Farewell to Amsterdam

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Daily school run in wind and rain.

It’s been three years since we moved to Amsterdam. Three years and a lot of trial and error. In these last weeks before we move to Scotland, my heart swells and breaks over our decision to leave. Nevermind all that for now. In this moment, I am Here. I effortlessly navigate my bike through busy streets filled with hundreds of other cyclists, trams, cars, and, worst of all, tourists. Newcomers to Amsterdam nervously and recklessly wander into oncoming traffic of all sorts. Not me, I’m a pro.  I’m cruising, listening to my Amsterdam playlist in my earbuds and feeling superior as I watch people huddled around phones or city maps trying to figure out where the hell they are and how to get to the Anne Frank house. “Did you get lost in Aaaaamsterdam?”  Yes, I did, Guster, but now I am found.

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Boat birthday party – what could possibly go wrong?

 

I love this city. I love this city madly. You, dearest Amsterdam, are so misunderstood. You are not who they think you are.

You are for families riding bikes through Vondelpark, not drunken spring breakers stumbling to the next coffee shop. You are AH picnics on a bench overlooking a busy gracht and lazy evenings watching the weekend bustle from our perch atop the NEMO museum.  Even when you are difficult, the challenge is interesting and worthwhile.  You are the relentlessly tiresome bicycle commutes through wind and rain, arriving to work with the hair of Boober from Fraggle Rock and the odor of gym sock. You are awkwardly holding up the line at the Turkish grocer,  trying to order a half kilo of chicken op Nederlands. You are weary-legged trips home from the grocery store, skillfully balancing a heap of weekday meals AND a case of Heineken in our bakfiets (cargo bike).  You are my city.  The only city I’ve ever really loved.

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Captain of Her Own Ship – docking up the boat one last time at our favorite spot, de Roest.

 

I love this city for what it is, but I also love this city for who I am in it.  

In Amsterdam, I know shit. I know how to get to shit and I know how to get shit done. I know which shit to avoid and which shit to pursue. It took a good long while and a lot of embarrassing mishaps to get to get here, but I did it. Expert Amsterdamer Level Unlocked.  I am a capable city girl in this town. Not bad for a country bumpkin from Kansas. Knowing Amsterdam makes me feel like I can do (nearly) anything. This is what empowerment feels like. This is agency. The ability to understand shit and handle shit.  

My senses are heightened these last weeks in my city. I want to feel these feelings, harness this high and store it away for safekeeping.  I know I’ll need it in the future.  I’ll need this confidence, this sense of self and place and efficacy.  What lies ahead? What lies ahead is more. More trying and failing and trying again. Learning and adjusting.  Go back to Start, do not pass Go, do not collect $100.  More of the same humbling expat efforts, but completely different. I’m excited for Scotland, thrilled, really.  It’s a stunning place and I’m ready to hike green hills rather than push through street crowds. But the process is daunting. 

I also want to enjoy the moment, for once. This is exactly where I want to be and exactly what I want to be doing. Breath it in, hold it, relish it. Such fleeting moments of presence and contentment are so elusive to me (and everyone?), but they’ve been plentiful lately. Driving our boat is bliss. Cruising the canals on a (rare) warm and sunny summer evening, unintimidated by the pushy tourist boat bullies, cold Amstel in hand. Or, listening to my daughters and their friends squeal and giggle in Sarphatipark on one of our leisurely Friday after school outings – SarPhridays. And that (awesome, truly AWEsome) moment when my supervisor draped the doctoral hood over me after five demanding, nearly debilitating years pursuing that damn degree. You get the picture.  Summer 2017 is bringing all the emotions and bringing them hard.

Those last weeks in Amsterdam brought a fleeting clarity – who I am has gotten closer and closer to who I want to be. I want to be the person who just keeps trying and figures it out.  Maybe not knowing where I want to be is who I want to be.  I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that I have strong figuring-it-out skills. “I’m good at being uncomfortable, so I can’t stop changing all the time,” Fiona Apple in Extraordinary Machine.

And so we keep on moving on.  We are Journey People.

