Is this in your calendar for 2020?

Do you ever look at your calendar and see something scheduled in the not-too-distant future and get a tingle of anticipatory excitement and joy? Perhaps it’s a vacation you have planned, or an outing with a dear friend or family member. It could be an upcoming concert by an artist you follow or the latest sequel to a film you love. These things all give me a warm and fuzzy feeling, but as I close out 2019 and look toward 2020, that jolt of excitement I’m describing comes from anticipating book club night!

This isn’t a temporary love affair. I joined my first book club 23 years ago when I lived in Bend, Oregon. I still remember some of the titles we read in that first book club (Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris, Angel of Repose by Wallace Stegner), where we met, some of the conversations that unfolded and even seemingly insignificant details, like the dressy, low cut top my usually-jean-and-fleece-clad friend was wearing at one gathering. Book clubs have been a pleasant constant in my life ever since then, and each book club is as different and precious as the individuals that make it up.

I’ve been in book clubs with mainly outdoor enthusiasts (Bend, Oregon), a book club that should have owned up to being a drinking club (Santa Barbara), a more committed book club with literary aspirations and a penchant for delicious organic, home cooked meals (Santa Barbara round two), and international book clubs with members from different countries (The Hague and now Schagen, Netherlands).

It is a bit difficult to explain why book club matters so much to me. Of course I love reading. That seems to be a prerequisite. But I’m not a prolific reader. Many women in my book clubs–yes, I’m currently in two!–read upwards of 50-75 books per year compared to my 15-25 per year (that tally is including the romance novels I read on my Kindle in between book club books). Yet no one is shunning me for my low book count, because it doesn’t matter. What matters is the experience of reading a novel on your own and then discussing it out loud with a group of friends who are all eager to share their reading experiences and insights.

It’s amazing what can occur during this process. First of all, you take an experience that, up until book club night, has been a solo, internal and somewhat intimate journey, and open it up into a group discussion. That, in and of itself, is an act of trust. After trust comes transformation. Literary characters that have undergone an initial transformation from the author’s idea, to a vision of a character in your mind, take a second, deeper breath during the discussion, as if they are coming to life:

“I was so upset when Edgar tried to call the ambulance and couldn’t say a word.”
“That was heart wrenching.”
“I know! right?”
It’s as if Edgar is a real person all the book club members are talking about that they know personally.

You discuss the characters, the plot, the writing, the cultural context, but there’s so much more. A novel is a bit like a painting; just as the meaning of a painting is often in the eye of the beholder, there are parts of a novel where the interpretation is in the eye of the reader. Our own life experiences and cultural backgrounds shape our reading experiences. In other words, a part of a novel that one member might consider total trash, could be a treasured game changer for another.

There’s also the power of dialogue. During the discussion, you feel something changing within you and within the group dynamic; new information, new ideas, holding onto your own perspective or watching it transform through the living and breathing act of discussion. I’ve seen book club discussions become catalysts to opening people up, where tough life experiences that have been under lock and key, not only come to the surface, but are courageously discussed. This is not just an anomaly. I’ve seen it happen time and time again. How can a work of fiction do that? It’s just a made up story, right? How can it bond people together, change your perspective and create such excitement and commitment?

Novels are stories and authors are storytellers. A group of book club members are the tribe around the campfire (roasting marshmallows) listening to the story unfold, gleaning the wisdom that lies therein, connecting to the life process.

Will every book gathering be a magical, transformative experience? No. Sometimes a novel doesn’t strike home or spark a good discussion. But what you do get is a lovely night out with people whom you enjoy and a chance to engage in dialogue and be in the real time presence of others. That in itself is worth the evening.

I sat down this evening to write a New Year’s Eve post and had no idea it would lead me to book club. yet I can’t think of anything more appropriate to close the chapter of one decade and open the chapter to a new one.

Is book club in your calendar for 2020? If so, what are you reading this year? If you’re not in a book club, perhaps 2020 is the year to join one. If you can’t find one to join, you could start your own!

Wishing everyone a glorious, environmentally friendly 2020 with lots of luscious, thought-provoking, humorous, passionate, thrilling and life-changing books.

Do the Dutch invite you to dinner?

I love having people over for dinner. It gives me an excuse to clean up my house, break out the cookbooks, plan a tasty menu and create the atmosphere for a lovely evening with friends. In the U.S, we spent a good deal of time having friends over for dinner or eating dinner at their houses. I’d go so far as to say this is common practice in the U.S.

Since we’ve moved to the Netherlands, we’ve hosted many people for dinner. We’ve invited single friends over, couples, whole families with a special side menu designed just for the kids. These friends are always thankful, enjoy the food and the conversation, and even comment months, if not years later about how fondly they remember those evenings. Some of my vegetarian soups and enchiladas have even been subject to not so subtle hints for an encore, resulting in me offering another dinner invitation. Yet in all my years in the Netherlands, by far and large it has been our expat friends who have reciprocated. In other words, if you invite a Dutch person over for dinner, don’t expect an invitation in return.

I didn’t even come to this ‘lack of dinner reciprocation’ realization until I was thinking about this first year in North Holland. I realized that despite the fact that we’d hosted a number of dinners in the last 11 months, the only one who has invited us over for dinner was our American friend. The more I thought about it, I realized this pattern had also proved true in The Hague. Our Hague expat friends had invited us over for dinner on multiple occasions, but the Dutch? We had to scratch our heads to come up with a short list.

There are few outliers of course. A handful of Dutch friends have invited us over for dinner (thank you Ineke! Thank you Joke!) My Dutch in-laws and sister and-brother-in-laws have also hosted us for dinner on numerous occasions. So it is possible. And to their credit, the Dutch are more than enthusiastic to invite you over for a cup of coffee with a sweet treat just about any time of day. But why the invitation stops there remains a mystery.

