29 January 2014

When the Small Details of Language are Lost on You

In the Netherlands, it's common that once a month a basisschool (elementary school) will have a studiedag - essentially a teachers' in-service day that the kids have off. Since Little Man started school in November and December is a blur of holidays (Sinterklaas, Christmas, and New Years), we have only experienced one studiemiddag as a half-day in November just a week and a half after the transition to "big school."

A few weeks ago, I saw on the school's calendar that today is listed as a studiedag and dutifully marked it on my calendar (with a time alert) to fetch the Little Man at school at the half-day release time. As the morning started, we got up and got ready with our normal routine and got out the door with good time. We walked to school instead of our usual bike ride and had a pleasant stroll into a school yard completely devoid of the usual clusters of children's bicycles. If it had been an episode of a sitcom, a tumbleweed would have rolled by. As I stood there a little surprised, one of Little Man's teachers was walking into the school and I was able to have her confirm that it was, in fact, a whole-day studiedag. The early releases are marked on the school calendar as studiemiddag (study afternoon), she told me.

So, without anything else to do, we turned around and walked home. Little Man chattered happily at how silly the whole situation was, and while I was initially pretty embarrassed I'm starting to see the humor in it. Fortunately, I didn't have anything scheduled this morning, so we came home and started playing with dinosaurs with some hot chocolate and tea, as you do.

Studying dinosaurs on an unexpected studiedag

I have learned two important bits of information today: the school has half-day AND whole-day studiedagen that are designated as studiemiddag and studiedag on the school calendar; and I need to make sure I'm reading school notices a little more carefully. I suppose this is just one more learning curve in the expat experience.

Have you ever experienced a language-related mishap? This one worked out well enough, and it's a good reminder to read a little more carefully!

28 January 2014

Slow Cooking, How I Missed Thee

A couple weekends ago, we were eating dinner with friends and one mentioned missing crock pot meals. There have been plenty of times I have also missed these types of meals, but this time it really stuck with me. We had used our crock pot pretty often in Chicago, and I felt like we were missing out on certain meals (especially since the convection oven and I regularly have disagreements on what can be considered "cooking"). We knew that a few are available on bol.com (think of it like the Dutch version of Amazon.com), but they seemed ridiculously expensive and therefore, just not worth it.

But I kept dreaming about the meals that could be, and I decided to take my chances with Amazon.de (the German Amazon). Usually, it's difficult to buy from Amazon.de - it seems to be a combination of the item needing to ship directly from Amazon and being "expensive" enough for it to go internationally - but this all worked out so much smoother than I could have hoped.

I ordered this crock pot on Monday evening, and it arrived Wednesday afternoon - faster than expected. And while I wasn't able to use it right away, it's been used pretty heavily since Saturday. Already we've enjoyed crock pot French Toast, a chicken taco mix, and a pasta dish. It's nice to feel like we're opening up our meal options and bringing in more chances for "comfort food."

Chicken Taco mix

I see this little guy becoming the best-loved appliance in the house right after the coffee maker.

It's hard at work so I don't have to be.

Have you found yourself missing an appliance from home? I'm surprised at how happy I am to have this one back!

27 January 2014

The Expat Experience: The Every Day Experience

For many months, I was joining up on Mondays with Molly at The Move to America for her Monday link up to reflect on the previous week and set goals for the upcoming week. For 2014, Molly has started a great new Monday link up called The Expat Experience. I'm finally organized enough to start linking up with her again!

The Move to America

Today's theme is the Every Day Experience as an expat. In many ways, my life as an expat isn't much different from my life in the States. I think that many times, just saying that you live in another country automatically brings exotic images to the minds of people back home - of different looking foods, different looking fashions, and crazy travel stories. But really, "normal" life is still the norm. There's piles of laundry to get through, meals to cook, kids to transport, a home to clean, and a job to go to. At times, life can still feel monotonous and unexciting. And that in itself can be comforting - "home" is really about what you make it rather than where it physically stands.

