Small Town Vaccine

As a young adult, admitting that I was from a small town was like fessing up to a misdemeanor in the school of cool. Today, I admit my growing-up-in a-small-townness with pride. (Yes, I know townness is not a word.) I’ve been wondering lately, why I have this new affinity and pride in my small-town upbringing, and I’ve come to a few conclusions.

Cities as a whole are compact, highly-populated, fast-moving, invigorating places of opportunity. They offer culture, employment, diversity, higher education. Yet cities can also be cold, every-man-is-an-island, highly competitive and transient. Sure, there are pockets of steadfastness: neighborhoods where people stick around for years, places where everybody knows your name. But once you step outside of that neighborhood, cafe, gym, school, you become anonymous, a sudden stranger among strangers. This causes a shift in energy, a natural inclination to turn inward, drop your smile, break eye contact; essentially, parking a segment of your humanity at the curb.

Courtesy Dutch News

In the busiest sections of the city, everyone keeps their eyes on the horizon (which you can’t really see for all the tall buildings) and even though we are all walking together on the sidewalk, waiting together in line, sitting right next to each other in that tram or theater or restaurant, we are essentially a highly functional, anti-social school of fish: swimming together but apart.

You reclaim that checked humanity when you encounter someone you know, essentially snapping out of your trance of feigned or true indifference. Faces light up. Greetings are exchanged. If there’s time, you might stop for a chat. Once the encounter is over, however, you slowly slip back into that self-protecting, I-am-an-island, anonymity.

Small towns are different. They usually lack cultural diversity, institutions of higher education, world-renowned museums and white collar jobs. But where they may lack in one way, they make up for in other ways. Ask just about anyone who lives in a small town, and they will tell you that people are friendlier there, values are stronger, the community more closely knit, that they feel safe, cherish the open space, the friendliness, that small towns are a great place to raise kids and wonderful places to retire.

Take Schagen, The Netherlands, for example. This small city located in North Holland exudes small-town friendliness. I’ve met numerous people whose families have lived here for generations. If you walk around with these folks, they wave frequently, because they are either related to, went to school with or somehow know the majority of the people around them. And if they don’t know you, that small-town friendliness is still extended to you. I’m not saying they blindly embrace you, but they give you the benefit of the doubt until you prove them wrong.

I loathed this “everybody knows everybody” idea growing up, but now I see its values. There’s no checking your humanity at the curb. You can walk around with your full humanity all of the time, because for the most part, you know who’s looking for trouble, and if you don’t know, someone else does. You are accountable to your community and to yourself. That doesn’t mean that everybody always does the right thing, but they’re certainly more motivated to try.

I’ve lived in Schagen for six short months, and I can already feel my roots longing to unfurl. These same roots were curled into tight balls of resistance with no intention of letting down when I lived in The Hague. I had similar experiences when I lived in Boston and even a bit of that sensation in Santa Barbara. It’s not that I didn’t open up in those places. On the contrary. I developed deep social networks and friendships in those cities that have enriched my life and humanity.

Nevertheless, I never felt completely at home. Living in a small town offers something a city can never provide me: inner peace and calm. Here, I am more relaxed, more open. I can breathe again. People aren’t in a hurry. They’re friendly and there’s time for one another.

I know it’s not the same for everyone. I have friends, cosmopolitan, cultural types that would view living in a small town as a death sentence to their creative soul, as a disconnect from the contemporary world that is so lush and brazen and exciting in its diversity. True. All true. But here’s the difference. When you live in a small, friendly, human-scale town surrounded by fields of crops, waterways, windswept dikes, long stretches of cycling paths and cows and sheep grazing in great expanses of open pasture, it’s like you are attending a subtle, year-round mindfulness retreat. Mindful of each other. Mindful of nature.

This peaceful energy enters you as if by osmosis. Whether intentional or not, you and your neighbors have absorbed this friendly mentality and freeing open space into your souls.

