A home of our own in the city


Sunday night we slept in our new home. We are still lacking lamps, dressers, a decent dining table and a slew of other items, but we have the essentials: beds and linens, a few chairs to sit on, boxes of toys and kitchen items, and each other. And we are happy.

I have never lived in such an urban location. Our home is attached to the large, modern church where I work, and unlike most Dutch flats that have windows at the front and back, our home runs sideways, with a wall of windows bringing in generous natural light on two levels. It stretches upwards with the bedrooms on the second floor. A large urban garden surrounded by a hedge creates a private green space amongst all the concrete, bike paths, streets and buildings.

At night, I hear the trams. Sometimes people talking. Noises from the church. Soon, these strange sounds will become habitual, a mix of elements necessary for proper sleep.

I watch Ezra in his new home and see unbridled, extreme relief. “Are all these things ours, mommy?” he asks again and again, just to make sure. Although they say children are much more flexible than we are, I know this whole move, and extended stays with friends and family, has taken it’s toll. Right now, he’d rather play in his room then go to the playground or play with other kids. He needs the time to claim his own space and redefine his relationship with the physical world around him. This home we can claim as our own.

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An uncoddled nation


In America, we are protected from our own stupidity. Okay, not in all cases. Sometimes it is encouraged: eat crappy things, buy more than you can afford, believe Fox News, go shopping to do your part in solving the country’s financial woes.

Yet, America is also very serious about safety and coddles us as if we are irrational beings, incapable of deciphering the obvious. For example, a cup of hot coffee may have the following label: Be Careful! The content of this cup is hot and could burn you!

If a street is closed, large signage in neon colors is placed at the entrance. In case this didn’t get our attention, or we can’t read, the area is fenced off, just to make sure we don’t trip, fall, get injured and, more importantly, sue.

If a metro line runs through a city, quite often there are guard rails along the tracks, with specified entry and exit points. We wouldn’t want someone who was, say, focused on a very important cell phone call, to accidentally walk in front of the metro.

In Holland, you’re on your own. Multiple tram lines run through the urban centers, and pedestrians, bicycles and cars cross the tracks at their own will and risk. Sure, there are flashing lights at major crossings, but no guard rails go down.

If a postman or delivery person can’t find a parking place, they will simply park half on the sidewalk  and half on the bike path–and no one cares. There are no bright orange cones placed before or after to state the obvious. It’s up to you to figure out how to go on your merry way.

In a densely populated European city with a well-integrated public transport system,  it’s just not possible to coddle the populace at every moment.  And, it isn’t necessary. People pay attention because they have to, and because lawsuits based on not paying attention are just not acceptable or common.

I’m not saying this is entirely good. The other day, we were cycling along, and discovered the road was closed. However, there was a small opening for pedestrians and cyclists. We proceeded forth and entered a construction pit. Metal panels had been laid down as a makeshift cycling or walking path and we muddled our way through the site, around tractors and drop offs. It felt adventurous in a way, but if we’d gotten hurt, we would be on our “onus.”

I suppose the European coddling comes in the form of health care, quality education and other services provided for free or at a very low cost, and the multiple, paid vacations.  I much prefer this type of coddling. And, paying attention is empowering!

Staying in the Embassy (Repeat)


(I accidentally deleted this post. It should precede the previous two posts. Anyway, this is a repeat if you are following my blog. If not, read this, then “Dutch Flat”, then “Penthouse” if you like chronology and are up for the read.)

Back in my college days, I thought couch surfing was cool. When I moved to the college town of Moscow, Idaho, I spent the first few weeks sleeping on the floor in a corner nook of a friend’s one bedroom apartment. Traveling light; just me, my sleeping bag and a suitcase of belongings. I stayed with another friend named Skott for a short period, setting up camp on her living room floor. I felt adventurous and free, like I could roll with whatever the universe provided, surrounded by friends with the same happy-go-lucky outlook on our young lives.
Couch surfing with the nuclear family is adventurous in its own right, but I’m fairly certain it doesn’t make many people’s bucket lists.  Children need routine and a stable environment. Forty-something year olds need routine and a stable environment. Yet, when you relocate to your husband’s homeland, it is only natural to stay with family for the “transition” period. The only thing we knew for sure, was that we had been granted six weeks to stay at the former Ecuadorian Embassy. Wait. My husband is Dutch, not Ecuadorian. Why would the Ecuadorian’s host us? 

