Friday, November 27, 2015

Hello Fresh!

I'm the penny pinching one in this household. Kidlet doesn't know what a penny is, yet, and Karel...well, I love the guy but tracking spending is not his forte.  Suffice it to say, then, that when Hello Fresh debuted in the Netherlands two years ago I laughed and told the guys selling subscriptions to fuck off.  

This is because they charge €39.99 for a box of 3 meals for 2 people.  That's €13.33 per meal, €6.66 per serving, folks. And they don't even come over and do the dishes for you. For someone who typically drives down the cost of dinner to €2-3 per person, it's ridiculous.  

But if I were to be completely honest...I can't deny that I wasn't tempted. Setting asid
e time every day to go grocery shopping is a bit of a drag, and that goes double if Karel isn't home to babysit kidlet while I run out for a carton of milk. 

These sort of subscription-boxes have been popular on both sides of the Atlantic for a while, now: they're supposed to simplify your life (or at the very least, your grocery shopping) while providing a good, homemade meal for the cost of a Value Meal at McDonald's (yeah...the Value Meals where I live...aren't, exactly).  You get all the ingredients you need, pre-measured in the quantities for however many people you're cooking for (minus a few basics, like olive oil, flour, milk) and then you just follow the directions on the menu card.  In their perfect world, you'd get a box every week, but forty euros a week for 3 dinners is obscene by any standard except Parisians'.  Fortunately it's easy to log onto the website and tell them when you want a box delivered, and with Hello Fresh, you're only obligated to buy two boxes at full price.

The good news is that Hello Fresh, at least, has really big portions, which works out well because we're two adults and one hungry kidlet.  The four measly potatoes you get for a stamppot might not look like much, but add a package of saurkraut and a couple of sausages and you've got an all-out meal.  There are vegetarian options as well, and they're tasty, too.

The bad news is that you kinda-sorta-hafta know how to cook first before you can make anything really tasty with it. For our box last week, we had mackerel wraps, saurkraut stamppot, and a vegetarian lasagna.  None of these required any special skills to make, but I can imagine that, if you're not used to cooking it would be kind of daunting, especially when it comes to making a roux for the cheese sauce with the lasagna, or some of the fancier cooking things that are required of you.  You don't  need a lot of kitchen utensils, and the ones that are recommended are the sort of things that most people would have. But then again, there was a time when we didn't have a baking sheet.  That being said, the recipes do taste something splendid--it says a lot when a three-year-old will eat eggplant and spinach without whining. 

I'm still kind of divided on whether it's good value; I feel like if they'd drop the price to 30 or even 35 euros I'd probably get the boxes a lot more often.  I mean, things like fresh pasta and smoked mackerel aren't exactly cheap at the supermarket, either, and after the peace of mind afforded by three days of only having to shop for things like milk and cat food, I can definitely see the value in having someone else do the thinking for you.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Getting help

It's no secret that kidlet is weird--the kid is great on long trips, for example, goes to bed without a problem most nights, loves olives and sunny-side-up eggs (but won't touch hard-boiled ones). But there's weird, and then there's worrying, and kidlet's particular brand of weirdness has had us mildly worried for a while. But it wasn't until I discovered that I'd have to register him for basischool next year that we decided to take the leap and have him independently assessed. Sending him to school next year when he's still using nonsense-words (in either language) just won't do.

And this is where the consultatiebureau really morphs from something merely very annoying to something that is a godsend, because all it took was one phone call, explaining what we've been observing, and someone came to our place, agreed that further assessments were needed, and an observer was placed in kidlet's peuterspeelzaal class to see if we were merely being overly-worried parents.

The observer, a licensed child development specialist, assured us that some of our worries would resolve themselves eventually, but some of our worries were justifiable ones and that it was a good thing that we'd called them. Early intervention can work wonders, but only if parents recognize that something is wrong, and  sometimes what's taken for granted as "of course it takes longer" can cross the line into an actual developmental delay, and the things that we should be worried about, according to the specialist, were straddling that line.

I'll admit, when I first had him, it was a PITA dragging a kidlet all the way to the consultatiebureau every month--even though we had a car by that point Karel was away more often than not, and I didn't get a bike again until last year, so that meant I either had to walk 40 minutes, or take a bus, beginning and ending my trip with a 15-minute walk. Suffice it to say that, while I was always glad for a healthy-baby report, it didn't always alleviate the peevishness from schlepping a kidlet around for almost an hour, just for people to tell me that everything was normal.  But they've been nothing but wonderful for us, outlining a plan of monitoring and interventions for the next six months that seems like a cross between .

For now, not much will change: kidlet will start seeing a speech therapist at the very least, and if there is space for him we'll increase his peuterspeelzaal time to three mornings a week. There was a recommendation that he attends a peutergym to allow him to move around in the ways that he seems to want to, and improve his kinesthetic awareness.  Hopefully this will be enough. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Paris! With an almost-3-year-old...

Paris!  What can I say? Despite being underwhelmed by it the last time I visited (though that was due largely to the fact that I was out €200 before I even got there and therefore could barely afford to eat) when I found out that Karel had never seen Paris properly, I was horrified and therefore decided that, rather than have an anniversary dinner in the quiet comfort of a gourmet restaurant appended to a hotel with kidlet being baby-sat by his aunt and uncle and cousins, we would drag a 3-year-old on a 5-hour train ride through a smog-ridden city and eat cheap food and walk until kidlet keeled over with exhaustion.

So you might be thinking that this might be a horror story about navigating Paris with a 3-year-old.  But actually, well, kidlet was very well-behaved the entire time.  When our train was stuck in Roosendal for over an hour, and then we had to take the slow train to Antwerp, there was only a minimum of fussing.  Then from Antwerp, we had to go to Brussels, which was another long slog and it was almost 3 pm by the time we were able to explain to someone at the Thalys (French high-speed rail company) what had happened and what we were trying to do.  It was slightly complicated due to the fact that I used e-tickets on my phone because printing stuff involved a headache-and-a-half (drivers for the printer not up-to-date with Windows 10, etc), and the Thalys service counter in Brussels Central for some reason couldn't look up the ticket information even though it was right on my phone, so our only recourse was to go to the main Thalys desk in Brussels-Midi.  Fortunately, news of the snafu at Roosendal had been sent down the pipeline well in advance, so one quick explanation to the people working the desk and we got a piece of paper and permission to board the next train to Paris.  And we were lucky to run into a sympathetic conductor--maybe it was just because we had kidlet with us--who was able to find seats for us in the first-class compartment, so that was nice.  So basically, by the time we arrived at our hotel we'd been on the road for 10 hours straight and it was a relief for all of us to crash and sleep, pretty much right away.

The next morning I'd planned on taking Karel and kidlet to the Eiffel tower and Notre Dame.  It was a beautiful day and kidlet got up at 6 am because he's kidlet and he always, come hell or high water, gets up at least an hour too early.  Karel had paid for breakfast at the hotel (ibis), so it was convenient and made more sense than wandering through the streets of Paris trying to find a place that doesn't charge €10 for a croissant, orange juice, and coffee.  I mean, yeah, the breakfast at the Hotel ibis was €10.50 but at least you had choices (croissant, madelines, pain au chocolate, fruit, yogurt, cheese, cold cuts, eggs) and decent coffee.

