Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Down-to-Earth - the Dutch Culture

One of the things I find fascinating in mainstream Dutch culture is the way normalcy is prized. Calling a person  "nuchter" - down-to-earth - is  a compliment. (It's also the word for sober, and I was very confused when I read a medical document that called for blood taken on a 'nuchter' stomach. In that context, it just means empty, not that for other blood tests it's fine to show up totally drunk.)  Doutzen Kroes, the famous supermodel, said in an interview that she considers herself nuchter, and values her simple background in Friesland, one of the northern provinces. Googling 'nuchter' and Doutzen Kroes brings up several hits, including a page that even calls her, translated, 'the Dutch downtoearther'. High praise for a globetrotting international beauty. But if she keeps fame and fortune from going to her head, shouldn't we all?
A common phrase I've heard here, especially from parents, is "Doe normaal." Act normal. Which somehow automatically is supposed to shut out things like tantrums, jumping on the couch, or other forms of outrageous behavior. When I went through training as a TSO moeder - lunch mom - at a primary school, the curriculum and leader actually spoke against the phrase. "You see," the teacher explained earnestly, "what may be normal for you is not normal for all of these children. In a Surinamese family, for example, it might be considered rude to look an adult in the face while they talk. Here, if a child avoids eye contact, we assume they're hiding something. So telling them 'Doe normaal' just won't work - they are being their own normal!" As a mom now myself, hanging out with other moms and their children, it's easy to see the differences in family culture, even just among the Dutch themselves. 
But in general, staying on the center of the beaten path is encouraged. Study well in school. Perform well at work but don't try to outshine your colleagues - no one likes a showoff. Have fun on the weekends - but not TOO much fun. The popular (and generally mandatory slogan) here on alcohol advertisements is, "Geniet, maar drink met mate." Enjoy, but drink in moderation. How effective this slogan actually is, I haven't checked, but I imagine that if a colleague had one too many beers after work, the response might be, "Hé, doe normaal!" 
Moderation extends to birthday parties, where the streamers and balloons are hung but generally there is no Amazingly Detailed Party Theme like the kind that seems popular in America. Guests are served one piece of cherry vlaai from the bakery per person, and nibble on snacks from little bowls. The birthday person might dress up, and the birthday child might wear the paper crown they got from school, but that's about it. Gezellig, cosy, and expected. Occasionally there might be phrases about craziness thrown around, whether discussing the weather, sports, or politics. "Het moet niet gekker worden," someone might say, looking out the window at a snowy April morning or a blistering October afternoon. "It shouldn't get any crazier." Or, discussing a politician in the new government coalition who's calling for environmental change, "Doe maar gewoon en dan doe je gek genoeg." If you act normal, you're already acting crazy enough." I've even seen that slogan on kitschy blue-and-white tiles. Whether it's a warning, or encouragement, I haven't figured out yet. 
One of my favorite songs is "15 miljoen mensen", which describes, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, the culture here. Of course, the population of Holland has grown since the song was written  - from an estimated 15 million in 1996 to 17 million in 2016  - but a lot of the verses are still recognizable. Like the line, "The land where no one lets himself go, except for if we're winning, and then the passion breaks out intensely, and no person stays inside." And the video clip for that line looks like it's taken at a voetbal match, with screaming fans wearing the national orange color. Football, or soccer, is one of the few occasions when it's more than okay to go crazy. When the Feyenoord club won the national championship last year, car horns started blowing in my neighborhood and I saw fireworks in the middle of the afternoon. The center of Rotterdam was so crowded with thousands of red-and-white-wearing fans that there were security advisories issued for anyone who was crazy enough to want to go to the city and see the awards. Because sometimes being crazy is totally normal... in moderation. 

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Newest Novel - Dutch-in-Law 2017

Maybe I'm totally crazy to even consider it, but I log into the familiar blue and white NANOWRIMO website anyway. National Novel Writing Month? Sure, I may be about twenty weeks pregnant, living in a fixer-upper house overseas, and spending my days as expat mother and wife, but why not start writing a new novel this November?

I'm sure the first people who signed up for the NANOWRIMO challenge were crazy too. And the people who first had the idea to turn the international, vague dream of "Write a novel some day" into a website with definable numbers and a voracious writing community. I didn't know anything of the sort existed until a few years ago, and now I enthusiastically sign up for almost every new session or 'camp' throughout the year. But the big pull is, of course, the month of November, when people around the world look at the slogan on the site header, "The world needs your novel," and decide it's somehow true. 

