Flower Power

I have received more bouquets of flowers in our last few months in Holland than I did in the last few years in the United States. Poor thing, you may think. She must not have a very romantic husband. On the contrary, my husband can be very romantic, but spontaneous bouquets of flowers have never been in his repertoire. In the past, I just accepted this as part of his character; he is the type of man who refuses to conform to the contrived dictates of society and believes in finding his own path to romantic expression. And, I also chalked it up to his being a foreigner—perhaps they do things differently over there in Holland.  But now that I’ve spent a few months in this country, he has some explaining to do.

Here, flowers are as undeniable a part of life as coffee, newspapers and bicycles. They are a centerpiece on many a dining room table, they fill window boxes and line window sills. They are arranged in pots by the front door at the first hint of spring, and are given generously to others. We received a congratulatory bouquet of flowers from a friend of the family when Arie Jan was hired as a math teacher. I was given a colorful bouquet at the church from a church member when I started training for my future position. Arie Jan’s brother and sister-in-law brought a beautiful arrangement of flowers on bicycle when we invited them to dinner, and we have received other bouquets along the way. Florists exist in every neighborhood and make a brisk business of it, suggesting the florist, like a dentist, doctor or nurse, will always be in high demand throughout the cycle of life.

Arranged bouquets have been part of our human experience for centuries. Look at the still life paintings in the great museums of the world; meticulously detailed oil on canvas depicting the brilliant colors of nature, brought forward to future generations long after the flowers wilted and the artists returned to the earth.

I don’t think Arie Jan, or anyone else knows this, but I have this deeply rooted, abject guilt I associate with receiving cut bouquets of commercially grown flowers. It’s not about guilt cultivated through my Catholic upbringing and some sense of unworthiness. It goes much deeper, like a contradiction to my basic principles. I view flowers as brilliant expressions of nature that should remain in the earth in their natural environment. Cut flowers and arranged bouquets seem a contradiction to all things organic; another example of man’s desire to control and contort nature. Just like ordering a car from the factory in any color we want, we also create hybrid flowers, modifying them to meet our choice of colors.

When I see plants in Home Depot, or other large scale corporate entities, I feel like I’m visiting the CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) of plant life. I imagine those flowers all pumped up on chemical fertilizers that are so powerful, they can survive growing in rows numbering in the thousands, being re-potted, loaded on trucks, driven across the nation, unloaded, stored, placed on a shelf, and if they’re lucky, making it into someone’s home or garden where they will live some sort of compromised existence for half a season before wilting away.

 Yet, I love receiving flowers. I too am deeply attracted to their beauty and take pride in having a bouquet on the table, and am always pleasantly surprised and emotional when someone gives me a bouquet. Some bouquets have even found their way into my shopping basket at a major grocery chain. I have purchased potted plants as well, but sought out small scale, organic nurseries, to assuage this strange guilt.

I think, if I look at it from a psychological perspective, I have my mom and dad to blame for this affliction.  I grew up in the country srrounded by wild, open space, and I have seen plants in their natural settings—wildflowers blooming on a hillside, minor’s lettuce peeking up in the shade of oak trees, those beautiful little purple flowers that have an edible bulb at the bottom, growing not far away from California poppies, crisp bushes of sage amongst the chaparral, filling the air with their medicinal essence. This is how I first experienced flowers and plants. Growing in season, coming into their glorious peak, and fading away. My mother never bought flowers at the store. But we did have flowers in the house. We would wander into the fields and pluck beautiful wildflowers, never taking too many, and would create original organic bouquets placed in colored glass bowls on the table. For the holidays, she would trim branches from plants with bright red berries and pick pine cones from the ground beneath the pine trees soaring into the air. We were foragers and our flowers never came wrapped in plastic.

