Tuesday, April 8, 2014


Note: Yes, I know it's April. . . and it's a post about Thanksgiving.  Told you I was behind :)  Either way, the next few weeks I'll be posting flashbacks mixed with current events so you'll just have to keep up, Time Travelers Wife style.  But isn't it always a good time of year to feel the warm fuzzies of Thanksgiving and Christmas? 

Thanksgiving (Steven Kellogg)
Monument in Leiden dedicated on the spot where Pilgrims departed for America
 “The history of the Netherlands and the USA come together in Leiden where the Pilgrims lived from 1609 to 1620. Their marriages, births, and deaths are recorded in the Pieterskerk and their minister, John Robinson is buried here. The Pilgrims remained in Leiden because life was free and tolerant.  The so called Separatists who left the England of James I could practice their more simple faith. They conducted services in the home of Reverend John Robinson, located opposite the Pieterskerk. 

Though life was without objection, the people began to fear assimilation. For that and other reasons, they outfitted a 60 ton vessel, The Speedwell, and made plans to depart for “The New world.”  On Friday, July 31, 1620, the Pilgrims left from The Vlietburg in Leiden, via the Vliet to Delfshaven where The Speedwell lay ready. Before embarking, they knelt on the quay and prayed with their minister who stayed behind. . . Those same people eventually boarded the Mayflower at Plymouth, England on September 16, 1620. Their arduous voyage ended at New Plymouth in what is now the state of Massachusetts. 

The following year, to give thanks for their survival on a wild, endless continent, the Pilgrims, the Separatists from Leiden, dined with Native Americans at the first Feast of Thanksgiving in a land that was to become the United States. It is thought that that feast was inspired by the Thanksgiving Services which took place in the Pieterskerk to commemorate freedom from Spanish rule in 1574.

More than three centuries later, Americans all over the world celebrate Thanksgiving. However, in the City of Leiden, a very privileged group gives thanks at the site our founders knew so well.  They are welcomed with the same tolerance bestowed upon The Pilgrims.” – Program, Thanksgiving Day Service, St. Pieterskerk, Leiden

I throw open the curtains to find the sun hiding behind low clouds.  I open the back door to let the dogs out, and the rush of cold air awakes my senses.  Although the day is grey, there’s a crispness in the air and I’m feeling excited and festive (as opposed to gloomy and depressed like I will be in January).  I flip on the lights in the kitchen and begin my typical morning routine – coffee, kids’ breakfast, and a mental agenda for the day.  I shuffle groceries to find what I’m looking for and smile with anticipation.  The pantry is full, the fridge is stuffed, and V is home for the holiday. He decided to take both Thanksgiving Thursday and Black Friday off, even though most of his Dutch co-workers have no clue as to what either of those events are, and are confused by the prospects. “It’s an entire holiday to eat?” the pencil-thin men and skinny-as-a-rail-women ask.  “Well yes. Eat, shop, and watch football,” he replies.  This explanation remains insufficient. 
The entire family is dressed, loaded into and onto the bicycles by 10:00 a.m. The early dress and departure time is a high irregularity for a Thanksgiving holiday (except for that one time I ran the turkey trot in downtown Dallas.)  We pedal down the street. The kids are happy, I’m happy, and well – if we’re all good, then of course, Daddy is happy, too.  If we can’t be in America for Thanksgiving, we plan to re-create it as best as we can, expat-style.  Taking the best of both worlds - we've got an entire itinerary, guest list, and menu plan for the day.     

We chain our bikes to each other outside the St. Pieterskerk in Leiden. I can hear the other Americans yards away, because by now, my ear is sharply attuned to English-speakers. That, and because they’re very loud.  We unload the kids, and no matter how many times I’ve passed the St. Pieterskerk, I’m still in awe of the size, the history, and the beauty of the building. Hand-in-hand, we head towards the castle-like doors and enter. 

Chandeliers glisten, rows fan out from the pulpit, and ancient columns divide spectator’s views.  I spot the color guard, boy scouts, and Girl Scout troops lined up for a procession. Everyone is smiling, everyone is in admiration, and everyone is very, very far away from home.  We find some chairs strategically close to the back and the exit. Our previous experience with Holden in train stations, museums, or any other number of beautifully acoustic-enhancing cavernous spaces in Europe has taught us that our baby boy loves to hear his
Daddy and Little Man inside St. Pieterskerk
voice echo, and has a gift for determining an exact inopportune time to exercise his loud and amazing talent. 
The organ begins, the color guard advances, and the entire audience begins the Pledge of Allegiance. “to the flag, of the United States of America. . .” My eyes pass quickly to V, the vaulted stone ceilings, the audience, to my program. “and to the Republic for which it stands. . . “ I feel like Clark Griswold at his Christmas dining table.  I was expecting a blessing, but put my hand over my heart, and repeat the words I know so well.  “With liberty and justice for all!” Amen? 

The service continues.  My children grow restless, but I relax into the songs, the speeches, and find comfort in the service.  We sing “God Bless America”, “America the Beautiful”, and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” – the words and music bouncing off the 1,000 year-old stones and raining down on us, inspiring child-like wonder.        

Holden lasts eight minutes before V and I start taking turns chasing him around the back of the church. After forty minutes, we are accompanied by ten other American parents and about thirteen other children. We cross-reference our program with the clock, and are disappointed (and shocked) that the service is only about half-way done after nearly an hour.  We eye our two bored and agitated children.  It is a quick decision to leave and an even quicker execution.

Last summer I had stumbled upon a statue around the corner from the Leiden Archive Center. It’s hidden among shrubs on a tiny, quiet canal. The plaque commemorates the date and members of the Separatists
Americans at the Pilgrim statue on Thanksgiving
who left Leiden on way to America and is erected on the spot in which they stepped aboard.  After the service, we headed over to snap a few shots.
On our way home, we ran into a couple of our friends’. It’s a funny thing – passing your friends’ while riding bikes. You never see each other until you’re past, then there’s the inevitable pulling over and backing up, trying to not block traffic of the other bikes. We’re all sitting on our bikes, talking to our friend Alexandra, when Erin cycles past. We congregate on a bridge above a glistening canal. We’re all happy, excited, preparing for the evening.  “What shall I brings?” and “See you tonights!” are exchanged.  

I’m in the kitchen all afternoon – baking, cooking, tasting, and preparing.  The kids watch Charlie Brown Thanksgiving after nap time. The table is set. The computer is hooked up to the TV – V’s job is to find a live stream of the Thanksgiving Day parade.  Friends arrive and gather. Wine is poured, appetizers served, and Baby Girl and I are competing for ‘best hostess’ award. (She loves parties). 

V is successful and we crowd into the living room to witness balloons floating above 42nd Street in New York City. The timing is perfect for our Thanksgiving dinner.  We eat and eat.  (We don’t have turkey, to the disappointment of our Estonian friends) but we have baked chicken, sweet potatoes, cranberry salad (that didn’t quite congeal – but Jello is hard to come by over here), mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, pumpkin bars (mix imported via Target), muffins, and more.    

Thanksgiving dinner in Leiden
We push back our plates, wipe our mouths, and groan with the happiness. The computer/TV is now streaming the Dallas Cowboys football game and we’ve moved from the dining table to park ourselves on the couch, sipping our wine, letting our food settle.  Tradition. Complete.  

As the evening passes, V and I escort our friends periodically to the door. We chat as they dress themselves for the cold – hats, coats, and scarves. We hug each of them goodbye. As the heavy door shuts behind the last guest, V and I settle onto the couch, in front of the fire, to watch the 4th quarter of the Cowboys Game. We’re in a new place, with new friends, but celebrated the day with even older traditions.    

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Stand By Me

View of Big Ben from Nelsons Column & National Gallery

V is hesitant.  “What is it?” I ask. 
“Well. . . I’m supposed to be out of town for work.  For three weeks,” he calculates. I gasp.
“But not three weeks straight,” he rushes to reassure. “Just a few days each week, for three weeks.” He takes a deep breath. Watches me weigh the news. Waits for the verdict.

