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. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Man on the Bench

I crane my head back to check the bench. It's probably nothing to be worried about. Probably. I'm sure he's fine.

It's broad daylight. Chilly weather but no snow. Moms will be picking their kids up from school soon. If there's a problem they'll call for help, of course.

Or will they be like me and just go on by?

Monday, May 23, 2016

Sudden Stop

"Your body has only one agenda," a friend messages me. "Maybe you're stressed about something?"

I laugh in the middle of our conversation. "Sleep deprivation, drama at volleyball, (not yet) moving, trying to be a perfect wife and mother... there's stress in plenty!"

Which is apparently why my body - or at least my jaw - is forcing a stop to all this. Raging pain has resulted in two dentist visits in the last week and then even a trip to the ER last night. No cavities or abnormalities to see on the x-rays, so the most probable diagnosis is TMJ. And the way to treat the poor overextended, pain-radiating area is rest (along with painkillers that aren't as helpful as I'd like.)

Friends and family are praying for me. Strangers I don't know are praying. It's beautiful and humbling. My father-in-law drove me home from the dentist. My wonderful mother-in-law came over yesterday to help watch Pippin so I could rest. And my husband has done grocery shopping and rubbed stress knots out of my back (not to mention handling the 1am ER visit and taking over Pippin care for the weekend).

I remember being nervous about the kraamzorg (after-care) coming when I had just given birth to Pippin. People taking care of me, tidying my house? Surely I could handle it on my own. It went OK, but I was hesitant to accept help in my own home.

Almost two years later, I can handle the attention more gracefully. I can even enjoy the enforced rest. And I can cancel appointments and obligations without feeling overwhelming guilt, which is a big change for me. I didn't even mind that my schoonmoeder walked in yesterday to a disaster of a house with unwashed dishes, unswept floors, and toys and laundry everywhere. Instead, I slept (or tried to), read, let my jaw rest, and only came out of my room for the occasional ice pack or magazine. (Well, I did do the dishes, and put Pippin down for nap. Old habits die hard.)

It's not that my house is usually spotless, because it's definitely not. It's that I don't usually let visitors see it messy. Or ask friends to pray for me. Or wake my husband up in the middle of the night and essentially demand he take me to the ER.

This week, with the sudden stop of my normal life, was not what I had expected. I hope I never have another week like this, honestly. But maybe, just maybe, it will be memorable enough to remind me to slow down, stress less, and ask for help along the way.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Ossim Day

Some days we just burble along here.

Other days are OSSIM.

Today was an ossim day.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Coffee for the Scrubman?

From my kitchen I can hear his argumentative voice echoing through the stairwell. Phoning a friend? Venting to a coworker? Times are hard. People don't pay what's fair. He has to working extra to make ends meet. He scrubs and complains, tossing in a few curse words.

And his loud frustration might wake a napping Pippin. Should I interrupt his rant to ask him to quiet down a bit? Probably not.

I've been missing the other, older workmen. I'd started to think of them as 'ours' during the weeks that they were in and out, chatting with the awestruck Pippin as they painted and operated the machines outside. It felt like having uncles around when they offered to help me haul the buggy downstairs or complimented my coffee. Their singing (yodeling?) made me smile. But this new guy, with the loud angry voice. Who's to say he wouldn't pause talking on the phone long enough to cuss me out or give me the finger? I'll just ignore him and hope Pippin sleeps through the noise.

And then I have a thought.

Maybe I should offer the Scrubman coffee?

Saturday, March 5, 2016

You Know You're Ingeburgerd When... (Part 1)

Ingeburgerd can be translated as 'adjusted' or 'integrated'. Not surprisingly, the Dutch government has made inburgering mandatory for most people applying for residency or citizenship. If you intend to stay in the Netherlands long-term, the requirements include language and social tests, such as the NT2.

While legal paperwork and diplomas are important, not everything can be measured by piece of paper. You don't get a certificate for just feeling like you're well-adjusted in Dutch society. But approving nods from colleagues and friends, or sometimes even just the lack of patient corrections can show you're on the right path to blending in. Sometimes it really is the little things that matter....

You know you're ingeburgerd when....

You nonchalantly swipe your card past the reader in the tram, train, or metro station without looking.

You finish someone's sentence with an appropriate slogan. I.e. "That's the power-" "of the PostBank!" Or "Not because it's necessary-" "but because it's possible!"

You remember (almost always) to bring your own bags to the grocery store.

You know to bike on the right side of the road and bike lanes and are horrified when Dutch friends choose to 'ghost' ride on the left side (spookrijden) because "it's just a short distance".

You compliment a child on their backpack and correctly name the popular movie/tv/pop star design on it.

You give a tolerant smile if you actually see clogs for sale.

You can name the appropriate colors of the biggest football/soccer teams in your city, and maybe even the coaches and best players as well.

You get annoyed if you see newspapers, glass jars, or plastic bottles in the garbage bins instead of in the proper recycling containers.

You know to say, "Congratulations! When is the baby due?" if someone posts a photo of beschuit met muisjes (rusk with 'mice' sprinkles) on Facebook or Whatsapp.

You find yourself looking for the Dutch section of a multilingual instructions booklet before remembering to check for your home language.

You are aware that there are many, many types of licorice candy (drop), cheese, and coffee, and that all kinds are NOT created equal.

You can hum along with the advertisements on the radio from Kruidvat and can whistle to the Hema tune.

You know your Dutch clothes/shoe size when shopping.

You notice difference between regional accents, and nod knowingly when someone criticizes "Those Rotterdammers/Amsterdammers/people from Wassenaar...."

