My Freedom, My Individuality, The Catalonia within me

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img_8802When we visited Barcelona three weeks ago, my excitement was threefold: 1) I was there to celebrate my brother- and -sister-in-laws 25th wedding anniversary; 2) I was about to revisit La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, a magical place I have kept alive in my memory since my first visit 13 years ago and 3) I was finally going on vacation.

I remembered Barcelona as a beautiful, thriving, architecturally stimulating city of friendly people. I remembered La Sagrada Familia as a sacred space in the middle of the city that brought me such as sense of calm and well-being that I had no doubt that God was present within its walls.

Would Barcelona and La Sagrada Familia live up to my memories? Or had I blown that first visit completely out of proportion?

We arrived at night and were whisked off to the family apartment, where we stayed up late enjoying the company of half of my husband’s immediate family. It wasn’t until the next morning that we ventured out into the city. After a lovely morning exploring a local flea market, followed by a too-short visit to a national museum, we headed to La Sagrada Familia in time for our afternoon reservation.

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Sometimes expectations and built up anticipation are the perfect recipe for disappointment. But the funny thing about La Sagrada Familia is that it will never be exactly as someone remembers it, since it has been undergoing construction since 1862 with estimates of completion in 2026. Although several architects have worked on it throughout the years, it is Antonio Gaudi’s organic design that defines the building we now see. He took over the project in 1883 and worked on it until his death in 1926.

As we waited outside in line, I looked to the exterior, awe firmly intact. But when we finally made it inside, tears filled my eyes. Despite the crowds, the heat, clicks of cameras and cell phones all around me, its sacredness had not diminished. If anything, it had expanded.

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In my second novel The Things We Said in Venice, travel vlogger Alexi visits La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona–one of many stops on her international trip. Here is a passage from my novel about this sacred place designed by Antonio Gaudi.

As she edges inside, the hushed murmurs of the crowd convey awe and wonder that mimics her own. The building is spacious, filled with light. Off-white columns rise skyward like trees. Flower-shaped stained-glass windows bathe the walls in gold, green and orange. The vaulted nave soars forty-five meters high. She has seen this sacred church in books, read about it online, but nothing could have prepared her for this moment.
~ Chapter 3, The Things We Said in Venice

Although Alexi is a fictional character in my novel, we nonetheless have a few things in common. We both like visiting churches when we travel, and we always light a candle for someone when we’re there.

During our visit, I lit a candle for Bud Tullis, a childhood friend’s father

A silly shot of me inside La Sagrada Familia, giddy with excitement

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My brother-in-law and sister-in-law were married in La Sagrada Familia, and thus part of the festivities was to attend a Catholic mass in the lower chapel of the church with friends and family on Sunday. The priest, who said he would mention them during the service, actually seemed to shape his sermon around love and commitment and called them out time and time again during the mass. To accommodate the visitors from The Netherlands (the majority of the groom’s family), they asked my husband to do a reading from the Bible in Dutch.

This lower chapel is at the basement level, thus visitors on the ground floor can peer over the balcony at the church-goers and observe the religious as a curiosity, or perhaps experience a moment of connection with faith.

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Image courtesy https://twitter.com/noticiesCAT

Something that intrigued me about Barcelona when I visited so long ago was the idea that two languages were spoken in this city: Spanish and Catalonian. I didn’t fully get the history of this difference at the time, but seeing signs throughout the city in two languages had made an impression on me back in 2004.

When we visited last month, we saw the Catalonian flag flying from balconies and saw signs with the flag throughout the city with the word “Si” printed above it. While sipping cava at the anniversary party at a beautiful restaurant, I asked my Catalonian table mate Marta J. about the Catalonian flag hanging from so many balconies and what the “si” was all about. She explained the long standing and ever-growing tensions between the Catalonians and the Spanish government. A large section of the Catalonian population wants independence, but the Spanish government is adamantly opposed to secession. The flag was a reminder to vote “Si” or “No” during the upcoming referendum on Catalonia seceding from Spain, even though the judicial branch of the government had deemed the referendum illegal / was not giving credence to Catalonia’s right to voice its will.

