A little background: Avondvierdaagse (A4D) is a four-evening series of walks that each Dutch city or group of smaller towns sponsors each May or June. Thousands of children and their parents walk together through the countryside each evening after school for four consecutive nights, and at the end the kids who have sucessfully completed each of the walks receives a medal. The 6- to 9-year-olds walk five kilometers (3 miles!) each night, and the 9 and ups walk 10 kilometers. Little Dylan, who is actually too young to participate this year, decided he was not going to let Aislin have all the fun; he insisted on walking the 5K. With great apprehension and visions of toting him on our backs for many miles, we consented to let him try.

Okay, so you now have the basic parameters. Here's what may not be immediately obvious. Since the school year lasts into the month of July, this is all done during a school week. The kids do a full day of school, eat some dinner, bike/walk/ride to the A4D site, mill around until the start, walk for a few hours, then bike/walk/ride home to do homework, take bath, and go to bed. Then they get up the next morning and start the whole thing anew. Since we live in a different state instead of in town like all the other walkers, we have the added benefit of a 30-minute drive home (what was I thinking?!?). It also bears mention that the weather in June in the Netherlands is not particularly reliable. More like a blustery March in North America -- 50-60 degrees, windy, and likely to be wet.

The first night I was organized to a fault. I had a substantial dinner packed so that after playing for a few extra minutes after school we could drive from Hilversum to Nieuwegein to pick up Jeff, eat dinner on the castle grounds, then drive back to Hilversum for the start of the festivities. Thusly fortified, we all took off on the 10K, Avery bouncing along the rooty forest path in the stroller sans shock absorbers. We had to pad her head with a blanket so she wouldn't have shaken baby syndrome by the end of the night. Padding or no, it became clear that it might be a better idea for Avery's head and Dylan's homeostasis to cut through and join the 5K crowd, though Aislin persevered with her group of buddies. All in all, it was a nice evening walk through the forest; just us and a couple thousand of our closest friends. We were home by 9:30, in bed by 10:00. Late, but doable.

I let them sleep in the next morning and we got to school a wee (ahem) bit late. After a freak head injury at school that day, though, the doctor decided that Aislin had better forego the walk that night. Although I was looking forward to another evening in the woods, let's just say that I wasn't crushed with disappointment when we got home and into bed at a normal time without walking a quarter-marathon. Especially when we started hearing the thunder.

On the third night Jeff was working and couldn't watch Avery, so again I let Aislin walk with her buddies in the 10K and took Dylan on the 5K with Avery in the sling and a backpack on my back. I was a little loaded down, but we were prepared, darn it: drinks, snacks, bottle for the baby, raincoats, camera... in short, about fifteen pounds of everything you might possibly require for an evening walk in the woods with two young children. Except an umbrella.

The delightful school group behind us was yelling "doorlopen!" ("walk through!" i.e. "let us through, you slowpokes") at our group from the time we departed, evidently unaware that we could walk only as fast as the group in front of us...? When we reached the first bottleneck, a gate that allowed only one person at a time through it, their shouts grew more heated as if we were personally responsible for the pace. Shortly after, one of the adults started yelling in Dutch at one of our smaller kids toward the back who happens not to understand Dutch. I turned around and smiled that they might need to be patient with the little legs. The woman's response to me is unprintable in civilized discourse. After carrying on insulting me in particular in Dutch for a while, this woman then proceeded to teach the six- to eight-year-olds around her to start chanting at us, "Move your ass! Move your ass!"

"What's 'Move your ass' mean, Mommy?" inquired Dylan.

"Oh no, dear," I responded, hustling him further forward in our group, "they're saying 'Mow your grass.'"

"Oh," he panted as he jogged along at my hastened pace. "Are you sure?"

Pleasant evening walk, indeed. Oh well, once in the middle of our pack we carried on some slightly less hostile conversation.

And then, just as we reached the kilometers-long clearing, it started sprinkling. The initially refreshing shower quickly became drenching deluge, and under thousands of feet the dirt path was suddenly mudslog. Avery, who had never before had issues with things on her head, decided she didn't want to leave her hood on, so her grumblings shortly turned to outright protesting... all of which began to make this cheery evening stroll feel a bit like a death march (except to Dylan, who rather enjoyed the rain and kept it entertaining for everyone around).

One of the teachers in our group insisted on giving me her umbrella, and another pointed out a nearby shortcut. Les enfants and I diverted course, made a bottle for the youngest, and plodded on down a new path sans madding crowd. Dylan only asked to stop once, and I was able to cajole him on after only a minute or so of leaning up against a bench. It wasn't until a couple of A4D officials on bikes showed up and asked if we wanted a ride back to the starting point that I realized how hilariously bedraggled we must look. I consulted Dylan about the ride, but he begged to "finish the race." The man looked at me incredulously, glanced at Avery with eyebrows raised, then back at me. "Wij lopen." We'll walk.

You could see the amusement in his shoulders as he rode off.

A few minutes later, they were back. They rode about a hundred meters past us and stopped, then the amused guy whipped out his cell phone and proceeded to take a couple of pictures of us. God only knows where those will turn up.

At any rate, after a two rounds of "The Ants Go Marching," we made it back to the starting point where we huddled in a little dugout thingy and fortified ourselves with cereal bars while we waited for Aislin to make it back. She and Karna finished the whole 10K, but returned with tales of their new head injuries inflicted by the rough-housing boys and then went to the bathroom and threw up. The docs the next day decided that any concussions were mild at best, but I didn't cry too hard when ours opined that we might have to forego A4D the next night. Thankfully, Aisie still got her medal at school on Friday to prove that she lived through the experience. Since Dylan is actually one year younger than those allowed to participate, he got nothing but the pride of knowing that we never had to carry him even once, and that he is now just a little more Dutch than he was before. That, thank goodness, is enough for him.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Belangrijkste Nederlandse tradities

I recently read in one of our local newspapers a list of the most important Dutch traditions, according to a study undertaken by the Instituut voor Volkscultuur in 2008. Let's see how we're stacking up here.

