Behind the scenes of House Hunters International – trying to make an authentic statement on “reality” TV

In this household, Daddy is Parent-in-Chief and we need more role models like him on TV.  This was our #heforshe moment. We had to grab it tightly, with both hands.


Get ready for your close-up, kiddos.  The filming of the great Highland Games event for HHI at the Museumplein in Amsterdam.  Look at the studly Dad in the kilt!

You all know by now that reality TV is not reality.  Like a weathered brick façade welcoming you into a brand new pre-fabricated house (which is then featured on HGTV). Also, like your Facebook page. And like my Facebook page, which is filled with self-deprecating humor about my harried life as a working/studying mom to throw you off the scent of my true life as a borderline (over the line?) OCD child masquerading as a grown woman on the verge of a complete emotional meltdown at any give moment. (Both versions include hilarious calamities and adorable children and pets, however.)

Still, when I started spilling the beans about our experience on House Hunters International (HHI), you all freaked out. You all were so distraught, so deflated by this revelation. I get it. You’ve invested your time and attention in these stories and now it all comes crumbling before you. So, close your eyes, take a breath and let’s explore these feelings you’re having.

Imagine your busy life, then add the following ingredients:

+ Moving a family of 4 to a new continent, with nothing more than 8 Army duffle bags.

+ Everything you read, hear and must sign is in a language you don’t understand. It’s a language so foreign to your vocal cords that trying to speak it makes your throat hoarse and the following day you sound like Marge Simpson’s sisters.

+ You need to navigate through that other language to manage your employment contract, Visa, Work Permit, bank accounts, phones, lease, kids’ school logistics, etc.

+ Your modes of transport are limited to bicycles, trains, or buses. All in a system you don’t understand in a city you don’t know very well. You desperately miss your mini-van.

+ You self-financed the move and you’re not getting a full paycheck for the first few months. You’re living on one income for the first time in . . . ever.

+ You’re starting a new job in a foreign country.  Time to get all Sheryl Sandberg, up in here.

So, my point is – you want none of that, America. It’s exhausting and painful. It certainly doesn’t make for good TV.  You should all be grateful that HHI figured this out. Honestly, it’s better this way.  It’s difficult enough to film it all a year later and try to control frizz prone hair whilst biking through the pouring rain.  And don’t get me started on miscalculating wardrobe changes so that the summer dress you wore on Day 1, a pleasant 80+ summer day must also be worn on Day 4, in the midst of a windy cold-front.  (Try to ignore my chattering teeth in our “decision scene” stroll through Sarphati park).

I could go on and on about the “fakeness” of HHI. The apartment options weren’t exactly real.  We filmed our “after” scenes in our Amsterdam apartment, then had a crew move us out, and then filmed our “before” scenes all in one day.  We were advised that HHI would try to create a conflict of opinion, so it was best to create our own instead. So, we planted our storyline. I wanted a rooftop terrace, he wanted more space and an easy commute to school. These preferences were authentic, as displayed in our HHI application video, but we did play them up for the cameras.

Underlying this topical theme was the deeper narrative that we are fully committed to. In this household, Daddy is Parent-in-Chief and we need more role models like him on TV.   This was our #heforshe moment. We had to grab it tightly with both hands.  He is a stay-at-home dad supporting the family’s domestic needs.  Hence, his emphasis is on shuffling kiddos to and fro school and comfortable space within the home. But we needed to do it right.

When they asked us to film scenes of him cooking dinner for the kids while I was “out at work,” we said no (and our director at HGTV acquiesced). It doesn’t have to be that way. Yes, I’ve got a demanding career, but I’m not an absent parent and we don’t want to promote that ideal.  It was quite a journey for Aaron to feel comfortable in this role.  And just because someone is the stay-at-home parent doesn’t mean they should be constantly depicted as baking pies in an apron or fretting over which detergent to use on sensitive skin. So, instead, we filmed scenes of Daddy playing guitar while the kids danced and Daddy leading a fun children’s event in a famous Amsterdam park. (Scottish Highland Games for kids – it’s a rather strange and specific niche, which is explained in more detail in the application video and in my blog post, Flex with your Daughters).

Maybe none of this stuff matters. Maybe it will all just appear like another damn episode of another damn reality show that isn’t really reality. But it matters to us. We desperately hope this narrative comes through in the final version of the show (which we don’t get to view in advance). And maybe a few viewers will take note that our family doesn’t fit neatly into the boxes we are supposed to occupy. And maybe that will remind them that nobody’s family really fits neatly into boxes. We ALL have the freedom to redefine parenthood and reject tired notions of gender roles. And it can be a lot of fun doing it.

So, check it out on Thursday, February 11th at 10.30 EST and/or Friday, February 12th at 1.30am on HGTV.  Tell us what you think of our episode, We Dig Amsterdam.  I’m not a fan of the name – are they making an archaeology reference?  I don’t know.  I hope my hair looks ok!


Home for the Hollandaise

It’s Christmas Eve and my feet are achy from all the walking. My body has fully assimilated to being on a bicycle for 1+ hour each day, but walking in non-sneaker shoes across all the cobblestone is a foreign affair. But we have visitors in town, my mother-in-law and her friend/partner, “Uncle Don.” Oma’s here!!! So we have been tram riding, Dam Square picture taking, lunch at Leidsepleining, Albert Cupyt markt shopping and Museumplein ice skating fools for 2 days now. (To be fair, we are often Museumplein ice skating fools. Emphasis on the fools when you see me on ice.) All by tram and foot. I actually felt the need to explain to my bike, Lucy, that this situation was only temporary and she and I would be back together as usual in due time.   It’s Christmas, Lucy. And things are different at Christmas time. (Don’t judge, bikes are a lifeline here and, like house plants, they need confirmations of love. It’s true.)


