an American expat in the Netherlands shares daily experiences
I believe in living with integrity and in choosing a lifestyle that shows respect for our environment. Although continually attracted to the idea of imminent success with the publication of my debut novel Green, I am also greatly drawn to living simply and living well: loving my family and friends, and being aware and present for those moments in life--a spontaneous hug from my son, a smile to a stranger, moments of insight--that define real connection and success with peace, love and happiness.
I grew up in Solvang, a small Danish-themed tourist town in California, and like many Americans, there was a soundtrack to my childhood.
It started out with a hodgepodge of what my older brothers and parents listened to: The Beatles and The Velvet Underground (artist-musician brother), Blue Oyster Cult and Rush (football star party-animal brother), Andy Williams, Sinatra and Beethoven (definitely the parental units). That was accompanied by the soundtrack of greater society: what you hear in the mall, on the radio, at your friend’s houses. Initially, I mistook my family’s tastes for my own, gravitating the most toward artist-brother’s selections. I knew the lyrics to many Beatles songs by heart, and with each new album he purchased–the Red album, the Blue album, the White album, Abbey Road–my song repertoire expanded.
By the time I was in junior high school, I started my very own collection of tapes. I would save up my allowance, beefed up by the occasional pilfering of shiny quarter wishes from the bottom of the town fountains and head to Santa Barbara to expand my music collection. I believed my tastes to be in the ilk of Van Halen and Guns ‘n Roses, but when it came to parting with my quarters and actually purchasing albums, artist-brother’s British tastes had infiltrated my own selections. Although I had quite a few Billy Joel, Huey Lewis & The News and Bruce Springsteen albums, The Police, Dire Straits and Duran Duran were in the mix.
I knew that American bands were known abroad, but I somehow imagined this was mainly the case in England and other English-speaking countries. My first trip to Europe in the late 1990s seemed to confirm my assumption; I spent three weeks in Italy, where I only heard Italian music on the radio and in the shops and restaurants.
Without any other European experience, my expectation was that The Netherlands would be a land filled with Dutch music and that the soundtrack of my life up until I moved abroad would be a nostalgic compilation left on the other side of the Atlantic.
Oh. So. Wrong. Maybe Americans and Brits are no longer “everywhere” but our music sure is. It’s on Dutch radio, in the gym, in the restaurants, in the clubs. I should have been clued in when I started dating a Dutch guy who knew most of the music I listened to. Now that Dutch guy is my Dutch husband.
We have a running joke about music in public spaces: When we walk into a pub or restaurant, we affect the median age of customers on the premises and the music on the radio adjusts accordingly to our musically formative years i.e. high school and university years.
In other words, I can hear Guns & Roses, Bruce Springsteen, The Police and just about anything else from my youth by just walking into an establishment. Or maybe we just had some kick-ass music during our youth that has stood the test of time.
According to a large number of articles over the past five years, you are no longer what you eat; you are what you post! Does this small representation of the thousands of songs I was exposed to in my youth now become a shortlist of how I am represented? Am I simply a summation of a few lines of text? No Husker Du or Black Flag, The Carpenters or Carole King, no Antara & Delilah, Ben Howard or Jim Bianco?
I am an American shaped by American and British music. But to think that this music was somehow an exclusively American or British experience is just not the case. While we were Rock’n in the Free World (Neil Young or Bon Jovi cover style), so were high school and university students in The Netherlands and presumably countless numbers of others throughout the world.
What most likely remains rather exclusive is the local music, the indie bands that are amazing, but never make it to a national or global level. But this is no reason to keep it to yourself. Support these bands; honor their contribution to the rather niche soundtrack of your life and spread the joy of their music.
I have experienced a strange duality of interests over the past few days. In The Netherlands, we experienced a freak snow storm that resulted in code red warnings, early closures of businesses and horrendous travel conditions that basically shut the country down for two days. Despite all of the hassle, it was stunningly beautiful and surprisingly quiet for those few days the snow lasted.
It’s quite common for people to turn inward and be less social when in cold climates, especially in the middle of winter. Snow changes that dynamic. There is an almost contagious giddiness and excitement that spreads through the population.
Adults give way to their inner child, children go berserk and even stoic figures known for their curmudgeonly behavior lighten up a bit. With less traffic and workers advised to stay home, people of all ages were out in their snow clothing, pulling children in sleds, engaging in snowball warfare and building snowmen.
Even though I’ve been living in The Netherlands for seven years now, I’m still a Californian at heart and I stay in touch with events going on in my home town. Just like in The Netherlands, people on the Central Coast of California have also been advised to stay inside and work at home, but for drastically different reasons.
