Good night Guineas

We have two adorable guinea pigs. The first is an albino escape artist we acquired by accident. Our relatively large garden was used for outside activities during an Earth Day Festival in 2015 held at the neighboring church.

A woman who owns a small farm brought a dozen guinea pigs and created a mini petting zoo that Saturday. Three or four days later, my husband was looking out the window and a little blur of white caught his eye among the lush green of the garden.

“We have a rat in the garden,” he erroneously concluded. Our garden is the pooping ground of local neighborhood cats and visible from the sky should a bird of prey be flying overhead. Yet one little guinea pig had somehow survived all by herself in our garden for three days.

When we informed the farmer of the little Houdini in our garden, she asked if we wanted to keep her.

Our first reaction was “no,” but my son, who had spent most of Earth Day petting these lovable little creatures, had other plans.

He turned into a regular little salesman, promising the world to us if we would only keep the guinea pig. We explained all of the responsibilities that come with owning a pet. My husband made it clear he would not be taking on any of said responsibilities. My son listened to all of it and then looked us in the eye, as he stated his vows of guinea ownership.

“I promise I will feed it, clean the cage, pet her daily and love her.”

We shook on it.

At first, he took his oath seriously. He fed her, helped with cleaning the cage, petted her regularly, named her.

Oitje (pronounced O-Chee) made it into school “share and tell” reports, was a recurring subject in the stream of digital photos and those first few months, he only needed to be reminded once in a while to feed her.

But guineas aren’t exactly the most ideal house pet for a kid. They don’t greet you at the door in a rush of excitement, like a dog, or beg you for attention. They don’t jump on your lap like a cat and chase their tales. That would be a tall order, considering guineas don’t have tails.

In other words, all of the attention is a bit one-sided. You have to reach into that cage as they cower at your outstretched hand and swoop them up. You have to conduct mini guinea pig therapy sessions to calm them down. Eventually, they purr like a cat, and they are cute and cuddly, but . . . .her life seemed a bit sad.

We went online to see if our guinea might be depressed. Research indicated that guinea pigs are social creatures and live  much longer, happier and healthier lives if they are in the company of other guineas.

A trip to the same farm resulted in guinea pig number two. In contrast to Oitje’s smooth, straight and white fur, and bulging red eyes, Coco was a black and tan with luscious wet black eyes you might encounter in a Disney movie. The pads of her feet even had a dark color.

Unlike Oitje, Coco was a nervous wreck. She didn’t like to be held nearly as much, would run like you were a hawk with talons if you even got near the cage. But she had her own winning qualities. Coco was a verbal little creature. She squeaked in the morning to remind you that she and her cage mate also needed a square meal to start off the day.

Two guineas meant investment in a larger cage, which dominated our tiny living room. It also meant twice the amount of pooping and peeing, more frequent cage cleaning, more food.

After the initial excitement wore off, I seemed to have inherited most of the responsibilities. I know the drill from my own childhood. You beg your parents for a pet, promise them the world. You get the pet and you are so excited! But as all the responsibilities set in, you realize these creatures require a lot more of your time then you had initially thought.

Wouldn’t it be better for them to be with a family who was more interested in them? This debate went on for a good six months. Finally, we came to a conclusion. Yes, Coco and Oitje deserved a more exciting life, with people who were willing to put in the time. And, we wanted that rectangle of prime living room real estate back!

We listed them in a Facebook for-sale group and within a few days, we had our first appointment.

Last night, a lovely young couple who had just purchased their first home came by our house to see them.

“We want an animal presence in our home,” the young man explained. Not a cat or a dog,  but a starter animal to go along with the starter home, I interpreted.

The young woman held each guinea pig and I saw instant love on her face that was so familiar. My son had looked at them that way when he first held them.

“Yes. We’d love to have them.”

While my husband packed up the food and bedding supplies, my son started explaining what they liked for breakfast, when they get their dry food, that they like their hay in the late afternoon.

We secretly watched through the window as the taxi came to pick up the young couple with cage, food, and two lovely guinea pigs packed in a perforated cardboard box for their trip to their new home.

“Good night guineas.”

This morning, when I was slicing apples for my son’s lunch, there was something missing. I didn’t hear that high pitched fluting of Coco: “Breakfast! Breakfast! Don’t forget about me!”

Tears streaked down my cheeks. My son came to me and asked what was wrong.

“No Coco whistling.”

He gave me a comforting hug and stood there with me in the new silence. There are far greater challenges over which to shed tears, but saying goodbye is never easy.