The Eiffel tower and Notre Dame were amusing just because they were sights you have to see for yourself, but I have to agree with Karel that the best part of the day wasn't the sights, it was walking through the streets, meandering along and looking at things that caught our fancy: a bag of dried lavender buds, for instance.  We were able to bribe kidlet into going quietly into Notre Dame with the promise of ice cream that we'd seen on our way there.  It was getting to see the sketchy parts of Paris and cramming ourselves into the Metro along with all of the other commuters.

The next day we wandered slowly through Montmarte, the neighborhood our hotel was in. Our destination was the Basilica du Sacre Coeur but we had five hours to find it before we needed to get our bags from the hotel, so we were in no rush.  It wasn't as if it was hard to miss, either--the church sits at the top of an enormous hill, flanked by gardens. We went up the hill the hard way--on foot, yes, even kidlet, who seemed more determined than ever to reach the top--but there were tram cars ferrying passengers up and down the hill. Entrance to the basilica is free (always a perk) but you had to pay €6 for the privilege of climbing 300 stairs to the dome--which, to my mind, was definitely worth it for the view, though on the day we went it was drizzling a bit and the rain had turned the marble as slick as ice, so going down--especially since kidlet still has the outsized head of most toddlers--was a challenge, to say the least.

Food was still shockingly overpriced.  Granted, the portions were probably a little bigger than they are in the Netherlands, but still:  €12.50 for a grilled-cheese sandwich is outrageous.  If it'd been me and Karel alone, no doubt we'd do a lot more walking to find places to eat that are off the beaten path--food tends to be cheaper the farther away it is from tourists--but kidlet, tough though he may be, can only trek so far. But the indifference and bad service that people always seem to complain about when they visit Paris wasn't really an issue for us.  Contrary to perceived wisdom, I think we actually got better service because we had kidlet.  I mean, people actually gave up their seats on the Metro when we got in.  And then the proprietor of a cafe we stopped at for coffee gave kidlet one of those Eiffel Tower miniatures that they sell on the streets, and two free cookies. The Rough Guide was right about Parisians loving children--though I think part of it was also that we weren't trying to wrestle a huge Quinny stroller into the rush-hour Metro.

We opted to bring what we called the kiddie-backpack, one of those child carriers people typically use for hiking, instead of the stroller (the one pictured here is not ours--it's just an example of the type of heavy-duty child carrier we have). Part of this was because Parisian streets are not nice to strollers--there are cobblestones and potholes, and some of them are very narrow and most of them are crowded.  Part of  this was because tucking a Quinny into the baggage compartment on the Thalys is nigh-impossible.  And it turned out that, in Montmarte, the hills are so steep that stairs are used rather than normal methods of paving them, so a stroller would have been nearly useless anyway.  Not to mention that there's no place to park strollers if you want to go inside places like the basilica or Notre Dame, and that if you're going to a cafe it's a lot easier to squeeze between tables if you're not pushing a stroller around.  We took it with us everywhere we went, even though kidlet spent most of the time running around--empty, it's bulky but lightweight, so it wasn't too much of a burden and it was nice to have for the times when kidlet couldn't go on any more.

Suffice it to say that Paris was fantastic.  It's true, what they say about doing things with people you love.  And passing on the sense of adventure to kidlet--well, what could be better?

Friday, October 23, 2015

What is Discipline?


It always irritates me a little when people brag about how, when they were little, they got smacked around and came out all right in the end.  It bugs me when people admit to spanking their kids--don't get me wrong, now that kidlet's almost 3 I experience the urge to smack him a good one at least once a day, so I totally understand the sensation of being powerless over a kid's obstinate "no".  And it really, really pisses me off to see some parent punishing their child and read comments lauding that parent for "good discipline".

Let's get something straight, here:  good discipline is not punishing a child when they do something wrong (more on this later).  Good discipline is structuring your life so that your child learns how to live.  Good discipline is not merely not-giving your child a biscuit every time they ask for one; good discipline is telling your kid what you expect of them before you go into the store and then giving them a hug when they do it.  Discipline, after all, means "to teach"; it means teaching them to get up when they fall, to try again if they fail, that you--and by extension the world--have certain expectations of them that they have to meet in order to become members of society; that they can't always get their way and that crying about it won't solve problems.  Good discipline, in other words, is a way of life, a mindset that you either embrace, or not.  If you don't live a disciplined life, then no amount of time-outs or spanking will ever give you a disciplined child.

Punishing a child is something in the framework of good discipline, but it is not the end-all-be-all of discipline.  It is something that needs to happen, occasionally, to teach a kid what not to do, but if you're disciplining your child then they'll have already figured out what they should be doing.  You can't punish a child into good behavior.  Bad behavior needs to have consequences, of course--but only insofar as it teaches the child what not to do. Teaching a child how to behave is not the same thing as smacking them until they stop doing anything.  And spanking a child--well, like I said, I understand the urge to.  But I'm an adult.  I know better.

Which leads me to the other point:  respect is not the same thing as fear.  Respect goes two ways.  If you respect your child's person--if you respect their wishes, stop tickling them when they say so, and respect them the way you want to be respected--then odds are they will respect you.  This is not to say that you should bribe your child for good behavior, but just to say that children are people--or trying to be people--and the way to get respect is to give it.  You can't tell a child "no TV" all the time while playing World of Warcraft for three hours straight and then expect them to listen to you when you tell them to eat their dinner. You can't tell a child it's not okay to hit his brother while spanking him for doing it.

And this is not to say that your kids will end up brats if you do these things or not.  Kids are resilient and pick up a lot more than we give them credit for. As long as you're doing some kind of parenting, your kids will probably end up all right, despite everything you're doing or not-doing to screw them up.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Home improvement

I gotta say, it's amazing what a couple of screws and some white paint can do for a space.

We--or rather, Karel--has been on a bit of a home improvement kick recently.  It started with the little things, like (FINALLY) sectioning off the loose cords that we have running through the place, confining them with little runners and basically making the place safe for humanity and toddlers with giant heads. Then he mounted the TV to one of our walls, making it safe and freeing up a ton of extra space in our living room again.  I have a place to hang the drying racks on the (rare) occasions when they're not being used. We replaced out closet with the Algot system from IKEA. The ugly hole under our water heater (we have a tankless water heater) got plastered over, the gap in the concrete floor got filled, and a bookshelf--with a space for our stand mixer--got put up.  Karel built a custom drawer system in the space where our dishwasher had been, and now, over the past few days, he single-handedly emptied the pantry (except for the washer), painted the space, and put up a ton of new shelves. It's not quite finished yet--we'll be picking up a second Raskog cart from IKEA soon--but it's already a ton better than it was before. Still on the list of things to do is to build kidlet a lofted bed, build him a new bookshelf/desk system for his room, patch up the hole in the wall of kidlet's room, and install a bunch of new Algot shelves/baskets in our room to make better use of the space we have.  That, and painting EVERYTHING.

The goal is, ostensibly, to make the place sell-able.  Nijmegen is a lovely city but it's far away from Deventer and should Karel luck into finding a job elsewhere, we'll probably have to move, and the place will be much, much easier to sell if it looks neat.

But more than that, well--I think of all of these changes as being reflective of the state of things in our minds and marriage.  Before that--things were okay. We hung in there.  It wasn't great, but it was okay and it was what we were used to, and we didn't really make any plans to change it. It wasn't that we didn't have any plans (I had lots of  plans), it was just that all of the plans required at least a few days of concentrated effort and Karel, until recently, had always been an all-or-nothing kind of guy.

