Scheveningen, Oprah, Deepak and Ezra


Today was a day of taking other people’s suggestions to heart. This morning, I read an email that my friend Alice Tropper forwarded about a 21-day meditation organized by Oprah and Deepak Chopra. I barely read the forwarded email before I came to my conclusion; sure, why not? I could use some meditation. Click

Then I went to work for a few hours even though I’m technically still on vacation. I had heard that a handful of reservation requests had come in while we were away that had not been confirmed. Seeing as I can be a bit, um, fastidious at times, I wanted to send out confirmations and get them entered into my system so I could relax that part of my brain that would worry about it during the last few days of my vacation. I’ll just go over, spend a little time on the computer getting things in order, have a cup of coffee and then head out; low-key, mellow. I told myself.

But when I arrived, it was kinda hectic over there; a lot of volunteers were busy cleaning the church–working really hard scrubbing the luxaflex that hadn’t been cleaned all year, repainting walls, fixing things. After the third person asked me why I was there, I explained that if reservations aren’t confirmed in a timely manner, sometimes clients move on and look for another location. That shut them up from trying to protect me from myself! And then my little guy came by, looking bored. The sun was out, the sky was blue, and we were supposed to be on vacation.

“You should go to Scheveningen today,” suggested Jan, a church member from Scheveningen.
“That’s a good idea,” I responded. And so we did.

Scheveningen is a touristy beach town in the Hague that comes to life in the summer months when hundreds of strandtenten, temporary restaurants, are constructed for the season in the sand. Each strandtent (literal translation is beach tent) has its own upscale theme with music, decorations, plush cushions and quite often beach chairs further down the sand where you can lounge.

My husband was relieved to learn we were headed to the sea. He awoke at 4am with a brutal tooth ache, and since dentists also go on vacation, he wasn’t able to schedule an appointment until 4pm. His best medicine to endure the wait, besides popping ibuprofen, was time to himself. That left Ezra and I on our own. We packed our bags, caught a tram to Central Station, deftly changed to tram 1 and arrived in Scheveningen.

We hopped off the tram and walked through a passageway between tall buildings to the beachfront. Ezra was in great spirits. We dug a sandpit together, splashed in the water, played tikkertje (tag) and buried each other’s legs in the sand. Now that I was relaxed, the idea of the meditation wended its way into my thoughts. Can you imagine how many people Oprah and Deepak could pull in to meditate and how powerful that could be if hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people were all meditating each day? Perhaps they had a secret plan to bring about World Peace in 21 days. I wanted to participate as well, even if for a fleeting moment or two. While Ezra was busy sculpting reptilian shapes, I retrieved the small paper bag where I had scribbled the Deepak-Oprah 21-Day meditation centering thought for day one:

Today I am open to the presence of miracles.

I breathed in this thought along with the fresh sea air. This elixir bounced around in my mind and lungs. My lungs suddenly realized their potential and took in a deep, rather than shallow breath. Considering the vreselijke spring we had in Holland, this beautiful summer day was a sort of miracle in itself. I’ll be launching my first novel this November. What if I could channel my energy over the next 21 days into that novel being a miraculous success?

My thoughts wandered to my husband, at home and in pain. Where was the miracle in that? I tried to imagine all of his pain disappearing and the root in that one bothersome tooth experiencing instant bliss. Since I was at the beach with my little boy, I wasn’t in a position to do a 30-minute meditation, but I did keep returning to the idea of being open to the presence of miracles, over and over again, almost like a breathing meditation.

I chased my son through the shallow edges of the North Sea, splashing and being splashed, and the meditations on miraculously blissful teeth and successful novels flitted away from my thoughts. Not a bad thing at all, considering I was entirely in the moment. If I lost the thought, I would pull out the crinkled paper again and re-read it.

I was stretching, my legs thigh deep in the shallow warm water caught between the beach and a rise in the sand at the ocean’s edge. A Dutch woman walking out for a swim stopped and talked to me. We talked about the water, about swimming. Within moments she knew by my accent that I wasn’t Dutch, and began the usual rounds of questions, which led to further topics. I am originally from California; she has a sister who lives in Woodland Hills, California. While we talked, Ezra made a game of splashing me. I think he was annoyed that my attention had shifted away from him. After the woman moved on into the sea for a swim, I realized the significance of the moment; this stranger, an older Dutch woman had stopped and chatted with me and held her attention on our conversation. It was a simple, yet beautiful exchange.