This would be a logical time to dive into self-doubt. Maybe my cooking sucks. Perhaps my food choices stray out of the Dutch comfort zone. I’m not so into stampot, knakworst or herring. Maybe I need a new deodorant. But based on Dutch directness and the frequent calls for seconds, I believe I can safely rule out these reasons.

Dinner with expat friends in The Hague

I was in The Hague a few weeks ago visiting an American friend and we were reminiscing about all the lovely things we’ve done together. He and his German-South-African wife are both amazing cooks and we’ve spent a lot of time at each others homes dining and chatting for hours. Yet when I shared my perplexing realization that we were rarely invited to dinner by the Dutch, he jumped in to say they have had the same experience! They host often, but it is only their expat friends who return the favor!

So what is going on here? Surely, the Dutch eat dinner. Based on the fact that the local restaurants are often teeming with diners in the evening hours, the Dutch certainly enjoy a well put together meal that goes beyond the traditional stampot.

Perhaps it has to do with Dutch practicality. Dinner at home could be viewed as an intimate, yet utilitarian event; some necessity performed on a daily basis without much pomp and circumstance.

Coffee get-togethers, on the other hand, have an extremely social character in the Netherlands. There’s very little prep time and all of your energy and focus can be spent on socializing with your guest, not worrying about the dish in the oven and the timing of each course. With that reasoning, dinner would be relegated as impractical for a social occasion; unless there is some reason to combine the two.

Here’s a case from my own experience where practical met social, and the Dutch were all on board. When we were making the transition from The Hague to Schagen, we did it in stages. My husband and son (and 99% of our belongs) moved north before me so they could start their new jobs and new school respectively. I stayed behind in The Hague for a month to finish out my contract, and camped out in our empty house. I was sleeping on a blow up mattress and borrowed a table and chair from my place of employment so I had a place to eat and sit in the otherwise empty living room.

When I shared this situation with friends, the dinner invitations started rolling in, and this time, the Dutch also stepped up to the plate (that pun just happened!). For the majority of those 28 days my evenings were filled with Dutch home cooking. What is the difference? There was a practical necessity combined with a social deadline: I didn’t have much in my house to cook with and I was leaving town in 28 days. This apparently met the Dutch standards for a dinner invitation.

I return to The Hague every few months for Book Club and my Dutch friends are happy to host me overnight, quite often including dinner as part of the invitation. Once again; practical.

My goal is not to make my Dutch friends feel badly. My Dutch friends are gracious and inclusive. They invite me to coffee, to walk, cycle, go to the theater, the movies, a museum, to readings, you name it. I just want to figure out this one-way dinner ticket.

As I conclude this post, the Dutch ‘lack of dinner reciprocation’ theory is developing a few chinks in its armor. At the end of the school year, we hosted a dinner party for two of our sons’ friends and invited his friends’ families as well. They had such a good time that they stayed until almost midnight, finishing off all the cherries and banana slices by dipping them in the chocolate fountain (mine wasn’t as pretty as the photo shown here). Just last week, another mom in this group contacted us to say they had enjoyed the event so much, they hoped to make it a tradition. My first thought was that she hoped we’d do it again. But no! She was picking up the torch and inviting us for a dinner party at their house.

There’s yet more proof of change. I ran into a man whom we’d had over for dinner a few months ago with his family of five, and out of the blue he said, “I think we owe you an invitation for dinner.”

Many gurus teach you that you are truly giving when you don’t expect anything in return. My pleasant surprise to both of these invitations suggests I’m on the path to learning this lesson. The fact that I’m going to push the “publish” button on my blog suggests not!

I’d like to solve this riddle. Is it a cultural difference? What do you think?

Cows before Easter

This morning I awoke to the bellow of cows. At first it made no sense. How could I hear cows through our bedroom window? We don’t live on a farm. We live in the city center of Schagen next to the main square. But my mind accepted these bellowing cows with the same ease in which it accepts my ability to flap my arms and fly in my dreams.

It was a pleasant, familiar sound from my youth. As I lay there, not quite awake and not quite asleep, I pictured cows in an expanse of field slowly walking toward a red barn, their tails swishing lazily in the sunshine.

Of course I can hear cows, my mind said, a bit more awake now. Today is Paasvee, one of the most popular events in Northern Holland. Although this will be the 121st recurrence of Paasvee, it will be my first time experiencing this wildly popular event.

Paasvee, if translated literally, means Easter livestock or Easter cattle. It occurs ten days before Easter every year and is the kind of tradition that everyone and their grandmother and great grandmother grew up with. It’s like a county fair minus all the rides, rodeos and cotton candy. In this case, it’s all about the cows. And later, all about the drinking.

According to the locals and DuckDuckGo, the town square will be transformed into a livestock market, and the cows will be judged, sold and eventually taken to slaughter.

Slaughter is not a pleasant thought first thing in the morning. Not that there’s ever a good time to think about slaughter. I listen to those cows a little differently now. Am I hearing some of their last cries? Do they know the end is near?

Inappropriate poster facing cows.

I think about the parallels between Easter week and Paasvee. Jesus was betrayed by His people and then taken away to be judged, poked, prodded and eventually crucified in a public place, surrounded by crowds. Sounds awfully familiar. Are those bellowing cows actually saying something to the tune of “My Farmer, My Farmer; Why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus’ death was viewed as a sacrifice for all of humankind, creating passage for eternal life. But the only ‘afterlife’ these cows will experience is as a hamburger, steak or other cut of meat on someone’s plate.

I wonder if there will be animal rights groups like PETA or ProVeg out today, protesting on the square. I kind of doubt it. Although vegetarian and vegan products have made it into the local supermarkets and vegetarian options grace the menu of just about every restaurant in Schagen, this little city is still, at its heart, farm country. And Paasvee is part of that beating heart.

