Saturday, August 29, 2015

Camping with a toddler

We are two adults with a two-almost-three-year-old toddler.  Camping is therefore even more of an adventure than it might otherwise be, especially if you factor in a three-hour drive and the fact that toddlers are, generally speaking, insane and suicidal. Or so you might think.

I tend to think that we parents somehow manage to convey our preconceived notions about what our kids are like to our kids:  that if we believe that they are in their "terrible-twos" then the kids will oblige us by being terrible.  Karel and I joke that kidlet is fast approaching becoming a "threenager", but the reality is that I don't think he's going to be a problem when he's 3. Now, it's also true that we have a very good kidlet in general, which tends to inform our expectations.

So a three-hour car trip was something that we expected him to handle well.  He's gone with us to Groningen several times and that trip is a little more than two hours, so three-hours wasn't that mch of a stretch. It helps to have the one toddler who is content to look out the window and enjoy the view, who doesn't need snacks constantly (although if it has been a while since his last meal I'm not opposed to giving him a biscuit), and who can tolerate a three-hour drive without whining or screaming or crying or being so traumatized that getting him into the carseat is a struggle.  I don't pretend that this personality fluke is due to anything we've done.  It's just how things are.

Keeping kidlet amused at the campsite was also simple:  just let him run around.  He'd find rocks to throw into the river and sticks to thwack against the trees without any help.  We were at least a hundred yards from our nearest camp-neighbors, so he had room a-plenty to run around and just delight in being a kid.  It was when the weather got rainy that things took an unexpected turn:  I'd packed some of his favorite trucks and cars in case we were tent-bound, but he surprised me by preferring to read his books instead. When we went camping on the Waal, we remembered to bring his little loopfiets, and he could easily spend hours riding that thing.

Kidlets don't really need a lot to amuse them:  When we went walking, the promise of blackberries straight off the vine was enough to get him started; the idea of "taking over" a castle was enough to get him to finish the entirely-uphill trip to the castle.  Just wading in the stream, splashing and getting his toes nibbled at by the fishes, was enough to keep him amused for over an hour--and even when we got home he was still asking to go into the water.

I'll confess, even I sometimes get guilted into feeling that we could be doing more for kidlet--whether it's more educational activities or taking him to spend more time at the playground or such.  I do sometimes wonder if we're providing him with enough stimulation, if watching and re-watching "The Gruffalo" is really enough for him.  But then again, I'm glad that he still gets so much pleasure out of sticks and stones and seeing fish in a stream and giant snails on the ground and watching trucks rumble by on the bridge. To my mind, this is the real disadvantage of our digital age:  that the simple pleasure of smacking a stick into a puddle and enjoying the splash is no longer enough for kids, that everything has some kind of end-goal to work towards, rather than just enjoying the blackberry or finding (yet another) rock to toss.  

Friday, August 28, 2015


You might think that one Dutch camping would be enough to turn me off of the experience in its entirety.  After all, Dutch campgrounds are usually packed bumper-to-bumper with caravans; open fires are prohibited, and you're expected to squeegee your own shower when you've finished.  All of which is another way of saying that Dutch camping is very much like ordinary Dutch living except distilled to its noisy, nosy, essence, with an extra side of heat and sweatiness and all the misery that comes from them, added on.  

However, I do like camping, especially if it's in a tent, and since Karel is the one doing most of the puttering, I'm more than happy to tag along and do the work of picking out dates and making reservations (and, it turns out, coming up with the cash) for a camping experience not to be forgotten.  As you may have divined from the title of this post, that was in Luxembourg, this time.  Believe it or not, as small as it is, there are still regions to the country, and the one we ended up in was called Vianden.  Or Vijanden, if your map is Dutch.

Regardless, it's a lovely region, being part of the Ardennes.  I'm not sure if the region has very tall hills or very small mountains, but the end result is the same:  spectacular views and, if you're going in the off season, you get essentially an entire campground to yourself.  We were able to arrange for a place on the water--just visible in this picture--which was a small, fast-moving little creek that had fishes of all sorts in it, and little dams that the water could rush over, which is a better lullaby than you might think.  We never had any problems getting kidlet to sleep, even on the last night, when we were packing our things back into the car.  

