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!

Home: One Year in the Netherlands

Hello again, readers! I’m currently in the middle of writing part two of my Childhood in the Netherlands series. I am in fact, pretty excited to get all of my thoughts on the Dutch education system out into the world. Spoiler alert: I have a lot of positive things to say. However, I realized late last week that a very important date was approaching and I felt it necessary to commemorate it with a post. Today, June 13, 2019, marks our one year living in the Netherlands anniversary!

To mark the occasion, we decided to go downtown for a family date night. We rode our bikes around, took a photo in front of St. Bavo’s, and had dinner at an Irish pub. Maybe you could argue an Irish pub is a strange choice to mark this occasion, but they have philly cheesesteaks (yup, also ironic I suppose), and I really wanted one… so there you go.

I don’t think I owned a raincoat before we moved here… now we have the family collection

Looking back on the past year I’d say it’s gone by extremely quickly, and has been pretty transformative. I might even say as transformative as the year Joe was born? Newborn… new country? Which one is more shocking to your sense of self? That’s too deep of a question for me today, so as Tyrion Lannister said, “Ask me in ten years.” Side note– that obviously means there is already a GOT sequel in the works for 2029, right?–

So over all, I’d say this past year has been a time of slow adjustment. Luckily, and perhaps not surprisingly given his young age, Joe adjusted faster than anyone. Heck, he’s pretty close to fluent in Dutch now, he thinks herring is tasty, and he rides his bike like a boss… just give the kid a Dutch passport and call it a day. For the adults however, it’s still a work in progress. I’m pretty sure it took me six months to figure out the small things, like where the brown sugar is kept at Albert Heijn (next to the coffee, and it’s called bastered suiker 😲). Big things, like how to efficiently pay your taxes, still require us to hire someone to help.

Happily adjusted Joe

Despite the uncertainty and general sense of discomfort that a year of feeling out of place will do to you, there are so many things I really love about my new home. It was hard to do, but I’ve paired the most important down to this:

  • It’s beautiful Seriously, when I named my blog “This Place is Nice”, it was for good reason. There’s this very casual beauty pretty much everywhere you go. Flowers sprout up out of the cracks in the sidewalks, cows and sheep keep you company as you ride your bike through wooded paths, and there were so many rainbows this past winter I lost count.
  • It’s simple I mean this in the best way. It’s a little like stepping back in time. Children ride their bikes outside with their friends, families have dinner together, omas and opas pick their grandkids up from school and take them out to the park. Work/life balance is very important here. Many people work only four days a week so they can spend more time with their families, or pursuing other interests. “Papadag” (a day set aside for dad’s to take off work to be with their children), is quite common as well.
  • It’s safe Of course, whenever I say this, I always preface that I know anything can happen anywhere. I lived in major US cities all of my life, so I’m certainly not naive to crime. With that said, I feel very safe here. If you watch the local news, the most commonly reported crime is bike theft. Gun laws are very strict, with gun ownership seen as a privilege rather than a right. As a parent, and a decent person with half a brain, this helps me sleep better at night. In fact, the prisons here are so underpopulated, many are closing and being reopened as art centers, hostels, or refugee housing. Ironically, I have actually seen more fist fights since moving here than I can ever recall seeing in the states. My theory is that people are more comfortable to duke it out because they aren’t worried the other guy has a gun?! Either way, I’ll take a few people throwing punches in the Ikea parking lot (true story), over mass shootings anyday.
  • It’s home Get ready for a pretty mushy story. I was recently reflecting on what “home” means to me. We’ve moved around enough that I have yet to connect it to one specific place. I guess that hipster song “Home” is true to me- it’s wherever I’m with you (the Joe’s). However, one day many months ago I came across a little sentimental treasure I’ve carried around for years. It’s a small seashell dove that was at one time one of many that hung from a wind chime. A dear friend of mine, who sadly passed away very unexpectedly while we were teenagers, gave it to me shortly before he died. I had the wind chime hanging in my bedroom but it fell not long after he died, and all of the doves except one shattered. I wrapped the lone survivor up and have carried it around all of these years. I told myself I’d hang it up again when I found the right “home”. We moved apartments many times over the years, even buying one and staying in it for a record breaking three years, but those places never felt right. Well guess what? When I found the dove months ago, I immediately knew it belonged here. I gave it a nice spot hanging in the sunny kitchen window. When I look at it, it makes me smile, and I can’t help but think…this must be home.

Little dove has finally found a home

Well, that’s all I have to say for now. I hope I’ve done this lovely little country some justice with my words. I’m incredibly grateful to be here.