I get dressed and head downstairs. My family is still asleep, but I want to take a first peek at the market before the crowds arrive. We’ve been warned that this will be one of those days where it sucks to live near the city center. Because after the Paasvee closes at 12pm, the second stage of cows to the fodder begins in the form of all day long drinking into oblivion. Think Isla Vista Halloween minus the police barricades and costumes, plus trains packed all day long, bringing the soon-to-be-plastered drinkers to Paasvee.

After I let the puppy out and we’ve both had breakfast, my phone buzzes and my friend Ilse has Whats-App’d me to ask if I want to do a round before it gets busy. Sure. Getting dressed. 15 minutes?

We step out into the cold sunshine and the wind whips our hair about our faces. It’s not even 9:00 am and there are already a few hundred people milling about, but there’s enough room to walk.

The cows are beautiful, but also strange looking. I’ve heard the locals call them ‘dikkebillen’, which means fat butts. They are very literal, these locals. Dikbil cows are bred to have gargantuan bottoms so thick and muscular, that it seems the simple act of walking has become a difficult task. You can almost see the cuts of beef outlined on their butts.

Meaty cow butts

It makes me feel guilty. My friend feels it too, because we talk about how we’ve cut back on meat, how this display of cows tied up, mooing, shifting, eyes looking worried, surrounded by stands serving beef items like sausage and burgers, seems like a new level of cruelty. Both of our families have cut back significantly on meat consumption over the years and I have tried to be both vegetarian and vegan. I’m ninety percent there. But 90% doesn’t count. That’s one of the reasons we prefer our occasional meat consumption to be greatly distanced from the actual creature that dies on our behalf.

Cow appearing relaxed
Farmers washing cows

Strong, quiet farmers guide the cows to the washing area, where they spray the cows down. They use brushes to scrub their coats sort of like one might do with a horse. I don’t see any love in their faces, but I don’t see hate either. I think of Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and how he described different ways animals are treated. There are cattle and sheep that have good lives: access to open fields, proper food and space, etc. He refers to this lot as only having “one bad day.” I don’t know if these cows qualify, but besides that little walking problem, they seem healthy and well-cared for.

We move past the cows to the other parts of Paasvee. The side street is lined with brand new tractors and farm machinery that is for sale. It’s actually quite fascinating to see these giants close up.

Plastic-wrapped hay bale
Tractor wheel and sunshine

We enter the shopping mall where another section of Paasvee takes place. Cages line the central hall of the mall filled with bunnies and chickens of all different breeds.

North Holland Chicken

Judges in blue coats inspect the animals and take notes on their clipboards. For some reason, I don’t picture these animals all ending up in someone’s stew, but perhaps becoming family pets. My friend confirms this rosy scenario by telling me she purchased their family rabbits here a few years ago.

Rabbit with judge

Later in the morning, I make another round with my friend Anneke and the place has really filled up. You can no longer really walk, but rather shuffle along among the cows like . . . cattle. The significance of this thought is not lost on me. There will be more human cattle coming soon.

By the time I write down my impressions of my first Paasvee, it’s mid afternoon and the sounds of the cows have been replaced with the steady beat of electronic music and the constant hum of a crowd. An occasional exuberant “Whoo hoo!” breaks through the hum. I can tell they’re getting wild.

Many of the locals don’t go to the center after 12pm, as they want to avoid the mayhem. Here’s a bit of legend passed onto me over the last few months:

The trains just keep coming, completely full with people from all over the Netherlands who come just to drink.
People get so drunk they go and pee on people’s front doors.
They pass out on the street or in people’s gardens.

The second wave of cattle
Just the beginning . . .

I don’t think anyone will mind if I post some pictures of cow butts, but I’m pretty sure the afternoon cattle wouldn’t appreciate a little photo exposé on my blog post of their butts on the ground.

Now the only question is, do I join them for a drink?

Small Town Vaccine

As a young adult, admitting that I was from a small town was like fessing up to a misdemeanor in the school of cool. Today, I admit my growing-up-in a-small-townness with pride. (Yes, I know townness is not a word.) I’ve been wondering lately, why I have this new affinity and pride in my small-town upbringing, and I’ve come to a few conclusions.

Cities as a whole are compact, highly-populated, fast-moving, invigorating places of opportunity. They offer culture, employment, diversity, higher education. Yet cities can also be cold, every-man-is-an-island, highly competitive and transient. Sure, there are pockets of steadfastness: neighborhoods where people stick around for years, places where everybody knows your name. But once you step outside of that neighborhood, cafe, gym, school, you become anonymous, a sudden stranger among strangers. This causes a shift in energy, a natural inclination to turn inward, drop your smile, break eye contact; essentially, parking a segment of your humanity at the curb.

Courtesy Dutch News

In the busiest sections of the city, everyone keeps their eyes on the horizon (which you can’t really see for all the tall buildings) and even though we are all walking together on the sidewalk, waiting together in line, sitting right next to each other in that tram or theater or restaurant, we are essentially a highly functional, anti-social school of fish: swimming together but apart.

You reclaim that checked humanity when you encounter someone you know, essentially snapping out of your trance of feigned or true indifference. Faces light up. Greetings are exchanged. If there’s time, you might stop for a chat. Once the encounter is over, however, you slowly slip back into that self-protecting, I-am-an-island, anonymity.

Small towns are different. They usually lack cultural diversity, institutions of higher education, world-renowned museums and white collar jobs. But where they may lack in one way, they make up for in other ways. Ask just about anyone who lives in a small town, and they will tell you that people are friendlier there, values are stronger, the community more closely knit, that they feel safe, cherish the open space, the friendliness, that small towns are a great place to raise kids and wonderful places to retire.

Take Schagen, The Netherlands, for example. This small city located in North Holland exudes small-town friendliness. I’ve met numerous people whose families have lived here for generations. If you walk around with these folks, they wave frequently, because they are either related to, went to school with or somehow know the majority of the people around them. And if they don’t know you, that small-town friendliness is still extended to you. I’m not saying they blindly embrace you, but they give you the benefit of the doubt until you prove them wrong.