Now when I go to the big city, it’s as if I carry that space within me; like I’ve been inoculated with a small-town vaccine that protects me from indifference and keeps my humanity fully intact. Now, when I leave home and go to the big city, I do so with a fresh perspective. From this space, I can immerse myself in the wild city pulse of Amsterdam, hear a hundred different languages while walking the city streets of The Hague, and do so with my heart wide open. I can tolerate all of the people and traffic and chaos with the knowledge that at the end of the day, I will return to my small town, to my year-round mindfulness retreat.

I’m quite sure if I’d grown up in a big city, rather than a little village, I’d have another perspective on all of this, and believe that my humanity is 100% intact all of the time. But after eight years of living in a densely populated urban environment, I am more certain than ever that I am best suited for a small town. Only in such a personal environment can I let my roots once again unfurl.


Is it All Just the Same Old Story?

Have you had that experience where you are interested in a specific topic or thing, and suddenly, you come across it everywhere you go? For example, when I was pregnant, I suddenly saw pregnant women everywhere. It was so uncanny, that I thought there must be a baby boom. There wasn’t. I saw all those pregnant women because my focus and awareness had shifted based on my current life experience.

So when I got a puppy this past November, I was suddenly aware of all things dog. There are many upsides to this all-things-dog awareness, but also a downside; like down there on the ground on the grass or even on the sidewalk. Yeah. I’m talking shit. And unfortunately, those poop chunks and the dog owners who don’t clean them up are now the things I notice everywhere I go.

I thought I’d share a photo gallery of my little producer rather than the product itself, because let’s face it, dog poop is gross, and I have yet to meet a person who hasn’t at some point in their lives, stepped in a pile of it.

Now imagine you have a puppy who explores the world by putting everything in her mouth, and suddenly you are looking at those stretches of green grass with a whole new perspective. Everything is a threat, from a piece of plastic, a cigarette butt or grosser yet, another dog’s droppings. Due to this newfound perspective, I have seen in detail just how much poop is left on the ground and it is not only disgusting and irresponsible, but also seriously bad news from an environmental and health standpoint.

I don’t understand dog owners who think it’s okay to leave their dog’s shit on the ground. In what universe is leaving poop bombs in public open space a good idea? I thought about writing a short story about dog poop as an example of the difference daily steps can make if just one more person takes action. If just one dog owner, who currently turns a blind eye every time their dog defecates, were to actually start cleaning that poop up, they could make a molehill out of a mountain! Now imagine a campaign where a bunch of remiss dog owners join in and start picking up after their dogs. Suddenly Dutch sidewalks and green areas nationwide would be much cleaner and dog owners more socially considerate! I don’t know if it would be a very interesting short story, but I think it would be, like Ellen, relatable.

Speaking of stories, I am currently reading My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. At one point, the fictional main character attends a writing workshop by fictional author Sarah Payne. Lucy reflects about something this author said during the workshop: “‘You will have only one story,’ she had said. ‘You’ll write your story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.'”

This struck me as true and untrue at the same time. Are all the story ideas I have just a new version of the same old story? Does this one-story idea also apply to non-fiction? Are all blog posts different versions of the same story? John Steinbeck had a more complex explanation of this same concept in his novel East of Eden.

“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?”  

John Steinbeck, East of Eden

While I was reading My Name is Lucy Barton, my son was sitting beside me with a pile of books at his side. He’d rather be sitting in front of his PS4, but there’s a reason he was sitting next to those books. My son wants a cell phone and we came up with a complicated list of things he needs to do before he is eligible to get one. On the list is reading a minimum of five novels (Hey, whatever it takes to get your pre-teen to read!). Donald Duck and other comic or heavily-illustrated books (think of The 52 Story Treehouse) don’t count. He was having trouble deciding on a novel, so I pulled five from his shelf. The Lightning Thief and The Hobbit were among the choices written in English. He skipped over those and picked up Alone on a Wide Wide Sea by Michael Morpurgo. He weighed it in his hands, perhaps noting that it lacked the heft of the other books in the stack, and flipped to the back cover to read the blurb.