“They’ll be happy in their new home,” he consoled.

Wishing you a happy stage in your next journey little ones.



Sunday Ride: Now and Then

When we were kids, my brothers and I were periodically subjected to my father’s long Sunday drives after church. If my father was still alive, I think he would recall these drives as the foundation of our interests in architectural style. My memory to date is that I hated them: the three of us kids in the back seat poking at one another; my dad putting on classical music and telling us to be quiet; he pointing out interesting homes for us to look at and appreciate; sitting after having already sat through Catholic mass–it was really a lot to ask from three rowdy kids.

Today, history repeated itself one generation later, but with an improved concoction if you ask me. We skipped church this morning and slept in (or at least I slept in; the boys did a few science projects, played chess and played with legos). I finally joined them for a leisurely breakfast and we stayed inside until the early afternoon.

Only when the sun was beckoning did we get on our bicycles and head out. The three of us cycled through Wassenaar-a  town within twenty minutes cycling distance of The Hague. The estates, mansions, and embassy homes have such grandeur that I accidentally called Wassenaar Montecito a few times. (Montecito is a wealthy estate-laden area just outside of Santa Barbara, California with grand villas and mansions of the rich and famous, all tucked into the rolling hills of California bordering the Pacific.)

Whereas Montecito offers beautiful curvy roads, it is far from bicycle-friendly. Wassenaar on the other hand is full of bicycle paths that parallel the streets and highways and weave in and out of natural spaces and parks.

Bicycling through the neighborhoods is far preferable to sitting in the back seat of a car. Our son replied with enthusiasm as my husband pointed out grand churches, estates from the 1890s now home to ambassadors of Middle Eastern countries and grand mansions with the requisite Mercedes and Jaguars parked out front.

Villa Ruy in Wassenaar photo credit: Wikimapia
Villa Ruy in Wassenaar photo credit: Wikimapia

As I sit behind the computer and recall our chilly afternoon cycling tour, there is not an ancy bone in my body. My son seems equally content to work behind his desk on another science project without the need to be entertained. In fact, I haven’t heard that tell tale “I’m bored” that often follows too much sedentary activity or screen time since our two hour cycling adventure. I might even go so far as to say there is a certain kind of peaceful harmony in our home as we all work on our own projects.

“Mom. Can I play on the iPad?” My son asks. Where did he come from and what happened to the science project?

“Only if you practice your vocabulary list first,” I respond.

Okay. So I might have given that whole outdoor experience a little too much credit after all. At least I was true in sharing the idealistic views of a parent.

Sometimes you’ve just got to talk to the ducks

Coincidences have been abundant as of late. I chose a book for our reading group called Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver. It’s about a lot of things involving flight, from a woman who wants to flee her marriage, a reporter who flies toward sensationalism and away from reality and the flight patterns of Monarch butterflies.

That’s not the coincidence. That’s the author playing with theme.

Where the coincidences begin is in the timing. I selected the book six months ago and it is finally on the table for our mid September meeting. Considering the majority of the book club members are procrastinators like me, this means that most of us have been reading it in the past few weeks. Thus our minds are focused on butterflies, beautiful prose and flight.

I met a friend for a coffee and she described a dilemma in her personal life that almost mirrored the main struggle of the lead character in the book. If I hadn’t been reading Flight Behavior, I might have found my friend’s desire to flap her already outstretched wings a less tenable idea. Is it strange that being so deeply inside the head of a fictional character can give you more compassion for the real characters in our lives?

And then there are the butterflies. Everyone is talking about them. I know that I have a heightened awareness to these winged insects by the mere fact that I’m reading this book. But really; I have heard the word vlinder (butterfly in Dutch) in no less than six conversations over the past two weeks.

It’s like I’m being tickled on my cheeks by the butterfly wings of coincidence. Let me just share the latest example. After church on Sunday, I was offered the left over communion bread (waste not, want not) with the thought that perhaps my son and I would like to feed the ducks in the lake. Who wouldn’t want to minister to the ducks with squares of blessed bread?

Although my son initially rolled his eyes at the idea (roughly translated as I’m Seven and a half now mom;  way too old to go feed the ducks), he was eventually on board. We had planned a walk anyway, and the ducks might be hungry.

Boy were we wrong. The ducks were acting like lazy agnostics as they slowly paddled toward us with only mild interest. It was a hot day, I’ll give them that. And the water had a strange green layer on it’s surface, which not only stank but must have made it a bit harder to swim. But still! Have you ever known an urban duck to be lethargic around free bread, already cut to bite size?