Earlier, Ezra and I had waded into that same shallow water and made a game of picking up pieces of floating plastic. We didn’t see anyone else on the beach playing this game. One girl found a broken pair of sunglasses in the shallow water, laughed at how silly they looked with one plastic lens and promptly threw them back in. They ended up in our sack along with approximately 7 icecream wrappers, 5 plastic bags, 4 candy wrappers and 1 waterlogged chip bag. On our way out, we found a beer can, a beer-can’s-throw from the trash can.

I picked it up and went into drama mode. “Oh. It is so heavy. I couldn’t possibly put this in the trash can over there.” Ezra started laughing. He found half of a small plastic container that had probably held a single serving of potato salad less than a foot from the trash can and did his own one man act as he tossed it in the garbage.
“I’m sue-per lay zee!” he slowly enunciated. “And I can’t find the trash can right in front of me!” We cracked ourselves up.

When saying our simple prayer before eating dinner this evening, Ezra had the following to say:
“I wish everyone in the world was Arie Jan’s friend.” (He’s given up on calling us mom and dad.)
“Why?” I asked, completely perplexed. Did he think Arie Jan was in pain because he was sad, or that he didn’t have enough friends?
“Because if everyone was his friend,” Ezra explained, “then they would all want him to feel good and if they all thought that, his pain would go away.”
“Wow. Where did you learn that?” I asked. I hadn’t shared the world-wide meditation concept with Ezra and I don’t think we’ve talked much about the power of group prayer.
“I just have this feeling,” he said. And there it was; my miracle of the day.

Advertisements

Beach Days, Sex Crazed, meditation and Jellyfish


I spoke to my sister-in-law in America last night and she reported having just thought of me while flipping through a sportswear catalog.  Among the image laden pages of must-haves was a pair of sleek thermal running pants for extreme climates. She figured I was probably in need of such an item, poor thing, in the miserable weather of Holland. Yet, to her surprise and my pleasure, I reported that we’ve made two trips to the beach this week, and I most likely won’t be needing any such running pants until at least Wednesday, when the weather is supposed to take a turn for the worse.

Den Haag is a 20 minute bicycle ride from the North Sea. The coastline stretches in both directions with kilometers of open beachfront, some just off the well trodden paths of beach towns and others via walking or cycling-only access through the sand dunes.

Every spring, a whole village of beachfront restaurants are erected along the shore for the summer season, and then deconstructed by the end of the season. These are not wheel-away-at-night patat (french fries) stands,  but full-fledged restaurants with decks, glassed in walls, padded furniture, roofs, electricity, thematic designs and palpable sound systems to fine tune an ambiance that differentiates it from the neighboring restaurant. These are not only labor intensive to set up, but the restaurateurs pay hefty fees to rent the beachfront.

The summer weather in Holland was so bad this year that most Dutch claim the season was skipped in this country. The city of Scheveningen must have felt sorry for their beach renters, a Dutch friend informed me, as they extended the restaurant leases until the end of October.  And what a good decision it was; last weekend every restaurant was busy and every square meter of beach occupied by a broad spectrum of humans ranging from pale white to foreign-vacation tanned.

I walked with two new friends I had met in a yoga/meditation course and the shore of the North sea on a warm Saturday afternoon seemed the perfect setting to discuss what we had learned. We had all experienced the value of regularly doing the meditation and breathing techniques, but we also felt annoyed by having to do “one more thing,” regardless of how much it improved our daily lives.   As we discussed how our meditations were coming along, we navigated our way through the jellyfish that washed up on shore. Although no longer alive, their amber tentacles moved gracefully to the gentle rhythm of the waves. They did not have the tell-tale blue lines on the round part of their bodies that indicate they are poisonous, but their presence was enough to keep 95% of the population out of the sea.

Although we were equally engaged and participating in the conversation, our eyes were still scanning the ground for jellyfish. Soon we made the prudent decision to walk on the dry sand of the beach, thus allowing our gazes to be more all-encompassing, our thoughts more present for contemplation.

As our gazes lifted upward our conversation did flow more easily. But as we proceeded on our journey, I noticed the beach goers on their towels had somehow transitioned from scantily clad to wholly unclad. As we casually ambled forward through the bobbing penises, sagging breasts and occasional sunburnt child, I was determined to focus on the conversation at hand. But soon, the change in landscape penetrated our thoughts.

