Sunday, December 28, 2014

Dangerously Optimistic

I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas/holiday season.  It was a bit hectic around here, because Karel was working on Christmas so we had to reschedule the holiday.  Procrastination bit me in the ass, to put it mildly--I may have been in a slight funk these past couple weeks.  

But now, with the impending start of a new year, I have decided that parenting the kidlet and taking care of business are no longer mutually exclusive.  Kidlet is a good kidlet.  There are no more excuses.   Time to take the bull by its horns, start taking photographs again, writing more blog posts, re-doing another (much smaller) blog (the one about food) and just starting to care again, in general.  

I don't know if I can do it.  But I have cooked venison this year, and did an epic round of baking, while managing to keep the apartment in some semblance of order and kidlet more-or-less happy. Maybe it's that I've finally managed to shake myself of the lethargy of these past few weeks.  But for whatever reason, 2015 is going to be a good year.  

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Oh, so those are poffertjes

If learning the rules of the bike lane is beginner-level expat, and being able to discern which part of the country someone is from by their accent is advanced-level expat, then poffertjes probably fall somewhere in the middle.   Not eating them--anybody who doesn't have a gluten allergy, a milk allergy, an egg allergy, and is capable of willfully ignoring everything you ever learned about butter can eat them.  But making them yourself--that takes a little skill.  Knowing where to find everything you need to make them is something a newbie could do, but the effort expended might not be worthwhile.  But if you've been around the block a few times it shouldn't bee too difficult.  Ignoring everything you ever learned about butter--you're on your own.  

It's worth noting, though, that unless you're a connoisseur of poffertjes, you probably ought to just stick with getting them from the kramen whenever there's a kermis, or else pony up the cash to sit down at a restaurant that specializes in discs of batter fried in butter.  Poffertjes are tasty, but healthy they ain't:  flour, butter, powdered sugar, stroop if that's your thing--everything anybody ever taught you about healthy eating, gone wrong.  Even if you can make them at home, it's probably better for your coronaries if you don't.  

Most of the time, they're sold as little pancakes--adorable little things that soak up the melted butter that they're served with (melted butter and powdered sugar are the traditional toppings) so that you have no visual reference for how much fat is going down your gullet.  But unlike pancakes, traditionally they are leavened by yeast, although if you get a mix from the supermarket it will have chemical leaveners (baking soda and/or baking powder).  You make up a batter following any one of the recipes available (this one is my personal fave); typically the proportion is approximately 1:2 flour:water, BUT that's by weight, and if you're using yeast there's a bit more flour.  Also, the flour is a mixture of buckwheat and reguar wheat flour; I've heard that you can get buckwheat flour at the Albert Heijn, but the only place I've been able to find it is at The Windmill, which sells specialty products for home bakers, so YMMV. 

Now, the website with the recipe uses a cast iron poffertjes pan, which is something we recently acquired as a birthday present.  Cast iron isn't too difficult to work with, actually, once you get some rules down:  season it well, NEVER wash it with dish detergent (I've heard that properly seasoned cast iron can be washed with detergent, and my own cast iron skillet managed to make it through an accident swipe with a soapy sponge unscathed, but seasoning cast iron is sufficiently pain-in-the-ass-ish that I wouldn't risk it unless I had to), don't let it soak, and perhaps most important of all:  use plenty of fat.  In other words, in between every batch of butter-soaked-buckwheat-pancake-y goodness, you need to re-coat your pan with butter.  Doing so will ensure that the puffed side of the poffer is mottled golden-brown, a la the professionals, and that the crust is the right combination  of crispy and tender.  If your cast iron is seasoned well, forgetting the butter isn't the end of the world--the poffertjes will stick a little more, but the biggest difference will be that the outside becomes downright crunchy, which is not ieal.  

Mastering the art of flipping the damn things, though, takes practice.  I am in awe of the people who do this professionally, flipping row after row of these dang things with just a quick flick of their wrist.  There is--as only the Dutch can do--such a thing as a fork specifically used for flipping poffertjes.  Ours is a wooden one--a simple little Y-shaped piece of wood, ever so slightly curved on one side--so that it won't damage Teflon.  Theoretically, it is possible to flip them so that they make a ball--i.e., that the batter thtat used to be on top bellies into the dimple while the cooked side is firm enough to hold its shape while you're cooking the bottom.  I haven't gotten that good at this, yet, but when my husband and Kidlet are both whining for the next batch, aesthetics can be put on hold.  . 

There is a difference between homemade and elsehow-procured poffertjes.  The homemade ones have slightly more bite to them, and (at least when I made them) aren't as salty.  Plus you can fry them to that perfect, rich golden-brown color--you don't have to settle for "done" because you've got sixty more orders.  Worth the hassle?  Absolutely--if someone else is making them.  

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Inheritance

A few weekends ago the weather was gorgeous.  As in, "take everything you ever heard about Dutch weather and shove it"--blue skies, with a temperature that could best be described as "invigorating".  I.e., it was time to wandelen.

Only this time, I was bringing Kidlet.  Not a big deal--we go out literally every morning, sometimes by bike, sometimes on foot, for at least two hours. Sometimes we go to town, sometimes we go to the country, and sometimes we stay in the neighborhood.  I must confess that it's not entirely because I like going places with Kidlet--a good part of it is because, if he's outside our apartment, he's not making a mess inside.  

So it was splendid.  We went out on the Ooijpolder and dodged cow turds and stinging nettles, and somehow ended up on the bank of the Waal, where we stayed for a while and watched the barges motoring up and down the river.  They kicked up enough of a wake that waves broke on the shore, and Kidlet, almost magically, knew how to play wave-tag.

I'm not naive enough to believe that the Ooijpolder will remain unspoiled and wild forever.  Even if the uitwater is maintained as a floodplain, well, floodplains flood.  There was a time a few years ago where the part we were walkng on this past weekend was under at least 1 meter of water.  And if what they say about global warming is true, then kidlet won't have that many more trips to that country ahead of him. I can hope that it will remain this lovely for another few lifetimes, and I do.  But more than  having the land, I want Kidlet to have that sense of adventure, the excitement of turning the corner and not knowing what you're going to find.

