Book Happy

Friday morning, I got up at 5:45 am to shower, get dressed, make tea, sit on the couch and call America. The phone rang four times before I heard a familiar voice pick up. I was soon on speaker phone listening to my girlfriends cheering because I had “joined them” for book club night.

Seeing that I’m now about 3,800 miles away as the crow flies from my book club, I am more of an honorary member, with rights to drop in on occasion. As most who are in book clubs will tell you, the experience is not only about reading a book together, but about being there with your friends. There is something deeply bonding about breaking bread, drinking wine, and discussing how the work of fiction or non-fiction moved you, or not.  It is also an opportunity to listen to the stories that emerge in response to the reading, deepening your understanding of each other; I didn’t know you lived in a funky loft in the bay area where you lead monthly poetry slams; Really? You have a fraternal twin? I had no idea you’ve interviewed so many famous authors, including the one we’re now reading.  And on top of this, our club is committed to cooking organic dishes from food within a 100 mile radius whenever possible; ingredients fresh from the back yard harvest or local farmer’s market (exceptions always made for wine and chocolate).

In this context, my international call into book club may seem a little sad, like a bone thin fashion model walking into the room just before Thanksgiving meal is served to inhale the sumptuous smells and leave again, without so much as a fork full or sip of wine; like trying to hold onto happier times. Yet, it was perhaps the most appropriate time to phone from abroad in search of happiness and connection. This group of women sitting around a candlelit table in Sonja’s house had just read Geography of Bliss, by NPR correspondent Eric Weiner. The book is about Weiner’s travels to nine countries that have been deemed by psychologists and economists as some of the happiest places on earth, and his investigation into what makes these particular people, or cultures, happy. The first country in the book? The Netherlands. You can see why I had to have this one last fling with book club.

I couldn’t locate a copy in the biblioteek (library) or the boekhandel (bookstore), so ordered a used copy online which was sent over from England, a country that didn’t make the happiness list.

I started the book the night it arrived, feeling rather special to be reading the chapter on the Netherlands in the Netherlands. Did you know that the World Database of Happiness  is located in Rotterdam, just thirty minutes away from where I now sit?  It seems the Dutch are really into happiness. But I was quickly annoyed by the shallow picture Weiner painted of my husband’s homeland, suggesting that legal prostitution, drugs and fervor for cycling were primary keys to understanding Dutch happiness. Although I got his point, it was clear to me there is so much more to it. Yet, in his defense, how much can one person tap into the soul of a nation’s happiness in a two week visit?

As I read further about countries like Bhutan and Iceland, I found his insights on happiness to be eye opening, and I soon found myself underlining passages here and there.  Because as any fine reporter would do within the freedom of their own book, he backed up his musings and criticisms with facts, research and quotes from numerous other books on the topic of happiness.

I wonder what one would discover if they traveled across the world researching the happiness one gains by being in a book club. The right book club can be an until-death-do-us-part experience. Take my mother-in-law, for example. She was in a book club for years. But when one of the members died, the group came to an end, as they were just too sad to go on without their dear friend. Another book club I know in Santa Barbara has also been meeting for years, and these women of all different ages, are a sisterhood of support that rallies behind their members through thick and thin, having emergency book clubs when a sister is in need. I dearly miss my book club and the pure happiness this group of women brought into my life every four to six weeks.

What is so special about this particular configuration? It’s not like a group discussion of a story is a new concept. That has been around since the beginning, both in oral traditions and as part of our written education system. I think what makes the book club movement so powerful is that you have a very personal, solitary experience of reading a book and then voluntarily bring that experience to a group. Not just any group, but a group you trust.  The book transforms into something much bigger, as each person brings their unique perspective and opinions to light. And trust is key to happiness, as Weiner points out. If you are surrounded by people you trust, then you are more likely to be happy. If you are surrounded by people you trust, who have made a commitment to read a book, cook an organic dish, purchase a bottle of wine, and meet up with you to have a heartfelt conversation, you become a bit of a contemporary tribe.