But the every day in the Netherlands means that "normal" is still different from "normal" in Chicago. Now my trips outside the house involve reading, thinking, and speaking in Dutch. I'd never really put all that much effort into learning another language past high school (aside from occasional bursts of optimism at picking up French again) - and now it's a matter of convenience to know a second language and I feel better for actively learning something that takes so much effort. The Little Man will talk your ear off in a mixture of English and Dutch, something that wouldn't have happened if we stayed in America. This may make it easier for him to learn yet another language as he gets older, but for now it makes it easier for him to be a "normal" kid at school and in the neighborhood. And yes, we do get to travel more often than we did in the States. But all these things come from an increased sense that we should not waste the opportunity we have right now. We have the opportunity to learn another language and we have the opportunity of making easy trips that would be far more expensive to make from the US. Even when we start to feel the monotony of normal life, it's easier to break out of it by just thinking, "There's plenty we haven't seen even locally. Let's just go out!"

So, what's the take away message here when adjusting to your new expat life?

1. Become more of a "do-er" - Living in a new country presents so many more opportunities. Don't let them pass by, because who knows how long they will last or when the next will come along. Exploring the neighborhood or a neighboring town/state/country will all show you something new.
2. If you live among a different language, give it a shot - learning a new language isn't easy, but even picking up a little bit is worth it and makes life feel so much easier when you don't have to struggle at the store or when navigating the trains. And for kids, it can help them feel like they belong.
3. Despite the opportunities and changes, don't be afraid of experiencing the old "normal" - this may seem contradictory to my other points, but laundry, cooking, bills, and work all still exist, and that's okay. These are normal parts of life no matter where you are, and these don't have to hold you back from taking advantage of your new opportunities.

What's your take on the "every day expat experience"?

21 January 2014

As They Grow Up

Yesterday, I found myself getting a bit sentimental. It's not bad thing, but it was unexpected since it was over a dresser.

Little Man has been growing out of some of his clothes (as children tend to do when you feed them), and he kindly received some new clothes from his grandparents over Christmas. The drawers on his dresser were over-full of a mix of small and just-right sized closed and I had left a pile of the new clothes on the floor in front of it. I had been avoiding a clean out since before Christmas - I just didn't want to spend the time, nor did I feel like I had the time to do it. But yesterday morning, I decided it was time.

Little Man's dresser, on it's third generation.

I've gone into several clothing clean-outs now. You go through far more than you really expect in just 4 years, and somehow it becomes simultaneously easier and harder to do. The first 3 or 4 clean outs are the hardest. Kids grow quickly. Sometimes they only fit into those "newborn" or "0-3 months" sizes for a few weeks, and the other sizes through 12 months feel almost equally fast. It seems like 600 little onsies all fit into a single drawer and they're all hardly worn. It's in the beginning stages of your time doing clothing clean-outs, you want to keep each and every piece you pull out of the drawer, and it is frustratingly hard. Because every piece is just so cute. Because you're probably sleep deprived and still hormonal when you do the clean out. Because the clothes are full of "firsts" - the first outfit worn going to the doctor, the first pair of shoes worn going to a friend's house, or the pair of pajamas worn during that first inexplicable full night's sleep. But after a few rounds of this in the first year, you learn to curb the impulse to keep EVERYTHING. You generally have fewer things to go through and the clothes are more worn in. It's easier to see what should just get chucked, what can be donated/passed along, and what you want to hold on to.

I've gotten better as the cleans outs have gone one. I keep less and don't feel the need to reminisce over each shirt and sock. And yet, as the span of time between clean-out grows, I find myself getting more reflective. Yesterday's clean-out was still hard. Because I can see that while some days may be long, the years are short. Because we already noticed that it's getting harder to tell his small, colorful socks from my smallish, colorful socks. Because the dresser drawers fill up much faster with far fewer shirts. Because suddenly, his button down shirts can fit on adult sized hangers. Because I know that sooner than I think, it will be harder to tell apart his t-shirts from Mark's t-shirts.

Children are supposed to grow up, and it's amazing to witness. I'm blessed to be part of it. I can think about the not so distant past and the not so distant future and what that has meant, does mean, and will mean. Little Man's dresser has seen plenty of clean-outs - it was my mother's before it went through her cousins, and it came back to go through me and my brother - Little Man's clean-outs are just one more step along the way. And while I may not enjoy the process of the clean-out, I take heart that the story keeps getting a bit grander as more people fill it up and empty it out in more locations than any of us would have expected.