I won't go into what sparked this sudden transformation, but suffice it to say that home improvement isn't really just about home improvement as it is about life improvement.  Encoded in the now-brilliantly-efficient kitchen and our vastly more relaxed space is a lifestyle that's more effective, and therefore, more relaxed.  Neatness is built-in, rather than constantly-striven-for.  And we are truly happier than we've been with where we live for a long, long time.  

Thursday, September 10, 2015

BCC: Bullshit, we Can't Convey anything

The Dutch are infamous for terrible customer service.  Customer service, it is said, is rude (probably true, by American standards), can never help you in the way you want to be helped (likely to be true), and just generally makes a bad situation even worse (maybe this is true).

Somehow, though--maybe it's because I do most of my customer-service interactions when people are actually bright ad perky--I've managed to avoid getting too screwed over in terms of getting service. At the very least, (gemeente official business notwithstanding) I've come to terms with the fact that if I'm getting bottom-euro prices it's not because they've hired Service Sally to man the desk when it comes to complaints.

But even my luck runs out, and in our case, it was with BCC.  You'd think that a web retailer--and a major web retailer, at that--would have the ability to list merchandise that is out of stock as "niet in vooraad" instead of allowing you to pay for it and expect next-day delivery. And then, when you call them the next day, you find out (after a 2-hour wait on the phone, no less) that they are unable to give you any information on your order.  And when you reach out with Facebook, only then do you find out that it's out of stock and will take between 5-10 days to arrive.

And now, on the promised day of arrival (10 days yippee), lo and behold, the washer which was supposed to have been delivered this morning is nowhere in sight, and we just found out (via FB again, after over an hour on the phone and getting nowhere near customer service) that there was something wrong with the scheduling system and we'll have to wait for another 5 days.  I've been doing the laundry by hand for the past week (because the cleaners charges at least 27 euros each time) and it's just plain fucking nuts, especially since one of their services they claim to offer is next-day delivery.

Look:  I'm willing to accept a longer delivery time, but for fuck's sake don't dick your customers around like this.  Either say outright that it will take 5-7 days to deliver shit, or don't deliver shit at all.  And 'fess up to not having stuff in stock.  Yeah, maybe you might lose that sale, but two weeks without being able to do laundry is going to lose you a customer.  Several, if I have my way, and many, if there are truly that many pissed off people on their Facebook page.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Inheriting citizenship, part 2 of 2: why kidlet had a rap sheet before he turned 1

The consequences of a system that confers citizenship by blood rather than birth can be quite...well, I don't know if "amusing" is the right word, but in retrospect it definitely falls into the "you wouldn't believe it unless it happened to you".

What happened?

Well, in 2006 - well before we had kidlet, before I even arrived in the Netherlands - Karel went to Belgium for a year to work on a research project.  It was only a year, and since Belgium barely has a govenrment at all, he didn't bother to register a change-of-address (you can only have one official address) since he was going to be moving back to the Netherlands after the year was over.

Fast-forward 6 years:  I'm 8.5 months pregnant, living with Karel but not married to him (this is an important detail), and at my midwife's appointment the midwife asks me whether I've arranged for Karel to be recognized as Kidlet's father.  I stare at her like she just spouted another head.  She tells me that because we're not married, I have to grant Karel paternity, and that takes a little arranging through the gemeente.  "Just a few papers to sign," I'm told, nothing to worry about.

Because Karel is working essentially right up to my due date, and because I am too exhausted to lumber to town, though, we don't get this fixed right away.  But it's not a big deal, I'm told, because I can sign things at the hospital and over the next few weeks postpartum. So I have kidlet, more or less on schedule.  Because he came out of my body and because we're not married, he gets registered as an American, and Karel is assured that he can get it changed over the next few weeks.

Except:  remember the little research stint in 2006?  According to the city clerk we spoke with, before Karel could be recognized as the kidlet's dad, he first had to demonstrate that he wasn't married in Belgium.  Which is easier said than done, because if you never register your temporary residence then there is no way for the Belgian government to know that you were ever there, and not being able to provide proof of a non-event is (in Dutch circles) not the same as providing documentation that anything ever happened.

In the meantime, the Immigratie en Naturalisatsie Dienst received word that an unregistered American (irony, anybody?) had appeared at our address, and as this was highly improper, we got served with papers filled with scary-sounding-official-Dutch that told us to explain our case to the police department.  I call the IND, asking them what I need to do to get kidlet on the right side of Dutch law, and they tell me that if he has an American passport they can process him like any other American expat.

An American passport, though, is $200+ dollars that I didn't have, and assuming that I had a printer (I didn't) to print out the forms I needed to fill in, find the papers that I needed to have, and could take an entire day to go to Amsterdam (while breastfeeding a kiddo who won't use a bottle) and visit the American consulate, it would STILL have taken a minimum of 8 weeks for kidlet's new passport.  Our conversation with Nijmegen police was in 4 weeks.  Not to mention that, because of FACTA, I didn't want him to deal with having the IRS run a surprise audit on his bank account when he's 13 and working his first paper route, so I never intended for kidlet to be an American until he was aware of the consequences and could decide for himself.

So you can kind of see how things were really, really not looking good for us.  But then, in the space of 1 week, everything got miraculously resolved:  Karel finally managed to reach a manager who had an ounce of common sense and realized that the Belgian government couldn't say that Karel didn't get married if they didn't realize he was living there.  The police officer we spoke to was sympathetic and gave us a week to fix everything.  The manager that Karel spoke to had Karel sign a few papers two days later, and voila--Kidlet was Karel's son, got Karel's last name, and became officially Dutch.  The police dropped the investigation, and I never heard from the IND again.

As Kafka-esque as this whole thing was, though, at least it ended happily, and I'm married and carry dual citizenship now, so everything will be much easier if/when we have Kidlette.  But just imagine something like this becoming the norm in a country like the US...

Expats, immigrants, and inheriting citizenship, Part 1 of 2

I'm not the first to make the observation that "expats" are white and usually wealthy (or at least, they usually end up putting more in the tax coffers than they take out), and "migrants" or "immigrants" are not white, regardless of their class. If anybody wants to say white privilege doesn't exist, there's your proof to the contrary.  The right-wing/nationalist/white supremacists in most European nations love to hate on the Turks and/or Moroccans and/or anybody with darker skin, saying that "these people" are diluting the cultural purity or whatever the lingo for justifying hating brown/black people is in Europe these days.  Never mind the nice blonde lady who's been living next door for five years and can't speak a word of Dutch. No, the real danger to the country is from the people who've been living here for generations and have deep roots in the community.  (And, because of Poe's Law, yes, this was meant sarcastically).

Part of the problem, as I see it, is that Europe does inherited citizenships, and not birthright citizenships.  And I guess it makes a certain amount of sense; if you're going to encourage people to move across borders then having a family with multiple nationalities is kind of a pain in the ass. Only 30 countries in the world have birthright citizenship (mostly in the Americas), and US is one of them.  Everywhere else, if you're born to a [nationality] in a different country, you'll have [nationality] as long as you can't afford to change it.  

And while the process of becoming a Dutch national is merely expensive (810 euros as of 2014)--as opposed to expensive and confusing as f*ck-all, as it is in the US--the fact that it has to be done before your kids can get on equal footing, government-wise, with everybody else is grossly unfair and probably contributes more than most people want to admit to the discrimination that is faced by people with ancestries from Africa and the Middle East.  The fact that someone born within a certain country, grows up in that country, has a fulfilling life in that country, roots for that country in the World Cup, and yet has to buy citizenship (which isn't cheap) before they are allowed to vote in national elections or claim what citizens can take for granted is just a little disturbing if you think about it.  Not to mention that, if you want someone to be proud of the country they live in, having the nationality of said country is kind of a prerequisite to being part of the tribe.  It was a long time before I could be proud of the US of A, and part of that was because, until I was in my teens, I wasn't a US citizen.  I couldn't say, "We're all Americans" because I wasn't one.