“I feel like I already read this one,” he said.

“No. I don’t think you have,” I responded.

“Yeah. True. I haven’t read it, but I read the summary on the back and there’s a kid that goes on a journey and is trying to find a lost family member, and goes on a long adventure where strangers help him. It’s like his other novel Twist of Gold; the same old story but with a different set up. I don’t feel like going through that story again.”

An eleven year old on the topic of the same old story.

My son had just reconfirmed the concept that there is only one story that people tell. It struck me as profound and sad and insightful all at once. Although my son seemed to enjoy reading Twist of Gold, he already knew the formula and considered it all just one story.

Green by Kristin Anderson

I thought about my first novel Green, where a young environmentalist, disheartened by a major oil spill, sets out to inspire others to make daily changes to reduce their dependency on oil. One theme in the novel was the idea that the actions taken by an individual actually do matter.

Wait! Isn’t my short story idea about a dog owner finally cleaning up his own dog’s poop basically another version of the same story? Or as Steinbeck once said in his only-one-story concept: “‘. . . the hard, clean questions. Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?’” In other words, have I picked up that dog poop?

I suppose that the individual is the heart of every story, whether it is fiction, a news broadcast or a campaign featuring an individual’s struggle to connect us with a global issue. It is what strikes a chord in our soul, what makes a global, distant problem shrink down to the individual, human level. Where we shift from indifference to saying: Woah, that could have been me, or yes, I do care about this person’s story and I choose to be part of the solution. I choose for the good.

If you bring it all down to the most basic level, the one story is this: Clean up your own shit and the shit of your dog. Everyone will be happier in the end, including you.

What is an Hour to You?

In California, as in many other states in the U.S, it’s hardly a thing to drive an hour to visit a friend. In fact, friends an hour to a two-hour’s drive away are considered to be living relatively close by. This makes sense in a country where an hour commute just to get to work each day is considered a perfectly normal pain in the ass.

In The Netherlands, if a friend moves to a region that’s an hour away, it has about the same impact on your social life as moving out of state–you are suddenly viewed as geographically undesirable to all except your very close friends.


At first glance, this doesn’t make any sense at all. The entire country of The Netherlands is less than 1/10th of the size of the state of California. Given its tiny size, shouldn’t everyone in this cute little country be considered geographically desirable?

Yet it’s a common phenomenon.

I have to admit, when I came back to The Netherlands in 2011 and settled in The Hague, I rarely visited my expat friends I’d met in Amsterdam seven years earlier. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see them. It just seemed like Amsterdam was far away and a bit inconvenient. Not to mention that the round trip train fare is about twenty-four euro and driving to Amsterdam is not a great choice either, as parking is scarce and parking fees excessive.

So what will happen to all of my friendships I’ve developed over the last eight years now that I’ve moved an hour and fifteen minute’s drive away and a close to two hour train ride away? Will they meet the same fate as my Amsterdam friendships all those years ago? Or will there be mutual effort to see one another? 

If the first quarter is any indication, we haven’t dropped off the face of the earth and friendships are holding strong despite our relocation to Schagen. We’ve had multiple visitors from The Hague, and even a few from as far away as Berlin and Luxembourg. Other friends are planning visits in January and February and Dutch family members have made the effort to visit us on more than one occasion. It’s exciting, but there is that looming fear or fact that the novelty will wear off and our friends we used to see a few times a month will morph into Facebook friends: you have a somewhat skewed (happy) version of what’s going on in their lives, but without that face to face contact, you lack the personal connection needed to go deeper.


Well, luckily, the train travels both ways. I’ve already been back to The Hague four times for various appointments, and have managed to visit a handful of friends on each trip. Sometimes, my visit with a friend is only an hour long, but that is long enough to reconnect. And since you know you won’t be running into that friend by chance in the supermarket, there seems to be an intensity to the visits, like we’re all paying a bit more attention.