My Elle Woods pep-talk reels through my head. I’m more than capable of taking care of the kids by myself. I’ve been doing the full-time Mom gig for quite some time now.  I have loads of work to do, friends to call on, places to go.  I’ll still cook, clean, go to work, bathe the kids, run errands, take them to museums, pre-school, the farm, etc. I’ll feed the dogs – maybe even take all 5 of us for a walk to the park.  As I remind V when I’m angry, I don’t need V here to make things okay.  But.  In reality.  Everything is just better when he is. 

I remember our wedding day. I had dreamed of an outdoor ceremony on the steps of a gorgeous plantation home outside of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. As the hour grew nearer – the rain and the tears flowed. We had planned to take photos together before the ceremony (to expedite our arrival to the party, naturally). He was dressed in his tux, ready for photos, and arrived at the bridal suite.  A soft knock.  In between sobs, I opened the door, and he stood there – shyly smiling at me. We embraced, I put my weepy head on his shoulder, and as my mom recalls, “You just calmed down as soon as you saw him. He just made everything better.”  

Three weeks.  Alright. I can do this. “Good news is,” V starts. (Ah – he’s learning. Bad news then give me the carrot to keep me motivated and happy.) “The good news is that I’m going to London. So I thought it would be nice if we all went up the weekend before.”  (Hum.  Nice carrot.)

“Sounds good to me! Let’s do it!”  I gleam. Three weeks of stress are pushed to the back of my mind. 

I had bought Baby Girl a London ABC book last spring when I had visited.  It’s the type that says “C is for Crown Jewels, P is for Piccadilly Circus.” It’s cute.  It’s educational.  And we’ve been reading it for a year.  We’ve watched Disney’s Peter Pan movie and gleam as Wendy and her brothers fly around Big Ben.  I knew she’d get a kick out of going to a place where everyone “spoke English” – her first excited observation after landing at DFW last fall.

The kids and I by the River Thames
We book our flights, reserve the apartment using Air B&B, and start planning our visit.  I knew it was going to be lovely, with one small logistical caveat.  Considering the infrastructure of the city and our plans to see it via undergrounds without lifts, buses, and taxis – the big double stroller just isn't feasible.  Baby Girl would walk while Little Man rode in the single stroller, but inevitably she’d get tired, and we’d have to switch.  Little Man, though – doesn't walk.  He either runs (usually in the opposite direction) or doesn't move. He throws himself on the ground. He refuses to hold your hand.  He begs to be carried, then struggles to get down if you do.  I see Dutch children half his age walking through shopping streets calmly. All. The. Time.  And I just can’t help but glare. We used to carry him on our backs, but between my subsequent chiropractor visits and the promise of having a wriggly, uncooperative child on your back, as opposed to the ground, we just gave up on that idea, too.  Nevertheless, I knew, for the duration of the trip – we’d be OK.  Everything is better with V there.  With a 2-to-2 ratio of kids to parents, even a tired walking one or a screaming wriggle one – we’d survive.  I was nervous, though.  Seeing as V was going for work, I’d be flying back to the Netherlands by myself with the two kids.  Getting to the airport would be okay, the flight would probably be fine, but it was the train journey from AMS to our home that worried me.  I’d have at least one suitcase to roll, a stroller to push, a purse and a diaper bag to carry – and two kids.  No hands or arms would be left for Baby Girl.  As we pack the London ABC book into our carryon for our flight the next morning, I smile at my nearly 4-year old.  Hopefully, we’ll be able to do it all – the promise of a great weekend is too strong to say no.

After a whirl-wind morning, we arrive in London Heathrow and both kids fall asleep at baggage claim.  Baby Girl in the stroller, and Little Man in my arms.  I eye V.  “Well – what do we do now?” he asks.  “We wait.” I smile – and settle myself as comfortably as I can on the bench and watch a carrousel rotate for half an hour.  Little Man is the first to wake, and we throw him on top of the luggage cart to wheel him through immigration.  Lunch and a train ride follows.  Our first stop on the Heathrow Express – Paddington Station.  The little girl in me giggles at the thought.  “Just like the book – Paddington Bear!” V stares at me, uncomprehending.  “Okay – we’re buying a copy while we’re here.  You’re clearly missing out.” I reassure. 

B is for Big Ben
We discover London is in the middle of a tube strike the day we arrive.  Rain is falling, traffic is at a gridlock, and we’re in an expensive taxi on our way to a home south of Cricklewood Station.  We arrive at an adorable house with a lovely hostess – but I’m a little turned-off/freaked out by the fact that we’re sharing a bathroom with the hostess and her husband.  (Thanks for the fine print AirB&B?  Or perhaps V just missed the detail – either way, I think we’ll be sticking to our tried-and-true FlipKey in the future.)  The tube strike has motivated us to learn the bus system; however, as we head south on the double-decker red bus, the traffic forces us to cut our journey short.  We see “H is for Hyde Park” from the corner and head down Oxford Street - gawking at the size of the glittering stores, and the fact that they’re open at 7:00 p.m.  (Ah, Netherlands – what have you done to us?)  We find the nearest Wagamama – our out-of-town favorite – and recharge.  We feast on spicy noodles and edamame and the yummy goodness turns the evening around.  Riding the wave of positive energy, we exit the restaurant happy – ignorant of the puddles and drizzle – and head straight to the Disney Store.  

The next morning, the sun is shining – the tube strike is over, and we take the Underground to the Westminster Station.  Baby Girl and Little Man take turns reading the ABC book on the tube.  When we pop out of the underground, I recognize the building in front of us.  “But where is. . .” I trail off.  Then I look up.  “Oh! There it is!” I exclaim to Baby Girl.  “Look!  There’s Big Ben, right above us!” and she screams with excitement.  “Mama! Mama! There’s Big Ben!”  (and yes, I know Big Ben is technically the bell inside
the tower, etc. but let’s just go with the ABC book and 3-year-old excitement for a bit).   We snap photos
Transportation Museum
and continue our quest for more sights – the London Eye, the Tower of London, and Nelson’s column.  We tour the London Transport Museum, which is the biggest hit of the trip being both interactive for the kids and educational for V and me.  I imagine we’re characters in Downton Abbey as we duck in and out of the antique train cars.  We climb to the top of wobbly double-decker buses.  The kids pretend to drive V and I through the streets of London in taxis and trams equipped with moving television screens and steering wheels.  We exit the museum, pleased with the investment of time and money, and then cash in all our American chips and eat dinner at TGIFridays.

T is for Tower Bridge
The rest of the weekend we spend visiting friends visiting friends and shopping at Marks and Spencer. The shop attendant is unable to provide me the pair of shoes I’d like in my size. “Oh my, I’m so terribly sorry.  So sorry. Perhaps we can order them and ship them to you. Again, I’m very terribly sorry.”  I am awe-filled at the apparition of the polite British stereotype before my eyes.  I am surprised that I have become accustomed to Dutch-grunt-of-service-stereotype.   “It’s fine! It’s fine! No need to apologize! I live out of town – it won’t be necessary, thank you for trying!” I panic to soothe her nerves in response.  I want to pat her shoulder. Tell her to chin up.  I haven’t felt such compassion for a stranger in years. 

Sunday.  Departure day.  We awake. Take turns with the hostess and husband for shower time.  We pack. Eat breakfast in their kitchen. We retrace our steps: taxi, Paddington Station, Heathrow Airport.  I sit across from V sipping a cup of Costa coffee.  The kids are relatively calm, but I make anxious glances at the security line.  “You’ll be fine, right?” He reflects my nervousness.  “I’ll miss you all.”  I nod.  I’m sad.  The time approaches.  “Baby Girl, will you hold on the stroller while I push Little Man?”  I ask.  “Yes, Mama.” She says and grabs hold. 

