I Promised Snow

When we had made our decision to move to the Netherlands, we developed a game plan on how to best acclimate our almost four year old to the world changing news: He would soon be leaving the land of his birth, his American family and friends, and the sunny central coast of California, home to year round locally grown organic produce and 365 day access to mild weather beaches. He would be moving to his father’s homeland, land of bitter cold and rain, tulips, bicycles, cafes filled with brooding philosophers, tolerance and . . . snow?

On the keen advice of Alice Tropper, his beloved Santa Barbara pre-school teacher, we spoke to him regularly about our move to Holland and what life would be like in the fatherland. We asked the entire Dutch side of the family still living in the Netherlands to send pictures so he could get to know their names and faces. We increased our Skyping sessions abroad and we shared regular stories and photos of Holland.  One of the pictures the family sent was of his 13 year old cousin Victor playing in the snow.

Suddenly, Ezra’s interest in Holland grew exponentially. When people asked him about Holland, his pat answer became “I’m going to build an igloo in Holland.” I’m not sure where this came from. We weren’t moving to Alaska to live with the Inuits, we were moving to rainy Holland. Yet, the photo of Victor in a good 5 inches of snow suggested that the freezing cold rain did on occasion turn to snow. Snow that stayed on the ground. I ran with it. I incorporated stories of us playing in the snow, having snowball fights, building snowmen, making snow angels. Arie Jan shook his head. It doesn’t really snow in Holland. I opened up the photo of Victor to back up my stories and pointed to the lush whiteness in the middle of Den Haag. I promised snow.

He had been to the snow only once before, ironically with two other Dutch- American couples and their half-Dutch, half-American offspring. The nine of us spent four days in Mammoth Lakes over Christmas 2009. It had been dumping the week before we arrived and the world of white outside the car window suggested that all those Christmas story books about Santa coming to snow covered houses in the middle of pine forests are true.

We took the gondola from the base of the mountain to the upper village and out of the glass box in the sky we saw a winter wonderland unfolding beneath us. Sixty foot pines stretched into the air, their branches heavily weighed down with snow. Each house and condo building had the requisite 4 inches of snow covering the roofs, lining the balconies, windswept into the corners of the wooden stairs.

The children jumped in the snow, fascinated by the world of white. Ezra was the youngest and not yet ready for skiing, but would be happy to let you pull him and his little friends Jan and Sky around in the sled for four days straight. Jan, a natural athlete just 6 months older than Ezra was already up on skis. Sky was six at the time, and loved barbies and princesses. She also enjoyed making snowmen. Ezra enjoyed knocking them down. This compromised their relationship for a bit, but they got back on track when it was time for hot chocolate and other indoor activities where Ezra was less prone to search and destroy. Ezra loved the snow.

Thus, when we arrived in Holland on the cold damp of New Year’s eve, Ezra was expecting snow. It certainly felt cold enough to snow. Where is the snow? This question came again and again over the last 7 weeks. “When will it snow mommy?” I had, after all, promised snow. We regularly watched the news forecast, and although the little snowflake appeared over other countries in Europe, we had yet to see it placed over Holland. Until this morning.

I was getting Ezra into the shower when Arie Jan casually mentioned that it was snowing  outside.

“What? Snow?” I said excitedly.

I ran to the kitchen window to look outside, Arie Jan’s voice trailing behind me;

“Barely snowing, just a little” he said. There it was, light, tiny flakes drifting downward, falling onto the tiny white blossoms of the winter garden. An outside table had a thin prickling of snow on it’s surface, but the snow was clearly wet. I knew I had to get Ezra out here to see this before it stopped. How do I get Ezra out of the shower? He loves the shower. Then it came to me. I simply had to play one of his favorite games; Emmet.

Cousin Emmet, who is 7 months older than Ezra, is the love of Ezra’s young life and his greatest regret about leaving California. Thus, when we play Emmet, I get to do things like make farting noises and say things like “I’m older than you and I can run faster than you,” or “I want that toy. Why don’t you play with this one?” It’s an opportunity for me to let my inner almost 5 year old out, while also demonstrating  ways to share and negotiate. I also try to imitate Emmet’s almost 5 going on 10 vocabulary and ability to cram 30 words into one sentence. It’s a bit tiring. Even when you’re just pretending to be Emmet. I have no idea how he keeps it up 24-7.