I thought of the beginnings of my own country of origin, how bloody hard our ancestors fought for freedom from the crown and how that freedom formed The United States. I felt sorry for the Catalonians, trapped within a larger country that did not honor their independence and apparently didn’t value their contribution to society.  It’s not like they could sail across the world and discover a new land and set up there. They were already home.

The tension between Catalonia and the Spanish government is nothing new, and somehow, in my short visit years ago, I picked up on that tension. In fact, it playfully made a cameo in my 2017 novel. In this passage, travel vlogger Alexi is filming a vlog post for her followers, and imparts a bit of cultural knowledge, while providing insight into her own character with Catalonia as metaphor.

“This city is beautiful, the people friendly, but there is a strange duality here. The signs are both in Catalan and Spanish. Catalan is a unique language quite similar to Spanish that is only spoken in four provinces known as the Catalonia region of Spain. The history of Catalonia and the reason for a separate language within Spain is a bit complicated, but just Google it and you can get the scoop.

“So I’m like Barcelona. I have two languages within me; two cultures coming together. I’m not talking about actual languages, but rather a duality of personalities. Although friendly and comfortable in one-on-one situations, I’m actually quite shy in my day-to-day life. I work in counseling, and my clients value me. But now I’m on a one-year sabbatical, discovering another me — my freedom, my individuality, the Catalonia within me.”
~ Alexi during a vlog post in The Things We Said in Venice

Our five-day trip to Barcelona ended the first week of September, but Barcelona was definitely in my thoughts as October 1st approached. This is the day Catalonians would attempt to vote for their independence from Spain.

This video from The Guardian gives a quick impression of how that turned out.

I, like many people throughout the world, was shocked to witness the violence in Barcelona captured on the news and social media. Just a few weeks earlier I had only witnessed sunshine, peacefulness and beauty. The police brutality and denial of the right for Catalonians to hold a referendum recalls harsher chapters in Spain’s history. Is this the face the Spanish government wants to show the world?

To add a little background, consider these words from the website Armstrong Economics: In the Spanish Civil War, General Francisco Franco abolished Catalan autonomy in 1938. Following Franco’s death in 1975, Catalan political parties concentrated on autonomy rather than independence.

A bit more research reveals that in 2006, this statute of autonomy was challenged by Spain’s high court of justice, and there have been growing protests throughout Catalonia ever since.

Will the international community come to Catalonia’s defense? Unless there are rich natural resources to usurp or threats of mass genocide, it seems the international community is rather reluctant to get involved in civil debates–though civil hardly seems like the proper term here.

Just as I was about to publish my post, a friend who had just had a romantic weekend getaway in Barcelona, sent me pictures from her trip. Based on the smiling faces, the gorgeous Mediterranean sea, the lovely touristic shots, life in Barcelona continues despite the protests on both sides.

One of the last shots she sent me seemed to be the perfect way to end this post.

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If you are interested in knowing more about my travel romance The Things We Said in Venice, please visit my other blog: www.authorkristinanderson.com. Or, visit Amazon to download a free sample, or what the heck, purchase one.

Signing off.

Kristin in Holland

 

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Family Night in Prison

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If I were to tell you one of the highlights of our summer vacation was spending a night in prison, would you think I’d completely lost it?

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But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Our vacation started out well enough. We arranged to stay at a house in Haarlem for five days and had done the preliminary work of picking up the keys and security codes. We packed the night before to make our morning departure easier. We slept in anyway, and still caught a train on time and easily made the transfer to the second train.

As we rolled our suitcases toward the Haarlem house, I could feel the idea of vacation settling into my shoulders. We were four blocks away when my husband suddenly stopped walking.

“I don’t have my bag!”

His suitcase was in his hand, our bag of snacks over his shoulder. My son and I both had our suitcases and backpacks, so there was a moment of confusion until I noticed that his black shoulder bag was not strapped to his body.

“How’s that possible?” I asked. Misplacing or forgetting items was my specialty, not his. He’s the one we entrust with all important things.

