Havana, Deventer, Apes and Cousins

When I was in my mid-twenties, I worked for a short stint as a museum travel program assistant. Although most of my hours were spent in a tiny office doing paperwork and taking reservations, on a few occasions I actually got to travel. The most exciting of my journeys was to Cuba with two dozen wealthy clients, most between the ages of 65 and 80 years old. What soon became abundantly clear was that the attendees who had all spent thousands on the museum trip were not there to relax and gently take in the casual pace and lifestyle of Cuba; they were there to suck the marrow from the bones of Havana culture with the tenacity of western businessmen. havanaThey were there to conquer and the museum program was fully prepared to deliver. Each moment was slated with culturally inspiring activities, visits  or luxurious meals, the more unique, the better. Thus, from early in the morning until late at night, we were on the move: seeing, interacting, traveling, listening, and dining. No matter that half of the group was worn down and dragging themselves along after a few days; they continued on with an unspoken and shared vigilance, not willing to rest in fear of missing something.

The trip could be likened to a hunter on safari seeking new heads for the taxidermy collection lining the walls of the study in his or her country estate. In this case, the art, music, natural beauty and architecture of Cuba would become the prized pelts and heads to be displayed not on the wall, but in conversations at the next fundraiser or cocktail party. Why yes, I have been to the Plaza de Revolucion; isn’t the 18 century art in the Decorative Arts Museum in Havana just fabulous darling? Although I am not in these fundraising circles, I did talk about this trip for years afterward, and my experiences did impress many Americans who had always wanted to travel to Cuba.

As an American living in The Netherlands, I have that nagging conqueror voice in the back of my head urging me to approach Europe in the same manner as this group who visited Cuba so many years ago–take in as much as humanly possible, even if it wears me ragged. I have spent several vacations doing just that. After all, who knows how long we will live here, and I really don’t want to miss out.  But as time passes and I realize I am actually living here for the longer term, a local vacation also has its merits. Not only are they more affordable and less stressful,  they help you better understand the country in which you live.

deventerThus our trip to Deventer. Located along the Ijssel river in the middle of the Netherlands, Deventer is like many old Dutch cities; it boasts a picturesque center region with charming squares and old architecture, shops and restaurants surrounded by less attractive and newer buildings and neighborhoods the farther away from the center you travel. Armed with advice of Arie Jan’s cousin, we drove across the bridge away from the city to a parking lot on the far side of the Ijssel and took the ferry over the river. Approaching by water offered us a stunning and timeless view of the city, and put us in the right mind frame to relish the old town. The side streets of the old quarter were dotted with unique, locally-owned gift stores and cafes. Of course, the big retailers such as Etos, Hema and V&D common to most Dutch cities also had a presence, but there were enough small shops to keep the charm alive.

Our son entered Koning Willem, a unique toy store filled with puzzles and games, and soon became obsessed with the brain teaser puzzle section. For the rest of our stay in Deventer, we endured his plaintive cries for puzzle man, a cube that you can turn into a robot looking man, and then back into a cube, if you can figure it out. We ate in a cafe called Brood van Joop only to discover it was their opening day. The zucchini soup was so delicious that it renewed my desire to make fresh soups a more frequent part of our family meals.

imageBy the end of the afternoon, we headed to Arie Jan’s cousin’s house in a neighboring village. Perched in the middle of a small forest, their home is straight out of a fairy tale: White walls, thatched roof, large French paned windows with expansive views to lush green gardens on the outside. This beauty was  equally matched within by a French country interior with white walls and hard wood floors, the rooms graced with the design sense of an antique collector.  An antique dealer specializing in 18th century French fabrics, his cousin has a  second story room dedicated to sewing and cutting and another room dedicated as an office. Within no time at all, I was fantasizing about writing my second novel sequestered away in one of these rooms with garden views.