So, by the time Ezra was dressed and ready to run to the kitchen window, I was almost certain that the snow had stopped. That I would once again have an unfulfilled promise suspended in a raindrop. Yet there it was! The tiny flakes floating, darting, blowing through the sky. Ezra pulled on the door and we both went outside. We reached our hands upward, trying to catch the baby snowflakes, which melted upon contact with Ezra’s hot little hands. Within a few minutes our hands cooled in the frosty air and one or two snowflakes stuck just long enough to see their whiteness. Ezra jumped up and down in a happy dance, running in circles trying to catch more snowflakes.

“It’s snowing Emmet! It’s snowing!” Ezra called out. I suppose this is the period of life where glee can be a daily experience. We lasted another 5 minutes before heading back indoors. By the time we bicycled to church, the little flakes had diminished and the dusting of snow had melted back into the soggy Dutch landscape.

There will be no snowmen today. But it did snow. And we danced in it.

Ezra learns about the Helaal

I remember being in a classroom as a child, but I don’t remember school wide projects focused on one theme. Perhaps those early years in college spent with the reggae band Jah-Bone had a blurring effect on my early childhood memories.

Yet this memory of Ezra’s school is clear and fresh, so I’ll write about it now, so you can picture him in his new digs, and he will have at least one childhood experience stored in cyberspace for him, should the internet still exist in 30 or 40 years.

A few times a week, when I unpack Ezra’s backpack/lunch box, I discover a letter from the school. The letter is of course in Dutch, which means I can either ask Arie Jan to translate, or I can take out my dictionary and have a spontaneous Dutch lesson. A week and a half ago, I found a note in Ezra’s backpack and with dictionary in hand, discovered that there was an event at the school Wednesday evening, that everyone in the family was invited to attend–grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters–the whole extended family. Children in all grades (4 years to 12 years) were studying the Helaal (universe) and at 7pm, we could all come to the school to see their projects and participate in a treasure hunt and party.

I had hints along the way, as Ezra asked about rockets and stars, and suprisingly, when I pointed out the different planets in a book, he knew Mars from Uranus, Saturn from Jupiter. I was impressed. Clearly, he is learning at his new school. But this didn’t prepare me for the transformation of the school into NASA headquarters junior  or the Dutch equivalent.

When we arrived at school, the playground was full of screaming, running, laughing children, a few street lamps casting long orbs of light over the chaos. Parents milled about, talking to one another, while trying to keep an eye on their children dashing in and out of the darkness.

Finally, the doors opened and the sizable crowd made their way into the school. There was no orderly introduction or set of instructions. You were left to your own accord to explore the solar system. Each classroom was three dimensional. Planets suspended from strings pulled your gaze upward in one classroom, a 10 foot white rocket made of parachute material invited you to climb within, in the next. Teachers handed out a packet with the treasure hunt instructions and children eagerly started their quest into the universe.

Not one for crowds, Ezra held onto my hand with a fierceness that said, don’t you dare let go. When we finally got to his classroom, he relaxed his grip as we explored all of the bright, festive creations hanging from the walls, on the table tops, taped to the windows. We came to a display of  silvery moon rocks made out of some unknown material. Ezra pointed to a blob that resembled a half melted Smurf dipped in silver.

“I made that one,” he proudly announced. I also discovered a collection of rockets with his name on it.

When we left Ezra’s classroom he demanded that dad carry him. There would be no compromises. I understood. There were so many people in the halls that you had to edge your way through them, and from the perspective of a four year old, this would be like navigating your way through a dense thicket, but with the plants moving against you on both sides.  We glimpsed into the classrooms of the older children and the artwork and concepts were more advanced, exciting even.

We treated the last few moments of our Heelal adventure like a trip to a museum, asking Ezra which was his favorite piece of artwork in each classroom.  Soon, he was tired of the game and asked to go home. But when we got outside, he climbed up on the play structure with one of his friends, and spent the next 15 minutes yelling at the moon in Dutch with the other boy. We watched, happy to see him fully in himself, playing with another child his age, shouting with glee.

The next day when I dropped him off at school, the universe looked less dynamic in the morning light. The classroom tables and chairs had been returned to their normal positions, the artwork stacked in a neat pile for take home. So much work and effort put into a project, a celebration at it’s completion and then its over. You move on. Just like in adult life.