I'm not saying that Europe needs to change their system--it would probably go some way towards solving the problem of people not integrating, though--but having to pay for the citizenship of a country you grew up in isn't exactly fair.  Let's not pretend that it isn't just a tiny bit racist, either.  The fact that the targets of the conversation in the US are mostly Mexicans (and, to some extent, wealthy Asians) only augments this.  You never hear people going on about all the British taking over Hollywood.

We were insanely lucky:  lucky that I was able to get in my language classes and take and pass the NT2 before a whole bunch of rules were changed, lucky that I was able to afford the 810 euros to add Dutch citizenship to my roster of countries I can call home, lucky that Karel was able to get kidlet's nationality re-arranged before we got in trouble for hosting an illegal American citizen (ironic, isn't it?).  But it's my opinion that these things shouldn't be a matter of luck.  Luck is for the casinos, not a way to live life.  

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Camping with a toddler

We are two adults with a two-almost-three-year-old toddler.  Camping is therefore even more of an adventure than it might otherwise be, especially if you factor in a three-hour drive and the fact that toddlers are, generally speaking, insane and suicidal. Or so you might think.

I tend to think that we parents somehow manage to convey our preconceived notions about what our kids are like to our kids:  that if we believe that they are in their "terrible-twos" then the kids will oblige us by being terrible.  Karel and I joke that kidlet is fast approaching becoming a "threenager", but the reality is that I don't think he's going to be a problem when he's 3. Now, it's also true that we have a very good kidlet in general, which tends to inform our expectations.

So a three-hour car trip was something that we expected him to handle well.  He's gone with us to Groningen several times and that trip is a little more than two hours, so three-hours wasn't that mch of a stretch. It helps to have the one toddler who is content to look out the window and enjoy the view, who doesn't need snacks constantly (although if it has been a while since his last meal I'm not opposed to giving him a biscuit), and who can tolerate a three-hour drive without whining or screaming or crying or being so traumatized that getting him into the carseat is a struggle.  I don't pretend that this personality fluke is due to anything we've done.  It's just how things are.

Keeping kidlet amused at the campsite was also simple:  just let him run around.  He'd find rocks to throw into the river and sticks to thwack against the trees without any help.  We were at least a hundred yards from our nearest camp-neighbors, so he had room a-plenty to run around and just delight in being a kid.  It was when the weather got rainy that things took an unexpected turn:  I'd packed some of his favorite trucks and cars in case we were tent-bound, but he surprised me by preferring to read his books instead. When we went camping on the Waal, we remembered to bring his little loopfiets, and he could easily spend hours riding that thing.

Kidlets don't really need a lot to amuse them:  When we went walking, the promise of blackberries straight off the vine was enough to get him started; the idea of "taking over" a castle was enough to get him to finish the entirely-uphill trip to the castle.  Just wading in the stream, splashing and getting his toes nibbled at by the fishes, was enough to keep him amused for over an hour--and even when we got home he was still asking to go into the water.

I'll confess, even I sometimes get guilted into feeling that we could be doing more for kidlet--whether it's more educational activities or taking him to spend more time at the playground or such.  I do sometimes wonder if we're providing him with enough stimulation, if watching and re-watching "The Gruffalo" is really enough for him.  But then again, I'm glad that he still gets so much pleasure out of sticks and stones and seeing fish in a stream and giant snails on the ground and watching trucks rumble by on the bridge. To my mind, this is the real disadvantage of our digital age:  that the simple pleasure of smacking a stick into a puddle and enjoying the splash is no longer enough for kids, that everything has some kind of end-goal to work towards, rather than just enjoying the blackberry or finding (yet another) rock to toss.  

Friday, August 28, 2015

Luxembourg!

You might think that one Dutch camping would be enough to turn me off of the experience in its entirety.  After all, Dutch campgrounds are usually packed bumper-to-bumper with caravans; open fires are prohibited, and you're expected to squeegee your own shower when you've finished.  All of which is another way of saying that Dutch camping is very much like ordinary Dutch living except distilled to its noisy, nosy, essence, with an extra side of heat and sweatiness and all the misery that comes from them, added on.  

However, I do like camping, especially if it's in a tent, and since Karel is the one doing most of the puttering, I'm more than happy to tag along and do the work of picking out dates and making reservations (and, it turns out, coming up with the cash) for a camping experience not to be forgotten.  As you may have divined from the title of this post, that was in Luxembourg, this time.  Believe it or not, as small as it is, there are still regions to the country, and the one we ended up in was called Vianden.  Or Vijanden, if your map is Dutch.

Regardless, it's a lovely region, being part of the Ardennes.  I'm not sure if the region has very tall hills or very small mountains, but the end result is the same:  spectacular views and, if you're going in the off season, you get essentially an entire campground to yourself.  We were able to arrange for a place on the water--just visible in this picture--which was a small, fast-moving little creek that had fishes of all sorts in it, and little dams that the water could rush over, which is a better lullaby than you might think.  We never had any problems getting kidlet to sleep, even on the last night, when we were packing our things back into the car.  

That might be because there was tons of stuff to do, especially if you're a two-year-old boy whose favorite things are sticks and rocks.  Kidlet must have spent hours finding rocks, running as close to the stream as he could without making us die from terror, and then flinging them into the stream.  It actually rained for a fair amount of our time there:  We got there on Monday afternoon and no sooner had we set up the campsite than it started pouring cats and dogs.  Tuesday morning was a bit rainy, but it cleared up in the afternoon and kidlet got introduced to the pleasures of blackberries straight off the vine, and kicking back in the stream with Daddy.  The stream was clean and clear--not safe to drink from, of course, but okay to swim in, and so Karel and kidlet went for a little wade in it on Wednesday, when it was hot and sunny and bright, after we got back from walking to the castle.

Because yes, we did walk.  Kidlet walked, Karel walked, I walked, the entire two miles uphill to the Vianden Castle.  We went there, paid admission, and walked around--it's a nice castle, and they've done a decent job restoring it--had lunch, and then Karel carried kidlet back down most of the way.  But it just goes to show that kids are tougher than they might seem, and as a two-year-old, kidlet is plenty tough.  


Some notes about the Continental experience:  It's weird holding a conversation in two different languages (Dutch and German, in this case).  You can kind of understand what the other one is saying, but you're always kind of hoping that other person will get the idea and switch to a language you both know.  Alas for me, my French is limited to bonjour and merci and my German is even less.  Just to confuse the bejesus out of you, too:  if you have your phone's GPS set to English, while your SatNav is set to Dutch, while the road signs are in French, just getting to wherever you need to be can be a challenge-and-a-half.

Also, I've been spoiled by Dutch prices:  I will never again complain about produce prices in the Netherlands, not after having seen what the Cactus (one of the major supermarkets) charges for food, in general.  On the flip side, though, gas is super-cheap, with diesel coming in at just under 1 euro per liter, which is probably still obscene by American standards but ridiculously cheap by Dutch ones.