Two days ago, Ezra had a little friend over to play. After they were informed that throwing rocks was off the list, Ezra turned his attention to another aspect of the yard. He plucked purple flowers from patches of a rather prolific, but pretty weed in our garden. He proceeded into the house, got a glass from the cupboard and made a flower arrangement, which he proudly presented to me. The other little boy was delighted by the experience as well, and we put water in the glass and set our first bouquet of the house on the table. I suppose some things are passed down through the generations.


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.

A home of our own in the city

Sunday night we slept in our new home. We are still lacking lamps, dressers, a decent dining table and a slew of other items, but we have the essentials: beds and linens, a few chairs to sit on, boxes of toys and kitchen items, and each other. And we are happy.

I have never lived in such an urban location. Our home is attached to the large, modern church where I work, and unlike most Dutch flats that have windows at the front and back, our home runs sideways, with a wall of windows bringing in generous natural light on two levels. It stretches upwards with the bedrooms on the second floor. A large urban garden surrounded by a hedge creates a private green space amongst all the concrete, bike paths, streets and buildings.

At night, I hear the trams. Sometimes people talking. Noises from the church. Soon, these strange sounds will become habitual, a mix of elements necessary for proper sleep.

I watch Ezra in his new home and see unbridled, extreme relief. “Are all these things ours, mommy?” he asks again and again, just to make sure. Although they say children are much more flexible than we are, I know this whole move, and extended stays with friends and family, has taken it’s toll. Right now, he’d rather play in his room then go to the playground or play with other kids. He needs the time to claim his own space and redefine his relationship with the physical world around him. This home we can claim as our own.

An uncoddled nation

In America, we are protected from our own stupidity. Okay, not in all cases. Sometimes it is encouraged: eat crappy things, buy more than you can afford, believe Fox News, go shopping to do your part in solving the country’s financial woes.

Yet, America is also very serious about safety and coddles us as if we are irrational beings, incapable of deciphering the obvious. For example, a cup of hot coffee may have the following label: Be Careful! The content of this cup is hot and could burn you!

If a street is closed, large signage in neon colors is placed at the entrance. In case this didn’t get our attention, or we can’t read, the area is fenced off, just to make sure we don’t trip, fall, get injured and, more importantly, sue.

If a metro line runs through a city, quite often there are guard rails along the tracks, with specified entry and exit points. We wouldn’t want someone who was, say, focused on a very important cell phone call, to accidentally walk in front of the metro.

In Holland, you’re on your own. Multiple tram lines run through the urban centers, and pedestrians, bicycles and cars cross the tracks at their own will and risk. Sure, there are flashing lights at major crossings, but no guard rails go down.

If a postman or delivery person can’t find a parking place, they will simply park half on the sidewalk  and half on the bike path–and no one cares. There are no bright orange cones placed before or after to state the obvious. It’s up to you to figure out how to go on your merry way.

In a densely populated European city with a well-integrated public transport system,  it’s just not possible to coddle the populace at every moment.  And, it isn’t necessary. People pay attention because they have to, and because lawsuits based on not paying attention are just not acceptable or common.

I’m not saying this is entirely good. The other day, we were cycling along, and discovered the road was closed. However, there was a small opening for pedestrians and cyclists. We proceeded forth and entered a construction pit. Metal panels had been laid down as a makeshift cycling or walking path and we muddled our way through the site, around tractors and drop offs. It felt adventurous in a way, but if we’d gotten hurt, we would be on our “onus.”

I suppose the European coddling comes in the form of health care, quality education and other services provided for free or at a very low cost, and the multiple, paid vacations.  I much prefer this type of coddling. And, paying attention is empowering!

Staying in the Embassy (Repeat)

(I accidentally deleted this post. It should precede the previous two posts. Anyway, this is a repeat if you are following my blog. If not, read this, then “Dutch Flat”, then “Penthouse” if you like chronology and are up for the read.)