  1. Pakjesavond (Dec. 5, when Sinterklaas comes and gives presents to everyone)
  2. Putting up the Christmas tree (this is apparently often done on Christmas Eve, or at least the tree is lit for the first time on Christmas Eve -- no wonder we got such weird looks last year when we had ours lit two weeks before Christmas!)
  3. Queen's Day (celebration of Queen Beatrix's birthday on April 30 that ends up being a big patriotic holiday)
  4. Oliebollen
  5. Easter eggs (who knew this was a Dutch thing? But maybe we should've figured it out since the Dutch word for Easter is "Paas!")
  6. Carnaval (i.e. Mardi Gras)
  7. Beschuit met muisjes
  8. Candles on cake
  9. Sint Maarten
  10. Eating herring

All in all, I don't think we're doing too badly here in getting the cultural experience. And just because it shows up on the list doesn't mean you're going to get me to down raw herring whole like a sword swallower.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Milestones

I think that any parent of a child more than a few years old has experienced that certain objects or places that seem perfectly innocuous, even boring to adults, a child will find endlessly entertaining. The "shell park" is one of those places for us. To me it looks like a few worn, fiberglass blobs, but the kids are always begging us to take them to this holy grail of parks. It's about a ten-minute bike ride away, so we don't go too often since there are at least a dozen parks (no exaggeration) nearer us than that.

Tonight, though, we yielded... and for the first time ever, Dylan rode his little bike, training wheels and all, down our streets and the bike paths to get there! (It was also Avery's first extended bike ride in the seat, but that was far less noteworthy at the time, somehow.) Dylan is really close to riding without the training wheels, but he just needs that last little bit of confidence.

They then had loads of fun chasing each other around these asymmetrical thingies, which just goes to show once again that a parent is no judge of fun.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Nemo

John and Ashlie are here visiting, so we decided on a special treat: a visit to the Nemo science museum in Amsterdam. The building itself is a pretty spectacular contrast to most of the Amsterdam skyline; it's supposed to evoke the big ships that have visited the harbor for centuries. The kids liked the interactive exhibits, but it was rather crowded since school's out at the moment so there was a little more than the usual amount of shoving required to get to utilize the more popular exhibits. They loved getting to blow bubbles bigger than their bodies, and they waited for something like 20 minutes to get to use the "elevator" that utilized kid power to turn a huge screw and raise them a whole floor. Here's Aisie trying to decide whether she'd rather use 1, 3, or 5 pulleys to lift her body weight.

I was surprised to find that I'm still far more prudish than I ever would have suspected pre-parenthood when I saw the exhibits intended for teens. We decided to steer our non-teens elsewhere after we saw the posters depicting the different sexual positions. Then there was the video exhibit where you push a button to "feed" doses of different drugs to a woman dancing like she's in a club. Each dose causes her to dance differently -- more quickly if you give her cocaine, more languorously if you give her marijuana -- and is accompanied by practical advice for taking said drugs (a la "If you take two hits of ecstasy you might find yourself very thirsty, but be sure to rest and not to drink too much.") I mean, seriously?! It was a caricature of what people expect of Amsterdam, or the outrageous asymptote that American conservatives would conjure up to try to keep sex and drug education out of the schools. Pretty hilarious.

At any rate, the rest of the museum was more than enough to do in a day. Nemo also has a huge roof where you can just go and enjoy a pretty incredible view of downtown. It would've been great to have slightly warmer weather, but the kids weren't deterred from running through the water. Heck, we were going to get wet from the rain anyway.

Oh to be young enough not to notice your impending hypothermia.

Hoofin' it

We've had everything from Great Danes to Jack Russell-Dachshund hybrids to one very grumpy-looking cat walked past our house on leashes, but this was a new one this morning...

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Off to the land of Vlaai and stinky cheese

Since Jeff managed to get a week off at the same time the kids are out of school, it's clearly time for us to get ourselves out of town again. This time we set our sights on Limburg, southernmost province in The Netherlands, and more specifically the city famous for its Belgian influence, confluence of old and new architecture, and its treaties: Maastricht.

In our typical, painstaking fashion, we spent at least half an hour researching the city and planning the day. Okay, we spent hours perusing the Museumkaart website to see what attractions were, well, most attractive, but we didn't really start until yesterday. That didn't leave us much time to become experts on Maastrichtian history, but we did find some summaries of the highlights that we read in the car. (Should I be admitting, much less memorializing these things? Are we so spoiled with the riches of our environs?)

In my (ahem) exhaustive research, I did discover that the only cemetery for American soldiers in the Netherlands is located just outside Maastricht in Margraten. We put it on our list, but unfortunately ran out of time to see it. It's incredible to me to think that there are 8,301 American boys buried in the polderlands, and even more incredible to realize that that staggering number is such a small fraction of the total wartime casualties on this land. The omnipresence of the effects of World War II is deeply affecting and has permanently changed my understanding of both history and the European psyche. But I digress.

Jeff and I went back and forth with each other as to whether we should visit the Roman catacombs (his vote) or take a tour of an old coal mine (my vote). As usual, because I have the most patient and accommodating husband on Earth, I got my way. I actually would have enjoyed the catacombs as well, but was more than a little deterred after reading two separate reviews by tourists who described going there during the posted opening hours and having to bang on the door to summon a caretaker who then refused to let anyone enter, even the group who had reserved a time. So off to the Valkenburg coal mine we trundled.

We bought our tickets and sat down on this bench here to wait for the appointed time, in the meantime dazzling Dylan with the largest Mosasaurus jaw ever found. Unfortunately, we quickly found that the promised English-language tour was, well, nonexistent. The only time they managed some English for us hapless tourist types was to warn us that we might want to cover the baby's ears because they were turning on some really loud machinery, then it was back to Dutch-only. I actually comprehended a pretty significant portion of what was said, but not quickly enough to relay it to the rest of the family. The poor kids tried their best to stay attentive, but there's only so long you can look at rock walls and big machines without having a clue what's going on, and this tour was a good, solid hour of time we could have spent walking around downtown Maastricht on a gorgeous spring day...