While I have been throwing snowballs at neighbors and taking up way too many megabytes on my iPhone on snow videos, a massive fire known as The Thomas Fire has been burning through the central coast region of California.
I’ve been in contact with my brother, getting updates on his experiences and watching the news as the fire grew from 50,000 acres to 230,000 acres and is still going strong.
Fires are a natural part of the ecosystem and can actually help replenish nutrients in the soil. Yet that renewal comes at a deadly cost. Many animals have died, homes have burned and although the human death toll has remained very low, the Thomas fire is full of devastation for many.
Thick ash covers the streets, the air is dark, hazy and it’s hazardous to breathe in the particulates floating through the air. According to some, it feels like living in a war zone or some strange apocalyptic world. I wish I could send some of our rain from the Netherlands to California to help put out these fires, but nature seems to know what she’s doing, as do the legions of fire fighters keeping the fires away from the majority of homes.
I’m praying to the weather gods in tandem: for more snow ball material to fall from the skies in The Netherlands and for rain to pour down on my California homeland.
When we visited Barcelona three weeks ago, my excitement was threefold: 1) I was there to celebrate my brother- and -sister-in-laws 25th wedding anniversary; 2) I was about to revisit La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, a magical place I have kept alive in my memory since my first visit 13 years ago and 3) I was finally going on vacation.
I remembered Barcelona as a beautiful, thriving, architecturally stimulating city of friendly people. I remembered La Sagrada Familia as a sacred space in the middle of the city that brought me such as sense of calm and well-being that I had no doubt that God was present within its walls.
Would Barcelona and La Sagrada Familia live up to my memories? Or had I blown that first visit completely out of proportion?
We arrived at night and were whisked off to the family apartment, where we stayed up late enjoying the company of half of my husband’s immediate family. It wasn’t until the next morning that we ventured out into the city. After a lovely morning exploring a local flea market, followed by a too-short visit to a national museum, we headed to La Sagrada Familia in time for our afternoon reservation.
Sometimes expectations and built up anticipation are the perfect recipe for disappointment. But the funny thing about La Sagrada Familia is that it will never be exactly as someone remembers it, since it has been undergoing construction since 1862 with estimates of completion in 2026. Although several architects have worked on it throughout the years, it is Antonio Gaudi’s organic design that defines the building we now see. He took over the project in 1883 and worked on it until his death in 1926.
As we waited outside in line, I looked to the exterior, awe firmly intact. But when we finally made it inside, tears filled my eyes. Despite the crowds, the heat, clicks of cameras and cell phones all around me, its sacredness had not diminished. If anything, it had expanded.
In my second novel The Things We Said in Venice, travel vlogger Alexi visits La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona–one of many stops on her international trip. Here is a passage from my novel about this sacred place designed by Antonio Gaudi.
As she edges inside, the hushed murmurs of the crowd convey awe and wonder that mimics her own. The building is spacious, filled with light. Off-white columns rise skyward like trees. Flower-shaped stained-glass windows bathe the walls in gold, green and orange. The vaulted nave soars forty-five meters high. She has seen this sacred church in books, read about it online, but nothing could have prepared her for this moment.
~ Chapter 3, The Things We Said in Venice
Although Alexi is a fictional character in my novel, we nonetheless have a few things in common. We both like visiting churches when we travel, and we always light a candle for someone when we’re there.
My brother-in-law and sister-in-law were married in La Sagrada Familia, and thus part of the festivities was to attend a Catholic mass in the lower chapel of the church with friends and family on Sunday. The priest, who said he would mention them during the service, actually seemed to shape his sermon around love and commitment and called them out time and time again during the mass. To accommodate the visitors from The Netherlands (the majority of the groom’s family), they asked my husband to do a reading from the Bible in Dutch.
This lower chapel is at the basement level, thus visitors on the ground floor can peer over the balcony at the church-goers and observe the religious as a curiosity, or perhaps experience a moment of connection with faith.
Something that intrigued me about Barcelona when I visited so long ago was the idea that two languages were spoken in this city: Spanish and Catalonian. I didn’t fully get the history of this difference at the time, but seeing signs throughout the city in two languages had made an impression on me back in 2004.
When we visited last month, we saw the Catalonian flag flying from balconies and saw signs with the flag throughout the city with the word “Si” printed above it. While sipping cava at the anniversary party at a beautiful restaurant, I asked my Catalonian table mate Marta J. about the Catalonian flag hanging from so many balconies and what the “si” was all about. She explained the long standing and ever-growing tensions between the Catalonians and the Spanish government. A large section of the Catalonian population wants independence, but the Spanish government is adamantly opposed to secession. The flag was a reminder to vote “Si” or “No” during the upcoming referendum on Catalonia seceding from Spain, even though the judicial branch of the government had deemed the referendum illegal / was not giving credence to Catalonia’s right to voice its will.