Commuting by Bike in Holland

Upon arrival, one of the first things our Dutch family provided for us, besides a ride from the airport and a place to sleep, was a pair of bicycles. Nice bikes. Not a gift, but bikes on loan until we had our own. It seems a Dutch man without a bicycle is like an American man without a car. Sure, it happens, but, it causes great inconvenience and dare I say, a bit of class prejudice should you not be properly fit with a bicycle in your stable.

As I pulled up to my Dutch class on my sister-n-law’s bicycle, a classmate saw me. “Leuke fiets,” she said (nice bike). Afraid I was coming off as a rich American woman, I felt compelled to explain it wasn’t mine, but only on loan. In other circumstances, I let the illusion run its course. But more important than looks, is the experience of cycling in the land of bicycles.

I’ve noticed some major differences between cycling here and in the U.S. First, hardly anyone wears a helmet. Although my default position is that everyone should wear a helmet, it does seem much safer here to hop on your bike; Auto drivers seem keenly aware of cyclists,  and almost without fail, give you the right of way. Dedicated bike paths run parallel to the roads, sometimes a part of the road, sometimes separated by a row of trees or sidewalk. All types of people cycle here. Old, young, Dutch, Indonesian, African, businessmen and women, moms with kids, politicians and diplomats.

Dutch cyclists also lack road rage. If you accidentally, say, try to pass someone to try to keep up with your much faster and bolder Dutch husband, and have to cut back in too soon to avoid a bicycle head on with oncoming cyclists, the person who’s space you’ve just compromised doesn’t start yelling at you. Instead, they say their not-so-nice things calmly to your back, as if having a pleasant conversation.  If a car blocks the bike path, the birdies don’t fly. Instead, cyclists flow around the car, like water in a river readjusting its course around an obstacle. On occasion, as you wait at one of the many bike stop lights next to another cyclist, they’ll strike up a 15 second conversation with you. They are friendly and relaxed.

Cycling seems like a natural time to take in the scenery, feel your legs pumping, the cool air flowing in and out of your lungs. It almost feels like the daily commute has transformed into a moving meditation. And then along comes a moped. They honk for you to get out of the way, not the gentle bell of a faster cyclist, but a honk akin to that of an automobile. When you wait at a traffic signal, suddenly that crisp cool Dutch air is filled with moped fumes. They rev their mopeds when the light turns green, ensuring an extra inhalation of gas fumes as you start pedaling.

I’m sure I’m not alone in my annoyance, and just as soon as my Dutch is good enough, I will join that activist group out there that wants mopeds to return to the main roads where they belong.

I do notice that on the weekends, the number of bikes in the city decreases. It’s as if everyone decides to get their cars out for a weekend drive. This is in stark contrast to the U.S. phenomenon of the weekend warrior going for a 50 mile bike ride in their neon outfit, or taking the Harley off of it’s red carpet in the garage and trading in the suit and tie for leather, jeans and a red bandana. My brother-n-law Cornelis, a sensible lawyer, had a simple explanation; cycling is the fastest way around the city during the work week. On the weekend, it’s not so crowded, so people use their cars. Call me a romantic, but I thought it was about the Dutch zeal for the fiets! (bicycle)

Coming up next: Ezra studies the Heelal (universe)

Re-entering the Fray

I’ve seen movies where someone is treading along and then all of a sudden their world changes drastically. This past weekend, we had two such moments; perhaps not film worthy moments, but in the sphere of our Dutch existence, an ode to Dylan’s times, they are a changing.

Friday, Arie headed to Amsterdam for a second interview for a teaching position. The interview was at 12pm. When I hadn’t heard from him by 2pm, I called him on the cell. He answered curtly and said he would call me back. I was not alone in my impatience for an aye or nay. His sister had called him 5 minutes before. Thanks to our impatience, Arie Jan was having the unfortunate experience of discovering the pop song ringtone I had selected for our new cell phone while in the final moments of his interview. This did not, however, interfere with the headmaster’s decision to offer him the job. That’s right. Arie Jan will soon be a math teacher at a public Christian middle school!

Now came my period of angst and waiting. Earlier in the week, I had a successful second interview for a management position that comes with housing. It was down to me and one other candidate. If I got the job, we would stay in Den Haag, city of diplomacy, international significance and tranquility. If I didn’t get the job, we would most likely move to lively Amsterdam, where Arie’s friends live, a city of excitement, temptation and intrigue.   We didn’t get a chance to really think about the options, as the very next day, I received a phone call and was offered the job, pending receipt of my work permit. So, in less than 24 hours, we both went from jobless, to soon-to-be employed. Of course, we knew our undertaking was stressful, but I didn’t realize just how stressful it was until I felt relief wash over us with this news.