Fijne avond, Amsterdam. Dank u wel. 

 

 

 

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.)

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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.

Disney Muppets v Jim Henson Muppets – The great Gen X Civil War?

A good, wise friend posted this link on his Facebook:

http://www.salon.com/2014/04/06/millennials_just_dont_get_it_how_the_muppets_created_generation_x/ 

I struggle to express  my true feelings on the new Muppet phenomenon.  Here’s my best effort.

As a tail-end member of Gen X, I love and appreciate this article. The author is spot on about Xers and the impact of Jim Henson’s work. The magic of his Muppets, Fraggle Rock and Sesame Street was the sheer joy they brought. It all happened to be wrapped in themes of social justice and learning. And we, somewhat unknowingly, loved that part of it too.

30 years later, nostalgia hits hard and the sight of imposter Muppets seems an abomination (I think that’s a more accurate use of the Biblical term than we generally here today).  But here’s the thing. Unwittingly, I loved the first Disney Muppets movie. I sang, I laughed, I was moved. I’ve shared many warm moments of joy with my daughters laughing at Kermit’s mishaps. I bought the soundtrack. I also felt somewhat shameful for my affection for these traitors (thanks, Piatt).

I think the issue is less about the Muppets and more about the pressures of parenting in the 21st century.  As newbie parents we fought hard against video entertainment of any kind. We held the line for nearly 2 years before caving in (airport travel with a toddler will break anyone). And when we broke, we went for cool, hipster educational, music-oriented stuff, like They Might Be Giants albums/videos (Here Come the ABCs, etc.). Slowly, that line started to erode and we ended up occasionally permitting a Blue’s Clues (OMG, I still can’t believe that guy killed himself. It makes the show so creepy to watch.) and, ugh, Dora. Now, Dora is, simply put, awful. Just terrible. To borrow from my friend’s 6 year old son, “why does she stand there and repeat everything a hundred times? Just get on with it DORA!” He’s right. She totally sucks. We tolerated it for about a year because we thought it would be good to learn some Spanish language skills and culture. But we also grew weary. Weary of trying to pick the right foods and toys and clothing and blah blah blah. And then we had a new baby and we held on to only the truest of parenting principles we could maintain. I just breastfed like crazy, we tried to play good music around the bambinos and we read, read, read. And we hoped for the best. So far, so good. I stumbled upon my 4-year-old playing school with a herd of stuffed animals and humming a relatively obscure Muse song (Explorers).  Positive reinforcement that fills my meter.

And that brings me back to the Muppets. Whatever the new Disney Muppets lack in Henson magic, they nearly made up for in sheer entertainment value. The first one was hilarious. Plus we got to feel a little nostalgic with our kids and the Disney Muppets became a gateway drug to introduce them to the real McCoy. 7 years into this parenting gig and that’s good enough for me. But mainly, we all got to sit on our asses and watch a movie that was funny and entertaining. 5 or 35, we all need that sometimes. Oh, but the new Disney Muppets movie is a big, fat turd. TURD.

Should I stay or shoud I go now?

It’s hard to believe, but here we are.  Facing a big family decision once again. Here’s the gist:

Option 1) Stay put in T-town

Stay in Topeka.  Live simply and relatively cheaply.  Kids stay in same schools (maybe) and neighborhood.  Pursue modest, but rewarding careers.  Maybe pursue a big professional dream (start a business).  Be close to family support.  Own a car and have a yard.

Option 2)  Move to Amsterdam

Yeah.  Europe Amsterdam.  Holland.  Coffee shops that sell pot (although, living as Colorado’s neighbor makes that less of a big deal now).  Live a complicated but very unique and exciting lifestyle.  Kids attend cool international schools.  Kids forced to make another big adjustment, this time with language barriers.  Pursue exciting career in academia.  Not try to start a business.  Be far, far away from family, but close to some friends.  Not own a car.  Live in a small space with probably not much yard.  Enjoy great public transport, extensive holidays and easy travel throughout Europe.

I’ll be back with more details.  But I’d sure like to get thoughts from the peanut gallery.  We really, really are torn.