At his age, of course, everything is an adventure.  Going to the supermarket?  Why, we might wander down the soup aisle this time!  But I don't want it to get squashed in the rigamarole of daily life.  When he starts going to peuterspeelzaal (pre-preschool) he's going to be told to sit here, stand there, play now, etc--and it won't get any better as he gets older.  And that's the flip side of living here--you don't get kudos for bucking the norm.

So this weekend, when Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Pieten arrive in Nijmegen, I'll let him go (I've got work--though to be completely honest I'm not a Piet fan, either).  When the letter from the consultatiebureau arrives, I'll make an appointment as it tells me to, and he will get his shots, as he's supposed to.  But in the meantime, you can bet that I'll be taking him deep into the heart of every forest we've got, letting him pick up sticks and handle leaves and throw rocks off of bridges and pet horses.  Thinking for yourself, creating your own adventure--that's something few people know how to do these days.  That's something I want him to have when he's grown.  

Saturday, October 11, 2014


Despite my living in the Netherlands for as long as I have, and despite the fact that I do, in fact, know how to ride a bike, until last week it's been over two years since I was last on one.  My little ball-and-chain kidlet goes just about everywhere with me, so if I wanted to go somewhere on a bike I would have to, by necessity, take him with me.  And, well, given my history of interesting falls--one of which landed me in the huisartspost (less-emergent-emergency room) and got me four stitches--that was not going to happen on our clunker, where parts of the frame have rusted clean through and the brakes let out a terrifying screech every time you so much as slow down.

So I shelled out some pretty euros for this pretty sturdy bike (the red version).  It is, I believe, a touring bike--but I didn't really know that when I bought it off of Marktplaats (of course).  It was a nice Gazelle bike, in good working order, so I made a bid (€175, if you must know) and luckily it was accepted before someone else made a higher one.  No, used bikes are not necessarily cheap bikes.  And having ridden my share of clunkers in the past, I've learned that when it comes to a good stable ride with functional derailleurs and working brakes, you  tend to get what you pay for.  And since I wanted a bike with a good smooth ride and working brakes, well, I had to shell out.

I also managed to obtain a kidlet seat--one that sits on the back of the bike--for not too much more, and after a bit of tinkering, I managed to attach the kidlet seat to the bike.  Even so, like I said, given my history of interesting falls, my heart was in my throat when I took him out on the bike for the first time, for the entire 10 minutes it took me to get to the Jan Kooij 2Wielers (keep in mind it's only a five-minute ride) so that I could purchase a helmet for him.  It was a floor model--I personally would have preferred something more classic, but the price difference trumped my sense of aesthetics.   And besides, at his age, well, I can't say it doesn't look ridicuolously cute on him.  With that, and a second bike lock--I am not the only discerning fietser in the country, and it's pretty much a given that, if your bike isn't secured with at least two locks, it's going to get stolen--I was all set. With kidlet properly protected against head trauma, it's still a fairly terrifying experience taking him on the bike, but it's not so bad that I've ever said, "Fuck this," and opted for the bus. Because honestly, being chained to a bus schedule sucks and even though the bike and everything else cost me a small fortune, this week alone has made having them worthwhile.

Kidlet, being half Dutch, took to the bike seat like a duck to water.  He was a little worried at first, but once I started riding the bike he seemed to enjoy himself immensely.  For his initiation ride--after I bought him the helmet--we visited friends in Aldenhof.  On our way back, he fell asleep--in the driving rain, despite the potholes and all of the drempels that clog up the smaller side streets.  A more Dutch initiation into bikes simply isn't possible.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Thoughts on Freelancing

Last year, in addition to the occasional copyediting assignments I would get from the universities, I started freelancing on oDesk.  It's been an interesting experience working as a freelancer, so I thought I'd share it with you in case you wanted to give it a shot.

First of all, oDesk and eLance and other similar websites are not the only source for freelance work, but unless you've already made a name for yourself, they're a decent place to start.  If you get lucky, and if you persist.  Because here's the thing with those sites--ANYBODY from anywhere can bid for work there, and that means that you've got to put serious work into your cover letters to make sure that you don't land in the same "fuck 'em" pile as a spammer. And there are jobs that have 40, 50 people applying.  It really is a wild and crazy market, and sometimes you just get lucky.  There are tactics you can use to increase your odds of getting a job, of course.  Nothing is ever guaranteed, of course, but you can increase your chances.

Secondly, it's work.  I know there's a terrible joke that goes something like, "I'm not unemployed, I'm a freelancer" but the fact is, even if I'm not working for clients, I'm working--putting bids in, researching positions, writing offers, etc.  You can't write a generic cover letter and hope to have a prayer of getting through.  I don't change my CV for oDesk jobs, but writing a smashing cover letter is still a good deal of work. And then there's the actual work.  Digital pulp fiction--I do a lot of ghostwriting--doesn't seem like work, until it's 9 pm and you've still got 3000 words to go in order to meet your deadline.  And this is on top of keeping a kidlet happy, occupied and fed for a full 12 hours a day.  I may be able to pick my hours and pick my clients to a certain extent (see below), but it's still a long slog.

Thirdly, know what you're worth and stick to your guns.  My price for ghostwriting gigs is almost double what most people will pay.  I may occasionally take fun jobs for somewhat less, but it's not something I make a habit of doing.  On the other hand, I tend to underbid somewhat for translation jobs, mostly because I've got zero certification for translating and even less experience doing it.  Whatever you do, do NOT lower your bid too far from your posted rates--it makes you look like a desperate noob and will get you kicked over to the "spam" pile regardless of your credentials.  And yes, I have turned away clients that don't offer enough, or expect too much, or both.

Lastly, freelancing is what you make of it.  If you put in your hours, you'll probably get some returns.  Probably--there are people who've applied to hundreds of jobs to get their first one (they're not doing it right)--I don't think I'm overly exceptional in what I'm able to give a client, but I try to be smart about which jobs I apply for.  Herer's the thing, though:  If you don't, you most certainly won't.  

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".)

Sunday, April 20, 2014


We are not religious.  Karel and I are atheists, and while some of my family (extended and immediate) may be Christians, most of them are so distant that it doesn't matter, and the ones that are less distant don't care enough to proselytize.  So when I first moved to this little weird country, with its proclamation of tolerance and religious acceptance (Geert Wilders notwithstanding), it was a little surprising to discover that the succession of holidays in the spring include:  Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Easter Monday, Pentecost, and the Ascension.  I'm still not sure what the Pentecost is about.

