The Veluwe and other things that make my son run

The Dutch are a hardy stock not easily deterred by harsh weather. They can tolerate high winds, freezing cold and overcast skies for days on end without complaint. But there comes a time, such as the beginning of May, when they feel entitled to better weather for having endured the long, harsh winter. If by mid-May the weather hasn’t improved, they begin the downward transition from Dutch indifference to mild frustration, their countenances gripped by a look that says enough is enough. By late May, if the weather is still not cooperating, meaning the sun isn’t out, it’s still cold, wet, windy and gray, they begin to act like Americans–profusely complaining about the Dutch weather.

And no wonder; they haven’t had a spring this cold since 1900. Thus not a single Dutch person now living has ever experienced a spring this cold. (If you are a 113-plusser of Dutch descent and you remember how cold it was the first few years of your life, my apologies for getting this fact wrong. And thanks for reading my blog).

It was in such forlorn May weather that we were given the gift of lodging in a vacation house in the Veluwe, an expanse of forests, heath and sand drifts in the center of the Netherlands. We were on the freeway for an hour and a half before we pulled into a rural area surrounded by open space, forests and lush green pastures dotted with picturesque sheep and cows. My son sat in a child seat in the back, offering a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. It was from this throne-like position that he offered up a running commentary of everything outside with an enthusiasm that had us deeply immersed in vacation mode despite only being on the road for a relatively short time. His anticipation grew as we got closer to our destination.

I had no idea what our temporary home would look like, but unbeknownst to me, my mind had been quite busy constructing it in my head: a seventies style wooden structure with a rough-hewn floor and compact rooms, a series of matching Delft blue plates and cups in the wooden cupboards,  a gnome statue in the front yard. As we followed the instructions of the female voiced GPS unit into a vacation home park, we passed a number of homes that fit my expectations. But when we reached the home where we would be staying, all bets were off.

Instead of wooden walls and gnomes, we were met by an elegant residence with a white exterior, steeply pitched roofs and ample windows. The landscaping surrounding the home–pleasant and inviting instead of cropped and contained–was a reverse shock to my system. The lush vegetation flowed into itself, presenting delicate layers of trees, ferns, flowers and grass that breathed ease and grace. It was this master crafted garden that spoke its silent words; you can relax now, you have reached your vacation residence.

My husband must have had similar seventies wood cabin expectations, because he too stared in pleasant surprise at this white house reminiscent of the French Countryside. If we had let logic guide our expectations, we would have pictured nothing less from the owners, a couple who offer a complex blend of Dutch pragmatism and understated elegance.

As we brought in our bags, our son asked if we had the place all to ourselves. When we answered yes, he did a little happy dance. Now truth be told, our son prefers sitting around and playing with legos or watching dad play chess online over playing soccer or running around outside. But that was before we got to the Veluwe.

Ignoring the inclement weather, we walked down the gravel road to a path that entered the forest and our son was out in front, leading the charge. Apparently emboldened by the natural surroundings, he began to announce which direction we would be taking at every fork in the path. A long road between two stretches of forest led to a low hill that beckoned us forward. Clearly, there was something of interest beyond that rise. Ezra ran ahead with dad, and low and behold, a desert! It wasn’t actually a desert, but a wide expanse of sand dotted with little tree-lined rises. Forest surrounded the desert hill landscape on all sides. Within a few minutes of exploration, we came to a group consensus that this was perhaps the most exciting hide-and-seek area ever. And thus began a marathon of hide-and-seek adventure.

Despite just having recovered from a minor surgery, I found myself walking as quickly as possible to hide among bushes and sand, my heart pounding as my son and I waited for my husband to find us. We took turns peering through the brush to see if he was getting close. I observed the mix of terror and joy on my son’s face as he played hide and seek in nature, not a building in sight; his screams and fits of laughter did not bounce off the walls of an urban dwelling to hurt my ears, but were as much a part of nature’s soundtrack in this windblown expanse of desert as a bird’s call or the hum of wind through the surrounding trees.