It was cool and all, but I think I have learned my lesson. Next time, Jeff wins.

After emerging from the mine we did have time to go to the Museum of Natural History, which was smallish and evoked the collecting fetish of the Victorian era elites with its countless taxidermy specimens of everything from fetal bears to Chinese pheasants. It also, however, held another mosasaurus jaw and a few other dinosaur skeletons, and that was enough for the budding paleontologist among us. Aislin and I enjoyed the live animals, but I have to say that she enjoyed these bees far more than I (that's a hive behind her)...

While Jeff and the kids lingered inside, Avery and I enjoyed the garden outside which shares a canal with the university's music department. Listening to the students practicing violin, flute, voice, piano, and more brought back such happy memories of all the college practice rooms I haunted in Gambier and Chicago. Nothing like having the free time and the wherewithal to go down to the music school and play for hours on end, except having the good fortune to happen upon other people doing the hard work for you.

Then it was back through the cobblestone streets of the medieval district of the city (Dylan got a little tired, as you can see) and on to stroll the riverfront outside the old city walls. The goslings and ducklings were out, and there were plenty of meandering curves, random sculptures, and old climbing trees to fill the rest of the afternoon. We had enough time to enjoy a little picnic next to the petting zoo and listen to French-language radio for a while before hitting the road back north. It was so picturesque that I'm having a really hard time picking out just a few images to put up here.

It would have been completely uneventful, but this evening is the beginning of the April 30 Koninginnedag festivities, so the A2 got all tangled up with the people leaving work early to get started with the merrymaking. Because a.) the kids had been so good, b.) we were all getting a little hungry, and c.) we had imbibed enough culture today that we felt it might actually counteract any ill effects, we decided we would treat the kids to a stop at a McDonald's. We decided to eschew the traffic of the A2 for a little jaunt through nearby s'Graveland, where our GPS promised a McDonald's within mere kilometers of us. Looks like we should buy the updated maps because, after driving the wrong way down a verboten bus lane (culminating in a tortured five-point turn with a bus waiting) and then making several circles through one-way alleys and some guy's driveway, we were forced to conclude that the promised golden arches must have closed their doors. By this time, s'Graveland was starting to block off roads to make the entire downtown a pedestrian zone, so we thought we should probably make our escape before we ended up spending the night there. Thankfully the arches are nearly as ubiquitous here as in North America, so it was a short ten minutes to the next set. Playplaces at interstate exits: a little piece of home abroad.

Needless to say, all the running around and so-called food had the intended effect and we had a carful of sleeping children long before we reached home. Not too shabby for a half-hour of planning.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Sororophilia

Big sisters put up with a lot...

...teach little sisters to make funny faces...

...and how to pose for the camera, too.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Good karma

Every once in a while, particularly in the middle of spring, you can see why people would actually want to live in the land of the neighborly note. The weather has been absolutely gorgeous for the last couple of days, and that certainly contributes to a certain elevation of mood. Today Avery and I had a great meeting with some friends in Soest about a new project we're working on, and the drive from Hilversum to Soest was just gorgeous through the Utrechtse Heuvelrug forest and past the Paleis Soestdijk (which, having just looked up the absurd entrance prices, I can safely say I will never visit). Then Avery and I went to Nieuwegein and had lunch at the castle with Jeffrey, followed by a lovely walk to see all the zillions of flowers newly in bloom around the grounds. Next it was off to pick up the kids from school, where I ran into a couple of friends who were headed downtown for some ice cream, so we took a little walk to get some gelato from the newly-reopened gelato shop. There's just something about watching your sticky kids run around in a consummately European square in the shadow of a neo-Gothic cathedral that can make you appreciate the whole adventure again.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Big Rooster is Watching...

During a Sunday stroll at Rijnhuizen today, I paused to sit with Avery on a bench while Dylan and Aislin "fished" in the canal with the longest sticks they could find. As usual, I was soon mobbed with the chickens and roosters that roam the grounds. One especially cheeky fellow was standing right next to the bench's armrest and eying me, I swear. I held his eye for a while before shaking myself out of it and reminding myself that it was just a rooster. Jeez, Amy, getting nervous about a stupid bird. Then the instant I turned my head away to grab something from the pram -- BOOM -- that sucker jumped right up onto the arm of the bench with a look of ominous challenge, inches from my arm and the baby's head with his three-inch spurs, clucking with those long guttural caws. I leapt farther into the gravel than I thought I was capable of, particularly while holding a five-month-old fast and, before he could hop into the pram as he seemed to be contemplating, we were outta there.

These roosters are advancing to the next level of consciousness, I swear. They're starting to turn on us. Giving me the heebie-jeebies.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Neighborly Note

I am coming to learn that the Neighborly Note is a Dutch tradition with a rich history. What is it? Although it sounds as if it does frequently serve as a new resident's first contact with the neighbors, it is not a friendly gesture of invitation for koffie en koekje. While considered by its author to be richly informative, it is not an introduction to the homeowners' association rules.

No, the Neighborly Note is a short missive of vitriol and censure penned by cowardly neighbors who claim to have witnessed some violation of rule or propriety. Most often it is deployed on a garbage can or a windshield, perhaps on an offending bike, but always it purports to issue from someone with moral authority -- indeed, superiority -- and often it strikes an uneasy balance between informativity and threat. More than one friend has gone to retrieve the garbage can only to find the note informing them that their can has been left out for an hour too long (don't even consider preparing dinner for hungry kids before pulling in the can) or a paving stone too far to the right.

Well, a banner day in our household: we've received our first Neighborly Note! Our rental company changed the frequency that our key fob uses to open our parking lot without fixing our fob, so we're consigned to parking on the street until they get around to fixing it. When I returned home from the grocery store this afternoon I parallel parked. I got out and popped the back, checking to make sure I'd have room behind the car to get our formidably large pram in and out, then walked home.

When Jeff went back to the car later, he found a note under the windshield wiper. Unable to read the Dutch, he brought it in to me to make sure it wasn't anything important. He says now that, had he known what it said, he never would have informed me it existed. I have been known on occasion to take these things a little too closely to heart...