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The keys to the vacation house? OH CRAP!

“The keys to the vacation house are in that bag. Besides that, nothing of monetary value,” he claimed.

We called NS, the service that runs the Dutch train system and he precisely described where he had left his shoulder bag and provided a detailed list of its contents down to the red ball point pen in the outer pocket. They promised to call us if they found it.

If the bag was lost or stolen, we were in trouble. If they found the bag, it would take five days to mail it to us–either way, our vacation was looking like a bust.

But the day was still young and I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. If the keys were lost, we could still get a hotel for at least one night and explore Haarlem or maybe move onto another, less familiar city or village and have a mini-vacation. Or we could go home.

Remarkably, NS called us back within the hour and the bag had been found! Yippee! They could mail it to us within five days or we could pick it up . . . in Leeuwarden, way the hell up north.

Leeuwarden or Bust!

As the capital of the Dutch province Friesland, Leeuwarden is a historical city dating back to the 8th century. A percentage of the population doesn’t even speak Dutch, but Friesian. Ljouwert is how you say Leewarden in Friesian. Onward with my tale.

We arrived in Leeuwarden around 5:30pm and retrieved the missing bag without problem. The next challenge was finding last-minute lodging on a Saturday night.

I had called multiple Bed & Breakfasts and they were either fully booked or had a max of two people per room–thus no room for the kid. I found a decent, yet uninspiring hotel on the edge of town that still had rooms as back up, but I hoped to find something in the center.

Google maps reported there was a hostel 400 meters from where we stood. I had read about the Alibi Hostel earlier, but to tell you the truth, I’m not a hostel girl. I’m most peaceful and comfortable in a private hotel room that has its own bathroom and shower. With a hostel, you run the risk of sharing your sleeping quarters with a total stranger and having to leave your room in the middle of the night to visit the bathroom.

I ended my internal debate by calling the hostel to discover they had one private room left.  The man on the phone agreed to hold it for us until we had a chance to look at it.

We walked the four hundred meters and arrived at Blokhuispoort, our final destination.

We entered through the main portal of this massive building complex and followed the signage to Alibi Hostel through several construction zones. When we arrived, we were surprised to discover Alibi Hostel was a converted prison. Instead of downplaying this gruesome fact, they actually turn it into a selling point. Book a cell now!

The first prison at this location was built in 1580. The current building was constructed in the mid-1800s and renovated multiple times over the years. It stopped serving as an official prison in 2007 because it was no longer up to penitentiary code, but bad guys and gals had stayed in these cells up until just a decade ago.

img_7920We were led to our cell. It had one of those big iron doors, thick walls, black beds, bars on the windows–you know–like right out of a movie. But unlike the movie version, there was something hip and modern about these renovated cells.

It definitely said “prison,” but the smooth walls, new beds and fresh minimalism spoke of proper investment in turning this old penitentiary into something cool. I checked out the shower room and the women’s restroom. Both were immaculate. And did I mention that it was affordable?

“We’ll take it!”

 The beds were incredibly comfortable and even though there were bars in front of the window, you could still open them for fresh air. Room secured, we headed into Leeuwarden for dinner and a stroll through the city center.

We returned to Blokhuispoort around 10:00pm and ran into two men who showed us a more direct route to the hostel. Like the owners of the hostel, they were upbeat and friendly. In no time at all they were telling us about the restaurant they were opening in the next few weeks within the Blokhuispoort.

Young people hung out in the courtyard chatting, while a few other families were also returning to the hostel for the evening.

What was going on here? I learned over the course of the evening and following morning that the municipality had designated Blokhuispoort as a site for a cultural center, including a youth hostel.

I soon discovered that our hosts Peter and Jurrien (pictured below) were two of the four owners of the Alibi Hostel. Sjors and Marieke, who weren’t on duty that day, round out the team.

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The four friends had been talking one night at the pub and came up with the idea of opening a youth hostel in Leeuwarden. The idea stuck and they began doing research and trying to find a location, but weren’t having any luck. Then they saw an advertisement in the paper.