Back in my college days, I thought couch surfing was cool. When I moved to the college town of Moscow, Idaho, I spent the first few weeks sleeping on the floor in a corner nook of a friend’s one bedroom apartment. Traveling light; just me, my sleeping bag and a suitcase of belongings. I stayed with another friend named Skott for a short period, setting up camp on her living room floor. I felt adventurous and free, like I could roll with whatever the universe provided, surrounded by friends with the same happy-go-lucky outlook on our young lives.
Couch surfing with the nuclear family is adventurous in its own right, but I’m fairly certain it doesn’t make many people’s bucket lists.  Children need routine and a stable environment. Forty-something year olds need routine and a stable environment. Yet, when you relocate to your husband’s homeland, it is only natural to stay with family for the “transition” period. The only thing we knew for sure, was that we had been granted six weeks to stay at the former Ecuadorian Embassy. Wait. My husband is Dutch, not Ecuadorian. Why would the Ecuadorian’s host us? 


A few year’s ago, my brother-n-law and his wife purchased a building that formerly housed the Ecuadorian Embassy of Den Haag on the first two floors, and a private residence on the top two floors. He and his wife transformed all four levels into a modern residence with regal proportions and detailing. The ceilings stretch skyward capped by crown molding with fleur-de-lis that subtly decorate the white ceilings.  Traditional crystal chandeliers hang from the ceilings while modern cubed lamps made of onyx light up the recesses of the dining room and living room. The regal living room and dining room are connected with sliding doors, that when opened, create a space large enough for a sizeable international gathering.
Each night, save three or four in a six-week period, the six of us ate by candlelight in the formal dining room with chafing dishes offering up three course meals that I helped cook during the majority of our stay.
Although my brother and sister-n-law are an international couple who have lived all over the world, the house is decorated sparingly. Where art does exist, it does so boldly. Four large wooden panels from Mexico hang on the wall of the dining room, each displaying an angel painted in bright colors. The panels are weather-worn window shutters, re-purposed as canvases with the knots and nails left in place. In the master bedroom, two built-in art nooks are home to carved statues illuminated by spotlights.
The ground floor, which is half below ground, accommodates a home office, yoga studio, laundry room, storage room, half kitchen and bath, tool room and bicycle storage.
The bedrooms and studies are located on the third and fourth floors. My little family was easily tucked into a fourth floor bedroom large enough for two beds, chairs, our multiple suitcases, Ezra’s toys and room for morning yoga stretches. It was only half as big as our nephew’s bedroom down the hall. We were living in the lap of luxury.
Yet, amidst all this luxury, this family lives simply and works hard. They rarely eat out, and although generous, have the Dutch mentality–frugal with daily expenses, always turning off the lights and conserving whenever possible. They only have one car, and ride their bikes to most events.
Their 13-year-old son is an articulate, well-educated young man who speaks four languages fluently and is studying a fifth in school. He excels in all of his courses at the international school, studies guitar and is in a striker position on a league soccer team that practices twice a week. Despite this rigorous schedule, multilingualism and intelligence, not to mention that he has traveled in his young life to far more countries than I, he is not arrogant. He is kind and friendly. In fact, he and Ezra have become fast friends, and Ezra likes to go for play dates with him whenever he can.

Our stay was just long enough for Ezra to consider this palatial residence as his home away from home, and he feels comfortable being dropped off for the afternoon with his cousin, aunt and uncle. When I come to pick him up after half a day, instead of running into my arms and screaming “mommy! You’re here!” he asks me to come back later.

We are so thankful to have such a wonderful connection with our family and this extended stay was key to creating that bond. If you think you can take it and life circumstances allow, I suggest such an experiment with your adult brothers or sisters if the relationship allows. Keys to success: set a pre-determined end date so everyone can see the horizon of returning to normal and regaining their privacy; respect the rules of the house; chip in on household stuff whenever possible so that your stay is a benefit to everyone; make sure to have parties and fun events in the mix.

As our embassy stay came to an end, my in-laws, worried about where we would stay next, spontaneously decided to go on a three-week vacation in rural Belgium. Thus, their worry subsided and we had a place to stay.


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.