But okay, you live here, you go with the flow.  The Flow, in my case, includes mad-long two-day excursions (Easter Sunday and Monday) with giant brunches and impressive dinners, filled with people I am legally related to but somehow can never remember the names of.  Thus, I learned that Easter is a big deal here--as if the booklets of ads put out by every large chain weren't clue enough.

What I didn't realize, much to my chagrin, is that it's a Big Deal in the US, as well.  If I hadn't had kidlet and therefore logged onto baby websites, I'd have never known this.  As I said, not being religious, Easter got filed under holidays like Rosh Hashannah (there are apparently a lot of Jews on the Eastern Seaboard):  someone else's religion giving me a day off, and chocolate rabbits going on sale the day after.  It never occurred to me that you're supposed to exchange presents, put up elaborate decorations, and eat tons of candy--i.e., celebrate a pastel version of Christmas.

So a few things about Easter in the Netherlands:
  1. Egg hunts are very much a thing.  Not just in expat circles, either--several moms at the egg hunt we went to the other day said that their kids were already egg-hunted-out.  
  2. You cannot find egg-dyeing kits anywhere.  Egg stickers?  Sure.  An egg-painting kit?  No problem.  But dyeing eggs is apparently too messy for the fastidious Dutch.  
  3. It is traditional for snobby folks to attend a rendition of Bach's St. Matthew's Passion.  You don't have to be religious to appreciate good music, but it probably helps if you like Bach (I don't). 
On a personal level, I'm never really sure what to make of Easter. It just seems like a really weird holiday--to commemorate the gruesome, horrific death of the Son of God, by...painting eggs and petting bunnies?  Okay, okay, so you go to church, too--but I can't be the first person who is somewhat baffled by the disconnect between a crucifixion, which is ostensibly the thing that we are celebrating, and the general cuteness of the paraphrenalia that surrounds the holiday.  (And yes, I'm aware that Easter coincides with pagan ideas about the spring and fertility and all that, and that these pagan ideas are where the bunnies and chicks come from.)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Not Gonna Buy It

The above picture explains why we, despite having a kidlet, don't get advertisements for the Bart Smit or any other toy store:  kidlet's favorite toys at the moment are some cooking cast-offs (wooden spoons, an enameled bowl) I picked up at our local kingloopwinkel, a bunch of pom-poms (sauteing them is the challenge of the week), a tiny enameled pot, and a scrap sheet of fabric.  He seems to be indifferent to the balloon, but I'll take that as an improvement over being afraid of it, as he used to be.

It's also why I've been on the fence for more than 2 weeks about getting a play kitchen for kidlet.  Never mind the space constraints--they'll always be a problem for us.  It's the fact that he's so happy "cooking" with mommy with his own cooking gear (supplemented by a whisk or a potato stamper) already--the cardboard box that we keep the things in doubles as his "stove", and if he's sitting next to the kitchen I'll sometimes give him real food to play with.  I'm not sure if getting him a play kitchen is fulfilling my own desires (never had one as a child), or enhancing his life.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Slaap, kindje, slaap

One of the things I'm pretty proud of as a mom is not falling victim to mom-guilt--you know, that feeling that you should be stimulating/talking/playing/doing more with your child than you are, especially after reading obnoxious posts about people with perfect lives. I must confess that every now and then I do look at kidlet and wonder if there's anything more I could/should be doing, but really, he's such a happy and good little boy that the question never really crosses my mind.

However, we all have our Achilles' heel, and mine is song.  We almost always play the radio for him, so he does get music--I'm pretty sure he knows all of Madonna's hits by now.  Sometimes we think to put on a classical music CD.  But since he's always been an easy sleeper (I know, you want to kill me) I never really had an opportunity to sing all of the lullabies, or kinderliedjes, in my repertoire or Karel's.  And on the rare occasions that he needs a song to soothe him, well, let's just say his tastes run a bit morbid.

It's been bugging me a bit because last week, Karel bit the bullet and ordered me two cases for storing up to 840 CDs, and I spent a good 5-6 hours organizing and indexing all 500+ CDs in our combined collections.  Included in this mess of Bach and Beck, Telemann and Plain White Ts, were 5 or 6 CDs full of kinderliedjes that I used to play to him back when he was still a little baconoid.  These days, though, between practicing walking and going to the library, more often than not there is no real quiet moment to sit and listen to the songs properly.  Not that I can figure out what the words are without the lyrics in front of me, anyway.

I know that it won't hurt him in the long run, and besides, "Scarborough Fair" is a perfectly legitimate ditty.  It's just that he's already getting an abnormal upbringing as it is--most people have their kids in at least part-time daycare by now; our days are usually a mix of snacks and small meals; I let him look at things*--that denying him, however inadvertently, this bit of Dutch culture just seems wrong.

*This is part of the reason why, despite doing less, I still don't have enough time to do everything.  When we're out walking, I give him as much time as he needs to look at stuff, to make up his own mind about the things he sees.  It means our walks take about three times as long as they need to, but IMO letting the kidlet figure out how things work means it'll be less difficult for me to explain why he can't just run out into traffic.   

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Problem

Most Dutch people are nice, friendly, open-minded, tolerant, well-educated, etc etc etc.  But as with any large group of people, you have exceptions, and the less-nice, less-friendly, close-minded, intolerant subtype of Dutch person is featured in the clip above. You don't really need to know that much Dutch to figure out that the people the guy is interviewing hate foreigners, by which they mean Moroccans and Muslim people.  But the one woman who protests that she's not a racist, she's never had a problem with [people], except for [same people as listed earlier] is the one that caught my attention and really made me think:

If you're not a racist or a homophobe, why would you ever use words like...well, you can watch the clip.  For me, and it might just be a personal thing, that's like calling someone a n*****.  It's just not something you do.  You may think I'm being a PC-doesn't-get-the-big-picture-American, but I do get it.  Believe me, do I get it--all those wonderful names I've been called in the US, not to mention people still asking me, "But where are you from?"  None of the latter were racist, but it still stung.  

