A bite into consciousness

Yesterday morning I put on my sweats and raincoat and headed to Den Haagse Bos. As my feet left the pavement and landed on the gravel path leading between the leafy green trees, I inhaled deeply, breathing in the scent of nature. Usually this transition from the built environment to a more natural one creates a sense of calm, as if I’ve left the pressures of modern life behind. But that day, the darkened sky and rain cast the forest in a less friendly light. The birds weren’t singing. There was hardly anyone in sight.

As I walked along the dark paths lined with growing puddles,  I thought of Sicko, the Michael Moore documentary we’d watched the night before. We’d only caught the second half, but that was enough to suck us in to the horror of U.S. health insurance coverage.  The film showed that health care in France was about 190,000 times better than in the U.S., unless you’re a U.S. senator, that is. How is it that the U.S. can be the richest country in the world (is this still the case, actually?) and still not have universal health care? How is it that over 50 million Americans are uninsured? Why are the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay provided better health coverage than most Americans? The dismal weather seemed appropriate for such a line of thought.

My mind wandered over to my to do list: small things at work, maybe a blog post, trying a recipe out of the Sneaky Chef to get some extra healthy nutrients into my 4-year-old. Suddenly there was a man walking toward me, startling me into the present. There was something about him that made me uneasy. In his mid to late fifties, he had loose gray curls and a haggard look on his unfriendly face. I bristled, suddenly feeling less cozy and thoughtful in this forest I’d come to know, and more aware that I was indeed walking alone in an unpopulated forest in a big city.

A thimble-sized shot of adrenaline coursed through my veins as I walked firmly past him. I didn’t feel fear so much as strength, as if I had tapped into a primal, animalistic response.  The type where feathers puff and muscles flex; a don’t-fuck-with-me sign in your energetic field.  Moments later, a black, mid-sized dog came running down the path, and based on his unkept appearance, I was sure he was with the man.

It happened so quickly I couldn’t make sense of it. Instead of running past me, the black, mangy looking dog attacked, growling as he snapped at my leg. Just as quickly he was gone. So much for my animal instincts. I looked down at my sweat pants to see a gaping hole exposing my white skin. Had it actually bitten me? I peered into the rip to see two little red spots where his teeth had just broken the skin. No blood poured out, but the skin was broken. I called after the man in Dutch.

“Your dog just bit me!” A normal reaction would be for the dog owner to apologize profusely, but this man just ran after his dog, yelling for it to come back. Perhaps he was as shocked as I was.We weren’t nearly as isolated as I imagined, as a couple with a cute, friendly little dog came upon us. They saw the look on my face and slowed their pace. I explained to them what had just happened and they were shocked. Top news story of the day. They stopped and waited with me.

They suggested that the man pay for a new pair of pants. This man, whom I had viewed as a threat a few minutes before, now seemed less scary and more like someone who had been beaten down by life. I had never thought of asking him to buy me a pair of pants. This is a very Dutch way of thinking when it comes to taking responsibility for a wrong doing.

Let’s just say I agreed the man could buy me another pair of sweat pants. Wouldn’t that require exchanging information? Giving him my address to mail a check? They don’t actually use checks here, but wire money directly to your account. Was I supposed to give this stranger, who gave me a bad vibe,  my bank account number? At the time, my mind couldn’t grasp onto any of these ideas, and all I wanted to do was to continue on my walk. Yet, I did want one thing from him.

“You can’t let that dog off his leash. He’s clearly dangerous.” He seemed to agree.

By the time I got back home and told Arie Jan what had happened, the idea of rabies and other unknown terrible diseases you can get from an animal bite had made an impressive number of laps through my mind. But Arie Jan–usually my Rock of Gibraltar when it comes to keeping me away from those ruminating thoughts–joined in on the refrain. When was the last time I had a tetanus shot? We need to get you to a doctor.

I usually lead a pretty healthy life, save a dog bite now and again, and thus visiting a Dutch doctor’s office was to be  a new experience. Well now. Come to think of it. In light of Michael Moore’s documentary, I had been wondering what the Dutch universal health care system was like.

We called a local doctor’s office and were told to come right over. Because I’m married to a Dutch man, and have my work permit, I am covered under his plan. We hopped on our bicycles and rode through the pouring rain to the office, about 6 minutes away. When we got there, and pulled off our dripping rain coats, we were handed a four page health history form. Ten minutes later, I was whisked into an office. A friendly female doctor looked at my wound and decided a tetanus shot was in order on the premise of better safe than sorry. That was it. No line. No co-pay. No health insurance paperwork. Hopefully I won’t have to revise this story with any ghastly updates about the Dutch health system, but my first experience was, needles aside,  rather pleasant.