Although my social visits were wonderful, it felt a bit surreal being a ‘tourist’ in my former city of residence. Another oddity was that I actually knew where I was most of the time. When I lived there, I had a hard time navigating this sprawling city,  and was known for getting lost even when visiting places I’d been a handful of times before. Yet during my last few trips to The Hague, my internal geographical map was fully functional and I easily navigated my way around. Ironic that I had to move away for this to finally happen!

But back to time and what it means, how it feels, how it changes. An hour can be a long or short time, depending on what you are busy doing. On a trip to the organic farm with a newfound friend, we got to talking about time. This particular friend is in his seventies and even though he has quite a lot of activities in his agenda, he quite often says, “take your time” or “there’s no hurry, we have all the time.” It could be that I’m used to rushing or it could be that he’s particularly relaxed. I think it’s somewhere in the middle.

He and his wife are laid back people and even though life has thrown a few nasty curves their way, they really seem to enjoy life to the fullest. If they have regrets, they don’t dwell on them. Instead, they seem to approach the world like the inside of a Christmas card: with peace, love and joy. I could chalk this up to small town life and a Christian outlook, but it’s bigger than that. It’s a learned sense of time; you can rush it or you can zen it. Either way, it’s going to pass. After that hour together, I felt slightly changed, more chill, more zen. I suppose this is a good example of actions being more influential than words.

They are not the only influence in reshaping my perception of time. I am currently blissfully jobless and loving it. I am also being very careful not to sign up for too many volunteer activities, clubs and other time devouring commitments. I was completely overbooked in The Hague. No matter how fulfilling it might have felt to be over-committed and socially saturated (e.g. running around like a chicken with its head cut off), I am planning a different path for my life in Schagen.

Free time takes a bit of getting used to, but luckily, I’m no longer one of those people whom you silently think of telling “life is what happens to us when we are making other plans” (Apparently Allen Saunders, 1957, not John Lennon, 1980). 

Now I’m one of those people who is thoroughly enjoying the time I do have and surprised on a regular basis at how quickly it can flutter away, despite my very much “in the moment” approach.

Yet there is one other influence who is slowing time right back down. Her name is Jamie and she is a time expander as well as a time magnet. She’s also a chick-magnet, an old-man magnet, a teenage-magnet, you name it, she draws ’em in. She’s just a little thing, but she demands many hours of my time each day and she’s too cute and dependent to ignore. No, I didn’t secretly have another child, but we did something pretty close; we got a little Beagle puppy. As you can imagine, there might be a number of blogs in the near future themed around a puppy named Jamie. If you don’t like puppies (what the hell’s wrong with you?) then you might want to skip any such puppy posts, should they ever get written up.

I have spent many an early afternoon with her curled up on my lap, tired and happy from her afternoon walk, but fidgety and whiny if I don’t stay right there while she falls asleep. She’s growing in leaps and bounds and has almost doubled her weight in the last month. The lap naps are over as she hits the three-month mark (that’s a pre-teen in a dog’s life) and now she thinks she is ready to take on the world.  We all know that the puppy phase only lasts a few seconds, so I am doing my best to enjoy this precious time.

It might of taken me an hour to write this up, but that’s an hour well spent. Wishing you a new connection with time throughout the Christmas days.

Kristin in Holland

Heading North

I have news. On the last Thursday of September, I boarded a train in The Hague with a backpack over my shoulder and headed north. Guess why?

Weekend getaway?
Visiting a friend?
What then?
You done guessing?
Okay. I moved out of The Hague.
With just a backpack over your shoulder? Where to and why and all that stuff?

Long story short, my husband was offered a great position in a little Dutch city called Schagen, and he accepted.

But let’s step back a few months to this past summer. When it became apparent that my husband had made the short list, and then the shorter list for this position, I began to wonder about this little city called Schagen. Google maps aerial of SchagenI started virtually visiting the area via Google Maps. I discovered that Schagen was a little dot of city in the midst of vast stretches of farmland, interspersed with other building clusters that represented surrounding villages and cities.