Dutch Flat

Dutch Flat

After spending the first six weeks in the Netherlands with my husband’s brother’s family (see last post), we moved to my in-laws’ traditional Dutch flat while they went on vacation to the Belgian countryside.

Located on the ground floor of a four-story brick apartment building, their flat has the absolute luxury of a back yard. Not one for a patch of grass, my mother-n-law created a beautifully sculpted garden–best described as what a miniature Versailles might look like if conceived by the Dutch– pathways and circles of brick surrounded by thoughtful plantings that bloom in a cyclical pattern, a “forest” area with a trellised entry, a bench at one side for contemplation.

On the street side, semi-transparent curtains in the tall windows cordon off the outside world, while letting passersby catch a glimpse of the bright tulips on the dining room table. Each kamer has something elegant and something quaint–a post modern couch in the same room as a painting of a Dutch city, sculpted glass tables next to a floral couch. 

The neighborhood is sparkling clean, well organized and decidedly old Dutch. Men and women are dressed in semi-fashionable suits, dresses and overcoats on their way to the bakery. Within a three minute walk one can go to the local baker, butcher, florist or cheese store. The shop owners are professionally curt and smile sparingly. A small, vocal child in their midst evokes not one smile, but a downward crinkling at the edges of their mouths. The upscale boutiques in the neighborhood speak to a much older demographic with price tags and styles in the windows informing me there is no need to even enter the store.

On the other hand, the neighbors are friendly and very in tune with what everyone else is doing. A few days after Arie Jan got his job, the doorbell rang, and a nice woman handed us a bouquet of flowers, offering congratulations all around. It became abundantly clear that although my in-laws were on vacation, they were still posting regular emails on our progress from the Belgian countryside to their extended network.

There is this sense, when you stay in someone’s home in their absence, that you are getting to know them better. You are interacting with their space, sitting in their chairs, sleeping in their beds. But what it really comes down to is when you cook in someone’s home. There, you get a sense of what life must be like. This house has the kitchen of a ship’s cabin–a very tiny, extremely – space that is more of a half butt kitchen, then a one butt kitchen. Yet, instead of looking out of a porthole onto the choppy sea, you are looking into Henny’s divinely sculpted garden through a glass door. I found myself lingering there on more than one occasion, taking the garden into my senses. In the bleak and cold of morning, the garden appeared serious and well ordered. When the sun shone into the garden on a windy day, it displayed it’s wild side. Ezra was also intrigued by the garden and more than once, we ran along its tiny paths and through the “forest,” playing a variety of games that usually involved running from monsters, shooting monsters with bows and arrows, or feeding baby monsters lots of cookies before gently returning them to their mommy monsters.

Despite the tiny size, Ezra was drawn to the kitchen. Perhaps it was the view of the garden. Or, perhaps he was tapping into that universal desire to hang out in the kitchen while someone is cooking. A small white table against the wall has a folding panel that is usually down to maximize space. Yet, whenever I started cooking, Ezra would pull the wooden support levers into position and extend the table, minimizing my work space to cut, chop, stir and season.

Ezra is now extremely comfortable in grandma and grandpa’s house. Perhaps too comfortable. Barriers that naturally exist when you visit grandparents, no running and screaming in the house, for instance, had been broken down during our stay. Ezra had developed his own relationship with the house that was independent of its true owners. A Lego set, 720 pieces strong, had been a regular fixture strewn across the living room floor while they were away.  On the other hand, grandma and grandpa now have a standing afternoon playdate with Ezra once a week after school. This might not have worked for our little man if we hadn’t stayed there.

When it was nearing time for my in-laws to return, we were uncertain of where we would stay next. The housing that comes with my new job is not available until April 1st, and we had already stayed with all the family members who live in Den Haag. It is also hard to find a place to rent for three weeks, unless it is a vacation rental, which might set us back close to $2,000–a high price to pay when you are just starting new jobs.