As we passed naked families sitting together under the hot sun, my friend shared a conversation she’d had with friends just a few nights before about the vast differences in freedom of conversation between mothers and daughters around the topic of sex. The three of us shared in common having almost never talked to our mothers about sex. On the other hand, one of her friends had reported that mom talked openly to her about her sexual experiences down to which toys she liked for such occasions.

In Holland, land of sexual freedom, legal prostitution and drugs, it makes sense that family views on the topic of sex could be much more liberal. If I had thought about the topic before, I might have naturally come to the same conclusion. .

I sometimes have difficulty with the general zen principle of staying in the moment, but my child is like my zen master. Besides the anticipation of dessert after dinner, he seems to live fully in the moment, engaged in play, in laughter, in taking in the opportunities around him. When with him, I too am in the moment. Yes, I can digress back into history and think of holding him as an infant, or think in a general sense about his future educational needs, but for the most part, I think of him as a four and a half year old, no younger, no older. But, former topic at hand, how will this country of liberal indifference influence his sexual upbringing? Of course, parents play a large role, but contemporary society also holds a powerful set of cards in how our children will think. But, keeping my little zen boy in mind, I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.

5 Museums in 6 Days Poopoo Head!


Whenever European friends came to visit us in the U.S., our provincial town of Santa Barbara seemed like a little hiccup on their tour de force itinerary: Hiking Half Dome in Yosemite, photographing the bubbling mudspots and geysers of Yellowstone, craning their necks skyward under General Sherman in Sequoia National Park, The Getty Museum, San Francisco’s De Young Museum, Hollywood and so forth.

I got the impression they had seen more of America’s natural wonders and cultural offerings in four to six weeks than I had in 14 to 16 years.  Was I really such a cultural buffoon? Why wasn’t I out there taking in our national treasures with such resolve? Getting philosophical with a Picasso? Seeing Old Faithful blow?

Well, for starters, six weeks. Europeans usually get four to six weeks of vacation. In a row. Second, if something is in your own backyard, so to speak, you tend to think it will always be there and thus indefinitely postpone your visit.

This train of thought is amusingly common place. I have traveled a fair bit, and when I visit friends in other areas or venture abroad, I’m suddenly all about taking in the sites. Why? Because I’ll probably never get back  to Barcelona or Portland, Luxembourg or Seattle, Mexico City or Havana. And, it’s not just a European thing; when we are outside our home digs, we open our eyes and guidebooks. And the further away we are from home, the more we want to see and experience.

So when my art loving brother and his family arrived last week in Den Haag, 5,577 miles from their hometown, I knew we were in for a whirlwind. I thought it would be slowed down a bit, considering we have a 4-year-old and they a 5-year-old. Boys, no less, that require lots of outdoor playtime, screaming and giggling and endless arguments over who’s turn it is, who’s faster, smarter, etc.

In fact, it did start out calmly enough with a walk through our local forest on a rainy day, jumping over puddles and screaming the ducks away. But they’re smart travelers, and they stayed up as late as they possibly could to adjust to the local time. The next morning they arose before 6am. As soon as their hosts were finally out of bed and the breakfast dishes cleared, we hopped on a tram to the city center to visit Mauritshuis.

Located at the edge of Binnenhof and Het Plein, Mauritshuis is  home to Rembrandts, Breughels and Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. In an effort to let my brother and sister-in-law take in this world-famous collection that I could visit again any time–because it was in my own back yard–I took charge of the boys. First, I entertained them with a spontaneous game of I-spy-with-my-little-eye with the paintings. I spy a winged baby, I spy an old woman holding a candle, I spy a lion. But after the 20 minute mark, my charges crossed the entertainment threshold and entered ennui. Arms started flopping and swinging around paintings worth 198 years of salary. Museum whisper voices turned into full conversational decibals of I’m boreds.

Thus we headed to Binnenhof, a large brick lined square surrounded by the buildings of the Dutch parliament and the Knight’s hall–a castle like building from the middle ages.  After the promised ice cream cones, the boys chased pigeons for half an hour while tourists gathered in this famous square ignored their high-pitched squeals of excitement.

The Netherlands is packed with incredible museums in just about every medium to large city. And since my American family doesn’t have a four to six-week vacation, their tour de force itinerary is compressed into 12 days.