I loathed this “everybody knows everybody” idea growing up, but now I see its values. There’s no checking your humanity at the curb. You can walk around with your full humanity all of the time, because for the most part, you know who’s looking for trouble, and if you don’t know, someone else does. You are accountable to your community and to yourself. That doesn’t mean that everybody always does the right thing, but they’re certainly more motivated to try.

I’ve lived in Schagen for six short months, and I can already feel my roots longing to unfurl. These same roots were curled into tight balls of resistance with no intention of letting down when I lived in The Hague. I had similar experiences when I lived in Boston and even a bit of that sensation in Santa Barbara. It’s not that I didn’t open up in those places. On the contrary. I developed deep social networks and friendships in those cities that have enriched my life and humanity.

Nevertheless, I never felt completely at home. Living in a small town offers something a city can never provide me: inner peace and calm. Here, I am more relaxed, more open. I can breathe again. People aren’t in a hurry. They’re friendly and there’s time for one another.

I know it’s not the same for everyone. I have friends, cosmopolitan, cultural types that would view living in a small town as a death sentence to their creative soul, as a disconnect from the contemporary world that is so lush and brazen and exciting in its diversity. True. All true. But here’s the difference. When you live in a small, friendly, human-scale town surrounded by fields of crops, waterways, windswept dikes, long stretches of cycling paths and cows and sheep grazing in great expanses of open pasture, it’s like you are attending a subtle, year-round mindfulness retreat. Mindful of each other. Mindful of nature.

This peaceful energy enters you as if by osmosis. Whether intentional or not, you and your neighbors have absorbed this friendly mentality and freeing open space into your souls.

Now when I go to the big city, it’s as if I carry that space within me; like I’ve been inoculated with a small-town vaccine that protects me from indifference and keeps my humanity fully intact. Now, when I leave home and go to the big city, I do so with a fresh perspective. From this space, I can immerse myself in the wild city pulse of Amsterdam, hear a hundred different languages while walking the city streets of The Hague, and do so with my heart wide open. I can tolerate all of the people and traffic and chaos with the knowledge that at the end of the day, I will return to my small town, to my year-round mindfulness retreat.

I’m quite sure if I’d grown up in a big city, rather than a little village, I’d have another perspective on all of this, and believe that my humanity is 100% intact all of the time. But after eight years of living in a densely populated urban environment, I am more certain than ever that I am best suited for a small town. Only in such a personal environment can I let my roots once again unfurl.

Is it All Just the Same Old Story?

Have you had that experience where you are interested in a specific topic or thing, and suddenly, you come across it everywhere you go? For example, when I was pregnant, I suddenly saw pregnant women everywhere. It was so uncanny, that I thought there must be a baby boom. There wasn’t. I saw all those pregnant women because my focus and awareness had shifted based on my current life experience.

So when I got a puppy this past November, I was suddenly aware of all things dog. There are many upsides to this all-things-dog awareness, but also a downside; like down there on the ground on the grass or even on the sidewalk. Yeah. I’m talking shit. And unfortunately, those poop chunks and the dog owners who don’t clean them up are now the things I notice everywhere I go.

I thought I’d share a photo gallery of my little producer rather than the product itself, because let’s face it, dog poop is gross, and I have yet to meet a person who hasn’t at some point in their lives, stepped in a pile of it.

Now imagine you have a puppy who explores the world by putting everything in her mouth, and suddenly you are looking at those stretches of green grass with a whole new perspective. Everything is a threat, from a piece of plastic, a cigarette butt or grosser yet, another dog’s droppings. Due to this newfound perspective, I have seen in detail just how much poop is left on the ground and it is not only disgusting and irresponsible, but also seriously bad news from an environmental and health standpoint.

I don’t understand dog owners who think it’s okay to leave their dog’s shit on the ground. In what universe is leaving poop bombs in public open space a good idea? I thought about writing a short story about dog poop as an example of the difference daily steps can make if just one more person takes action. If just one dog owner, who currently turns a blind eye every time their dog defecates, were to actually start cleaning that poop up, they could make a molehill out of a mountain! Now imagine a campaign where a bunch of remiss dog owners join in and start picking up after their dogs. Suddenly Dutch sidewalks and green areas nationwide would be much cleaner and dog owners more socially considerate! I don’t know if it would be a very interesting short story, but I think it would be, like Ellen, relatable.

Speaking of stories, I am currently reading My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. At one point, the fictional main character attends a writing workshop by fictional author Sarah Payne. Lucy reflects about something this author said during the workshop: “‘You will have only one story,’ she had said. ‘You’ll write your story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.'”

This struck me as true and untrue at the same time. Are all the story ideas I have just a new version of the same old story? Does this one-story idea also apply to non-fiction? Are all blog posts different versions of the same story? John Steinbeck had a more complex explanation of this same concept in his novel East of Eden.

“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?”  

John Steinbeck, East of Eden

While I was reading My Name is Lucy Barton, my son was sitting beside me with a pile of books at his side. He’d rather be sitting in front of his PS4, but there’s a reason he was sitting next to those books. My son wants a cell phone and we came up with a complicated list of things he needs to do before he is eligible to get one. On the list is reading a minimum of five novels (Hey, whatever it takes to get your pre-teen to read!). Donald Duck and other comic or heavily-illustrated books (think of The 52 Story Treehouse) don’t count. He was having trouble deciding on a novel, so I pulled five from his shelf. The Lightning Thief and The Hobbit were among the choices written in English. He skipped over those and picked up Alone on a Wide Wide Sea by Michael Morpurgo. He weighed it in his hands, perhaps noting that it lacked the heft of the other books in the stack, and flipped to the back cover to read the blurb.