We weave through the ropes. I hand the security agent our boarding passes.  V watches everything. “Look! Look! There’s my Daddy!” Baby Girl commands the agent’s attention.  The aging large woman smiles and all four of us wave to V.

We approach the gate – Baby Girl shuffling alongside the stroller clutching her stuffed rabbit.  Boarding passes.  Down the ramp please.  Leave the pram at the curve in the jet bridge.  I unload Little Man.  They run the length of the ramp while I fold the stroller and juggle purse, diaper bag, and boarding passes.  They walk themselves down the aisle.  We find our seats.  They climb up.  “This is how you do it!” Baby Girl instructs her brother how to buckle an airplane seat belt.  I thank her and assist him. 

Little Man will need more time before he understands “all electronic devices must be stowed” rule ten minutes before landing.  (Cue massive melt-down when LeapPad was turned off) but other than that – the kids were quiet and entertained themselves for the length of the flight.  Landed. Parked. I wait until all other passengers are past our seats before I attempt to move.  “Do you need help?” a woman passenger asks, “I know what it’s like to travel with two kids by myself,” she says in way of an explanation.  “No, no – I’m fine.” I say.  Go girl-power.  We waddle down the aisle, passing empty chairs as we go.  “Do you need help?” the KLM stewardess asks.  “No, no – I’m fine.” I repeat.  I round the corner and meet a blast of cold air and a metal staircase cascading to the tarmac.  “Oh!  That’s a surprise!”  I had expected the comfort of a jet bridge – silly me.  With Little Man on my hip, bags dangling from my shoulders, I grasp Baby Girl’s hand and we tromp down the stairs.  A shuttle waits – curiosity outweighing impatience as it eyes its last passengers.  The collapsed stroller lays at the bottom of the stairs.  A dutiful baggage attendant stands guarding my lonely buggy.   Cement stretches. Planes roar. My eyes dart from shuttle to stroller to children.  Quick decision is required - I need help.  “Hi – would you mind holding her hand?” The bored baggage attendant snaps to attention, eager for this temporary promotion.  “Of course, ma’am.”  And with a seamless grace, I balance Little Man, bags, scoop to the ground, and open the stroller with one hand.  We roll behind Baggage Man and Baby Girl towards the staring shuttle bus.  He cradles her hand as she accomplishes the final step and we follow.  “She’s very good,” the man says and I breathe.  Nod a thank you. 

Immigration, baggage claim, customs – Baby Girl holds the stroller as I roll our suitcase, push the stroller, and carry bags.  Little Man falls asleep.  Elevator down to train platform.  Up, onto the train – Baby Girl, stroller, bags and me – three swift movements.  Sit on the train.  Watch the Dutch landscape pass by the windows.  Read Paddington Bear twice before arriving at Leiden Centraal Station.  Doors whisk open – Baby Girl (stay here sweetie!), stroller, bags.  Stares from towering Dutch people waiting to board.  Down the elevator, out of the train station.  Crosswalk. Sidewalk.  Cross walk. Sidewalk. Our street.  Relief.  I look down at the tiny girl who has traveled countries with me - Planes, shuttles, trains, sidewalks – in the span of an hour.  I’m overwhelmed with our success.  “Honey, I’m so proud of you!” I say to her – tears in my eyes.  “I’m proud of you too, Mama” she says – and one spills over.        

E is for London Eye

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Little Party Never Killed Nobody

A Little Party Never Killed Nobody (Fergie)

“Well I don’t care, he gives large parties and I like large parties, they’re so intimate. Small parties there isn’t any privacy.” Jordan Baker, The Great Gatsby.

 “Alone. . . and a little embarrassed. . . I decided to get roaring drunk,” Nick Carraway, The Great Gatsby.

It had been a stressful few weeks.  A stressful few months, actually.  We had squeezed a month’s worth of work into two weeks before our departure to the states. The trip was hectic, the return was worse. Our daughter refused to go to bed before 2:00 a.m. for a week and a half. Our son was up at 6:00 a.m.  Their bodies were hungry at abnormal times.  Jet-lag as an adult is harsh. Jet-lag as an adult with two kids is just. . . well, there are few words. 

At the time, we’re still getting adjusted back to life in the Netherlands – piles of laundry are slowly getting washed. The empty cupboard is becoming filled with non-perishables.  The mountain of mail that greeted us on the floor of our foyer when we arrived is becoming more of a pile.  

V comes home and tells me his work is hosting a party. “Yeah, apparently, every employee of my company is invited.  All the branches in the Netherlands.  My co-workers at lunch said there’s only three places in the country that could hold that many people,” he’s leaning against the hutch in the kitchen, staring at the mess our backyard had become during our absence. 

I’m at the stove cooking dinner.  The kids are running around screaming.  I’m listening with half an ear. 

“What?  What does that even mean?  What kind of party is this?”  I strain over the screeches.  Drain the pasta. 

“I don’t know.  They’re being pretty secretive about it. They said the dress code is ‘colorful – it’s your party’.” He shrugs and takes a sip of his wine.  I’m becoming increasingly irritated.  My To Do list is long enough.  A party?  This does not fit into my agenda.  Plus, I hate walking into a social event not knowing what to expect. I like to know what I’m supposed to wear. I hate surprises. 

“So, is this when I finally meet the Tasmanian Devil?” I ask, pretending to look at the bright side.  V doesn’t catch the sarcasm. 

“Yes, he’ll be there, I’m sure.  He has to be.  It’s all. . . part of it, you know?” he shrugs. I spent 4 ½ years in public accounting.  I know the requirements of playing the game.  At least, in retrospect I do, after failing to learn them in the beginning. "You must attend all firm-sponsored social functions" is one of the more enjoyable rules.  I nod and start creating costume options in my head. 

Weeks later, we say goodbye to our sitter and apologize for our daughter’s increasingly ornery, uh, mischievous behavior.  “It’s just a work party. We may not even find anyone we know.” V shrugs.  I eye him suspiciously.  I hate surprises.    

“Yeah, we’ve been so tired. We’ll probably be back before midnight,” I chime in. Puzzle pieces are all over the floor.  My daughter, in footed pajamas refuses to give us a hug and kiss goodbye.  Until we pretend to leave.  Then she stops us and demands multiple hugs and kisses.  And again.  

I’m wearing shoes not made for walking.  I have flats-to-go in my purse purchased at a convenience store in New York City when I was pregnant with Little Man.  We board the train headed north to Schiphol airport.  We switch at AMS and take another train to our destination – Heineken Music Hall.   We exit the train and station, a little disillusioned, but follow another couple smartly dressed with expensive heels.  They know the way. 

Back in Dallas, V and I had attended a Christmas party hosted by his work at the American Airlines Center in December 2011, right before our move to the Netherlands.  It was a pleasant affair.  Cocktails and appetizers were served in a large, carpeted lobby under sparkling fixture lights.  Music softly twinkled from the speakers overhead.  There were a few tuxedoed waiters circling. We had a couple glasses of wine, chatted with many people about our upcoming move, and left with the other guests at a respectable hour of 10:00 p.m.  V and I closed the evening by sipping an overpriced cocktail at the quiet W Hotel Ghost Bar overlooking downtown Dallas as a farewell to our Dallas life.     

Heineken Music Hall - Amsterdam
We exit the drizzle into the Heineken Music Hall in Amsterdam, blinded by fluorescent lighting bouncing off tiled floors.  Large, silent bouncers nod at the tickets and jerk their heads towards the stairs.  The walls pulsate with rhythmic activity.  My eyes are wide.  I hate surprises.  I grasp Vinny’s hand and we weave ourselves through the throngs of people on the concrete steps in search of the coat check.  We climb to the top of the venue and deposit our coats.  I take a deep breath and we edge towards the doors leading into the concert hall.  Vinny reaches for the handle, pauses, and shoots me a quizzical eyebrow.  The heavy metal doors unleash the madness within. The rush of sound came at us like a train.  We gingerly step up to landing and survey the scene racing before us.  From our birds eye perspective the rows of seats cascade to the floor.  Hoards of people mingle and gyrate between tall table tops which are illuminated by single jarred candles and the flashing lights of the stage.  My eyes shoot to the stage itself, which holds enough lights to host a U2 concert. A musical artist screams into the microphone while employees are whipped above the stage - a blinking, wild carnival ride is erected behind the band. 