Embassy

A few year’s ago, my brother-n-law and his wife purchased a building that formerly housed the Ecuadorian Embassy of Den Haag on the first two floors, and a private residence on the top two floors. He and his wife transformed all four levels into a modern residence with regal proportions and detailing. The ceilings stretch skyward capped by crown molding with fleur-de-lis that subtly decorate the white ceilings.  Traditional crystal chandeliers hang from the ceilings while modern cubed lamps made of onyx light up the recesses of the dining room and living room. The regal living room and dining room are connected with sliding doors, that when opened, create a space large enough for a sizeable international gathering.
Each night, save three or four in a six-week period, the six of us ate by candlelight in the formal dining room with chafing dishes offering up three course meals that I helped cook during the majority of our stay.
Although my brother and sister-n-law are an international couple who have lived all over the world, the house is decorated sparingly. Where art does exist, it does so boldly. Four large wooden panels from Mexico hang on the wall of the dining room, each displaying an angel painted in bright colors. The panels are weather-worn window shutters, re-purposed as canvases with the knots and nails left in place. In the master bedroom, two built-in art nooks are home to carved statues illuminated by spotlights.
The ground floor, which is half below ground, accommodates a home office, yoga studio, laundry room, storage room, half kitchen and bath, tool room and bicycle storage.
The bedrooms and studies are located on the third and fourth floors. My little family was easily tucked into a fourth floor bedroom large enough for two beds, chairs, our multiple suitcases, Ezra’s toys and room for morning yoga stretches. It was only half as big as our nephew’s bedroom down the hall. We were living in the lap of luxury.
Yet, amidst all this luxury, this family lives simply and works hard. They rarely eat out, and although generous, have the Dutch mentality–frugal with daily expenses, always turning off the lights and conserving whenever possible. They only have one car, and ride their bikes to most events.
Their 13-year-old son is an articulate, well-educated young man who speaks four languages fluently and is studying a fifth in school. He excels in all of his courses at the international school, studies guitar and is in a striker position on a league soccer team that practices twice a week. Despite this rigorous schedule, multilingualism and intelligence, not to mention that he has traveled in his young life to far more countries than I, he is not arrogant. He is kind and friendly. In fact, he and Ezra have become fast friends, and Ezra likes to go for play dates with him whenever he can.

Our stay was just long enough for Ezra to consider this palatial residence as his home away from home, and he feels comfortable being dropped off for the afternoon with his cousin, aunt and uncle. When I come to pick him up after half a day, instead of running into my arms and screaming “mommy! You’re here!” he asks me to come back later.

We are so thankful to have such a wonderful connection with our family and this extended stay was key to creating that bond. If you think you can take it and life circumstances allow, I suggest such an experiment with your adult brothers or sisters if the relationship allows. Keys to success: set a pre-determined end date so everyone can see the horizon of returning to normal and regaining their privacy; respect the rules of the house; chip in on household stuff whenever possible so that your stay is a benefit to everyone; make sure to have parties and fun events in the mix.

As our embassy stay came to an end, my in-laws, worried about where we would stay next, spontaneously decided to go on a three-week vacation in rural Belgium. Thus, their worry subsided and we had a place to stay.

Penthouse


How many times in life do you get the opportunity to live in a penthouse? I suppose if you are wealthy, this question is not that interesting. But, for us regular folk, these sorts of things don’t come along that often. Thus, when a family friend offered up his penthouse for three weeks, we jumped at the opportunity.

Located on the top floor of a tall residential building, the penthouse comprises two units turned into one, capturing 280 degree views of  the North Sea and the town of Scheveningen (the last 80 degrees of ocean vista goes to a third corner unit). Hardwood floors, white walls, modern art and minimal furnishings give it a hardy, contemporary elegance, and the expansive windows–I’ve never been fond of the word glazing– create the regal experience of gazing down upon the heart of an old Dutch harbor town. The expression “bird’s-eye-view” becomes pretty literal, as the seagulls ride thermals right outside the windows and look down upon the city with their bird’s eye view.

Our first night, we shared the penthouse with our family friend and his three rugby playing sons.  Although christened in the polite and well mannered aesthetics of cultured children, they are, nonetheless, boys; they jumped from the couch, danced wildly and engaged in a particularly arduous version of rough housing (must be the rugby training). As I watched these three brothers pummel one another, a sense of calm washed over me; our little man, a quiet mouse in comparison, would have a relatively small boy-footprint in this amazing home (knock knock).

The next afternoon, we started our solo journey in the penthouse. Learning it’s rhythm came naturally: sunrise from the East wing over the town of Scheveningen, natural light all day long, even when foggy, sunset over the North Sea from the west wing, back to the East wing for the moonrise. No walking around naked past the short hallway from the bathroom to the bedroom.