We did not, however, get to enjoy a meal in a restaurant, so I can't say anything about what a real Luxembourg-ish meal is.  Part of this was that Karel is in love with the barbecue, lighting a fire, and all that, and so every evening it was "stuff roasted on a fire".  Part of this was that most of the restaurants we passed served the same stuff as every Dutch restaurant does, except with French names.  A krokette is a croquette is meat-and-batter-shaped-into-a-stick-and-deep-fried, no matter what language it's in, and suffice it to say that neither of us are fans of it.  Part of it was also that I didn't realize that 5 euros to do a load of laundry was just for washing alone, so all of our clean clothes were gone by Wednesday, and drying until Thursday.

Cultural stuff will have to wait until kidlet is a little older, but suffice it to say that Luxembourg is a ton of fun even without any intellectual pretenses.  And, to be fair, sometimes picking out the tasty blackberries is plenty intellectual enough.









Saturday, August 15, 2015

Subscribe

One of the things that's been coming as a constant surprise to me as a parent in the Netherlands is how many things I end up paying for.  It's not just the occasional branded hagelslag (Minions) or the Lightning McQueen juice, which I admit I do sometimes shell out for (mostly not, though).  And it's not the extra trips to the toilets or the snacks that I still sometimes bring when we're out for a longer day.

No, the things that end up costing me a disconcerting amount of money are memberships.  Some of these are unquestionably worthwhile:  the library (€60 per year) and of course there's my train pass  (€65 per year).  I am considering taking kidlet for swimming lessons (€87 for 10 lessons), though the fact that he is still terrified of water means that I'll probably wait another year.  There are the wonderful-but-questionably-valued ones, like a membership to the Burger's Zoo in Arnhem, which is really wonderful but a bit of a pain to get to even if there is no whining two-year-old being dragged along in your wake.

Then there are the memberships to the playgrounds:  De Brakkefort and de Leemkuil are outdoor places that are only open for four months of the year, so memberships to those places are relatively cheap (€15 per year, but it is per person instead of per family and after kidlet turns 3 that means I'll need to get 2 if I want to take him, 3 if I want to include my husband).  Then again, they are tons of fun, especially de Leemkuil, which has jungle gyms and incredible wooden climbing things that take kids to dizzying heights.  And for the stormy, rainy days, there is the Pret Inn (€96 per year) an indoor jungle-gym bonanza full of random ball pits, things to climb into and out of and over, and the giant circus-tent like thing which every kid could spend hours scampering up and sliding down.

Now, you might be wondering why I would spend perfectly good money to take kidlet to playgrounds when there perfectly good free ones all over Nijmegen.  Well, first of all, the paid playgrounds are much, much better.  It's not so much the newer equipment (though that is a perk) as the fact that they are much better-maintained, and the weeds are limited and things aren't visibly rusty.  There're always other children around to join in a game of tag (or whatever the toddler equivalent is), the spaces are comfortably shaded from the full sun, and you never have to worry that your kid is going to step in a dog turd that some inconsiderate asshole left behind.  (Seriously, what is up with the Dutch not picking up after their dogs?!) The last alone makes paying for a playground membership worthwhile, IMHO.

But yeah, in a nutshell this means that I could easily be spending almost €400 a year just to take kidlet to places.  And while it's a bit of a drag for me, I could afford it--it would mean working more and being extra-careful with the groceries, but there's no reason why I can't swing a membership to a place if I really wanted to--I can't help but think that there are a lot of families for whom this is an insurmountable financial obstacle.  And while being able to play in an awesome playground, rain or shine, is not strictly necessary for having a well-rounded childhood, being able to tire out your kid so that they leave you alone long enough to bang out a blog post (or make dinner, or watch your favorite TV show) unquestionably goes a longer way to improving the parent-child dynamic than many people realize.

The ability to give kidlet experiences is one of the reasons I continue to freelance, even though we could hack it without the extra money.  But it's made me acutely aware of how early stratifying along class lines happens, and makes me wonder, even as we have ourselves a wonderful time in these places, whether that's a good thing.  

Sunday, August 2, 2015

So writing....

I thought it might be fun to do a little post on how I write, and the process, since I write so much fiction I can practically do it in my sleep.  At any given time I usually have at least two clients I'm working on stuff for, and if I had my way there would be three.  This means that, in any given week, my word count usually approaches, if not exceeds, 20,000 words.  And given how many plots I need to keep track of and how many words I need to write for each story, the process needs to be as streamlined as possible.

The process begins with old-fashioned pen and paper.  Once I get the go-ahead, I write down the points the client requires ("He has to fall in love with his sister before they realize that they're related", etc) and sketch out a rough outline of all the things I need to do to make them happen.  I also write out character names, although I don't always stick to them.  The main thing is to make sure I have enough plot points to meet the word count requirements.  There is some fudge-factor, but too much filler becomes too obvious and it's definitely not appreciated.


The outline gets refined in Scrivener's Corkboard, which is on the right side in this screenshot. Part of what makes Scrivener so wonderful is that you can have multiple windows open that show whatever you want in your Binder (on the left side), which is where I divide the story into different sub-documents.  Each sub-document can be viewed in different ways; the actual document (which is the middle) or the Corkboard view, which contains the summaries and maybe a key detail or two.  Especially handy sometimes in cases of writer's block is the word count target, which turns from red (empty) to green (full) if you need to get your words in.  There is also an extremely handy Research folder, which allows you to copy-paste links and documents that you might find handy if the story you're writing has to do with, say, a certain period in history, you can just copy-paste stuff into that folder.  Once the different parts of the story are written, Scrivener compiles everything into one document that's compatible with various word processors (It does not compile the Research folder).

And lastly, there is the word count log, which I'm actually pretty terrible about meeting.  I use my agenda to figure out how many words are due for which client and when.  Usually it averages out to about 2000 words a night, but sometimes it's 3000 and, if I've been terrible about making my previous word count targets, up to 5000, which is not fun and only possible because most of my clients are in the US and therefore there's at least a 6-hour time zone difference that I can use to my advantage.

I actually enjoy doing this and most months end up turning a good deal of profit.  It's not literary in any sense of the word, but it isn't difficult to do and for me, it's easy to turn out reasonably good stories without much fuss.  But a huge part of why it's so easy is having the right tools, and figuring out a way that works FOR YOU.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Accomplishments and confessions

This year, as I did for most years, started with a planner and the best of intentions to:  map out my week, keep track of what I was doing, and make sure I was on top of all my deadlines.  But something happened along the way...and I've actually stuck with it for the entire year so far, and I doubt I'm going to stop, because it's actually been really useful to keep track of freelancing  assignments that have a tendency to overlap one another and bunch up.

(Also--Scrivener rules and if you're a serious writer you should just shell out $40 because it's just that awesome and incredibly powerful.  I've been finding that the "word count target" feature is really useful when writing fiction.)

It's a simple, cheap planner (read:  the only one I could afford as of last year) but it does the trick:  the vertical week layout is nice, and my handwriting isn't that big, so even though the columns are only about an inch wide it's pretty okay in terms of the amount of space I have to work with.  I have an addiction to Moleskine products, as I've mentioned before, and since they sell vertical planners, I'd already set aside some money for buying their planner for 2016 next year and that would have been the end of that.  

Except.

