Thursday, August 28, 2014

No Bag Policies

I have never been good about bags.  

My wallet migrates between the bags I use for shopping and wherever kidlet decides to drop it.  Receipts clutter the inside of the shopping bags, as do bits of onion skin and maybe an odd stem from some long-forgotten bit of produce.  Bags are handy.  Bags are nice.  But I have never been good about keeping them neat and clutter-free, so at some point in the seven years that I've done the grocery shopping for us, I've decided that it's all-or-nothing--nothing stays in the bag, or else I carry supplies to outlast a nuclear winter.  And since I am lazy, and nothing is easier to carry than everything, nothing it is.  

Which, might be kind of surprising, given that I regularly take kidlet on excursions that last up to two hours.  I have nothing with me--no toys to distract him with, no diaper to change him.  I don't even carry snacks with me anymore.  It's partly laziness--after 6 months of buying baby biscuits, I started forgetting to pick them up, and now I can't be arsed to visit that section of the supermarket any more. But mostly, he's gotten used to waiting until we get home to eat.  Mostly--I do take him out on breakfast and/or lunch dates, to get him used to waiting for his food and sitting nicely and all that--but by and large, if he's out and hungry, well, he's really got no other alternative but to wait while I get us home. 

Here's my theory (which might be full of shit):  We tell kids to behave and be good and don't play with stuff and don't touch things that aren't theirs and don't run into the middle of the road, etc. etc.  But when you confine a kid to the shopping cart/stroller, you don't give them a chance to actually be good and use the skills you've spent the better part of two years modeling for them.  When you confine a kid, it doesn't matter if they are being good or not--no harm is done of they're not, but nothing tangible comes out of being good, either.  So then the kid gets to be three or four years old, and suddenly the stroller isn't an option any more, and they're suddenly expected to behave, which they really haven't had much practice in doing, well, cue the meltdown, the brattiness, the whining.  

So if kidlet is perfectly happy going out with no toys and no snacks, it's not because he's a magical toddler or anything.  It's because I take every opportunity to let him do things.  If we're at the Albert Heijn, which has the kiddie shopping carts, he gets to push the cart, help me pick out things, put them in the cart, put the things on the conveyor belt at the checkout (he needs a little help with this one), and push the cart back by himself. If there's room on the bus, I'll take him out of the stroller and let him sit in the seat next to me and look out the window.  If he's finished his apple slices, he gets to put his plate in the sink. This is how we behave.  This is what I have to do.  

Like I said, I have no idea if this is even remotely true.  It is what I do because, frankly, I don't have the money to buy him new toys every month, or bribe him for good behavior.  It is what I do because I do believe in instilling good habits early on, as much as possible.  It is what I do because it works to keep him happy and me sane, and at the end of the day, well, does anything else really matter?   

But I would be lying if I didn't admit to feeling just a tad bit smug if we're calmly walking past a bigger kid who's clearly driving his parents crazy.  I'm a good parent, but I'm no saint.  

Monday, July 21, 2014

Just a Little Hair

One of the things you may or may not notice when you first come to the Netherlands is how many barbershops and salons there are.  Most of these are mom-and-pop type places, one person owning a space with maybe two or three chairs, and offering a limited range of services.  Franchised hair cutters (Brain Wash) are a sight I've only ever seen in the city center.  I'm not knocking on you if you haven't noticed--they can be hard to spot and they can be in some pretty obscure places that you might not think to look.  Within a 1 km radius of our humble domicile I count five or six of these little places.  That's a lot of hair cutters.

Which is surprising, if you think about it--after all, being zuinig means cutting your own hair, doesn't it?  And with the plethora of how-to's online, it doesn't seem like it would be that hard. But apparently enough people lack enough faith in their own ability to handle a pair of scissors around their head that places like these, if not exactly flourish, make a decent amount of money from it.