“I feel like I already read this one,” he said.

“No. I don’t think you have,” I responded.

“Yeah. True. I haven’t read it, but I read the summary on the back and there’s a kid that goes on a journey and is trying to find a lost family member, and goes on a long adventure where strangers help him. It’s like his other novel Twist of Gold; the same old story but with a different set up. I don’t feel like going through that story again.”

An eleven year old on the topic of the same old story.

My son had just reconfirmed the concept that there is only one story that people tell. It struck me as profound and sad and insightful all at once. Although my son seemed to enjoy reading Twist of Gold, he already knew the formula and considered it all just one story.

Green by Kristin Anderson

I thought about my first novel Green, where a young environmentalist, disheartened by a major oil spill, sets out to inspire others to make daily changes to reduce their dependency on oil. One theme in the novel was the idea that the actions taken by an individual actually do matter.

Wait! Isn’t my short story idea about a dog owner finally cleaning up his own dog’s poop basically another version of the same story? Or as Steinbeck once said in his only-one-story concept: “‘. . . the hard, clean questions. Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?’” In other words, have I picked up that dog poop?

I suppose that the individual is the heart of every story, whether it is fiction, a news broadcast or a campaign featuring an individual’s struggle to connect us with a global issue. It is what strikes a chord in our soul, what makes a global, distant problem shrink down to the individual, human level. Where we shift from indifference to saying: Woah, that could have been me, or yes, I do care about this person’s story and I choose to be part of the solution. I choose for the good.

If you bring it all down to the most basic level, the one story is this: Clean up your own shit and the shit of your dog. Everyone will be happier in the end, including you.

What is an Hour to You?

In California, as in many other states in the U.S, it’s hardly a thing to drive an hour to visit a friend. In fact, friends an hour to a two-hour’s drive away are considered to be living relatively close by. This makes sense in a country where an hour commute just to get to work each day is considered a perfectly normal pain in the ass.

In The Netherlands, if a friend moves to a region that’s an hour away, it has about the same impact on your social life as moving out of state–you are suddenly viewed as geographically undesirable to all except your very close friends.


At first glance, this doesn’t make any sense at all. The entire country of The Netherlands is less than 1/10th of the size of the state of California. Given its tiny size, shouldn’t everyone in this cute little country be considered geographically desirable?

Yet it’s a common phenomenon.

I have to admit, when I came back to The Netherlands in 2011 and settled in The Hague, I rarely visited my expat friends I’d met in Amsterdam seven years earlier. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see them. It just seemed like Amsterdam was far away and a bit inconvenient. Not to mention that the round trip train fare is about twenty-four euro and driving to Amsterdam is not a great choice either, as parking is scarce and parking fees excessive.

So what will happen to all of my friendships I’ve developed over the last eight years now that I’ve moved an hour and fifteen minute’s drive away and a close to two hour train ride away? Will they meet the same fate as my Amsterdam friendships all those years ago? Or will there be mutual effort to see one another?

If the first quarter is any indication, we haven’t dropped off the face of the earth and friendships are holding strong despite our relocation to Schagen. We’ve had multiple visitors from The Hague, and even a few from as far away as Berlin and Luxembourg. Other friends are planning visits in January and February and Dutch family members have made the effort to visit us on more than one occasion. It’s exciting, but there is that looming fear or fact that the novelty will wear off and our friends we used to see a few times a month will morph into Facebook friends: you have a somewhat skewed (happy) version of what’s going on in their lives, but without that face to face contact, you lack the personal connection needed to go deeper.


Well, luckily, the train travels both ways. I’ve already been back to The Hague four times for various appointments, and have managed to visit a handful of friends on each trip. Sometimes, my visit with a friend is only an hour long, but that is long enough to reconnect. And since you know you won’t be running into that friend by chance in the supermarket, there seems to be an intensity to the visits, like we’re all paying a bit more attention.

Although my social visits were wonderful, it felt a bit surreal being a ‘tourist’ in my former city of residence. Another oddity was that I actually knew where I was most of the time. When I lived there, I had a hard time navigating this sprawling city,  and was known for getting lost even when visiting places I’d been a handful of times before. Yet during my last few trips to The Hague, my internal geographical map was fully functional and I easily navigated my way around. Ironic that I had to move away for this to finally happen!

But back to time and what it means, how it feels, how it changes. An hour can be a long or short time, depending on what you are busy doing. On a trip to the organic farm with a newfound friend, we got to talking about time. This particular friend is in his seventies and even though he has quite a lot of activities in his agenda, he quite often says, “take your time” or “there’s no hurry, we have all the time.” It could be that I’m used to rushing or it could be that he’s particularly relaxed. I think it’s somewhere in the middle.

He and his wife are laid back people and even though life has thrown a few nasty curves their way, they really seem to enjoy life to the fullest. If they have regrets, they don’t dwell on them. Instead, they seem to approach the world like the inside of a Christmas card: with peace, love and joy. I could chalk this up to small town life and a Christian outlook, but it’s bigger than that. It’s a learned sense of time; you can rush it or you can zen it. Either way, it’s going to pass. After that hour together, I felt slightly changed, more chill, more zen. I suppose this is a good example of actions being more influential than words.

They are not the only influence in reshaping my perception of time. I am currently blissfully jobless and loving it. I am also being very careful not to sign up for too many volunteer activities, clubs and other time devouring commitments. I was completely overbooked in The Hague. No matter how fulfilling it might have felt to be over-committed and socially saturated (e.g. running around like a chicken with its head cut off), I am planning a different path for my life in Schagen.

Free time takes a bit of getting used to, but luckily, I’m no longer one of those people whom you silently think of telling “life is what happens to us when we are making other plans” (Apparently Allen Saunders, 1957, not John Lennon, 1980).

Now I’m one of those people who is thoroughly enjoying the time I do have and surprised on a regular basis at how quickly it can flutter away, despite my very much “in the moment” approach.