If I have my facts right, a national development company called BOEi purchased the entire Blokhuispoort complex from the municipality for one euro. You can’t even get a bottle of Cola for that price. Of course the developer has to meet the city’s vision of a cultural center, including ateliers, restaurants and a youth hostel. The renovation would cost millions and millions.

Because of the size and scope of the project, it is being finished in sections and the developer rents to different entrepreneurs, such as the four young friends who started the Alibi Hostel.

The hostel only opened 8 months ago, and a variety of businesses are slowly filling the other spaces, turning this old prison into a cultural hub, just as the municipality had hoped.

Hard to say why this is so appealing, but Alibi Hostel has style. The ground floor comprises a series of ateliers from tattoo shops to cheese shops and the stone, metal and glass create a hip, modern atmosphere.

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Despite the comfortable beds and almost soundproof rooms, we all had a bad night’s sleep. Could that have something to do with sleeping in a prison cell? Did the developer forget to call in a pranic healer to cleanse the energy in the rooms? Or did we just eat too much the night before?

In the morning, I ran into another guest who was visiting from just outside Utrecht. He and his family of four had nabbed two private rooms with double beds. He found the whole concept great and was impressed with the renovation. He’s pictured here relaxing in a small lounge next to a wall of barred windows. They slept just fine, by the way.

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In fact, everyone I saw seemed completely fine with being locked into a former prison cell and leisurely hanging around a facility with bars wherever you gaze.

So if you’re a die hard Orange is the New Black fan, or just want to know what it’s like to spend a night in prison without breaking the law, I highly recommend Alibi Hostel. It means a trip way the hell up north, but I must say, we quite enjoyed our cell and this Friesian city.

 

 

Presentation during 6-24-17 Parelroute 2017 Bezuidenhout

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img_7323Have you ever walked through your neighborhood and heard one of your neighbors playing live music and wished you could walk in and listen? Glanced into an open window to see art lining the walls of a ground floor residence and wished you could enter that home like a gallery? Or wished to enter that beautiful garden?

On Saturday, June 24th, you can follow that impulse in my neighborhood during the “Parelroute.” Starting at 11:00 and going until 4:30p.m. neighbors as well as five public venues will be open to the public to share their creative talents, from musical performances, painting and sculptor to ayervedic knowledge and fictional writing. Celebrating it’s ninth year, The 2017 Parelroute features 44 stops along the route. The only problem with the Parelroute is that there are so many cool things to choose from and just one day in which to do it all!

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I’m drawn to Katharina van der Leeden and the B-Project that will be held at the Christus Triumfatorkerk, Juliana van Stolberglaan 154 (above).

I would also like to see Elleke Davidse’s paintings (Van Reesstraat 61).

But perhaps some live music is a better use of my time. For example, I would like to catch the jazzy music of Bart Riemsdijk and friends at Spaarwaterstraat 17, or visit the nature town ATV Loolaan at Ijsclubweg 5.

Or maybe a workshop on making illustrations with Manuela Bianco?

Oh the choices!

As a resident of Bezuidenhout, I’m honored to be one of the “parels” this year as well. In addition to blogging, I’m an author of two novels, Green (2013) and The Things We Said in Venice (2017).  I will be reading from my second novel and sharing how living in The Hague influenced the narrative of this work of fiction. Too bad they put the wrong address in the brochure that went out to thousands of people (correct location is the Haagse Hout Library). Here’s a carefully revised brochure.

Here’s a link with the full schedule for the route (in Dutch).

Hope to see you on Parel dag!

Kristin

 

 

 

 

* Parel = pearl. Route = route.

The Passion Dutch Style

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When you’ve lived in a country long enough–even if you tend to live in a bubble or under a rock–eventually local cultural phenomena infiltrate your consciousness. As Easter approached this year, I had one of those moments where something that had vaguely hovered on the periphery a few years in a row suddenly punctured my little bubble and made it’s way in: The Passion–a live Christian rock opera of sorts combined with a silent march that occurs each year on Holy Thursday and is broadcast live on TV.