So the writer claimed that her husband had seen me hit her car whilst parallel parking and censured me for adding insult to injury by daring to walk away like a coward. She proceeded to threaten that she would be watching me and would follow me home if need be in the future. The note, of course, was unsigned.

Where does one even begin with this? My van has a tow bar on it whose knob would cause real damage to a car if I so much as touched it -- so it's quite clear I didn't touch their damn car. Next there's the fact that, at best, the alleged witness had to have been behind curtains fifteen feet away in the nearest abode, and I defy anyone to demonstrate that they could see bumper touch bumper from that vantage... much less from further away. Then I love the fact that the person who accuses me of being a coward doesn't bother to sign the note or give any identifying information. If this grave offense was, in fact, witnessed, why on earth didn't this person just come out and talk to me then? The mind boggles. What idiots.

Yes, idiots. Sorry, but when this crap comes along, the gloves come off.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A Treatise Upon Driving in the Polderlands

A few observations about driving in this country now that I've spent an inordinate number of hours doing so. Just to set the mood, here's my darling girl taking care of my APK ticket (that was completely unjustly issued since the stupid dealership where we got the car screwed up our first appointment and scheduled the second one too late (it's already been appealed, lost, and finally paid, if you're really curious)).

First, it's remarkable that there are any unscathed hubcaps left in this country. People will constantly park down one (or both) side(s) of roads that are barely two lanes to begin with, so driving down said roads when someone else wants to come the other way invariably ends with one or the other of you pulling over a full, square, four-inch curb and fully onto the sidewalk (whose shell-shocked pedestrians barely even take note of the multi-ton vehicles veering toward them anymore) while the oncoming vehicle -- and usually several others speeding behind it -- passes in perilous proximity.

Note that yielding the right of way is considered a sign of weakness. This dynamic results in numerous pointless face-offs between dueling drivers which block the entire thoroughfare. Whenever possible, others of us -- those we will deem the weaker, if perhaps more rational drivers -- will simply drive around them on aforementioned sidewalk and leave them to stew at each other's bumpers.

Similarly, any traffic snarl involving cars quickly becomes a veritable Shriner's Circus of smaller vehicles -- mopeds, motorcycles, and bikes -- weaving in and out among the stopped traffic. I now consider it to be my in-traffic entertainment.

While I'm on the subject of motorcycles, I must mention that Dutch law not only fails to forbid, but actually encourages motorcyclists to engage in behavior that appears designed to kill them off. Perhaps we can call it "traffical selection." If traffic slows to anything slower than about 30 mph -- which it frequently does even on interstate/autobahn-sized roads -- you'll immediately see motorcycles pulling out of their lanes and essentially creating a third lane along the lane lines between the two slower lines of cars. They're typically slaloming to avoid side mirrors and the occasional driver who dares to change lanes. After enough time driving here I've come to expect it to happen and automatically watch out for them, but jeez-o-man, it still strikes me as unnecessarily dangerous. Why not let them take the shoulder or something? It's especially fun when teenagers on scooters decide to pull this stunt in city traffic. A corollary to this rule is that when you get to a red light in city traffic, all two-wheeled vehicles will speed between the lanes of traffic and take the first spot in line. Again, perhaps this is a conspiracy to thin the herd a bit, specifically selecting for the people who are interested enough in getting places first that they'll take fantastically stupid risks to get there.

Another favorite of mine in this nation in which traffic so predictably stops unpredictably (can you follow that?) that it's a continual political issue and a nexus of odd experimentation. Drivers are frequently stranded in intersections even when they are the first one through the light because traffic suddenly grinds to a halt. Now, it is beyond me why such a nation would insist on placing traffic signals so far before the intersection that that drivers stranded just over the line but not yet in the intersection have no way of knowing when the lights have changed. This has created an elaborate system of hand signals that friendly drivers will use to indicate to the haplessly stranded soul when they might consider proceeding. The unfriendly ones, of course, just lay on the horn.

Horns are also utilized whenever a light has been green for more than 1.5 seconds and traffic has not yet surged forward. Look down to change the radio station at a red light at your auditory peril. And do always remember that traffic lights are simply there to show you where the finish line of this leg of the race is, so be prepared if you're in pole position.

The rule I miss the most: Right Turn On Red. I will say, though, that it does seem a fair trade to exchange it for putting more potential drivers on bicycles since right-on-red is forbidden so that bikes can have their own traffic priorities.

The rule that has given me the most fits: Traffic Coming From the Right Takes the Right-of-Way. I do like that there aren't as many stop signs, but this rule usually means that you have several people all speeding madly toward an intersection so that they can all try to make sure they beat the car that might take the right-of-way from them. It sometimes precipitates another Dutch standoff (see paragraph 2, above), this time four ways instead of two.

A close second is the idiotic practice of painting these double lines forbidding merging on interstates until the last five hundred meters or so before a split. You can literally feel the drivers on both sides of the lines amping up into a frenzy for the kilometer before the lines change to dotted, at which point every vehicle seems to feel it necessary to merge immediately and is willing to slam on brakes to make it happen immediately. It doesn't take a genius to realize that chaos ensues. I have seen more pointless traffic jams at these sorts of merges than anywhere else.

Okay, on to things I like. I like that the interstates have automated speed limit signs that slow traffic down before they get to a jam. I like that they don't pollute their landscape at every exit with a slew of gas stations and truck stops. I like that far more people obey speed limits than in any other country I've driven in. I like that people actually use their turn signals. I like that the cars are generally smaller. And I'm beginning to be a convert on roundabouts used appropriately, although they do pop up in some really stupid places and cause some unnecessary traffic jams. (I love that it's acknowledged by their designers that they are more dangerous than a conventional intersection.)