We moved on to a second, more popular duck feeding spot along the edge of the lake where more ducks were assembled. But we had competition in the shape of a four-year old girl and her father with a slightly larger plastic bag of bread. I bet you it wasn’t blessed.

Strangely, we didn’t greet each other, but competitively set up shop just ten feet apart and my son and I threw our holy bread into the water with zeal. If the first group of ducks were agnostics, these were the atheists. 

“They just aren’t hungry,” said a man behind me in Dutch. Of course he was right. We were probably the 100th group of bread throwers today. Somehow, I fell into conversation with this older man, who sat on the bench with the leisure of someone who planned to stay a while.

He heard my English accent paired with my ability to carry on a full conversation in Dutch and astutely assessed that I was foreign, but had lived in The Netherlands for a while. Due to my apparent affinity with English culture and his apparent abundance of free time, he launched into a story about a design competition he had won in Canada years ago for sculpture. He was flown to Canada to create his masterpiece. He chose to make a butterfly sculpture to represent the connection between Canada and the Netherlands. I must have looked at him sideways. Of course you did a sculpture of a butterfly. I already knew the end of this story before you even began. 

In all seriousness, I like the flow of coincidence; how if your thoughts are aligned and tapped into the world around you, the world seems to unfurl its wings with something as unrelated as pieces of bread leading you to a conversation with a stranger about a butterfly sculpture. Am I describing a portion of chaos theory known as the Butterfly Effect? Is that a coincidence? How about this? It doesn’t just exist in the physicial world. I did a search on something like “butterflies flapping their wings and a tsunami” and guess what came up in sixth place on google? Butterflies in The Hague. Say what?

Shall I just get it over with and declare September the month of the Butterfly?

My son and I walked around the rest of the lake and found a bench to sit on. We spent a good deal of time discussing a rectangular hole in front of the bench and a number of possibilities of how that hole got there: Was it man made? Did a dog with a penchant for straight edges have a digging fest? Would the hole grow deeper each time it rained? Would a duck float in the hole?

Before we left the lake my son said “Good bye ducks.” He smiled at me, as if I too was in on the duck joke.

Sometimes, you’ve just got to talk to the ducks.

How to Make your Own Passport to Access foreign reserves of Treasure

The Netherlands is like a giant candy store for museum lovers; they are everywhere and about everything ranging from classical to contemporary art in multiple mediums, history, religion, architecture, anatomy and science.

As a museum lover myself, I have been wondering how to instill this love of art and culture into our son. How does one go about interesting a seven year old in Kandinsky or Giacometti? Jan Steen or Rembrandt? Thus far, I only have a partial answer; through repeated exposure so it is like part of his or her cultural landscape. Thus our museum passport project.

A few weeks ago, I took my son to Museon, a popular museum for kids in The Hague with hands-on exhibits about science, animals, minerals, geography and much more. We stopped by the gift store before we entered the museum and I let him pick out a tiny notebook. When we checked in with our museum card, I asked the cashier if she had anything to stamp my son’s museum passport. She located a stamp with the museum address and stamped his passport with the air of an official, and just like that, we gained access to a new world!

We explored a photo exhibit of endangered animals across the world, we tried our hand with an interactive exhibit on how to tell the difference between counterfeit items and the originals; we played a game with a robotic arm that moved from player to player, dropping discs into slots based on the buttons you pushed. At the end of our visit, we wrote up our favorite exhibits.

On another day, we headed to Naturalis in Leiden, receiving the second stamp in our homemade passport. This time I brought an iPad to do a bit of photo documentation and my son helped choose the items that he deemed worthy of sharing. I think his favorite item was an exhibit that combined million year old dinosaur eggs with with contemporary technology. Here is the video one would never have thought possible:

They say seven is the age of reason. I say it’s the age of manipulation negotiation. My son negotiated with me on day one of our museum adventures that after 10 museum visits, he is eligible for a present. It certainly does help with motivation.

An elitist, outrageously expensive project? Not necessarily. The Netherlands has an amazing concept called the Museum Card. You can purchase a Museum Card (MuseumKaart) for 45 euro a year, gaining access to about 400 museums throughout the Netherlands. Considering access to most museums ranges from 10 to 20 euros per visit, you make your money back very quickly. Occasionally, a museum on the list will be having a special exhibit, requiring an additional fee of 2 or 3 euros, but this is a small pittance considering the world to which you are gaining access.