Work Party

“It’s like an amusement park!” I whispered to Vinny.  My eyes are wide.  My chin is on the floor.  He tentatively reaches for my elbow.  “Are you okay?” he asks. 

“Um.  Yes.  I doubt we’ll find the Tasmanian Devil, huh?” I pause, blinking at the “office party” we are attending. “I doubt we’ll find anyone you know, huh?” I whisper with awe.  I pull my attention from the flashing lights and stare at him.  The last time we’d been to a party this big was the Bacchus Mardi Gras Ball in 2005.  “I think.  I think I’m going to just sit here for a second.” And I ease myself into a plastic seat in the nose-bleed section of the concert hall. “Can you get us a drink?” I ask.  “Of course!” and like an eager puppy (or an LSU alumni), he hot-foots it to the nearest concession stand.

With a little liquid courage we venture back out into the grand hall.  There is a lounge quartet singing.  The tamer crowd with luxurious smiles are mingling amongst the brush strokes of the jazz drummer.  V spotted a few men he recognizes and we meander over.  “Engles spreken! Engles spreken!” they announce playfully.  And thus, the conversation continues in a language we understand.  We talk about how much we’ve enjoyed the experience in the Netherlands and other general small talk.  The white-haired man on our right rolls his eyes and mumbles about the cost of the party.  The dark-haired man on our left starts asking about my career.  I explained that I had experience in public accounting, but am now I am a full-time mother (with a part-time job).  “Oh, yes. Yes.  My wife is also a full-time mother.  On some days, she calls me about 6:00, yes?  And she says ‘You need to be home now or else I am going to kill one of our two children!’” he laughs.  “Yes?” he says, asking for my approval.  “Yes, that’s very true.  Very funny.” (My English becomes worse as I speak – like my Texas accent coming out when talking to my Dad, but at the same time, I’m happy motherhood is a cross-cultural experience.)  We all smile, laugh and we say goodbye.  As we near the floor-level entrance of the concert hall Vinny explains, “Yes, those two men were Partners.” (In other words, the highest of the food chain.) 

“Partners?  Wait! What?  Why didn’t you tell me?”  I asked, smoothing my dress and reiterating our entire conversation at lightning speed through my head. What did I say?

“Nah, I didn’t want you to know.  I’d rather you just be you - your sparkling self.” And he kisses me on the cheek.  “Oh whatever,” I roll my eyes, but smile.     

With fresh plastic wine glasses, we head towards the back of the venue.  The invitation announced ‘snacks would be provided’ but as we traverse through the concession area, we encounter twenty food trucks parked at the back of the venue.  The wares they are peddling range from French delicacies, to sushi, to sliders. We already had dinner. The queues weave between each other like a loosely knit sweater.  The sight of them was enough.  We venture into the crowd.

We spot the couple we followed from the train. I compliment her on her shoes. We walk further to the depths, towards the lights, and into the claustrophobic mania.   We see no one V recognizes and come out the other side.  We’ve been to Dutch events before – Queen’s Day, Christmas Eve service at St. Pieterskerk, among others – but for the first time, we were actually invited to one!  THIS is my husband’s work party.  I relish a bit in the thought of being somewhere we’re supposed to be - amongst a crowd of Dutchies.  And for a few seconds, I realize – that we are somewhere – 5,000 miles away from Texas, that we belong.  I get really excited at this fact.  We re-group (grab another drink) and dive in again.  Second time around, we find them – his co-workers!  We scream greetings above the music.  I meet.  Finally.  The Tasmanian Devil and wife.  He’s wearing a frown and a plaid collared button-down shirt.  And everything else about him is just as unassuming.  

Humberto Tan
The music is loud, the crowd is wild, and we’re screaming above it all, trying to make conversation at the only chance I’ll ever have to meet some of these co-workers.  There’s the Dutch-equivalent of Sheryl Crow on stage singing along with the Dutch-equivalent of Jay-Z.  “Ja! So!  Let’s go!” one of the 7-foot tall co-workers grabs my arm and is ushering us towards the stage.  “What?!” I shout, confused.  “Ja! So! We must have a photo with Humberto Tan.” (Dutch-equivalent of David Letterman).   Hotsy-Totsy Paparazzi, Hold on while I take this pic

We dance more. V tells me we need to go, but I’m having the time of my life.  He easily acquiesces.  He loves parties.  We dance. We sing.  Everyone around us is carrying trays of Heineken to their parties.  Full glasses are left on the tall tables.  The floor is slick with beer.  As the musicians begin their encore, V and I head to the exit.  Between my heels-not-made-for-walking and dangerously slick floor, I slip, or rather – I drop.  I cover my lovely dress in beer funkiness.  I pop back up like a firecracker.  A little party never killed nobody.

We grab out coats and exit into the mist.  We race to the train platform with the others.  At this late hour, the regular trains have been cancelled and we take an annoying scenic tour through Amsterdam Centraal. We try to brag to our train mates about meeting Humberto Tan.  “Do you know this guy?!  Isn’t he famous?!” we challenge as we wave V’s iPhone in front of them.  “Uh. Yeah.” They shrug.  This country is so small.  I guess meeting the Dutch David-Letterman equivalent is like meeting a high school class president.  They do admire my American-imported flats-to-go, though.       

We enter our home and I spout apologies to our sitter.  “Don’t worry honey.” V interludes.  “I already texted her and she said it was fine.  I’m glad you had a good time.”  He ushers her out the door, and he kisses me again.  

Photo Credit: Heineken Music Hall, Sigur Ros

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Torn in Two

Alright, alright.  So.  Truth confession-time.  I’m behind on my blog.  Yup.  I said it.  I am.  Looking back on 2013 ‘aspirations’ my goals were to post at least three times per month, and you, dear readers, can see I fell short.  Accept the excuse or not. . . but my little job with Expatica takes precedent in the timeslot in which I cram my entire adult life into the hours post-kids-going-to-bed-pre-my-bedtime.  Even though, we stay up late .  I’m behind on my TV watching as well, if that makes you feel better.  (And for those of you who’d like a little courageous or crazy daily, please like Expatica, ExpaticaNL, ExpaticaBE, ExpaticaFR, etc. etc. on your FB page or follow Expatica, ExpaticaCH, ExpaticaDE, ExpaticaES on Twitter – add wink, smile and a little nudge in the ribs. I am. The guy, behind the guy, behind the guy.)  Just kidding. Enough of all that corporate promoting.  Back to real life.  Me. Family. And my continued journey in the Netherlands and all the fumbling and excitement that ensues.
  January 1, 2014.  The original contract my husband signed with his job expired December 31, 2013.  SO. That means, we’ve been given the gift of time here in the Netherlands.  Whoo hoo!  We’ll see. I know I’ll instinctively let my mind wander and wonder to what I would have been back in Texas. . . sun. Warmth. Friends. Family. Or continue on accessorizing my wardrobe with scarves and funky hats with “new” friends that are edging their way towards junior year-status. 
    But anyway.  Looking back, we survived our trip back to the States in November and endured the suffering aftermath.  Sounds dramatic.  It was.  Nah, but until you’ve done it. . . I can’t expect anyone to understand what traveling through time-zones with two toddlers does to them and you as a parent.  I’d love to go into it, but I’ll spare you the gory details.  Either you’ve done it and you know, or you haven’t and you don’t care.  Please suffice to say, if you were up for 10 days straight until 2 or 3:00 a.m. (ahem, with one child) and up again at 6:00 a.m. (with the other) you’d probably be a little insane and vow to never put yourself or your children through the agony again.   Just kidding.  Not really. 
  During my family's first trip back to the States in 2012, ten months after our move, we were crazy with happiness.  My husband, children, and I immersed ourselves in the American culture like a warm bath after trekking through a freezing winter rainstorm. We indulged ourselves on fast food, shopped as if we were out of style, and glued ourselves to the TV, connecting with our old pals – Kirk Herbstreit, Robin Roberts, and David Letterman. 
   Our second trip back, almost two years after we made the Netherlands our home, was quite different.  With the confidence I gained throughout the additional year – making friends, finding a job, establishing myself in the community, and finding my identity as an expat – I felt a little uneasy in America. I looked at old things with a curious perspective.   
Grocery Stores - in America
Orange Juice - in America
    Nikki and I park the car and are in the middle of a grocery store in America.  My college roommate and best friend squints her eyes and leans towards the refrigerated rows of plastic, cardboard, and glass containers.  Happy oranges, green fonts, and sunshiny citrus groves smile and wave back to her – begging for attention. I cock my head, observing this carefully calculated marketing exchange with amusement.  She stands upright and faces me with disbelief marked on her face.  “They are out of the Minute Maid medium pulp orange juice with the plastic handle in family size!” The thousands of orange juice jugs sigh with disappointment behind her.  I raise an eyebrow. She turns and grabs a jug off the middle shelf and throws it into the pick-up truck sized grocery cart.  She steers the 4-wheeled monster towards the impossibly long canned goods aisle.  I suppress a giggle. But not well enough.  With a friendship of fifteen years between us, nothing slips past. 
   “What?  What are you laughing at?” she pointedly asks me, a tug of a smile on her lips.
    “Do you know what kind of orange juice I’ve been drinking for two years?” I reflect her stance, hands on hips, as a playful challenge is dancing a jig on the shiny tiled floor between us.  Pop music is bouncing off the walls of this arena-sized store. 
     “Orange juice.  Just orange juice,” I say with a smile. 