Therefore the next day, we biked to the coastal town of Scheveningen to celebrate a dear friend’s birthday (happy birthday Janneman!) and then continued on a bike tour of Meijendel, lead by my authentic Dutch husband. An hour stopover at a playground next to a country restaurant gave the boys a chance to play space rangers and dig in the sand and the adults time to rest their legs while contemplating the white and gray clouds floating overhead.

Due to the Christian generosity of friends from church, we were loaned an automobile. This provided us with the means to visit the Boijmans van Beuningen, a Rotterdam museum covering everything from religious paintings from the 1400s to Magritte, a 1960s space pod to interactive sculpture. We also traipsed over the largest moving bridge in the world to eat at Hotel New York.

Friday, we drove all the way to Arnhem to the world-famous Kroller Muller Museum.  By now, we were a fine tuned machine of families visiting famous museums with young children, and massaged a potentially explosive situation into a fantastic day that will go down in the history books. Kroller Muller is surrounded by a forest. You can pay the 8 euro to drive through the forest and park in the parking lot, or you can pick up a bicycle and pedal through nature and to the museum for free. We pulled Ezra’s small orange bike from the trunk and the boys took turns riding the 3 kilometers to the museum, while the adults each hopped on a white bike to go the distance.

We spent four hours at the museum without incident. No flailing arms. No bumble pants dumbheads screamed through the corridors. Half was spent indoors seeing everything from contemporary art including cloaks made out of iridescent beetles, a very realistic wax figure man with an erection lying in a pile of tombstones, an impressive collection of Van Goghs and other splendid art from across the millenia.

The other half was spent wandering through the incredible sculpture park. To be honest, I had very low expectations for the sculpture experience. I’ve seen pictures of sculpture parks and figured it would be kind of boring. Oh, there’s another big hunk of metal. Oh, there’s another statue. Oh look, a white blob. But as I started walking along the gravel path, away from my husband and son who had just fallen into a nap on a sunny bench, I was pleasantly surprised.

The park headed out in multiple directions. I could see hints of sculpture around every bend and entered different grassy knolls with another collection of sculpture. I stopped and contemplated this art form with new eyes. I was inspired by sheets of rust colored metal shaped into organic curves that reminded me of tree trunks and the red clay earth of plateaus.

With the introduction of each new piece, the mood and feel changed. A marble amphitheatre covered in a creme tarp appeared  in a small clearing and I could picture being there, watching a performance unfold, even if it was just a play of light and shadow.  Buddha statues were among the ferns following a downward descent of rail road tie steps in the forest.

The boys also visited the sculpture park, and when they weren’t fighting or screaming, they engaged with the sculpture as primal beings, exploring its crevices and shapes, running around the edges, glancing skyward.

But that’s not all. We then cycled all the way back to the exit, and then decided to stay on and cycle to Sint Hubertus, the hunting lodge for the owners of this expansive land trust in the 1920s. Berlage, a famous Dutch architect, designed everything from the building to each piece of furniture and cup. Our boys biked all the way. Excited. Exhausted. Excited again.

Saturday we toured the Grote Kerk in Haarlem before visiting family who lived nearby. Sunday we slept in and had a leisurely breakfast waiting for the rain, which had fallen all night, to stop. It didn’t.

So we did what everyone else in Den Haag decided to do in the early afternoon; we went to the museum. And not just one, but two. The Gemeente Museum and Museon–a science museum very appropriate for the kids. We closed the place down and then dropped by Arie Jan’s brother’s house for late afternoon tea and cookies. We packed it all in.

Five museums in six days and their visit is only half way through. My mind is a wealth of culture, art, sculpture, great architecture, cafes, picturesque city centers. But the richest part of my newfound wealth is the presence of my family. Having them in our home. Seeing the two little cousins playing together. Talking, for as long as I want with Todd and Annie before being interrupted by the boys. Waking up and knowing that I am on vacation, and my family is making this home away from home complete by tying our two worlds together.

Curtainless


One of my favorite past times in the Netherlands is going on long walks in the city and glancing into the living rooms of the urban natives. Many of the brick homes are rather uniform, with wood trimmed windows and white curtains. But the Dutch windowsill is another matter. Sure, their dimensions are quite similar and they are usually white, but it is all the little things that lie there that make them so special. It’s as if, in this crowded country, these few meters of space have been allotted for people to express their individuality. Along one street I saw; a collection of sailboats, religious figures, glass orbs and a row of potted plants—each window as different as the people within.