Finally and most outstanding is that their roadside assistance is actually that; rather than merely sending a tow truck to drag you to the nearest hack, they have these fantastic vans that are basically roving mechanics who can fix all basic problems and most major ones there at the side of the road. I'd love to see AAA plug a leaking radiator, refill your coolant, change your oil, and get you back on the road in less time than Jiffy Lube could do the latter. Go, ANWB!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Lentetijd

Spring, glorious Spring. There are, of course, the tulips and lammetjes (Mary had a little...). But the best part is that all the children have come out of hibernation and filled the courtyard with their little fietsen and ballen and all the sounds of a schoolyard, and this year there are even a few of the kids calling to our kids to come play. Once you make it through those endless winter nights, the long spring days almost make up for it.

Daddy's fixed Dylan's bike, so Dylan's out there making up for lost time in his own inimitable fashion -- the knee pads were his own idea:



Avery was inside playing for a while, but when we all gravitated outside she got lonely. I fetched the new sunhat and she basked in the late afternoon sun in her pram. Since she doesn't enjoy laying down in it (or anything else!) anymore, we rigged up something a little different:


I couldn't even get a picture of Aislin, who was running around with her little buddies. She's met a couple of girls around her age who just moved in down the street a month or two ago. They were born here, but their mom is American so they speak English quite well. It does make me wish there were some easy way of getting Dutch lessons for the kids because it's so clear that they could make neighborhood friends easily if the language weren't in the way all the time. They do pretty well anyway, but you can get only so far on two-word exchanges. At any rate, it's really nice to have kids yelling their names over the hills and ringing our bell, and I'm slowly conquering my American-parent fear of letting the oldest out of my sight so she can go ride her bike around the block.

A Therapeutic Rant of No Interest to Anyone But Me (and maybe an expat or two)

I'm over the health "care" in this country. If a doctor is on a break, even the most pressing emergency is going to have to wait. In labor and want pain relief? Better hope it's between the hours of 8 and 5 and not during the anesthesiologist's lunch or smoke breaks. In the last month or so, I've heard literally three stories of desperately ill children turned away from emergency rooms without even being seen by a doctor because 1.) doctor was on break and/or 2.) parents were accused of being panicky. In all cases, the child was back at the ER hours later and admitted to the hospital with some dire illness. The lesson? Be obnoxiously demanding and plant yourself immovably in the doorway of the ER until some doctor gives up and deigns to see you.

Have asthma and need your medication? Better hope your doctor hears wheezing on both your inhalations AND exhalations or else you'll have to take a fruitless week-long course of antibiotics and get a pointless chest x-ray before she'll prescribe any of your desperately-needed asthma medication because, well, your ten years of history with asthma sure couldn't mean that you know what you need when you can't breathe. No, they have no interest in seeing your medical records, nor in investigating treatment options, nor in giving you a simple and inexpensive breathing capacity test that's available in the office. Oh, and despite your repeated requests for explanations in English (because they told you when you registered at this office that this doctor is FLUENT in English and will have no problem communicating in your language) she'll only speak to you in Dutch because, well, you SHOULD understand it by now. No, there is no translator available.

Child have contagious pinkeye and complaining of an earache? They might be able to squeeze you in four days from now... until you call back and get the other receptionist who might be able to squeeze you in tomorrow... until you get the third receptionist who cheerfully informs you that there are spots open all afternoon today. When you are granted said rare audience with the doctor, she informs you that you are "negligent" for keeping him home from school today and that the idea that one would treat a bacterial infection of the eye is "ridiculous." (Try arguing that one with a nation of doctors who believe that vaccinating children for chickenpox is a waste of time.) When she cannot see his eardrum because it's obscured by wax, she makes no effort to clean it to try again but says to come back in a few days if the fever gets higher. Then she cannot pass up the opportunity to make a snide remark about how the five-year-old American child can't speak fluent Dutch because, after accurately following her instructions about coming over and letting her look in his ears he doesn't understand her colloquial command to open his mouth.

Suddenly the ostensibly screwed up, litigation-shaped American system of health care is not looking half bad. I have to say that I have altogether new appreciation for the positive aspects that the threat of a lawsuit might have on the quality of care available to patients...

Sunday, April 5, 2009

On the hunt

The IWCU held its yearly egg hunt for the kids in the appropriately-monikered town of Bunnik today. It was fantastic to get a little taste of holiday tradition with a Dutch flavor; we had to drive literally through an arched tunnel incorporated into an old Dutch building (maybe an old stable?) to get back to the parking lot by the meadows and the pannenkoekenhuis. Next came a communal ten-minute stroll through the forest and polders to get to the field where the eggs had been hidden.

As an aside to be filed in "Things Different from America": Just fathom an event being held for children where the closest parking was a ten-minute walk from the event. I love the assumption by both organizers and participants that the walk is no big deal even for little legs. I hope we don't lose that willingness when we move back across the pond to the land of endless free parking.

We couldn't believe that Aislin was considered to be too old for it, but she took her big kid status in stride and gamely coached from the sidelines until a reasonable interval had passed, whereupon she helped her little brother search through the pasture for his share of the zillion chocolate eggs hidden there. It was a little chilly and foggy, but methinks that's ideal weather for chocolate egg collection. The kids sure didn't mind.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Nog een fijn weekend

We've decided that Sunday museumgoing has to be one of the finest pursuits for our little family of five. Free parking, cheap travel, new sights, a modicum of education... it's all there. So this weekend we packed up our picnic bag and headed for the mother of all seaports, Rotterdam. We'd picked out a couple of museums that looked good for the kids, but since the time change sort of crept up on us (ahem) we ended up having time for only one, the Maritime Museum.

It was actually a beautiful day for this time of year, meaning that not only did it stop raining for parts of the day, but the sun actually showed itself for a few minutes as well. Approaching Rotterdam was pretty interesting in itself since the city looks so different from anywhere else we've been in the Netherlands. The fact that it's all new since the war is evident in the architecture long before you're downtown: you can see nothing but skyscrapers and modern-looking bridges towering over the suburban trees. Then as you approach the city center, something else becomes evident. Maybe it's the fact of its relative newness, or maybe they really have more street sweepers per capita, but this has to be the cleanest city in the Netherlands.