Taking Oma for a ride through the Vondelpark. 

Expat Christmas is a whole different ballgame from Normal Christmas. If it were Normal Christmas, we would be eating crockpot meals and sledding in 2-3 feet of snow at the park across the street. Aaron would have snow-blowed a trail through our HUGE yard so that Jonah (the dog) could run through the snow to pee and poop (a trail that would, come the springtime melt, be referred to as the Trail of Turds). We would have a big tree that we bought from the nature center and hauled back home by tying it to the roof of our SUV.   I would have presents stuffed into the top shelves of closets. (Closets! Can you imagine, expats? Real closets with doors. Not Ikea wardrobes. Oh the glory of it all!) Most importantly, we would be preparing for our journey to Oma’s house for Christmas day. Oma’s, the coziest (gezzelig-est) little wooden, New England style home with a fireplace, big front porch and views of the foothills to the Adirondacks.

Oma’s house is Christmas, in many ways. For 7 years, we lived a couple of hours down the road from Oma’s. She was our major holidays destination. And our weekend getaway spot, Fourth of July camping partner and companion for all those “lesser” events too. Those 7 years were the years we got married, bought our first house and redefined the Christmas experience by having babies and wide-eyed toddlers. The precious Footie Pajamas Years. You know, those years when the magic of Christmas is rediscovered through sparkling excitement and energy of a child, faintly smelling of urine, frantically opening presents.

But here we are, living in a 2 bedroom apartment on the second floor (with no closets), with no motorized form of transport, no crockpot and I haven’t bought a pair of footie pajamas in over 2 years. There is no snow on the ground, only grey skies and the ever-present drizzle of rain. The types of days that feel like morning all day long. So no sledding. No snowboard lessons at the ski resort 5 miles up the road. No snow-mobiles lined up in the parking lots of the local dive bars in Oma’s little redneck mountain town. (BTW – a snow mobile pub crawl should be on everyone’s bucket list!) Our lovely little collection of Christmas ornaments is somewhere in a box in the basement of my brother’s house (Baby’s First Christmas, the hand-blown glass ones we bought in Ithaca and the paper cut-out with picture types made at nursery school, etc.). That box is probably next to our old crockpot.

In Expat Christmas-land, those “heirlooms” and traditions go right out the window. They are not realistic. Remember, we moved here with 8 Army duffle bags and nothing more. Expat Christmas is leaner in that sense, trimmed of the fat of Christmas past. (Maybe it’s all the biking…) There are few traditions and almost no obligations in Expat Christmas. There is no need to bring out the fine China (yes, it’s in storage) and digging up Great Aunt Cecilia’s apple pie recipe (too much converting of measuring units to bother with). Want to go to Spain for Expat Christmas? Sure, pack your bags and enjoy the tapas. Want to house and dog sit for your friends who are going to Spain for Christmas? Why not? You’ll need that extra bedroom and toilet for guests and they already decorated the place! Want to spend Christmas Eve on a boat? That’s how the Dutch roll (or paddle, or however one is propelled through water…what is that word?)

It’s easy to sink into a longing, aching nostalgia for the familiar people, places and things of Normal Christmas. But being away from all the usual trappings of the holidays is freeing too.

It is a strange thing to love and cherish something, while at the same time to feel unburdened by its absence.


Last year, we learned to (mostly) be at peace with those missing pieces and embrace the new, strange world we live in. We recognized this new Normal as just another phase of life, not unlike any other fleeting stage. We bought a tree, but carried it home by bike. (Technically, Aaron carried it home, but we were there.) Then we all went out for bitterballen and warme chocomel. New tradition birthed. We found a second hand shop in our neighborhood and let the girls pick out ornaments. Some old and antique-ey looking, others gaudy and cheap. But who cares – they had fun and our tree looked, well, nevermind that, but it was fun. New tradition birthed. And this year, we will tram our way across town with Oma and Uncle Don to have Christmas dinner with other expats that we have only known for a few months. Yes, in Expat Christmas-land you can get invited to Christmas dinner by friends you didn’t even know on Labor Day. New tradition birthed? It probably depends on how the dogs behave.

So here I sit, drinking coffee with Oma while the girls draw pictures of Rudolph with crayons. We might as well be sitting around her dining room table surrounded by snow drifts and loving cousins. But we’re not. We’re at someone else’s house (apartment, really), house/dog sitting with the pictures of un-related children on the walls and my kids are singing Dutch Sinterklaas songs that I don’t understand. It’s a strange new world. But it’s a lovely one. Warm and gezzelig as ever. Even without the footie pajamas.

A Letter to Slate Double XX Podcast – Feminism begins at home, not on Twitter #heforshe

Grocery shopping by bike with Dad in Amsterdam.

Grocery shopping by bike with Dad in Amsterdam.

Me on #heforshe and the role of men in feminism:

. . . the problem is people pronouncing themselves as feminists and not understanding the hard work that it takes to uphold that ideal.  Tweet all you want, that doesn’t make you a feminist that has made a damn bit of difference until you’ve stood up for a woman who needs a place to use her breast pump in private, or a man who wants to take time off to care for a sick child . . .

Suggested Tweets for Dads:  #iknowwheremykidsvaccinationrecordsare #dadsweektoshopplanandcookdinner

Dear Amanda, Noreen, Hanna and June

I’ve tried.  I’ve really, really tried.  I started mainlining your podcast about 6 months ago.  Then I got lured over to the Alison and Dan at Mom and Dad are Fighting.  But I kept you gals in my playlist and stayed tuned.  A lot of your discussions were unrelatable for me.  I don’t know much about Taylor Swift and have never watched the Kardashians.  No, I’m not a Quaker or anything, I’m just busy and sporty and for whatever reason not in tune with these elements of pop culture.  Oh, and I have 2 small kids + demanding job + studying for another degree + just uprooted my family and moved to Europe (Amsterdam).  It’s been a bit chaotic lately.

