Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Year as Mommy

It goes without saying that parenthood is a challenging and life-changing thing.  Everything you thought you knew about parenting goes out the window--or so it might have for us, had the kidlet been a more difficult one.  As it turned out, he really was the easiest baby ever--sleeping well from the first, no colic, bubbly and sunny and happy to play and loving his food.  I may have gotten some stink-eyes from the consultatiebureau (child care office) when he ended up above the 99th percentile for weight at 4 months (yeah, he was a fat little guy), but since then he's started to elongate and now he's smack on the 50th percentile for everything.  So I don't know that I actually learned anything about myself, other than the fact that changing a baby at 3 am really isn't that big a deal so long as he's got his lovey.

The consultatiebureau--or, as I write it on the calenders, consternatiebureau--is a health care office whose sole purpose is to make sure your kid is growing up...and growing Dutch.  They were the ones who suggested that I feed the kidlet boterham for lunch (a slice of bread, usually spread with something).  They are the ones in charge of sticking the kidlet with needles; they are the ones doing the well-baby checkups so that doctors don't have to spend their time looking at perfectly healthy babies.  (If your baby should fall sick, then you take him to your huisarts, and he'll refer you to a pediatrician.)  Despite our name for it, the only part of the visit that causes any consternation is the trip there--it's incredibly inconvenient by public transit, and at least 40 minutes on foot.  I would, of course, ask Karel to drive me, but the appointments, which must be made at least 3 months in advance, never coincide with his days off.

Besides discovering my deep, downright hatred for sanctimommies and the like, this year has taught me that the day is longer than you think it is--I have never gotten more done in one year (ghostwriting four admittedly-crappy books, growing the business, sticking my toe into translations, joining and sticking with a gym) than this one.  This year has taught me what I am really in control of--more and less than what I think:  I am in control of more of my life than I thought, and less of the kidlet than I want.  This year has taught me that being married doesn't make diaper changing any less stinky, nor my husband any more committed than he already was.

I'm bracing for a lot of hijinks and frustration this coming year, as our little guy becomes his own person--who demands to be read the same book 7 times in a row--and starts pushing the limits.  So far, he's a good kid who only requires a stern talking-to and maybe one or two extra attempts before he decides something's not worth it. Maybe next year, I'll discover the real limits of my patience. 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Rant (Don't say I didn't warn you)

First of all, merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!  Things got a little strange this year because there was an illness (several, if you count the various stomach bugs that have been going around) and uncooperative work schedules, so Christmas was three days late for us.  You might think, then, that we'd have been able to take advantage of post-Christmas sales, but remember what I said about the Dutch not really doing Christmas?  Yeah...they don't do post-Christmas, either.  As for why no photos...well, first I forgot to bring my camera, and secondly, I was sick for the big present night with a 24-hour bug that completely wiped me out for pretty much all of "Christmas day"--that, and I'd stayed up until 4 am making boxes the night before, but that's another story for another time...

There is one thing I've learned about myself this year:  I fucking hate sanctimommies.  You know what I mean--the smug, hindsight-is-20/20 women (they're men, too, but I find the most offensive ones to be women, if only because I am a woman) who tell you what you should have done three days after the fact, and then counter with their own example of their perfect child in their perfect home and perfect life--because we had it all planned out, they invariably say.  Becuase in their world, lives never go astray from the playbook and things always go according to plan. And in the meantime, the milk is still spilled and they're still not helping you get a rag to wipe it up with.  Like that woman in the V&D, who was tsk-tsking me as I was precariously balancing a tray on top of the kidlet's stroller while trying to pay for the food, when it would have taken her two seconds to get off the chair and offer to help with the tray, or call someone over.  Now, don't get me wrong--I'm not saying that I expected this.  Only that if she was going to tsk-tsk me, she'd have more of a leg to stand on if she had.  They oughta make a rule, though, that if you aren't doing anything to help the situation, you don't have a right to complain about it.  