We mentioned the dog bite incident to two people in church that day–one who is a police volunteer and happens to have a medical hotline programmed into her phone, and a nice Indonesian woman who works in the office, as Arie Jan had to go with me to do the initial paperwork and we needed someone to be on hand for the clients in the church.

But news of my bite spread like rabies. Just about everyone I’ve seen since that bite into consciousness has asked me about my leg. And you know what, sometimes it feels good to know people are talking about you.


Sex and other language learning tips

While my friends back home in book club are reading The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, a heady young adult work of fiction about death and other things, I am reading O, O, Olivia, chick lit about a wild, confused young woman in her twenties who has a one night stand. I have a worthy excuse for my literary deviation: education and future success in the Netherlands.

Before you raise your eyebrows and wonder where I’m going with this,  O, O, Olivia  is in Dutch. And, it takes place in Den Haag. Topics of romance and sex can be strong motivators to dive deeper into a second language, and dive in is what I am doing–260 pages of diving with sentence after sentence of authentic, contemporary, idiom-filled Dutch.

I’m a sucker for well designed grocery store end displays, that section of real estate at the end of the aisle that convinces you to buy something you don’t really need; green olives stuffed with anchovies for example. I am also quite susceptable to strategic chapter breaks–a chapter that ends with something that leaves you curious. Not quite a cliff hanger, but enough of a pull that you rub your weary eyes, glance at the numbers on the clock face and plod ahead anyway. And author Gillian King has that “strategic chapter break” thing down.

Suffice to say she is hot right now. And I’m not the only one staying up late turning the pages: Olivia is on a seven day express loan. If only I could turn the pages a little faster. Problem is, I don’t just have this nice, sexy book with a pink cover (strategically designed to pull my female eye hither to scan it’s cover, read the back cover summary, and put it in the stack of library books), I also have my essential Dutch-English dictionary in hand to help me through.

As I read and get into the flow of the story, certain words start to lock in, expanding my vocabulary. Other words are road blocks, getting in the way of me knowing what else the lead character is doing to screw up her life. But wildly scary words such as zenuwachting (nervous) or ongemakkelijk (uneasy) are skillfully tamed by my Dutch English dictionary.

For those wanton words and expressions that my dictionary is just too dignified to translate, I have Arie Jan. Sure, I’ve picked up words I’ll never be able to use in my work at the church, but they’ll certainly come in handy watching Dutch television, startling my husband or eavesdropping on the ladies talking in conspiratorial tones at the next table during lunch.

Several people have commented over the last few weeks that my Dutch seems to be making leaps and bounds. I smile politely and say thank you. No real need to elaborate that I’ve been motivated by a fictional character having one night stands, out partying in Het Plein and thrashing her otherwise respectable life, and the desire to see if she gets that extremely hot guy in the end.

If you are beginning to grasp a second language and want to experience a sudden jump in understanding, read something in your foreign language of choice that is shamelessly compelling to you, whether it’s about companion plantings for your organic garden or a foreign espionage thriller. What better way to compel yourself forward. And you might be pleasantly surprised like I was; not only am I expanding my vocabulary, I am also discovering that happy endings are possible in other cultural writing as well.

Number 54

Today I saw a poster for some sort of speaker/author who started out with three friends and now has 10,000 friends. It initially piqued my interest as a horizontal racetrack for
Ezra and me on our Hotwheel adventure. We were clearly not among the author’s
friends as we drove across his 10,000 friend face collage. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to be the friend correctly shaded to make up his nose holes, eyebrows or teeth for that matter. Give me some dignity. A cheek at least, an eye.

To me, the idea of having 10,000 friends, even in a superficial, Facebook sort of way, is
appalling. I mean, why? It’s hard enough getting quality time in with the wonderful friends I have.

And let’s just say that if I’d viewed that poster as something more than a racetrack, and had read a little further, I might have discovered that it had to do with social
networking. But once again. Why would you want 10,000 friends? To boost business? To boost ego? To ensure that if you ever needed to get away from “the man”, that you’d have absolutely nowhere to go, since even your remotest connections were all public knowledge? I’m just waiting for a contemporary version of The Net to come out to prove just how difficult it would be for a FB, LinkedIn, live online sort of person like myself to intentionally disappear without a trace.

But where I’m going with this is, I do see the value of having a reasonably sized network of
friends, colleagues and acquaintances who help each other out. I had such a network in Santa Barbara and we were there for one another. A church community is also a good example; they often help out people in their community by running soup kitchens, doing clothing drives and other charitable work. If you are a fellow church member, they may even drive to your house to bring you a meal, loan you a car, provide you with both material and spiritual support.

Your social network can also help you with more trivial pursuits. Mine recently helped me discover I am not alone in honoring my inner child.