And maybe it's just me, but it really isn't all that difficult to cut hair.  You just sort of shape it into the form that you want--Kidlet is now sporting a darling shag cut (well, I call it that--it's got layers), while my husband gets his head buzzed every six to eight weeks.  I don't know why it is, but for all the money Karel has spent at the barber's over the course of his life, he never manages to look any better than when I take a few snips at his head.  I cut Kidlet's hair in little snips, with Kidlet oblivious on Karel's lap playing with our iPad.  I even cut my own hair, using the 5-minute method shown below and then shortening the back to the length that I want.

It's just a little hair, after all.  It grows back.  

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Walk Away

I've only rarely needed to discipline Kidlet in public.  If he's screechy, it's usually because he's hungry/tired and simply incapable of being good any more, so discipline under these circumstances doesn't help and moreover, doesn't work.  But if we're out and about during his "golden hours" then he's a perfect little boy, who stays close to me and walks on the sidewalk, waving to strangers who remark upon how cute he is.

I don't really have any tricks up my sleeve for raising a well-behaved kidlet, other than "pray that your genes mix well and you've got a calm and quiet baby".   He's good because we expect him to be good, we expect him to be good because he is.  It's a positive-reinforcement circle that works in everybody's favor, and I'm under no delusions of having mad parenting skillz, beyond having the patience to systematically try things out and see what works.

And one of the things I've found to work surprisingly well:  I dare to walk away.

If Kidlet is playing with a toy in the store, I'll let him, provided that he's not breaking anything.  If he wants to have it, the looks are usually enough to tell me so.  But as we're usually broke, I tell him, "No, we're not going to buy that. Put it back."  And, after a minute or two, if it's clear that he really wants it, then I start walking away.

He may not set it back right away.  But I've never had him run after me with a stuffed animal (or packet of tortillas, or a handful of string beans) yet.  Walking away gives him the opportunity to end his interaction with the thing, whatever it is, on his own terms, rather than having me end them.  He knows what I mean when I say, "No" and "Put it back".  He knows what he's supposed to do.  He knows that if he doesn't there will be consequences.  So I let him exercise his own judgment in these matters.

They say that kids his age don't think logically, and that may be true.  It is equally probable that he sees me walking away and freaks out (though as I've said, I allow him to wander quite far if I am watching him).  I like to think that he understands my walking away as a sign that there will be no discussion on this matter, but only time and a psychologist will tell.

Monday, July 7, 2014

"To Dream the Impossible Dream"

I was going to start this by writing, "I do a lot of baking" but the truth is, I don't actually bake that much.  I make, on average, a batch of cookies a month, sometimes a cake, occasionally some bread, and pizza about twice a month (to use up leftovers).  So maybe I do more baking than most, but it's hardly an everyday, or even a weekly, thing.

But as a baker, however irregular, I am obssessed with the pursuit of lighter and fluffier.  My muffins, regardless of how tasty they are, are always more compact than I would have them; the bread is always great but never good enough for my inner Julia Child.  Things can always be lighter and fluffier.  And yeah, you can cheat by using potato flour, but besides being almost impossible to find in the Netherlands (outside of specialty shops that cater to the gluten-avoidant), cheating would imply that your skills as a baker aren't up to snuff.

I have, however, recently stumbled upon the One Weird Trick that gets my baked goods at least most of the way there, most of the time:  cutting my regular flour with patentbloem, using a 50:50 mix.  I usually just buy a 1 kg bag of both kinds of flour, pour them into the canister, and give it a good shake, and use that mix for just about everything I make.  It works great for bread and quick-breads, cakes and cookies, as it doesn't clump as much and is therefore easier to incorporate into a batter.  The bread dough feels softer, the cake batter is smoother.  And everything comes out just that much closer to what a professional would turn out.

The patentbloem, as far as I can tell, is a "soft" flour--if you're used to making bread with regular flour, you can feel the difference--meaning that it has less gluten and is therefore more prone to overkneading if you're using a machine.  But it is precisely the decrease in gluten that gives the stuff made with it the fluffy airieness of the pros.

So take from this what you will.  It makes baking at home a tad bit more expensive, but I think it's well worth the cost.  

Thursday, July 3, 2014

So we bought a leash for our kid...