You've had at least one bike stolen.

You know where to find comfort foods from your own country, but also know what the best Dutch substitutes are.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Of Bureaucracy and Bad Smells

After stressing over paperwork for an international regulation I didn't even know existed, due to no financial advisor, and finding a container of decaying fried chicken behind the fridge in the process of scrubbing dried coconut milk inside the fridge, I'm ready for a nice scented soak in a bathtub that apparently wouldn't even be standard issue in a 4-bedroom house that could hypothetically be bought if we did find a financial advisor who knows things about mortgages and international tax regulations.

Maybe once the paperwork clears there will be a blog post (hopefully not too scathing) about the hassle of trying to find answers on buying a house, sharing a bank account, and paying taxes as an expat spouse....

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Sandman

"Can you call me instead of ringing the doorbell when you come? I just put Pippin down for a nap...." I text.

The sanding machine starts up with a roar five minutes later.

The workman warbles. The ladder creaks. I debate my choices.

It's been a good morning. My mother-in-law came by for coffee this morning, then 'parked' a bag with us to pick up later. "No problem, we'll be home all day," I had told her cheerfully, but that was before the workman arrived. A friendly bear of a man rang the doorbell holding a bucket and asked politely for some warm water. He said he'd be sanding and scraping today, and working on the old white wallpaper in the stairwell (who wallpapers a stairwell in the first place?) Since we three inside were having coffee and pastry, why not share? My parents used to make entire pots for workmen, and I feel very grownup to be able to offer some from my own kitchen.

The workman returns the coffee cup and plate at break time, and is treated to one of Pippin's wide-eyed stares. All is well with the world, and naptime is right around the corner.

And then the noise begins.

Thanks to the paper thin walls of the apartment, Pippin seems to wake and wail at every move the neighbors make. When they leave for work at 5:30 am. When they get home at 11 pm. When they make breakfast at 7 am, or turn the radio on at 1pm or 9 pm. But we've never had someone sanding our front door before on full power.

My options. I can turn on a movie and hope Pippin survives until bedtime without a nap. I can ignore him once he starts to howl and get at least 15 minutes of 'quiet' before I rescue him. Or, since it's a gorgeous sunny day outside, I can take him out in the stroller (making sure to be back before my mother in law picks up her bag.) The last option seems like the best one, if we can safely navigate the wet railings, loose wallpaper, and power cords in the stairwell.

The sanding machine keeps droning. I'm sure even neighbors across the street can hear it echoing.

I pull on my high-top sneakers, put my hair up in a messy bun, and head to our shared living room & Pippin's bedroom. I don't hear howling, so maybe the little guy is frozen in fear, or playing in his crib.


He's fast asleep.

Doesn't even stir when the door creaks open and I walk over to check.

I wonder if our neighbors would be ok with us hiring the sanding machine as white noise during bedtime and naptime. We'd never hear them again.

(Then again, depending on where we set the machine, we might never hear anything again....)

Friday, February 12, 2016

Party at J's House

Dorcas moved through the living room curiously, looking at the simple but homey furnishings. "Such a lovely idea to have a housewarming party. Your siblings will be here, of course, but it is a small apartment. I hope you weren't planning on too many other friends coming?"

"Oh, you'd be surprised how many people can fit when they're welcome." J's eyes twinkled. 

Monday, February 8, 2016

Little Moments

Our lives are made
In these small hours
These little wonders,
These twists & turns of fate
Time falls away,
But these small hours,
These small hours still remain
-Rob Thomas

I'm sitting on the kitchen floor with my toddler. Lasagna is in the oven and we're licking the sauce pot. Soon he'll be off to play with blocks or demolish a pile of laundry, but for now, it's perfect.

It's the kind of homey relaxed moment I want my life to be filled with as a mama.

There are a lot of those moments in my days and weeks. But there are also other moments that are everything but homey or relaxed. And who takes photos of the tough times, or talks about those tear-my-hair-out and we-may-never-have-another-kid moments?

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Clear the Halls

We received an official letter with a notice of upcoming painting scheduled for our apartment building. The letter included a warning that all inhabitants of our building will be equally billed if painters have to clear the public spaces. A week later, there are still broken bikes and old couches in the basement. Since we have several foreign neighbors, I printed a friendly note in English and dropped a copy in everyone's mailboxes. Then I saw a to-the-point Dutch note already hanging in the hall. 

It's fascinating because this sort of issue brings up conflict. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

New in Rotterdam

I often see comments and questions in the expat facebook group from people who have just moved to Rotterdam from another country. I had a chance to adjust gradually - 5 years in a village in the north of Holland, then a year and a half in a town nearby Rotterdam. By the time I actually moved into this metropolis I was fluent in Dutch and knew my way around the city.

But to come here directly... that could be quite a shock.

Sunday, January 3, 2016


I'm a member of a Rotterdam expatriates Facebook group. It's a great place for discussions on Dutch culture, travel tips, and articles on parenting. Today a parent referred to James Dobson's attitude that sleepovers should be discouraged for safety reasons. Not surprisingly, other parents commented with their own opinions, and it turned into a fascinating discussion. Is the discouraging of sleepovers just fear-mongering? Or a good policy for concerned parents in today's world? Some people responded to the post in just a few words, while others wrote long replies. Here's mine.

As expats, we're already creating a different-than-average life for ourselves and our children. We question educational methods, the price of renting-vs-buying, and the safety of biking in the city. Then we decide what is right for our own families. Why not question the value of sleepovers?