Tuesday, June 24, 2014

To Be With You


  A childhood nightmare flashes.  Standing alone, but in a crowded courtyard.  Aging brick walls suffocate, paned glass mocks, trees whisper.  Faces stare.  Silence prevails.  I’m naked.  My eyes plead to the crowd for help.  No familiar face will extend a jacket.  There are no familiar faces.  Mumbles are exchanged between friends – the words foreign to my ear.  I stare at the ground.  Confused. Embarrassed.
***
Courtyard
   I lift my head.  I awaken from the nightmare and realize that I am clothed.  No one is staring.  No one sees me.  I am.  Invisible.  Like a ghost, I stare at my surroundings, unseen, felt, and acknowledged by the human forms around me.  I blink, then grasp my daughter’s hand and lead her through the crowd towards her first full week of kindergarten.

   In the Netherlands, children start public schooling the day after their fourth birthday.  Once we discovered we would be extending, we set to work to figure out where to send our daughter.  Two year waiting lists are common, and we were clearly behind.  Back in Texas, the decision is made for you – parents send their children to the elementary school closest to their home.  The curriculum is standard throughout the district, and in order to choose a different school than the one assigned is not an easy task.  We had interviewed the international school in Leiden and were very pleased with what we saw, but they wait until all children turn four years old and start them together in September (as opposed to the day-after 4th-birthday-rule).  Considering Baby Girl’s birthday is in April, and our departure date is October, this was not a feasible option for us.   We had even inquired of her Dutch daycare if they’d be willing to accept her (and our money) after her fourth birthday and they looked at us quizzically.  “Why would you send her here when you can send her to Dutch school for free?  And either way – our waiting list is too long.  We need her spot.”  Again, from our understanding, the Dutch children are not required to go to school until they turn five, with an optional start date of four.  But this option has seemingly never been exercised.  We contacted a few schools.  Most said their waiting lists were too long, but the school closest to us said they’d have a spot for her.  (Schools in your neighborhood give precedent to the children in the neighborhood.)  We made an appointment for a school tour. 
    November 2013 - The clouds did not part and rain pours from above.  V and I enter the school and I am instantly reminded of my own elementary school in the 1980s.  Red brick walls line the worn staircase.  Echoes and dim lighting cascade shadows on the dusty formica floors. That unmistakable gym-smell penetrates everything.  This building hasn’t been renovated in at least 40 years.  We are greeted and seated in the teachers’ lounge.   I shift in the hard plastic chair as the introductions are exchanged with the principal of the school.
    She is an elderly woman with short hair and a nice smile, and has been a part of the school for decades.  As she speaks, I begin to relax a bit.  “Oh yes – we have a place here for Cosette,” she speaks in clear English.  I nod.  We had not heard these words from anyone else.  A guaranteed place.  “Oh, and there is another girl, yes – who speaks English in level zero class.  We can see that we put Cosette in her class. Yes?” Also good news.  This lady is on a roll.  “A tour now, yes?”  I fumble with my purse.  My husband grabs my hand to calm my nerves. 
Level Zero Classroom
   We enter the first classroom and to my surprise, it looks much like what I’d picture a kindergarten (or as they call it, level zero) class to look like - almost.  A play house station is in the corner, bins of legos line the walls, and a circle of small chairs surround a circular table in the middle.  I cock my head to the side.  Not only are there about 28 tiny chairs (about twice the amount I would perhaps expect in an American school classroom) but they’re also covered in clothes.  Pants, shirts, and shoes litter the backs and seats of each chair.  “Oh yes – the children are at gym,” the principal says in way of explanation.  When she sees my confusion deepen, she continues “Oh yes, see the children have gym in their underwear.” My eyes grow wide. “Yes, see, it’s much too hot for them to run around in their clothes and it’s too time consuming to change into gym clothes.”  Visions of naked children kicking soccer balls does not compute in my American brain.  I look to my husband for help.  He gives me the look that says: Something is being lost in translation – it will be okay, Honey.  I nod and focus my attention back to the principal.  She’s pointing to the clothesline above the teacher’s chair.  Photos of the day’s activities are pinned to the string.  I nod with appreciation.  I like schedules.  The principal is pointing to the pictures and explaining them to me.  “Yes, so in the morning, after the children hang up their coats, and put away their bags, they sit in the circle and the teacher first reads them a bible story.”  My eyes grow wide, yet again.  Underwear and bible stories: two phrases I wouldn’t hear during a tour of an American kindergarten.  I look back at the art station.  The principal is demonstrating a traffic light.  “There are so many children, you see – the teacher can’t possibly attend to all of them at the same time, of course.  The children take their names from the board and place them next to the station they’d like to play in.  Each station has a limited number of spots.  The teacher directs the art station.  If the red light is on – it indicates to the other children to not interrupt.  If the green light is on – the children may approach with questions, yes?”  I nod.  I like this idea.  “Oh – that’s nice.  Where can I get one of those?” I smile.
   We complete the tour and we return to the office to receive the paperwork.  “When do we need to return this form?” my husband asks.  “Well. . . as soon as possible, of course.  There are waiting lists.”  We nod.  We understand.  We have little other choice.  The school is fine.  The principal is warm.  The school is half a mile from our home.  Our daughter has been understanding and speaking Dutch at her preschool for the past two years.  The Dutch kindergarten should be good experience for her.  We fill out the paperwork and return it the next week. 