Google street view of downtown Schagen presented old-world European charm of brick buildings with gabled roofs, a central church with a grand tower, and stylish restaurants. Yet one could apparently walk through the old center in the scope of ten minutes.

When I mentioned Schagen to friends (Dutch and expat alike), many of them said they’d have to look up on the map. Others said, “Schagen? Oh yeah. It’s surrounded by cabbage fields.

It wasn’t a major Dutch city, it had a reputation for cabbage and if half of my Dutch friends hadn’t even heard of it, what was I getting myself into?

Was I moving to an isolated village? A tiny, rural outpost? A place where everyone knew everyone else and outsiders were greeted with slit-eyed stares of distrust? Was there a single restaurant that would have a vegan option on the menu? A bakery that was gluten-free savvy? And most importantly, could I get a good cup of espresso in Schagen? There was nothing to do but get on the train and find out.

My very first visit to Schagen put a great deal of my fears to rest. As my son and I walked from the train station along the little city streets, the sun shining off of the gorgeous Dutch architecture, the birds chirping, I felt like I was entering a little slice of heaven in the North. People who passed us smiled warmly, nodding at us in greeting. Those open, friendly smiles worked like sunshine on snow–melting my anxieties away.

The friendly chime of the church tower greeted us as we reached the city center not ten minutes later. During that first visit, I discovered that Schagen might be relatively small (about 40,000), but it has a picturesque city center even more beautiful than in the photos, quality, upscale restaurants and shops and some activity going on almost every weekend. The residents were friendly and there was nary a slit-eyed glance cast in my direction. Shop keepers actually seemed to enjoy helping customers and were consistently friendly.  Based on this first impression, the most difficult thing about Schagen for an expat would be trying to pronounce the name.

The job position was not yet confirmed when we headed to California for vacation, but suddenly, things started moving quickly. They most definitely wanted him over all of the other candidates and they wanted him to start as soon as possible.

Due to the convenience of living in the 21st century, he printed out the Dutch contract, signed it under an orange tree in the California sunshine, and scanned and returned it minutes later.

When we got back from vacation, we had two weeks to pack up our entire house, for the movers were coming, ready or not. My family moved ahead of me to start important things like new jobs and a new school, while I stayed behind in The Hague to finish out my job.

Finally, a month later, we arrive at the beginning of this blog post with me hopping on a train, only a backpack over my shoulder. That was seven weeks ago and this American girl has gone from a Hagenaresse to a Schagenaresse.

I will miss The Hague for many reasons,  but for every reason I can list, there is another reason I prefer living in this quaint little city of Schagen.

Good thing this blog is titled Kristin in Holland. It still has a place as I discover a new area of this lovely country. Cheers to the next phase!

‘Bling Your ‘Cream’ This Summer

As a kid, I looked upon my mom’s (or grandma’s) souvenir spoon collection with a sense of wonder. Their delicately carved handles crested by a coat of arms, country flag or image of a castle or other location created a sense of grandeur and spoke of travel to far-away places.

souvenir_spoons in a box
eBay Image

Sometimes, they were the only remnants of exotic journeys long ago. Other times, they were kitschy after thoughts picked up in a souvenir shop. On display behind the locked doors of a glass cabinet or stored in the blue-velvet-lined boxes in which they came, one thing was for certain: they were off limits for little girls.

This off-limits idea must have been lingering in some corner of my adult mind, because at a church bazar a few years ago, I stopped at the table displaying fifty to sixty collectible souvenir spoons and looked at them with what could almost be described as longing. The woman behind the table sensed a sale and told me I could have the whole lot for five euros. In an act of pathetic 40-years-too-late rebellion, I went for it.

As I headed home with my spoils like a rebel pirate, I knew my souvenir spoon collection would have a different fate than the off-limit spoons of my childhood. There would be no glass cabinets or velvet boxes. These spoons would be utilitarian, used to stir tea and cocktails, dole out sugar or laid out as dessert spoons.

