City, Forest, Luck, Love

This morning I left the house for an early morning appointment on my two-wheeled transportation and entered bike path rush hour. I still can’t get used to seeing men and women in business attire and fancy shoes peddling along, some with children on the front or back of the bicycle en route to school drop off before heading to the office.

The morning bicycling crowd is more adamant than the afternoon crowds I’ve encountered. People lay on the bicycle bell if you’re not cycling fast enough, and if you don’t merge to the right of the bike path for them to pass, they sometimes make gutsy moves to overtake you. I witnessed that myself this morning as two teenage girls cycling at a slower pace chatting away, were overtaken by people in suits, utilizing the lengths of brick between the street lamps as a temporary third lane. If the timing wasn’t quite right and they weren’t able to cut back in time, my bet would be on the street lamp.

The sun was out, but it was bone-chilling cold. A slight mist oozed from the urban forest as I peddled by with the crowd of cyclists.

After my appointment an hour and a half later, the bike paths were quiet, the sun climbing higher in the sky.

By afternoon pick up at school, the sun was bringing a rare warmth to The Hague. Jackets were shed and faces were turned upward. Within an hour, I felt like I might actually have a sunburn, and I wanted to be inside. Ezra, acting a bit vampire like, also wanted to stay indoors, but the weather was so undeniably beautiful, I felt obligated to extend our outdoor time. I opened the patio door and we had our afternoon snack on the front porch, but not before Ezra lowered the awning to block most of the sun’s rays.

By late afternoon, we headed to the forest for dog therapy with a friend who needed Ezra’s help walking her dog. My friend’s puppy barks at children, but is very friendly and doesn’t bite. She needs exposure to children to get over her tendency to bark. Ezra has grown wary of dogs after a recent bite episode and needs positive exposure to dogs to put that one negative experience into perspective; thus the origin of our win-win dog therapy sessions.

I’m not asking my son to wrestle with Doberman Pinschers or Rottweilers, but to take a small, friendly five-month-old dog for a walk.

He didn’t want to go at first. When he saw the dog, he tensed up, pulling his hands protectively out of reach. But my amazing friend coached him through the interaction as the dog started to bark. Before long, Ezra was keenly aware of dog ear positions and what they indicate. He opened his hand flat, and started to laugh when the puppy lavished it with licks and kisses. Within 5 minutes, he was holding her leash, walking the little dog and using basic commands to tell her to halt and cross.

By the time we reached the forest, they were pals. She began to follow him toward the tree he likes to climb and rather than reacting in fear, he seemed to view his new little companion as another interested party, bathing him in attention. The real test was when a second dog approached. The last time, Ezra climbed the tree and stayed up in its branches until the other dog departed. Today, he came out of the tree and stayed on the ground. He didn’t touch the other dog, but his body language didn’t emanate fear either.

By the time we were walking home, Ezra was telling us how he would like to have his own dog; how he didn’t want to leave his new companion. I informed him that dad was making dinner and it was time to get home. My friend commented on how nice it was to have a husband who was cooking dinner. Yes. I realize I am incredibly lucky; I have kind and thoughtful friends, a son who is overcoming a fear and a husband who is not only a good cook, but a man I love.


Anti-Graffiti Man

Yesterday, one of the volunteers opened a side door to the church and pointed.

“Shit!” I exclaimed before I could push the edit button. Someone had tagged the side entry with the word Gus spray painted in black loopy letters. Gus must be tall, because the letters were above my head and the whole tag was longer than my arm when fully extended.

Clients just arriving in their business suits at the main entry (the church rooms are rented out for gatherings during the week), glanced over at us, taking in the graffiti with mild concern. Perhaps that wasn’t concern, but judgment, I thought; “Do we want to gather in the type of place that draws graffiti?”  I was pissed and somehow taking it a little personally that the building had been tagged on my watch.

Luckily, this didn’t have to be the headache it could have been, because the City of the Hague has an anti-graffiti program.

I called the hotline and a woman answered the phone in a pleasant, upbeat voice. Her friendliness and eagerness to help completely caught me off guard. (Whereas the Dutch are world-renowned for many things–quality cheeses, tolerance, a legal drug culture–customer service is not one of them.) This polite city employee was also efficient in her message; someone would be out to clean up the graffiti within five business days.

After work, I took our son to Natuurspeelplaats Robin Hood (Robin Hood nature play area), a playground in the middle of The Hague’s forest with a child-oriented ropes course including rope bridges, zip line and climbing walls. The weather was perfect and we almost had the place to ourselves. My son pointed out that the birds were chirping, remarking how pretty of a sound it was and how much he liked being surrounded by green. I was so absorbed in playing with my son in the beautiful forest, that I’d forgotten all about the morning graffiti incident–until we reached the climbing wall. The entire wall had been tagged in curvy black and red spray paint, a few profane remarks mixed in with other inanities. A look of disappointment clouded over my son’s face.