I thought of the beginnings of my own country of origin, how bloody hard our ancestors fought for freedom from the crown and how that freedom formed The United States. I felt sorry for the Catalonians, trapped within a larger country that did not honor their independence and apparently didn’t value their contribution to society. It’s not like they could sail across the world and discover a new land and set up there. They were already home.
The tension between Catalonia and the Spanish government is nothing new, and somehow, in my short visit years ago, I picked up on that tension. In fact, it playfully made a cameo in my 2017 novel. In this passage, travel vlogger Alexi is filming a vlog post for her followers, and imparts a bit of cultural knowledge, while providing insight into her own character with Catalonia as metaphor.
“This city is beautiful, the people friendly, but there is a strange duality here. The signs are both in Catalan and Spanish. Catalan is a unique language quite similar to Spanish that is only spoken in four provinces known as the Catalonia region of Spain. The history of Catalonia and the reason for a separate language within Spain is a bit complicated, but just Google it and you can get the scoop.
“So I’m like Barcelona. I have two languages within me; two cultures coming together. I’m not talking about actual languages, but rather a duality of personalities. Although friendly and comfortable in one-on-one situations, I’m actually quite shy in my day-to-day life. I work in counseling, and my clients value me. But now I’m on a one-year sabbatical, discovering another me — my freedom, my individuality, the Catalonia within me.”
~ Alexi during a vlog post in The Things We Said in Venice
Our five-day trip to Barcelona ended the first week of September, but Barcelona was definitely in my thoughts as October 1st approached. This is the day Catalonians would attempt to vote for their independence from Spain.
I, like many people throughout the world, was shocked to witness the violence in Barcelona captured on the news and social media. Just a few weeks earlier I had only witnessed sunshine, peacefulness and beauty. The police brutality and denial of the right for Catalonians to hold a referendum recalls harsher chapters in Spain’s history. Is this the face the Spanish government wants to show the world?
To add a little background, consider these words from the website Armstrong Economics: In the Spanish Civil War, General Francisco Franco abolished Catalan autonomy in 1938. Following Franco’s death in 1975, Catalan political parties concentrated on autonomy rather than independence.
A bit more research reveals that in 2006, this statute of autonomy was challenged by Spain’s high court of justice, and there have been growing protests throughout Catalonia ever since.
Will the international community come to Catalonia’s defense? Unless there are rich natural resources to usurp or threats of mass genocide, it seems the international community is rather reluctant to get involved in civil debates–though civil hardly seems like the proper term here.
Just as I was about to publish my post, a friend who had just had a romantic weekend getaway in Barcelona, sent me pictures from her trip. Based on the smiling faces, the gorgeous Mediterranean sea, the lovely touristic shots, life in Barcelona continues despite the protests on both sides.
One of the last shots she sent me seemed to be the perfect way to end this post.
If I were to tell you one of the highlights of our summer vacation was spending a night in prison, would you think I’d completely lost it?
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Our vacation started out well enough. We arranged to stay at a house in Haarlem for five days and had done the preliminary work of picking up the keys and security codes. We packed the night before to make our morning departure easier. We slept in anyway, and still caught a train on time and easily made the transfer to the second train.
As we rolled our suitcases toward the Haarlem house, I could feel the idea of vacation settling into my shoulders. We were four blocks away when my husband suddenly stopped walking.
“I don’t have my bag!”
His suitcase was in his hand, our bag of snacks over his shoulder. My son and I both had our suitcases and backpacks, so there was a moment of confusion until I noticed that his black shoulder bag was not strapped to his body.
“How’s that possible?” I asked. Misplacing or forgetting items was my specialty, not his. He’s the one we entrust with all important things.
“The keys to the vacation house are in that bag. Besides that, nothing of monetary value,” he claimed.
We called NS, the service that runs the Dutch train system and he precisely described where he had left his shoulder bag and provided a detailed list of its contents down to the red ball point pen in the outer pocket. They promised to call us if they found it.
If the bag was lost or stolen, we were in trouble. If they found the bag, it would take five days to mail it to us–either way, our vacation was looking like a bust.
But the day was still young and I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. If the keys were lost, we could still get a hotel for at least one night and explore Haarlem or maybe move onto another, less familiar city or village and have a mini-vacation. Or we could go home.
Remarkably, NS called us back within the hour and the bag had been found! Yippee! They could mail it to us within five days or we could pick it up . . . in Leeuwarden, way the hell up north.