Sure. Sometimes book clubs don’t get around to the book, but a discussion still unfolds. The bonds grow deeper.

Now as I write about book club, I know why I felt a rush of excitement at church a month ago when a woman announced a book group forming at the church. I wanted to be book happy again, in a book club way. Thing is, although my Dutch is coming along swimmingly, I barely understood her announcement.

A book club, like a quality relationship, is something that can’t be rushed. You have to find the right group of people, whom you would like to potentially see for the rest of your life. A group of individuals you relate to and trust.  Perhaps another book club will emerge. In the meantime, I will still fancy myself a member of that great group of women back home, and drop in on them from time to time.


A time bomb detonates

The content of my current Dutch lessons is starkly different from any other language course I have taken. We cover topics like subsidies available through the government, dealing with the belasting dienst (tax office), whether or not it is okay to embrace unemployment as a lifestyle, assimilation, asylum seekers in the Netherlands, etc. These and other topics have led me to conclude that my class is designed primarily for people from lower-income brackets immigrating into the country (sounds familiar) and/or those who have come here out of extreme necessity. Thus, odds are that behind some of those beautiful faces of my female classmates are stories so tragic that most of us have no experiences in which to equate (and are deeply blessed by this fact).

Last week the teacher assigned lesson eight: de wet. It sounds innocuous enough. Lesson eight. The one right after lesson seven, which was about receiving help from the government to pay the rent, and before lesson nine. But, de wet is not about how wet it can be here with all the rain, or some sort of slang the Dutch picked up back in their days in New York from the neighboring New Jerseyians. De wet is The Law.

At first, I thought this topic would be somehow refreshing after studying social services and taxes. I only have a vague sense of the laws here, which seem to me a bizarre mix of liberal idealism and indifference, enmeshed in an intricate web of bureaucracy. In my current state of ignorance of Dutch law, I take it for granted that the laws are similar to those in the U.S.: Don’t kill anybody; Don’t steal; Don’t get caught rolling through a stop sign, and so forth. In some countries, acting upon such assumptions of similarity could lead to no uncertain death by doing something as simple as speaking your mind or not dressing appropriately for your gender.

Quite often, we are asked to discuss new topics in the context of how they differ from our prospective homelands. Yet, I find many of the textbook questions invasive. For example: Do you have a job? If not, why? Do you receive a subsidy from the government? In some American dialects, this translates into “Are you a loser? Why?”

As I read through the questions about de Wet, it seemed to me the chances of a cultural time bomb going off in the classroom were pretty high.  For example: Hebben mannen en vrouwen de zelfde rechten? (Do men and women have the same rights?) Lord. As I looked at my Afghani, Moroccan, Iraqi and Iranian classmates with their tightly wrapped head scarves,  I knew such a question would make for interesting, if not uncomfortable conversation. It was then that I realized I wouldn’t be the fly on the wall listening in on fascinating cultural exchange, but the sole American in the room, with fading highlights in my uncovered hair.

When I was asked to pose a question to a classmate, I skimmed the list, trying to find something less like a bloody scab cracking open and more like a general topic. Thus I chose this question: Are there countries with very little or no laws and rules?

I posed the question to an Iranian woman whose name I remembered. She usually spoke very little due to her limited Dutch. I will give her the name of Sayah for this post. As background, I had earlier learned that Sayah’s grandfather had four wives and 35 children. She is thus one of a multitude of grandchildren. She hadn’t mentioned how many siblings and cousins were in her generation, not to mention their collective offspring. But given the religious adherence to an Islamic version of  “be fruitful and prosper,” I’m imagining hundreds of first cousins. I don’t even know if there exists a wide angled lens wide enough to capture her whole family in one shot.

