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. Sweet kilt, Aaron.

You all know by now that reality TV is not reality.  Like a weathered brick façade on a 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.

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!

*Update since the episode aired: The editing makes our conflict seem more intense and, of course, the 1 time out of 100 that you say something frivolous (standard HHI e.g. “I love this 19th century French villa, but the color of this wall is obnoxious) they play that 10x and fail to include dozens of thoughtful comments (e.g. If we balance the the lower cost, closeness to the kid’s school and quite neighborhood, I think it’s worth the longer commute). My hair looks way frizzy in some scenes, but overall, I think we done did ok. 




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.

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.