I know that 45 euro is a lot of money, especially if you only go to the museum once in a while. One amazing thing about the socialistic nature of this country, is that they also think about cultural access for those of lesser financial means. Thus, if you fall into this category and happen to live in The Hague, you and your family members do not need to be shut out of cultural opportunities. Consider looking into the Ooievaarspas, a program offered through the city of The Hague that provides lower-income residents with free or discounted access to many cultural and educational programs in and around The Hague.

Other ways to keep this project smooth sailing and within budget is to pack plenty of healthy snacks and beverages and avoid the gift store and museum cafe for anything more than a coffee.

Want to join the museum crusade? Make your own Museum Passport and start visiting museums in your area.

(If you are a member of homeland security, the NCA, AIVD or FBI visiting my blog due to that dubious blog title, I apologize for the scare. This is about the homemade Museum Passport project my son and I started this January and why you might want to join in on this mission. When I say you, I don’t necessarily mean you law enforcement types, though I am not opposed to the idea).

I’ve been Prined and I’ve been Schooled

Saturday, an Indonesian church rented our building to hold their church service. A crew of young members arrived early to set everything up, and a young boy, no older than eight or nine, was standing in the hall, looking a bit bored. He came to the counter and I expected him to order a “Chocomel” (chocolate milk) or a pack of Mentos. He asked me for the wi-fi code. I thought it was kind of sweet, this little boy wanting internet access. Anyway, I pulled out a piece of paper with our 15-digit long code. He had this rather impassive look on his face as I explained that the first long series of numbers was the name of our connection and the second the log in code. The long code is quite often daunting to grown up clients who ask for internet access, so I couldn’t imagine how this little guy was feeling.

I took his iPhone in my hand and started typing in the code. Except, I was having trouble switching between capitals and lower case, my fingers a bit clumsy when searching out numbers rather than letters. He started explaining it to me, and I smartly handed it back to him.
“How about if I read you the code and you can type it in.”
“Okay.” As I read, his fingers flew along, waiting impatiently for me to catch up.
“Can I also use it to log in on my iPad?” he asked. You have an iPhone and an iPad? I asked indignantly in my head. You’re what, seven, maybe eight?
“Sure,” I responded cheerfully. “You can keep a copy of this paper.”
“I’ll just take a photo,” he said.
“Oh. Yeah. That’s a good idea,” I responded. I didn’t see a smirk on his face. I’m sure this happens to him all of the time, interacting with slow, older people. AT this point, I was holding my head up high just by the mere fact that I towered over this youngster.

As I walked away with my silly paper, it came to me: In 2011 I had been Prined and in 2014 I had been Schooled. Being Prined is a joyous occasion. On the other side of the spectrum is being schooled; by a little boy; a little boy who has a smart phone, an iPad and quick little fingers.

I remember when I considered my mom and dad silly and antiquated because they had no idea who the Red Hot Chili Peppers were, and didn’t have a clue how to write an email. But I was in my mid 20s in grad school, spending gobs of hours in the computer lab; they in their 60s, enjoying the early stages of retirement. This recollection makes me feel rather uncomfortable as the wheel of Karma does its spinning thing in my direction.

It’s a well-known fact that the Indonesians are blessed with youthful countenances. Perhaps this little iPhone, iPad toting boy was actually a bright young college student who looked young for his age. The second stage of being Schooled; denial.

The Crazy Dutch: December 31st

Sadie, my brother’s late dog, trembled every time she heard a bang. She would have gone berserk today if she was on a visit to the Netherlands. When we awoke this morning in The Hague, the fireworks had already started. The Dutch ignore any rules and safety standards and people of all ages and demographics shoot off fireworks throughout the day. All of these fireworks suggest celebration, but their frequency and early start is confusing, diluting the ritual of saving the fanfare for midnight to mark the changing of the year and new beginnings.

Earlier today while on a walk with a friend, I noted a few Christmas trees that had been thrown curbside. I would bet good money that these trees will not make it into the city tree recycling program, but will be pine scented kindling for bonfires in our neighborhood this evening. Two years ago when walking home from a friend’s house, we saw a rather impressive burning pile of rubbish surrounded by red-faced merry makers on a street corner at 2am without a police car in sight.

But these incidents are just small potatoes to what happens in downtown Amsterdam. Want to take your life in your own hands? Join the throngs of people from all over the world that head to this party capital for New Years and watch the fireworks stream overhead (or through the crowd toward your knee cap) in glorious chaos.

I’ll be celebrating this year in a quiet neighborhood with another family with young children, so I’m afraid I won’t have many newsworthy photos to share, but I will add, that the boys (my son and his friend down the street) are VERY excited about the bag of fireworks we brought home today for their post sunset enjoyment.