About the time you covered the domestic violence cases in the NFL I realized something was terribly wrong.  I don’t know why it was mentioned that Roger Goodall seemed ok in handling the situation.  He was widely panned for his crappy, disingenuous response.  But you guys sort of gleamed over that.  And, honestly, the Eastern/urban elitist perspective on football was shocking.  Maybe I’m naive.  I am a midwesterner (a Jayhawk) and football was the backbone of our sports.  I’ve lived on the East Coast since high school and never felt that football was a lower class sport.  Sure, lacrosse is upper crust.  Golf is too.  But football was never something lower than soccer or basketball or baseball on the socio-economic sport food chain.  But I never really lived in a city (unitl now).  And I suppose that’s where your views come from.

Thanks, Noreen, for standing up for football a bit.  But my concern is not football, my concern is that your podcast and articles seem to only make sense for urbanite Americans.  Ok, so that’s probably most of us and I’m not making a claim for some right-wing “real America” is in the small towns crap.  But I’m beginning to think there is a great divide between those living in cities and everyone in small towns.  And that includes small towners who read the Huff Post and Slate, like me.  I know those articles aren’t really written for people like me.  They appeal to my politics and I could spend an entire day (and have) cheering on everyone at MSNBC until I can settle into an evening with Jon and Colbert.  But very little that is discussed really reflects the daily circumstances of my life.

But I digress . . .  What I really want to talk about is the Collection of Body Parts Edition of your podcast.  And Amanda’s article on He for She (and the Gist interview that followed).  It was at this point I wanted to express my anger.  I wanted to slam a door on you, but all I had was the power to click “unsubscribe.”  Not so satisfying compared to a good, old fashioned, angry door slam.  Your suggestion for male feminists:  Tweet about it.  Are you kidding me???  Ok, I’ll try to remain calm.  Yes, Twitter is clearly a powerful tool when executed wisely.  Yes, raising awareness is important.  But, really, please can’t you understand?  Can’t you understand that people are out there facing real problems every day.  And families are hurting.  And you want us to Tweet?  Maybe the fundamental problem isn’t where we live.  Maybe my point is being derailed by the football discussion.  Maybe the real difference is that most people can’t spend their days reading and writing and Tweeting about these issues.  Maybe journalists, including my all my faves, are out of touch because it’s their jobs to see writing and Tweeting as an “action item.”  But for the rest of us, writing and Tweeting are just another goddamn thing to do.  Just another thing to eat away at the day, already overwhelmed by work and did we run out of paper towels again? and when is gymnastics class? and how is your mother-in-law handling the diagnosis?  Twitter is a luxury.  A luxury of time we don’t have  And, really, what’s the ROI on Twitter?  Because in our household my time, focus and energy is a highly-demanded commodity in low supply. And so is my husband’s.  Don’t get me wrong.  We’re very, very fortunate people.  We’ve got work that pays (most of) the bills.  Our two daughters are healthy and happy.  The future looks bright.  But let me get to my meandering point.

My husband is the ultimate feminst.  He is the icon of He for She (amongst child-bearing, heterosexuals.  That’s really the only group I can adequately speak for).  But nobody outside of our circle of friends and family knows because he’s too busy, we’re too busy, living out these feminist concepts rather than writing or Tweeting about them.  He runs our house.  He readies the kids for school, packs lunches, drops off and picks up (by bicycle, See This Dutch Life for details), teaches piano lessons with them after school until Mommy comes home from work.  He handles the bills and does the grocery shopping.  He taught preschool and now volunteers in our daughters’ classrooms.  And he fixes all broken things in the house, including plumbing and (yikes) electrical.  He lifts weights, a lot of weights.  Prompting his little preschool students to say things like “Mr. Zipp has muscles like tanks!”  He meditates with the kids.  Yeah, he’s pretty fucking awesome.  Me, I’m the breadwinner.  I do my best to do the Mommy things we want in our lives.  But my role is mostly in the professional world.  At least right now it is.  It’s not entirely by choice, but these are the choices we have.  And we’re certainly not the only ones.

It hasn’t always been this way.  I spent 5 straight years pregnant and breastfeeding.  He travelled abroad for work and I stayed home (whilst working) with babies.  But that is the nature of life that is so often overlooked in these discussions.  Things change.  And biology plays a role.  I’ve read a few articles recently (on Slate?) about how marriage should be viewed as a dynamic process.  So too, are the roles we play in this thing called feminism.  Sometimes Dad’s role is breadwinner, sometimes he must be domestic Prince.  It changes.  Why doesn’t anyone on your show discuss the difference between how feminism and gender roles evolve?  Parenting nursing babies and fidgetty toddlers is an entirely different world than parenting school-aged kiddos.  This seems like a universal phenomena, yet we tend to read about parenting as if the roles were fixed.  And no where in any stage of parenting does Twitter seem to play a significant part.

On to another point, the definition of feminism.  Even if we accept the fundamental definition – equality of genders.  What does it mean?  What does equality mean?  Is equity something different?  Better?  How do we perform equality?  How do we account for biological differences and demands?  The problem is not the definition, the problem is people pronouncing themselves as feminists and not understanding the hard work that it takes to uphold that ideal.  Tweet all you want, that doesn’t make you a feminist that has made a damn bit of difference until you’ve stood up for a woman who needs a place to use her breast pump in private, or a man who wants to take time off to care for a sick child (or, if you are a super-advanced feminist guy, to take time off to care for an elderly parent/grandparent) or fought for work-place policies that promote the well-being of employees over the bottom line. Because those are the action items of feminism. Those are the feminists we need, male or female.  Fellas – put down your god dammed iPhones and pick up the slack at home.  Because as long as women bear the overwhelming burden of running a household more than men, there will be no equality.  Remember the definition of feminism?  Equality.  What is equality at home?  Sure, we can’t get everything to 50/50, but how do the efforts put into the domestic sphere balance out with those put forth in the professional sphere?  And if Tweet you must, then let it be about the feminist actions you take, not the feministy thoughts in your head.  #foughtforonsitechildcareatwork, #nomorelatenightboardmeetings, #iknowwheremykidsvaccinationrecordsare, #dadsweektoshopplanandcookdinner.  If I ever do get back on Twitter, I’d like to see those trending.