I clicked on a video on decorating planners on YouTube, and have become entirely obsessed with the idea of purchasing an Erin Condren planner.  It is, as far as I can tell, the Cadillac planner of people who decorate their planners--with washi tape, fancy Post-It notes, stickers, arrays of markers and stamps.   And this from someone who has, to date, owned exactly two rolls of washi tape.  I don't quite know what it is about watching people decorate their planners that is so hypnotic.  I do know that I've already put in an order for two different sets of fancy sticky notes (from Japan) with the idea of making a 2016 planner totally glam-worthy.  (My personal style tends to be more understated, actually, and it's hard not to feel a little ridiculous about all the stickers and stuff when your main writing implement is a Parker fountain pen).


The main thing is the vertical weekly layout over two pages.  I've been trying to find another planner (yeah, I know it's early) that has this feature and I've been coming up short.  Yeah, there's the Moleskine Dashboard  and that's probably what I'll end up ordering, but, well, it's black.  The pages are pedestrian--boring, even.  At the very least, they could have a bit of color, right?  But that's not Moleskine's style, and frankly, it's not really mine, either.  I mean, I do use sticky notes in my planner and I do have a set of markers that I use to highlight things and block out days, but the kind of insanity that prompts people to spend that much time planning out their weeks is a little much, even for me.  

And at the end of the day, well, it's a planner.  It doesn't really matter how pretty it looks if you never get done what you planned.  On the level that matters, I realize this, just as I realize that spending $70 (the actual planner is "only" $50, but international shipping is an extra $20) on a planner borders on the insane and ridiculous.  But still, there's a part of me that wants to try...

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Squeeze: Camping trip


Against all odds, we somehow managed to squeeze in a camping trip this past weekend.  Somehow my freelancing assignments all ended right before (and picked up again right afterwards) so the entire weekend could be completely devoted to:  flying kites with kidlet, reading and finishing a book, babysittig kidlet while he zooomed around on his loopfiets, letting Karel do all of the camping stuff (I figure that, if he wanted my help, he's a man and can ask for it), and eating too much barbecue.

Camping is the national Dutch pastime--like baseball in the US, but far more interesting.  For starters, it's a very regimented process, almost like booking a hotel:  you go online and tell people what you're bringing (tent or trailer) and how long you're staying.  There is no (or very little) random driving around the country and staking out a tent wherever looks good--mostly because pastures have been fenced off, the woodlands are engineered to be utterly inhospitable to this sort of impromptu overnighting, and the campgrounds are always, always, PACKED.  (At least on the weekends)

One of the nicknames the Dutch have acquired is the rather unflattering "snails"--as a reference to the very Dutch habit of packing a trailer (Brits: caravan) with all the comforts of home--especially the Douwe Egberts Rode koffie--and clogging up the highways in some other country, and in NL for the less adventurous.  The Germans retaliate by taking over the beaches around Scheveningen and Leiden.  Campgrounds typically have shower, bathroom, and laundry facilities; you can rent a bike for lekker fietsen and seeing the sights; the one we went to had a pool and playground and a riverside beach, along with boat rentals from a nearby company.  Some of them offer free Wi-Fi.  So really, all you really need is a tent and a sleeping bag and some coffee.

Our tent was not a sheet tossed over some lawn chairs, happily  That was kidlet's little play space that I'd set up to keep him out of the sun while the tent was still being set up.  Karel had acquired an uber-delux tent that allowed us to fit a full-sized air mattress and still have plenty of room to store all of our things in.  One handy feature was that you could detach the floor from the roof, which was a good thing to do with the weather being as hot as it was.  At night, we put the walls back down.  It was not the kind of TARDIS-like contraption that starts out the size of a pencil case and ends up being a comfy suite when unfolded--the tent is heavy, made of canvas and heavy-duty plastic, and requires no less than 24 spikes in the ground to set up. But it is nice; and with the bed, it wasn't all that different from sleeping at home, which is probably the only reason why kidlet slept at all the entire time we were there.

The one thing about camping that I really appreciated, from a practical point of view, was that there was zero pressure to dress kidlet.  I mean, yeah--if we'd left the campground I would've put him in his shorts, but as long as you're on the campground, clothing is "nearly optional":  people of all ages and physiques walk around wearing whatever they want, and on a day that's 34 C (that's 95 F) in the shade, that translates into a whole lotta bathing suits, even if the only moisture on your skin is sweat.  Kidlet spent a lot of time running around in his underwear--and he was still more-dressed than a lot of the kids we saw.  I myself went three days without shoes--tan lines around my feet and ankles have always bugged the living daylights out of me.

The campground we went to was situated on the Waal, so we almost had a riverside view; were it not for the row of caravans that remained steadfastly parked in front of our tent. Kidlet, being a transportation fanatic, still thought it was the best thing in the whole world--waking up in the morning and seeing a boat go steaming by.  By and large, it was a relaxing two days, not worrying about clients or deadlines and just being able to sit back and watch kidlet enjoy himself running around without shoes.

My inbox, when I came back, though...

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Honor amongst bike thieves?

It goes without saying that if you live in the Netherlands, your bike will be stolen at some point.  It doesn't matter how many locks you have on it, how vigilant you are about storing it at a bewaakte (guarded) bike lot or keeping it inside.  At some point, your bike will be stolen.   You may as well resign yourself to the fate now, and save up for the expense of getting another one now.

Bike thievery is rampant here:  A few years ago the Telegraaf claimed that there were 450,000 bikes stolen, but bike theft is only reported if you have a bike worth more than a couple hundred euros.  A few hundred?  Well, yeah--a good secondhand bike that doesn't sound like a dying cat and actually stops will cost ya at least 150 euros,if not more.   And since most bikes here are second- or third- (or more) -hand, they're rarely insured, even if they are pricey, and if they're not insured, then the theft doesn't get reported, because let's face it, the odds of ever seeing the bike again are between zero and zilch.

And it doesn't matter if you've got the latest, shiniest new bike on the street or a clunker--if the pedals work and you leave it unlocked, don't expect to come back and find it where you left it.  This is especially the case in cities like Nijmegen, which can be really strict about bike parking--your bike must be in a rack, otherwise it'll be held hostage, er, impounded.  They'll look askance if you're next to a rack on a marktdag, but leaving it next to a store while you pop in will attract someone's notice.  The procedure for ticketing an illegally parked bike is to first slap a sticker on it.  If, 15 minutes later, the bike is still there, it gets dragged off.  Unlike most ransoms, though, the fee to release your bike is relatively modest (30 euros).

But there is one class of bike that seems to be oddly immune to bike thieves:  kids' bikes.  Up to a certain size, you'll see them leaning against the wall of the supermarket, with nary a lock or a watcher in sight.  I don't know of it's just because they're practically useless to anybody bigger than a toddler, or if there really is a sense of righteousness amongst would-be thieves.  But I'm still nervous about leaving kidlet's loopfiets in the foyer of the Albert Heijn.  Maybe I'm just overly paranoid. 

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Free Fun in NIjmegen: The Glider Airport


One of Nijmegen's lesser-known secrets is that there's a glider airfield about 5 km south of the city border.  Technically, that puts it in Malden, but they still call it the Nijmeegse Aeroclub.  On nice days, if you remember to look up, you'll see the gliders circling the thermals in the skies towards the south.  There will usually be 3 or 4 of them at the same time, just lazily winging through the skies.

It's relatively easy to get to by car and bike.  On the weekends, an ice-cream truck stops and sells ice cream out the back.  But the main attraction is that, at one end of the airport, there are benches and tables, and you're allowed to watch the gliders take off and land.  Watching them take off is a real treat:  the winch truck revs up its engine, and at the other end of the field, you can watch the glider rocket into the air and, on a good day, catch a thermal.

