Back to Reality

So about two weeks ago I joined the world of working people again. Yes, my glamorous life as a stay-at-home-mom in a beautiful European city has come to an end… and can you believe it… it wasn’t actually that glamourous. I think I expected I’d have all this time to explore Haarlem and beyond. Maybe paint a masterpiece by a canal? Become a regular visitor at the Rijksmuseum? Master the Dutch language?

The truth is… I did explore a lot of Haarlem– mainly in search of the best croissants and American-style pancakes, but there is still a lot of the city I am clueless about. “Beyond” included a few visits to Amsterdam… and that’s about it. I mean really, why is it that the 6.5 hours a day kids are in school (when it’s not a half day of course) goes by so insanely fast? By the time I took the 15 minute train trip into Amsterdam and worked myself out of the crowded rings, I swear it was time to turn around so I wouldn’t be late for school pick up.

As for the other things, I did not paint a masterpiece. I mean, I can’t paint at all so what was I thinking? However, I did purchase a charcoal pencil and drew a really cute cat named “Beans”. She was only cute that once though, I can’t really draw her again. Is anyone interested in buying the rights to this adorable character? Send me a message, she may be available for a low low price. As for the museums, other than Joe’s beloved train museum, I am a regular at none of them. And my Dutch? Well, I did sign up for a pricey course… but unless you count my good friend (you know who you are 400 euro friend!) I gained nothing before I dropped out. I’m mostly learning the language from my five-year old now. He’s a decent, if impatient teacher…but he’s free so I’ll take what I can get.

Not a Dutch Masterpiece

So overall, I’d say the dream did not match up to the reality of the past year at home. I think I also forgot that doing stuff and going places usually costs money, and you know… not working means you’re not making money. Despite the very many things I did NOT do with my year off, there are two things I did accomplish. First, and most importantly, I made friends. Through a combination of Joe’s school, and some very lovely expat groups– I’ve met some very nice people. People I genuinely, truly enjoy and want to spend time with. Not that I didn’t have people like this in my life before, but I honestly had a lot less. I guess there’s nothing like feeling completely out of place to make you push yourself to be a little more social.

As for my second accomplishment… well you’re looking at it. Starting this blog might not seem like that big of a deal, but believe me when I tell you it is for me. I am the most technologically unsavvy millennial that lives (yes, just barely, I think I qualify as a millennial). In my home, I am in fact known as the breaker of all things tech. So while the writing part isn’t so hard, the fact that I researched and learned how to actually publish my words is nothing short of a miracle.

Now that I’ve returned to work, I recognize that these two accomplishments will take effort to maintain. As a teacher, I’m not surprised that that the first weeks of school have been very busy for me. This is always the case. I’m hoping soon I’ll be able to take a breather and spend more time with both my friends AND this blog. They both make me very happy.

In regards to my new job, I really want to talk to you about the commute. As you may or may not know, I lived my adult years up until 2018 in New York City and Chicago. In both of these places I had no car, and relied on public transport. In NYC I can recall seeing another human being literally sitting down and taking a dump on the subway not once but TWICE. In Chicago, the smell of urine and general sense of danger you felt riding the train was daily. As you can imagine, transport in the Netherlands is quite different.

I start my morning commute with a leisurely ten minute bike ride from my home to the train station. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know that this process also includes at least five minutes of high-fiving through the window with Joe as I load my bike up. During these rides I am learning the fine art of bike riding while wearing a dress. For example, I have learned that rather than the length of your dress, it is actually the weight of the fabric that will determine if you can ride without flashing.

This is my current favorite dress. It is great for recreating movie scenes, but not for bike riding.

Once I’ve arrived at the station, I park my bike in the massive fietsstalling. This includes trying not to kill myself as I maneuver my bike onto the upper racks that are obviously built for people much taller and stronger than myself. On a good day, a very kind fellow commuter might see me struggling not to die and help me. This always make me very happy, but it happens only occasionally.

Nothing brings terror to my heart like parking my bike on the top rack

Once on the train to Amsterdam I finally get to relax in my plush seat and enjoy the lovely scenery. This includes fields of sheep, cows, and horses, with the occasional canal or lake interspersed for good measure. Pulling into AMS Centraal is like something out of a movie with the beautiful churches and crooked row houses crowded around.

From there, I switch to the metro (subway) and it is so hilariously unlike any other subway experience I’ve ever known. First of all, it is clean. No pee, no spilled coffee, and definitely no poop. Rather than screaming about the coming apocalypse, my current fellow commuters are all calm and nicely dressed, and I’m pretty sure one I see regularly is a famous ballerina. With all that said, you do pay a pretty penny for this nice transportation experience. And while the classical musical piped through the speakers is a nice touch, it really doesn’t compare to the bucket drum guys who hang out in Union Square.