We parked along the waterfront (which seemed to comprise most of Rotterdam given all the intersecting canals and inlets) and walked a couple of blocks to the museum. We passed this nifty lichtschip, evidently properly called a "lightvessel," along the way. The museum is, appropriately, situated at the end of a smallish canal and has its own 1864 warship moored just outside for its visitors to wander. The kids, however, most enjoyed Professor Plons' play area where they recreated every step of the harbor shipping process. It was way cool. They used cranes to load and unload large "cargo boxes" onto their little carts, then pedaled them through customs (that's douane in Dutch) where they could use a bar scanner to see what "cargo" they were carrying. Aislin got peanut butter, Dylan got pharmaceuticals. Eek. They spent well over an hour investigating every corner of that play area.

Then they headed inside and spent another hour or more checking out every detail of the indoor exhibit/play area, but taking a special joy in commandeering the ball pit where they could feed balls into a vacuum system that sucked them up to the ceiling through clear tubes and then back into a box with a rope attached. When they pulled on the rope, all the collected balls would tumble over the assembled kids. Talk about a recipe for entertainment. Our kids working in concert are a force to be reckoned with on a playground. They had the whole process down to a science by the second repeat. It was no easy feat dragging them away at closing time so that we could eat our picnic on the waterfront by the floating hotel. We finished off with a drive across the iconic Erasmus Bridge which was fantastic, although I think that Prince Claus Bridge in Utrecht might actually be aesthetically superior. Aesthetics aside, we thought we fared brilliantly for a spontaneous Sunday outing.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Oliebollen!

Aislin helped me tonight to make consummate Dutch treat, oliebollen. Translation: oily balls (eew). We have to say, though, that you just can't go wrong with some sugar-covered fried dough. Mmm, good.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Boy, oh boy, all boy.

We were having one of those great dinners tonight during which the kids are actually not only getting along, but actively engaging each other and me in conversation (Jeff was working). After Aisie regaled us with tales of her gym class exploits, Dylan was telling us about how he'd built a worm kasteel (a worm castle) in the sand and had repopulated all the residents of the sandbox to these new, er, digs. He stopped midsentence and looked thoughtful, then alarmed.

"Mommy, I have something in my pocket that you're going to guess but only if you promise that you won't be mad at me."

I gave him my skeptically amused askance look and asked why I might be mad. He contemplated this and revised himself.

"I'm not going to tell you what it is, okay? So you just close your eyes now and I'll show Aislin."

"Dylan, is it something alive?"

Long pause. "Probably."
"Probably?"
At this point Dylan gravely pulled open his pocket so he could peer inside to check on whatever might lurk therein, then raised his eyes to me with concern.

"Okay, Mommy," he began, as if I'd tortured it out of him, "it's a worm." He reached in and pulled out a handful of something. When he opened his hand to me, sand cascaded through his fingers until only a sand-clotted worm remained -- a long one, dangling right over Dylan's plate. Dylan gave me his best, innocent, "aren't-I-so-adorable-that-you'll-forget-what-I-did" smile. Little did he know that Mommy has a soft spot for worms.

Since it still showed some vital signs, I told Dylan to repatriate this one before its family missed it. I suggested that the bush just outside the door might be a superior habitat to the sandbox. As he solemnly released his charge back to the wild, Aisie asked why I was laughing. I told her that Dylan reminded me of the time when preschool-aged Aunt Meg came into the babysitter's house with something even better in her pocket... a dead mouse. We agreed that, sand on the plate aside, the worm was a better dinner guest than the mouse.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

That's, er, entertainment?

Now that we have these museum cards, we're gonna get our money's worth, darn it all, so I'm going through their website and trying to see what entertainment might lay in the immediate vicinity. I can read Dutch well enough now to get at least the gist of an article, but there are always a few words I don't know without looking up so I do still plug things into Babel from time to time to see what I might be missing. There is this neat-looking castle in a neighboring town that I was thinking of taking the kids to see this weekend and, lo, there was something in the blurb about a special children's activity, but I couldn't quite figure out what it might mean. Here's what Babel says we can expect:

Also children can itself by them to knight or let maid beat.
Hmm... to be knighted or beaten by a maid? Sounds like an authentic medieval experience for sure.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Now, what exactly are we doing with spoor?

The best part about attending European schools is the vacation schedule. Since coming back in January we've already had eleven days off school, and I have to say that it tends to break up the bleak midwinter a bit more effectively than the American approach of expecting an unrelenting puritan work ethic out of the kids from New Year's to Easter. I could get used to having a Crocus Break followed by Easter break, then Spring Holiday, not to mention the Ascension Break, Pentecost, and assorted study days...

Anyway, faced with ten days off school and finally in possession of a discretionary pittance after a year and a half of scrimping, we decided to take the plunge and purchase the museum cards we've been contemplating for a year. They let us into something like 440 museums around the country for a year, which should actually motivate us to do a little more weekend exploration of our immediate environs than we've managed as yet. We started with the Spoorwegmuseum -- the railway museum -- in our own downtown, something we expected to be about two rooms filled with some dusty Dutch train memorabilia. Wrongo. They took an old train station and converted it into a museum for antique trains. Then they added a kids' area with assorted potentially lethal amusements and, voila, the perfect place to spend a couple of vacation days. Aisie and Dylan especially liked the boats over to the lighthouse. This picture shows them immediately before Dylan toppled backward and nearly sent his sister plunging into the lovely azure (not) waters. Her threats of retribution were audible nearly as far away as the old steam whistles...

The best part was that after three hours of running around like maniacs among the machinery, I got the ultimate kindergartener seal of approval:

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A fowl day on which to valentine

Having all but forgotten that today was a holiday, Jeff offered to work down at the castle today with some visitors who were less than successful yesterday. As he contemplated leaving this morning, I decided that it might be beneficial for the rest of us to tag along so as to induce a bit of guilt in the scientists dragging my husband away from his family during an unseasonably lovely weekend day. Nothing promotes guilt quite like kids asking when daddy will be able to come home. Especially when you play "Cat's in the Cradle" in the background at the same time on your iPod speakers.