That might be because there was tons of stuff to do, especially if you're a two-year-old boy whose favorite things are sticks and rocks.  Kidlet must have spent hours finding rocks, running as close to the stream as he could without making us die from terror, and then flinging them into the stream.  It actually rained for a fair amount of our time there:  We got there on Monday afternoon and no sooner had we set up the campsite than it started pouring cats and dogs.  Tuesday morning was a bit rainy, but it cleared up in the afternoon and kidlet got introduced to the pleasures of blackberries straight off the vine, and kicking back in the stream with Daddy.  The stream was clean and clear--not safe to drink from, of course, but okay to swim in, and so Karel and kidlet went for a little wade in it on Wednesday, when it was hot and sunny and bright, after we got back from walking to the castle.

Because yes, we did walk.  Kidlet walked, Karel walked, I walked, the entire two miles uphill to the Vianden Castle.  We went there, paid admission, and walked around--it's a nice castle, and they've done a decent job restoring it--had lunch, and then Karel carried kidlet back down most of the way.  But it just goes to show that kids are tougher than they might seem, and as a two-year-old, kidlet is plenty tough.  

Some notes about the Continental experience:  It's weird holding a conversation in two different languages (Dutch and German, in this case).  You can kind of understand what the other one is saying, but you're always kind of hoping that other person will get the idea and switch to a language you both know.  Alas for me, my French is limited to bonjour and merci and my German is even less.  Just to confuse the bejesus out of you, too:  if you have your phone's GPS set to English, while your SatNav is set to Dutch, while the road signs are in French, just getting to wherever you need to be can be a challenge-and-a-half.

Also, I've been spoiled by Dutch prices:  I will never again complain about produce prices in the Netherlands, not after having seen what the Cactus (one of the major supermarkets) charges for food, in general.  On the flip side, though, gas is super-cheap, with diesel coming in at just under 1 euro per liter, which is probably still obscene by American standards but ridiculously cheap by Dutch ones.

We did not, however, get to enjoy a meal in a restaurant, so I can't say anything about what a real Luxembourg-ish meal is.  Part of this was that Karel is in love with the barbecue, lighting a fire, and all that, and so every evening it was "stuff roasted on a fire".  Part of this was that most of the restaurants we passed served the same stuff as every Dutch restaurant does, except with French names.  A krokette is a croquette is meat-and-batter-shaped-into-a-stick-and-deep-fried, no matter what language it's in, and suffice it to say that neither of us are fans of it.  Part of it was also that I didn't realize that 5 euros to do a load of laundry was just for washing alone, so all of our clean clothes were gone by Wednesday, and drying until Thursday.

Cultural stuff will have to wait until kidlet is a little older, but suffice it to say that Luxembourg is a ton of fun even without any intellectual pretenses.  And, to be fair, sometimes picking out the tasty blackberries is plenty intellectual enough.

Saturday, August 15, 2015


One of the things that's been coming as a constant surprise to me as a parent in the Netherlands is how many things I end up paying for.  It's not just the occasional branded hagelslag (Minions) or the Lightning McQueen juice, which I admit I do sometimes shell out for (mostly not, though).  And it's not the extra trips to the toilets or the snacks that I still sometimes bring when we're out for a longer day.

No, the things that end up costing me a disconcerting amount of money are memberships.  Some of these are unquestionably worthwhile:  the library (€60 per year) and of course there's my train pass  (€65 per year).  I am considering taking kidlet for swimming lessons (€87 for 10 lessons), though the fact that he is still terrified of water means that I'll probably wait another year.  There are the wonderful-but-questionably-valued ones, like a membership to the Burger's Zoo in Arnhem, which is really wonderful but a bit of a pain to get to even if there is no whining two-year-old being dragged along in your wake.