Coming up next: Commuting by bike in Holland

Dutch Friends, Dutch Sandstorms and Buurvrouws

This past weekend we visited friends in Amsterdam. I was especially looking forward to our visit, as I like the way Arie Jan settles into a rhythm with these friends, despite a gap of a year or so between visits. Gonnie and Arie were in the same philosophy program together, and there is something special about having friends who shared not only your university years with you, but your same field of study. Her husband, Jan Hank, had also been in the picture for a long time. They’d visited us in America with their two young children and they were always on our “to see” list when we came to the Netherlands for a visit. Thus, I was excited to see them again, and perhaps held a little expectation of how things would be. 

Their children exemplify the high energy, rough and tumble children of Amsterdam. The little girl, who is almost 5, is as tough as they come. She shows affection by punching you in the arm, and challenges her much bigger brother over any toy. The older brother, who is 7 going on 8, has a mischievous side we were all too familiar with from prior visits, but it seemed he had mellowed a bit. In fact, he was surprisingly gentle and sweet with Ezra, who despite turning 4 earlier this year, still holds toddler charm. 

As we settled into the evening, making a meal together, drinking wine and sharing stories, our dinner visit turned into an impromptu sleep over. After an initial period of shyness, Ezra started to play with the other children, but kept reporting back to me that they only spoke Dutch. Eventually, he seemed to absorb the implications of this fact, and he started trying out little Dutch phrases; Ik wil ook spelen or Niet doen! (I also want to play; Don’t do that!). Ezra fell asleep easily after story time, curled up with bears the children placed all around him on a guest bed that pulled out like a drawer from beneath the boy’s bed. Our accommodations of sleeping bags and sleeping pads were a little more primitive, but did the trick.

I awoke half on the floor, half on the sleeping pad, with a sore shoulder. For a moment, the question of “where am I?” clouded my mind before everything came into focus.  Sunshine streamed into their third floor flat, lighting up the room and children’s artwork and toys all around us. The toys and sunshine reminded me of our little Santa Barbara apartment, which made me sad for just a moment. I didn’t realize how much I missed our child-centered set up. The room in the house where we are currently staying doesn’t have direct morning light. It is also an adult house, lacking the festive atmosphere that comes with the chaos of young children.  

After a leisurely breakfast, the children took a bath in an impressive red marble square tub, which seemed  a modern take on the Roman baths with two shower heads, room for all three kids to swim around, arms outstretched, heads covered with bubbles.

Playing in a Sandstorm

The day expanded before us and suddenly everyone but me was on board for a trip to the sand dunes. Hadn’t they noticed the gale-force winds outside? Sand plus wind plus cold. Bad Idea.

“We won’t stay long, and it will be fun,” was the summation. I was pretty certain that Ezra was with me on this one, though for the moment, he was caught up in the excitement of his newfound friends.

We packed everything up and drove in a caravan toward the coast. We entered a windswept parking area and all got out, zipping up our winter coats, pulling on gloves and hats, preparing for battle. The walk in was nice enough. As if out of an old Dutch Storybook, a bosje (small forest) of gnarled, windblown trees lined a dirt path with trails leading in different directions.  We followed the main path while the children ran up and down the side trails. Soon, it opened up to the larger dunes. Without the little trees, with their confused branches going every which way, the wind came at us full force. Intentionally, we walked up the hills of sand, our feet sinking at every step. The wind whipped the sand across our faces, our ears, our eyes. I sputtered and spit as I climbed, bent at an angle, up the hill. It was difficult to breathe. Ezra held onto my hand, screaming in protest. We were now on the same page.

“What the hell are we doing here?” I yelled into the wind toward Arie Jan’s back. The wind stripped my words of sound. I got closer and grabbed his arm and he turned to face us. There it was, that Dutch glint of excitement.

“Having fun darling?” he asked.

Fun?  Of course I knew he was being facetious, yet, he was serious at the same time. He WAS having fun. I hugged Ezra close to me, as despite the raging wind, I could hear his cries. Arie Jan looked at his pathetic little American family being pummeled by wind and sand, and he knew he had to take action.