As anyone reading my blog knows, I have a thing about single-use plastic. In fact, those little plastic spoons you get every time you go to the ice cream parlor drive me freaking crazy. No one seems to even think about recycling them and some visitors don’t even bother to put them in the trash can, but throw them on the ground like a cigarette butt.

Then it hit me. The souvenir spoon has a functional place in this contemporary world; it is the perfect way to eat your ice cream! So the next time we headed out the door to go get an ice cream, I stopped my family in their tracks and suggested they each pick out a silver spoon. They’re used to me and they got it instantly. We marched down the street, ordered our ice cream and pulled out our own spoons–all mementos of stranger’s journeys.

Upcycle grandma’s Souvenir Spoon!

Bling your cream!

Accessorize your cone!

There’s a heat wave this summer and I foresee many an ice cream or sorbet in our collective futures. Wouldn’t it be something if each and every one of us dug out those little souvenir spoons and pimped-our-ice cream cups and cones? Bling your Cream? Accessorize your cone? Experience life from the tip of a silver spoon?

If you go for it, please send me a picture and I’ll post them here!

Crazy Lady Chasing Plastic Bag

One thing that really bothers me–besides males who leave the toilet seat up and all things Trump– is an errant plastic bag. Not just bags, but all plastics gone wild: plastic grocery bags caught in a tree, smeary sandwich wrappers discarded on the sidewalk, bottles stuffed into bushes, plastic forks and straws cracked and muddy in the gutter.

Much to the embarrassment of my family, I pick up plastic I find on the ground because I don’t want it to end up in the ocean or in the stomach of a bird, whale or sea turtle.

Every year, 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in our oceans, and that figure could increase by ten-fold over the next 10 years if actions are not taken, according to a new study published in the journal Science.
Source: Here’s How Much Plastic ends up in the World’s Oceans by Alexandra Sifferlin

I’ve been feeling a bit like a freak in my pursuit of herding in the stray plastics over the past few years, because  1) people look at me funny 2) besides the guys and girls in lime green vests who have to pick up the street litter, no one else seems to even see the plastic on the ground, and 3) It’s kind of gross picking up plastic, but I can’t seem to help myself.

But the good thing is, times, they are a changing. I’ve met others like me. They are organizing neighborhood walks with friends to pick up trash, they plan beach cleans ups. They use Apps to take pictures of each piece of trash and that goes into a major database, which shows all the trash that people around the nation or world picked up that day.

I like to give photo credit, but I can no longer find the website. My apologies.

Even Theresa May, Prime Minister of England, joined the plastic crusade. I haven’t seen her chasing a plastic bag through a parking lot, though you can use your imagination with this particular photo. However, she’s making huge impacts on a national level, and announced back in April that her government would be effectively banning single-use plastic straws, drink stirrers and cotton buds (I think cotton buds means cotton swabs or Q-tips in American English). She’s no newcomer to the plastic revolution. Back in January 2018, she was already lining up a long term plan to eliminate all “avoidable plastic waste” by 2042. I want to give her a hug and three kisses, even though I’d probably get arrested and insult her at the same time. Brits aren’t all that in to hugging, and the three kiss thing is something I’ve picked up while living in The Netherlands. God help me.

Sometimes you feel a bit nostalgic when something you felt was kind of ‘your niche’ is infiltrated by others. This is so not one of those things! I’m no longer the lone crazy lady chasing a plastic bag. The more the merrier! In fact, please join me. Maybe you’ll inspire others to follow suit.


Screen Shot 2018-06-01 at 21.07.25
Call to action for World Oceans Day CLICK BLUE LINK TO LAUNCH THE VIDEO

On that note, I saw this hilarious Plastic Invasion video today that takes on the plastic insanity with humor and a realistic call to action in preparation for World Oceans Day on June 8th, 2018. Considering I’m already getting my hands dirty picking up wayward plastic, this is a natural step for me. What about doing this together? Doing what, exactly? Check out the video and let me know what you think. Seriously. You have a twitter account. You’re social media aware if you’re reading this post. Let’s do this together! If you’re game, please let me know in the comments section.