Yet there is one other influence who is slowing time right back down. Her name is Jamie and she is a time expander as well as a time magnet. She’s also a chick-magnet, an old-man magnet, a teenage-magnet, you name it, she draws ’em in. She’s just a little thing, but she demands many hours of my time each day and she’s too cute and dependent to ignore. No, I didn’t secretly have another child, but we did something pretty close; we got a little Beagle puppy. As you can imagine, there might be a number of blogs in the near future themed around a puppy named Jamie. If you don’t like puppies (what the hell’s wrong with you?) then you might want to skip any such puppy posts, should they ever get written up.

I have spent many an early afternoon with her curled up on my lap, tired and happy from her afternoon walk, but fidgety and whiny if I don’t stay right there while she falls asleep. She’s growing in leaps and bounds and has almost doubled her weight in the last month. The lap naps are over as she hits the three-month mark (that’s a pre-teen in a dog’s life) and now she thinks she is ready to take on the world.  We all know that the puppy phase only lasts a few seconds, so I am doing my best to enjoy this precious time.

It might have taken me an hour to write this up, but that’s an hour well spent. Wishing you a new connection with time throughout the Christmas days.

Kristin in Holland

Heading North

I have news. On the last Thursday of September, I boarded a train in The Hague with a backpack over my shoulder and headed north. Guess why?

Weekend getaway?
Visiting a friend?
What then?
You done guessing?
Okay. I moved out of The Hague.
With just a backpack over your shoulder? Where to and why and all that stuff?

Long story short, my husband was offered a great position in a little Dutch city called Schagen, and he accepted.

But let’s step back a few months to this past summer. When it became apparent that my husband had made the short list, and then the shorter list for this position, I began to wonder about this little city called Schagen. Google maps aerial of SchagenI started virtually visiting the area via Google Maps. I discovered that Schagen was a little dot of city in the midst of vast stretches of farmland, interspersed with other building clusters that represented surrounding villages and cities.





Google street view of downtown Schagen presented old-world European charm of brick buildings with gabled roofs, a central church with a grand tower, and stylish restaurants. Yet one could apparently walk through the old center in the scope of ten minutes.

When I mentioned Schagen to friends (Dutch and expat alike), many of them said they’d have to look up on the map. Others said, “Schagen? Oh yeah. It’s surrounded by cabbage fields.

It wasn’t a major Dutch city, it had a reputation for cabbage and if half of my Dutch friends hadn’t even heard of it, what was I getting myself into?

Was I moving to an isolated village? A tiny, rural outpost? A place where everyone knew everyone else and outsiders were greeted with slit-eyed stares of distrust? Was there a single restaurant that would have a vegan option on the menu? A bakery that was gluten-free savvy? And most importantly, could I get a good cup of espresso in Schagen? There was nothing to do but get on the train and find out.

My very first visit to Schagen put a great deal of my fears to rest. As my son and I walked from the train station along the little city streets, the sun shining off of the gorgeous Dutch architecture, the birds chirping, I felt like I was entering a little slice of heaven in the North. People who passed us smiled warmly, nodding at us in greeting. Those open, friendly smiles worked like sunshine on snow–melting my anxieties away.

The friendly chime of the church tower greeted us as we reached the city center not ten minutes later. During that first visit, I discovered that Schagen might be relatively small (about 40,000), but it has a picturesque city center even more beautiful than in the photos, quality, upscale restaurants and shops and some activity going on almost every weekend. The residents were friendly and there was nary a slit-eyed glance cast in my direction. Shop keepers actually seemed to enjoy helping customers and were consistently friendly.  Based on this first impression, the most difficult thing about Schagen for an expat would be trying to pronounce the name.

The job position was not yet confirmed when we headed to California for vacation, but suddenly, things started moving quickly. They most definitely wanted him over all of the other candidates and they wanted him to start as soon as possible.

Due to the convenience of living in the 21st century, he printed out the Dutch contract, signed it under an orange tree in the California sunshine, and scanned and returned it minutes later.

When we got back from vacation, we had two weeks to pack up our entire house, for the movers were coming, ready or not. My family moved ahead of me to start important things like new jobs and a new school, while I stayed behind in The Hague to finish out my job.

Finally, a month later, we arrive at the beginning of this blog post with me hopping on a train, only a backpack over my shoulder. That was seven weeks ago and this American girl has gone from a Hagenaresse to a Schagenaresse.

I will miss The Hague for many reasons,  but for every reason I can list, there is another reason I prefer living in this quaint little city of Schagen.

Good thing this blog is titled Kristin in Holland. It still has a place as I discover a new area of this lovely country. Cheers to the next phase!

‘Bling Your ‘Cream’ This Summer

As a kid, I looked upon my mom’s (or grandma’s) souvenir spoon collection with a sense of wonder. Their delicately carved handles crested by a coat of arms, country flag or image of a castle or other location created a sense of grandeur and spoke of travel to far-away places.

souvenir_spoons in a box
eBay Image

Sometimes, they were the only remnants of exotic journeys long ago. Other times, they were kitschy after thoughts picked up in a souvenir shop. On display behind the locked doors of a glass cabinet or stored in the blue-velvet-lined boxes in which they came, one thing was for certain: they were off limits for little girls.

This off-limits idea must have been lingering in some corner of my adult mind, because at a church bazar a few years ago, I stopped at the table displaying fifty to sixty collectible souvenir spoons and looked at them with what could almost be described as longing. The woman behind the table sensed a sale and told me I could have the whole lot for five euros. In an act of pathetic 40-years-too-late rebellion, I went for it.

As I headed home with my spoils like a rebel pirate, I knew my souvenir spoon collection would have a different fate than the off-limit spoons of my childhood. There would be no glass cabinets or velvet boxes. These spoons would be utilitarian, used to stir tea and cocktails, dole out sugar or laid out as dessert spoons.