I would think if you come from a family this large, you would need to be tough, vocal. Edging your way into the conversation, asserting yourself at the dinner table to get your piece of the pie. Less Iranian and more like her Moroccan classmates, shall we say. Yet Sayah is meek, almost fearful in demeanor. During another class meeting where we went over prescriptions in Dutch, it came out that she has insomnia. She wasn’t alone. Several other students shared her condition. I wondered what could be so bad that she couldn’t sleep until daylight. I figured it was some sort of cultural difference, pressures of being a Muslim female with many responsibilities to serve everyone before yourself, if ever yourself. Most of the women with insomnia said they couldn’t get their thoughts to go away, making gestures of a wheel going round in round in their heads. I suggested meditation. I digress. An avoidance tactic I’m sure. I’m taking a deep breath as I think of how to share what happened next. Am I too Western? Do I just want to hear nice things? Am I that shallow? That trained in the discourse of niceties?

So in response to what I had deemed a middle of the road question–Zijn er ook landen met weinig of geen wetten en regels? Are there countries with very little or no laws and rules?–Sayah started talking about haar vrienden (her friends) in Iran. Her body language changed as she struggled for the words in Dutch. She wrapped her fingers around her wrist, as if showing a bracelet. She spoke about a hospital and about friends hanging. I was confused. The teacher was confused. The other women who spoke Arabic dialects talked with Sayah in their native tongues, trying to interpret the details of her story. “Drie of vier vrienden elke dag. Ophangen.” I hoped dearly that  I misunderstood, but soon, the other women started adding in bits of information and confirming that my comprehension was spot on; Back in Iran, her friends had been hung. Three or four every day for a period of days. Men and women. Women with young children. No mercy. She was on the list of those considered to be dissidents. Those who had disagreed with something or someone, in most cases guilty by association.

However, she was also quite sick at the time and was taken to the hospital for her chronic asthma, as were her children. From there, she and her family were flown out of the country. She stayed several months in another country before seeking asylum in the Netherlands, where she has been ever since. I don’t know how long “ever since” is, but I want to find out.

Sayah spoke a little more about her family. There it was again. Her fingers wrapping around her wrists. Not bracelets. Handcuffs. Many of her family members were in prison and she had no means of contacting them. As we pieced this information together, Sayah reached into her bag for her inhaler and took a raspy breath, tears in her eyes.

It became clear to me what sort of thoughts were keeping Sayah up at night, why she couldn’t sleep until daylight. Not the daily responsibilities of a Muslim woman, but the murder of her friends and family. m and f. I can’t even put those two words in the same compartment of my mind. I push it outward.  I love my friends and family so much, I can’t take my empathy to the place of imagining it happening to me. The only murderous entity in my circle of friends and family is that horrible beast known as cancer–and you can fight cancer with the collective knowledge of doctors, scientists and spiritual resources from around the world. Many I know have fought it and won. Some are in the midst of a glorious battle. Others have lost the battle, but were surrounded by a compassionate society of friends and family during the process.

I realize too that Sayah is perhaps one of the strongest women among us. The strength of a survivor. I imagine the horror she is going through, though from a slightly removed place.  I feel the tightening of my tear ducts, the instant pressure of emotion swelling upward.

I want to say lots of things, as do many of the other women in class. For once, I go Moroccan.  I blurt out my opinions and questions in paltry Dutch, my voice competing with all of the other women expressing their anger at the situation. The teacher is equally mortified. She uses words like vreselijk (horrible) and slecht (bad). I have the urge to donate money I don’t have to an Iranian human rights activist group.

What I eventually say is very American of me. “What can be done? How can this be stopped? If you are hung for voicing a dissident opinion, how can regime change ever come about?” Yet, it seems that we are seeing how it happens in Egypt, in Libya. Bloody uprisings where people die in the process of demanding change. And even then, there are no guarantees.