On a recent walk through a neighborhood in Scheveningen, I came upon a bright orange bust sitting on the windowsill. It would have been inexplicable on its own, but through the open curtains I could see large, modern art pieces that made the orange bust seem like a subtle accent. As Ezra and I walked along Riouwstraat in Den Haag on our way to a speeltuin (playground), I came upon a whole row of ground floor flats with their curtains wide open, as if inviting me to gaze inside.

But, this invitation is not without preparation, as I have yet to see a disheveled Dutch house—cluttered, yes, but always organized and clean. No plates with breadcrumbs left on the table, or half drunken cups of tea.

And then there is our house. For the first three nights, we had no curtains to draw closed, and the broad, front windowsill just happened to be the right dimensions to set papers and books, seeing as we don’t yet have any bookshelves or files set up. Thus, we are completely in violation of the Dutch windowsill code and the immaculate house code for that matter.

I felt a bit exposed those first three nights as I sat in the curtainless living room, reading a book. Outside I could see people getting on and off the tram and passing by on bicycles. Hardly anyone looked our way, but I know that a lighted house at night with the curtains open easily pulls the eye, whether you are curious or not.

We have curtains now, yet I pull them closed at night with hesitation, as I like being visually connected to the world outside. This, I think, explains the open curtains in all of those urban ground floor flats; the reality of people walking by has long been accepted, and their view outward is far more important than anyone’s gaze inward.

Writing a blog feels a bit like sitting in a private, curtainless room. You are inviting everyone to gaze inward into your brightly lit, personal space, and although you know the curtains are open, you can’t see your visual visitors.

Penthouse


How many times in life do you get the opportunity to live in a penthouse? I suppose if you are wealthy, this question is not that interesting. But, for us regular folk, these sorts of things don’t come along that often. Thus, when a family friend offered up his penthouse for three weeks, we jumped at the opportunity.

Located on the top floor of a tall residential building, the penthouse comprises two units turned into one, capturing 280 degree views of  the North Sea and the town of Scheveningen (the last 80 degrees of ocean vista goes to a third corner unit). Hardwood floors, white walls, modern art and minimal furnishings give it a hardy, contemporary elegance, and the expansive windows–I’ve never been fond of the word glazing– create the regal experience of gazing down upon the heart of an old Dutch harbor town. The expression “bird’s-eye-view” becomes pretty literal, as the seagulls ride thermals right outside the windows and look down upon the city with their bird’s eye view.

Our first night, we shared the penthouse with our family friend and his three rugby playing sons.  Although christened in the polite and well mannered aesthetics of cultured children, they are, nonetheless, boys; they jumped from the couch, danced wildly and engaged in a particularly arduous version of rough housing (must be the rugby training). As I watched these three brothers pummel one another, a sense of calm washed over me; our little man, a quiet mouse in comparison, would have a relatively small boy-footprint in this amazing home (knock knock).

The next afternoon, we started our solo journey in the penthouse. Learning it’s rhythm came naturally: sunrise from the East wing over the town of Scheveningen, natural light all day long, even when foggy, sunset over the North Sea from the west wing, back to the East wing for the moonrise. No walking around naked past the short hallway from the bathroom to the bedroom.

Although I’ve done my best to be tidy over the last three months as we were lodged through the graciousness of others, the simplicity of this space cultivates a desire for order. The modern art on the walls seems somehow compromised if I let the dirty dishes stand. We find ourselves picking up without effort, restoring the house to it’s sense of simplicity after each meal or study session, putting away slippers and backpacks so that the contrasting light and shadow can play upon the space unhindered.  The only exception is the playroom, where legos, sticks, sea shells and cars lie still between Ezra’s frequent visits.

No clocks exist within the home. Soon, we discovered why. Out the East wall of windows you can clearly see the clock tower of the Oude Kerk, built in 1457. It feels strange to view the clock face at eye level, rather than gazing up at the clock tower from the more familiar perspective of a cobblestone lined street. I make a cappucino in the morning, frothing my milk in a special frothing machine while I look out the window to a mid 15th century building to determine when I should depart for work. Very European.

Another rather European experience is the 35 minute bike ride to Ezra’s school and my work, a 25 minute ride for Arie to Central Station. At first, I viewed this as a drawback. But the commute through Scheveningen, the Scheveningen Bos (forest), past the Peace Palace and into the international city of Den Haag is 35 minutes of breathing in cool, crisp air, cycling hard, navigating the bike paths with other cyclists and gaining a more intimate knowledge of the landscape of my new homeland.