19 January 2014

Sunday Traveler: Toledo's Imagination Station

While we were back in the United States for Christmas, we made a trip to Toledo, Ohio to meet up with some family. At the risk of offending anyone from Toledo or Ohio in general, we were asked, "Why Toledo?" because it didn't really seem like a vacation destination, especially in the middle of winter. Our plans were to use Toledo as a mid-way meeting point for everyone traveling, but the city offers educational and cultural options for visitors. And with kids of just about any age, Toledo's Imagination Station is a great day trip if you're staying in the area or just passing through. I'm reviewing our visit to the Imagination Station while I link up with Chasing the Donkey and others for today's Sunday Traveler.

We visited Toledo in the midst of the Snowpocolypse that was hitting a significant area of the US just after Christmas. And since the snow and bitter cold made doing anything outside less than ideal, the Imagination Station was a great choice to let the kids run off some energy.

What struck me first was the wide range of activities for all age groups. Some of the concepts and activities are for older children and adults, like making a supported bridge with a keystone or building designed to withstand seismic activity, or (at the time) the Grossology traveling exhibit that explores the *ahem* more interesting aspects of bodily functions.

Push the button!

Preparing for the collapse of an
under-supported skyscraper.

Finishing off the arch bridge.

But there are also lots of activities that are fun for younger visitors, even if they aren't yet at a developmental level to fully understand the concept. Water tables allow you to see how erosion works with faucets and piles of sand. A special compartment lets you feel hurricane force wind. Once exhibit shows how or perceptions can be manipulated and fooled into seeing/feeling something different. And you can become a human yo-yo with a counter weight system.

You can wait for the water, or you can just
knock down the levy yourself.

Squinting into the wind.

Here, Little Man is almost as tall as Mark and Grandma

Ace, the human yo-yo

There's a special area reserved for Kindergarten aged children and younger, identified as the "Little Kid Space." Children can work out imaginative play in with elaborate props and signs give adults suggestions to prompt imaginations. An extensive set up includes a large tree house, a play-hospital with x-rays to look at, a grocery store where kids can be customers or employees, and a fire truck that can put out a small "fire" on a nearby building. The water play area even includes a special water table for infants.

Tree house, with play hospital directly behind

Driving to the "fire"

Uncle P helping to aim the "water cannon"

Infant water table

Throughout the museum, friendly staff members are available to guide activities or answer questions; and the available facilities make taking the whole family an easy and enjoyable outing. If you find your self in or passing through Toledo, Ohio, the Imagination Station is a fun break for everyone in the family.

As of January 2014, admission for "Big Kids" (ages 13-64) is $10, and $8 for "Kids" (ages 3-12). Ages 2 and under free, and senior discounts and free admission for teachers and active military are available with proper identification. The Imagination Station is open Tuesdays through Sundays. Check the Toledo Imagination Station website for information about holiday openings and closings, special Monday openings, and current admission rates.

16 January 2014

Food in Dutch: Erwtensoep (Dutch Pea Soup)

I promise that I didn't forget about my Food in Dutch series, it just got put on hold a bit with traveling and Christmas. And now it's back with another installment!

What You Should Know About Erwtensoep:

Erwtensoep (err-tuhn-soop) is a pea soup that may also be called snert. It is a winter dish in the Netherlands - the thick soup with hearty winter vegetables are a great way to warm up - and it is prepared differently than Scandinavian, German, or English/American versions of pea soup. Depending on the recipe, only a few vegetables are used, but all tend to call for long-lasting winter vegetables, such as onions or carrots. It's excellent served along with a crusty bread and followed up by something sweet for dessert.

The Life in Dutch Recipe:

500 g/1 lb mix of chopped vegetables: leek (prei), onion (ui), carrot (wortel), and celery (selderie) - I cheated and purchased a pre-cut, pre-mixed bag at the supermarket.
2 medium potatoes (aardappelen) chopped
250 g/2.5-ish cups dried split peas (spliterwten)
1.5 L beef stock
1 smoked sausage (rookworst) sliced into discs- specifically, a rookworst is used, but will be difficult to find elsewhere
250 g/0.5 lb shoulder ham (schouderham)
2 bay leaves (laurierbladen)

The Life in Dutch Method:

I've got to be honest off the bat, here. I did not bring my A game when preparing this meal. I didn't even bring my B game. I missed a rather important step, and Little Man was still adjusting to being in school full time, so the process did not go as well as it could have. And, I cheated and used a pre-bagged bunch of veggies to shorten my prep time.