As the adults settled in on the high stools next to the kitchen island to chat over tasty wines from the wine cellar, our son assembled a Duplo train set and lost himself for the next few hours in play. After our son went to bed, we ate a French meal by candlelight around the dining room table and talked to the wee hours of the morning. No. I wasn’t visiting The Louvre or sipping a latte on the banks of the Seine, but I was with family, relaxed and happy, miles away from any thoughts of work, stress or to-do lists. And that is exactly the type of vacation one needs to rejuvinate the soul and recharge your battery for daily life.

imageBut a vacation with a child needs to be about more than long, meandering conversations with friends and family accompanied by fine wine and food. And thus, we came up with an equally satisfying elixir for our son: a visit to Apenheul Primate Park. Located in the town of Apeldoorn, Apenheul is an expansive nature area filled with many species of monkeys. Unlike a zoo, there were very few cages and many of the smaller monkeys could come right onto the walking trails.

We watched monkeys swing from the trees, play with each other, cling to their mother’s backs and climb onto the arms of  innocent passersby. After three hours, we were not even half way through the park and the temperature was slowly dropping. Unlike the monkeys, we were not wearing thick fur coats. At the end of the day, we asked our son which was his favorite exhibit and his answer was far from suprising: the guerilla exhibit. We, and the hundred plus other visitors sitting in the stadium seating during snack time, were grateful for the small waterfront separating us from these strong apes not a carrot’s throw away.




Strange Things the Dutch Don’t Do

The Napkin

A few weeks ago a beam of sunshine cracked through the thick layers of gray and we celebrated by going out to a cafe. Our son ordered a tosti (a diminuitive of the grilled cheese sandwich) and Chocomel (chocolate milk that is so well branded, it dominates the market, and is a staple in every restaurant). Our son’s tosti arrived on a plate with the napkin placed under the sandwich.

“Why do they always do that?” my son asked, annoyed that a string of melted cheese had soiled the napkin. I’ve run into this scenario time and time again; food placed on top of a napkin, negating it’s function, rendering it useless.

We are napkin users, my son and I; breakfast, lunch and dinner a cloth napkin is placed beside our plate. And we use them to wipe our faces and our hands. My Dutch husband, on the other hand, uses a napkin so rarely that I’ve stopped placing one on the table for him. Only in extreme cases, such as sauce dripping down his hands, will he ask for one.

My husband’s napkin patterns seem to be representative of the Dutch. If you go to an upscale restaurant, the cloth napkins are a compulsory part of the set up, but the Dutch let them lie on the table. Dinners with friends are napkinless. And if my son or I ask, our hosts head bewildered to the kitchen, going through drawers in search of fancy paper napkins left over from an event a few years back, or if these are not to be found, guiltily hand over a paper towel. When did napkins go by the wayside?

Peanut Butter and Jelly

When I was staying with my brother and his family in the U.S. last summer, there was one morning ritual that brought joy to my heart; a hot cup of coffee or tea, and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on toasted bread. This combination was a staple in my childhood diet, the theme of 6th grade science camp campfire songs and on many kid’s menus in restaurants.

But what do the Dutch think of our prized PB &Js? I was working with a group of Dutch people in the church setting up a big event. When we sat down together to take a lunch break, everyone got out their sack lunches. I retrieved my PB & J and started eating. Several people asked about my sandwich and when I explained, they looked at me like I was crazy. They certainly take jam on their bread, and kids usually like peanut butter on bread, but never shall the two meet–unless that bread is in the hands of an American. Do Canadians, Australians, Brits or others also know the joy of a PB & J?

Our First Visit from the U.S.

Wednesday afternoon at 20 minutes after one I looked out the kitchen window and saw Lauren and Nico walking up our street, small travel bags over their shoulders. I knew they were coming. I had known for months they were coming. But seeing them there, within the context of our new Dutch lives, sent a wave of excitement through my body. I set down the dish I had been washing and ran outside. I hugged each of them firmly, amazed that my friends, who had been represented by Facebook and phone calls for the last two and a half years, were now there in 100% physical form—which in this world of keeping in touch through technology, seemed somehow unreal.

I had also experienced this strange sensation back when I was dating Arie Jan long distance. I was in Santa Barbara, California and he in Amsterdam, Holland. He was a voice on the phone, an occasional picture, a letter, instant messaging (our dating period pre-dated Facebook). Then, after two and a half months of knowing this person intensely as a voice, a collected series of thoughts, opinions and emotions, suddenly he was there in the flesh. A body holding the mind, writer, and conversationalist I had gotten to know. It seems rather appropriate, then, that Nico and Lauren, also a Dutch-American couple, are the reason Arie Jan and I met and our first U.S. visitors to our new home in Holland.