     She shakes her head and returns to the task at hand. “There they are. We have dark red kidney beans at home.  I needed light red ones.  This will be perfect.”  She nods with satisfaction.  I roll my eyes. We both laugh.
     After our journey, I created a list to compare the conflicted feelings I had upon our second return home.  The familiar had become unfamiliar. Was I losing my American identity? Was I out of touch with my roots? Did I prefer Europe to the good ol’ USA?  Perhaps. But then, after dipping a toe in the water, I’d find my subconscious take over.  I’d fall in and redeem myself.

Top 10 Signs You’ve Embraced Your European Life (and 10 ways you know you’re still American!)

1.      All five of your senses are violently assaulted the moment you enter a Bath and Body Works.  Your eyes are blinded by sparkle and color. Your ears aren’t tuned to receive cheerful Christmas music. In November.  Like a mouse, you hide from the chipper store attendant who tactically approaches you with three different hand lotion samples. And a bag.  (Redemption:  After a deep breath and shooing the shop attendant away, you fall victim to the buy two get one free sale. You return back to Europe with enough body lotion, shower gel, and aromatherapy bubble bath to last a year.)
Sensory Explosion!

2.      You marvel at the size of American cars, the roads, the parking lots.  You are amazed parking lots even exist for free. (Redemption: You fly down the highway, at 80 MPH belting out the lyrics to Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” because you’re in your private bubble of transport instead of sitting in the silent car on the NS train.)
3.      You absent-mindedly chirp a happy “Dank u wel!” to the Chick-Fil-A teenage employee as he hands you your number 1 combo meal.  His eyebrows furrow, you catch your mistake, but not before he’s already helping the next customer with conveyer-belt efficiency. (Redemption: You eat your Chick-Fil-A sandwich (with pickles!), fries and coke at a dawdling consumption rate, matching the painstakingly slow pace set by most Dutch restaurant employees.)  
4.      You double-check with your hostess to ensure you can both shower at the same time in two separate bathrooms without the hot water running out.  (Redemption: You take the longest, hottest, most exquisitely fabulous shower of your adult life.  Complete with shower gel from Bath and Body Works.)
5.      You become increasingly confused by new kids’ culture icons: Elf on the Shelf, Doc McStuffins, or Wreck-It Ralph?  (Redemption: You get excited when your three-year-old daughter finds and watches Aristocats, one of your childhood favorites, on the transatlantic flight.  You get really excited when she watches three times in a row so you can watch The Great Gatsby uninterrupted). 
6.      Your brain becomes confused at the bacon options at Kroger. You have trouble finding a loaf of bread that challenges the freshness you’re used to. Your jaw drops at the price of a golf-ball sized piece of Gouda cheese. (Redemption: You kiss the ground upon entering Target.)
7.      You step off the plane after your transatlantic flight sporting a jacket, boots, and jeans.  Everyone else around you is wearing shorts and sandals.  You sweat as you enter the rental car bus and make friends with the Hungarian driver.  (Redemption: You run to Old Navy, buy a cheap pair of flip flops, and head to the local (clean, licensed!) salon to get a mani-pedi.)
8.      Your primary news sources for your college football team are Facebook posts from your friends and e-mails from your Dad. (Redemption: You dress your kids in American-imported college t-shirts and stay up until the wee hours of the morning cheering your Alma mater to its first conference championship).   
9.      You find yourself subconsciously listening to every strangers’ conversation around you because it’s in English. (Redemption: You drive to Half Price Books and stock up on children’s stories in English, and a few for yourself.)
A Real Texas Truck
10.   You determinedly walk across the parking lot because you think it’s ridiculous to drive to a store you can see.  No matter if the parking is free.  (Redemption: You nearly get run over by an unsuspecting Ford F150 truck, sweat through your jeans in the Texas October heat, but you’ve got the bath and body works sweet pea splash to refresh yourself after your trip to Half Price Books.) 

Photo Credits (Kroger, Nicholas Eckhart, Flickr. Orange Juice, Manwithface, Flickr, Bath&Body Works, www.bargainmoose.ca)