Seriously:  just think of how many annoying-ass posts about kids, weight loss, being poor, etc. in general that would eliminate. Think of how many people would suddenly have to shut the hell up about poverty as they come to terms with the fact that every poor person they know works harder than they do just to keep food on the table, never mind the lights on.  Think of how many people would suddenly stop whinging about fat people taking up space on the plane when they realize how hard it can be to lose five pounds.  Think of how many "OMG THIS KID WAS BEING SUCH A BRAT" posts you could avoid reading if the only way you could post about it was to help comfort the little brat (and then realize that he his daily schedule got thrown out of whack on this one day because dad got sick and couldn't go to work, etc).

Don't get me wrong--I completely understand venting to your partner about a terrible flight with a screaming kid, and sometimes (like when I see a teen mom giving her baby blue drinks) there's nothing you really can do about a situation.  But I think having this rule would not only teach a lot of sanctimonious jackoffs that a) compassion is a lot harder than sitting through a sermon, b) the life of others isn't under their control, and c) people generally do try.  They might not have the means or the knowledge to do right, but they generally do try, and that, I think, is important to remember.  Most people don't try to be stupid or make bad decisions.  But the fact that they do anyway should really make us (the privileged classes) more aware of just how close we are to "failing", ourselves.  As the Baz Luhrman line goes:  "Don't congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either.  Your choices are 50:50.  So are everyone else's."

Friday, December 20, 2013

Thanksgiving Hazards

Despite having lived here for six years, I had never managed to host a Thanksgiving dinner.  Thanksgiving was never a favorite holiday of mine while I was living in the States--not just the turkey-fest (I was vegetarian before I had our kidlet) but the insane shopping spectacle known as Black Friday kind of wiped out any good will I might have felt for celebrating gratefulness with people that I have complicated relationships with.
But in the Netherlands, it is still possible to be thankful without feeling smug or guilty six hours later, because there is no Black Friday insanity and, the holidays in general are more sedate.  At least they're more sedate in Nijmegen.  Maybe it's crazier in Amsterdam.  But anyway, as I mentioned a few posts ago, the consumerism bug hasn't bitten the Netherlands quite as hard as it has in the United States, despite the marketing.

However, throwing a Thanksgiving in the Netherlands is not without its difficulties.  As the kidlet was born right around Thanksgiving last year, it made sense to celebrate his birthday and Thanksgiving with one dinner party (and my birthday as well, though mine is at the beginning of November).  The first difficulty is the date of the actual holiday:  The fourth Thursday of the month is not a special day to the Dutch (or indeed, to anybody esle in the world).  People tend to have things like "work", or else they've made other plans on that day.  Eventually it was decided to have the Thanksgiving dinner the Sunday before the actual Thanksgiving.

The next difficulty was finding a turkey.  Unlike in the US, turkeys are eaten for Christmas in the Netherlands--at least, I suppose they are, given the onslaught of flyers on the subject (despite having celebrated many Christmases with Karel's family I have never actually eaten turkey on Christmas).  As far as I know only the Albert Heijn carries turkey, but even then you have to pre-order them because apparently they cannot be stored safely in the regular store.  Most expats make do with chicken, and just try to find a really big one.  But we had a secret:  the Kaufland, in Germany.

Prices on many things are substantially lower just across the border, and there are many things that are sold in the Kaufland that are difficult or impossible to find in even the best-stocked tokos, here.  Things like whole rolled oats, seventeen types of Nutella, and enormous whole frozen salmon, whole frozen turkeys, whole frozen geese, and substantially lower prices on diapers are all to be found in the Kaufland.  So we were able to find a turkey, as well as sweetened condensed milk--I didn't even try looking for it in the Netherlands--and one or two other things that we needed.  The kidlet screeched happily from the cart.

The next difficulty lay in cooking.  The actual cooking of Thanksgiving dinner does not involve any fancy tenchniques or gadgetry.  Planning everything out, on the other hand, was more akin to a military undertaking than it was cooking:  I drew up a schedule of the three days--yes, three, because two days before, I needed to make the pie crusts and do the baking--and meticulously wrote out everything I had to do (Stuffing:  separate parts made, Caramel Pie:  assembled but no whipped cream) and everything Karel had to do (Turkey--one thing, but it is the most important).  For three days we baked, tossed, fried, washed, cleaned, cooked, and cooked some more.