March 2014 - Because each child comes into the classroom at different times, the classroom is well established.  Four sessions are scheduled before her first day of school.  Parent-guided for a couple hours the first time, then she could attend by herself for half a day.  I like the idea of this – introducing her (and us) into the new routine gradually. 
     My husband and I awake on the day of her first ‘visitation’.  We dress both kids, ourselves, and head out the door and a flurry of anticipation and nervousness.  V had thought we could bring Holden with us and the four of us could observe the class together.  I had my doubts.  Upon arriving at the classroom, we are introduced to the teacher.  “Sorry, spreek je Nederlands?” she asks.  My husband explains that he does, but that I do not.  She explains that she doesn’t speak English.  I’m floored.  Besides a few aging repair men, everyone in the country speaks English.  The teachers at their preschool have always conversed with me in English.  I love them.  I’m Facebook friends with one of them.  I stare at this educated woman in disbelief.  Dread seeps through my veins.  She explains that only one parent can attend the observation session, so clearly, my husband would be the one, considering the language barrier.  My husband and Cosette enter the class and the door slams behind them.  I peer into the window.  My daughter, shy and small, blonde and beautiful, dressed with hope and anticipation, sits in the tiny chair confused and staring at the other 27 children.  My husband sits behind her in the circle.  My Baby Girl - my daily responsibility for the past two years - looks at me through the window.  I wave and turn with tears stinging my eyes.  The mama.  Shut. Out.  I hoist Holden on my hip, hug him tight, and pedal him over to the local park in the cold.