The site 'opens' a little before the all-important month, so today I log in and get started. I click through the "Create Your Novel" link, and pause at the blank space for a title. The last few times I've just used, and reused, the title "Dutch in Law", adding numbers after it. I think now I'm up to 3 or 4? But they're little more than drafts, hardly novels ready to make their way into the world. And they're mostly in journal form, and I don't know if that would even be marketable. Thinking about actually trying to publish anything slams me into a sort of mental wall. So I don't. I just leave them in neatly marked folders in my computer and in the cloud, vaguely intending to do something with them someday. But this time through, I kind of want to try something different. I'll still keep journaling, I think, but I think it would be fun to write some sort of a manual for living in Holland. Of course, there's no one-size-fits-all guide to any city, let alone country. But I could write the sort of guide I would have wanted, as a young newlywed, married to a Dutchie and trying to adapt here. And what I didn't experience, I could still write about from the experiences of others. 

And even if no one ends up reading this novel except for me, and family, it will still be fun to write. And a challenge, given how my life looks these days. 

"Dutch In Law: The Manual" I type into the title bar. Novel genre? If I were to publish it on Kindle, I'd probably put it in the international genre, maybe women's fiction. Here I settle for "mainstream." Then it's time to write a short synopsis. 

Of course, there's no one-size-fits-all guide to any city, let alone country. But there are things about living in Holland that every Dutch-in-Law should know, things every expat should at least have a nodding acquaintance with. Like the little metal circles that are the key to a smooth grocery shopping session. Or who or what the Wilhelmus is. Chocolate sprinkles for breakfast? Biking hand signals? A chipcard?The iconic rabbit that seems to be everywhere? Welcome to the Dutch-in-Law manual. 

It's a start, at least. I click "Create Novel" and make a mental note to come up with some sort of cover for it. I browse through the page titled "Your Novels", where I can see the last three I made in Novembers before. Each has a golden badge in the corner, with the word "Winner" on it. That's one of the beauties of the site: the big, scary, brilliant goal of 50,000 words for a novel. Some of the seasonal sessions have options for setting a goal word count, or even setting an hour goal for editing or revision. It's nice to have the flexibility, especially when life is crazy or it's more important to work on a past project than on a new one. But, unless they've changed the main site too, the 50,000 word goal is huge and intense. Split across days (and visible on the convenient charts and graphs), it means an average of 1,667 words a day. I normally average about 500 these days, for comparison's sake. And it takes me about half an hour; during past NANO's I probably spent two to three times that, and used Pippin's naptime as writing time. But now I need that afternoon slot for my own naps, if not for my freelance editing projects and housework. 

These days I generally try to write after my little guy goes to bed at 8pm, with the last of a day's energy before I go to bed myself. Which is just one more reason I'm probably crazy to start a new novel this month. I'll have to figure out a new time to shape words and ideas into some sort of a coherent novel, despite pregnancy exhaustion, to-do lists, and social obligations. So, really, why not? 

Friday, March 10, 2017

Happy Messy Kitchen

In our old house, the kitchen piled high with the mess, and in our new house, the kitchen piles wide with the mess. The two adults and the child who live here all have more interesting things to do throughout the day than clean, which means it's normally evening before anyone takes action. And by anyone, I mean D clearing off his part of the counter so there's space for the bread machine, and me clearing off my part of the counter so I can set out breakfast bowls and spoons. In the morning, the counter fills up again quickly, but I'm teaching Pippin to help unload the dishwasher so I can load it again.

Sometimes the mess in my kitchen stresses me. On rainy cold days, when the world seems against me, even just clearing the counter can seem too much to handle. Other days it's much more manageable, fortunately. When guests come over, the kitchen gets cleaned quickly. If there's a good movie on Netflix, the kitchen gets cleaned thoroughly (like when I binge-watched historical drama 'The Crown' during a bout of flu and scrubbed everything, including the highest part of the stove hood). The rest of the time, it stays at a reasonable level of comfort.