Our network of friends and family came up with different ideas. A neighboring church had an unfurnished space we could rent. We went and looked at it, and it felt like a temporary office building, the toilet and shower shared with others who used a neighboring office, an uninviting kitchen. At the same time, we got an email from a family friend who lives in Scheveningen, a beautiful ocean town 10 minutes away by car, or a half hour by bike.

We went the next day to see his flat. Flat is not the right word for it. He lives on the top floor of a tall, modern building next to the sea with 360 degree views over the ocean and city. Light hard wood floors, glass walls, contemporary art on the walls, and a few functional, well designed pieces of furniture create a look of contemporary living in an expansive penthouse. Um, yes. Please. Thank you.

Coming up next: Penthouse in Schevingingen

Running in the Bos

Last time I lived in a cold climate, I got fat. Not obese, but about all the fat a tall frame like mine, genetically prone to be slender, can take. The former expansion project in Moscow, Idaho was aided by frequent pints of Hefeweizen and other extra curricular activities common to university towns.

Now, my issue is the cold and a proclivity for snacking. I love to exercise. If I don’t get enough exercise, I act strangely. Inappropriately. Like someone who doesn’t understand the implied social protocols. I will do leg lifts at a cafe without concern for others. Yoga stretches while waiting for the tram. My husband is used to this quirk and when he sees me acting like this, he shakes his head. Not entirely from embarrassment, but from the knowledge of what is to come. Hyper. Irritable. My body needs exercise and there’s no place to go.

Yet, if you are from Holland, you are shaking your head right now. What do you mean, no place to go? You can cycle just about anywhere.  You live in the Hague and there are jogging paths all over the Haagse Bos (the Hague forest) and Clingendael. Cold? Get over it. Get your butt moving!

 I reluctantly changed into jogging clothes and headed out the door.  I chose the quaint, yet expansive park called Clingendael, a slice of Dutch countryside imported into the middle of the city.  A small boerderij with sheep, goats and a bee farm sits near the entrance. Old country houses with thatched roofs throughout the park expand the countryside theme, and a series of canals wind their way through the forest and open spaces. A maze of walking trails head off in multiple directions making the park particularly intriguing to runners.

At first it seemed I had the park to myself.  An eerie fog settled in as I ran down a secluded trail for 10 minutes or so before crossing a canal over a little white bridge. There I saw an older man standing at the edge of a canal in knee high rain boots, two chestnut-brown water dogs coming out of the canal next to him.  I ran through an area with tall hedges before coming back into an open area full of tall, naked trees, their dampened leaves lining the forest floor. A perfect setting for a British murder mystery. As this image wiled its way into my thoughts, I began to run a little faster. Finally, I got into a groove and looped my way through the forest, past middle-aged men walking their dogs.

As I settled into a pace, I began to think of a group of friends. Some who know each other, some who don’t; Barry Miller, Andrew Duncan, Delilah Poupore, Linda Croyle, Jenni Hopson, Yolanda van Wingerden and others I have run with throughout the years. As the cold air filled my lungs, I pictured these friends running alongside  me. Sometimes in silence, sometimes chatting.

Many things can jog our memories about our friends, but it seems that those who have accompanied us on different physical pursuits–running, yoga, backpacking, skiing–are bound to us in a special way. Our interactions are not solely cerebral, like open ended conversations at a dinner party, but physical. Our conversations become, perhaps, more kinetic as our mind and body work in tandem, thus placing our interactions firmly in our minds.

I have experienced the same with yoga friends, Sandi Hebshi, Delilah, Antara, Kim Cantrell, as we contort ourselves into different positions, perspiring together, coming more fully into our bodies. Perhaps that is the connection. Through exercise, you are grounded, present and alive in yourself, creating a much better space in which to bond with others.

Thus, in this new land, I must also seek these more physical relationships, as studies show we are more prone to do regular exercise if it also brings companionship.

Book Happy

Friday morning, I got up at 5:45 am to shower, get dressed, make tea, sit on the couch and call America. The phone rang four times before I heard a familiar voice pick up. I was soon on speaker phone listening to my girlfriends cheering because I had “joined them” for book club night.