So there they were, in the flesh. They looked like themselves, but of course slightly different. Lauren looked great. She always does, from the beautiful collection of exotic rings on her fingers, each with an intricate story of purchase, to her hair, clothing and large blue eyes. Nico seemed to have settled into his role as a banker: still handsome, a bit more salt in his pepper black hair, clean shaven, dressed in khakis and a comfortable sweater. With some people you haven’t seen for a long time, there’s a bit of a transition time. Not with Lauren and Nico. Immediately, we launched into conversation after conversation and laughter came easily. Before I was even aware of what was happening, tears came to my eyes; tears of joy and release at feeling so comfortable with friends. I can talk well enough with people here, but having a long and deep history with others provides you with a level of comfort that lets you be more fully yourself, and thus more present.

Ezra was shy at first, but it didn’t take long before he was flying balsa wood airplanes with Nico in the garden and screaming with laughter at a voice warp recorder—just two of the many presents bestowed upon him by our guests. The evening was filled with interesting conversations, first at the house, and then at De Tuyn, an excellent restaurant in our neighborhood on the bezuidenhout of Den Haag. After dinner we walked back to our house, and the conversation didn’t miss a beat as we settled back into our living room. We covered everything from politics, our individual health, our outlooks on life, Osama Bin Laden, Snow in New Hampshire, our jobs to Dutch culture and more.

We knew we had just one evening and two days, but the rapid rate of topics we covered was not in effort to cram it all in, but rather the pace we fall into when together. When Arie Jan threw in the towel at half past midnight, saying he needed to get some sleep, I was shocked. I hadn’t intentionally stayed up that late since we left the States.

The next day, we had a leisurely start that belied our short time together. By 1pm, we were on a fleet of bicycles cruising to the city center for a tour led by Arie Jan, a Hague native. Lauren and Nico rode the tandem, Ezra rode with Arie Jan, and I was solo on a second hand bike we picked up that is perpetually stuck in third gear. As we followed Arie Jan through Den Haag, I realized I had fit more pieces of the geographical puzzle together. I knew which neighborhoods to expect next; I looked to the old church towers, the modern building of the Central Train station and other buildings to confirm my location. But then, Arie Jan peddled to a side street, and suddenly I was somewhere I had never been before. Or so I thought.

We cycled down a wide street with older, Dutch row houses in an area called Archipelbuurt after the archipelago Islands of Indonesia. We all marveled at the style and craftsmanship of the buildings, some more than two centuries old. Then Arie Jan turned down another side street, and there it was; a beautiful hidden neighborhood he had shown me 8 years ago on the residential end of Malle Molen. The mini-community of sorts suddenly emerged as we turned the corner behind an ancient wall. There, a brick lined entry led to a row of white washed old Dutch homes no bigger than 25 square meters. A small, tree lined path led between the little homes, and it seemed this was the idyllic community model. How could you not know and depend upon your neighbors when you lived this close, in homes that had held Dutch families for hundreds of years? It was a peaceful setting. A young woman who had one of the side residences sat in the sun in a wooden lounge chair reading a book, apparently undisturbed by our arrival. Although I felt drawn to walk down the little path, it was also clear that to do so would be intrusive. On my last visit with Arie Jan, almost a decade ago, we had arrived at dusk when the lights burned in the windows. It was strange to see that the tiny neighborhood hadn’t lost any of its intimacy or charm.

In the center of Den Haag, there was a lot to see, as the Dutch celebrate their liberation from Germany on the 5th of May, and the city was partying. The squares were transformed into performance areas with scores of people watching singers and dancers on the stages. Another area had a carnival going on, and much to Ezra’s dismay, we cycled right past the rides, cotton candy and booths full of cheap stuffed animals. We cycled through Binnenhof, where the Dutch government conducts its business in a stately square of buildings surrounding an interior courtyard, crossed by Malieveld, a large field where Dutch citizens gather for organized protests and ended the tour in het Haagse Bos with a view through a large gate to Huis ten Bosch, Queen Beatrix’s palatial residence.

By the time Lauren and Nico gathered up their belongings and headed out the door, it seemed we had put a shiny new coat of varnish on our enduring friendship; tying our old and new lives together.