Today it's way more messy than comfortable, thanks to all the baking and cooking today. Dishes from the muffins Pippin and I baked this morning, dishes from the pancakes we cooked tonight. A pile of mugs from a gezellig visit this morning with my parents-in-law and a friend who dropped by. There are even guest appearances by a litter of seed packets on the table and a bucket of dirt in the sink. It's a cozy disaster, a happy messy kitchen. It's a place where I can feed the people I love, where I can plant seeds for tomatoes in pots, and seeds of kindness and helpfulness in my little boy's heart.

All the same, when it comes time to clean up the happy mess, I'm very grateful for the dishwasher.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Teacher

I hesitate while filling in the website form. Me, a teacher? I was looking for a free download, not a psychological cross-examination.

I'm browsing a resources website while Pippin naps. By entering simple information like my email address and a little about myself, I get access to free downloads like coloring pages and preschool 'printables'.  It only takes a few seconds to fill in my info, down to the last question or two. A few simple clicks will get me to the downloads page I'm looking for. The part that's making me pause is the dropdown box with, "I teach___ " and then a drop-down menu. The choices range from pre-K to homeschool to adult education. There's also a simple "I don't teach" option. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Scrubbing

Tonight I was so bored of painting my nails and reading adoring fan mail that I decided to clean my dusty-from-unuse stove.


No, that's how it happened in the alternate reality where I'm a famous but and reclusive writer, living in a seaside loft by my lonely self, writing best-selling songs and poetry and subsisting on organic salads and fruit smoothies.

In this reality, I took a break from all my other to-do lists to scrub the stove that we use every single day. The stove that has five glorious burners so I can cook Christmas dinners for nine people or just spread out fresh pans of chocolate bark. The same stove where a gleeful Pippin helps me mix pancake batter and fill muffin molds. The same stove that was filthy and sticky from a concoction of dust, grease, and miscellaneous spatters and practically screaming for a bath.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Christmas Magicking

It's funny how Christmas takes on different flavors as I get older. December as a whole becomes different, and instead of a spectator, I'm the orchestra director. I'm the one doing the Christmas magicking, whereas as a child it just seemed to happen. Back then, the music wrapped around the days in a soundtrack of jingle bells and choirs. My parents called us downstairs for the Christmas story, and explained our traditions as we lit candles and unpacked the tree. My mother taught us special Advent crafts, and we made ornaments of clay or felt that represented Baby Jesus coming to this world to show God's persistent love to surprised humans.
As a child, I watched as presents appeared under the tree, and wrapping paper rolls appeared in the closet. Guests showed up at our house to feast and laugh and hug. As an adult, and especially as an adult living in Holland, I know that Christmas dinners only happen when everyone synchronizes their schedules and messages about who brings what food. As a wife, and especially as a wife of a man surrounded by renovation projects, I know that holiday gifts and decorations and cooking tend to be the woman's responsibility. It was easier when the magic arrived at my house and I just had to greet it. Preferably with fuzzy slippers and hot cocoa.

It's not a bad thing to be responsible for making the magic, to know that work goes into it. To know what goes on behind the scenes.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Being Busy

In Dutch, there's a phrase mee bezig zijn. It translates literally to 'to be busy with', but it means more than just being busy and extends to the idea of being occupied. If you asked, I could say, "Mijn blog? Daar ben ik niet zo mee bezig, de laatste tijd." I haven't been occupied with my blog lately. A word you can use in combination with bezig is druk - which also means busy. Work can be druk, traffic can be druk, a hyper toddler who wants to touch everything and run everywhere in our new house is definitely druk. And together, the words come out as (very) busily occupied, which is what we've been since we signed papers to buy a house in August. Since then, we've been packing, moving, unpacking, and renovating a huge house in a quaint old neighborhood, down the river from Rotterdam. Or up the river, depending on what way you're looking. It's a beautiful old house, dating back to around 1910, but is also a major fixer-upper, sold with dozens of unfinished renovations and defects. Some areas of the house are new, and obviously were invested in, but they sit right next to a project we get to tackle. Like a luxurious walk-in shower in the upstairs bathroom - but no ceiling above it, just plywood beams. The kitchen has sparkling appliances but bare sheetrock/drywall walls instead of paint. If we had been the one to start the renovations, I feel like we would have finished most of the house in moderation, but apparently the previous owners wanted to do (some) areas in high style. Our challenge is to make the whole thing livable, and then 'nice', and then - maybe in 15 years? - maybe make it really nice.