Seeing that I’m now about 3,800 miles away as the crow flies from my book club, I am more of an honorary member, with rights to drop in on occasion. As most who are in book clubs will tell you, the experience is not only about reading a book together, but about being there with your friends. There is something deeply bonding about breaking bread, drinking wine, and discussing how the work of fiction or non-fiction moved you, or not.  It is also an opportunity to listen to the stories that emerge in response to the reading, deepening your understanding of each other; I didn’t know you lived in a funky loft in the bay area where you lead monthly poetry slams; Really? You have a fraternal twin? I had no idea you’ve interviewed so many famous authors, including the one we’re now reading.  And on top of this, our club is committed to cooking organic dishes from food within a 100 mile radius whenever possible; ingredients fresh from the back yard harvest or local farmer’s market (exceptions always made for wine and chocolate).

In this context, my international call into book club may seem a little sad, like a bone thin fashion model walking into the room just before Thanksgiving meal is served to inhale the sumptuous smells and leave again, without so much as a fork full or sip of wine; like trying to hold onto happier times. Yet, it was perhaps the most appropriate time to phone from abroad in search of happiness and connection. This group of women sitting around a candlelit table in Sonja’s house had just read Geography of Bliss, by NPR correspondent Eric Weiner. The book is about Weiner’s travels to nine countries that have been deemed by psychologists and economists as some of the happiest places on earth, and his investigation into what makes these particular people, or cultures, happy. The first country in the book? The Netherlands. You can see why I had to have this one last fling with book club.

I couldn’t locate a copy in the biblioteek (library) or the boekhandel (bookstore), so ordered a used copy online which was sent over from England, a country that didn’t make the happiness list.

I started the book the night it arrived, feeling rather special to be reading the chapter on the Netherlands in the Netherlands. Did you know that the World Database of Happiness  is located in Rotterdam, just thirty minutes away from where I now sit?  It seems the Dutch are really into happiness. But I was quickly annoyed by the shallow picture Weiner painted of my husband’s homeland, suggesting that legal prostitution, drugs and fervor for cycling were primary keys to understanding Dutch happiness. Although I got his point, it was clear to me there is so much more to it. Yet, in his defense, how much can one person tap into the soul of a nation’s happiness in a two week visit?

As I read further about countries like Bhutan and Iceland, I found his insights on happiness to be eye opening, and I soon found myself underlining passages here and there.  Because as any fine reporter would do within the freedom of their own book, he backed up his musings and criticisms with facts, research and quotes from numerous other books on the topic of happiness.

I wonder what one would discover if they traveled across the world researching the happiness one gains by being in a book club. The right book club can be an until-death-do-us-part experience. Take my mother-in-law, for example. She was in a book club for years. But when one of the members died, the group came to an end, as they were just too sad to go on without their dear friend. Another book club I know in Santa Barbara has also been meeting for years, and these women of all different ages, are a sisterhood of support that rallies behind their members through thick and thin, having emergency book clubs when a sister is in need. I dearly miss my book club and the pure happiness this group of women brought into my life every four to six weeks.

What is so special about this particular configuration? It’s not like a group discussion of a story is a new concept. That has been around since the beginning, both in oral traditions and as part of our written education system. I think what makes the book club movement so powerful is that you have a very personal, solitary experience of reading a book and then voluntarily bring that experience to a group. Not just any group, but a group you trust.  The book transforms into something much bigger, as each person brings their unique perspective and opinions to light. And trust is key to happiness, as Weiner points out. If you are surrounded by people you trust, then you are more likely to be happy. If you are surrounded by people you trust, who have made a commitment to read a book, cook an organic dish, purchase a bottle of wine, and meet up with you to have a heartfelt conversation, you become a bit of a contemporary tribe.

Sure. Sometimes book clubs don’t get around to the book, but a discussion still unfolds. The bonds grow deeper.