The class ends. Before I leave, I touch Sayah’s shoulder and just a bit of her long, burgundy headscarf. I say in my broken Dutch, “Thank you Sayah. Thank you for sharing such a personal experience with us.” I want to say I’m glad you are alive, that your children are alive, that your husband is alive. That this is a lot to be thankful for. But I keep my optimism in check. I think these things for her and as a Christian, I pray for a Muslim. That, and sharing her story with others.

I Promised Snow

When we had made our decision to move to the Netherlands, we developed a game plan on how to best acclimate our almost four year old to the world changing news: He would soon be leaving the land of his birth, his American family and friends, and the sunny central coast of California, home to year round locally grown organic produce and 365 day access to mild weather beaches. He would be moving to his father’s homeland, land of bitter cold and rain, tulips, bicycles, cafes filled with brooding philosophers, tolerance and . . . snow?

On the keen advice of Alice Tropper, his beloved Santa Barbara pre-school teacher, we spoke to him regularly about our move to Holland and what life would be like in the fatherland. We asked the entire Dutch side of the family still living in the Netherlands to send pictures so he could get to know their names and faces. We increased our Skyping sessions abroad and we shared regular stories and photos of Holland.  One of the pictures the family sent was of his 13 year old cousin Victor playing in the snow.

Suddenly, Ezra’s interest in Holland grew exponentially. When people asked him about Holland, his pat answer became “I’m going to build an igloo in Holland.” I’m not sure where this came from. We weren’t moving to Alaska to live with the Inuits, we were moving to rainy Holland. Yet, the photo of Victor in a good 5 inches of snow suggested that the freezing cold rain did on occasion turn to snow. Snow that stayed on the ground. I ran with it. I incorporated stories of us playing in the snow, having snowball fights, building snowmen, making snow angels. Arie Jan shook his head. It doesn’t really snow in Holland. I opened up the photo of Victor to back up my stories and pointed to the lush whiteness in the middle of Den Haag. I promised snow.

He had been to the snow only once before, ironically with two other Dutch- American couples and their half-Dutch, half-American offspring. The nine of us spent four days in Mammoth Lakes over Christmas 2009. It had been dumping the week before we arrived and the world of white outside the car window suggested that all those Christmas story books about Santa coming to snow covered houses in the middle of pine forests are true.

We took the gondola from the base of the mountain to the upper village and out of the glass box in the sky we saw a winter wonderland unfolding beneath us. Sixty foot pines stretched into the air, their branches heavily weighed down with snow. Each house and condo building had the requisite 4 inches of snow covering the roofs, lining the balconies, windswept into the corners of the wooden stairs.

The children jumped in the snow, fascinated by the world of white. Ezra was the youngest and not yet ready for skiing, but would be happy to let you pull him and his little friends Jan and Sky around in the sled for four days straight. Jan, a natural athlete just 6 months older than Ezra was already up on skis. Sky was six at the time, and loved barbies and princesses. She also enjoyed making snowmen. Ezra enjoyed knocking them down. This compromised their relationship for a bit, but they got back on track when it was time for hot chocolate and other indoor activities where Ezra was less prone to search and destroy. Ezra loved the snow.

Thus, when we arrived in Holland on the cold damp of New Year’s eve, Ezra was expecting snow. It certainly felt cold enough to snow. Where is the snow? This question came again and again over the last 7 weeks. “When will it snow mommy?” I had, after all, promised snow. We regularly watched the news forecast, and although the little snowflake appeared over other countries in Europe, we had yet to see it placed over Holland. Until this morning.

I was getting Ezra into the shower when Arie Jan casually mentioned that it was snowing  outside.

“What? Snow?” I said excitedly.

I ran to the kitchen window to look outside, Arie Jan’s voice trailing behind me;

“Barely snowing, just a little” he said. There it was, light, tiny flakes drifting downward, falling onto the tiny white blossoms of the winter garden. An outside table had a thin prickling of snow on it’s surface, but the snow was clearly wet. I knew I had to get Ezra out here to see this before it stopped. How do I get Ezra out of the shower? He loves the shower. Then it came to me. I simply had to play one of his favorite games; Emmet.