American, f*** yeah!

America, f*** yeah!

I can feel it settling into my bones. I’ve gone down this path enough to see it coming from a mile away (or 1.67 kilometers.) It comes in many shapes. It can be a gray cloud or a wave of heat running up your spine. Mostly, for me, it’s a blanket. A big, soft, heavy down comforter with a worn cotton duvet. Once I see it coming, I wrap myself up in it’s warmth and weight. I sink into it. It’s a thick, blue sadness and I indulge. Some may call this grieving. That’s probably right. And I accept, really embrace, that grieving is a part of this process.

Usually, it’s grieving those I’ve left behind. By that I mean, my man and my girls. 3 weeks this spring 4 weeks last fall, 6 weeks last summer and 6 weeks the fall before. When I see it like that it seems unreal. Of course, there’s always the guilt. What kind of mother leave their babies like that? And the bigger guilt (because that mother leaving babies thing is half-assed and I don’t buy it. It’s only about 15% of the guilt). The real guilt is how-could-I-do-this-to-my-husband-guilt. You know, leave him for weeks on end with two kids to care for. Yeah, that one’s a bitch. But on top of that, I get really really homesick for my family. And then there’s the feeling-guilty-for-feeling-homesick-because-that-is-nothing-compared-to-the-shit-I’m-putting-husband-through-guilt. But, as usual, I digress.

I recognize the triggers too. A long Skype call with loved ones. Because saying goodbye again and again can be too much. Seeing their living rooms and thinking about relaxing Sunday afternoons or that one Thanksgiving you spent there making bacon-wrapped turkey (that was awesome…oh, there’s no Thanksgiving here. Crap.)

But the worst is probably visitors. It’s the worst, because during their visit it’s the best. They bring with them easy laughs and and easy comfort. It’s easy to be with them. The key word here is EASY. They are reminders of that other life. You know, in the place where you could drive to the grocery store blind-folded. In the place where you didn’t need an app to determine if you were about to buy some kind of weird yogurt dressing or something that might pass for Ranch (BTW – the “Ranch” flavored Doritos here are called “Cool American.” Bless this country and it’s awkward charm!) So, when they depart, we mourn again. But this time, I’m not mourning for my family. I’m not taking deep breathes and counting days until my return flight to bring me back from the homesickness brink. There is no return flight. My family is right here, hollering for a cup of water at 9:30pm. I’m not missing them.

I’m missing the ease of movement, the knowing, the KNOWING of home. I knew where to go. I knew what I wanted to buy. The routine, that beautiful rut of the same goddamn dinners again and again because our brains are too fried to be creative in the kitchen and it’s not worth it anyway because these kids just want peanut butter sandwiches. Flipping channels and knowing where Comedy Central and HGTV are without effort. I have to strain just to find something in English here. (Thank God for National Geographic and Netflix. Really, life-savers). Oh, and when I wanted to go to that grocery store to buy something I knew I wanted, I just hopped into my minivan and propelled myself there with the ease of burning fossil fuels. I am definitely mourning that minivan.

I am homesick for the easy win. I NEED a layup. Everything here is a contested jumpshot. (For the less basketball literate, that just means that everything is challenged or has some kind of obstacle.) I don’t know how else to explain to you people that every single move is just so damned difficult. It’s taxing to just BE here. We don’t even have to DO anything and we are exhausted. It’s like walking with weights on your ankles through quicksand. No, that’s not really it. It’s like being…on a different planet. But not quite that. It’s like trying to solve a riddle, all day every day. In a foreign language. With a 4 year old pulling on your pant leg and asking for something annoying. But that doesn’t really explain the emotion of it. I don’t know how to explain it.

We are displaced. We are round pegs in a big, square hole. And the hole isn’t changing, we’re the ones that need to adjust. Displaced is a word I hear a lot on NPR (Listening to Morning Edition while making coffee/breakfast is my Happy Place. Even though it’s the podcast from the day before.) I know it’s supposed to be used in reference to Kurds in Iraq and such, but I feel displaced. I really don’t know how else to describe it. There’s an expat forum called IAmExpat (From this whole tourism campaign here – IAmsterdam. It’s cute.) They have an Expat fair this fall called “I am not a tourist.” We’ll probably go. I was looking at the invite and I kept thinking – if I’m not a tourist and I’m not Dutch, what am I? I’m an Expat. But what is that? Are there Regularpats? Does that mean I can’t cheer for New England now?

I don’t know. But thinking about it makes me want to curl up in my homesickness blanket. And watch (American) football. And eat hot wings. But I can’t. Because we don’t get such football here. And I do NOT accept subpar hot wings on my plate. I’ll have to settle for a Heineken and the latest episode of Dirty Jobs. At least I have my blanket.

Flex with your daughters


Showing off our cannons to the people of the Netherlands.