But, even considering that, it came out flavorful and edible, and that's what really counts in the end.

First, allow the split peas to simmer in the beef stock for about an hour. (I didn't do this, mine cooked for 20 minutes, which required some extra "wait time" at the end when everything else was already cooked.)

Add your potatoes and and bay leaves and simmer for 20 minutes.

Add your vegetables and shoulder ham and cook through (approx. 10-15 minutes). (I had a brain cramp at the store and forgot to buy shoulder ham, but the soup was still tasty without it.) Your soup should start to thicken.

I accidentally added everything but the rookworst at the same time,
so my simmering method changed as I went along.

Add your rookworst to the soup, and allow to warm through.

How you can find your rookworst.

Rookworst added!

Serve with crusty bread.

Soup! I know the orange bowl isn't too flattering to the soup here,
but that's the best I can do as far as presentation...

The Result:

The process here is mostly simple, but you do still need to pay attention in case you forget to cook the peas correctly. The dish is a perfect cold-weather food that can be eaten right away, or frozen and stored for later.

Eet smakelijk!

14 January 2014

Keep It Clean

I spent the entire day yesterday cleaning. It was needed with our return from the States the suitcases were half emptied and put away nicely and half exploded in places you wouldn't necessarily expect. But I turned it up a level, because the landlord was coming. We had a light socket die in the bathroom, so I sent a note to the landlord, who is always wonderfully kind and prompt about fixing things.

I always have this idea in my head that most European homes look like an IKEA catalog spread - nothing on the floor, everything in it's place, and very little "crap" around - our place really only looked like that in the weeks before our belongings arrived from the States.

Our stuff, minus the "stuff" - circa August 2012

I continue to have this stream-lined, Swedish inspired look in my head, though I know my friends' homes generally look like mine, which is to say "lived-in." Especially when you have a kid, or continue to act like a kid, the "projects" and other signs of human existence will continue to spread throughout the house. As long as you occasionally stem the grown and they don't start breathing and thinking on their own, you're probably fine. I accept this reality and continue to live in it, but I always have that nagging feeling that I probably haven't done enough.

That pristine coffee table top? Yeah... it's a table with space, so I put junk on it now.
At least my compulsion to see things in rainbow order keeps crayons nice in the pack.

That totally clear floor? There's usually 2 or 3 separate projects taking up the space now.

When the landlord comes around, I feel an extra need to have things look "presentable" and manage to find and clean things that probably wouldn't matter and would never be noticed. That dust accumulating behind the washing machine? Get it! Some stray laundry detergent on the shelf inside the cabinet? Wipe it up! And since the landlord is wonderfully prompt, that also means that I generally have less time to complete my ridiculously long, and continually growing list.

I do the bouts of manic cleaning to myself, and I am fully aware of it. I occasionally get the feeling that I should make myself some sort of schedule and do certain tasks on certain days to generally eliminate some of the stress of big-wave cleaning... but then I think, "Meh, why bother?" I usually have some sort of project out that I'm working on, and I'm only going to drag it back out. So if the landlord is only coming around once a month, I think I can withstand a day's worth of heavy cleaning to fake my way into looking like I'm preparing for an IKEA photo shoot - though I'll still wonder in the midst of it why I didn't just do it before.

13 January 2014

Officially Living in 2014

As I sat down to write today's post, I started to realize that while this isn't my first post for 2014, it is the first post where I feel like 2014 is really here. After going to work and school right away after returning last week and getting readjusted over the weekend, today is really the first day that we all felt rather normal. And with a "regular" post, I started to realize that it was just the beginning of what I hope will be many posts in 2014.

I'm not entirely sure what 2014 has to offer yet, there's only a few things planned so far, and nothing "big" planned to happen for a while. But in a way, this is refreshing. I've never been one for new year's resolutions and I like the open possibilities of what lie ahead. 

So while it may be a bit late in saying, Happy New Year. Enjoy the possibilities of another year. 