He grabbed Ezra’s hand and they ran up the remainder of the steep dune to the apex of wind and sand and then down the dunes toward the ocean. I followed suit, my legs opening up into a full-fledged sprint down the sand dune, pulling my feet up out of the soft sand just in time not to tumble, the wind blowing me every which way while gravity and pitch pulled me forward. It felt like a ride from Disneyland, but without the long waiting lines or precautionary measures to keep you safe. As I reached the shore, the sand was packed more tightly, the wind more bearable.  I have to admit, there was something exciting about it, in an adrenaline-rush, life-or-death sort of way. Clearly, you could not stay out in the elements like that for very long, and under normal, non-Dutch circumstances, would only enter such weather under crisis of hunting for food, moving your tribe to a safer region, or running from the enemy.

After our trip to the sand dunes, we drove to another windy beach, packed with weekend day trippers also walking and running through the sand storm. Our wild wind and sand adventure was followed by a cup of tea in a gezelling (cozy) restaurant above the beach, safe and warm and calm inside, peering out at the winter landscape. Everyone who entered had wild hair and watery eyes and that glint of excitement of having had the experience. Of course, no one would admit this but me. They are Dutch. Being in the elements is a part of life. So much so, that staying in all weekend is a bit of a sham. You must get out and intentionally enter a sandstorm, ride your bike through gale-force winds. Go for a walk in the rain. It’s just rain, wind, sand, snow, sleet, freezing cold. What’s the big deal?

A classmate from Peru told a story about her buurvrouw (female neighbor). She told the neighbor not to go out on her bicycle as it was too windy outside. The old Dutch woman responded, “I am Dutch. I’ve been riding my bicycle my whole life. This is not a problem. This is what we do.” The wind blew her right off her bike and she broke a hip. I share this as a cautionary tale of actually going along on those Dutch adventures.

Tot ziens, (see you later)

Kristin in Holland

Noordermarkt, Proust and Overhead Lamps

This past Saturday, we headed to our old digs of Amsterdam to go on a walkabout and  meet up with friends. As we left Central Train station and headed into the city, I excitedly pointed out old landmarks: “There’s the street I would take to bike to Dam Square,” or “this is the canal that has that little vegetarian restaurant I liked so much.” Although I only lived in Amsterdam for 6 months so many years ago, I felt an urge to claim the city as my own. I couldn’t imagine how my husband must have felt. He spent 18 years in this beautiful city–met all of his college buddies here, had too many experiences to recount during our short visit.

It was a blustery day in the true sense of the word. Every time we were in an open area near the main canals, gusts of wind would push against us, our bodies instinctively pulling inward. Two days earlier, the wind was so forceful that it blew me sideways on my bike, and if it hadn’t been for a railing along the canal where I was cycling, I might have taken an urban polar bear swim. It was the type of wind that inspires authors to create tales of children rising skyward, grasping onto the thick white string of a helium balloon.  

 It was decidedly time to take refuge from the elements so we headed to Noordermarkt for Appel gebaak met slagroom (apple pie with whipped cream). We tried to go to Winkel van Sinkel, one of Arie Jan’s favorite restaurants in the  Noordermarkt, but it was jam packed, even more people milling around the entrance. The whole waiting list thing is out of the question when you are cruising around a crowded city with a four year old. No tolerance for waiting. No tolerance for crowds.  

We headed to Proust, a restaurant on the Noordermarkt second best only to Winkel van Sinkel for it’s Appel gebaak.  One thing my husband likes about Proust is the beautiful, modern lamp made of a thin, yellowing paper, which hangs over the bar. I remembered the lamp well, as his appreciation for it, and it’s diffused, yellow light, had further endeared him to me back in our days of dating. The lamp had been there for years, long before IKEA started popping out hip little paper lamps for the modern home and office. However, when we arrived, his first expression was one of disappointment: “The Lamp is gone,” he noted.  Suspended above the bar in its stead was a rhinstone style beaded lamp in the shape of a pistol. Ezra loved it.

We ate delicious spinach raviolis while Ezra settled for a stale peanut butter sandwich in my backpack. Appel Gebaak arrived next and suddenly Ezra took interest. It seemed the restaurant was under new management, as the famous Appel Gebaak was not of the same quality we remembered, but still delicious.

It was exciting to be in the city, to dine in a crowded restaurant with so many Dutch conversations streaming around us. Amsterdam is a young city in comparison to Den Haag. Not young as in how long the city has been standing there, but rather, young in its population. There’s an energy there that asks for your participation, asks you to think outside the confines of daily life–do something, whatever it is, and make sure it is exciting. Dare to be unique. Piss in the canal late at night. Create a spectacle. Even Ezra could feel it, as he took refuge in his daddy’s lap. Not yet, not yet, he seemed to be saying. But soon enough . . . .

