25 February 2015

Respect the Other Language

It's not easy being the foreigner. It's easy to feel frustrated by the official forms, notices, and garbled PA announcements that even native speakers can't understand. When you're out in public you might feel embarrassment while stuttering through this new language; you can get curious looks or hear comments from strangers when you talk to your kids in your own language; and feel like you always end up on display, like you might as well walk around with some sort of sign post detailing your origins like a natural history museum display. When you live and operate surrounded by your native language you don't have to think about these things - but when you become the foreigner you wonder how you never realized it before.

Home becomes a sort of "language safe zone." Once you close the door, no one else has any idea what's going on or what language is being spoken and you can relax (unless, of course, some stranger calls at the door). For us, time at home is also a time to work on keeping the Little Man's English up - he's still learning after all - and there's plenty of grammar and vocabulary to discover and master. For us, it's essential that he does well in his English, not just for the future, but also so he can communicate with his extended family. It's also part of his family history and identity, having that first language is a huge part of who we are. Most people I talk to understand this, even if they've never had direct experience raising kids in another culture.

But even in a country that prides itself on speaking multiple languages, I've come across a few people that have clearly communicated that our native English isn't important. Early in Little Man's peuterspeelzaal (toddler play class) experience, the teacher wanted to discuss his progress. He was still shy as he'd been in the class just a few hours a week for only a few months, so he wasn't speaking much in either English or Dutch at school. I hadn't started taking formal lessons, so I couldn't string a reasonable sentence together in Dutch either. The teacher knew we were new to the country and didn't speak Dutch and so held the conversation in English. She then told me, in English, that I should only speak Dutch at home with the Little Man. I was too surprised at the time for a witty comeback, but I managed to tell her (in English) that until I also learned the language it wasn't possible to keep whole conversations going in Dutch. That was the first time I had that conversation, but it wouldn't be the last - which was also in English.

We're glad that we no longer hear those comments, and in Little Man's new school there is a great respect for the diversity of the students, which they're invited to share with their classmates. It's a refreshing change. But I've heard similar stories from other expat parents. People from all sorts of language backgrounds have been told, "If you live in this country, you should only speak this language." Fortunately, for me and my friends those experiences have only been caused by certain individuals and we've been able to ignore their unrealistic "advice" - but those encounters leave a bad taste in your mouth.

So I'm here to ask you: try not to be that person, okay? There's so much more to language than just using different words. Telling someone to ignore their native language is telling them to deny their identity, heritage, family, and comfort in their own homes and to hide those things from their own children. There's nothing wrong in encouraging someone to learn the language of the country they're in - but you cross a line of basic decency when you tell someone to abandon their native language in the process. Have respect for that person, where they came from, and what they speak. It's as simple as that.

18 February 2015

The Colors of Fez, Morocco

Believe it or not, I wasn't just chasing cats in Fez, Morocco. Fez is a cacophony of color that hits you in surprising places.

The buildings of Fez are very plain on the outside. I was told that this is partly because people's private lives are considered just that - private. And so the outside is plain and every home looks the same. But inside the mosaic tiling and intricate paint jobs bring gorgeous bursts of color. Riad Saada, where we stayed, is just like that. Beautiful tiling and painted furniture and carved woodwork totally surround you.

Interior, Riad Saada

Interior, Riad Saada

Interior, Riad Saada

Interior, Riad Saada

Dar Bartha Museum

Dar Bartha Museum

Despite the plain exteriors, walking the maze-like streets of the medina isn't at all drab or boring. You can find beautifully tiled fountains (some operational, some not), colorful signs, and some beautifully decorated doors.

The markets and souks are the best place to find blasts of color. Walking along you can find wonderfully woven rugs and fabrics, colorful leather goods, artfully painted ceramics. We stopped to see the tanneries and were amazed by all the pits of dye used to make all the shoes, bags, and coats. Displays of lanterns and metal products would flash in the light and catch your eye. And passing the grocers with a variety of veggies and spices is a feast for the eyes as much as the stomach.

Tanneries of Fez

One of my favorite parts of this trip was just walking around the medina and observing. You can see more of the colors of Fez and pictures from my trip with friends on Instagram using the #momsinmorocco hashtag and you can get a glimpse into some of the unexpected adventure of our trip on my friend Farrah's blog.

15 February 2015

A Carnaval Valentine

Carnaval is upon us once again in the south of the Netherlands. Little Man had been planning his Darth Vader costume for months and was ready tohave fun dressed up with his friends at school. He was also excited to do something a little different for Carnaval with his friends because this year, Carnaval weekend happens to fall the same time as Valentine's Day.

Darth Vader found his mother's lack of
faith in him to wield a "real light saber"

Valentine's Day hardly registers a blip on the Dutch adult's radar - it's really not a thing here, or at least not in a tangible sense in the stores. You can find some pink and red hearts in some of the stores, but there are no special sales, no rush on chocolates, and the florists aren't seeing red at the thought of one. more. rose. That also means that there are no little heart shaped cards or those vile candy hearts getting passed around in classrooms, either.