Saturday, January 11, 2014

In My Life

My husband and I strategically set the alarm for 6:15 a.m.  The computer has been quietly humming throughout the evening, unaccustomed to its place of honor by our bedside.  We awake with unusual gusto.  Like small children on Christmas morning, Vinny and I are alight with excitement.  Before the sleep is rubbed out of our eyes, the computer is on the bed, glowing in the European morning darkness, and we await our debut.  Children still nestled snug in their beds, we are hoping our early morning efforts will result in an uninterrupted viewing we’ve been waiting months to see.  Our breath catches as we see the De Valk Windmill spinning, images of ourselves hand-in-hand walking on our street, and then. . . as the narrator starts to flash images of Vinny’s baby photos on the
Vinny as a baby in the Netherlands
screen, we hear him.  Holden.  Screaming.  Our breath exhales.  Shoulders deflate. Weary eyes meet each other’s, then pass to the clock.  6:18 a.m.  With a sigh and a shrug, Vinny flips his feet over the bed and pads to Holden’s tiny room. The stomach-bug circulating through the Netherlands has not escaped our household. Holden’s crib, sheets, pajamas, and teddy bear are covered in vomit. Cosette, upon hearing the commotion in her brother’s room, begins crying from the next room. Vinny and I divide and conquer. He attends to Holden and I enter Cosette’s pink-curtained room to comfort her. 
               I imagined my friends in Dallas, quietly putting their children to bed. Opening a chilled bottle of wine, and nestling with their spouses on their deep slip-covered sofas to watch our episode at 9:30 p.m. CST. 
               At 6:25 a.m., a bath is given. The washing machine is loaded.  The six of us (dogs included) pile into our bedroom.  The show begins again.  “Mama! Mama! Mama!” Cosette shouts as she sees me on the screen.  “DADDYDADDYDADDYDADDY” Holden chirps.  The dogs jump and place their front paws on the bed to compete for attention.  Our bedroom is pitch-black, the sun won’t rise for another two hours.  Vinny and I gaze at each other above the heads of our children as the unheard commentary and unseen images stream on the computer before us.  With a sigh and a shrug, we catch interrupted glimpses of ourselves on the internationally acclaimed television show House Hunters International. 
               Our incredibly journey lead to this.  How did I find myself, a native Texan, in a bedroom in Leiden, the Netherlands?  How were my small children, both born at Medical City at Forrest and 75, watching themselves on international television?  Credit must be given to an accounting degree (from Baylor University), our dogs (Tyler & Dash), and my husband (not a native Texan).       
               I graduated from Baylor University in 2001, a simple two-hour drive down I-35 from my hometown of Plano, Texas.  At the time, it was ‘far enough and close enough’ to home.  I brought my freshman welcome group home for a slumber party my first month. I attended my Mom’s Pampered Chef parties mid-week, and drove back to Waco as the sun rose.  After five years, I graduated with a handful of friends I’d keep a lifetime, memories of cheering for really bad football, and a Masters of Accountancy.  After four and a half years in public accounting, I landed my dream job as an internal audit position for American
AA Audit team in Rio de Janiero, Brazil
Airlines.  I basically flew around the world auditing the different locations the airline flew to.  It was a fun, eye-opening, and addictive job.    
               At the time, I lived in Addison Circle with my dog, Tyler.  I loved it – Addison, the community feel, the fact that there was a restaurant and bar downstairs from my apartment.  I was enjoying the single life, just me and my dog – then I saw them: Vinny and Dash.  Dash was just a puppy and I totally fell for the old trick.  Buying a puppy to meet girls?  Yup, I’m that girl.  Vinny and I dated for three years before we were engaged.  Tyler and Dash walked down the aisle at our wedding.      
Vinny grew up outside of New Orleans and graduated from LSU in Baton Rouge.  You’d think that was enough culture-clash, but there was more.  My husband was born in the Netherlands and his parents immigrated to the United States when he was two years old.  He can trace his Dutch family history back 300 years.  Although he bleeds purple and gold and makes a mean crawfish etouffee, he had always wondered what his life would be like if his parents had stayed.
We traveled to the Netherlands together before we were engaged. Vinny was on a short assignment for work, and I traveled along.  It was summer 2006 and he introduced me to his distant family.  I met his aunt, uncle, and three cousins at a birthday party.  We met his grandmother for breakfast and she showed us childhood photos of his mother.  We toured around the Netherlands – exploring Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague.  One day, when he was at the office, I traveled to Delft and Leiden alone.  I fell in love with the city of Leiden.  It was small and adorable.  It boasted a huge windmill just a few blocks from the central train station. The water shimmered in the canals, reflecting the gorgeous summer sun.  I strolled through the University of Leiden botanical garden and a mental seed was planted.  I hoped one day, we would live in the Netherlands – and Leiden was my ideal city. 
My husband applied for an international rotation with his work in 2008, but the U.S. economy fell apart and the program was cancelled. We returned to the Netherlands during the summer of 2009 after we were married.  I wanted to see Leiden, again.  I wanted to show Vinny the town I had explored on my own years
Vinny outside the DeValk windmill
in Leiden 2009 (our 'reunion' is filmed
outside it & we tour it during
 the HHI episode)
ago.  He fell in love as well and unwilling to let go of our dream, he applied again in 2011 when our daughter, Cosette, was 9 months old.  As we waited for an answer, we discovered we were expecting again.  Just a few months before Holden was born, we found out that we were accepted into the program.  Our dream of living in the Netherlands was about to come true. 
               Before we left, I was a full-time accountant for a well-known cosmetics company in Dallas.  I dropped my daughter and son off at day-care every morning.  My cube over-looked the Dallas North Tollway, I ran errands on my lunch break, and counted the hours until I could see my children again.  I wore suits, fishnet tights when it got ‘cold’ outside, and coordinated my eye shadow color with my blouse.  I drove fast, shopped for groceries once a week, and gardened. 
  Upon moving to the Netherlands, I knew things would be different, but I didn’t realize how much different they would be.  Sure – I was leaving my family, my career, my daycare, my friends, my house, and my language – but I was excited for the adventure.  In retrospect, my previous experience traveling for work and vacation had given me an inflated sense of confidence.  I quickly learned that traveling or even working in a foreign country was completely different than living. Few people cook or clean when on holiday, much less order internet, visit doctors, or register for residence permits.  My previous knowledge
Vacation 2009 - casually drinking a beer
on the Leiden canal where the market
vendors set up on Saturdays
(cheese vendor scene filmed in spot over my
right shoulder)
as an adult/employee/mom in America was seemingly inadequate. Day one, with shaking fingers and visions of singed eyebrows, I lit my gas stove with a match to cook my family’s dinner.  Day two, after finding our laundry room a humid mess, I stuck the dryer hose out the window, and embraced the new normal dry time of two hours.  Day three, I struggled to push the kids in the double stroller while dangling bags of groceries slipped from my shoulders.  For weeks, my mind involuntarily drifted over the ocean to parking lots, cars, and people to bag your groceries for you.  Daily, I climbed the steep stairs of our gorgeous home up and down, up and down. All. Day. Long. I cycled my children to the library, to preschool, to the playground.  I fell into bed exhausted every night.  But with time, I learned how to do these things.  I became stronger – physically and mentally.  I was no longer a tourist – although we frequent the museums and explore the cities and countries around us – I became an expat, and an expat Mom at that.

Our House Hunters International episode aired on December 3rd and will re-air on January 11th at 10:30 p.m.  Back in the U.S., Vinny and I spent many Saturday mornings addicted to the show.  One of the first questions everyone asked upon learning we were moving was, “So, are you going to be on House Hunters International?” and we just smiled.  It was a long process to filming - we first interviewed via Skype and then submitted multiple casting videos to audition for the show.  We waited months, but when I received the email announcing we had been selected for the show, I’ll admit, I was as excited as a West Texas Homecoming Queen.  The film crew came a few weeks later and we spent four long days filming and were up with Holden in the middle of every night.  We’re proud of the show – it’s a great documentation of our family, our home, and our journey.  It’s been a long road to get where we are today, but it has been a scenic one as well.     

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Open the Door

Cheese tasting/filming in the Leiden market
  After months of agonizing anticipation (kinda-sort of, but let’s just go with the dramatic flair – it suits this post), we finally have our House Hunters International episode air date!  Set your DVRs America, for Tuesday, December 3rd at 9:30 p.m. CST (or for any of those night-owls out there, it also repeats later the same evening at 12:30 a.m.)  A Lengthy List of Demands in Leiden is the title of our episode (Seriously, we wanted 4-bedrooms with a pee-space for the dogs. If you call that lengthy, fine. There are worse titles out there. I checked.)  Consistent with most big events in my life, I haven’t actually absorbed the fact of what is going to happen.  Maybe it will hit me the day-of/night before.  Am I seriously going to be on international television?  Nah, that it just too crazy to comprehend.  
  Considering the Netherlands does not have HGTV, we originally were going to have to wait until the network will sent us a copy of the DVD 3-4 weeks after the original airdate.  V is much more motivated than I am, and recently posted a S.O.S. to our friends in America for streaming options.  I think we’ve got a solution.  Considering he (we) stayed up until 2:00 a.m. last weekend to watch the LSU-Texas A&M game, we’ll probably be able to manage a 4:30 a.m. wake up call to check out our debut. 
   I have no idea what to expect.  The film crew was here for four very long days the weekend before Memorial Day. It seems like forever ago.  (Cue icy strong wind, dreary rain-soundtrack, and blurry picture – prompting flashback). 
   May 2013. We received our very intensive schedule a few weeks before the film crew arrived.  (Wardrobe 1, 2, 3, 4. Switch back to wardrobe 2. Wardrobe 4. Introduction scene. House tour 2. Meet & Greet. With kids. Without kids. House tour 3. Switch to wardrobe 4. Etc., etc. etc.) After my initial I excitement, I realized that I was in serious trouble. I had been “making do” with my American-imported wardrobe for a year for a few reasons: A. Business for profit, considering the customer, and other fun commerce-driven habits are seriously lacking in the Netherlands, thus shopping an absolute chore.  B. the Netherlands has a target-market of 6-foot tall women. C. Confusing European sizes. D. A double-stroller in tiny European stores. E. Two kids in the double-stroller.  I realized I was in trouble.  I needed clothes.  My daily wardrobe of an Abominable Snowman t-shirt I stole from my sister 8 years ago was not going to cut it.  Neither was my dusty Corporate America suits and heels.  My husband gave me a handful of cash with a promise to keep the kids entertained, and I set off for Den Haag/The Hague.  Thank goodness for Lady Sting.