As anyone reading my blog knows, I have a thing about single-use plastic. In fact, those little plastic spoons you get every time you go to the ice cream parlor drive me freaking crazy. No one seems to even think about recycling them and some visitors don’t even bother to put them in the trash can, but throw them on the ground like a cigarette butt.

Then it hit me. The souvenir spoon has a functional place in this contemporary world; it is the perfect way to eat your ice cream! So the next time we headed out the door to go get an ice cream, I stopped my family in their tracks and suggested they each pick out a silver spoon. They’re used to me and they got it instantly. We marched down the street, ordered our ice cream and pulled out our own spoons–all mementos of stranger’s journeys.

Upcycle grandma’s Souvenir Spoon!

Bling your cream!

Accessorize your cone!

There’s a heat wave this summer and I foresee many an ice cream or sorbet in our collective futures. Wouldn’t it be something if each and every one of us dug out those little souvenir spoons and pimped-our-ice cream cups and cones? Bling your Cream? Accessorize your cone? Experience life from the tip of a silver spoon?

If you go for it, please send me a picture and I’ll post them here!

Crazy Lady Chasing Plastic Bag

One thing that really bothers me–besides males who leave the toilet seat up and all things Trump– is an errant plastic bag. Not just bags, but all plastics gone wild: plastic grocery bags caught in a tree, smeary sandwich wrappers discarded on the sidewalk, bottles stuffed into bushes, plastic forks and straws cracked and muddy in the gutter.

Much to the embarrassment of my family, I pick up plastic I find on the ground because I don’t want it to end up in the ocean or in the stomach of a bird, whale or sea turtle.

Every year, 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in our oceans, and that figure could increase by ten-fold over the next 10 years if actions are not taken, according to a new study published in the journal Science.
Source: Here’s How Much Plastic ends up in the World’s Oceans by Alexandra Sifferlin

I’ve been feeling a bit like a freak in my pursuit of herding in the stray plastics over the past few years, because  1) people look at me funny 2) besides the guys and girls in lime green vests who have to pick up the street litter, no one else seems to even see the plastic on the ground, and 3) It’s kind of gross picking up plastic, but I can’t seem to help myself.

But the good thing is, times, they are a changing. I’ve met others like me. They are organizing neighborhood walks with friends to pick up trash, they plan beach cleans ups. They use Apps to take pictures of each piece of trash and that goes into a major database, which shows all the trash that people around the nation or world picked up that day.

I like to give photo credit, but I can no longer find the website. My apologies.

Even Theresa May, Prime Minister of England, joined the plastic crusade. I haven’t seen her chasing a plastic bag through a parking lot, though you can use your imagination with this particular photo. However, she’s making huge impacts on a national level, and announced back in April that her government would be effectively banning single-use plastic straws, drink stirrers and cotton buds (I think cotton buds means cotton swabs or Q-tips in American English). She’s no newcomer to the plastic revolution. Back in January 2018, she was already lining up a long term plan to eliminate all “avoidable plastic waste” by 2042. I want to give her a hug and three kisses, even though I’d probably get arrested and insult her at the same time. Brits aren’t all that in to hugging, and the three kiss thing is something I’ve picked up while living in The Netherlands. God help me.

Sometimes you feel a bit nostalgic when something you felt was kind of ‘your niche’ is infiltrated by others. This is so not one of those things! I’m no longer the lone crazy lady chasing a plastic bag. The more the merrier! In fact, please join me. Maybe you’ll inspire others to follow suit.


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Call to action for World Oceans Day CLICK BLUE LINK TO LAUNCH THE VIDEO

On that note, I saw this hilarious Plastic Invasion video today that takes on the plastic insanity with humor and a realistic call to action in preparation for World Oceans Day on June 8th, 2018. Considering I’m already getting my hands dirty picking up wayward plastic, this is a natural step for me. What about doing this together? Doing what, exactly? Check out the video and let me know what you think. Seriously. You have a twitter account. You’re social media aware if you’re reading this post. Let’s do this together! If you’re game, please let me know in the comments section.

I’ll leave you with three cool links that all provide various ways of getting a grip on our worldwide plastic problem.

  1. The surprising solution to ocean plastic | David Katz

  2. The Plastic Soup Foundation
  3. 100 Steps to a Plastic-Free Life

Disclaimer: No single-use plastics were used in the creation of this post. However, this post was typed on a computer keyboard made of plastic, connected to a plastic mouse and a monitor, largely made of plastic. Holy Hell!




I Don’t want to Live in a Monochrome World

Santa Ynez, Calilfornia (photo credit: Todd Anderson)

I grew up in Solvang, California, a quaint Danish-themed town founded in 1911 by two Danish ministers and a Danish professor. Solvang, which means Sunny Field in Danish, is nestled in the Santa Ynez Valley,  a rural area full of equestrian ranches, farms, vineyards, old barns, Christian churches and long and winding roads.

People were either Christians and Catholics or ‘folks who didn’t go to church’ and the majority voted Republican. I never saw a person in a headscarf or turban the entire time I lived in the valley.

Although the majority of us lived in the surrounding countryside, downtown Solvang was a tourist town. This gave residents a chance to encounter tourists from all over the world, but they were just passing through. So you might say the closest we got to embracing diversity was selling the tourists Danish pastries, souvenirs and bottles of wine.

Walking down the covered outdoor halls in high school, it was not uncommon to see one of my cowboy classmates practicing his lasso technique in between classes. (What was his name? Junior? That sweet guy who died in a car accident our sophomore year?)

There were boys with muscles earned on the football or water polo team and other boys layered with muscles from work on their family farms.

Just before I started high school, a movie theater came to the neighbouring town a few miles away. After all these years, the town of Solvang still doesn’t have it’s own movie theatre, though it does boast an outdoor theater for theatrical performances and we celebrate Danish Days each September.