I managed to remember to bring along some bread to feed the assorted poultry populating the castle grounds since this tends to keep the kids busy for many, many minutes and keeping the kids busy for many, many minutes is a priority (although I've finally backed off of my practice of deciding which children's DVD to purchase based on the playing time per dollar since even I have my standards). As always, they enjoyed amassing a flock of jogging roosters by the big canal. The weather today was great, nearly 40 degrees and sunny, but the canals were still iced over ever so slightly.

The chicken commotion eventually attracted the ducks in the area, which flew in for a landing on the canal and appeared to be a bit taken aback by the unexpected ice. They took the landing in the same way they would on water, but sort of slid awkwardly sideways along the ice rather than easing smoothly into the water. Ducks always seem to need to maintain the appearance of composure, so they sort of shook it off in the tail and came waddling up to the kids with a cocky little, "what, you lookin' at ME?" kind of strut. After tossing the bits of bread among the crocuses for a few moments and watching the birds attack it, one of the kids accidentally threw one bit onto the ice. I think we all expected them to consider it a wash like they do when a piece of bread goes out of sight.

Au contraire.

Every duck -- and one especially stupid rooster -- went sprinting onto the ice after the wayward crumb, which was still sliding. As each duck hit the ice, its feet would skitter off in an unexpected direction although each little head would stay cocked toward the moving prize. Two dozen webbed feet scrabbled for purchase, found it, and then were propelled in another unexpected direction... often straight into another duck, which would try to bite at the colliding offender as they slid in opposite directions. It was like dogs after a ball on a hardwood floor. It was like my ice skating performances in elementary school. It was horizontal duck Plinko.

The kids and I howled to the point of collapse and then squatted on the moss until we could see and breathe again. I'm telling you, you've never seen anything this funny. Ever.

The winner of this particular contest was the duck who figured out that he just had to flap his wings and fly over to the bread. Let's hear it for natural selection. As for the rooster, his first step onto the canal took him immediately through the thin ice up to his beak; he barely managed to scrabble his way back out. I hear he's up for a Darwin Award honorable mention. Suffice it to say that the rest of our bread went to the ice dancing ducks. The chickens are just going to have to take it up a notch.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Of enviable lineage

At the lunch table yesterday I was boring the kids with some tale or another about how something they were doing or had done was something I'd enjoyed doing as a child myself. This prompted Aislin to observe:

"Isn't it interesting how you're basically becoming Grammy, and I'm becoming you, and Grammy's becoming her mom, and so on?"

Then Dylan, not wanting to be left out, piped up:

"Yes, and I'm becoming Daddy, and Daddy's becoming Santa Claus..."

Thursday, February 5, 2009

9-1-1? Sorry, but our offices are currently closed...

Aislin spent about an hour this afternoon captive inside our downstairs bathroom. Something was wrong with the latch on the door and no matter how hard she or I pushed down on the handle, it wasn't enough to open the door. I slipped her a credit card, but try verbally explaining to a nine-year-old how to jimmy a lock ("no, it's really okay to destroy my Borders bookstore card, jam it in there harder, really, I won't be mad..."). I tried disassembling the door handle, but I ended up with several loose screws and an otherwise intact handle assembly. The hinges are engineered in some new space-age fashion that renders them utterly impenetrable to me, at least. So what do I do? I'm renting, so I call the maintenance guy, right?

We-ell, in this country you need to schedule your maintenance issues. Make sure your pipes burst or children get locked in rooms between the hours of 10 and 11 on Monday, Wednesday or Friday because that's the only time the maintenance guy will be accepting appointments. In the interim, find some flat food to shove under the door to your trapped child, or see if you can find protective clothing that'll fit under the door so you can take the blowtorch to it.

Realizing I might not even have a person in the office a few minutes from now, I called at 4:40. The lady on the last five minutes of her shift made sure I understood that I'm SOOOOOOOO lucky that she was willing to call him and see if he was willing to come over. She started out:

"Well, have you tried pushing really hard on the handle?"

[What, does she think I'm a complete moron??] "Yes, ma'am, I have."

"I mean really put your weight on it."

"Yes, ma'am, I have my weight on one side and my daughter's on the other. I have to say that you have installed some very heavy duty handles on these doors, but it's not opening."

"Are you sure it's not locked?"

[Deep breath, Amy.] "Yes, ma'am, I'm quite sure."

"Well can't you take a very large screwdriver and try to push the door?"

[I have no idea where she's going with this, so I lie:] "Oh yes, I've tried that too."

"Well, what shall we do?"

"Ehm, I think I need a maintenance person to come fix the door (!?!!)."

"But Caspar is now working in another building and will be off duty in a few minutes."
So I repeat to her s-l-o-w-l-y:
"My. Daughter. Is. LOCKED. In. A. Room."
Her response:
"Don't you have a husband or something who can help out?"


AAAAAUGGGHH!! Where does one even start here? Clearly not with egalitarianism...


[Deep breath.] "No, my husband is working until midnight."

"Oh, okay then. I'll try to get Caspar, but I can't promise anything. He'll come over if I reach him."

"What if you don't reach him?"

"I don't know. I'm sure I'll reach him, but I am leaving here in about five minutes, so you won't be able to reach anyone."

AAAAAGGGGHH!!

"Right, so when do I need to call the police to come let her out?"

"Pardon?"

"When do I know if he will or will not show up?"

"Oh, in an hour or two."

Thankfully, quittin' time being what it is, Caspar miraculously finished the other job and appeared at our door by 4:58. He disassembled the mysterious hinges, removed the door, and was speeding off by 5:01, our "dank u wel"s trailing in his wake.

Sanguine Aislin, in the meantime, enjoyed having a few minutes unburdened by her brother's attentions to pore over her American Girls catalog. I've informed her that she'd better not get any ideas about making this a habit...

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Pinch me: It's really happened!