How did I find out about it? Through my church? No. Through my Dutch husband or friends? No. Actually, it occurred while I was reading a rather heart-wrenching New York Times article on my iPhone while waiting for my son to finish his guitar lesson. It was about a U.S. soldier who was imprisoned while suffering from PTSD. When I saw an advertisement pop up, I actually clicked on the ad as a means of postponing my knowledge of this one young soldier’s fate.

The advert took me to an article about The Passion 2017 that would be broadcast live that evening on television. You could virtually “join” the march online. My mind reached into its memory banks and excitedly announced that this “Passion performance” was something I’d come across before. Coincidentally, we had just resolved a technical issue with our television, which means I had access to TV once again. I put it on my digital agenda and hog tied my son into watching it with me.

To be honest, I’ve always been a bit skeptical of contemporary versions of Bible stories, but that night, I gave my critic a rest and settled into the couch to watch the live performance. I wasn’t alone. According to NOS news, 44 percent of all viewers who were watching television at that time were watching The Passion along with me! That equates to almost 2 million people. Another 16,000 were participating live in Leeuwaarden.

Considering The Netherlands has a population of approximately 17 million, that’s more than 10% of the nation! Almost twice as many people were tuned into The Passion as those tuned into the quarter finals of the European League soccer match between Ajax and Schalke. And the Dutch LOVE their soccer.

Jesus was played by Dwight Dissels, a tall, dark and handsome singer with an amazing voice.

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Photo: NRC.NL

A striking red-haired woman named Elske DeWall played Mary and she sang in Frisian, a language spoken in the Dutch province of Friesland in the North of The Netherlands. This was also quite fitting considering the concert was held in Leeuwarden, which falls within this province. Omri Tindal, a young man from Rotterdam with a rich musical career and fantastic hair, played Peter.

The entire performance was in Dutch (Frisian part was subtitled in Dutch), which meant that it was also like a musical Dutch lesson for me. Although many people say I’m close to fluent, I still can’t read the NRC newspaper without looking up at least 10 words per article. But the words used in this broadcast were completely within my grasp.

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Taken from the web (can’t find source. Sorry)

 

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(Taken from a blog, but can’t find source again! Sorry)

The cast was diverse, talented, energetic. I Enjoyed the entire performance and felt like I’d learned something that night about how the expression of religion doesn’t need to be confined to a church. I don’t view these sort of performances as a means of converting anyone, but it can certainly make an important religious story accessible to a broader segment of the population, and make it fresh to those who have heard it before. Well done folks!

Pornographic Chickens & War


The internet is life changing. Even though I live abroad, I can see my friend’s children growing up through Facebook (or at least get little glimpses), I can ‘meet’ bloggers from Chile, Canada and the United Arab Emirates and find groups of people with similar interests.  I can look up things on Wikipedia, read from multiple news sources, write my congressperson, take courses if I want and see chicken porn.

Yeah. Those last two words are pretty much a conversation stopper. I’ve known for years that there is a dark side to the internet; that wars can be funded online, terrorist actions planned and a whole lot of other bad stuff. But knowing it’s out there doesn’t mean I come across it. But violent chicken porn?

One innocent YouTube video of how to round up chickens was followed by another that started out as strange and soon spiraled into the equivalent of a Caucasian man promoting violent rape, using a chicken carcass as the surrogate woman. I won’t give the title, because I don’t want to give this seriously sick person any more attention than his video has already received (the hits are in the millions).

That’s bad enough. But worse is that it was right there in the middle of perfectly innocent videos and unless flagged, would not be blocked by parental controls such as “guided access” or “restrictions.” I flagged the video and asked friends to flag it as well. Perhaps it’s now blocked through parental control apps, but how many more of these sorts of retina burning images are out there? And who’s going to protect ME from them?

This is nothing compared to images of Syrian children, women and men dying from chemical weapon attacks or Egyptians in church on Palm Sunday being blown to pieces by a terrorist attack. These images will always be with me, but these awful deaths captured on film at least bring the world to tears and world leaders to action.