Now as I write about book club, I know why I felt a rush of excitement at church a month ago when a woman announced a book group forming at the church. I wanted to be book happy again, in a book club way. Thing is, although my Dutch is coming along swimmingly, I barely understood her announcement.

A book club, like a quality relationship, is something that can’t be rushed. You have to find the right group of people, whom you would like to potentially see for the rest of your life. A group of individuals you relate to and trust.  Perhaps another book club will emerge. In the meantime, I will still fancy myself a member of that great group of women back home, and drop in on them from time to time.

A time bomb detonates

The content of my current Dutch lessons is starkly different from any other language course I have taken. We cover topics like subsidies available through the government, dealing with the belasting dienst (tax office), whether or not it is okay to embrace unemployment as a lifestyle, assimilation, asylum seekers in the Netherlands, etc. These and other topics have led me to conclude that my class is designed primarily for people from lower-income brackets immigrating into the country (sounds familiar) and/or those who have come here out of extreme necessity. Thus, odds are that behind some of those beautiful faces of my female classmates are stories so tragic that most of us have no experiences in which to equate (and are deeply blessed by this fact).

Last week the teacher assigned lesson eight: de wet. It sounds innocuous enough. Lesson eight. The one right after lesson seven, which was about receiving help from the government to pay the rent, and before lesson nine. But, de wet is not about how wet it can be here with all the rain, or some sort of slang the Dutch picked up back in their days in New York from the neighboring New Jerseyians. De wet is The Law.

At first, I thought this topic would be somehow refreshing after studying social services and taxes. I only have a vague sense of the laws here, which seem to me a bizarre mix of liberal idealism and indifference, enmeshed in an intricate web of bureaucracy. In my current state of ignorance of Dutch law, I take it for granted that the laws are similar to those in the U.S.: Don’t kill anybody; Don’t steal; Don’t get caught rolling through a stop sign, and so forth. In some countries, acting upon such assumptions of similarity could lead to no uncertain death by doing something as simple as speaking your mind or not dressing appropriately for your gender.

Quite often, we are asked to discuss new topics in the context of how they differ from our prospective homelands. Yet, I find many of the textbook questions invasive. For example: Do you have a job? If not, why? Do you receive a subsidy from the government? In some American dialects, this translates into “Are you a loser? Why?”

As I read through the questions about de Wet, it seemed to me the chances of a cultural time bomb going off in the classroom were pretty high.  For example: Hebben mannen en vrouwen de zelfde rechten? (Do men and women have the same rights?) Lord. As I looked at my Afghani, Moroccan, Iraqi and Iranian classmates with their tightly wrapped head scarves,  I knew such a question would make for interesting, if not uncomfortable conversation. It was then that I realized I wouldn’t be the fly on the wall listening in on fascinating cultural exchange, but the sole American in the room, with fading highlights in my uncovered hair.

When I was asked to pose a question to a classmate, I skimmed the list, trying to find something less like a bloody scab cracking open and more like a general topic. Thus I chose this question: Are there countries with very little or no laws and rules?

I posed the question to an Iranian woman whose name I remembered. She usually spoke very little due to her limited Dutch. I will give her the name of Sayah for this post. As background, I had earlier learned that Sayah’s grandfather had four wives and 35 children. She is thus one of a multitude of grandchildren. She hadn’t mentioned how many siblings and cousins were in her generation, not to mention their collective offspring. But given the religious adherence to an Islamic version of  “be fruitful and prosper,” I’m imagining hundreds of first cousins. I don’t even know if there exists a wide angled lens wide enough to capture her whole family in one shot.