Leeuwarden or Bust!
As the capital of the Dutch province Friesland, Leeuwarden is a historical city dating back to the 8th century. A percentage of the population doesn’t even speak Dutch, but Friesian. Ljouwert is how you say Leewarden in Friesian. Onward with my tale.
We arrived in Leeuwarden around 5:30pm and retrieved the missing bag without problem. The next challenge was finding last-minute lodging on a Saturday night.
I had called multiple Bed & Breakfasts and they were either fully booked or had a max of two people per room–thus no room for the kid. I found a decent, yet uninspiring hotel on the edge of town that still had rooms as back up, but I hoped to find something in the center.
Google maps reported there was a hostel 400 meters from where we stood. I had read about the Alibi Hostel earlier, but to tell you the truth, I’m not a hostel girl. I’m most peaceful and comfortable in a private hotel room that has its own bathroom and shower. With a hostel, you run the risk of sharing your sleeping quarters with a total stranger and having to leave your room in the middle of the night to visit the bathroom.
I ended my internal debate by calling the hostel to discover they had one private room left. The man on the phone agreed to hold it for us until we had a chance to look at it.
We walked the four hundred meters and arrived at Blokhuispoort, our final destination.
We entered through the main portal of this massive building complex and followed the signage to Alibi Hostel through several construction zones. When we arrived, we were surprised to discover Alibi Hostel was a converted prison. Instead of downplaying this gruesome fact, they actually turn it into a selling point. Book a cell now!
The first prison at this location was built in 1580. The current building was constructed in the mid-1800s and renovated multiple times over the years. It stopped serving as an official prison in 2007 because it was no longer up to penitentiary code, but bad guys and gals had stayed in these cells up until just a decade ago.
We were led to our cell. It had one of those big iron doors, thick walls, black beds, bars on the windows–you know–like right out of a movie. But unlike the movie version, there was something hip and modern about these renovated cells.
It definitely said “prison,” but the smooth walls, new beds and fresh minimalism spoke of proper investment in turning this old penitentiary into something cool. I checked out the shower room and the women’s restroom. Both were immaculate. And did I mention that it was affordable?
“We’ll take it!”
The beds were incredibly comfortable and even though there were bars in front of the window, you could still open them for fresh air. Room secured, we headed into Leeuwarden for dinner and a stroll through the city center.
We returned to Blokhuispoort around 10:00pm and ran into two men who showed us a more direct route to the hostel. Like the owners of the hostel, they were upbeat and friendly. In no time at all they were telling us about the restaurant they were opening in the next few weeks within the Blokhuispoort.
Young people hung out in the courtyard chatting, while a few other families were also returning to the hostel for the evening.
What was going on here? I learned over the course of the evening and following morning that the municipality had designated Blokhuispoort as a site for a cultural center, including a youth hostel.
I soon discovered that our hosts Peter and Jurrien (pictured below) were two of the four owners of the Alibi Hostel. Sjors and Marieke, who weren’t on duty that day, round out the team.
The four friends had been talking one night at the pub and came up with the idea of opening a youth hostel in Leeuwarden. The idea stuck and they began doing research and trying to find a location, but weren’t having any luck. Then they saw an advertisement in the paper.
If I have my facts right, a national development company called BOEi purchased the entire Blokhuispoort complex from the municipality for one euro. You can’t even get a bottle of Cola for that price. Of course the developer has to meet the city’s vision of a cultural center, including ateliers, restaurants and a youth hostel. The renovation would cost millions and millions.
Because of the size and scope of the project, it is being finished in sections and the developer rents to different entrepreneurs, such as the four young friends who started the Alibi Hostel.
The hostel only opened 8 months ago, and a variety of businesses are slowly filling the other spaces, turning this old prison into a cultural hub, just as the municipality had hoped.
Hard to say why this is so appealing, but Alibi Hostel has style. The ground floor comprises a series of ateliers from tattoo shops to cheese shops and the stone, metal and glass create a hip, modern atmosphere.
Despite the comfortable beds and almost soundproof rooms, we all had a bad night’s sleep. Could that have something to do with sleeping in a prison cell? Did the developer forget to call in a pranic healer to cleanse the energy in the rooms? Or did we just eat too much the night before?
In the morning, I ran into another guest who was visiting from just outside Utrecht. He and his family of four had nabbed two private rooms with double beds. He found the whole concept great and was impressed with the renovation. He’s pictured here relaxing in a small lounge next to a wall of barred windows. They slept just fine, by the way.
In fact, everyone I saw seemed completely fine with being locked into a former prison cell and leisurely hanging around a facility with bars wherever you gaze.