Noordermarkt: The Noordermarkt is a stone laden square in front of an ancient protestant church called the Noorderkerk. Quaint and modern shops and restaurants flank two sides, with the other  side open to a cobblestone street facing a canal. On Saturdays, the Noordermarkt is home to a farmer’s market.  White tents and large farm trucks create a sheltered, pop up market where you can purchase everything from cheese, honey, meats and nuts to clothing, jewelry, hats and craft items. It was very charming to be there.

Up next: Visiting Friends and Playing in Sandstorm

Thoughts on Egypt and their Military

Over the past few weeks, I have skimmed articles in Dutch newspapers about Egypt. The pictures speak a thousand words, but in this case, I had one thing wrong; I had envisioned the high number of injuries as a result of brute military force. Yet, the pictures did not show a line of soldiers with riot control gear. My mind just filled in this information as status quo.  I know. I’m giving away my state of ignorance on longstanding world politics and affairs, but I am struck by what I learned today.

I finally picked up an English paper and was surprised to learn that the military was actually shaking hands with the anti-Mubarak forces, and standing aside during the clashes. The Egyptian military is approximately 500,000 strong, according to a Financial Times article, and has an image of a respectful institution that watches over the Egyptian population. Although the upper echelons of the Egyptian military are reportedly aligned with Mubarak and have much to gain by keeping him in power, they are reluctant to order the soldiers on the ground to fire against the protesters. Hmm? Isn’t this the military? Aren’t soldiers supposed to follow orders regardless of their personal convictions?

Apparently, this particular military construct recognizes the complexities of the human condition, and in this case, the fact that many of the soldiers, who are poor, share the same social frustrations as the anti-Mubarak protestors. Thus, they would be hard pressed to pull the trigger against one of their countrymen rallying for change they recognize as valid.

As the rallies get more intense and more violent, the army is “stuck between a rock and a hard place.” 

Apparently, that stance of military neutrality also applies to attacks on the press. Seeing Anderson Cooper’s video of being attacked by angry Pro-Mubarak supporters, while the military did nothing to intervene shows that such a hands-off approach will only turn more deadly, and perhaps lead to shutting the world out through lack of news coverage–a position that would not benefit anyone but the pro-Mubarak side.

How long can the military maintain it’s position of neutrality? Perhaps as I write these words, the answer has already unfolded.

Coming up next: An Ugly Crack in Dutch Hospitality to Asylum Seekers

An Ugly Crack in Dutch Hospitality toward Asylum Seekers

Wednesday in Dutch class, the teacher circulated copies of a daily newspaper, and in pairs, we chose articles to read from the paper. Each pair was to give a summary of the article to the class and share five words they found moeilijk (difficult). Sounds straightforward enough.  Although two women chose a harmless article about a new housing community named Groene Lanen (green lanes) most everyone else went for the meaty, tragic stories that filled the paper about Asylum seekers in Holland. 

I paired up with a large, vibrant pregnant woman from Togo and we read about Louisa  from Angola who had been in Holland since 2001 as an Asylum seeker. Over the past 10 years, Louisa had given birth to two more children and all three of her children were fluent Dutch speakers,  only familiar with the Dutch way of life.  Asylum seekers are not allowed to work. So, you can not earn a living, but must live off of government subsidies. Now, after 10 years, the Dutch government has refused her an extended right to stay in this country, and she and her children must return to Angola.

Ik heb geen toekomst in Angola en mijn kinderen helemaal niet,” she is quoted as saying. She and her children have no future in Angola. Her children don’t speak any Portuguese and the Angolan culture is completely foreign to them. It seems that receiving Asylum in Holland is like entering a strange state of purgatory; you are in a foreign land, safe from the warfare and turmoil of your home country, but suspended in a bubble of ambivalence in your host country. You can not work, you are isolated in government supported project housing for refugees and your children are required to go to the Dutch schools. Thus, the children become completely immersed in Dutch culture, emerging as fluent, literate members of society with a Dutch mindset. Then, these children, regardless of being born in Holland, are  returned to their “homeland”, which is the equivalent of Mars to them. It was unclear in the article if the parents are also given Dutch courses or information about integrating into society. I don’t imagine they sit in the government housing all day long, wiating for their children to return.