On a final note, you may wonder how Joe is adjusting to my return to work. Well, he started asking a month into last school year if he could just stay at school longer. This was after informing me that I provided pretty boring after school entertainment. So he’s in a class now that teaches him how to cook. He makes his dinner with the teacher and friends, and they eat it together. It’s pretty great that I can pick him up and just hang out rather than rushing to make dinner too. On other days, he goes to a place with a ton of toys and cool outside play spaces. My first week back it was broiling hot, so I rushed home at the end of the day to pick him up, thinking he’d be very unhappy. When I arrived at the club he was literally eating a popsicle while chilling in his underwear in an inflatable pool. Instead of being happy to see me he said “I’m not done in the pool yet. Can you come back later?” So yeah, I’d say he’s doing well.

I’m hoping to find the time to write here again soon. The idea of raising a bilingual kid (when I’m not bilingual myself) has really been on my mind a lot lately, so I’m thinking I might let those ideas out soon. Until then, happy back to school everyone!

“This day is my best”- A Visit to the Spoorwegmuseum

Well, seeing as the summer holidays are halfway over (!) I thought it a good idea to share a new “Things to do with kids” suggestion. If you ask my five year old, he will in fact say that this suggestion is “my best”– and if you also have a train-obsessed kiddo, I think they will agree. If you’re into trains and/or history yourself… or just interested in anything that will keep your child happy and not complaining for 5+ hours… I highly recommend Utrecht’s Spoorwegmuseum (translation: Railway Museum).

A boy in his best place

As I’ve mentioned before, if you live in the Netherlands (with or without kids), I cannot recommend enough that you get yourself a Museumkaart. The Spoorwegmuseum is one of more than 400 museums that you can get into with it. Other examples range from the obscure (Pipe Museum, Museum of Bags and Purses), to the very well known (Rijksmuseum, Anne Frank House). Also, I think it’s pretty adorable that you can find a “Museum Match” on the website… it’s basically personals for people looking to find museum friends. (If you have a moment you should read a few, I like the “elegant woman”, and the person planning a museum heist.)

So now that I’ve convinced you to get a museumkaart, let’s talk trains! The Spoorwegmuseum is located in Utrecht, which I’ve heard is a pretty happening town. I’m not a very cool person at this point in my life, so I can’t say if this is true or not… I just know there were lots of young people in hip clothes, and some fairly diverse (for the Netherlands) restaurants. So yeah, it’s probably a cool town. If you’re going with your kids ignore all this, and head right to the museum. It’s a pretty quick tram ride and scenic walk from Utrecht Centraal, so maybe take a quick peek at the cool stuff as you pass, and plan a non-kid visit for another day!

You’ll see as you arrive at the museum that it is partly in an old train station. On first arrival, I thought the train station was the museum in its entirety. This portion is entirely free to enter, and includes many old/restored trains that will make you sad you missed the good old days of glamourous travel (seriously, where is my crystal ashtray and mid-century modern sofa NS?!)

I could get a lot of fancy work done here. Or take a fancy nap.

Also of note, the bathrooms in this part of the museum are stunning. That’s right, I’d say the bathrooms alone are worth a visit. In an effort to not look like a complete weirdo, I did not take a photo while in the bathroom… but let me tell you– the beautiful tile work and polished wood bench/toilet things are #bathroominspo.

After you’ve admired the bathrooms you can head across the crossing gate to enter the modern (and deceptively large) portion of the museum. This is the part where you’ll have to pay or whip out that handy museumkaart! In addition to the many old trains you’d expect to find inside, Joe and I were most surprised at the high quality rides and interactive exhibits also there. Joe’s favorite was this kind of roller coaster/nightmare train thing. We rode it probably five or six times, and I still can’t entirely explain what was happening other than at times it seemed you were going to be hit by a runaway train, and it ended with a birthday/anniversary party for some mannequins? Ok, I’m probably not really selling this to you very well… I guess you’ll just have to trust me when I tell you it was a fun ride.

Other highlights included a weird elevator ride back in time to visit the first train that connected Amsterdam to Haarlem. I thought we were entering a tiny closet until it started moving and suddenly we were let out in a Hollywood-quality old timey movie set. Joe was legit convinced we went back in time and he enjoyed the idea until I told him kids back in that time had to get jobs shoveling coal.

Haarlem/Amsterdam connection probably took awhile in the 19th century

Once you’ve seen enough trains and can’t handle one more second on the nightmare ride, head on over to the cafe. There’s some decent options including sandwiches, salads, good coffee, and perhaps a much needed mini bottle of wine. After you’ve picked up your food head outside for the very best part: the playground/train ride/outdoor dining area. Sit back and relax with your mini bottle while your kid runs free at the playground, or rides the kids-only (yay!) train.