  Next, we all had to get our haircuts.  Again, I had been avoiding the issue with my children.  After failed attempts at cutting her bangs, Baby Girl’s bangs were grown out.  Little Man’s hair was a disaster, and although it suited him, record goes to show that his first haircut was prompted by a film crew.  My Mom was visiting us and witnessed the occasion.  His beautiful blonde curls didn’t fall to the ground as the Dutch woman snipped.  His curls became tighter and more pronounced.  The first haircut photos showed a happy (and confused) Mama.  Perhaps the curls are a tribute to his Dutch genes.   

Flower purchasing/filming
The morning of the first day of filming, V and I dropped the kids off at daycare at the end of our block.  (For all those parents out who beg the question – where are the kids during all these house tours?  They’re with the daycare/sitter, for four days straight.)  We headed to the hotel to meet the film crew.  It was a freezing cold, blustery day.  We saw a friend struggling, leaning as close to his handle bars as possible and squinting against the wind as he pedaled by on his bike. “Hi, Vincenzo!” we waved.  He was on his way to work and waved back.  That’s one thing I love about Leiden.  I only know about 20 people, but it’s small enough to run into my friends on a daily basis.  Our waving hands clasped each other’s and V and I headed into the hotel to meet “the crew”. 
They were scoping out locations for the ‘interviews’.   The interview is part of the show where they ask you about how you met, why you’ve moved, etc.  I liked the entire team, instantly. The cast consisted of (In my accountant-lingo):  a sound guy, a video guy, and the on-scene-director-lady.  There was also a local-liaison guy.  He was responsible for talking Dutch to everyone we had to deal with, scoping out restaurants for lunch and/or filming, and buying snacks to keep our energy level up.  They were all friendly, personable, and relaxed.  More importantly than all of this though, was that most of them were parents of small children.  They understood naptimes, bedtimes, dinner times, etc. – which, as silly as it sounds, helped immensely.  I had to pick my kids up by 6. I couldn’t be filming around town at 8:00 p.m.  While the people in London proposing and changing the schedule may not have understood these little fun facts, the people I was working with did. 
V with the Go-Pro camera
After scoping out ‘the specs’ we moved our entourage from the IBIS to the Golden Tulip in Leiden.  It’s an old-school-looking location.  The management had promised cooperation. (Fun fact: when filming, you have to have total and complete silence – if you’re outside and a plane is flying overhead, you have to stop filming)  In the middle of our “interviews” in the restaurant, background music suddenly starts playing overhead Another Fun Fact: in the Netherlands background music in any store is nearly non-existent. I’m sure we’re known around Leiden as the woman with the lion-imitating children. Everyone has heard them with piercing clarity. (Overhead music is yet another marketing tactic stores haven’t embraced.)  But nevertheless, we’re in the middle of filming, and the background music for lunch starts playing over the speaker system.  The director’s jaw drops in disbelief.  She signals liaison-guy to go have a chat.  Liaison guy, who is Dutch, comes back with no solution.  There are rules.  The rules are, the music starts at 11:00 a.m. in preparation for lunch.  Everyone shrugs (including me and V – we’ve been here long enough to understand the stubbornness).  The British director-lady is irate.  We go to a very long lunch, complete with happy dance to get the waiter’s attention to take our order.  After lunch the liaison-guy is run down and ticketed by a bike-riding policeman.  Liason-guy had walked through the crosswalk when the light said ‘do not walk’.  There are rules.    
For the next few days, we walk all over the Netherlands. We view multiple houses. We film in lots of locations. We learn how to get ‘miked-up’, the inside secrets like – how they actually get those scenes when people are driving their cars, and lots of other fun truths about the show.  We act naturally the first time, but then they say, in their lovely British accents “Alright – that was brilliant but now can we get it again so we can get the opposite camera angle.” And then it’s questionable acting (I mean, come on, we’re two business majors).  They took about 10 hours of film and condensed it down into 22 minutes – we’ll see how it goes.

V and I with the crew outside our house
After the final edits, we received an e-mail.  Our casting director in London called our episode “a cracker”.  My American response was “tee-hee-tee-hee-OMG-what-does-that-even-mean?!?!? “ Nervous, I looked up the term on-line.  Cracker: “insane, bonkers, and unhinged”. Huh.  At least my ‘authentic self’ has been documented appropriately for all of the world to see.  Enjoy, America and I hope our sling-box option works okay.       

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Diamonds and Dust

Moonshine Road - Kix Brooks

West Texas (TheSeafarer, Flickr)
   I landed in Dallas greeted by a warm, bright Texas sun after being in transit for over twelve hours.  My body felt like it was 2:00 a.m. and the happy energy radiating from the balmy globe in the sky was not returned.  The jet-lag headache felt like a hang-over but I hadn’t even had a drop of alcohol. (U.S. carriers, unlike their European counterparts, do not have free drinks on international flights.)  I eyed the other passengers at Dallas Love field waiting at the shuttle stop. It was October, but most everyone else was dressed appropriately – in shorts. My boots, jeans, and jacket were overkill. I made friends with the Hungarian rental car shuttle driver.

  I entered into the Avis rental car place and was heartily greeted by a large woman with a strong Texas accent. I reached into my purse to get my wallet and pulled out souvenirs and placed them on the tall countertop. “Oh mah’ goodness! Are those pe-caaan praaa-lines!?” she hyperventilated, her pudgy hands waving.  “Uh. No.” I said slowly. “They’re stroopwafels. I live in the Netherlands. They’re for my friends.” Between the sun and this lady, I was having trouble shielding myself from the balls of energy being thrown at my head.  Her eyes grew wide. “The Netherlands? That’s where you live? But you don’t have an accent?” she scratched her head. I sighed. “No. No. I used to live in Dallas, but now I live there, but I’m back for a visit. Here. Here’s my husband’s credit card.” Throughout the next ten minutes the overly friendly conversation flipped as she explained the rules about matching names on credit cards, drivers’ licenses, and reservations. A Dave Ramsey graduate – I have no credit card in my name, my Dutch bank card was unacceptable, cash out of the question, and so I blew dust off my ancient and nearly empty American debit card.  The final blow was a lecture on how my maiden name lingered passively on the card, although my married name is hyphenated.  The correspondence left us both sour. Keys were exchanged, a credit check scar on my otherwise pristine credit record, and I huffed out of the car rental place with my head throbbing even more.  Welcome to America. Geez. (Yes, I realize now that credit cards to rent a car is standard policy around the world. . . but it did make me miss my bike and public transportation.)            

As I exited the Avis rental car parking lot, the man in the booth asked if I wanted a map.  “Oh no.” I scoffed. “I used to live here!” I headed west in search of 114.  I missed it by a block. Zooming up I-35 I marveled in the wide lanes, the excellence of my stereo system, and was thankful the sun was finally starting to set. My mind a jumble of confusion, I became repeatedly lost. Exits have changed, lanes widened, and my mental map of DFW in my head was rusty like a bike chain in need of WD-40. 