The Problem:  if you're not trying to insult someone, using these words gives them legitimacy.  It means that the very categories you're trying to break down and abolish still exist.  You can qualify it all you want--"Oh, I don't mean him," or "I wasn't really talking about them"--but the fact is every time you use the words you are reinforcing the idea that "we" are on this side of the line and "they" are on that side of the line.  Social science is not my forte; I don't pretend to understand any more of this than what personally affects me.  But it just seems stupid to say that you're not a [whatever]-ist and then insult someone by calling them a [whatever].  If you truly didn't believe that [whatever] people were bad, then why would you use the words to insult someone?  Who usually happens to look like [whatever]?   

Most people just don't understand the power words have--the immigrants the people refer to in the clip invariably mean people like me--visibly different--and not the white person with blonde hair and blue eyes (unless she's got a headscarf), even if they've been living here for 20 years and still can't speak a lick of Dutch. Even if I, or people like me, are not included in the group that has been deemed "other", there lingers the inescapable possibility that one day the tables might turn, the wheel might spin, and one day it will no longer be acceptable to be Asian. It doesn't have to make sense, and there doesn't even have to be a reason why--the Balkan War and the Rwandan massacres show how easy it is for neighbor to turn on neighbor, friend to become foe.  "But it could never happen here!" people say. I am not one to indulge in paranoid fantasies about the end of the world--that's what Karel is for--but I do know that that these wars and purges do not just happen overnight.  They are built on fear and misunderstanding--which is granted legitimacy, in part, because the words are still being used.  

Words have power.  Use them wisely.  

Monday, April 7, 2014

A Long Weekend Away

I know it's de rigeur to feign some kind of terror about the impossibility of going away for a weekend with a 16-month-old kidlet, but honestly, my biggest challenge was figuring out which swimsuit to bring, since swimsuits are neither common in the stores nor very affordable.  But even though kidlet stuff wasn't very hard to pack, it was still a lot.  We brought with us some of his "on the road" toys (pompom balls and pipe cleaners), a few of his favorites (stacking cups, Bosley), and some books.  He needed his sippy cup, underlayment sheets for his diaper changes, diapers, swim diapers, swimming butterflies (a requirement that I was able to evade).  A spare outfit, because kidlets; socks, his latest shoes, the Pack 'n Play, the umbrella stroller...and with the exception of his spare outfit and an extra paif of socks, we ended up using everything.  And of course, there was food, and food, and food (two crates), the electronics stuff (iPad, cell phone charger, camera charger), the clothes, the twoels fro swimming, etc. etc.

Privacy concerns prohibit me from explaining why we went to Center Parcs this weekend, but that was where we were.  Center Parcs, in case you've somehow managed to miss the commercials for it, is a sort of vacation park, where everything is available in one neat and tidy little package:  you rent a little cabin and are free to take advantage of many of the amenities on the campus.  The place where we stayed featured a "tropical swim paradise", a climbing gym,  a marina where you can rent boats, and of course, a bike rental place.  I'm not sure if you have to pay for things separately; tickets to the water park (Aqua Mundo) were included in the price of our cabin, but I believe you have to pay for the other amenities separately.

Somewhere in the back of my mind is a snark about the Dutch and their coffee, but all joking aside, the place was very well-designed, cultivating gezelligheid like an expert gardener coaxing roses into bloom.  The houses were spaced just far enough apart to give you the illusion of privacy, but the view from any one set of windows would invariably include a look into another cabin.  Being a party of 10, two adjoining cabins were rented, one with a miniature pier sitting on the lake, the other with a concrete hut designed for barbecuing.  Each family had their own cabin, but somehow, in that Dutch-hive-mind-fashion (in which nothing is discussed but everything happens as if it were) it was decreed that we would spend the morning in one cabin and the evenings in the other.  Each cabin contains a remarkably complete-yet-not set of supplies that Dutch culture determines to be "required for living":  housekeeping essentials, including a vaccuum, drying rack, feather duster, a broom for sweeping outside, and a dustbin for sweeping inside; in the kitchen, as mentioned above, the coffee machine, but also the electric kettle and of course the obligate kaasschaaf.  Alas, a flessenlikker was nowhere to be seen, compounding my suspicions that this bit of inburgering wisdom is either completely outdated, or an urban myth.  The cabin we stayed in thoughtfully provided a high chair and a reiswieg, but the mattress for the reiswieg was about as soft as a brick, so we stuck with ours.

As for the Aqua Mundo, the only attraction we had tickets for (i.e., the only attraction that was of any interest to our nieces) and hence the only one I availed myself of--having a 16-month-old kidlet in tow doesn't make for easy climbing or safe sailing, anyway--it was nice, and quite surprising how many water slides can be crammed into one building.  The chlorine was present but not overwhelming, with lots of plants and rocks hiding the entrances to the slides, making it seem a lot smaller but much prettier.  You might think that, with a wavepool full of babies in "flotation devices" that the water might be foul, but it wasn't any dirtier than any other public pool--certainly there was no poop in it, though there were relatively large quantities of sand carried in by kids and their parents from the sandboxes.  But by far the most surprising thing was the fact that there zero attendings standing at the tops of the slides, okaying you to push off.  There was only a light--red (stay put) or yellow (proceed with caution)--and yet everybody, from the most rambunctious kid to the curious old guy, had the patience to wait their turn and not get ahead of themselves.   My only quibble with the entire place is that the changing room--like all Dutch swimming areas, there is no men/women divide, but lots of little private changing rooms--is a pain in the ass to get into and out of if there are a lot of people, because you have to go through a changing room in order to traverse between the walkway to the water park and the walkway to the entrance/exit.  I lost kidlet's shoe in there the second day; finding it took less than a minute, but it was 10 minutes before a changing room freed up so I could get back out.

Kidlet proved himself to be surprisingly adaptable, accepting the strange mealtimes and strange activities and strange people and completely fucked-up routine with an equanimity that surprised me.  And barring one screaming session at midnight on Saturday, he was a perfect little angel for the entire time.  Karel might be inclined to disagree--after all, the little bugger was awake at 6:30 almost every morning, prattling and pontificating about the end of the world or whatever it is babies talk about--but he wasn't screechy, and pleasant enough once I got him dressed and fed and out and about.  Plenty of exercise, attention, and naptime makes for a very happy kidlet, even if none of it goes according to the playbook.  