Do I wish I hadn’t seen these images? The part of me that wants to deny the darkness within our species would have preferred not to see this. But the part of me that knows reporters are risking their lives to get the news to us and that wants war crimes and terrorism to come to an end somehow believes that our collective knowledge of such suffering will be a catalyst for change. I unfortunately don’t have any links to support this, but I believe if we all write our governments and tell them that we find these acts unacceptable, we might add pressure to be the change toward peace.  One can at least hope this is the case.

These atrocious videos that promote rape on the home front are the types of things we, as a civil society, can certainly fight.

You can take action by flagging inappropriate content on YouTube, to save others from being exposed to this crap. Click here for YouTube’s instructions.

Here are some articles on setting up safety features:

Setting up restrictions on your iPad, iPhone, etcetera.
Setting up safety mode on YouTube.

I plan to continue being a member of the digital world, reading blogs, watching YouTube videos on topics of interest, writing books and blogs, participating in social media channels and watching the news. But I also plan to be more vigilant and do my part to flag inappropriate content and using the internet for connection and positivity.

Ostriches don’t actually hide their heads in the sand. Neither should we.

 

He Got me at Ambulatory, but What about Gimcrack?

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When we were first dating, my husband used complex English words, some of which I, as a native English speaker, didn’t even know.

Consider the word “ambulatory”, which means to the ability to walk about (thus not bedridden). I don’t know how ambulatory came up, but he correctly guessed the meaning at a time when I was struggling to come up with one. I think that might have been when I began to fall for the tall, smart Dutchman.

He’s a smart one, but it also has to do with the European education system and perspective. My husband attended “Gymnasium,” which is the equivalent of high school for university-bound students. Latin and Greek are part of the curriculum offered at this level, and many words in the English language have Latin or Greek roots. Due to the education he received as a teenager, he knew that the Latin word “ambulare” means “to walk or move about.” Thus ambulatory was a logical step in his reasoning. So he basically charmed me in my early thirties utilizing his high school education. (Just to clarify, he’s my same age, so this is not a cougar story of cradle robbing).

His knowledge of language also has to do with location.

Growing up in the west coast of the U.S., I could travel for two weeks straight across America and not encounter any other languages besides English and some occasional Spanish. In The Netherlands, you only need to travel for a few hours to reach another country with different laws, a different language, and it’s own set of cultural norms.Political-Map-of-Germany.png

If you live in a large Dutch city, you can have this same experience walking down the street. On any given day, I can hear Moroccan, Turkish, Spanish, Iranian, French, Arabic and other languages just by the common activity of walking my child to school.

My son’s school alone is filled with students from over 40 different countries of origin, yet it is a Dutch school. The children are discouraged from speaking other languages on the playground or in the classroom. Yet all of those kids have parents, who just like me, when they come home or leave the school, most likely speak to their children in their mother tongue.

The Netherlands is a small country, and with such a diversity of cultures just past the border, or within its borders, it only makes sense that multiple language acquisition is the norm.

As a lingua franca, English has a special place in this process of language acquisition. They start teaching English as a second language in school around the age of 8 or 9 years old.

When you live abroad long enough, you tend to learn the local language. I spend a good deal of my day speaking Dutch. Although it’s exciting to be able to communicate in Dutch, it also has a downside. As my brain acquires more and more Dutch, my English is surely but slowly eroding. That’s why I seek out other native-English speaking expats. It’s also why I signed up for Miriam-Webster’s Word of The Day newsletter.

Each day, I receive a new word in my inbox with a definition, examples of usage and the history of the word. Most of the time I know the word, and get a shot of native language confidence as I say to myself “already knew that!” But this morning a word showed up that upon first encounter, made me flicker my eyebrows: Gimcrack.

Before I even opened the email, I was forming definitions in my head: Gimcrack: 1) That unfortunate view one is exposed to when a plumber bends over to fix a sink, or 2) A person at a gym doing squats and accidentally displaying a portion of their buttocks, commonly known as crack.