Inauguration Day in our patriotic duds. Here's to change; to being able to wave our flag with pride; to citizenship in a country in which the transfer of power in a hotly-contested election takes place not only inevitably, but peacefully. Yea, Constitution! Yea, Obama! Yea, U.S.A.!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Where Dylan's at

You'll all be happy to hear that Dylan has two new obsessions: pirates and geography. He has -- entirely of his own initiative -- memorized the names and locations of all the states and has moved on to learning factoids. Dylan would like everyone to be aware that Alaska is far larger than it appears on all the maps of the U.S. and proffers the following picture that he found most helpful in proving once and for all that it's bigger than Texas:

The pirate obsession comes on the heels of Toby's especially enjoyable pirate party earlier this week. Here's hoping that these two new obsessions do not combine in nefarious ways with Dylan's current lack of income...

Also, an exchange this morning after watching him attempt flying side-kicks for the hundredth time.
Me: So, would you like to take some karate lessons?

D: (in that withering, tolerant voice reserved for parental stupidity) No way. I've already watched Kung Fu Panda. I'm way better than Po.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Nicknames

I've come up with possibly the most convoluted nickname ever for my child, but being as it's my child in question, said nickname has a perfectly rational basis. Here goes:

  • "Avery," by natural progression of human laziness, becomes monosyllabic "Aves."
  • I mentally spell "Aves" and recognize it as the Latin name for birds (class Aves).
  • Being as this little bird was born in the Netherlands, and being as I actually know the word for "little bird" in Dutch, "Aves" becomes "vogeltje."

So Vogeltje it is, you see.

Dylan thinks that "Monkeybear" is more appropriate since she's a monkey that we dress up as a bear.

We'll see which one wins out.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Weather. Yes, again.

I've never seen fog like we get here. I'm sure it exists in plenty of other places on the planet, but in everywhere else I've lived, if you get up in the morning and it's foggy you can pretty much bet the farm that it'll burn off sometime before you eat lunch.

Here, we get fogs that last for 48 hours and more. Case in point: we've had fog for the last two days now, and it's been so cold that the fog has frozen onto everything so that it looks like an ice storm came through. Jeff said that when he rode through the stuff to work yesterday morning, he looked down at one point and realized that he himself was covered in a layer of ice.

This morning on the way to school the sky was so pastel-y and everything else so white that it looked like the fakest high school play backdrop you can imagine -- like you let the freshman take watercolors to the huge rolls of paper and the sophomores take the canned snow to a bunch of sticks and then propped the latter up in front of the former. But it was all real and, truth be told, quite beautiful in a kitschy kind of way. Made me resolve not to get caught without my camera again because the sight was so unbelievable (but don't hold me to that resolution).

I'm amused that the lights on the interstate go out at 8:30 come hell or high water or a fog so thick that it's nearly impenetrable to headlights. One moment you're driving along navigating by a mental sextant delineated by a long line of orange streetlights, the next you're going 60 mph at an invisible strip of road that you'd darn well better have memorized because they're not going to spend valuable tax dollars on lighting a road when the sun could theoretically be up and lighting the way. O, the humanity.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Sunshine

Verily, ne'er hath a child loved a playmat as this one adoreth hers...

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Silver linings

While driving up to Hilversum today during a clear 8:30 sunrise, I finally figured out how to cast a positive spin onto the fact that I'm living somewhere that has approximately six hours of daylight at this time of year. Since the sun is basically skimming the horizon it means that we've got about two hours of sunrise and two hours of sunset, protracting the so-called "magic hour" of perfect light into half the daylight hours.

Now I just have to get out my camera so that it actually matters.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Resolution complete

I'm setting the bar low this year. I have resolved to figure out what the heck the difference is between raisins and sultanas, both of which are marketed separately in this country. They look identical, but sultanas are about a third of the price. Lo and behold, I've already completed a resolution. Granted, it feels like cheating since I found an answer so readily on Wikipedia. I know the suspense is killing you, so the short answer is that they're different kinds of grapes. Amusingly, the reason they don't market sultanas as such in the States is because all our raisins come from that varietal of grape... proving that we have cheap, plebeian tastes.

More scintillating information on this important issue here.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Quite Possibly the Worst New Year's Ever

We already knew we were going to be on a plane over the Atlantic for New Year's, but at least our sense of adventure and love of the eclectic were titillated by such possibility. As it turned out, the need to de-ice was followed by a mechanical failure of some sort that led to us sitting on the tarmac at LaGuardia for six hours. SIX HOURS. With three kids and no food (except for lucky, breastfeeding Avery). I never, ever board a plane without at least a couple of cereal bars and something for the kids to drink. Except last night.

We were soldiers. Our ranks complained not. Thank god for the onboard personal entertainment systems that now carry Spongebob cartoons.

As it turned out, the enforced fast was fortuitous since poor Aislin started decorating the terminal with puke as they switched us from one plane to another. Taking care of her meant that I was blessedly at the outermost outskirts of the ensuing madness. Delta issued us some meal vouchers at 10:30 p.m. with the caveat that we still had to board the plane by 11:00. Hilariously, absolutely every restaurant in the terminal was closed but for one tiny Dunkin Donuts kiosk whose single employee was doubtless absentmindedly rearranging the half-dozen remaining donuts and looking forward to whatever he was going to do in half an hour when his shift was over. Then, out of nowhere, a stampede of approximately 150 angry travelers descended upon the poor fellow shaking vouchers in his face and demanding coffee, croissant sandwiches, and the last shabby pastries with the fervor of those who have been denied the ability to vent their frustrations to the people responsible for their situation... I have never seen anyone of Indian descent look so ashen. I didn't stick around to see if he would wise up and just start throwing food out into the crowd like a zookeeper with the lions to keep some distance between himself and that barking Dutchman...

By the time we took off it was nearly midnight Eastern time, but nobody gave a whit. The flight attendants' festive signage and silly hats were conspicuously absent by the time we replaned, and there was no announcement over the PA. Wise employees, those.

We landed in Amsterdam around 1 p.m. Ugh. The jet lag has lingered this time far worse than any other. The first person who tells me that I'll laugh about this story someday can... can... I'll come up with something really terrible when my brain starts functioning again.