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Total Woot

A couple months ago the Jamin (candy store) in Nijmegen started putting up a section for American candy.  They had Nerds, Pop Tarts (note to the USA--you're doing breakfast wrong), and Twizzlers, which are like a tasteless, tougher, version of Dutch snoep string-candy.  There was actually a decent selection, but really, none of it was what I consider to be trademark-American-Candy--too-sweet, filled-with-everything, calorific overindulgence.  Where were the York Peppermint Patties and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups?  Why Pop Tarts, and not Butterfingers?

As you can see, the Jamin has partially rectified the situation by stocking Reese's (and just to confuse you, it's Reese Witherspoon but Ree-sees Peanut Butter Cups).  It's weird because I honestly don't even like them that much.  But man oh man--those little cups of chocolate and peanut butter do bring back some memories.

Thursday, March 27, 2014


I think I've gushed about Marktplaats a gazillion times on this blog.  It's how I found most of kidlet's baby clothes, some of kidlet's toys, and a lot of kidlet stuff, in general.  Yesterday's haul included a reiswiegje and an iPad (the original).

A reiswiegje is a compound word; like most compound words in the Germanic languages, once you figure out the parts, it's easy to come to a conclusion about the meaning.  Therefore, some of you might have already figured out that this is a little (-je) travel (reis) bassinet (wieg), and inferred that we're taking a trip shortly.  Except this is Dutch we're talking about, and things tend not to translate so nicely.  Because the actual object it refers to is what I've always known as a playpen.  Indeed, it was even listed on Marktplaats as a "Graco Pack 'n Play", although the one we ended up getting wasn't nearly this fancy, consisting only of the playpen area.

In my admittedly limted experience with Dutch babies, these things are used exclusively as folding cribs--if you have a visiting baby, you whip it out and voila, baby bed (whether or not the baby will actually sleep in it, as opposed to screaming bloody murder for 3 hours, is a different matter...not that I have any experience with a baby screaming bloody murder in a reiswiegje).  Or if you're going somewhere where baby beds aren't provided, you can fold it up and take it with you.  For its enormity--and the thing is pretty big, taking up almost 1/3 of our dining area when it's all set up--it does compact quite nicely, though it's still quite a big package.  

Playpens, on the other hand, are permanent fixtures, usually made of wood or something nice.  They do not have a nice mattress on the bottom, usually being lined with a blanket.  They might have some beads-on-a-stick built in to the walls.  And it is called a box.  Regardless of what it's called, though, unless you have a lid on it, the kid inside will invariably through all of his toys outside and then start whining about how bored he is.  
We therefore have a Pack 'n Play, but it is not a playpen, though don't tell that to kidlet, who had the time of his little life in it this morning when we tried it out to see what he thought of it.  We never had a box--we considered getting one for all of five minutes back in 2012 when I was going kidlet-shopping, but we quickly came to the conclusion that our apartment is tiny and there would be nowhere to put it.  As for where we're going...well, you'll just have to stay tuned.  And hope that I remember to bring my camera.  

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Where the F*ck is Doornenburg?

One of the best things about living in Europe is the fact that there are castles everywhere.  Literally.  Even in the middle of nowhere, which is where Doornenburg is.  At one time--1300 years ago--it might have been a relatively important city in the border area between the Netherlands and Germany.  Of course, back then there was no such thing as the Netherlands and Germany, which means that Doornenburg was in the middle of nowhere even back when everywhere was nowhere.  

I imagine that it must be a pleasant bike ride through the Ooijpolder to get to Doornenburg, but since they don't rent fietscars and I'm notoriously clumsy on a bike (plus the flaky weather) we elected to drive.  Over the river and through the woods--now replaced by new housing developments--it was, into and out of several villages that are well off the beaten path, and to Doornenburg.  We spotted the castle from a good 2 km away, but there was still some winding about to do before we reached the parking lot.  

The castle itself comes in two "pieces", both of them surrounded by a moat and accessible only via bridge.  The main entrance, pictured above, opens into a courtyard which used to house the tax office, the stables, a barn, and the chapel.  Now, as you might expect, the stables and chapel have been converted into a coffee shop (not "coffeeshop"). The barn is still a barn, but the tax office is completely closed, though they do have a pillory on display, in which you can stick your head and hands in and pretend to be a commoner who couldn't pay his taxes.  

We got there a bit early, before the tour of the castle--the actual castle, the place where the lord and his lady lived--began (13:30) so we took a walk around the moats.  It would have been nicer if the weather had cooperated, but of course this is the Netherlands and it always rains on the one day when you want to go out. There were, however, poems cut into giant iron tablets you could read all the way around, if poems are your thing.  The castle itself might have been interesting had it all been original, but most of it was destroyed during the Second World War.  Most of the building is therefore a reconstruction, and most of the furniture is a mishmash of antiques from other places, or reconstructions of medieval stuff.  Nevertheless, it is an impressive structure, full of "secret" stairways and impressive rooms and neat displays of medieval artifacts that may or may not have been found on the site (missed that part of the explanation.  

Parents here might be wondering whether it was wise to bring kidlet.  After all, it's a castle with a guided tour, meaning lots of standing still and being in one place.  Well, kidlet isn't walking just yet, so he's not able to get up to too much mischief.  There were, happily, several wide open rooms with no cordoned-off areas, so I let him crawl around on the floor, mumbling to himself, in those rooms.  For the most part, he was happy to do his own exploring, though I still had to devote one eye and ear to keeping him out of people's ways.  But by and large he was quiet, squawking only once.  By the time we reached the rooms with cordoned-off spaces and places one was not supposed to be in, he was thoroughly tuckered out and it was only with a well-timed biscuit that a meltdown was averted.  During the summer months, they have more child-friendly activities, but kidlet--being all of 16 months--is much too young for those. 