Happy New Year to all of you, wherever you may be! Enjoy the chaos!

Kristin in Holland

Multiple Realities

When I woke up it was sunny. By the time I got breakfast on the table it was sprinkling and overcast. My son was apparently under the spell of the weather, transforming from happy and cooperative to feisty and unbearable within a 15 minute time frame. He exploded. I exploded. Words were exchanged. We muddled forward.

The walk to school was pensive and gray, filled with big, calmly presented questions designed for my son to analyze his outrageous behaviour. He tried a similar technique on me. I used my superior vocabulary, height and stature as parent to maintain the alpha order. He heard me. I listened to him, giving him room to express himself. Even though there were other people on the sidewalk, bike path, riding the tram or driving up the street, they were rendered background noise as we bobbed along in our own little bubble of recovery.

As we entered the school grounds, our bubble popped, and we were absorbed into a larger bubble–that churning chaos of child energy that crescendos moments before the bell rings. We pushed through the doors with the sea of children and parents around us. Even though the hallways in the school seem impossibly narrow and there is no order to speak of, we all worked our way through the maze, getting to the right classroom, hanging the jacket in the right section while little bodies maneuvered around us followed by their parents.

This press of bodies and jackets and lunch boxes and parents of all different colors and scents used to wear on me, making the morning drop-off seem like a major cultural undertaking. Now that sea of chaos has been tamed by familiarity; I have collected names to go with the faces and shared experiences with them–even if it is as simple as waiting for our children after school, or attending a school event. These daily acts have made some parents lose their exotic qualities. Others are not so easily tamed and remain illusive and foreign to me.

Shared Society
Walking home I became not a mother dropping off her naughty child, but a woman on her way to work. Each step took me further away from the 200 or so children filling the school of knowledge, wiggling in their seats, or passing notes to one another, and closer to the day of work ahead of me. I passed others in business attire on their way to their prospective positions in our shared society.

Once inside the church building, I was completely alone. The silence was both welcoming and startling. A few rays of sunlight shot through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the ground floor gathering hall before receding behind darkened clouds. I started the coffee, luxuriating in its powerful aroma. I walked through the building, checking that all was in order before unlocking the large wooden doors.

Shortly thereafter, students for the 9:30 course started wandering into the building. They slowly gathered around a table in the hall, chatting politely with one another. These are no ordinary students, but seniors between 70 and 80 daring enough to learn about the computer. Perhaps I’m imagining it, but these folks seem different from most senior citizens I meet. Maybe I’m making assumptions about their shared sense of adventure and a desire to learn, but it goes beyond assumption; they think differently about little things; I haven’t overheard a single complaint about the weather or ill-health; I have overheard people making jokes and talking about current issues. I wanted to figure out what the common thread was between these people-who-dare-to-learn so late in life and put it on a spool for my future.

Later, a friend dropped by with his toddler, who emitted another reality of energy into the church and my day. His laugh, his big eyes, the way buttons on machines, such as the dishwasher’s start button, intrigue him. I gave my friend the lowdown on the morning house explosion and he gave me some very wise parenting ideas.

I had a pause between clients and headed to the gym. The sun was out, but I kept my resolve to head indoors for a quick work out. I entered the modern gym. Music pumped through the overhead speakers. Fit people moved in rhythm to the beat. I changed into my work out clothes and before long I was powerwalking on the treadmill, my steps also in rhythm with the song blaring through the speakers: “I’m sexy and I know it.”

When I returned home from work, my husband and son were both in the living room.

“I’m sorry about this morning,” were the first words out of my son’s mouth when he saw me. I had given my husband the low down, and wondered who had been the first to bring up this morning’s emotional fireworks display. When little man tried out some tests (not coming to the table when asked, for example) to see if I was really the no-nonsense mom I seemed to have morphed into, I implemented tips given to me both by my friend who stopped by with his toddler, and my husband’s non violent communication tips. What does this translate to? No dessert as a consequence. Amazingly, the tips were effective, but met with a crying fit and lots of calming conversation.

Now as I sit in relative silence once again, the only sounds an occasional tram or the tapping of my fingers spilling my day into the computer, I realize that over the pond people are celebrating America’s Independence. Perhaps I should have claimed this day as a holiday on the grounds of being American. Oh well. It’s illegal to shoot off fireworks any other day but New Years over here. At least I got one fireworks show today, and a whole stream of multiple realities.