I’m going to digress from my Dutch life posts and discuss something that has been rattling around in my brain for a long time now.  I’ve gone over this again and again and really want to talk about it.  As a mother and a researcher.  I keep coming across articles and Facebook posts about how to talk to girls about their body and appearance.  Some advise never to tell them they are beautiful.  I think that’s crap.  I will tell my girls they are beautiful every damn time I feel like it.  Because it’s true.  Because it makes them feel good.  And life is too fucking difficult and complicated to pass up easy wins.  Especially as a parent.  Nearly every parenting move I’ve made, from breastfeeding to time-outs, takes thought, reflection and probably some research (But I must admit I haven’t read a parenting book since The Happiest Toddler on the Block.  Addy is 7 now.  Oops!)

But some things must just come naturally, right?  I think if there’s anything I really know about parenting and about being a part of a family it’s that if you feel something in your heart of hearts, know something deep in your soul and believe something in every fiber of your being – you say it.  You fucking say it loud and and clear and often.  You don’t hold that shit back.  Everything else I ‘know’ about parenting is just an educated guess.  You tell the ones you love everything you love about them.  Everything.  And I love that my babies are beautiful.  They will spend their whole lives bombarded with messages about how how flawed they are.  But aren’t we supposed to ‘feed the meter?’  Aren’t we supposed to be the ones building them up?  I have a million different ways to compliment them and it will never be enough for all the world has in store to tear them down.  I’m not giving up this powerful weapon in my repertoire.  Yes, I’ll them them they are kind and loving and funny and talented (but we’re not supposed to say ‘smart,’ right?  Or did that change?)  And all of that is true.  And I’ll mean all of that too.

So why give up on saying they are beautiful too?  Because they’ll think that’s more important than anything else?  Because they’ll believe beauty is the key to success and happiness?  What happens if they don’t hear that word from us (their parents) and they long for it.  What happens when some dude (or gal, whatevs) comes along and tells them they are beautiful and they like hearing it.  You know, someone with good, bad or indifferent intentions.  Will they believe it and cling to it?  Maybe hearing it from us, people who genuinely believe it, will help teach them what it sounds like when someone says it and means it.  Maybe they’ll be better able to decipher when it’s said truthfully and when it’s said for other purposes.  Or maybe not.  Maybe it will serve no greater purpose than just making them feel happy for a moment.

But I digress, again.  What I really meant to say here is this – flex with your daughters.  Or don’t.  But that’s what we do.  And we do it because we are strong.  I come from a long line of Schmidt (and Karst/Jacobs) gals with strong bones and thick muscles.  By the looks of things, our girls will be of the same ilk.  They are densely built tiny humans.  I know this because when I pick up other people’s kids I nearly toss them into the sky because they are so light compared to my girls.  They were big babies (8.8 lbs. and 9.2 lbs.  Ouch) and they are big, tall kiddos.  And I love it.  And I want them to love it.  So we are trying to teach them to love their bodies.

We are not running away from body talk, we are running toward it (with proper form).  And doing pushups.  And T-25.  And pilates.  Which all generally turn into a mosh pit of snuggling or me hollering at them to get out of the way while Mommy is doing switch kicks in the air. 


I don’t know if any of this ‘works’ or even matters.  But they are talking about being strong and healthy.  They are talking about how important it is to feed their bodies good food and exercise.  They are proud of their muscles and we stand in the mirror and flex.  And in the park or on the street.  We flex everywhere.  Maybe we flex too much.  I don’t know.  But they like it.  We point out our favorite muscles (I have kick ass triceps) and watch our calves bulge when we stand on tippy toes.  It’s fun and we laugh and we are being positive about our bodies.  That has to be a good thing.


I told you my triceps are awesome. That’s me throwing at a Scottish Highland Games competition.

None of us will ever have lanky super-model legs or flawless skin.  But we can have super-powered hamstrings.  We can have amazing boulder shoulders that carry heavy loads.  And that’s pretty useful.  But that’s not the message we usually get.  I know.  I started lifting weights when I was 12.  It was the last of that blissful time before I ever really cared about clothes or appearances or boys.  I went to the weight room because it’s what my big brothers did.  I did everything they did.  I even drank protein shakes with them.  (Fun Fact: we grew up drinking raw milk in glass gallon jars from the family dairy farm.  We stirred in the cream that floated to the to top for extra weight gaining power).  I wanted to be strong like them.  My arms and legs were simply my tools for running, jumping, and (most importantly) playing basketball.  (I know how idyllic this sounds, but I really was a late bloomer and totally oblivious until my mid-teens).  Within a couple of years, the terror of the teens arrived and I hated my sturdy legs, felt self-conscious about my lack of fashion sense and was mortified by my increasingly present acne.  It took me until about midway through college, when I learned more about nutrition and found the confidence that comes from being with an amazing group of friends (my basketball teammates).  It helped a lot to be surrounded by other girls/women who worked out like me and had a relationship with their bodies that was generally focused on kinetics rather than aesthetics.  (I could go into some pretty lofty theoretical analysis on body image and gender, but I’m pretty sure if you’re reading this you know me and are likely to just take my word for it.)  Still, it’s one of those haunting weaknesses.  If I could, I would trade in my well sculpted legs for a more slender set.  It’s taken my husband over a decade to convince me that he actually likes my “girthy” calves.  (He’s not the best Complimenter).

So, we are flexing our muscles in celebration of our own kind of beautiful.  Our kind of beautiful is strong and athletic.  Maybe your kind is tall or short or dark or light or whatever.  Because we define and construct beauty in our own way every day.  Sure, our girls will be confronted with broader social concepts of beauty, but they will also have their own definitions.  And maybe, just maybe, flexing in the mirror and smiling with Mommy and Daddy will help them form more positive perceptions of their bodies down the road.  Or maybe it’s just fun.  Who knows.  But in the meantime if you see a family of 4 posing like body builders in the park, it’s probably the Zipps.

Dutch life is a beach…

The Herring Truck

The Herring Truck

Goodbye, herring!