Ever since Kidlet started walking, life has gotten easier and easier for me.  Where I once carried him up and down the stairs to our apartment--with a full bag of groceries, no less--I now merely assist him as he studiously takes on the stairs.  Where he once gazed blankly at me when I asked him to put the clothespins away, now the light of comprehension goes on in his eyes and he looks around for a clothespin and puts it into the bag.  Granted, he's 19 months--so it'll be a while before he'll be able to manage more than 3 or 4 minutes of this at a time--but I'm getting the impression that 90% of good parenting is making a habit out of as many things as you can, so that later, when he's an impossible little sh*t, he'll at least be an impossible little sh*t who picks up after himself.

But for now, he's a good kidlet, he really is. Going across the street to the C1000 is a normal thing for him these days.  He knows to stay on the sidewalk and not wander into the bike path.  He knows that when we get to the zebrapad he needs to hold my hand until we're on the other side--coming and going.  He knows that Mommy gets a shopping cart, and that he gets to ride in it, although sometimes he chooses not to and merely--without being told--holds onto the cart and walks next to it while I get the groceries.   If he wanders off, calling him is usually all I need to do to get him to come to me.

In other words, he's not the kind of kid that runs about screaming and making life hell for everybody in a 3-mile radius. So you might be wondering why, then, did I get him a leash?

Not for trips to the C1000, of course.  But one of his favorite things to do is to hold onto the back of the stroller and push it while I steer from above, which serves the double purpose of tiring him out so that he naps for two hours every day.  And something that's been happening a bit more frequently than I'd like to admit is that he'll let go of the stroller to pick a flower or something, and I won't notice because I'm scanning the sidewalk ahead of us for other people and dog poop.  He's surprisingly good at slipping away unnoticed, even when it's just the two of us--and sometimes I'll turn around and he'll be four or five steps behind me.  I'm not a paranoid parent--I'll let him wander quite far away from me if I'm watching him, but you can understand why Kidlet suddenly materializing a good 10 feet from where I thought he was can be a little disturbing, especially if we're in the city center and the demarcation between the pedestrian walkway and the "road" for the buses can be a little vague.

The ladybug is a little backpack, just right for storing a packet of baby biscuits and the leash.  It seems a little small for him, but he has yet to voice any discomfort and he seems to love the attention he gets from it.  A lot of elderly people stopped us when we were in town the other day, some of them laughing at the sight of a kid on a leash, others reminiscing of the time they were little and their mothers put them on leashes.  It does exactly what it purports to do--let you keep tabs on your kid without having to hold onto him every minute, which is exactly what I wanted when we bought a leash for our kid.  

Friday, June 13, 2014

Do as I say...

Dutch culture, according to the inburgeringscursus, frowns upon the spontaneous.  There is no such thing as friends coming over and the evening metamorphasizing into one of those chillaxing, beer-drinking-while-discussing-existential-angst-problems, evenings, where people just drop in and put their feet up and toss a bag of chips at the buffet table.  One does not, while walking down the street, suddenly get the urge to visit a friend whose apartment/house is coming up.  No, one must schedule visits--a week in advance is the minimum for politeness, better still is two weeks, and if you can do a month ahead of time you are pronounced nette by all and your "Honorary Dutch Person" card gets another stamp.

It's bullshit.  Really.  Oh, by all means, keep making appointments well in advance with your in-laws--no point in getting them riled up about this--but at this point in our party preparations I'm pretty sure the inburgerings people are just yanking the expats' chains for kicks.  

Karel's yearly birthday party has always been a good bash, to hear him tell it.  Back when he lived in his dinky one-bedroom in Groningen, he'd spend three days cooking up enough food to feed a small army, because on his birthday, a small army would show up, spread themselves out on any seating available, and remain ensconced there until it was dark enough to hide any minute traces of inebriation on the walk home.  But then he moved to Nijmegen, and since then his parties have been, for the most part, significantly smaller.  Usually only five or six people are free to make the epic drive across the country--it sounds so dramatic, even if it is only 2 hours--so while the party is gezellig, it's hardly the madhouse it used to be.