I’ll leave you with three cool links that all provide various ways of getting a grip on our worldwide plastic problem.

  1. The surprising solution to ocean plastic | David Katz

  2. The Plastic Soup Foundation
  3. 100 Steps to a Plastic-Free Life

Disclaimer: No single-use plastics were used in the creation of this post. However, this post was typed on a computer keyboard made of plastic, connected to a plastic mouse and a monitor, largely made of plastic. Holy Hell!




I Don’t want to Live in a Monochrome World

Santa Ynez, Calilfornia (photo credit: Todd Anderson)

I grew up in Solvang, California, a quaint Danish-themed town founded in 1911 by two Danish ministers and a Danish professor. Solvang, which means Sunny Field in Danish, is nestled in the Santa Ynez Valley,  a rural area full of equestrian ranches, farms, vineyards, old barns, Christian churches and long and winding roads.

People were either Christians and Catholics or ‘folks who didn’t go to church’ and the majority voted Republican. I never saw a person in a headscarf or turban the entire time I lived in the valley.

Although the majority of us lived in the surrounding countryside, downtown Solvang was a tourist town. This gave residents a chance to encounter tourists from all over the world, but they were just passing through. So you might say the closest we got to embracing diversity was selling the tourists Danish pastries, souvenirs and bottles of wine.

Walking down the covered outdoor halls in high school, it was not uncommon to see one of my cowboy classmates practicing his lasso technique in between classes. (What was his name? Junior? That sweet guy who died in a car accident our sophomore year?)

There were boys with muscles earned on the football or water polo team and other boys layered with muscles from work on their family farms.

Just before I started high school, a movie theater came to the neighbouring town a few miles away. After all these years, the town of Solvang still doesn’t have it’s own movie theatre, though it does boast an outdoor theater for theatrical performances and we celebrate Danish Days each September.

The human landscape of my school was a vast sea of milky white Caucasians (a number of which had Danish ancestry); perhaps 15 percent of students from Mexico, Central or South America, a handful of classmates with varying percentages of Chumash Indian in their blood and only three students in the entire school with gorgeously dark equatorial skin.

One year I went to high school prom with my friend Ali, who happened to be one of the three aforementioned students (in this case from Ethiopia). He picked me up in a sleek car he had borrowed from his father (Mercedes? Jaguar?) and took me to a fancy restaurant. I was so nervous in my silly black and white prom dress. My requisite high heels felt like torture to a young woman who preferred tennis shoes any given day of the week. I walked gingerly in my heels like a delicate, breakable thing, the tomboy in me appalled by the pain in my feet and the low dipping neckline of my prom dress.

Ali was just a friend, yet there it was. We were going to prom together. And surely that suggested that we were at least open to the idea of being more than friends?  I think we were both contemplating this unspoken suggestion as we sat like elegant grown ups at one of the best restaurants in the valley, the white table cloths, china plates and stylish silverware a fitting presentation for the three course meal on its way.

As we ate our first course, Ali glanced over at me, his eyes darting nervously downward to that low cut v in my neckline and back up again. I could feel the heat in my cheeks. Why was he looking there? He was such a proper young man and yet his eyes were, what, checking me out?

“Um. You’ve got, um . . .” he motioned with his elegant fingers toward that v exposing my cleavage. My eyes followed to where he was pointing and I discovered a damp spinach leaf plastered to my chest.

Visual borrowed from

“Oh.” I excused myself and went to the restroom to remove the offensive leaf, wipe the olive oil and balsamic dressing from my skin and try to do something about the deep flush of embarrassment coloring my cheeks.