Cousin Emmet, who is 7 months older than Ezra, is the love of Ezra’s young life and his greatest regret about leaving California. Thus, when we play Emmet, I get to do things like make farting noises and say things like “I’m older than you and I can run faster than you,” or “I want that toy. Why don’t you play with this one?” It’s an opportunity for me to let my inner almost 5 year old out, while also demonstrating  ways to share and negotiate. I also try to imitate Emmet’s almost 5 going on 10 vocabulary and ability to cram 30 words into one sentence. It’s a bit tiring. Even when you’re just pretending to be Emmet. I have no idea how he keeps it up 24-7.

So, by the time Ezra was dressed and ready to run to the kitchen window, I was almost certain that the snow had stopped. That I would once again have an unfulfilled promise suspended in a raindrop. Yet there it was! The tiny flakes floating, darting, blowing through the sky. Ezra pulled on the door and we both went outside. We reached our hands upward, trying to catch the baby snowflakes, which melted upon contact with Ezra’s hot little hands. Within a few minutes our hands cooled in the frosty air and one or two snowflakes stuck just long enough to see their whiteness. Ezra jumped up and down in a happy dance, running in circles trying to catch more snowflakes.

“It’s snowing Emmet! It’s snowing!” Ezra called out. I suppose this is the period of life where glee can be a daily experience. We lasted another 5 minutes before heading back indoors. By the time we bicycled to church, the little flakes had diminished and the dusting of snow had melted back into the soggy Dutch landscape.

There will be no snowmen today. But it did snow. And we danced in it.

Ezra learns about the Helaal

I remember being in a classroom as a child, but I don’t remember school wide projects focused on one theme. Perhaps those early years in college spent with the reggae band Jah-Bone had a blurring effect on my early childhood memories.

Yet this memory of Ezra’s school is clear and fresh, so I’ll write about it now, so you can picture him in his new digs, and he will have at least one childhood experience stored in cyberspace for him, should the internet still exist in 30 or 40 years.

A few times a week, when I unpack Ezra’s backpack/lunch box, I discover a letter from the school. The letter is of course in Dutch, which means I can either ask Arie Jan to translate, or I can take out my dictionary and have a spontaneous Dutch lesson. A week and a half ago, I found a note in Ezra’s backpack and with dictionary in hand, discovered that there was an event at the school Wednesday evening, that everyone in the family was invited to attend–grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters–the whole extended family. Children in all grades (4 years to 12 years) were studying the Helaal (universe) and at 7pm, we could all come to the school to see their projects and participate in a treasure hunt and party.

I had hints along the way, as Ezra asked about rockets and stars, and suprisingly, when I pointed out the different planets in a book, he knew Mars from Uranus, Saturn from Jupiter. I was impressed. Clearly, he is learning at his new school. But this didn’t prepare me for the transformation of the school into NASA headquarters junior  or the Dutch equivalent.

When we arrived at school, the playground was full of screaming, running, laughing children, a few street lamps casting long orbs of light over the chaos. Parents milled about, talking to one another, while trying to keep an eye on their children dashing in and out of the darkness.

Finally, the doors opened and the sizable crowd made their way into the school. There was no orderly introduction or set of instructions. You were left to your own accord to explore the solar system. Each classroom was three dimensional. Planets suspended from strings pulled your gaze upward in one classroom, a 10 foot white rocket made of parachute material invited you to climb within, in the next. Teachers handed out a packet with the treasure hunt instructions and children eagerly started their quest into the universe.

Not one for crowds, Ezra held onto my hand with a fierceness that said, don’t you dare let go. When we finally got to his classroom, he relaxed his grip as we explored all of the bright, festive creations hanging from the walls, on the table tops, taped to the windows. We came to a display of  silvery moon rocks made out of some unknown material. Ezra pointed to a blob that resembled a half melted Smurf dipped in silver.