April 2014 – Cosette turns four on April 2nd, and on Thursday, April 3rd, we dress her in a new outfit, snap photos, and pack her snack.  We pedal over to her school.  My husband on his bike, the kids and I on mine.  I’m anxious.  It’s a big day.  We hang her hoodie, put her bag in the cupboard, and help her find her seat.  After a flood of hugs and kisses, my husband and I grasp each other’s hands, and with Holden, exit the
Official First Day of School
door. We pedal slowly home.  We sip coffee and he works at the dining room table.  I split my time between idling around the kitchen, playing with Holden, and watching the clock.  Most of the school children stay until 3 p.m., but we’ve decided to pick her up at noon every day – at least for the first few weeks.  Vinny had originally been scheduled for a business trip to the United States during her birthday and first day of school.  We were both relieved he was able to change it and be here for this big week.  Just as any parent would be after dropping their first-born child off at their first day of school, we’re as nervous as we are anxious.  It’s compounded by the fact that we’re in a foreign country, but we tell ourselves that she’ll be fine.  She’s been understanding and speaking Dutch at preschool for the past two years.  She’ll make friends.  She’ll learn how a classroom operates.  We are all waiting outside the door at noon when she completes her first day.  She smiles, says it went well, and Vinny and I smile above her head, relieved. 
  The following week, Vinny is in the United States.  The loneliness that occurs anytime he’s gone is intense and magnified.  The week before, I had not noticed I was not greeted by the teacher when I dropped Cosette off at school.  I had not noticed that no other parent made eye contact with me.  We had reassured ourselves of Cosette’s comfort level being a part of a Dutch classroom, but I had not anticipated how I would feel as a parent.  My experience with their preschool was very similar to the one I had in America – I have a relationship with their teachers, and the other parents are friendly.  Their teachers and I discuss our concerns about the children.  They want to teach and share their culture with my family and are curious about Texas.  Starting my daughter at the new school makes all the insecurities, nervous-vibes, and invisible-like feelings I felt our first few months after moving here resurface.  I’m surprised at how vulnerable and clueless I feel.  The teachers do little to provide any reassurance.    
  During her first full week, I lock my bike in the courtyard.  I stare at the buildings and people around me.  I blink, then grasp my daughter’s hand and lead her through the crowd.  I walk her into the classroom and encourage her to choose a book from the table before she finds her seat.  Her hand is in her mouth, she hesitates.  She does not speak, but points to a book similar to the one we have at home.  She smiles when she sees it – it is something familiar, and slowly moves towards it.  Another girl in the class watches our interaction and moves swiftly.  She grabs the book, presses it to her chest, and rushes to her seat.  My daughter and I stand there, stunned.  I’m new at this.  I blink and encourage Cosette to pick another book.   Later, I ask the teacher about the interaction and explain that I found the girl to be a bit rude – and if that behavior was appropriate.  She shrugs as if to say, of course.  I cock my head as if to say, really?  “Oh yes, in America I suppose the classrooms are - how do you say – quite severe?” she challenges. I raise an eyebrow. 
   Weeks later, my daughter comes home with bruises on her arms.  “The boys at school grabbed my arms on the playground and would not let go.”  She says.  “My arms hurt, Mama.”  I ask who the boys were and what the teacher did.  I recognize their names.  They are 6-year old boys who tower above her.  She explains that the boys were sent to time-out.  I’m upset that 6-year old boys are beating up 4-year old girls on the playground, but more than that, I’m upset that the teacher didn’t bother to tell me.  V confronts the teacher the next day.  “Well, of course – I was not here yesterday,” (the teacher who prefers to not speak English to me works Mon-Wed, and this is Thursday’s teacher), “but I can tell you that. . . in America, I hear that you must sign a form for every little scratch,” and again.  A shrug.  Dumbfounded, V slinks away with the Paranoid American hat on that she’s just handed him.  He calls me and explains the interaction.  I’m livid – after 2 ½ years of learning, understanding, and embracing many facets of the Dutch culture, lectures in cultural shortcomings is not what I was looking for.  
Pregnant with 2 kids, pedaling my 'bakfiets' to Dutch school


June 2014 – In retrospect, I now realize the importance of researching the schools far in advance before children turn four years old.  Not all schools are created equal.  My husband and I are currently researching and weighing options for the fall.  As with many things, the Home in Leiden website has been an invaluable resource.  I have heard from many Dutch parents that the school Cosette attends currently has high ratings and a good curriculum.  Ultimately, I think our decision comes down to where we feel most comfortable, and of course, every child is different.  After such a positive experience with their Dutch preschool, I feel strongly that there’s a school out there that suits my daughter’s needs and makes me feel comfortable.  We just have to cross our fingers that we’ll find it and that the waiting list isn’t too long.  No one wants to be invisible.             

Hold on little girl
Show me what he's done to you
Stand up little girl
A broken heart can't be that bad
When it's through, it's through
Fate will twist the both of you
So come on baby, come on over
Let me be the one to show you
I'm the one who wants to be with you
Deep inside I hope you feel it too
Waited on a line of greens and blues
Just to be the next to be with you
       
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Thursday, June 12, 2014

ABC, Easy as One, Two, Three


August 2011 - The three of us glisten in the late evening sun.  North Texas has cooled to a balmy 88 degrees at 7:30 p.m.  “We’re close to the record – 60 days of over 100-degree heat.  I think we’re at day 56 or so,” V pants for air.  I nod.  Brace myself to speak.  It takes a lot of energy these days.  Baby Girl is comatose as we wield her stroller up and down the sidewalks.