When we arrived at the dance, I ran into a friend (let’s call her Laura for the sake of storytelling) who had clearly gotten her hands on some wine coolers (it was the late 80s folks), as I could smell the sweet alcohol on her breath.

winecooler-wine-cooler-brands“Is that your date?” Laura asked, nodding toward Ali.

“Yes,” I responded, confused by the strange tone of her voice.

“He’s black. ” Laura squeezed her otherwise pretty face into a mask of ugliness.

I recognize racism in action just as much as the next person, but I honestly didn’t get it. If anything, I was a bit jealous of all that pigment that protected Ali’s skin from the hot valley weather while my fair skin required copious amounts of sunscreen.  And now I felt somehow judged because . . . he’s black. Yes. And?

That’s pretty much where the conversation with Laura ended. Although I’d hung out at her house a number of times, we’d drifted apart in high school and this one little act was like an invisible nail in the invisible coffin of our friendship.

I don’t think Laura was representative of the majority of people in my school, but her sentiments weren’t exactly new either. I’d heard a few derogatory comments from my classmates over the years about people of color and homosexuals, but in general, racist sentiments where usually the sort of stupid B.S. you’d hear from older generations, not people my own age. After all, we grew up post-segregation, post civil rights, post sixties. And despite the negative stereotypes culture pressed upon us through media, our idols included Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Prince and a long list of beautifully-tinted others. The way I reasoned, my home town was an isolated little community in the countryside, but still– everyone had heard of Martin Luther King and his dream.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but that little encounter at a school dance in my youth was a defining moment for me. I might not have had the words to express it back then, but I craved something bigger, broader, more exciting and challenging. I didn’t want to live in a monochrome world. I craved culture and diversity and friends who wouldn’t screw up their face if my prom date was black, wouldn’t blink if two guys were dancing to my right and two girls making out on my left. This didn’t come to me like some sort of manifesto of how I wanted to live my life, but it was one of many moments that have brought me to where I am now.

My views might have been affected by the fact that my oldest brother was dating a woman who was half African American, half German who would end up being his wife one day and eventually become his ex-wife. In the meantime, they would have two children whose beautiful skin tones I would also envy, and his children would grow into adulthood and bring about another generation of children with superior skin tones.

My other brother, an artist who spent some time playing in a punk band and traveled to Europe years before I even knew what a passport looked like, also played a big role in showing me what diversity looked like.

Diversity followed me wherever I went. Or maybe I sought it out, from a year at the University of Hawaii where I experienced what it was like to be a minority; playing in a reggae band during my university years and eventually marrying a man from another culture–albeit Caucasian like me– and eventually moving abroad.

Perhaps I was destined to live in The Hague, the international city of Peace  & Justice. I am neither a majority or a minority, I am simply one nationality among many, all taking the same trams, going to the theaters, planning a weekend trip to the beach. My son’s Dutch elementary school has more than 40 nationalities. I’m pretty good at spelling, but am seriously challenged when I try to spell the names of his friends and schoolmates: Abdounoor (spelling?) Rashinella (sp?), Gonjhairo, Basit . . . you get the picture.

My hometown has a population of 5,245.  The Hague is a wee bit bigger. I particularly like the category of ‘other’ with a population of 129,242, which makes up close to 25% of The Hague’s population. Come to think of it, as an American, I am the ‘other.’

Screen Shot 2018-03-25 at 14.42.58

My home town breaks down a bit differently:

Screen Shot 2018-03-25 at 19.33.49.png

I still love Solvang, and the Santa Ynez Valley in which it is nestled and wouldn’t trade my upbringing for anything. I am grateful to have maintained contact over the years with friends from this precious time in my life and I still consider this beautiful valley my home. But I am also thankful that my son is growing up bilingual in such a culturally diverse world.

Do you still live in your home town? Or have you traveled far from your place of origin? What has it done to change you? If you’ve lived away for a number of years, would you be able to move ‘home’ and assimilate, or do you think it would cramp your style?

(Strange. I wrote this post on April 29th and it published as March, 2017! What’s going on WordPress? Or is this an operator error?)