Goodbye, herring!

We are settling in.  Like so much sand sliding down a 4 year old’s back and directly into her buttcrack.  The beach is our saving grace thus far.  We’ve gone 3 of the 6 days since arriving in Holland.  Why?  Because bus and train fare is cheap and beach access is free.  On the contrary, the zoo, aquarium, etc. are all mighty costly.  Oh, and we just moved from Kansas.  So, there’s not much in beach time there.  Nor was there in our previous residence, near Syracuse (NY).  Not to mention, the tram/bus/train riding is still a wildly exciting adventure to the kids (ok, we adults think it’s pretty cool too).  In fact, I think tomorrow we should just spend the afternoon riding trams around the city.  Honestly, it’s the best entertainment value for your Euro.  And isn’t it just as good to ride by the Van Gogh museum as it is to stop, wait in line, pay, and drag whiney children through it?  I knew you’d agree.

I’m exhausted.  And my enthusiasm for blogging is fading.  So I’m gonna buzzfeed this out tonight.  And why are my children still awake?  It’s past 10pm.  And it’s still light outside.  How far North are we?  Are we in the Arctic Circle or something?  And where is Bumbles the Pillow Pet?  And who took the pillowcases off of every pillow in the house?  And why does Gwen insist on using a full set of silverware at every meal when only a spoon is needed?  And who left a pile of raisins, meticulously picked out of a bowl of granola, on the table?  And, most importantly, where is my glass of wine?

List 1: Things we are learning about Dutch life

  1. When crossing a street, one must cross 6 different paths – bike (x2), auto (x2) and tram (x2).  We actually already knew this from many previous stays in Holland and have communicated this with the utmost seriousness to the Zipplettes.  However, if they are chasing a pigeon or see an ice cream (ijs) stand across the street, they must be physically restrained.  Every damn time.  For every path.  Every damn, damn, damn, damn, damn, damn time.
  2. Dutch kids often swim naked.  At the beach, at the public pool, whatevs.  And not just  the baby/toddler crowd, but kids up to 6ish.  And they are all blond-haired, blue-eyed beauties.  It’s a bit off-putting and creepy, in a vaguely horror film kind of way.  Imagine a swarm of naked blond kindergarteners running toward you on a beach.  It’s weird.  And then you realize the ice cream truck is behind you.  Now it’s slightly less weird.  At one point, a 2ish year old nudey boy came wandering our way to play with some sand toys.  The girls just sat their stunned, looking at his tiny dangler.  (In a brilliant moment of self-contradition, I must admit he was dark skinned and had an Afro as large as any 70’s NBA star).  He was young enough, and somehow it is more ok for boys to be naked in my mind.  Especially with the sand.  Naked girl parts and sand is just wrong.
  3. Ever try eating herring?  Ever try eating herring from a food truck on the beach?  Then you must not be Dutch.  Husband loves this stuff.  I wish I could be so cool, but I’m repulsed.  There are not enough onions in the world to make it ok to my palette.  The highlight of one beach day was when the herring truck broke down.  The entire beach bumming community rose up from their sandy towels to help the driver.  People really do come together in times of distress.  Then, the truck drove off, literally, into the sunset along the beach.  Cue the orchestra.
  4. This post has been interrupted by the cat escaping out the back door.  We had to calmly herd her back toward the house and lure her in with the sound of opening a food can (husband and I, the kids are asleep now thank the good lord and the makers of Benadryl).  We did not pay hundreds of $$$, take her to umpteen vet appointments to get her “pet passport” and fly her 26+ hours to have her run off 5 days later.  Oh hell no.  Not up in here!
  5. Douche is the word for shower/wash.  I’m certain that’s true in more languages in Dutch.  It’s everywhere here and it will never cease to make me giggle.  Don’t forget to douche your hands after using the “toilet” (or water closet, if you’re a British prick).  Honey, don’t forget to pick up some douche at the store today.  But don’t be a Dutch Douche, though.  They’re everywhere too.  You can spot them by their tapered, capri jeans and Air Jordans.
  6. Speaking of douche .. . while public transport is amazeballs here (honestly, I don’t think I will ever tire from riding trams), the hygiene aspect with small children is troubling.  And Addy is a thumbsucker.  Is there anything more disgusting than watching your daughter pop her thumb into her mouth after riding a bus, holding the railing down the escalator at the train station and pushing the buttons on the tram door?  No, there is not.  And there is not enough “sandsitizer” (Gwen’s combo word for hand sanitizer) in the world to make this ok.




Our trash pickup is cooler than yours and other Dutch discoveries

Outside of our house, which is in a relatively new development of rowhouse type structures next to a high school, occurs

Dutch trash pickup

Dutch trash pickup

Grocery store special!

Grocery store special!

Gwen in the wild of Vondelpark

Gwen in the wild of Vondelpark

the coolest trash pickup. There are two big metal boxes near the curb, one marked for paper recycling and the other garbage. These boxes serve the entire complex of maybe 20 houses. It seems like everyday, a big truck comes by and lifts the boxes up out of the ground, revealing that they are just the top of a large tank holding trash. And then it gets dumped into the truck. (see photo) It’s the kind of thing that gets children excited to see and I can only imagine how my 3 y/o nephew, Jasper, would freak out about these trash “up trucks.”