Tanned and warm in Texas July 2011
“You know.  The Netherlands has probably never seen 100-degrees.  Ever.  In the history of the entire country.” I shuffle along the side walk.  My baby bump shortens my breath and hinders the spring in my step.  “Bump” being a conservative term – more like a beach ball by late August.  Flowers wilt in our neighbors’ yards as we pass.  Water conservation alerts in Plano mandate sprinkler systems can only be used once a week.  “The girl in Accounts Receivable asked again today,” I roll my eyes and attempt to shift the conversation away from the heat – although towards an equally dismal subject. 
“She didn’t,” V asks incongruously.
 “I swear – if she asks me one more time if I’m having twins, I’m seriously going to report her to HR. This has been the fourth time!  It’s not a difficult concept – small people give birth to normal sized babies.  I’m only 5 feet tall – there’s nowhere for the baby to go but OUT.  Duh!” I’m hot at the thought.  Lately, I’ve made a habit of waddling onto empty elevators at work and punching the door close button before anyone else can join me.  It’s the only opportunity I have for peace, otherwise I’m bombarded by questions in the claustrophobic space.  My cube is on the 9th floor – which proves to be plenty of time for the following seemingly innocent conversation to ensue: “Oh, when are you due?  Oh wow – October?  You look like you’re about ready to pop!” Which, on my good days, makes me want to want to ask about the progress of their own diet or fitness routines which have clearly failed.  On my bad days, I want to punch them in the face.  Most of the times I struggle a sarcastic smile and cock my head, which in the grand game that is Corporate America, isn’t much better than the former two options.  Good thing I’m moving to the Netherlands in six months. Game Over.  “You know what would be awesome?” I say to V as we turn the corner.  I see the shining promise of pink bricks basking in the sunset.  We are steps away from relief - A/C, Texas Rangers, and my fluffy couch awaits.  The evening exercise in the form of walking around the neighborhood after dinner, is almost complete.  “You know how we’ve always wanted three kids.” (V nods in agreement.  At the time, we are blissfully unaware of the challenges of two children.)  “Wouldn’t it be great if we could extend the rotation another year then have our 3rd child in the third year?  Imagine!” The idea formulates in my head and grows rapidly.  “No miserable Texas heat.  No one to bother me about how big I am.  I probably won’t even be working!  We wouldn’t have to tell anyone.  I could possibly, finally enjoy a pregnancy without having to hear all the ‘oh wow, you’re so big’ nonsense! And then, when we come back, I could get a job. . . or not. . . but either way, we’ll have it all out of the way!  Since you never want to start a job and then get pregnant six months later or whatever.” (Again, hands-on lesson learned in Corporate America).  “What do you think?” I say with as much excitement as a 7-month prego Mama can muster.    
Texas Rangers, couch, and A/C in Texas August 2011 
“Yeah!  Sounds like a good idea,” V nods and molds the idea with his own reasoning.  “We know the 1st year is going to be tough with this little guy,” he pats my beach ball affectionately. “But the second year should be awesome.  By the third year, we’d probably be ready to give it a go.” We grin like conspirators.  He puts his hand on the front door handle, gives me a sweaty kiss, and we enter into the cool of our living room.   