To my relief, both of my definitions were wrong. Here is the correct definition:

Gimcrack (pronounced Jim krak): A showy object of little use or value: gewgaw.

Say what? Gewgaw? It’s a knickknack or in other words, a kickshaw or a tchotchke. Where do we come up with all of these words?

Try using Gimcrack in a sentence. It will either impress the socks off someone or earn you a misguided punch in the arm.

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Life Cycling

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Have you ever had one of those days where you feel as if that voodoo guy in Indiana Jones’ Temple of Doom has just reached in and pulled your heart from your chest, exposing it to the world for all its vulnerability and capabilities?

Today was one of those days. I got to keep my heart in the end, ripped and sore from the emotional work out, but with the chance of healing and being stronger.

It started with a visit to my French friend Fanny to meet her just over 2 week-old baby. Although I visited with Fanny when she was pregnant, this was the first time I saw her as a mom, that baby in her arms. I had forgotten how tiny little humans could be.

When she offered for me to hold her, I scooped her up, supporting her little wobbly neck, cuddling her to me. She was so light, so vulnerable, so fresh to the world with that new baby smell that speaks of a purity we can never quite reclaim.

“Her existence changes the world,” I said. “Not only has she dramatically changed your lives by coming into it, but she will say and do things in her lifetime that will change the world.”

“Yes. I totally agree,” my friend responded. We weren’t trying to be profound. Our exchange was in a way just pointing out the obvious. But sometimes it’s the most obvious things that can be revelatory.

I love holding babies, but today, this had an extra layer of significance.  I was celebrating the start of this small baby girl’s life, but in a few short hours, I would be attending a funeral of a friend who died at 42 years young.

As I prepared to attend the funeral, I thought of my friend Mart, how he wasn’t here on the planet anymore. His body remains, but he left Saturday, departing for the heavens. For once, I can write this with certainty. Not necessarily my own, but his. He was a lawyer with an analytical mind, but also a Christian. In the last few months of his life, his thoughts on God, on Jesus, gained clarity.

I have attended a half dozen funerals at our church in the last five years, but he was by far the youngest within our community to pass away. If you are one to think of and idealize your own funeral, this might have been the picture in your mind. The church, which can hold approximately 400 people, was completely full.  Beautiful music was played, the flowers spoke of honor and celebration, the children were called forward to light candles. We heard  inspiring, heart-opening and tear invoking stories of his life and beliefs recalled through his family members, wife, fraternity brothers, colleagues.

A common theme was his faith. At a time that many might raise their fist in the air at God and shake it with anger, his faith solidified, became crystal clear and simple. He knew he was going to God.

After the church service, the attendees cycled, caught a tram or drove to the Dutch cemetery, where our friend was lowered into “his final resting place.” Yet that is also a bit of an untruth; the vessel that held him has been lowered into the ground, but he has flown away.

That gravestone will represent a place to honor his memory, but he will live on in all of those who loved him and knew him.

As the day comes to a close, I think of his wife, mother, brother, sister, cousins, nieces and nephews, friends, colleagues. Those left behind. My thoughts focus most on his wife, a good friend of mine, and what this transition into a new phase of her life, without her beloved by her side, will be like. As I wrote that last sentence, a thought came shooting through me; ‘but she’s not alone. He is there with her in spirit. And she is surrounded by those who love her.’ 

So very true, yet my heart still hurts for her. This is the stuff that connects us to the life cycle and makes us aware of just how precious the gift of life is.

 

 

Good night Guineas

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We have two adorable guinea pigs. The first is an albino escape artist we acquired by accident. Our relatively large garden was used for outside activities during an Earth Day Festival in 2015 held at the neighboring church.

A woman who owns a small farm brought a dozen guinea pigs and created a mini petting zoo that Saturday. Three or four days later, my husband was looking out the window and a little blur of white caught his eye among the lush green of the garden.

“We have a rat in the garden,” he erroneously concluded. Our garden is the pooping ground of local neighborhood cats and visible from the sky should a bird of prey be flying overhead. Yet one little guinea pig had somehow survived all by herself in our garden for three days.