The morning of the event, I woke up and realized that we wouldn't have enough plates.  I kicked Karel out of the kitchen (because I still had to make an apple pie) and sent him to the local thrift store to find some plates.  He came back with twelve nice, porcelain plates.  With the fancyware--who knew we had real silver silverware?--it even began to look like a fancy-schmancy dinner.  The apple pie came out all right--the crust was underbaked, but Karel had to start the turkey at noon in order to have it ready by the dinner hour.

The stuffing was tossed one too many times and ended up looking like a gray mush, but despite that everybody loved it and I got several requests for the recipe, which I found odd because I don't like stuffing, in general.  The kidlet feasted on stuffing and string beans--the turkey wasn't ready yet for his dinner.  And just when I thought everything was going well, someone spoke the words that sent spikes of dread straight through my heart:  "This is really great.  When are you doing this again?"

Me:  Again?

Karel:  Well, of course.  It's expected now. Congratulations, honey, you've started a new tradition.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Bummed Out

If your husband--or you, or your cat, or your kid--is anything like mine, there is no other visceral pleasure quite like wiping your bum with a moist towelette.  I enjoy the extra bit of cleanliness, myself.  However, I do not enjoy paying €2 for a packet of this --> every month:

Now, I'll be the first to say that €2 is chump change.  It (usually) won't break the bank.  But it's about more than money.  The suction cup it hangs from (not shown) is great to keep for future crafts, but it's such a shame to toss out the little handy-dandy door-thingy that you can pull the wipes out of.  It's perfectly serviceable once it's empty--you just have to figure out how to refill it.

And that's the evil of Edet:  they want you to keep paying for their bum wipes with the suction cup that lets you hang the package above the toilet paper and the little door that keeps the contents moist.  They know that other companies, like Page, whose bum wipes do not come with these handy little things, are a paltry imitation of the sheer brilliance of their product. The wipes themselves are more or less the same. The price difference is about 25%, and it is entirely about the packaging. Without the little door, the adhesive eventually wears out, and the flap hangs open, letting the moist wipes de-moisten, so that when you reach in for a little shot of bum-cooling wetness, you get something that feels like cardboard instead.

 But what if you could take the contents of a Page packet and put it into an Edet container?  Enter this:

OK, I'll be the first to admit my tastes aren't all that refined when I'm having a chocolate craving.  But more important than the LION is the fact that it has a zip-lock closure.

It's a simple matter to cut off the zip-lock closure, cut a slit into the back of the empty Edet package (you could do it on the front, too, but the whole point of having one of these things is to be one of "those people" who don't have to jury-rig a reusable packet because they're too cheap to pay for a real one), and glue the zip-lock into the hole.  I suppose tape would also work as well, if you don't have a glue gun, but it's hard to find a good decent Scotch tape in the Netherlands.  Not to mention pricey.

And, voila--you have a reusable wet-wipe package.  

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Santa in Black and White

Apparently nobody is safe this year:

This year the UN took Mark Rutte to task over Zwarte Piet.  Then Aisha Harris at Slate fired off a complaint about Santa:  namely, that he's only white.  That, as a black American, she wants the institution of Santa to be more inclusive, but that it would be better off if we ditched Santa altogether and used a penguin, instead.

There's only one problem with that--everybody knows pandas are way cuter than penguins.

The piece was written tongue-in-cheek and I skimmed it at first, and then went on to read Dear Prudie, because honestly, it didn't tell me anything I didn't already know.  But then the Internet exploded--people started screeching that Santa had to be white.  The very people, I would hazard, who get all huffy and say that Zwarte Piet is racist.  Irony much?

Personally, the whole thing amuses me because it reveals how incredibly ignorant some people are when it comes to even treasured icons like St. Nicholas (i.e., Sinterklaas before he became Sinterklaas).  "Santa Claus is white because St. Nicholas is white"--St. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra, near Turkey, and he was most likely dark-skinned. "Santa Claus is white because people who live at the North Pole are white"--actually, if you do a survey of most of the people living in and around the North Pole, you'll probably find that most of them look like Inuits, or Asiatic.  Which is another way of saying, "Not white". "Santa Claus is white because he's always been white." Maybe.  But I can't recall a single Christmas poem or song that explicitly mentions Santa's race.  At most there's a mention of "ruddy cheeks" or something similar, but surely some black people are light enough to have ruddy cheeks, too...?