“I made that one,” he proudly announced. I also discovered a collection of rockets with his name on it.

When we left Ezra’s classroom he demanded that dad carry him. There would be no compromises. I understood. There were so many people in the halls that you had to edge your way through them, and from the perspective of a four year old, this would be like navigating your way through a dense thicket, but with the plants moving against you on both sides.  We glimpsed into the classrooms of the older children and the artwork and concepts were more advanced, exciting even.

We treated the last few moments of our Heelal adventure like a trip to a museum, asking Ezra which was his favorite piece of artwork in each classroom.  Soon, he was tired of the game and asked to go home. But when we got outside, he climbed up on the play structure with one of his friends, and spent the next 15 minutes yelling at the moon in Dutch with the other boy. We watched, happy to see him fully in himself, playing with another child his age, shouting with glee.

The next day when I dropped him off at school, the universe looked less dynamic in the morning light. The classroom tables and chairs had been returned to their normal positions, the artwork stacked in a neat pile for take home. So much work and effort put into a project, a celebration at it’s completion and then its over. You move on. Just like in adult life.

Commuting by Bike in Holland

Upon arrival, one of the first things our Dutch family provided for us, besides a ride from the airport and a place to sleep, was a pair of bicycles. Nice bikes. Not a gift, but bikes on loan until we had our own. It seems a Dutch man without a bicycle is like an American man without a car. Sure, it happens, but, it causes great inconvenience and dare I say, a bit of class prejudice should you not be properly fit with a bicycle in your stable.

As I pulled up to my Dutch class on my sister-n-law’s bicycle, a classmate saw me. “Leuke fiets,” she said (nice bike). Afraid I was coming off as a rich American woman, I felt compelled to explain it wasn’t mine, but only on loan. In other circumstances, I let the illusion run its course. But more important than looks, is the experience of cycling in the land of bicycles.

I’ve noticed some major differences between cycling here and in the U.S. First, hardly anyone wears a helmet. Although my default position is that everyone should wear a helmet, it does seem much safer here to hop on your bike; Auto drivers seem keenly aware of cyclists,  and almost without fail, give you the right of way. Dedicated bike paths run parallel to the roads, sometimes a part of the road, sometimes separated by a row of trees or sidewalk. All types of people cycle here. Old, young, Dutch, Indonesian, African, businessmen and women, moms with kids, politicians and diplomats.

Dutch cyclists also lack road rage. If you accidentally, say, try to pass someone to try to keep up with your much faster and bolder Dutch husband, and have to cut back in too soon to avoid a bicycle head on with oncoming cyclists, the person who’s space you’ve just compromised doesn’t start yelling at you. Instead, they say their not-so-nice things calmly to your back, as if having a pleasant conversation.  If a car blocks the bike path, the birdies don’t fly. Instead, cyclists flow around the car, like water in a river readjusting its course around an obstacle. On occasion, as you wait at one of the many bike stop lights next to another cyclist, they’ll strike up a 15 second conversation with you. They are friendly and relaxed.

Cycling seems like a natural time to take in the scenery, feel your legs pumping, the cool air flowing in and out of your lungs. It almost feels like the daily commute has transformed into a moving meditation. And then along comes a moped. They honk for you to get out of the way, not the gentle bell of a faster cyclist, but a honk akin to that of an automobile. When you wait at a traffic signal, suddenly that crisp cool Dutch air is filled with moped fumes. They rev their mopeds when the light turns green, ensuring an extra inhalation of gas fumes as you start pedaling.

I’m sure I’m not alone in my annoyance, and just as soon as my Dutch is good enough, I will join that activist group out there that wants mopeds to return to the main roads where they belong.