08 January 2014

Going Home, Coming Home, and the Differences You Notice

We were fortunate enough that over the Christmas and New Year, we were able to go back "home" to the States and spend time with family and friends - hence the silence here on the blog. We returned "home" in Tilburg yesterday afternoon, and while the jet lag is trying to keep me from forming coherent thoughts and sentences, I found a few differences between the United States and the Netherlands that are a bit fresh in my mind at the moment. So while I start trying to reorganize my thoughts and the house, I'll share some of the obvious and not-so-obvious differences the struck me during our trip and our return home.

The Obvious Differences:

Small Talk - My occasional socially awkward habits can prevent me from holding a "normal" conversation, but I'm an Olympic super star in English when you compare it to my Dutch "conversations." I understand the colloquialisms and abbreviated questions and don't respond in unnaturally halting, not-quite-completed full sentences followed up with an apology for my speaking skills. It was a nice change of pace.

Driving - After not having been behind the wheel for a year, I was able to drive well enough as all that muscle memory and habits returned. And because I learned to drive in America there was no additional thought time to understand the road signs like occasionally happens even when riding my bicycle.

Cycling - In the Netherlands, bikes are everywhere. It's one of the very unique facets of Dutch culture. In America, cars are your transportation option if you don't live in a big city like New York or Chicago, and even then, cars are a big part of getting around. And after 3 weeks of driving, that first trip to the grocery store on the bike in a head-wind was downright slow...

Food - There's nothing so good as home-cooking, especially when you don't have to cook it (our parents fed us really well). The abundance of Mexican-inspired food was also appreciated.

Clearly, this is not "real" Mexican food. But it's delicious.
Seriously, someone at Albert Heijn needs to get on this.

The Not-So-Obvious Differences:

Snow: Sure, this is a regional observation, but we grew up in the north in the States, so snow is a normal part of winter. We experienced some of the Snowpocolypse that hit the Midwest and New England, but unlike many others, we were still able to fly out. Little Man was looking forward to seeing snow, and he got his wish several feet over. The Netherlands doesn't get blizzards like we experienced in America, so while the snow was a nice change of scenery, I'm happy to let my upper body strength atrophy from lack of shoveling.

Snow Cave

Sledding. You can tell this was taken before the
Snowpocolypse since you can actually see grass.

The Take-Out Culture - It's hard to go almost anywhere in America without finding some sort of take-out option. Of course, McDonalds, KFC, Burger King and more are found all over the world, but it doesn't seem to permeate every space in the landscape in the Netherlands like it does in the US. 

I Can Reach Things in the US - At a towering 5 foot, not-quite 2 inches, I don't even hit the average height for American women. In the Netherlands, the average person is about 2 inches taller than their American cohorts. I'm really short in the US, but I am beyond petite in the Netherlands which is exacerbated by the fact that things are built taller for this taller population. In our home, the kitchen counter comes up to my sternum and I literally can't see into the bathroom mirror or the convection oven because they are both installed above my eye level. It leads to interesting methods of compensation, and thankfully, I haven't yet fallen off anything that I probably shouldn't have been using as a stool. 

Retail Customer Service - In the States, we walked into a hardware store and were asked by every employee that we passed if we needed any help. We passed 10 people. In the Netherlands, employees will sometimes ask if you need help, but it won't be every person in the shop and their mother. It's not that they're being unfriendly or don't care, it's more that if you really do need help you'll ask for it. Which we greatly prefer to feeling stalked and bombarded throughout the store. 

Commercials for Prescription Drugs - In the US you can't watch TV, listen to the radio, or even drive down a highway without encountering "Ask your doctor about..." at least once. That doesn't happen in the Netherlands, and it's nice not to have every condition and treatment known to man thrown in your face every 90 seconds.

"Casual Wear" Has Very Different Meanings: North Americans are more than happy to go "casual," which means that I saw more sweatpants worn in public in 3 weeks in the States than I have in nearly a year and a half in the Netherlands. I often feel out of place next to the other moms at school when I wear my "crappy jeans" to drop Little Man off after I just didn't have it together in the morning and everyone else is made up and dressed for the day. As my cousin said, "It's socially acceptable and expected in our culture that you will wear yoga pants while bring your kid to school for at least the first 7 years," and there are some days I envy those parents.

There are plenty more differences, but these are a few that really caught my attention this time around. And whether good or bad, I'm happy to poke fun at the differences from any side.

Have you gone "home" and realized some obvious and subtle differences?
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