It is a nice castle, and I imagine that living in it--which the family did, until the 1800s--must have been exciting in its own way.  It makes for a nice day trip--something out-of-the-way and not something that tourists would necessarily be familiar with; while I'm sure the tour guides would be willing to try to accommodate you if you didn't understand Dutch, I'm not sure that the experience would be improved in English.  Because it is so out-of-the-way, then, the groups will probably be small (ours was about 10 people) so it's easy to ask questions.  Cost is €7.50 per adult, €5 for a child between 4 and 12, and free for children younger than 4.  The tour is not handicap-friendly.  We had to leave kidlet's stroller in the first room, and carry him around to all of the other spaces.  Somehow, despite that, he ended up more tired than we did.  Which was kind of the point of the whole thing.  

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


I like to think that I'm a laid-back, pretty cool mom.  Kidlet falls down?  Give him a kiss if he's crying (usually not) and pack him off to play with his stuffed animals.  I took him to McDonald's today, for Pete's sake--we shared a meal of Chicken McNuggets and fries, though I did get milk instead of a soda. We're pretty relaxed about food and mealtimes--if he's not hungry, I don't make him eat; if he is, then I'll keep on feeding him as long as he'll eat it.  Dutch parenting, I'm told, is usually pretty hands-off, pretty relaxed, pretty go-with-the-flow. I don't know that many new parents, so I can't tell if it's actually true, but the new parents we recently visited actually looked as if they'd slept.  For a few hours, anyway.

There is only one area that I am rather strict about: how much sugar the kidlet gets.  This is in part because diabetes runs in my family, and horrific teeth in Karel's.  I don't want him developing a sweet tooth like Karel's--I have a bit of a sweet tooth myself, but I don't usually drink sweet things (juice, chocolate milk, or soda) and I prefer my sweet things a good deal less sweet than most people do.  But also, if he has a lot of sugar, he doesn't take naps, and it's hard enough to get him to nap as it is.

But I don't want him to develop a fixation for "forbidden fruits", as it were--this idea that sugar is bad and therefore he must have it all.  I had that same problem with ice cream and other sweet things when I first moved out--it was a few years before I finally was able to control myself  around things like cake and cookies. So I do let him have a bit--if the cashiers at the supermarket want to give him a cookie (and it's not too close to his mealtime) then yes, we accept a cookie.  Sometimes I make him a sandwich with hagelslag (don't ask me to explain why bread, butter, and sprinkles is so popular here) for a snack.  Sometimes I let him have juice for his dinner instead of milk.  Sometimes I let him have a cookie.  Sometimes.  But only a little bit.

I can't figure out if I'm being strict in order to be laid-back.  Or if I'm being laid back about sugar within strict boundaries.  Either way, I get the feeling that sh*t is going to hit the fan once the kidlet starts day care--especially if they provide snacks and juice.  

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Swing Baby Baby

I wish I could say that I came up with the idea of making a baby swing myself.  Well, actually, I did.  But the details for the project came from a certain sassy housewife who posted the directions on how to make a baby swing yourself for peanuts.  Literally--the wooden dowel, hanging hardware, and rope cost us a smidge less than €20; the one I made for the kidlet was made of an old bedsheet, doubled up, so I didn't even have to spring for the fabric.  We had a ton of fun with the swing, and we might still be having fun with it if the lashing holding the ropes tight hadn't come loose.  After that the swing threatened to toss the kidlet out every time he jiggled in it, so shortly after Christmas I took it down.

They don't do baby showers in the Netherlands, but kraambezoekers--mainly friends and family--usually bring something with them; either a treat for mom and dad or a present for the new arrival.  Maternity leave policies are generous in the Netherlands, so there's no pressure to visit the new family the minute the baby comes out.  So I had plenty of time to revamp the baby swing--cut out the bedsheet (now inexplicably stained by the kidlet), get new rope (i.e., tell Karel to get new rope) and hardware, and figure out how to sew a nice new seat. I'd bought the fabric last year, when I was feeling especially crafty, except I never got around to executing the craftiness I had planned for it.

And still, I waited until today--the day before our epic drive to Groningen--to do it.  As far as sewing projects go, it was a short one--two hours--but it still required that Karel deal with the kidlet, since sewing machines and kidlets are a terrible combination.  I keep meaning to get better about procrastinating on projects lie this.  But then I keep thinking, "I can always start tomorrow."  

Thursday, March 13, 2014

My €228 Piece of Plastic

When you move to the Netherlands--assuming that you're not a "knowledge worker" or anything special like that--you might, if you're from the "right" country and have almost-€1000 euros saved up, start out with a 1-year verblijfsdocument, which allows you to stay in the country for 1 year.  If you manage to stay out of trouble with the law, then you graduate to a 5-year verblijfsdocument, which provides hassle-free identification for a long time.

But five years is not forever, and eventually the clock runs out and you get a letter from the Immigratie en Naturalisatiedienst with a form you have to fill out in order to get a new verblijfsdocument.  Complete with an order to go in and get photographed and fingerprinted, because the €5 photobooth in the train station isn't good enough anymore.

As you might have guessed from the title, the total cost of this was €228, not including the train fare.  And in the end, the process did go smoothly, no major snafus or delays.  This was especially fortuitous since my US passport, required for identification at the IND office, is due to expire in 3 months.

But it was the minor snafu that made this little bit of immigration-tedium worth mentioning:  apparently I have no fingerprints.

I showed up at the IND loket with my papers and identification documents--being an old hand at dealing with Dutch bureaucracy, I also bought a book and availed myself of the sh*tty coffee.  The initial process went smoothly enough--my number came up, I went to the right balie, handed over the forms, made some small talk while they made sure all of the x's were crossed, the i's dotted.  The woman then waved me over to the biometrie room, where my photograph was taken.  And then she booted up the fingerprinting program, and told me to put my index finger on the scanner.

Cue music of doom.

The fingerprinting device allows for prints of all 10 fingers, although only the index finger prints are required.  They tried all ten fingers.  Then both index fingers.  And again with both index fingers.  And finally, after a dab of moisturizer, they were able to get acceptable prints.

Three weeks later, I got another letter from the IND telling me that my verblijfsdocument was ready, please come and get it.  So I went--again, with my identification and a book and the sh*tty coffee.  They looked at my passport, looked at me, got the card, looked at me, looked at the card--and just when I was sure that they were satisfied that I matched the picture and the information on the card, they said, "OK, we just need you to put your finger on the scanner to confirm the fingerprint."