I would think if you come from a family this large, you would need to be tough, vocal. Edging your way into the conversation, asserting yourself at the dinner table to get your piece of the pie. Less Iranian and more like her Moroccan classmates, shall we say. Yet Sayah is meek, almost fearful in demeanor. During another class meeting where we went over prescriptions in Dutch, it came out that she has insomnia. She wasn’t alone. Several other students shared her condition. I wondered what could be so bad that she couldn’t sleep until daylight. I figured it was some sort of cultural difference, pressures of being a Muslim female with many responsibilities to serve everyone before yourself, if ever yourself. Most of the women with insomnia said they couldn’t get their thoughts to go away, making gestures of a wheel going round in round in their heads. I suggested meditation. I digress. An avoidance tactic I’m sure. I’m taking a deep breath as I think of how to share what happened next. Am I too Western? Do I just want to hear nice things? Am I that shallow? That trained in the discourse of niceties?

So in response to what I had deemed a middle of the road question–Zijn er ook landen met weinig of geen wetten en regels? Are there countries with very little or no laws and rules?–Sayah started talking about haar vrienden (her friends) in Iran. Her body language changed as she struggled for the words in Dutch. She wrapped her fingers around her wrist, as if showing a bracelet. She spoke about a hospital and about friends hanging. I was confused. The teacher was confused. The other women who spoke Arabic dialects talked with Sayah in their native tongues, trying to interpret the details of her story. “Drie of vier vrienden elke dag. Ophangen.” I hoped dearly that  I misunderstood, but soon, the other women started adding in bits of information and confirming that my comprehension was spot on; Back in Iran, her friends had been hung. Three or four every day for a period of days. Men and women. Women with young children. No mercy. She was on the list of those considered to be dissidents. Those who had disagreed with something or someone, in most cases guilty by association.

However, she was also quite sick at the time and was taken to the hospital for her chronic asthma, as were her children. From there, she and her family were flown out of the country. She stayed several months in another country before seeking asylum in the Netherlands, where she has been ever since. I don’t know how long “ever since” is, but I want to find out.

Sayah spoke a little more about her family. There it was again. Her fingers wrapping around her wrists. Not bracelets. Handcuffs. Many of her family members were in prison and she had no means of contacting them. As we pieced this information together, Sayah reached into her bag for her inhaler and took a raspy breath, tears in her eyes.

It became clear to me what sort of thoughts were keeping Sayah up at night, why she couldn’t sleep until daylight. Not the daily responsibilities of a Muslim woman, but the murder of her friends and family. m and f. I can’t even put those two words in the same compartment of my mind. I push it outward.  I love my friends and family so much, I can’t take my empathy to the place of imagining it happening to me. The only murderous entity in my circle of friends and family is that horrible beast known as cancer–and you can fight cancer with the collective knowledge of doctors, scientists and spiritual resources from around the world. Many I know have fought it and won. Some are in the midst of a glorious battle. Others have lost the battle, but were surrounded by a compassionate society of friends and family during the process.

I realize too that Sayah is perhaps one of the strongest women among us. The strength of a survivor. I imagine the horror she is going through, though from a slightly removed place.  I feel the tightening of my tear ducts, the instant pressure of emotion swelling upward.

I want to say lots of things, as do many of the other women in class. For once, I go Moroccan.  I blurt out my opinions and questions in paltry Dutch, my voice competing with all of the other women expressing their anger at the situation. The teacher is equally mortified. She uses words like vreselijk (horrible) and slecht (bad). I have the urge to donate money I don’t have to an Iranian human rights activist group.

What I eventually say is very American of me. “What can be done? How can this be stopped? If you are hung for voicing a dissident opinion, how can regime change ever come about?” Yet, it seems that we are seeing how it happens in Egypt, in Libya. Bloody uprisings where people die in the process of demanding change. And even then, there are no guarantees.

The class ends. Before I leave, I touch Sayah’s shoulder and just a bit of her long, burgundy headscarf. I say in my broken Dutch, “Thank you Sayah. Thank you for sharing such a personal experience with us.” I want to say I’m glad you are alive, that your children are alive, that your husband is alive. That this is a lot to be thankful for. But I keep my optimism in check. I think these things for her and as a Christian, I pray for a Muslim. That, and sharing her story with others.