I got up to take this photo, but mainly I sat while this went on for a long time

Ok, so some cliff-notes on the place if that’s how you prefer your info:

  • What/Where: Spoorwegmuseum Utrecht, Maliebaanstation 16, 3581 XW Utrecht
  • How much will it cost? FREE with the Museumkaart, or € 17.50 for everyone over the age of 3 if you don’t have one.
  • Is there food? Will my kid(s) eat it? Of course! There is an above-average museum cafe with the things you expect… but the outside dining/play area makes it special.
  • What can kids do? Have the best day of their life?
  • What can parents do? Enjoy a museum that’s actually interesting to the entire family. Admire fancy bathrooms. Savor a delicious latte while your kid rides the little train over and over again.

Well, I hope I’ve convinced you to make the trip out to Utrecht and check this place out. To say we’ve already been twice when there are literally hundreds of new places on our bucket list says a lot. I’ve enjoyed both visits, and it’s left such a lasting impression on Joe that he often recreates it with his legos.

You won’t need a map if you just study this lego model

I’m excited to say that I’m returning to working life in a few weeks. Because of this, I’m planning a little self-reflection on my year at home for my next post. As you can probably guess, staying at home (even in a new European home) isn’t all it’s cracked up to be…

Childhood in the Netherlands: Education

Hello! This post has been much longer in the making than I intended. The reason is actually related to the topic however. I’ve been busy with interviews and such, but I’m happy to say I’ll be teaching Group 1 (Pre-K) next school year at an international school in Amsterdam! It is a Dutch International Primary School, which means that while the teaching is in English, it is subsidized by the Dutch government, and part of the public school system. (Side note: many types of “speciality” schools- Montessori, Waldorf, Dalton, religious- are publically funded here. Choice in education is highly valued). Because of this, I will get to know the education system from two perspectives now: as both a parent and teacher.

Joe is completing his first year here (today in fact!), and so I have a year of interesting observations to write about. The vast majority are quite positive, with just a few things I’ll have to get use to.

Before I dive into this, I realized I neglected to mention some of the really great benefits available for children/families in my last childhood post. In an effort to help those who may be moving here, this is a brief list with links for more information:

  • Health insurance is free for children until the age of 18.
  • There are a variety of child benefits to apply for. Some are income depended, some are not– examples include:
    • Children’s Allowance (a quarterly payment that shows up in your bank account based on the age of your child/children). In our case, we receive about €200 every 3 months. You receive this amount for every child you have, and this is not income dependent.
    • Child Budget (income dependent, single parents receive more)
    • Childcare Benefit (monthly, income dependent allowance for daycare, and/or afterschool care). In our case, around 50% of the after school fees will be covered.

Joe: Already jaded by the beauty around him. Also could care less that his health care is free. Let him know when snacks are free, then he’ll care.

Now! On to the show! Reflecting on this first year of Joe’s Dutch school experience I have many positive feelings. His school is lovely, his teachers, his friends… everything about it has made our move 100x easier. As a preschool teacher, I have seen how resilient and quick to adapt young children can be. We knew if we wanted to make this big move, earlier was better in regards to Joe’s language acquisition, and of course his social adjustment. Despite my insider experience, I couldn’t help but worry that Joe would be an outsider, and unable to adapt. Well, here we are on the last day of school and I can say he’s proved that worry wrong. He received a great end of the school year report, he’s made many friends, and overall enjoys school very much. Any complaints he’s had are nothing out of the ordinary for any five year old (Why won’t the teachers let me bring my ear-bursting remote control dump truck to school?! They’re so mean!)

In regards to his language, he seems to be what I’d call school-fluent. He understands and speaks Dutch very well in his school/play environment. When he has friends over for playdates, I honestly have no clue what’s being said. They could be plotting world domination for all I know. At the playground recently a child approached big Joe and I, and began telling us about his “Poesje” (cat). We smiled and nodded, assuming he was telling us some nice story about his cat. Joe informed us however, that the kid was actually telling us his old cat got sick, and died…… oops. Thank goodness for our translator, we quickly changed our expressions to a sorrowful frown.

A compliment from school: “You already speak Dutch well”. Note the greasy fingerprints (pretty sure he carried it around all day).