They never got my fingerprints to match the ones on file.  In the end, they let me have the card, since everything else matched, but I'm not sure whether I feel peeved that I paid all that money for an ID card that doesn't even work, or triumphant in being able to keep my fingerprints to myself.  Suffice it to say that I am now in possession of a shiny new be renewed in 5 years.

Friday, March 7, 2014

It's all about the money

There's a big hullabaloo going around the Internet about raising your kids for free.  It started out as a blog about not spending money on kids' stuff, and now references to it keep invading my Internet space, so now I'm invading yours.

I have to say that the blog itself isn't quite as annoying as the hype surrounding it.  The blog itself is nice--a chatty, cheery synopsis of not spending money on a kidlet and a baby (though I think she cheated when it came to cloth diapering--they offered her a trial period, and she took it), and the rather clever ways she goes about swapping and and trading and making do.  It's what I would do if I thought people cared about raising our kidlet on a rather-tight-but-not-severely-crippling budget. But really, I don't do things all that differently from any of the other gazillion frugal-mom bloggers out there, and I just don't think that filching an abandoned bike is a postworthy event.  (We waited 4 days before we took it.  It needs new nozzles and a new seat, but otherwise, we have a kidlet bike!)

But what galls me to no end is the implication that you're a better parent if you don't buy your kids stuff--the idea that there is even such a thing as a "better" parent.  I think it's safe to say that, if you're not neglecting or beating your kid, if you're at least trying to put food in their mouths and a roof over their head, that makes you a decent parent, depending on how well you succeed.  But what about going above and beyond the call of duty?  Is there such a thing as being better than someone else?  If you work hard to keep your house in a good school district, does that make you better or worse than a parent who doesn't live in a good school district but is able to stay home and give her kids all the time they need?  If you have to put your kid in a playpen for an hour a day so that you can have a clean house, are you better or worse than someone who's okay with a couple dishes on the coffee table?

I don't think so.  I mean, sure, it's easy to look at a mom who's got her perfectly-behaved kids in spotless, coordinated outfits and say that she's a better mom than someone who's got her ill-behaved brat in mismatched and dirty clothes.  But can you really say that?  What is the magical point when spontaneity becomes impulsiveness, when order becomes confining?

I don't think I'm a better parent than someone who can just run out and buy everything they need.  I don't think I'm a better parent than someone who carefully imparts life lessons in every activity.  Our kidlet loves us.  That's all that really matters.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Better than Never

In 2012, I swore I was going to do cloth diapering.  Or at least, give it a shot.  But the kidlet didn't like it--he couldn't bend his legs at the hips, and I was flummoxed by how to get the poop out.  So after a few tries, we threw in the towel and went with disposables.  And this worked pretty well, for a while.

In recent months, though, he's moved up a half-size in diapers, from what here is called a 4 (7-18, or 7-15 kg) to a 4+ (9-20 kg).  This isn't because he's gotten that much heavier--he's been at 11 kg for quite a while, now.  It's because he's getting longer, and partly because, well...we've been having blowouts with the 4 diapers. I could regale you with horror stories of shit-stained babies at 3 am, but that would be a lie, since a) he doesn't poop at night and b) the blowouts aren't that bad, but they do warrant changing everything he's wearing, and that can be kind of irritating if happens 90 minutes before his bathtime.

But my main reason for switching to cloth is simple economics.  I am too lazy to go to the Kruidvat, which is the only place that carries 4+ diapers in the voordeelpakken that makes it economical to do disposables, and too cheap to spend the almost-€8 the not-voordeelpakken cost every time we need to get more.   And, since I was already doing laundry every other day or thereabouts, it made sense to launder a few extra diapers along with everything else.

And I have to confess, I'm kind of kicking myself for not having figured this out sooner.  It's not difficult, even though I've had to resort to the enormous-honking safety pins designed for diapers (the snappies started coming loose and biting into his leg after he'd been crawling around for a while). The dilute bleach solution that I keep the diapers in (until wash day--I use what cloth-diapering moms call the "wet bucket" method) smells only faintly of bleach, which isn't unexpected for a bathroom.  It did take a few tries to figure out how to handle poop*, but now that I've got a method to the stinkiness, it's easy. So stinking easy, I'm really wondering why I didn't stick it out earlier.  Especially when I remember how much money we've spent on diapers.

We're still keeping the disposables around, though:  they're handy for longer trips to town and travelling, and I don't want to wake up at 5 am to change the diaper of an uber-cranky kidlet when he realizes he's wet.  Still, it means that we've cut our disposable use down to 1-2 a day, and for that money, even I can stand buying the smaller packages.

*What works best is to flip the diaper so that the inside bulges out, and stick that in the stream of a flushing toilet, and keep a spatula by the bucket to scrape off whatever's still there.  Then dump the whole thing directly into the dilute bleach solution.  The bleach inhibits bacteria; I've heard you can also use vinegar, as well.  On wash day, chuck the diapers directly into the wash, add whatever other laundry you're doing, and flush the water of the wet bucket down the toilet.  If you normally run a cold load, remember to turn up the heat.  

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Eye of the Tiger

This isn't a personal journal, but it is something that's been going on for a while, and I just thought I'd share it, because I think we've all been there, done that.  And it'll end with a bit of insight about what it takes to get fit, lose weight, eat healthy, and basically resuscitate your New Year's resolutions again.

In October of last year, I bought a gym membership to kickstart a fitness program of sorts.  At that time, the idea was to take some classes, use the weights to get stronger, and work out on the ellipticals for a while because my knees hated running more than usual (I have flat feet). And then, about two weeks after I joined, I went for a run (4 k according to Google), and it was like the clouds of my fitness funk parted and the light of glory shone down on me:  my knees didn't hurt, I wasn't completely out of breath after 300 meters, and I got it again--what's known as your "second wind", when you've run past the point of exhaustion and suddenly everything clicks again and you're flying.