When our hiding place was on the verge of being discovered, he fully exercised his newfound ability to keep on running and hiding. Every morning, he couldn’t wait to go outside and run, explore and play some more–even though it was cold out there, and raining. Where was the boy who isn’t willing to walk for more than 10 minutes in the city? Where was the boy that refuses to go outside on weekends to get some exercise and fresh air? Not here. And the air quality in the moss lined forest was clearly different. As we breathed in the air, it felt like our lungs could take in more oxygen, causing us to feel more awake and invigorated.

This got me to thinking about the correlation between open space and physical activity. I grew up in the countryside and my life was full of active verbs like run, climb, dig, build, spring. I only had time for the more passive activities of reading, drawing and watching television after I had burned through my child energy with the aforementioned set of verbs. Could it be that the reason we have a “let’s stay inside” guy is that a cityscape of tall apartment complexes, skyscrapers, and a cross-hatch of roads, tram lines, biking paths and brick sidewalks are not doing it for him? There are trees in the city. Parks. An urban forest with small lake within 10 minutes of our house. But it can’t replace uninterrupted nature, stretching off into the distance, calling you to explore its hiding places.


A small epiphany with a glass of wine

Last Friday I attended a friend’s 35th birthday party. Her living room, with tall glass doors to the garden and a gleaming hardwood floor, was filled with women festively dressed for the occasion. Dim lighting, jovial conversation and a table lined with a selection of wines and snacks created a festive atmosphere. Even though I didn’t recognize anyone besides the birthday girl when I arrived, I knew that I shared the common thread of her friendship with all of the guests, setting the stage for easy conversation among strangers.

I have been to such parties before, and enjoyed them immensely, but there was something that set this gathering apart from my former experiences–they were all speaking in Dutch. I started a conversation in English with the first woman I met and we had a fantastic dialogue that ranged from literature to parenting, to the speed of which our society is changing. But one thing that’s guaranteed about conversations at such a party; if you wander away to refill your wine glass, or snack on the mixed nuts, when you return, the conversation will have switched to Dutch. And so it was.

I joined in a conversation and within a few minutes I received compliments on my Dutch. This launched a conversation about language acquisition and comfort level in speaking in a foreign language. I admitted I didn’t feel comfortable speaking Dutch and both people with whom I spoke couldn’t understand why.

“I understand everything you are saying and you communicate very well. You have nothing to be uncomfortable about,” she responded in Dutch. I understood all of her words and I knew they were not meant to placate my fears. The Dutch aren’t into that. So I had to receive them earnestly. And in doing so, both I and my partner in conversation wanted to get to the bottom of my discomfort.

“Do you think in Dutch?” she asked.

“I think in Dutch when I’m speaking Dutch,” I responded. Others had joined the conversation and they all agreed that this was a very good sign that I had reached a strong level of language acquisition. And then the significance of this realization hit me. If I think in Dutch, my thought process is limited to my current Dutch vocabulary, which is a fraction of the vocabulary available to me when forming my thoughts in my native tongue.

Wow. Perhaps for others this sounds like a no brainer, but for me it was a small epiphany. Those pauses I feel when I’m searching through my limited Dutch vocabulary alter my natural flow of conversation, making me feel like a dimmed down version of myself. I’m not saying that I am always eloquent and witty in my native tongue, but I am definitely smoother and more confident than in Dutch.

As the evening progressed, I forgot about me and just listened and responded to those around me.  With the right mix of alcohol, ego release and a good night’s sleep that kept my brain sharp and engaged, I had moments when I was so emerged in the conversation that I completely forgot about the language barrier or the fact that I was speaking Dutch.

If there was a string of words that derrailed my understanding, I asked for a translation and then just as quickly returned to Dutch. And that is key–going with the flow, interjecting an English word here or there, and always returning to the foreign language.

At one point, I wisely realized my brain had had enough Dutch for one evening, and I started to say my goodbyes. The next day, instead of feeling tuckered out, my language muscle felt stronger due to the cerebral boot camp I had attended the night before. Not only that, but my little epiphany has put vocabulary development on the front burner and the words are bubbling in my mind, finding their place in my permanent collection.

Now if anyone can give me a tip on how to maintain this enthusiasm, I just may reach fluency afterall.