So if you’re a die hard Orange is the New Black fan, or just want to know what it’s like to spend a night in prison without breaking the law, I highly recommend Alibi Hostel. It means a trip way the hell up north, but I must say, we quite enjoyed our cell and this Friesian city.
Have you ever walked through your neighborhood and heard one of your neighbors playing live music and wished you could walk in and listen? Glanced into an open window to see art lining the walls of a ground floor residence and wished you could enter that home like a gallery? Or wished to enter that beautiful garden?
On Saturday, June 24th, you can follow that impulse in my neighborhood during the “Parelroute.” Starting at 11:00 and going until 4:30p.m. neighbors as well as five public venues will be open to the public to share their creative talents, from musical performances, painting and sculptor to ayervedic knowledge and fictional writing. Celebrating it’s ninth year, The 2017 Parelroute features 44 stops along the route. The only problem with the Parelroute is that there are so many cool things to choose from and just one day in which to do it all!
I’m drawn to Katharina van der Leeden and the B-Project that will be held at the Christus Triumfatorkerk, Juliana van Stolberglaan 154 (above).
I would also like to see Elleke Davidse’s paintings (Van Reesstraat 61).
But perhaps some live music is a better use of my time. For example, I would like to catch the jazzy music of Bart Riemsdijk and friends at Spaarwaterstraat 17, or visit the nature town ATV Loolaan at Ijsclubweg 5.
Or maybe a workshop on making illustrations with Manuela Bianco?
Oh the choices!
As a resident of Bezuidenhout, I’m honored to be one of the “parels” this year as well. In addition to blogging, I’m an author of two novels, Green (2013) and The Things We Said in Venice (2017). I will be reading from my second novel and sharing how living in The Hague influenced the narrative of this work of fiction. Too bad they put the wrong address in the brochure that went out to thousands of people (correct location is the Haagse Hout Library). Here’s a carefully revised brochure.
When you’ve lived in a country long enough–even if you tend to live in a bubble or under a rock–eventually local cultural phenomena infiltrate your consciousness. As Easter approached this year, I had one of those moments where something that had vaguely hovered on the periphery a few years in a row suddenly punctured my little bubble and made it’s way in: The Passion–a live Christian rock opera of sorts combined with a silent march that occurs each year on Holy Thursday and is broadcast live on TV.
How did I find out about it? Through my church? No. Through my Dutch husband or friends? No. Actually, it occurred while I was reading a rather heart-wrenching New York Times article on my iPhone while waiting for my son to finish his guitar lesson. It was about a U.S. soldier who was imprisoned while suffering from PTSD. When I saw an advertisement pop up, I actually clicked on the ad as a means of postponing my knowledge of this one young soldier’s fate.
The advert took me to an article about The Passion 2017 that would be broadcast live that evening on television. You could virtually “join” the march online. My mind reached into its memory banks and excitedly announced that this “Passion performance” was something I’d come across before. Coincidentally, we had just resolved a technical issue with our television, which means I had access to TV once again. I put it on my digital agenda and hog tied my son into watching it with me.
To be honest, I’ve always been a bit skeptical of contemporary versions of Bible stories, but that night, I gave my critic a rest and settled into the couch to watch the live performance. I wasn’t alone. According to NOS news, 44 percent of all viewers who were watching television at that time were watching The Passion along with me! That equates to almost 2 million people. Another 16,000 were participating live in Leeuwaarden.
Considering The Netherlands has a population of approximately 17 million, that’s more than 10% of the nation! Almost twice as many people were tuned into The Passion as those tuned into the quarter finals of the European League soccer match between Ajax and Schalke. And the Dutch LOVE their soccer.
Jesus was played by Dwight Dissels, a tall, dark and handsome singer with an amazing voice.
A striking red-haired woman named Elske DeWall played Mary and she sang in Frisian, a language spoken in the Dutch province of Friesland in the North of The Netherlands. This was also quite fitting considering the concert was held in Leeuwarden, which falls within this province. Omri Tindal, a young man from Rotterdam with a rich musical career and fantastic hair, played Peter.
The entire performance was in Dutch (Frisian part was subtitled in Dutch), which meant that it was also like a musical Dutch lesson for me. Although many people say I’m close to fluent, I still can’t read the NRC newspaper without looking up at least 10 words per article. But the words used in this broadcast were completely within my grasp.
The cast was diverse, talented, energetic. I Enjoyed the entire performance and felt like I’d learned something that night about how the expression of religion doesn’t need to be confined to a church. I don’t view these sort of performances as a means of converting anyone, but it can certainly make an important religious story accessible to a broader segment of the population, and make it fresh to those who have heard it before. Well done folks!