So, progress is happening here. In baby steps. I made another trip to the grocery store, this time decreasing the level of awkwardness. There is something about getting through the grocery store without revealing foreigness. It’s kind of a litmus test I use. Day 1 – disasterous. Day 2 – much improved. First, I went through an arduous process of getting a new loyalty card. I had to sign us up (hubs and I) through the Albert Heijn website. Alber Heijn is the signature grocery store of the Netherlands. The familiar blue “ah” bags are probably the most common site in this whole damn country. Honestly, it’s one of my great annoyances that people think about Amsterdam and immediately conjure images of wild Red Light District partying and coffee shops with pot smoke billowing heavenward. I’ve spent a lot of time in this country (probably 10 months total over the past 11 years) and this typical view of Amsterdam is like saying that New York City is completely defined by Times Square. The average Dutchie has little to do with it and the Red Light District area (along the Damrak) is so tourist-ified it’s like the Disneyafication of the Las Vegas strip. What was once so edgy with sex and drugs is now a neon playground of cheap souvenirs and overpriced Heinekens.

But I digress. So, I navigated the Dutch website (who needs Rosetta Stone when we have Google Translate?) and activated our cards. They really are important as most everything can be bought cheaper on the card. Look for the “korting” stickers, which indicate a discount or sale. I really can’t explain what makes me so anxious about the grocery store, but there are generally 2 elements. First, finding what I want. I really stink at the Dutch language. Honestly, it is a puzzle to me. Husband is convinced that the Dutch are actually telepathic and they just make up grunting sounds to feign verbal communication and plot world domination via bicycles and pannekeuken (pancakes). To date, I have found no evidence to disprove this theory. So reading labels is a big challenge. To further complicate things, I try very hard to find familiar foods for the girls to get them comfortable here. I’m not sure why because they generally reject my elaborate attempts at cooking (at home and abroad0 and just eat spoonfuls of peanut butter straight from the jar. Nonetheless, I keep trying. You know, because feeding your offspring seems like the motherly thing to do. Anyway, all the usual bullshit is there, but with different labels and in smaller portion sizes (it’s true, Super-Sized America). So I located some eggs, milk, bread, apples, store brand Nutella, etc. BTW – eggs are marked in some kind of strange price per kg or something. It appears as though a dozen eggs are 13 euro, but really they are only 1,45 or so (yeah, they use commas). I have no idea what kind of metric and monetary conversion voodoo this shit is and I’m too tired to try and understand. Brown eggs – check. Oh, and there is something here called “filet Americain.” It’s basically a steak tartar with the option for spices and onions, etc. You can by different varieties in pre-packaged plastic containers just about everywhere. So weird, because isn’t raw burger like illegal or something at home? Anyway, the American adults in this house are big fans and we practically live off the stuff upon firs arrival (until the novelty wears off). And so forth and so on finding “normal” groceries is one of those daily challenges. Just remember, kip = chicken. Which husband thinks is onomatopoeia.

But the most distressing part of the trip is definitely the check out. It is at this point that I am most likely to be exposed. First, I pay by cash and this poses issues with finding correct change, etc. Keep in mind that coins go up to 2 euro, so that’s actually a lot of cash compared to a quarter in the U.S. We can discuss monetary issues; why American credit cards don’t have pins and how this is a disastrous problem, and the ridiculous Dutch chipknip, at another time. You might think the payment is the hardest part. But you would be wrong. The real challenge is bagging the groceries. If you’ve ever shopped at an Aldi, you may understand a bit. They don’t bag groceries for you here. It’s up to you. Also, you bring your own bags. They have this divider thing running the long way down the counter after the checkout scanner (you know, where the groceries slide down toward the bagger kid back home). This system allows a maximum of 2 grocery bagging shoppers collecting their goods before inter-grocery shopper mingling occurs. How do I explain this? So the lady in front of me is bagging her shit while my stuff is getting scanned and sliding down the counter on the other side of the divider. I fumble through payment and forget the phrase to ask for a receipt. Done. The lady ahead of me is finishing up and calmly taking her bags away to go on with her merry Dutch life without a second thought. Meanwhile, I head to my bagging station with sweaty palms and an increased heart rate. There is a 20-something guy behind me buying like 3 items. So he has paid and bagged his crap before I get much past untangling the damn fabric bags I had stuffed in my backpack (I use a backpack because I now have to haul these groceries on foot back to the house, about a 10 minute walk away. Although anyone in Holland will tell you it’s a 5 minute walk. Everything is a 5 minute walk away in this country. They are lying. Don’t believe them!). So the woman 2 shoppers behind me is now getting her stuff scanned. The checkout lady didn’t bother touching the divider because Speedy von Young Guy was in and out quicker than a Kardashian marriage. So, I’m stuffing bags. Vaguely trying not to crush the freshly baked bread and keeping in mind I bought eggs, but mostly just trying to git ‘er done before this lady pays and someone else’s groceries begin slipping down my side of the Great Divider. On my first trip to this store, I failed miserably after an epic battle with a cloth bag caught in a zipper pocket of the backpack. This time, I make it! I drop the organic stroopwafels (at delicious Dutch treat for the kiddos) in just before the next shopper’s box of hagelslag (look it up, it’s wildly popular here) comes sliding my way. I coolly walk away out into the sunny street.

It’s a pretty big victory, until about 10 seconds into my walk home when I realize I had put the heavy stuff in the fabric bag as opposed to the backpack. ‘Tis much more comfortable to bare the burden of weighty groceries on one’s back than hanging from an arm. So the journey homeward was painful, switching the bag back and forth from one sore and weak arm to another. It probably took more like 12 minutes.

So, anyway. That’s all the news I have the energy to share right now. We wore the kids out with a shopping trip, playing in water fountain/wading pool things and a nice stroll through Vondelpark (it’s like Amsterdam’s version of Central Park). Side note- Vondelpark is the only place in the world (I believe) where you can legally smoke pot and have sex. I know I’m contributing to the annoyingly badboy rep of this city, but it’s true and interesting. Personally, I love this park because it’s filled with people lounging on blankets, street vendors and musicians, and mostly young lovers or groups of friends picnicking with cheese platters and bottles of wine/Heineken. The atmosphere is part summer picnic, part college music festival campout. But I do worry about the kids getting a contact high. Alright, I have to stop. I’m becoming part of the problem of bad Amsterdam assumptions now.