The day before yesterday, we had 12 people on our guest list.  Today, we have 25.  The party is tomorrow.

It was like this for our wedding, too.  The day before our wedding, we knew there would be 50 people coming to the main event, but nobody had RSVP'd for the afterparty.  We guessed that maybe Karel's dad would stay for a toast, and one or two other people.  We had what we thought was an exorbitant amount of food.  And then 30 people showed up. 

So while the establishment may frown upon such displays of spontaneity, and while you should always check the "1 week" box when asked how early you should make appointments, just know that what's preached isn't always what's practiced.  

Saturday, April 26, 2014


For the first time in at least fifty years, the celebration of the Dutch royal house is pronounceable:  Koningsdag.  This is because last year, Queen Beatrix abdicated her throne in favor of her son, King Willem.  Luckily for everybody, King Willem's birthday (26 April) falls close enough to the original Koninginnedag (30 April), so the celebration can continue the way they've always gone, in all the DJ-blasting-orange-wearing-massive-crowd-party glory.

Oh, and the giant yard sale.

Just to make it all the more confusing, the original Koninginnedag was on Queen Julianna's birthday, and not Queen Beatrix's.  Queen Beatrix's birthday falls in January--not exactly party-weather here in the Netherlands.  When Willem took it over, his first act as ruler of the Kingdom of the Netherlands was to decree that Koningsdag would be on his birthday.  Given that there is only a difference of four days, this was either spectacularly lame, or egotistically brilliant.

But regardless of your opinion about his decision, the celebration remains the same:  1 million people will descend upon Amsterdam, wheere several pleinen are set up with massive stages for world-acclaimed DJs.  Much beer will be drunk; many people, too.  You will wear orange.  The King and Queen and their entourage descend upon one flyspeck town or other, wave and smile and shake hands with local dignitaries and pose for pictures with babies. (Getting hit by a car is not part of the celebration.)  And, if you have stuff you want to get rid of, you take it to the local park, set it out on a blanket, and sell it.  The celebration of the royal house by any other name, etc.

In Nijmegen, the crowd turns out at the Goffertpark, which is the largest open expanse of grass in the city.  I must confess that, until last year, I had no idea about this.  The years before I got pregnant, I was working and too glad just to have a day off; the year I was pregnant I was exhausted with first-trimester hormones, so it wasn't until last year, when we (kidlet and I) needed some fresh air and noticed everybody heading to the Goffertpark and followed them.

The primary reason I go to these sorts of things is because they're a great place to get kidlet's stuff.  I picked up 4 pairs of kidlet pants and 3 long-sleeved t-shirts for €5 (some his current size, others a size or two ahead).  Wooden toys, pricey even at secondhand shops, are sold for €1-2, or even less, depending on how desperate the seller is to unload his junk.  And, let's be clear--it is junk.  You're not going to find any hidden treasures here.  Real antiques (as opposed to collectable kitsch) are already being sold by antique dealers, and while you might luck out with a pair of genuine leather shoes or a stylish jacket, chances are you'll get exactly what you pay for.  There is a point at which the frustration of walking at a snail's pace while the person ahead of you oohs and aahs at every single piece of crap being sold cancels out the thrill of the hunt, though.  At that point, you find a gap in the blankets and cut through the rest of the park, secure in the knowledge that next year, there will be another one.

Nevertheless, it's fun, and in between the massive hordes of crap are cheery carnival rides and cotton candy vendors and the kibbeling kramen.  Kidlet woke up early this morning, so I was able to squeeze in a load of laundry and buy us a bottle of fresh-squeezed juice before we trotted off to the Goffertpark.  We had a nice picnic lunch once I was able to launch us over some sellers and into the empty green space, and shortly thereafter we found a nice little wooden toy toolbox for kidlet to play with, which he loved immensely and was content to sit in his stroller and play with for the next 45 minutes, while we wound our way back to the park entrance.  (Ordinarily, it takes me 5-10 minutes to walk the distance, so I'm not kidding when I say "snail's pace".)