Everyone in the room, except perhaps me and the teacher, either had personal experience with this conundrum or had friends undergoing a similar situation. I don’t have any answers. I don’t know how it could be different, except for the idea that once you receive Asylum, you have an option to become a citizen of that country, with the rights to earn a living and become a contributing member of society. Otherwise, what is the Dutch government doing to these people by welcoming them to a land of promise, full of education, jobs and human rights, immersing their children in this mindest and then throwing them back onto foreign shores?

Of course they are protected from the atrocities of their homeland during their asylum. And, I suppose this state of refuge gives them the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of Dutch culture, perhaps creating the potential of being catalysts of change once they assimilate back into their original cultures. Or, is this just a romantic notion?

Coming up next: A trip to Amsterdam and free facials

Vicarious epiphany: Insights from The Art of Living and the process of letting go

Okay. The process of letting go is far too complex to be solved in any one blog post. Yet, I feel compelled to share with you what I experienced a few days ago in an “Art of Living” based meditation http://nl.artofliving.eu/

I was provided a little bit of wisdom that is already working wonders in my ability to breathe deeply, consciously smile and let go. Although I think this is something that most likely needs to be experienced first hand, I know that the written word is also a strong catalyst for change. Thus, I will humbly attempt to pass on the wisdom I’ve gained on the off chance of vicarious epiphany.

I attended a gentle yoga course followed by a guided meditation. The gentle yoga helped us all feel grounded in our bodies so that when we sat down to meditate, wrapped in wool blankets, we could do so comfortably. We closed our eyes, and listened to the gentle, soothing voice of our instructor.

Step one was to observe the sounds around us. We all listened to the little creaks and pops from the heating system, the distant sounds of traffic, another classmate adjusting her blanket. “Just observe the sound, without judgement. Acknowledge it’s presence.” Step two, we checked in with our bodies. Step three, our thoughts, step four our emotions, and step five, peace and joy. Problem was step three. Some of the thoughts that came pouring into my mind in this idyllic setting were far from idyllic.

I thought of a friend who had betrayed our entire circle of friends. A friend who obstinantly defended her lies, deceits, betrayal, cover ups and other atrocities for the sake of love, and I felt anger welling up inside me at the thought of it. Step four: Emotion. Strong emotion from the past. From thousands of miles away. Fresh and raw. I tried to push the thoughts out of my mind, and instead of going on their merry way down the river and out of site, they grew stronger as my mind aggressively collected more offenses.

The happy, profound and simple end of the meditation, we are all peace and joy, was almost lost upon me, but then I spontaneously thought of my son and his sweetness, and suddenly she was gone. Swoosh. Down the river. I observed her flailing along, hanging onto a board. Then, she climbed upon the raft and peacefully drifted away. I observed her departure with a strange lack of emotion. There it was. The key: If you try to force something away from you, you give it power. For me, this felt like a profound revelation.

I know, I know. For many, this is not a brilliant new insight. Yet, insight only becomes insight when you are ready to simply observe and release. Not push against the universe. That night, I was able to observe, which lead to peace and joy.

Today, I awoke with a peacefulness that seemingly belies my current, untethered stat of no job, no home of our own, no foundation. Yet, how completely untrue. How completely ego of me to think in such terms. We are staying in a beautiful residence with family and being given an opportunity to develop a friendship and understanding with that family that only comes through living daily with one another. Peacefulness, inner calm. That is where home is. A home that can exist in any setting.

Another beautiful, yet simple thing the Art of Living practitioner shared was that when we are angry or pissed off, we take short, quick inhalations. When we are happy and relaxed, we take deep, long breaths. You can’t really be pissed off when you take in a long, deep breath. Just as when you really give into a smile, it is hard to be angry. Thus, control of your breath can help you control your emotions. If you find yourself in a happy state of mind, your thoughts tend to follow suit. Hot damn!

This morning, all three of us in our little gezin (immediate family) started the day out feeling calm and happy. It seemed the universe had been observing our struggles and as we finally acquiesced, it acquiesced through a series of provisions: My son actually WANTED to go to school and we observed two little friends hugging him in the classroom, our son giggling with delight. I did a simple yoga practice in the morning and when I went online,  discovered over $200 worth of new orders for my company Lime Green Monkey www.limegreenmonkey.com . My husband, who had felt almost angry at the universe the day before was also calm and relaxed, and I kid you not; The telephone rang and it was someone calling him for an interview for one of his most preferred jobs. 