Mijn fiets(en): A reluctant love story

So it feels only right that one of my earliest posts here should be dedicated to something that might be the most Dutch-ish thing in existence: the bicycle. Or to be accurate in my case… bicycles.

There are a few things that made our transition from America to the Netherlands easier than it may be for the average American family. First off, we did not have to downsize our life from a typical suburban-American home to a narrow little Dutch house. Coming from Chicago, we lived in a two bed, one bath condo– and our only outdoor space was a back deck shared with our neighbor. Our front yard was literally a bus stop and a donut shop. So needless to say, moving into a our current four bed, two bath home– with a real garden, AND a storage shed feels like we stepped up into a mansion. Although to be fair, I do sometimes miss the donut shop.

Besides this, and maybe most importantly, we didn’t have to adjust from the normal American car culture. We have not owned a car since 2005, and in fact, I have not driven a car at all in 14 years. My last memory of driving a car was sometime in early 2005, right before we moved from Atlanta to Chicago. I was coming home from work, took a turn a little too quick, and totally blew out a back tire. I somehow managed to pull into a Burger King parking lot and had to call Joey to take a taxi and help me out. We sold our car shortly after, and relied on public transportation in Chicago. I also developed a pretty high tolerance for walking long distances. If it’s somewhere I can get on foot in an hour or less, I’ll often opt to just walk instead of paying for transit. The major bonus of this was I almost immediately dropped 15 pounds and kept it off. Forget no carbs, try the no-car diet! If you want to eat pretty much whatever you want, just get rid of your car!

Of course, we’ve rented a car or moving van a few times since, but I am never the one to drive. My aversion to cars is pretty much ingrained in my personality now. If I ever have to live in a city without good transit I hope self-driving cars are a real and affordable thing.

So, from 2005-2018 I lived in places where I took buses, trains, my feet, or the occasional Uber to get around. Moving here last June, I knew cycling was the preferred method of transportation, and luckily I had some practice with a mom bike (bike+kid seat) back in Chicago. We would often ride around in the parks or lake path, but never on the main city streets. I was feeling pretty confident in my cycling abilities because of this, and so I went out and bought a fully loaded mama fiets complete with a kid seat in the back, and a big basket in the front. I was so pleased with my purchase I gave her a name I once considered for Joe had he been a girl: Louisa May.

Lovely Louisa May in her original set up.

This was all fine and dandy, until a few days after I purchased her. I went to the supermarket alone, and loaded up with two bags of groceries: one bag in the big front basket, and one bag strapped into the kid seat. I pedaled out into the bike lane, felt the front of my bike tilt to the side, and despite my best efforts, was unable to stop from totally crashing into a dumpster. A very nice lady helped me up, and luckily I was unharmed. Unfortunately, I did lose about 8 euros worth of blueberries when the containers burst open.

This obviously wasn’t a major accident but it did leave me shaken and scared when riding my bike. To make matters worse, a few weeks later I unexplainably lost control of the bike once more while Joe was riding along. Luckily, he always wears a helmet (even though this is very abnormal here), and the only tears he shed were for his potato puff snacks that burst open on the ground.

These two events in a few weeks time left me feeling very unsure and unhappy with my biking skills. Joey suggested a smaller/lighter bike might help, and I agreed. The thing is, at 5 feet 2 inches tall, I am much shorter than the average Dutch woman. In most bike shops, the salespeople laughed and said I’d have to either special order a bike, or try a kids bike. Finally, I came across a second hand 26″ “EZ Step” bike a few weeks later. The “EZ Step” part means the frame looks like a weird low U, and is meant for the elderly and people with “limited mobility”. At this point, I had no shame and happily purchased the old person bike.

While I originally intended to sell my old bike, I took it out for a ride when the child seat and basket had been removed and realized how easy it was to pedal! I slowly felt my confidence return, and I began to feel excitement rather than dread when going out for a ride. In the end, I decided to split the bikes up with two functions: the “EZ step” with a child seat for towing Joe around town, and my original Louisa May for grocery shopping and everyday riding sans-kid. I moved the big basket to the back of her and this helped keep the balance even.

After many months of unease, and some minor accidents… I am now feeling the love for my bike(s). Even though I have a bus line right outside my door, I now choose to take my bike almost everywhere because it saves money and keeps me healthy… but honestly it’s mostly because cruising through the beautiful streets of Haarlem in really enjoyable on a bike. I can also say I finally get why people back in America love their cars too… it’s very freeing to be able to hop on your wheels and go!

She’s dropped the May, and goes by just Louisa now. She’s a cool mom bike, carrying beer, wine, and the occasional pirate ship in her basket.
The new May. She is a serious mom bike, and functions only for carrying little Joe from point A to point B.