Kidlet loves planes, cars, trucks, trains--anything motorized, essentially--so a lazy afternoon watching the gliders take off and land, while riding his "new" loopfiets (it was a present when he was born, but he only just started riding it this week) up and down the dirt paths, being a kid and every now and then yelling "PLANE!"  was about as perfect a day as it could be.  

Sunday, April 5, 2015

My Kid is Warping My English

So in our household, kidlet hears two languages:  Mostly English, some Dutch.  Dutch comes from his dad, English comes from me--the occasional conversation in Chinese that I have with my mom doesn't really count.  And since he's at home with me most of the time, that means he hears mostly English.

So you might think that he speaks mostly English, but somehow, against all odds, his first sentences are very clearly Dutch.  Kom, we gaan naar de auto and Papa is thuis and such-like simple sentences.  He understands English just fine and when he learns new words he usually learns the English word first.  We have both Cars and Planes (and their sequels) in English, and he loves all of the movies.  When we go places, I make a point of speaking English to him, except it doesn't always work out that way.

Like most people who learn Dutch as a second language, I often mix words up.  It usually means I insert a Dutch word where I'd typically say an English one, but I sometimes spit out English words when I'm speaking Dutch, too.  I write both "coffee" and "koffie" on the shopping list.  But worst of all is when I catch myself using Dutch sentence structures to speak English:  i.e., "I want to order for him a keyboard".  This doesn't seem so bad, but for the fact that one of my freelancing hats is copy editor.  And then there is the fact that sometimes he seems to listen to me better when I speak Dutch than when I speak English.

So linguistically, we're definitely entering an interesting era.  It'll be interesting to see where we go.  

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Wait and See


A lot of Dutch culture just is, and nobody really knows why,  but it's always been that way and therefore it always will be that way.  Sort of like the legendary "one-cookie" thing--it's so embedded in Dutch culture that even if you never actually encounter someone who offers you one (stale--it has to be stale, or else it doesn't really count) and only one cookie, that mentality follows you around like a shadow on a cloudy day, real enough but too vague to make much sense.

Thus it is with gardening.  This year, I bought these kweekkisten, little prepackaged containers complete with soil and seeds, just add water.  The idea was to infect kidlet with the excitement of growing things, but truth be told I don't think he quite realizes that the seeds are supposed to grow into things. He just had fun playing with the dirt.   The Intratuin we went to was giving away little packets of seeds (we got sunflower) with every purchase--or maybe it was just to cute kids--so we'll also be planting those, but later, outside.

It's anybody's guess whether the seeds will actually grow, and if they do grow, whether they'll actually look anything like the green, lush plants that were on the pictures.  In my experience, plants in pots rarely do, but you never know.  And who knows, maybe kidlet will have a green thumb.  Two euros per set is a fair price to pay to find out, right?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

On Strange Bedfellows

Kidlet has, as most kidlets do, a coterie of stuffed animals and loveys.  They range from the enormous pillow pet we were obligated to get him because by the time I was able to pry him away from it he'd already soaked it in drool, to the little tiny ornamental loveys that came with the pregnant-lady swag box that I got from the midwife.  But there are 4 that he's emotionally invested in to the point that it might be "love", and one more so than any of the others.

It is not, oddly, the Original Lovey, the LubWubs, as it is called.  It's a little, white sheet with a bunny head at one corner, sweet and innocent enough.  This was the one lovey I started giving to him at around 6 months as a sleep cue, the one that he takes to bed and nuzzles at night.  It is a source of comfort--or rather, it was, until my husband forgot to bring it back from an overnight stay with a friend (and yes, I am laying the blame squarely on the poor man, as I was at home sick for the entire time).  But luckily it seems to have been more of a habit at this point than a true need; since he got back bedtimes haven't been all that much different.

Nor is it the monkey pillow pet, of the aforementioned drooling episode.  And it's not the misnamed Panda, either--a toy leopard with deformed, enormous eyes.  We called it Fugly for a while, but he insisted that its name was Panda, and as with all things thus named by kidlet, its name is now Panda.

No, The One, the Only, the True Toy of the kidlet, is the ugliest teddy bear I have ever had the shame of buying.  It has no nose.  Texture-wise, it's hard and bristly, and there's a cold metal chain around its neck.  It's not soft.  And did I mention it's ugly?  I bought it at the thrift store, against all of my personal rules about buying stuffed things at thrift stores, because when he saw it, he wanted it, and had an all-out tantrum when I told him "no".  You might think it was bad parenting for me to give in, but you have to keep in mind that this kidlet almost never has a tantrum.  He gets whiny and cries for stuff, sure, but tantrums of the epic, fists-to-the-floor level that supposedly mark the Terrible Twos are almost unheard of.  (Before you get too jealous, though, let me assure you, he is plenty terrible, but in other ways)

This itchy, scratchy, bristly, hard, vaguely-stinky teddy bear is what he asks for before he goes to bed, even when we still had LubWubs.  It is what gets dragged around our apartment during the day.  It is the one that he tries to "potty train" and the one that gets to "eat" dinner.  It is the one that he occasionally tries to "dress" with varying degrees of success, the one that comes with him when he comes into our bed in the middle of the night.

I wish I could understand why, of all the stuffed animals he has, he's chosen to give his affection to the one toy that neither my husband nor I can stand.   I wish I could understand why, of all the stuffed animals in the thrift store, he chose that one--and why, of all the things he could have asked for, he insisted on getting it.

I suppose there is a moral in here somewhere about not getting invested too much in what your kids' toys are, or maybe the lesson is not to spend too much money on your kids' toys because they'll invariably fall in love with the cheapest, most God-awful things.  Or maybe there's a moral in here about letting kids be kids and letting them pick and choose which toys make them happy, even if you can't stand them.  And I suppose, if you want to read a lesson into this and pick and choose a moral, you could.

But I prefer to think that this is what the magic of childhood is all about:  doing things that your parents just don't understand, according to a logic that makes sense in your own little world where bedtimes are always a little too early and everybody always wants you to take nap even though you're not tired.  In a world where you have so little control over what goes on in your life, having a little something all to yourself must be precious.  

Monday, February 9, 2015

"Real Food"



For all that I'm a decent home cook, I'm not really a foodie--I don't own a sous vide machine--but the only way I can get things like bagels and General Tso's Chicken without paying and arm and a leg is frequently to make them myself.  A truly buttery brioche is not to be found; a quality risotto is even further out of the question--unless I am the one standing at the stove, stirring a giant pot of rice.  And my biggest, biggest pet peeve of all:  when you order take-away from one of the faux-Chinese places (faux-Chinese, but real Indonesian, inasmuch as Dutch-ified Indonesian take-away can be considered "real") they always send you home with nasi, a stir-fried rice pocked with little bits of egg and ham and peas, rather than properly cooked rice.  

In our house, nine meals out of ten are cooked according to the following rubric:  Does it contain meat and two veg?  Will it make good leftovers?  If the answer to both questions is "yes", then it goes on our meal plan.  But every now and then, along comes an image, a fleeting impression, a smell, perhaps--and I find myself craving dishes that I never really appreciated before I moved here.  It's not about the taste, or the quality of the food, or the nutritional value.  It's about the emotions that are connected to food--and the fond memories of old friends whom I haven't seen for a long time, and am unlikely to ever see again.  It's about that curious nostalgia for things so terrible for your health you swore you'd never eat them when you found out what their nutrition label looked like, yet they taste so good every now and then--every once in a while--you can admit that you really liked it.