In addition to saying that Joe is doing well, and I am proud of him… here’s a list of some of the more interesting things I’ve observed so far:

  • Expectations are different Joe just finished Group 1, or the equivalent of Pre-K. His year was entirely play-based, and focused on social/emotional skills. Academics (pre-math, pre-reading, etc.), were woven into play naturally, and were only a very small part of his year end report. I believe (and hope!) that most Pre-Ks in the states are similar. All of the ones I taught at were (or I wouldn’t have taught there!). The biggest difference however will be this next school year. He will be entering Group 2 (Kindergarten). Unlike most public schools in the states, this year is not when formal reading and writing instruction is introduced. Group 2 is another year of play-based, social/emotional focused learning, with gradual exposure to academics based on the children’s interest. Group 3 (First Grade), is when more formal instruction begins. If a child is not ready for this type of learning, they can repeat some or all of Group 2. There seems to be a lot less stigma regarding repeating grades (aka doing what is developmentally appropriate for individual children). Also of note, homework is not assigned until Group 5 (Third grade), and even then it is limited to once a week.
  • Traditions are important There are a variety of holidays, events, and traditions that seem to be very important to Dutch culture. As a result, these things are very much a part of the education system. Sinterklaas, for example–a rightfully controversial, but very joyful Children’s celebration–seems to literally take over the schools from mid-November-December 5. I am sure I’ll write an entire post in the future on this one! It’s huge. Sint Maarten (a kind of beautiful, less commercialized Halloween), Koningsdag (the King’s birthday), and children’s/teacher’s individual birthdays are all given a lot of attention as well.
  • There are many special events Sports Day, parties, musicals, the list goes one. My very favorite events were the Christmas dinner, and the School Disco (yes, the word disco is used to mean a dance). For Christmas dinner, the children and teachers dressed up in their best (some in suits!), and brought a dish to share for a special dinner after-hours. The lights were dimmed, with only child-made candles and the Christmas tree lighting the rooms. While the children dined with their peers and teachers, parents were invited out to the courtyard for socializing, and hot mulled wine. It was very, super, gezellig. The School Disco, held in February, was a themed after-hours dance for all students (divided by age groups). The gym was decked out like a prom, and children came without their parents for some dancing and snacking. I thought it was pretty amazing that my four year old was attending his first dance, I didn’t have one until middle school!
  • Practical skills are taught In addition to the traditional academics you’d expect, there is also an emphasis on important life skills/knowledge within the Dutch education system. Examples include cycling safety (I often see masses of children wearing safety vests biking around the city with their teachers), swim lessons (all children are expected to receive a swim diploma), and sex education in every grade- yup, that includes the four year olds! I consider myself a progressive educator, but even I was stumped at how the school would address this topic with the youngest children. The answer is of course, in a very honest, but developmentally appropriate way. “Spring Fever” took over as a theme for an entire week in April, and each grade had specifics to learn. Joe’s first introduction covered the basics- focusing primarily on safety…private parts are private, and what is and isn’t acceptable. What I was most impressed with however, is that the program also discusses the idea of love, and what people may do when they love each other. Essentially, it’s laying the foundation for the years to come when the students are taught that sex is something that happens in a loving relationship. It is completely normalized, with very important aspects, like mutual consent and enjoyment, emphasized.

Just your average preschool reading material…

So these notes I’ve made are but a few of the things I have really enjoyed as a newcomer to the school system here. Of course, there are a number of things I’m still working to get use to (and don’t necessarily love…) Some of these things are:

  • School scheduling is very different Joe has not one, but TWO half days a week. At first, I thought this was because he was young, and maybe they wanted the little ones to get some rest. But nope… I realized about a month into the school year that EVERYONE leaves at noon on Wednesdays and Fridays. This is both a blessing and a curse. Of course, it’s wonderful that the kids don’t spend all of their productive hours at school… there is time for playdates, chilling at home, swim lessons, judo… and of course, perusing the grocery store in large, noisey gangs (a popular pastime with kids 12 and up). You might ask: how do the children have time to learn anything? The answer is simple: summer break is not the average 2.5-3 month break it is in the states. It’s 6 weeks. Yup, I’m ok with this as a parent for obvious reasons… but as a teacher, this will take some serious getting use to.
  • There is a “school doctor” and they work together with teachers and families. What’s wrong with this? Well, nothing really… I suppose it’s quite practical. But I have to admit, when I went in for Joe’s first teacher conference and the teacher had doctor’s notes that I had not even seen yet myself…I was pretty shocked. Everything was fine in our case, but I just can’t imagine this happening in the U.S. There are some pretty legit reasons why you may want your child’s medical records kept separate from their school’s… so it’s definitely something I’m still adjusting to.
  • I have been warned about standardized tests Yes, even a really warm, progressive, and individualized education system like we have here… there is no escaping THE TESTS. I have not had the time or brain capacity to fully explore how they work. I just know they’re coming, and a lot of people don’t love them.

Whew! I feel like I said a lot in this one. Thanks for sticking with me or at least skimming the headlines like I usually do. I hope I’ve helped someone out with this information… or at least entertained you with the photo of the sperm picture book. If you’re interested, it IS available in English- under the amusing name Where Willy Went.

Stay tuned for my next post soon- I’m planning to share Joe’s #1 favorite “best day of my life” thing to do in honor of summer break!