Oh, and the luggage finally arrived.  And the kiddos ate ice cream (ijs).  And remember that news over here is much more graphic, expect images of dead bodies from Israel, etc.  Better go feed those kids now. Tot Ziens.

Getting there is half the fun

The Red Eye

Would you like to hear the tale of our 26+ hour adventure through 4 aiprorts/countries with 2 kids and a cat? Well, hold on to your hats…

Here’s the recount- or, as Addy is calling her newest writing project, Pipsqueak’s Adventures in Holland (our cat). First, it was a funny scene at the airport when the lady at the counter saw us and said ‘oh. The Zipp family!’ Apparently checking 9 bags and bringing a cat is noteworthy. Then there were teary, teary goodbyes. I can’t go into the details of it now. Too soon. Wheels up, no more decisions to be made and nothing but the sound of my own sadness and pent up anxiety over this major life decision and the day’s travels. Cue eruption of tears, bordering on ugly crying. Sideways, take-off hugs from hubby and kids.

Overnight flight – kids watched movie, fell asleep like champions. They sprawled out on the entire row, leaving no room for parents. (As was our intention). No parental sleep obtained. Cat slept.

The cat and girls did AWESOME all the way to Coppenhagen (12 hours into journey). The 6 hour layover and delayed flight pushed our limits and then broke through them like a 4 year old ripping open (and spilling) the last bag of Goldfish. Luckily, husband is able to handle my occasional major bitchiness. It was pretty severe. Although, I was right. Seriously. We finally secured food, water and play space. Gwen, who was our Director of Kitten Petting Services, managed to not instigate an international incident by letting the cat loose in a Scandanavian country (but honestly Denmark, you’re not as Scandanavian as the dangling countries on the other side of the water.) Addy, our Family Historian and Regional Manager of Kitten Support Services, excelled at fending off rambunctious-looking Norwegian brothers (approximately 3 & 5) from harassing the cat in a bag. And then she supervised the Kitten Exercising Programme. Walking a cat on a leash in a Danish airport is strangely calming to 7 year olds.

‘Twas a brief moment of contentment and calm. But then we were still there. Waiting and waiting. We could feel the loose grip on sanity slipping. We were all hot, mildly sweaty and stinky, foggy from no/weird sleep. And the children’s play area was devolving from a sanctuary of free movement to a romper room of annoying, small humans speaking gutteral-sounding languages and trying to touch our cat. Suddenly we had to get out. Bear in mind that we were toting 3 roller carry-on bags, a cat carrier, 2 adult backpacks, 2 kid packpacks (long ago abandoned by the children they were designed to be carried by) and a hodgepodge of stuffies, dolls and blankies. And why, oh why, do these children insist on taking their shoes off at every place we stand still for more than 5 minutes? I have spent more time looking for stray flip-flops in foreign countries than at any major monument or important tourist destination. Anyway, the lag time between deciding we HAD to go and the actual going was significant. And what the hell kind of people make a play area on the second floor of an airport but have no elevator or escalator nearby? “Great” Danes, my ass. Luckily, Daddy has “muscles like tanks” and we only held up a half-dozen or so travelers schlopping our wares down the narrow staircase.

We made our way to the Gate with all the grace and coordination of a 6th grade orchestra. Next thing I knew the kids were sprawled out asleep and I startled myself awake with my own snoring. Attractive for sure. Boarded flight with relative ease, quick 2 hour journey, off board to final destination – Amsterdam.

At this point, I must include some broader context. Yesterday was a National Day of Mourning in the Netherlands in honor of more than 200 Dutch victims in the MH17 flight shot down over the eastern Ukraine. I’ve flown into Schipol airport probably 10 times before and it has never felt like this. We arrived shortly after a national moment of silence that occurred as the victims’ bodies arrived at another airport to the south of us. The bodies were being driven toward Amsterdam in a caravan with Dutch people lined up along the route, much like fans line the streets for the Tour de France. But this was a terribly solemn affair. There is a heavy cloud over this country and everywhere we looked reminders, from notices on the airport screens about the Day of Mourning to the live tv coverage of the caravan, of the tragedy. We feel it deeply on behalf of our new home country.

Back to a happier tale. Like how all 9 of our checked bags, plus the car seats, were lost. So, we waited and waited and filed a claim with baggage services. As you can imagine, the kids were beyond melting point. I got in an argument via Skype phone call with the taxi driver that was arranged to pick us up. We got a different taxi and arrived at the furnished house rented for us by the University. The owner greeted us and was very kind, preparing snacks for the kids and pouring us glasses of wine. He explained details about the house and gave instructions I blurrily recall. Finally, he intuited that we were burnt out and he left, promising to check back in on Monday to make sure we were ok. We have this house for 6 weeks.

Kids bathed and mommy to the grocery store for dinner (for first awkward consumer experience – pangs of panic as my grocery loyalty card, which I have so proudly kept and located, has apparently expired. Can’t I just get this win?). Then adults showered, we ate, and all fell asleep watching Free Willy. Back up clothes for kids were in carryons, but there was nothing clean left for adults. So (shhhh) we borrowed shorts from the owner’s closet. Could anything make me feel more awkward then wearing a strange man’s cargo shorts right now? We slept hard, but the kids woke up around 1:45am. I fended them off for awhile but we were eating eggs at the kitchen table by 2:30. Hubby and I are taking shifts and as I write this the girls are drifting in and out of consciousness watching The Simpsons (they reluctantly watched some Dutch cartoons I forced on them, but eventually they wore me down). I’m signing off for now. I figured out the cappuccino machine here. Time for Round II. Tot Ziens.