Although I’ve done my best to be tidy over the last three months as we were lodged through the graciousness of others, the simplicity of this space cultivates a desire for order. The modern art on the walls seems somehow compromised if I let the dirty dishes stand. We find ourselves picking up without effort, restoring the house to it’s sense of simplicity after each meal or study session, putting away slippers and backpacks so that the contrasting light and shadow can play upon the space unhindered.  The only exception is the playroom, where legos, sticks, sea shells and cars lie still between Ezra’s frequent visits.

No clocks exist within the home. Soon, we discovered why. Out the East wall of windows you can clearly see the clock tower of the Oude Kerk, built in 1457. It feels strange to view the clock face at eye level, rather than gazing up at the clock tower from the more familiar perspective of a cobblestone lined street. I make a cappucino in the morning, frothing my milk in a special frothing machine while I look out the window to a mid 15th century building to determine when I should depart for work. Very European.

Another rather European experience is the 35 minute bike ride to Ezra’s school and my work, a 25 minute ride for Arie to Central Station. At first, I viewed this as a drawback. But the commute through Scheveningen, the Scheveningen Bos (forest), past the Peace Palace and into the international city of Den Haag is 35 minutes of breathing in cool, crisp air, cycling hard, navigating the bike paths with other cyclists and gaining a more intimate knowledge of the landscape of my new homeland.

Dutch Flat


Dutch Flat

After spending the first six weeks in the Netherlands with my husband’s brother’s family (see last post), we moved to my in-laws’ traditional Dutch flat while they went on vacation to the Belgian countryside.

Located on the ground floor of a four-story brick apartment building, their flat has the absolute luxury of a back yard. Not one for a patch of grass, my mother-n-law created a beautifully sculpted garden–best described as what a miniature Versailles might look like if conceived by the Dutch– pathways and circles of brick surrounded by thoughtful plantings that bloom in a cyclical pattern, a “forest” area with a trellised entry, a bench at one side for contemplation.

On the street side, semi-transparent curtains in the tall windows cordon off the outside world, while letting passersby catch a glimpse of the bright tulips on the dining room table. Each kamer has something elegant and something quaint–a post modern couch in the same room as a painting of a Dutch city, sculpted glass tables next to a floral couch. 

The neighborhood is sparkling clean, well organized and decidedly old Dutch. Men and women are dressed in semi-fashionable suits, dresses and overcoats on their way to the bakery. Within a three minute walk one can go to the local baker, butcher, florist or cheese store. The shop owners are professionally curt and smile sparingly. A small, vocal child in their midst evokes not one smile, but a downward crinkling at the edges of their mouths. The upscale boutiques in the neighborhood speak to a much older demographic with price tags and styles in the windows informing me there is no need to even enter the store.

On the other hand, the neighbors are friendly and very in tune with what everyone else is doing. A few days after Arie Jan got his job, the doorbell rang, and a nice woman handed us a bouquet of flowers, offering congratulations all around. It became abundantly clear that although my in-laws were on vacation, they were still posting regular emails on our progress from the Belgian countryside to their extended network.

There is this sense, when you stay in someone’s home in their absence, that you are getting to know them better. You are interacting with their space, sitting in their chairs, sleeping in their beds. But what it really comes down to is when you cook in someone’s home. There, you get a sense of what life must be like. This house has the kitchen of a ship’s cabin–a very tiny, extremely – space that is more of a half butt kitchen, then a one butt kitchen. Yet, instead of looking out of a porthole onto the choppy sea, you are looking into Henny’s divinely sculpted garden through a glass door. I found myself lingering there on more than one occasion, taking the garden into my senses. In the bleak and cold of morning, the garden appeared serious and well ordered. When the sun shone into the garden on a windy day, it displayed it’s wild side. Ezra was also intrigued by the garden and more than once, we ran along its tiny paths and through the “forest,” playing a variety of games that usually involved running from monsters, shooting monsters with bows and arrows, or feeding baby monsters lots of cookies before gently returning them to their mommy monsters.

Despite the tiny size, Ezra was drawn to the kitchen. Perhaps it was the view of the garden. Or, perhaps he was tapping into that universal desire to hang out in the kitchen while someone is cooking. A small white table against the wall has a folding panel that is usually down to maximize space. Yet, whenever I started cooking, Ezra would pull the wooden support levers into position and extend the table, minimizing my work space to cut, chop, stir and season.