Throughout the day there was a flow so evident in it’s stark contrast to the preceding couple of days, that we could not deny the difference. Thus, the benefits of engaging in the art of letting go and surrendering to the universe are so profound, it seems silly to firmly grasp onto that egoic notion of being in control. And, I must point out that surrender is totally different than giving up. Surrender is all about accepting that higher powers are at work in the universe, and the ability to trust and surrender to that higher power.

Now, can anyone tell me how to hold onto this provision? Oops. Did I just really ask to get back on that merry go round? Just kidding universe! Ha ha. I surrender!

Mijn Nederslandse les

I have signed up for Dutch classes designed for foreigners like myself who have a child attending a Dutch school. The course if offered for free to the mother’s of children at the school who need to learn Dutch. There was no mention of fathers. Only mothers. And, there are only mothers in my class.

If you envision a racially diverse school in the U.S,  you may picture a mixture of Caucasion, African American and Latino kids with perhaps a sprinkling of Asian nationalities. At Ezra’s school, there are over 40 nationalities, perhaps 41 with Ezra now attending.

Last time I took a Dutch course in Holland, the class was filled with English speaking foreigners from America, England and Australia. When I attended my first Dutch class week before last, I realized within a few moments that I was the only Westerner. All of the women looked exotically foreign to me–as I probably did to them. Half of them wore hoofddoekjes (headscarves). Some smelled different to me–strong scents I didn’t recognize–perhaps incense, perhaps smells from the kitchen. Since I was the newest student, the teacher took a few minutes from the lesson to have everyone introduce themselves in Dutch and tell a little about themselves. The first woman named Halima, reported that she was from Afghanistan, had one daughter, and had lived in Holland for 10 years. Another woman named Khaddouj was from Morrocco, had 4 children and had lived in Holland for 13 years. The country list included Iraq, Syria, Iran, Eritrea, Peru, Chile and the good ol US of A (moi).

There were no switches into English. All Dutch all the time. Dutch with nine different accents. Dutch spoken in choppy, telegraph style tap tap taps, Dutch spoken in the sing songy tones of Peru, Dutch spoken loudly, accompanied by Moroccan style hand gesticulations. Yet, we were all able to understand each other.

In my last class, we sat a comfortable, Western distance from one another. In this class, we crowded in, our elbows almost touching, our books and papers overlapping around a small table. We spoke about things like understanding prescriptions, how to communicate with the doctor, flatulence, with cross cultural smirks and laughs, daily life matters. On another day, we read an article about a government program for assistance paying rent, dilemnas of finding work, salaries, unemployment–topics my English Native class would have bristled at discussing. Here, the women spoke openly about the fact that they might qualify for such assistance.

We took a break for tea, and all the women started talking, mostly in Dutch, but then the language would switch quickly to Arabic–a startling language to my ears–so quick, so indecipherable. I saw a Dutch/Arabic dictionary open on the table and it suddenly made sense to me why my Dutch accent was already the best in the class. The majority of my classmates do not share a common alphabet or phonetic system. Dutch was as foreign to them as the calligraphic curls and squiggly symbols of the Arabic language were to me. In addition, I have the extreme advantage of being married to a native speaker, with a network of Dutch friends and family. Their exposure to native speakers is quite often limited to public outings, which I imagine do not happen very often. And, as I had already learned, rudimentary Dutch can get you through most simple, daily transactions such as a trip to the grocery store or post office, ordering a cup of tea in a cafe or asking for the check.

Within a few minutes, a French Morrocon woman of 28 years named Fatima told me in Dutch that they were having a big party that weekend for her 2 year old son’s circumsicion. Don’t ask me how I understood, but I did. Family was coming from afar for the event. I said in Dutch that your son will probably be crying and not enjoy the party much, and she agreed.

I quickly connected with the woman from Eritrea, as she spoke more English than most of my classmates. There was also something visually familiar about her features. It then struck me that somewhere in her high cheekbones I recognized a bit of my friend Ali Reja from Ethiopia. Perhaps these overlapping characteristics endeared her to me. She was also friendly and helpful.

Am I learning Dutch? Yes. But, bovendien, I am learning about true diversity and how far I still need to go in expanding my view of what that means.

Coming up next: A simple meditation from The Art of Living smacks me upside the head.