The human landscape of my school was a vast sea of milky white Caucasians (a number of which had Danish ancestry); perhaps 15 percent of students from Mexico, Central or South America, a handful of classmates with varying percentages of Chumash Indian in their blood and only three students in the entire school with gorgeously dark equatorial skin.

One year I went to high school prom with my friend Ali, who happened to be one of the three aforementioned students (in this case from Ethiopia). He picked me up in a sleek car he had borrowed from his father (Mercedes? Jaguar?) and took me to a fancy restaurant. I was so nervous in my silly black and white prom dress. My requisite high heels felt like torture to a young woman who preferred tennis shoes any given day of the week. I walked gingerly in my heels like a delicate, breakable thing, the tomboy in me appalled by the pain in my feet and the low dipping neckline of my prom dress.

Ali was just a friend, yet there it was. We were going to prom together. And surely that suggested that we were at least open to the idea of being more than friends?  I think we were both contemplating this unspoken suggestion as we sat like elegant grown ups at one of the best restaurants in the valley, the white table cloths, china plates and stylish silverware a fitting presentation for the three course meal on its way.

As we ate our first course, Ali glanced over at me, his eyes darting nervously downward to that low cut v in my neckline and back up again. I could feel the heat in my cheeks. Why was he looking there? He was such a proper young man and yet his eyes were, what, checking me out?

“Um. You’ve got, um . . .” he motioned with his elegant fingers toward that v exposing my cleavage. My eyes followed to where he was pointing and I discovered a damp spinach leaf plastered to my chest.

Visual borrowed from

“Oh.” I excused myself and went to the restroom to remove the offensive leaf, wipe the olive oil and balsamic dressing from my skin and try to do something about the deep flush of embarrassment coloring my cheeks.

When we arrived at the dance, I ran into a friend (let’s call her Laura for the sake of storytelling) who had clearly gotten her hands on some wine coolers (it was the late 80s folks), as I could smell the sweet alcohol on her breath.

winecooler-wine-cooler-brands“Is that your date?” Laura asked, nodding toward Ali.

“Yes,” I responded, confused by the strange tone of her voice.

“He’s black. ” Laura squeezed her otherwise pretty face into a mask of ugliness.

I recognize racism in action just as much as the next person, but I honestly didn’t get it. If anything, I was a bit jealous of all that pigment that protected Ali’s skin from the hot valley weather while my fair skin required copious amounts of sunscreen.  And now I felt somehow judged because . . . he’s black. Yes. And?

That’s pretty much where the conversation with Laura ended. Although I’d hung out at her house a number of times, we’d drifted apart in high school and this one little act was like an invisible nail in the invisible coffin of our friendship.

I don’t think Laura was representative of the majority of people in my school, but her sentiments weren’t exactly new either. I’d heard a few derogatory comments from my classmates over the years about people of color and homosexuals, but in general, racist sentiments where usually the sort of stupid B.S. you’d hear from older generations, not people my own age. After all, we grew up post-segregation, post civil rights, post sixties. And despite the negative stereotypes culture pressed upon us through media, our idols included Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Prince and a long list of beautifully-tinted others. The way I reasoned, my home town was an isolated little community in the countryside, but still– everyone had heard of Martin Luther King and his dream.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but that little encounter at a school dance in my youth was a defining moment for me. I might not have had the words to express it back then, but I craved something bigger, broader, more exciting and challenging. I didn’t want to live in a monochrome world. I craved culture and diversity and friends who wouldn’t screw up their face if my prom date was black, wouldn’t blink if two guys were dancing to my right and two girls making out on my left. This didn’t come to me like some sort of manifesto of how I wanted to live my life, but it was one of many moments that have brought me to where I am now.

My views might have been affected by the fact that my oldest brother was dating a woman who was half African American, half German who would end up being his wife one day and eventually become his ex-wife. In the meantime, they would have two children whose beautiful skin tones I would also envy, and his children would grow into adulthood and bring about another generation of children with superior skin tones.

My other brother, an artist who spent some time playing in a punk band and traveled to Europe years before I even knew what a passport looked like, also played a big role in showing me what diversity looked like.

Diversity followed me wherever I went. Or maybe I sought it out, from a year at the University of Hawaii where I experienced what it was like to be a minority; playing in a reggae band during my university years and eventually marrying a man from another culture–albeit Caucasian like me– and eventually moving abroad.

Perhaps I was destined to live in The Hague, the international city of Peace  & Justice. I am neither a majority or a minority, I am simply one nationality among many, all taking the same trams, going to the theaters, planning a weekend trip to the beach. My son’s Dutch elementary school has more than 40 nationalities. I’m pretty good at spelling, but am seriously challenged when I try to spell the names of his friends and schoolmates: Abdounoor (spelling?) Rashinella (sp?), Gonjhairo, Basit . . . you get the picture.

My hometown has a population of 5,245.  The Hague is a wee bit bigger. I particularly like the category of ‘other’ with a population of 129,242, which makes up close to 25% of The Hague’s population. Come to think of it, as an American, I am the ‘other.’

Screen Shot 2018-03-25 at 14.42.58

My home town breaks down a bit differently:

Screen Shot 2018-03-25 at 19.33.49.png

I still love Solvang, and the Santa Ynez Valley in which it is nestled and wouldn’t trade my upbringing for anything. I am grateful to have maintained contact over the years with friends from this precious time in my life and I still consider this beautiful valley my home. But I am also thankful that my son is growing up bilingual in such a culturally diverse world.

Do you still live in your home town? Or have you traveled far from your place of origin? What has it done to change you? If you’ve lived away for a number of years, would you be able to move ‘home’ and assimilate, or do you think it would cramp your style?

(Strange. I wrote this post on April 29th and it published as March, 2017! What’s going on WordPress? Or is this an operator error?)