It also exposes the incredible contradictions that people swallow without stopping to think about them.  Suffice it to say that the people screeching the loudest are the ones who bemoan the commercialism that has taken over Christmas, who want a "return to the true nature of Christmas", celebrating the birth of Christ and all that.  Okay, except that the birth of Christ has NOTHING to do with a fat guy in a red suit delivering presents.  Do they want to commemorate Saint Nicholas?  Fine--that'd be December 6.  Or would they rather do the exchange of presents with the magi?  That's January 6, nativity scenes be damned (the three wise men were late).

As should be obvious, I have no real attachment to Santa Claus.  Indeed, I couldn't care less if he disappeared entirely, surviving only in Christmas carols and our copy of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas". I never believed in him, not even as a child, but when I was little I remember feeling like I had to say something as if I believed, because otherwise the adults would get upset.  Suffice it to say that my tolerance for pandering hasn't gotten much better since then.

So...is Santa racist? If it is racist, it's racist in the way that making Barbie blonde is racist--it's a sin of omission, rather than someone actively adopting a guise.  Better or worse than the Zwarte Piet controversy?  Worse, I think, because it's not Santa that's racist in always being white (as I mentioned above, most Christmas songs don't mention his race altogether)--it's us, who imagine him as being white.  And it sucks to realize that you're not as good a person as you once thought you were.  But the adults amongst us take a moment to reflect, learn from our bruised feelings--that maybe it's possible to have a black Santa every now and then, or maybe a Christmas penguin is the right way to go, after all-- and move on.

Like I said before about ZP--this isn't stuff I think a lot about.  It's a fun frivolous thing for the kids over the holidays.  Period.  I won't shelter the kidlet from the nonsense, but I also won't let him believe that it's anything other than a story, either.  The magic of the season isn't about magical people who leave you presents.  It's about showing the people you love that you love them, and being with them.  

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Changes, they are a-comin'

Maastricht is famous for its citywide Christmas bash.  The city goes all-out for the season, and the open squares are full of stalls selling delicious foods and .  In the Vrijthof, there is typically a Ferris wheel and a skating rink; sales abound in every store; food and drink flow freely, while cars do not.

Sales abound in every store in the rest of the Netherlands, as well, but the country as a whole must content itself with the little neighborhood Christmas market--de kerstmarkt, as it is callled.  The one by our apartment is quite nice--they make little "streets" in the little plaza with the kramen, and there's a stage with singers providing entertainment while people mill around and buy little gewgaws (not all of them Christmas-themed) from the vendors.  Some of the vendors are associated with a charity, so your money will go towards a good cause, in case it makes you feel bad to buy stuff for such a consumerist holiday.  The C1000 sells hot dogs and hamburges, and kids get free popcorn (our kidlet did not partake--it's a choking hazard at his age, and anyway he'd probably have been more interested in dropping them and watching them bounce).  This year, they had a mini-version of swings and a "dragon ride" as well.  It all ends with a raffle, and then it's over.

But this Christmas thingy really only kicked off about 3 years ago, maybe 4.  Prior to that, Christmas was, well, Christmas--you went to church, if you were so inclined.  You stayed home, slept late, had a nice breakfast, prepared to receive visitors for dinner.  For the second day of Christmas (yes, Christmas is two days, here), you went visiting friends.  There might be presents exchanged; there might not be--some people do, some people don't.  If you do, it's great--if you don't, nobody worries that you didn't like them or gossips about you being a stingy bastard (do bring your host a bottle of wine or something similar, though).  As long as the booze is flowing freely and the food is tasty, presents are an afterthought.  Most of what Americans take for granted about Christmas--photos with Santa at the mall, caroling--just doesn't exist here.  Lately I've been seeing more Santa Claus (de kerstman, as he's called), but so far he's never had the requisite 8 reindeer, and in most cases he's not even fat. I don't know if it's out of laziness or vanity, but at least the children won't be getting mixed messages about obesity...