For the last three months the grocery chain Albert Hein has been handing out small packages of cards with every purchase. They are similar to baseball cards that people
collect, but in this case, the superstars are animals. The cards are not only visually exciting with quality Getty Images, but educational, as they stateinteresting facts about each animal. And if you want to get adult about it, the whole project is in cooperation with the World Wildlife Fund.

But they are, in principle, extremely effective marketing geared toward children. My son loves ripping open the ocher yellow packages and pulling out the cards. He looks at
them with excitement for a few seconds before tossing them in a bowl and promptly forgetting about them. I was excited to get the cards as well, and looked forward to seeing what each little package held. I could even see getting one of the albums that could be had for just a few euros to organize your collection.

One night, a family came over for dinner and the eldest son Lars just happened to have his album with him. Now I could see how the whole thing worked; There were sheets arranged by different skills: extremely strong animals, animals that can hear extremely well, animals that can weather cold climates, etc, etc. I need to get myself, I mean, Ezra an album, I thought.

This particular family has three sons and when they saw the bowl of dierenkaarten on the shelf, they stared at them with the eagerness of caffeine junkies inhaling the scent of
freshly brewed coffee. I suddenly related to their enthusiasm. I too was a dierenkaarten junkie. And then Arie Jan did the unspeakable.

“Take what you like. Ezra doesn’t really care about them.” I saw the boys faces light up, as if some fool had just said, “he doesn’t really use the gold coins. They’re just lying there. Go ahead and take what you like.” As they rifled through the large stack of collectible “dierenkarten”, oohing and aahing about rare ones they didn’t have in their collections, I felt a pang of remorse, a gnawing annoyance.

A few days later, Arie Jan bought the album for Ezra. He suddenly had a renewed interest in the cards, excited about stuffing them in the little plastic slots. But, he didn’t care about the designated groupings.

As I tried to explain the concept of putting the cards in order, my husband chimed in; “He’s only four and a half. He doesn’t have to put them in order. Just let him have his
fun.” I looked at the album longingly, but his words seemed to ring true. They’re for my son, afterall, not me.

It wasn’t until a few days later when I found myself alone, that I finally gave in. I picked up my son’s album and removed all of the cards that had been placed in suprisingly
logical groupings. Over the next few days, I correctly ordered the cards, discovering where the holes lay in the collection. I thought of our recent dinner guests and wondered what bounty they had made off with. Did they have the Alpenkauw? (A black bird that lives in the Alps.) Had they made off with my, I mean, with Ezra’s Boomschubdier? (a scaly
reptilian that hangs in trees.)

By the time I had the album in order, I found out that the dierenkaarten marketing wonder was coming to an end. At playdates I mentioned that Ezra was collecting the cards, and mothers casually suggested that the boys could get together sometime and trade, as everyone had a thick stack of extras, just as those people in the head office of marketing intended.

Was I the only parent out there obsessing over animal cards? Ah, Kristin, just have faith! I
mentioned the cards at church and suddenly Ezra’s collection was on the super highway to completion.

We had some friends over for dinner on a Friday night. They had heard about our need and brought their box of extra dierenkaarten with them. A grown woman like myself
eagerly flipped through Ezra’s album, sorting through her well organized stack and filled in what she could. Now our album was 75% complete. She asked for paper and pen and wrote down our remaining missing numbers. We had a lovely evening. They stayed until after 10pm, well after I had put Ezra to bed.

Sunday morning, Koby, a highly active woman in the church, handed me a small package in white and pink wrapping paper with a post it note with Ezra’s name on it. “I heard what
numbers you were missing in your album and I had some of them,” she said in
Dutch. I couldn’t help wonder if the feminine wrapping paper was an acknowledgment of who in our family was actually collecting the cards.

The next day, we received an email from someone else in the network, announcing she had a few more of the cards we were missing. Koby had beat her to the punch on half of
the cards, but still. We are now only missing six!

I opened a purse I hadn’t used for a while, and I found a stack of dierenkaarten. I eagerly flipped through them and we had them all, but there in the stack was number 54, the spookdiertje. This furry little creature looks like a cross between a koala bear and a bat. He is pictured in a hunched position, his long hands and feet clinging to a tree trunk while he peers into the forest with yellow beady eyes. He falls into the category of “Dieren met supergoed oren” (Animals that can hear extremely well) and the category of sought after cards. Soon, I too will make someone in my network happy as they receive number 54, the coveted spookdiertje.

People love helping other people, and the easiest way to help others is with the little things. And who brought about all these fleeting moments of happiness? A well organized marketing and promotion team in a chain of grocery stores that seems to have a monopoly in this nation, matched with a population that sees the value of sharing.