Then there are the memberships to the playgrounds:  De Brakkefort and de Leemkuil are outdoor places that are only open for four months of the year, so memberships to those places are relatively cheap (€15 per year, but it is per person instead of per family and after kidlet turns 3 that means I'll need to get 2 if I want to take him, 3 if I want to include my husband).  Then again, they are tons of fun, especially de Leemkuil, which has jungle gyms and incredible wooden climbing things that take kids to dizzying heights.  And for the stormy, rainy days, there is the Pret Inn (€96 per year) an indoor jungle-gym bonanza full of random ball pits, things to climb into and out of and over, and the giant circus-tent like thing which every kid could spend hours scampering up and sliding down.

Now, you might be wondering why I would spend perfectly good money to take kidlet to playgrounds when there perfectly good free ones all over Nijmegen.  Well, first of all, the paid playgrounds are much, much better.  It's not so much the newer equipment (though that is a perk) as the fact that they are much better-maintained, and the weeds are limited and things aren't visibly rusty.  There're always other children around to join in a game of tag (or whatever the toddler equivalent is), the spaces are comfortably shaded from the full sun, and you never have to worry that your kid is going to step in a dog turd that some inconsiderate asshole left behind.  (Seriously, what is up with the Dutch not picking up after their dogs?!) The last alone makes paying for a playground membership worthwhile, IMHO.

But yeah, in a nutshell this means that I could easily be spending almost €400 a year just to take kidlet to places.  And while it's a bit of a drag for me, I could afford it--it would mean working more and being extra-careful with the groceries, but there's no reason why I can't swing a membership to a place if I really wanted to--I can't help but think that there are a lot of families for whom this is an insurmountable financial obstacle.  And while being able to play in an awesome playground, rain or shine, is not strictly necessary for having a well-rounded childhood, being able to tire out your kid so that they leave you alone long enough to bang out a blog post (or make dinner, or watch your favorite TV show) unquestionably goes a longer way to improving the parent-child dynamic than many people realize.

The ability to give kidlet experiences is one of the reasons I continue to freelance, even though we could hack it without the extra money.  But it's made me acutely aware of how early stratifying along class lines happens, and makes me wonder, even as we have ourselves a wonderful time in these places, whether that's a good thing.  

Sunday, August 2, 2015

So writing....

I thought it might be fun to do a little post on how I write, and the process, since I write so much fiction I can practically do it in my sleep.  At any given time I usually have at least two clients I'm working on stuff for, and if I had my way there would be three.  This means that, in any given week, my word count usually approaches, if not exceeds, 20,000 words.  And given how many plots I need to keep track of and how many words I need to write for each story, the process needs to be as streamlined as possible.

The process begins with old-fashioned pen and paper.  Once I get the go-ahead, I write down the points the client requires ("He has to fall in love with his sister before they realize that they're related", etc) and sketch out a rough outline of all the things I need to do to make them happen.  I also write out character names, although I don't always stick to them.  The main thing is to make sure I have enough plot points to meet the word count requirements.  There is some fudge-factor, but too much filler becomes too obvious and it's definitely not appreciated.

The outline gets refined in Scrivener's Corkboard, which is on the right side in this screenshot. Part of what makes Scrivener so wonderful is that you can have multiple windows open that show whatever you want in your Binder (on the left side), which is where I divide the story into different sub-documents.  Each sub-document can be viewed in different ways; the actual document (which is the middle) or the Corkboard view, which contains the summaries and maybe a key detail or two.  Especially handy sometimes in cases of writer's block is the word count target, which turns from red (empty) to green (full) if you need to get your words in.  There is also an extremely handy Research folder, which allows you to copy-paste links and documents that you might find handy if the story you're writing has to do with, say, a certain period in history, you can just copy-paste stuff into that folder.  Once the different parts of the story are written, Scrivener compiles everything into one document that's compatible with various word processors (It does not compile the Research folder).

And lastly, there is the word count log, which I'm actually pretty terrible about meeting.  I use my agenda to figure out how many words are due for which client and when.  Usually it averages out to about 2000 words a night, but sometimes it's 3000 and, if I've been terrible about making my previous word count targets, up to 5000, which is not fun and only possible because most of my clients are in the US and therefore there's at least a 6-hour time zone difference that I can use to my advantage.