Winter 2013 “I always wanted three kids, until I had two,” my friend Alexandra laughs with me as we enjoy brunch over the holidays.  V is shuffling around the table refilling our coffee cups.  “Yeah – we knew the 1st year was going to be tough with Holden, but we didn’t expect the 2nd year to be tough with him, too.” We all laugh.  His curls are bobbing up and down the living room as he runs from one place to another for no particular reason.  Cosette is sitting quietly at her art table. “He’s put a damper on our plans.”  I smile.  I adore my son, but over the past couple of years, he’s definitely worn me out.  He’s dragging a dining room chair over to the TV.  He’s determined to get the remote controls I have placed out of his reach.  “But should we really let Holden determine our family size?  I mean, he’s not going to be this crazy forever.” (I hope!)  “I also don’t have a whole lot of time, me being in my mid-30s and all.”  I reason. 
“Oh, lots of people have kids in their 40s,” my friend Erin attempts to reassure a few days previously.  Pregnancy, amongst my expat friends, has been a hot topic.  I repeat the observation to Alexandra but shake my head.  “I already feel like I’m about 100 years old some days after chasing Holden around.” (Holden get down, no.  No remote.  Okay.  That’s good.  Curls race away. Vinny?  What’s he doing in the kitchen?  I hear him dragging the stool over to the sink!)  “Besides, I don’t want the kids to be too far apart in age and I’m worried if we don’t at least try, we’ll always regret it.  We’re so stubborn in our dreams.”  I raise my eyebrows at V and he pauses to smile and nod before returning the coffee pot to the kitchen.  “Oh, I don’t know. . .” Alexandra says, “Isn’t having a child an ultimate part of the expat experience, though?” She smiles. 
“True.  I mean – you only have a limited time to bear children.  We’re only in the Netherlands for a limited time.  It’s kind of funny that it corresponds.” I imagine myself with a cute baby bump in front of the Eiffel Tower, walking over the canals of Amsterdam with a sense of calm and purpose, and pedaling my bike around Leiden with 2.5 kids.  “It would be pretty cool.” I agree.  “Besides, we’ve always wanted three kids.  And who knows if it will even work.  We’ve had trouble before.  And surely, even if we do get pregnant, it will be a calm, sweet little girl.  The universe knows loveable, energetic Holden is all the boy I could handle.” 
January 2014 – I knew as soon as it happened.  In previous pregnancies, there’s a sense of wonder, confusion, and curiosity.  It wasn’t my first rodeo and I knew.  I felt horrible from Day 2.  Queasy, turned off by even one glass of wine (now you know something is wrong), and already tired.  By the time I took the pregnancy test, I was already showing.  V eyed my bump with suspicion.  “Yeah.  I’m pretty sure that’s not just. . . “ he trailed off.  I waited until the appropriate amount of days, anyway.  And while the pregnancy test instructions were in Dutch, French, and German, I didn’t bother translating.  The photos, and the pictures,
Baby Bump Feb 2014 - just a few weeks along
and resulting “zwanger!” line were clear enough.  I showed V the test and we both smiled and shook our heads in belief and disbelief.  Stubborn and successful.  He called and made an appointment with our general practitioner.
“So!  You come here because you are pregnant?” our family doctor asks.  “Yes,” I smile, a little sheepishly.  “This is good news, yes?” she is confused already.  “Oh no.  Yes, it is good news.” We say.  “You took a test, yes?”  Of course.  I nod.  “Oh-kay.  So. In the Netherlands what we do, is that we refer you to a midwife.  Unless.  There is a specific reason for you to see a gynecologist,” she shrugs and waves her hand.  I’ve heard this before.  Midwifes and home births are very common in the Netherlands.  It was the reason that scared me enough into giving birth to Holden in the United States.  I now know that home births are not common in the expat community.  “Actually,” I interrupt her dismissive waving hand, “I’ve had two C-sections.” This grabs her attention.  Natural births are also common in the Netherlands.  “Oh okay then.  That would be a reason to see a doctor.” She nods and takes out a pen a paper.  Time to get serious.  I’m glad she’s not going to fight me about this.  She interviews me about the details of my C-sections, my mother’s C-sections, and my sister’s birth experience.  She documents everything.  This is all important to state my case to see an actual gynecologist.  Whatever it takes.  In the end she says “Oh yes.  You have a very special case.  You definitely need to see a doctor.  Call tomorrow.  He should see you in about three weeks.”  My brow furrows.  Special case and three weeks do not add up in my head.  That means I won’t see the doctor until I’m nearly ten weeks along. I feel absolutely horrible, which of course is a good sign.  But I’m already showing and have questions – is it twins? Is it developing properly? What about my hCG levels? “Do you want to take my blood or anything?” I ask. 
“Oh no!” (Dismissive hand again)  “That would be too much trouble to transfer the results.”  The doctor’s office is next door to the hospital which houses the gyno. “You took a home pregnancy test, correct?” 
“Yes, of course.” I nod again.

“Then you’re pregnant.”  She smiles, shakes my hand, and ushers me and my husband to the door.  And with that ‘official’ assessment, my most courageous or crazy adventure yet, begins. . . 

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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Thanksgiving

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)