I do notice that on the weekends, the number of bikes in the city decreases. It’s as if everyone decides to get their cars out for a weekend drive. This is in stark contrast to the U.S. phenomenon of the weekend warrior going for a 50 mile bike ride in their neon outfit, or taking the Harley off of it’s red carpet in the garage and trading in the suit and tie for leather, jeans and a red bandana. My brother-n-law Cornelis, a sensible lawyer, had a simple explanation; cycling is the fastest way around the city during the work week. On the weekend, it’s not so crowded, so people use their cars. Call me a romantic, but I thought it was about the Dutch zeal for the fiets! (bicycle)

Coming up next: Ezra studies the Heelal (universe)

Re-entering the Fray

I’ve seen movies where someone is treading along and then all of a sudden their world changes drastically. This past weekend, we had two such moments; perhaps not film worthy moments, but in the sphere of our Dutch existence, an ode to Dylan’s times, they are a changing.

Friday, Arie headed to Amsterdam for a second interview for a teaching position. The interview was at 12pm. When I hadn’t heard from him by 2pm, I called him on the cell. He answered curtly and said he would call me back. I was not alone in my impatience for an aye or nay. His sister had called him 5 minutes before. Thanks to our impatience, Arie Jan was having the unfortunate experience of discovering the pop song ringtone I had selected for our new cell phone while in the final moments of his interview. This did not, however, interfere with the headmaster’s decision to offer him the job. That’s right. Arie Jan will soon be a math teacher at a public Christian middle school!

Now came my period of angst and waiting. Earlier in the week, I had a successful second interview for a management position that comes with housing. It was down to me and one other candidate. If I got the job, we would stay in Den Haag, city of diplomacy, international significance and tranquility. If I didn’t get the job, we would most likely move to lively Amsterdam, where Arie’s friends live, a city of excitement, temptation and intrigue.   We didn’t get a chance to really think about the options, as the very next day, I received a phone call and was offered the job, pending receipt of my work permit. So, in less than 24 hours, we both went from jobless, to soon-to-be employed. Of course, we knew our undertaking was stressful, but I didn’t realize just how stressful it was until I felt relief wash over us with this news.

Coming up next: Commuting by bike in Holland

Dutch Friends, Dutch Sandstorms and Buurvrouws

This past weekend we visited friends in Amsterdam. I was especially looking forward to our visit, as I like the way Arie Jan settles into a rhythm with these friends, despite a gap of a year or so between visits. Gonnie and Arie were in the same philosophy program together, and there is something special about having friends who shared not only your university years with you, but your same field of study. Her husband, Jan Hank, had also been in the picture for a long time. They’d visited us in America with their two young children and they were always on our “to see” list when we came to the Netherlands for a visit. Thus, I was excited to see them again, and perhaps held a little expectation of how things would be. 

Their children exemplify the high energy, rough and tumble children of Amsterdam. The little girl, who is almost 5, is as tough as they come. She shows affection by punching you in the arm, and challenges her much bigger brother over any toy. The older brother, who is 7 going on 8, has a mischievous side we were all too familiar with from prior visits, but it seemed he had mellowed a bit. In fact, he was surprisingly gentle and sweet with Ezra, who despite turning 4 earlier this year, still holds toddler charm. 

As we settled into the evening, making a meal together, drinking wine and sharing stories, our dinner visit turned into an impromptu sleep over. After an initial period of shyness, Ezra started to play with the other children, but kept reporting back to me that they only spoke Dutch. Eventually, he seemed to absorb the implications of this fact, and he started trying out little Dutch phrases; Ik wil ook spelen or Niet doen! (I also want to play; Don’t do that!). Ezra fell asleep easily after story time, curled up with bears the children placed all around him on a guest bed that pulled out like a drawer from beneath the boy’s bed. Our accommodations of sleeping bags and sleeping pads were a little more primitive, but did the trick.

I awoke half on the floor, half on the sleeping pad, with a sore shoulder. For a moment, the question of “where am I?” clouded my mind before everything came into focus.  Sunshine streamed into their third floor flat, lighting up the room and children’s artwork and toys all around us. The toys and sunshine reminded me of our little Santa Barbara apartment, which made me sad for just a moment. I didn’t realize how much I missed our child-centered set up. The room in the house where we are currently staying doesn’t have direct morning light. It is also an adult house, lacking the festive atmosphere that comes with the chaos of young children.  