For the most part, Valentine's Day hasn't really registered a blip on our radar, either. When we first started dating, in my anti-commercial idealism I told Mark that if he did anything on Valentine's Day I would break up with him on principle of detesting the commercialization of love. That's true love, right? And we never really paid any attention to it after that. Because Hallmark. *shakes fist*


Valentine's Day does delicious bring heart shaped sugar cookies from Mark's Grandma's own recipe. In college, Grandma would send a care package stuffed with cookies for Valentine's Day, and when we got married Grandma and Grandpa gave us the recipe and heart shaped cookie cutters that have followed us through our many moves. The only sign that it is Valentine's day in our house is that the cookies will make an appearance. Unfortunately, the devil appliance that we dealt with in our last home prohibited their cakey goodness in 2013 and 2014, but this year they returned with my real oven!

A photo posted by Ace Callahan (@arcbcrafts) on

Since the cookies are such a special thing, Little Man and I talked to his teacher about bringing some along for the class when they celebrated Carnaval in class. He was so excited to help cut them out and dump sprinkle the decorations on. He told his friends about how kids in America give cards or treats to friends on Valentine's Day and how he had made cookies to share with them. It's cute - like having a miniature goodwill ambassador right there in the class.

I have no idea what the kids thought about Valentine's Day, especially based on the description from a 5 year old that's never really seen it celebrated in America. I do know that they happily accepted the cookies. I would have, too.

A photo posted by Ace Callahan (@arcbcrafts) on

Have you seen Valentine's Day celebrated (or not celebrated) abroad?

13 February 2015

The Cats of Fez, Morocco

Having just returned from Fez, Morocco, I was struck by all the colors, sights, sounds, and smells - and how everywhere I looked I saw cats.

If you're wondering why I would begin describing a trip with cats, bear with me for a moment. I would be a card carrying member of the Future Crazy Cat Ladies of America Club, if such a thing existed (someone, please get on this, stat.). As such, I'm already drawn to the random cat on the street, but there are so many more opportunities to make four-legged friends in Fez than in Tilburg. And I wasn't on my own either - my friend Megan was also stopping to talk and pet the cats and took many of the pictures here today.

While walking around the medina, it's hard not to notice the stealthy bodies streaking along the walls of the souks, or occasionally sitting right on the merchandise. They're everywhere and most are so used to people around that they have no or very little fear of being approached by strangers for a scratch on the chin.

Photo Credit: Megan Lehmann

Photo Credit: Megan Lehmann

Photo Credit: Megan Lehmann

Photo Credit: Megan Lehmann

But just because they're everywhere doesn't mean the cats are thought of as pets like you find in the Netherlands or the States. We were told by our host at our riad that actively and purposely keeping a cat in the house would qualify you as the "crazy neighbor." Seeing these crazy ladies stopping and taking pictures and talking to the cats was amusing for some shop keepers we came across - and some offered to throw in a cat for free with a purchase. It seems like many of the locals in Fez treat all the cats as just a part of the landscape.

Photo Credit: Megan Lehmann

Photo Credit: Megan Lehmann

Especially around the fruit/vegetable/meat/bread/grain souks, the cats help keep the real pests away. As such, no one really shoos the cats away, and sometimes they're allowed inside or rewarded for their work with some company or a little treat.

Photo Credit: Megan Lehmann

Photo Credit: Megan Lehmann

That doesn't mean that all the cats look ready to grace the cover of Cat Fancy. Some have clearly been in a few nasty scraps or had some bad luck with their health - they are living on the streets after all. Despite that, many still have their own beauty about them. One we found in particular was missing an eye, but still kept her fur neat and was happy to pose for the camera.

Photo Credit: Megan Lehmann

It can be a bit hard for a cat lover to see all these fur balls out on the street, but it is interesting to see how these cats play their part of the culture of the medina.

And it makes me more appreciative of my own cats' lifestyle on their behalf. They would tell me that there's room for improvement of their current condition, but they really have no idea how good they have it.

Many thanks to Megan for all her great cat pictures for today's post!

Have you noticed the local animals while traveling? Did you find them in a different or similar cultural role to the animals you normally come across?

04 February 2015

Dutch Biking for Beginners: The Gear

The biking culture of the Netherlands is known globally, but when you arrive here it can feel a bit daunting. If you were a casual biker (like me) before you reached the Netherlands, you can feel a bit of a learning curve when it comes time to switch over to your new two-wheeled primary transportation device. While trying to assimilate into the Dutch cycling culture, here's the gear you need:

Bike     Well, duh. But where do you start? You can purchase a fiets (bicycle) at any bike shop but you can also find bikes at HEMA, the sporting goods store, the hardware store, at some markets, and online. You'll find a variety of bikes (racing, cargo bikes, "normal" bikes) so it's good to have an idea of what you're looking for when you walk into a shop. If you just want something to get you from Point A to Point B, you can get yourself a bike anywhere. Going to a bike shop means you will probably pay more for your bike, but there will be more options and (sometimes) higher quality brands; and if you want someone to guide you along, the staff is more than willing to help sell you something.