“Oh man!” he declared. “That’s totally not allowed! Why do people do that?” I wanted to say because people are stupid and mean, and have no respect for beautiful public places. Or, based on the lack of artistic style, maybe it’s because they’re bored and have nothing better to do.

“I don’t know,” was my simple response. Because, really, I didn’t know and I hadn’t Googled it yet.* I wondered if this was the work of the same person or persons who had tagged the church. But, considering I had no background in literary forensics, I decided to forego any handwriting analysis and focus instead on the good guys-bad guys game my son had created for us. On our walk home, I saw other small tags on electrical boxes and street signs, as if someone had gone on a graffiti rampage throughout our neighborhood. When we got back to the church, I found more graffiti on the church tower. Part of me wanted to be open to the idea of graffiti as art. I’ve seen beautiful graffiti art and even appreciated it. But this was not art, or artistic expression. It was just vandalism.

The next morning, I dressed in a business skirt and summer shirt, eager to celebrate the two days of summer weather that had been thus far correctly forecast. I cut open a melon we had received in our Kievit fruit packet, discovering perfectly ripened flesh of the fruit presenting itself in a bright shade of salmon orange. As my family devoured the melon I had divided into three bowls, our breakfast was interrupted by blaring music that drowned out the soulful words of the Bob Dylan song currently playing on our iPod.

“Where is that coming from?” I asked my husband. He walked to the front balcony, peering out the window.

“From outside. It’s a city worker cleaning up the graffiti.”
“Already? Wow. That was fast!” I remarked. “I want to see it.” All three of us stepped out onto the balcony and waved to the man in worn blue overalls by the church.

As he started to work on the graffiti, I remembered the small tag I had seen on the church tower. I headed outside to talk to him while my husband finished getting our son ready for school.

After thanking him for coming so quickly, I asked him if he could remove the second small tag. It wasn’t on the reported list, he informed me, but he said he’d take a look at it. We discovered a much larger tag on an electrical box just by the tower, and since he would need to take care of that one, he agreed to remove the other small tag while he was at it.

I asked if he’d like a cup of coffee and he nodded heartily. When I returned with a steaming hot cup, he thanked me, pointing out that not many people offered him a cup of coffee these days.

“Maybe they don’t see you,” I suggested, imagining him cleaning up the side of an office building or a random utility box, out of view of the building’s occupants.

“No. They see me. I’m right there in front of them,” he explained. I remembered the loud music that had pulled us from our breakfast. Yes, he was not one to go unnoticed. A wise tactic, I thought; best to let someone know you’re there cleaning up the mess.

“What’s in that fluid?” I asked as he effortlessly removed the graffiti from the utility box.
“No chemicals,” he responded, practically reading my mind. “It’s all natural, made out of fruit extracts.” He explained that the City wanted to eliminate use of toxic substances, and this was just one example.

“That’s great that the “Gemeente” is thinking that way. There are so many toxins we are exposed to every day,” I started. Little did I know I was preaching to the converted.

“I’ve been to India three times now,” he said, “and when I get back to the hotel, I wipe a wet cloth across my face and it’s black from all of the pollution. And people think because it’s in India, it doesn’t matter. We all share the same air and the same environment,” he went on.

I realized that I had shoved the anti-graffiti man in a little box the first moment I saw him–just a hired hand doing his manual labor job to the soundtrack of whatever happens to be on the radio. Based on my surprise that he too thought about the interconnectedness of the planet, and the importance of using nature-based cleaning solvents, I had also boxed up his awareness and intellect into a cube much smaller than appropriate.

I suppose we are meting out judgments onto ourselves and others just about every nanosecond of every day without even realizing it. Well, maybe a little aware. But it’s when our judgments are proven wrong that we wake up to this not-so-subtle undercurrent shaping our views on the world.

Anti-graffiti man not only cleaned up the graffiti, but helped me clean up my own internal acts of graffitying others with preconceived notions. Speaking of which, what is your preconceived notion of the “type of person to graffiti?” See the Goodbye Graffiti link below for one account or consider this quote from Alex Salvador’s thoughts taken from the website Amsterdam Street Art:

“Ah, finally, someone else gets it. They think the same way. There is hope – for art to return to the hoi polloi, the voiceless, the oppressed. Or so I thought.”

* According to Goodbye Graffiti, people, more specifically males between 15 and 25 with problems fitting in, graffiti because they’re bored, frustrated, want to rebel or mark their territory.

The Veluwe and other things that make my son run

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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