After a leisurely breakfast, the children took a bath in an impressive red marble square tub, which seemed  a modern take on the Roman baths with two shower heads, room for all three kids to swim around, arms outstretched, heads covered with bubbles.

Playing in a Sandstorm

The day expanded before us and suddenly everyone but me was on board for a trip to the sand dunes. Hadn’t they noticed the gale-force winds outside? Sand plus wind plus cold. Bad Idea.

“We won’t stay long, and it will be fun,” was the summation. I was pretty certain that Ezra was with me on this one, though for the moment, he was caught up in the excitement of his newfound friends.

We packed everything up and drove in a caravan toward the coast. We entered a windswept parking area and all got out, zipping up our winter coats, pulling on gloves and hats, preparing for battle. The walk in was nice enough. As if out of an old Dutch Storybook, a bosje (small forest) of gnarled, windblown trees lined a dirt path with trails leading in different directions.  We followed the main path while the children ran up and down the side trails. Soon, it opened up to the larger dunes. Without the little trees, with their confused branches going every which way, the wind came at us full force. Intentionally, we walked up the hills of sand, our feet sinking at every step. The wind whipped the sand across our faces, our ears, our eyes. I sputtered and spit as I climbed, bent at an angle, up the hill. It was difficult to breathe. Ezra held onto my hand, screaming in protest. We were now on the same page.

“What the hell are we doing here?” I yelled into the wind toward Arie Jan’s back. The wind stripped my words of sound. I got closer and grabbed his arm and he turned to face us. There it was, that Dutch glint of excitement.

“Having fun darling?” he asked.

Fun?  Of course I knew he was being facetious, yet, he was serious at the same time. He WAS having fun. I hugged Ezra close to me, as despite the raging wind, I could hear his cries. Arie Jan looked at his pathetic little American family being pummeled by wind and sand, and he knew he had to take action.

He grabbed Ezra’s hand and they ran up the remainder of the steep dune to the apex of wind and sand and then down the dunes toward the ocean. I followed suit, my legs opening up into a full-fledged sprint down the sand dune, pulling my feet up out of the soft sand just in time not to tumble, the wind blowing me every which way while gravity and pitch pulled me forward. It felt like a ride from Disneyland, but without the long waiting lines or precautionary measures to keep you safe. As I reached the shore, the sand was packed more tightly, the wind more bearable.  I have to admit, there was something exciting about it, in an adrenaline-rush, life-or-death sort of way. Clearly, you could not stay out in the elements like that for very long, and under normal, non-Dutch circumstances, would only enter such weather under crisis of hunting for food, moving your tribe to a safer region, or running from the enemy.

After our trip to the sand dunes, we drove to another windy beach, packed with weekend day trippers also walking and running through the sand storm. Our wild wind and sand adventure was followed by a cup of tea in a gezelling (cozy) restaurant above the beach, safe and warm and calm inside, peering out at the winter landscape. Everyone who entered had wild hair and watery eyes and that glint of excitement of having had the experience. Of course, no one would admit this but me. They are Dutch. Being in the elements is a part of life. So much so, that staying in all weekend is a bit of a sham. You must get out and intentionally enter a sandstorm, ride your bike through gale-force winds. Go for a walk in the rain. It’s just rain, wind, sand, snow, sleet, freezing cold. What’s the big deal?

A classmate from Peru told a story about her buurvrouw (female neighbor). She told the neighbor not to go out on her bicycle as it was too windy outside. The old Dutch woman responded, “I am Dutch. I’ve been riding my bicycle my whole life. This is not a problem. This is what we do.” The wind blew her right off her bike and she broke a hip. I share this as a cautionary tale of actually going along on those Dutch adventures.

Tot ziens, (see you later)

Kristin in Holland