Ezra is now extremely comfortable in grandma and grandpa’s house. Perhaps too comfortable. Barriers that naturally exist when you visit grandparents, no running and screaming in the house, for instance, had been broken down during our stay. Ezra had developed his own relationship with the house that was independent of its true owners. A Lego set, 720 pieces strong, had been a regular fixture strewn across the living room floor while they were away.  On the other hand, grandma and grandpa now have a standing afternoon playdate with Ezra once a week after school. This might not have worked for our little man if we hadn’t stayed there.

When it was nearing time for my in-laws to return, we were uncertain of where we would stay next. The housing that comes with my new job is not available until April 1st, and we had already stayed with all the family members who live in Den Haag. It is also hard to find a place to rent for three weeks, unless it is a vacation rental, which might set us back close to $2,000–a high price to pay when you are just starting new jobs.

Our network of friends and family came up with different ideas. A neighboring church had an unfurnished space we could rent. We went and looked at it, and it felt like a temporary office building, the toilet and shower shared with others who used a neighboring office, an uninviting kitchen. At the same time, we got an email from a family friend who lives in Scheveningen, a beautiful ocean town 10 minutes away by car, or a half hour by bike.

We went the next day to see his flat. Flat is not the right word for it. He lives on the top floor of a tall, modern building next to the sea with 360 degree views over the ocean and city. Light hard wood floors, glass walls, contemporary art on the walls, and a few functional, well designed pieces of furniture create a look of contemporary living in an expansive penthouse. Um, yes. Please. Thank you.

Coming up next: Penthouse in Schevingingen

Running in the Bos


Last time I lived in a cold climate, I got fat. Not obese, but about all the fat a tall frame like mine, genetically prone to be slender, can take. The former expansion project in Moscow, Idaho was aided by frequent pints of Hefeweizen and other extra curricular activities common to university towns.

Now, my issue is the cold and a proclivity for snacking. I love to exercise. If I don’t get enough exercise, I act strangely. Inappropriately. Like someone who doesn’t understand the implied social protocols. I will do leg lifts at a cafe without concern for others. Yoga stretches while waiting for the tram. My husband is used to this quirk and when he sees me acting like this, he shakes his head. Not entirely from embarrassment, but from the knowledge of what is to come. Hyper. Irritable. My body needs exercise and there’s no place to go.

Yet, if you are from Holland, you are shaking your head right now. What do you mean, no place to go? You can cycle just about anywhere.  You live in the Hague and there are jogging paths all over the Haagse Bos (the Hague forest) and Clingendael. Cold? Get over it. Get your butt moving!

 I reluctantly changed into jogging clothes and headed out the door.  I chose the quaint, yet expansive park called Clingendael, a slice of Dutch countryside imported into the middle of the city.  A small boerderij with sheep, goats and a bee farm sits near the entrance. Old country houses with thatched roofs throughout the park expand the countryside theme, and a series of canals wind their way through the forest and open spaces. A maze of walking trails head off in multiple directions making the park particularly intriguing to runners.

At first it seemed I had the park to myself.  An eerie fog settled in as I ran down a secluded trail for 10 minutes or so before crossing a canal over a little white bridge. There I saw an older man standing at the edge of a canal in knee high rain boots, two chestnut-brown water dogs coming out of the canal next to him.  I ran through an area with tall hedges before coming back into an open area full of tall, naked trees, their dampened leaves lining the forest floor. A perfect setting for a British murder mystery. As this image wiled its way into my thoughts, I began to run a little faster. Finally, I got into a groove and looped my way through the forest, past middle-aged men walking their dogs.

As I settled into a pace, I began to think of a group of friends. Some who know each other, some who don’t; Barry Miller, Andrew Duncan, Delilah Poupore, Linda Croyle, Jenni Hopson, Yolanda van Wingerden and others I have run with throughout the years. As the cold air filled my lungs, I pictured these friends running alongside  me. Sometimes in silence, sometimes chatting.

Many things can jog our memories about our friends, but it seems that those who have accompanied us on different physical pursuits–running, yoga, backpacking, skiing–are bound to us in a special way. Our interactions are not solely cerebral, like open ended conversations at a dinner party, but physical. Our conversations become, perhaps, more kinetic as our mind and body work in tandem, thus placing our interactions firmly in our minds.

I have experienced the same with yoga friends, Sandi Hebshi, Delilah, Antara, Kim Cantrell, as we contort ourselves into different positions, perspiring together, coming more fully into our bodies. Perhaps that is the connection. Through exercise, you are grounded, present and alive in yourself, creating a much better space in which to bond with others.

Thus, in this new land, I must also seek these more physical relationships, as studies show we are more prone to do regular exercise if it also brings companionship.