Lights     If you intend to ride in the dark in the Netherlands, you need to have a white fietslampje (bike light) on your front end and a red fietslampje on your back end. And really, even if you don't intend to ride in the dark you may not have a choice during the winter's short daylight hours or during our frequent rainy, cloudy days. You can be stopped and fined by police officers at dawn/dusk/night if you are riding without one or both lights.

Lock     There are more bikes than people in the Netherlands - but despite that, bike theft is high, especially in the cities. If you don't have a fietsslot (bike lock) on your bike, it WILL get stolen. Most shops sell this fancy rear wheel lock already installed on the bike, but they can be found in any place that sells bikes and sometimes even the grocery store and are easy to install.

Another Lock     Seriously, bike theft is a huge problem. The rear wheel lock is a deterrent, but a bike thief can pick up the rear wheel and walk off with the whole bike if they really want to. It's a good idea to have a second, heavy-duty lock that can be attached to something permanent/heavy - like a fence or a bike rack. If it makes more work for a thief, they'll pass your bike over in search of an easier target.

Bell     Sometimes someone ahead of you isn't paying attention and/or blocking the path. Instead of running them over or fuming at their slow speed, you ding your little bel (bell) and they (usually) move out of the way. It's a warning sound that allows you to politely make your presence known without accidentally yelling garbled-sort-of-Dutch to get their attention.

Fenders     It rains a lot here, and the spatborden (fenders) help keep you a little cleaner while you're riding. My front fender fell off (which is a long story by itself) and I can attest that I and my bike frame are much dirtier when the ground is wet. Most bikes come with fenders installed, but again can be easily purchased.

Bags     If your bike is your primary mode of transportation, make your life a little easier and buy some fietstassen (bike bags). I have 30 liter sized bags on my bike, a perfect size for a couple of milk jugs, a bag of kitty litter, or awkward sized items. You can buy bike bags almost anywhere, but if you plan on doing your regular grocery shopping on the bike, go for a higher-quality bag with strong stitching. Do know that the bigger the bag, the more likely that the corners will warp over time and start rubbing against the wheel - you see this with the folks that have the 50 liter bags for paper deliveries.

Rack     As in the case of the bags, a fietsenrek (bike rack) is a good investment for grocery shopping or if you ever need to transport a big box. It allows you to carry more home while keeping your hands on the handlebar, keeping you as the foreigner without the natural Dutch sense of balance a little safer on your ride home.

Bungee Cords     Carrying a strange or large load? Just like on a car, you want to secure it down. Many bikes come with some pre-installed bungeekoorden (bungee cords) on the rear rack. These are good for smaller loads, but if you have something large, you need more serious cords. You can buy a normal bungee cord to attach anywhere, or a bungee cord designed for a bike rack (see my photo above). I have both because I like to be over-prepared - and they come in handy for mega-packs of toiletpaper. I purchased mine at HEMA, but you can also find them at Action or a hardware store.

A good set of bike bags will also have slots for your
pre-installed bungee cords.

Rain Suit     Have I ever mentioned that it rains here? No one likes riding in the rain, but sometimes there's no way around it. It's worth having a regenpak (rain suit) handy for those occasions. Here I am in Mark's rain suit (mine ripped). I look stupid, but I look *slightly* less miserable while riding in the rain. You can find these (or rain ponchos) at HEMA and discount textile and shoe stores.

Helmet     Optional. Most people in the Netherlands do not wear helmets while biking. The exceptions are typically young kids still learning to ride on their own and people on racing bikes (the helmet completes the spandex ensemble). If you fall into neither category and choose to wear a helmet, know that you will likely get a lot of strange looks. One of the things to remember is that because so many paths are for bikes only and a high awareness among drivers to look for cyclists, riding without a helmet is safer than most other parts of the world. But of course, if it makes you feel safer to ride with a helmet, go for it.

With these items, taking part of the Dutch cycling culture can be easier, especially if you're without another form of transportation. Then you, too can haul all this (and more!)

Have you assimilated into Dutch biking culure? Do you have other recommendations?

01 February 2015

It's Official! Welcome to Ace the Adventure!

Today's the day! Welcome to Ace the Adventure, formerly known as Life in Dutch!

If you've been visiting since the beginning of 2015, you'll have noticed the new color scheme and some small changes implemented here and there. It's all been in preparation for today's move over to a new name and custom domain name! I started this blog when my family was preparing to move to the Netherlands from Chicago in 2012. We're still in the Netherlands, but I felt that this name change would be more reflective of me and give me a little more flexibility in my writing. 

I am now very excited to have officially moved over to the new look and new name, though as with anything tech-related, I'm sure we'll find some strange hiccups here and there. Please bear with me as I get everything in place - and if you notice something odd, please let me know!

I'm glad you're here and joining me on this continuing adventure!
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