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:

video

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.