The Groom's Dad & Brother (not) calming Nikki's nerves before the ceremony
Eventually, I arrived at Nikki’s.  We smiled, dined on pizza delivery and wine. She took photos of me, covered in plane-funk and all, and posted them on Facebook. I quizzed her on all her family members who I would see that weekend at Cody’s wedding. She was determined to make me stay up until at least 10:00 p.m. in efforts to get over the jet-lag. “How are the wedding plans going?” I asked and she groaned. “What. What’s going on? Is there some drama or something?” I pried.  “No, no. It’s just – I’m so nervous. If I mess up you know my family is never going to let me live it down. They’ll tease me about it forever.” She shook her head and sighed.  Nikki, a licensed attorney in the State of Texas, was going to officiate Cody’s wedding.  I wish I could offer her condolences, but I knew she was right. She has a large, rambunctious, playful Hispanic family.  If she tripped over her words during the ceremony, they would tell stories about it at her funeral.  I smiled sympathetically and shrugged.  “You’ll do great.  I know you will.” 

I first met Nikki’s family in our apartment in Waco in 1997. She and I were roommates at Baylor University and in the marching band together.  Eleven of them had come into town for a football game and as we were wrapping up things at the stadium – packing up water coolers and other band equipment - she informed me that they were already at our house, hanging out.  “Oh, okay! They didn’t want to wait for us?” I asked. The mysterious Rubio clan had arrived into town during the game. I hadn’t actually seen any of them yet. “Nah, I just gave them a key and they let themselves in.” 

I parked in our broken parking lot in front of our apartment with blue carpet, wood paneling, and bars on the windows. Two large Hispanic men were squeezed on to the cozy white swing outside (Management’s attempt at making the ghetto cozy, I guess.) They both held bottles of Coors light in their hands.  I uneasily stepped out of my car and started walking towards my own apartment. They smiled and introduced themselves.  After a little more small talk they asked me, “So. Is Waco dry?” It caught me off-guard. “Well, it rains here quite a bit.” I answered, confused. They exchanged glances. Later, Nikki explained that they were asking about alcohol. 

“Where are they all going to sleep?” I asked her. Eleven people were snuggled into our tiny two-bedroom apartment. “Oh you know, here, there, wherever.” My junior year in college, I learned the carpet is a suitable place for sleeping when hosting a large family get-together. I slept at my boyfriend’s house that weekend.  

After that initial awkward meeting and my first trip home with her, I realized what I had inadvertently stumbled upon – a new culture. Growing up in a suburb of Dallas, I was immune to a truly Texas lifestyle much less a Hispanic one.  I took off my white-girl suburban glasses and observed, learned, and started to embrace.  Her family is so big. So close. So welcoming! They have their quirks and squabbles like any other family, but they also joke, tease, drink, and dance. Over the years, I became a regular attendee at her family’s functions and her family would often come and visit us in Waco

Her cousin Cody is about my brother’s age, four years younger than me.  He spent a high school spring break with us in our apartment in Waco.  Nikki worked at Red Lobster and had scheduled “babysitters” for him each night when she had to be away.  Each of us had our own itinerary and I decided to play off Waco’s and my own strengths: a trip to the Waco Zoo and a home-cooked meal!  It was the first time I’d really spent any time with him. We laughed a lot and he appreciated my cooking (and he at least pretended to like the Zoo.)  He was artistic and creative – something an accounting major found fascinating. He played football and had plans to go to Texas Tech. I spent years on in the stands watching football games.  My Grandmother lived in Lubbock.  He is easy going, has a quirky sense of humor, and a genuine interest in the people around him. Over a dinner of fried chicken and mashed potatoes, it was apparent that he and Nikki were very close.  Cody quickly became one of my favorite people in her family.   

Cody and I, 2008
I attended his high school graduation ceremony in West Texas. He went off to Texas Tech, graduated, and I danced to rap, Mexican, and pop music with his family at the celebration party in Big Spring. He moved to Dallas and we spent more time together, especially after Nikki moved back to Texas after graduating from law school in Kansas.  The best times we had together though, were in Big Spring, that magical place away from everything and everyone. It’s a tiny town, run-down and seemingly lonely.  But I found it to be the exact opposite.  His Dad turned 55 and everyone came into town for the party – more dancing, more laughter, more stories told.  Thirty people crowded into Nikki’s house after the party and lay sprawled and sleeping wherever they could find a spot – bedrooms, living room, even the dining room.  It was fall, football season.  When West Texas sports is at it’s finest – homecoming mums, football helmets, and school colors.  “Celeste! Celeste! Wake up!” Cody was shaking me awake – whispering as to not alert any of the other sleeping family members around me on the dining room floor.  He puts his finger to his lips as my eyes pop open. He then points to the window.  I raise myself up on my elbows for a better view.  A fireball, as large as the sun, is alight across the road.  I jolt upright and we head out past the screen door and onto the porch.  The crackle is loud and the heat can be felt from where we stand.  The wind whips across the plains, rearranging dust.  It rustles the trees in front of the tiny house, which sits on an acre of land.  The sky looms above us and is speckled with thousands of stars.  My mind races – I see headlines “Fireball Smokes Out Thirty Sleeping Hispanics!” (and one white girl).  I grab Cody’s arm for reassurance. “What is that?” I whisper.  “It must be Cahoma, the rival high school.” he calculates. “Forsan High, where Nikki went, built that bonfire a few days ago for the homecoming game this weekend. Cahoma students must have found it and decided to burn it before the festivities.” Amazed, I stare at the profile of Cody’s face as he spoke.  The light from the fire glows on his cheeks and I smile.  I know there is nothing to be scared of, now.  The fire will burn itself out.  Together we watch the glowing orb.  My cultural education continues. 

Cody and I on his wedding day
Fifteen years after our trip to the Waco Zoo, I enter into the sweeping grandiose of the Magnolia Hotel in Downtown Dallas.  Energetic smiles are exchanged with Nikki’s aunts. Hugs are given to her siblings. My beloved Uncle Oscar helps me with my hair.  Everyone thanks me for coming.  I’ve been excitedly greeted by Nikki’s entire family at the hotel, all except one.  My palms are sweaty when the hotel shuttle drops us off at the wedding and reception venue.  I take a deep breath of the warm air and walk down the worn brick stairs to the old speakeasy in Downtown Dallas. I’m excited and nervous, and the fact that I’m even there seems like a dream.  As I’m distractedly observing the family photos on display, I see Cody enter the hallway out of the corner of m eye. The fabulous cake display is between us. I stand upright and smooth my dress. He sees me and I smile the smile of a girl who’s just traveled five thousand miles to see her long-time friend get married.  He looks great, relaxed as always. We embrace and then he holds me back at arms length. “Thanks for coming,” he smiles and pats my shoulder. “No problem.  I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.” I shrug as if it was nothing. 

The ceremony is beautiful, heart-felt and warming.  Nikki’s delivery of every line is perfect, erupting in congratulations and tears from everyone. The bride, Kristy, a native of New Orleans, is smashingly beautiful. The reception, like all of their parties, is an outrageous success – complete with cocktails, music, and laughter.  I took tons of photos, danced, and met significant others and children previously known only via Facebook. 
Cody and Kristy dancing a New Orleans tradition - The Second Line
   In the dim lighting of the speakeasy, I reflect on the glowing faces around me. It’s a strange half-life I lead – embracing culture while holding on to your own. I have to thank Nikki and her entire family for embracing me and my naiveté. Reason stands to chance that if my eyes hadn’t been opened at such a young age, I might never have braved a leap to the Netherlands

  I’m in the middle of answering questions about House Hunters when the jazzy sounds of Second Line stop my conversation with Nikki’s aunt mid-sentence.  My eyes alight with recognition and I grab the closest napkin and join the parade. I giggle as Cody, the groom from West Texas, waves his umbrella awkwardly next to his New Orleans bride.  I smiled with appreciation. Texas and Louisiana – just like me and V, is a cultural fusion that makes for some good times ahead. We’re all still learning, adapting, and embracing.