The bulk of all the renovating has fallen on my incredibly talented and persistent husband. When there are attic roof tiles to be ripped off and a new under-roof built, he is the man. Or when the roof of the kitchen is literally crumbling onto the counter, he's the one who collects tools and co-laborers and saws it open, then places and waterproofs a new roof. He's been bezig on every level of the house, fixing siding outside of the bathroom, replacing incorrect pipes under the kitchen sink, and literally building a new door by hand (because a house from 1910 doesn't have standard sized doorways). And since he's still working and studying all of this has to happen in his 'free time'. 
My days haven't been filled with as many power tools and office hours, but my own free time has been pretty well filled by everything that comes with a big move and renovation. Like figuring out how to organize everything when the size of our home has more than tripled. Like buying cleaning and renovating supplies and groceries when the distance to the nearest grocery store has also tripled. On the bright side, I'm growing a story collection of all the things I've managed to bring home on my bike, like plastic trolley sets, buckets, rugs, curtains, brooms.... Then there's the 24/7 job of parenthood to our adorable and active toddler. And this parenthood thing has lately and unfortunately and literally been 24/7, since our neighbors here somehow manage to be noisier than in Rotterdam. Case in point - which I hope is an exception - Pippin howled from his bed six times last night. Between the hours of 10 and 12 pm. Not cool. Other nights it has gone better, thankfully, but it's all too normal for me to have to go in and soothe him at 11 pm or 6 am, which seem to be peak hours for echoes from hollow brick walls from 1910 and wooden stairs that might be equally old. 
Or the stairs might just be standard noisy wooden ones from the last fifty years - I'm no judge of how old things are in this neighborhood. I do know that we have three or four layers of aged (vintage?) wallpaper in my laundry room, and three or four layers of paint on the attic rafters. And in the beams in the bathroom and closet, we can see the remains of an insulation layer of reeds. Reeds. In my house. Which looks nothing like the charming thatched cottages that still decorate some areas of Holland. I wish I did know more of the history here; all I've found so far are references to workers in a glass factory or how high the flood waters came. So far the only (small) floods we have seen are when Pippin tips over his plastic bathtub into the shower or when we didn't put enough buckets in the kitchen to catch the leaks. 
But between the leaks, the noisy neighbors, and the continuous sawdust and tools everywhere, it's becoming a lovely home. I'm enjoying having the space to spread out, to dream about how I'll plant a garden in the spring, to cook large meals and still have counter space to make dessert. It's also amazing to be able to invite people over whenever I want, and just tuck Pippin in be in his own room whenever he needs to sleep. In our old house, his bedroom being in the living room meant that I could only welcome guests between eight and two, or four and seven. Now we could have all night movie marathons or early morning yoga classes without him even noticing. And we're just a bike ride away from friends, from the church, and D's parents, which means my social life has suddenly blossomed. We greet our new neighbors when we see them, and I have hopes of making friends 'just a block or two away' with whom I can share cookies or playdates or barbecues. There are also toddler music-and-play mornings at a school, and monthly story hours at the library. My volleyball season has turned out to be fun, and exciting, but with its fair share of drama. After a few practices, I talked seriously with some of the club leaders and said that I just didn't fit with the younger (i.e. 14-18 year olds), less experienced team, and could I please try out for the Dames 1 team? While they were two levels above my team from last year, I was accepted (I thought) on basis of them needing a backup setter... only to have it turn out that they already had enough backup setters and I could be put at diagonal and hopefully yelled/coached into a good player at that position :P I guess it was too much to hope that I could just join and have a challenging but drama-free year at volleyball, while there was so much chaos at home. 
Despite all the to-do lists, grey weather, and stress levels, we've made dozens of special memories here already. Like sitting on makeshift chairs to eat hot-from-the-snackbar patat. Making Christmas cards at the table, and having old friends over to eat and laugh and hang out. Taking the ferry across the river. Prying up bricks from the patio to make a little herb garden. Cuddling up on the couch together to watch a movie and eat pizza. Visiting the harbor to see Sinterklaas and the Pieten arrive on a real ship. Going on a walk by the river when the frost sparkled on everything. And amid all the mess and exhaustion of renovation, there has also been time to just be thankful for this amazing new house that is bigger and more charming than anything we thought we could afford in the housing market here. And grateful for the chance to plant our lives here here, close to friends and family, and surrounded by green, instead of in crowded, urban Rotterdam. Some days it feels like starting my Dutch-in-Law adventure all over again.