I actually enjoy doing this and most months end up turning a good deal of profit.  It's not literary in any sense of the word, but it isn't difficult to do and for me, it's easy to turn out reasonably good stories without much fuss.  But a huge part of why it's so easy is having the right tools, and figuring out a way that works FOR YOU.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Accomplishments and confessions

This year, as I did for most years, started with a planner and the best of intentions to:  map out my week, keep track of what I was doing, and make sure I was on top of all my deadlines.  But something happened along the way...and I've actually stuck with it for the entire year so far, and I doubt I'm going to stop, because it's actually been really useful to keep track of freelancing  assignments that have a tendency to overlap one another and bunch up.

(Also--Scrivener rules and if you're a serious writer you should just shell out $40 because it's just that awesome and incredibly powerful.  I've been finding that the "word count target" feature is really useful when writing fiction.)

It's a simple, cheap planner (read:  the only one I could afford as of last year) but it does the trick:  the vertical week layout is nice, and my handwriting isn't that big, so even though the columns are only about an inch wide it's pretty okay in terms of the amount of space I have to work with.  I have an addiction to Moleskine products, as I've mentioned before, and since they sell vertical planners, I'd already set aside some money for buying their planner for 2016 next year and that would have been the end of that.  


I clicked on a video on decorating planners on YouTube, and have become entirely obsessed with the idea of purchasing an Erin Condren planner.  It is, as far as I can tell, the Cadillac planner of people who decorate their planners--with washi tape, fancy Post-It notes, stickers, arrays of markers and stamps.   And this from someone who has, to date, owned exactly two rolls of washi tape.  I don't quite know what it is about watching people decorate their planners that is so hypnotic.  I do know that I've already put in an order for two different sets of fancy sticky notes (from Japan) with the idea of making a 2016 planner totally glam-worthy.  (My personal style tends to be more understated, actually, and it's hard not to feel a little ridiculous about all the stickers and stuff when your main writing implement is a Parker fountain pen).

The main thing is the vertical weekly layout over two pages.  I've been trying to find another planner (yeah, I know it's early) that has this feature and I've been coming up short.  Yeah, there's the Moleskine Dashboard  and that's probably what I'll end up ordering, but, well, it's black.  The pages are pedestrian--boring, even.  At the very least, they could have a bit of color, right?  But that's not Moleskine's style, and frankly, it's not really mine, either.  I mean, I do use sticky notes in my planner and I do have a set of markers that I use to highlight things and block out days, but the kind of insanity that prompts people to spend that much time planning out their weeks is a little much, even for me.  

And at the end of the day, well, it's a planner.  It doesn't really matter how pretty it looks if you never get done what you planned.  On the level that matters, I realize this, just as I realize that spending $70 (the actual planner is "only" $50, but international shipping is an extra $20) on a planner borders on the insane and ridiculous.  But still, there's a part of me that wants to try...

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Squeeze: Camping trip

Against all odds, we somehow managed to squeeze in a camping trip this past weekend.  Somehow my freelancing assignments all ended right before (and picked up again right afterwards) so the entire weekend could be completely devoted to:  flying kites with kidlet, reading and finishing a book, babysittig kidlet while he zooomed around on his loopfiets, letting Karel do all of the camping stuff (I figure that, if he wanted my help, he's a man and can ask for it), and eating too much barbecue.

Camping is the national Dutch pastime--like baseball in the US, but far more interesting.  For starters, it's a very regimented process, almost like booking a hotel:  you go online and tell people what you're bringing (tent or trailer) and how long you're staying.  There is no (or very little) random driving around the country and staking out a tent wherever looks good--mostly because pastures have been fenced off, the woodlands are engineered to be utterly inhospitable to this sort of impromptu overnighting, and the campgrounds are always, always, PACKED.  (At least on the weekends)

One of the nicknames the Dutch have acquired is the rather unflattering "snails"--as a reference to the very Dutch habit of packing a trailer (Brits: caravan) with all the comforts of home--especially the Douwe Egberts Rode koffie--and clogging up the highways in some other country, and in NL for the less adventurous.  The Germans retaliate by taking over the beaches around Scheveningen and Leiden.  Campgrounds typically have shower, bathroom, and laundry facilities; you can rent a bike for lekker fietsen and seeing the sights; the one we went to had a pool and playground and a riverside beach, along with boat rentals from a nearby company.  Some of them offer free Wi-Fi.  So really, all you really need is a tent and a sleeping bag and some coffee.