So I thought:  Problem solved, I can run again.  Except I couldn't, not really, not yet, anyway.  I made the amateurish mistake of building up too quickly.  My knees began to hurt like hell again, especially when climbing the stairs carrying the kidlet.  And then there was the matter of weight:  I'm not going to lie and say that it wasn't a factor in this undertaking, because it is actually the main reason why I elected to start running again.  Between breastfeeding and keeping up with the kidlet, most of my pregnancy pounds dropped off pretty quickly, but I still had five more pounds to go when it all just stopped.  All the running and gym classes and weights that I was doing wasn't budging the scale.

Now, at this point, I could have just given up.  And had I not already announced of Facebook that I would be running a 10K in May, I probably would have.  Public announcements can be a great motivator to find a different route to your eye of the tiger.   After a while, I came to the conclusion that I needed to take it slow, and go back to running the 3 k route for a while, so that my muscles would have time to gain strength and equilibrate (one of the main causes of knee pain in runners is an imbalance between your hamstrings and quadriceps--a lot of runners are comparatively weaker in one set of muscles than the other).   I needed to start doing crunches again, because strong core muscles are the basis for good running technique.  And the Christmas money I received would cover a decent pair of running shoes.   I haven't bought anything yet, as the current pair still have a couple months left in them, but I'll definitely need to replace them soon.

I also realized that I had to change what I was eating.  I'm in my thirties, now--it was foolish to expect that I would snap back into shape the way I did when I was 18.  My diet was always pretty healthy, but there were still chips and cookies sprinkled in there, a lot of bread and white flour, and drinking a lot of juice.  I stopped buying chips and cookies (the kidlet still gets his baby biscuits), and began buying nuts and dried fruit from the halal butcher, making my own snack mixes.  I started buying zero-calorie sodas--I know, I know, water is best, but the fact is I like a bit of flavor to my drinks.  I wasn't going to stop drinking juice unless I had something similar to replace it--and frankly, eliminating the chips/cookies was already taxing my willpower enough already.  I am still in the process of incorporating lentils and beans, and decreasing the starches, but so far it's been going pretty well.

But the biggest help has been my husband, who (for no apparent reason) decided to see if he could complete a 100-push-ups-in-8-weeks challenge.  And who talked one of our friends into signing up for the Zevenheuvelenloop in November--15 k of scenic, Dutch countryside and getting your @$$ whomped by runners from unlikely places on Earth (everybody knows the Ethiopians and Kenyans, but Japan?).  With us--and this was before I'd committed to the 10 K.  He hasn't asked me once for a bag of chips since this started, and he's been more than accommodating when it comes to staying home with the kidlet so that I can squeeze in my runs.

And finally, finally, all of these things have slowly started to do the trick.  The scale is finally moving.  I feel a lot better now, and I'm noticeably less moody and more patient with the kidlet.  Life is good.

The moral of the story?  Figuring all this stuff out took me three months, one tweak at a time.  Sometimes it was one step forward, two steps back--I tried, for about a week, eating a high-protein diet, but quickly discovered that I'd rather not-eat than cook two separate meals (the kidlet, for all his baby-fat, is at a perfectly healthy weight), which meant that I didn't have the energy to work out.  You have to figure out what works for you.  Give things a week or two, try to get into a groove.  If you can't, there's no shame in dropping it and moving on to the next thing--provided that you keep moving towards your goal.

The other moral is to have support.  I am fortunate that my husband decided that he, too, would get back into shape with me (though, honestly--the guy has never been out of shape).  We work well together--sometimes in the evenings, we trade off, first I go for a run, and then he goes for a run.  I endeavor to make tasty, healthy snacks--and he enjoys them, and doesn't buy chips to tempt me.  But the strange thing is, even though I know the guy and we love each other and all that jazz, it still took me a lot of courage to work up the guts to tell him, "I'm joining the gym, and getting back into shape."  Part of it, I suppose, is due to the fact that any previous attempts to exercise and diet were actively sabotaged by my mom, who to this day lives in mortal terror that we don't eat enough.  Part of it was also working out--for my own sake--how our intertwined lives would work, now that I was off doing my own thing.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Circle of Life

I bought pretty much everything for the kidlet secondhand, or else people gave us things as gifts.  The fancy-pants stroller, which turned out to be suitable as a jogging stroller, was a scant €50.  We committed highway robbery when we bought the changing table.  The crib was gifted to us.  I bought all of the kidlet's clothes from moms looking to unload their kid's clothes.  I'm fairly certain that his current set of clothes were at least thirdhand, based on the wear and tear on the patch and the gentle fade of the onesies.

I am fairly certain that there is a cadre of stuff, for babies to kids of about five or so, that just floats around Marktplaats, getting passed around from one family to another.  Somewhere on Facebook or bounced around on Gmail is a picture of some little kid wearing the shirt that the kidlet wore when we got married (oh, did I forget to mention that?  I got married last year).  There's a kid who remembers being taken on walks in our stroller.  Someone played with his keys.  And now, someone else is going to get his keys again, and his pots (one of the few things I did buy new).  I'm passing on the bottles, as well (I asked if they wanted them, first).

Yes, friends of ours are having a kidlet--their first.  And between his almost-unworn clothes and his barely-played-with toys, there's a ton of stuff we have that we can't wait to get rid of.  It's a relief, really, except they elected not to find out the gender of their baby, so we still can't lose the obviously-boy things.  We're giving them a lot of baby clothes, a couple of toys, a package of wipes (the nice-smelling ones), and muslin sheets--giant squares of thin white fabric that are just incredibly useful, as emergency bibs, or a layer between your kid and a public changing table, or a towel, or an emergency cloth diaper.  They're also getting our Moby--there was a bit of a debate about it, because it is expensive, but then we figured that, if we do have another kidlet, all the money we'll have saved by having stuff already will offset the cost of replacing it.

Some people may think it's cheap, giving used baby stuff.  Personally, we were glad for whatever baby things people wanted to give us, regardless of how many babies had used it before.  And if you think about it, it's not like the baby's going to know that he wore secondhand clothes for the first year of his life.  The baby doesn't know that his toys were played with.  And a lot of the stuff--the clothes, the toys--get so little wear-and-tear that it's a shame to toss them when another family can use them.  But mostly, I think the little bit of connection is nice--when you buy new stuff, you don't know who made it, you don't really care.  But when you buy or get stuff secondhand, you have to at least get acquainted with the seller, you know who used it before you, and there's a history to it.