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