Our tent was not a sheet tossed over some lawn chairs, happily  That was kidlet's little play space that I'd set up to keep him out of the sun while the tent was still being set up.  Karel had acquired an uber-delux tent that allowed us to fit a full-sized air mattress and still have plenty of room to store all of our things in.  One handy feature was that you could detach the floor from the roof, which was a good thing to do with the weather being as hot as it was.  At night, we put the walls back down.  It was not the kind of TARDIS-like contraption that starts out the size of a pencil case and ends up being a comfy suite when unfolded--the tent is heavy, made of canvas and heavy-duty plastic, and requires no less than 24 spikes in the ground to set up. But it is nice; and with the bed, it wasn't all that different from sleeping at home, which is probably the only reason why kidlet slept at all the entire time we were there.

The one thing about camping that I really appreciated, from a practical point of view, was that there was zero pressure to dress kidlet.  I mean, yeah--if we'd left the campground I would've put him in his shorts, but as long as you're on the campground, clothing is "nearly optional":  people of all ages and physiques walk around wearing whatever they want, and on a day that's 34 C (that's 95 F) in the shade, that translates into a whole lotta bathing suits, even if the only moisture on your skin is sweat.  Kidlet spent a lot of time running around in his underwear--and he was still more-dressed than a lot of the kids we saw.  I myself went three days without shoes--tan lines around my feet and ankles have always bugged the living daylights out of me.

The campground we went to was situated on the Waal, so we almost had a riverside view; were it not for the row of caravans that remained steadfastly parked in front of our tent. Kidlet, being a transportation fanatic, still thought it was the best thing in the whole world--waking up in the morning and seeing a boat go steaming by.  By and large, it was a relaxing two days, not worrying about clients or deadlines and just being able to sit back and watch kidlet enjoy himself running around without shoes.

My inbox, when I came back, though...

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Honor amongst bike thieves?

It goes without saying that if you live in the Netherlands, your bike will be stolen at some point.  It doesn't matter how many locks you have on it, how vigilant you are about storing it at a bewaakte (guarded) bike lot or keeping it inside.  At some point, your bike will be stolen.   You may as well resign yourself to the fate now, and save up for the expense of getting another one now.

Bike thievery is rampant here:  A few years ago the Telegraaf claimed that there were 450,000 bikes stolen, but bike theft is only reported if you have a bike worth more than a couple hundred euros.  A few hundred?  Well, yeah--a good secondhand bike that doesn't sound like a dying cat and actually stops will cost ya at least 150 euros,if not more.   And since most bikes here are second- or third- (or more) -hand, they're rarely insured, even if they are pricey, and if they're not insured, then the theft doesn't get reported, because let's face it, the odds of ever seeing the bike again are between zero and zilch.

And it doesn't matter if you've got the latest, shiniest new bike on the street or a clunker--if the pedals work and you leave it unlocked, don't expect to come back and find it where you left it.  This is especially the case in cities like Nijmegen, which can be really strict about bike parking--your bike must be in a rack, otherwise it'll be held hostage, er, impounded.  They'll look askance if you're next to a rack on a marktdag, but leaving it next to a store while you pop in will attract someone's notice.  The procedure for ticketing an illegally parked bike is to first slap a sticker on it.  If, 15 minutes later, the bike is still there, it gets dragged off.  Unlike most ransoms, though, the fee to release your bike is relatively modest (30 euros).

But there is one class of bike that seems to be oddly immune to bike thieves:  kids' bikes.  Up to a certain size, you'll see them leaning against the wall of the supermarket, with nary a lock or a watcher in sight.  I don't know of it's just because they're practically useless to anybody bigger than a toddler, or if there really is a sense of righteousness amongst would-be thieves.  But I'm still nervous about leaving kidlet's loopfiets in the foyer of the Albert Heijn.  Maybe I'm just overly paranoid.