But consumerism is like a virus, and this year was the first time that koopzondagen--the Sundays where stores are allowed to be open, which is typically once a month--got extended to every Sunday of the month.  The Albert Heijn XL is open every Sunday.  The Schoenen Reus has been open every Sunday this month, as well.  And strangely--even though I like taking the kidlet out to see the sights--it makes me a little sad.  It's strange, but not having the option to go to stores and having the sole kidlet-entertainment be the local kinderboerderij (petting zoo) was actually quite relaxing, simply because I didn't have a choice to make.  Now that the stores are open on Sunday, I find myself thinking, "Well, we can go to the kinderboerderij and then stop by..." And I end up spending more of my day out and about and unable to relax.  Not that I relax much with a kidlet, these days.

This year, I am once again making most of the presents that I'll be giving away.  Part of this is that yes, I am a cheap and stingy wench.  Part of this is that it's hard to get out of the apartment with the kidlet for the lengths of time needed to go shopping.  Part of this is that I have most of the materials already.  But most of it is that I'm just not in the mood to buy more stuff--that the option of koopzondagen have removed the urgency to buy.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Eyes Have It

In the Netherlands, the norm of the working man is to bring a lunch, in a reusable container, preferably.  This being the Netherlands, though, the norm is to pack a sandwich in a plastic box and add an apple.  Maybe toss in a packet of Cup Soup if you're feeling fancy.  But in a nutshell, the art of having food look nice is lost here.  You won't see pretty bento-box-like lunches.  On the one hand, I understand, kind of--it's food.  You eat it, and it's gone.  What's the point in making it look nice?  .

I've been packing Karel's lunches ever since I moved here--there've been brief hiatuses, towards the end of my pregnancy, for instance, or when the kidlet and work have left me pulling my hair out with stress.  But by and large, if Karel's working, I cut up some food and put it into a box for him.  Karel's particular brand of laziness means that he won't eat fruits or vegetables unless they are pre-cut into neat bite-sized chunks, with annoying things like cores and seeds removed.  For a while, I've been throwing random bits of chopped produce into old take-out containers and Tupperware-knock-offs, but that came to a spectacular halt, accompanied by much indignant squawking on my part, when he came home empty-handed yet again, and we had no more boxes for him.  Somehow the man has managed to lose no less than six containers.  

In a move that might seem counter-intuitive given his penchant for misplacing boxes, I finally had it and bought a pair of sectioned boxes on the right.  They were expensive, at a bit less than €6 apiece, and the little red container you see inside it came in a separate package of two. I don't mean to be a shill for sistema--but bento boxes are in short supply in Western Europe, and this was as close as I was going to get.  But Karel finally got his ass in gear, and has been bringing home the containers.  Probably because I go through some extra trouble to make it look like this on the inside:
 It's nothing fancy:  On the left side, a kiwi, sliced in half.  A handful of grape tomatoes.  A mini candy Two toothpick kebabs, with sausage and candied ginger.  A mini candy bar.  Cucumber, sliced.  Baby carrots.  On the right side, sandwiches of ham and sandwiches of nutella, cut out with cookie cutters, and a small container of cashews and almonds and dried cranberries and apricots.  But arranged nicely, and it looks like I put some seriously time and effort into it.

I didn't.  The whole thing took me maybe 10 minutes to assemble--less time than normal, even, because I didn't peel the kiwi.  But it looks nice, and because it looks nice, it tastes better.

You might think I'm being facetious, but I'm not. According to Karel, his colleagues are actually a bit jealous of his lunches. There's nothing exotic or fancy about the stuff that goes into it--everything I buy is either on sale, in season, or in bulk from Walid's (besides being an excellent source of chicken, he has an admirable stock of dried and canned goods at a reasonable price).  Presentation matters, though--jumble everything together, and it becomes distinctly less exciting, and the thrill of opening the box and finding out what the lovely contents are is dampened.

And that is the point of making food look nice:  when you're excited to see it, it becomes exciting to eat.  And for Karel, anyway, that means he brings the boxes home, because he wants to see what's next.