When we informed the farmer of the little Houdini in our garden, she asked if we wanted to keep her.

Our first reaction was “no,” but my son, who had spent most of Earth Day petting these lovable little creatures, had other plans.

He turned into a regular little salesman, promising the world to us if we would only keep the guinea pig. We explained all of the responsibilities that come with owning a pet. My husband made it clear he would not be taking on any of said responsibilities. My son listened to all of it and then looked us in the eye, as he stated his vows of guinea ownership.

“I promise I will feed it, clean the cage, pet her daily and love her.”

We shook on it.

At first, he took his oath seriously. He fed her, helped with cleaning the cage, petted her regularly, named her.

Oitje (pronounced O-Chee) made it into school “share and tell” reports, was a recurring subject in the stream of digital photos and those first few months, he only needed to be reminded once in a while to feed her.

But guineas aren’t exactly the most ideal house pet for a kid. They don’t greet you at the door in a rush of excitement, like a dog, or beg you for attention. They don’t jump on your lap like a cat and chase their tales. That would be a tall order, considering guineas don’t have tails.

In other words, all of the attention is a bit one-sided. You have to reach into that cage as they cower at your outstretched hand and swoop them up. You have to conduct mini guinea pig therapy sessions to calm them down. Eventually, they purr like a cat, and they are cute and cuddly, but . . . .her life seemed a bit sad.

We went online to see if our guinea might be depressed. Research indicated that guinea pigs are social creatures and live  much longer, happier and healthier lives if they are in the company of other guineas.

A trip to the same farm resulted in guinea pig number two. In contrast to Oitje’s smooth, straight and white fur, and bulging red eyes, Coco was a black and tan with luscious wet black eyes you might encounter in a Disney movie. The pads of her feet even had a dark color.

Unlike Oitje, Coco was a nervous wreck. She didn’t like to be held nearly as much, would run like you were a hawk with talons if you even got near the cage. But she had her own winning qualities. Coco was a verbal little creature. She squeaked in the morning to remind you that she and her cage mate also needed a square meal to start off the day.

Two guineas meant investment in a larger cage, which dominated our tiny living room. It also meant twice the amount of pooping and peeing, more frequent cage cleaning, more food.

After the initial excitement wore off, I seemed to have inherited most of the responsibilities. I know the drill from my own childhood. You beg your parents for a pet, promise them the world. You get the pet and you are so excited! But as all the responsibilities set in, you realize these creatures require a lot more of your time then you had initially thought.

Wouldn’t it be better for them to be with a family who was more interested in them? This debate went on for a good six months. Finally, we came to a conclusion. Yes, Coco and Oitje deserved a more exciting life, with people who were willing to put in the time. And, we wanted that rectangle of prime living room real estate back!

We listed them in a Facebook for-sale group and within a few days, we had our first appointment.

Last night, a lovely young couple who had just purchased their first home came by our house to see them.

“We want an animal presence in our home,” the young man explained. Not a cat or a dog,  but a starter animal to go along with the starter home, I interpreted.

The young woman held each guinea pig and I saw instant love on her face that was so familiar. My son had looked at them that way when he first held them.

“Yes. We’d love to have them.”

While my husband packed up the food and bedding supplies, my son started explaining what they liked for breakfast, when they get their dry food, that they like their hay in the late afternoon.

We secretly watched through the window as the taxi came to pick up the young couple with cage, food, and two lovely guinea pigs packed in a perforated cardboard box for their trip to their new home.

“Good night guineas.”

This morning, when I was slicing apples for my son’s lunch, there was something missing. I didn’t hear that high pitched fluting of Coco: “Breakfast! Breakfast! Don’t forget about me!”

Tears streaked down my cheeks. My son came to me and asked what was wrong.

“No Coco whistling.”

He gave me a comforting hug and stood there with me in the new silence. There are far greater challenges over which to shed tears, but saying goodbye is never easy.

“They’ll be happy in their new home,” he consoled.

Wishing you a happy stage in your next journey little ones.