Thus it is with General Tso's Chicken.  I honestly can't remember ever eating this when I lived in Philly, but seeing the trailer for the documentary did a dam good job of tickling the memories of the food trucks at UPenn, taking Karel for Real Chinese food, dim sum with Rebecca, and long heart-to-hearts with Mordecai (though I can't remember that we ever actually got Chinese food).  So making this wasn't so much about feeding my family something nutritious and delicious as it was about a selfish endeavor to recreate something of my past, to spread the joy that I felt around to Karel and the kidlet.  And it did just that.  Karel wolfed down his portion with a big smile on his face--and then promptly told me to make more--and I got to have a meal with properly-cooked rice and things that weren't drowned in sauce, for once.

Recipes for GTC abound on YouTube and the Internet, all of them claiming to be more real than the next one, but basically what it is is pieces of chicken, floured and then deep-fried to get that crispy crust, which then soaks up the sauce.  I didn't dare make mine too spicy--kidlet has going through a quasi-picky stage, where somedays he'll eat everything and some days he'll eat nothing, and every day it's something different, so I didn't want to risk him being scared off by the bite of a chili pepper.



Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Fine Print

Kidlet recently had his first day at peuterspeelzaal.  The picture shows his "welkom" postcard that he received in the mail a while ago, with a reminder of when to drop him off.  According to the teacher, it went great.  I suppose this means that he didn't cry when he realized that I'd ghosted, and was willing to wait his turn when it came to their morning fruit snack.  (Every child brings an apple, orange, banana, pear, etc--something to share with everybody else)

I know a lot of parents are filled with anxiety at the thought of leaving their precious in the care of other people, and I suppose I should be more traumatized.  But really, it was a relief--just drop him off, make sure he was settled, and poof, I was gone.  Keep in mind that, despite all of Karel's good intentions of giving me a little time to myself, his work schedule doesn't always cooperate, so I don't really get any time alone at an hour that I'm awake enough to enjoy it.

It's always about the fine print.  I have my evenings free, for instance, but most people don't realize how knackered I am after a day of running errands, running after kidlet, amusing kidlet, making kidelt eat, cleaning the messes that kidlet makes while he's making new ones, cooking, and more running after kidlet.  Any time after he goes to bed is basically time that I reserve to recover from the day, but what I need is time alone.  To think, to write, to browse books, and yes, to play Kingdom Rush (you'd be surprised how on-your-game you have to be for that kind of game).

Which is essentially what I did today:  I went to Mugs & Muffins, in the city center, ordered a coffee-that-I-didn't-have-to-worry-about spilling and a slice of pie-that-I-didn't-have-to-share, and worked on a terrible story (it's a good story, but it's about terrible things).  I went to the bookstore, where I was able to browse-without-worrying-about-kidlet-getting-bored books, and then went to the Euroland, where I was able to consider getting hair curlers without repercussions.  It was wonderful. Relaxing, even.  

More wonderful, though?  Cycling back to the peuterspeelzaal and picking him up again.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Preschool as it should be

Kidlet recently started learning to recognize letters:  I suspect he recognizes a lot more than he's capable of saying, but he's pretty good about "M", "B", and "D", and it's 50/50 whether he says "O" and recognizes "P".  Yeah, we're going a bit out of order, but you have to realize that most of the letters he recognizes come from his environment, so it's whatever's on a sign at any given moment.  But basically, while I'm encouraging him to identify letter (and soon, numbers), I'm not actively pushing him to do so.  He'll learn to read when he's ready for it, just as he'll be completely potty-trained when he's ready for it.

In other words, I am not being a tiger-mom and using flashcards and getting him to spit back sounds that he might not realize actually mean anything except an excited squeal and hand-clapping from Mom.  I am taking my cues from him, and doing things that he's either ready for, or will be ready for soon.  

This morning, then, when we went to see the peuterspeelzaal we'd be sending him to, I was pleasantly surprised by how laid-back and relaxed everything was.  According to the teacher, the daily schedule, such as it was, consisted of having fruit, reading a book or two, and maybe doing some crafts.  Otherwise it was largely free play for everybody, with relatively minimal supervision.  They did some potty-training, but it was okay if your kidlet wasn't 100% potty-trained just yet.  The "teacher" (she might have been an actual teacher, but that morning she had a largely supervisory role) even left the kids alone in the classroom to give us a grand tour of the facilities.  No havoc ensued, no kids fell off the slide, no kids pushed other kids, and there were no tears.  

It was indeed, as the literal translation of peuterspeelzaal goes, a "toddler play space", where the primary goal was not to make sure toddlers could count and learn their shapes and colors (which kidlet is in the process of doing, but as I said above, when he's ready for it, and on his own time), but to teach them to play together, to follow directions, to follow a kind of structure to their day.  And I think it's wonderful that there's little emphasis on literacy or testing, a la the insanity that makes the US media.  They're letting kids be kids, and that's as it should be.  

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Chromebook love

OK, so I said before I liked my Chromebook.

I'm sorry, I lied.  I love my Chromebook.  Even if it doesn't have a caps lock key, and even if it doesn't have a delete key (I'm pretty sure this can be hacked, I just haven't had the time to look up how).  Even if it can't run gaming programs or photoshopping programs.  Even if I can't access Guitarbots (which is funny, because it's a web-based program, so theoretically it should run) and even if I can't take on hourly work through oDesk.

Because, despite all of these disadvantages, there are some pretty major upsides to using a Chromebook.  For starters, I can turn it on and be online within 10 seconds.  In fact, the major bottleneck in getting online is having to enter in my (randomly-generated) passwords.  For another, the battery, which in my model (Asus c300) has been touted as "all day", actually does run for the entire day.  Now, granted, I'm actually away from the computer all day, stopping in only to check on Facebook, or send a quick email, but in the evenings, well, let's just say that even when running YouTube, I've yet to drain the battery below 45%.  And I typically work from 7-12 am.  And lastly, well, it comes in blue.  For a €329 computer, it's really quite nice.

I think Apple made a big mistake when it took colors out of the picture.  Apple does make awesome products, so it doesn't really matter, but on the other hand, well, I like colors.  I guess what I'm saying is that, given similar product specs, I'd most likely pick the product that's available in the color I want.  And since I can't seem to discern any differences between the performance of Karel's iPhone and my Samsung SIII--and likewise, since my Chromebook easily outperforms every PC in this house, times two--well, give me a blue thing any day.

And as for the missing programs, well, there are some pretty nice online sites.  You can also use the Google Play store to download apps, the same as you would with your phone--this might not work for everything, but I've found a pretty nice chess program.  Photobucket offers an array of photo manipulating tools, and Office Online offers an abbreviated version of Office products.  Gdocs is capable of saving as Office-compatible documents (as well as PDF--I cannot tell you how pleased I am that Google's developers considered this detail), and converting Office documents into the relevant G-product.  And the fact that the OS updates automatically, without requiring your authorization, is quite nice as well. The only downside that's been relevant for me is the flimsy 32 GB hard drive, but external hard drives are dirt cheap these days.

So that's my take on the Chromebook.  For a thrifty computer that does web-based stuff really well--i.e., what most people do with their computers--it really can't be beat.

Disclaimer:  I was not compensated in any way by Google or Asus (though if you'd like to send me a check, I wouldn't be opposed to cashing it).   This is a review based solely on my opinion of the product I have used.  Your mileage may vary.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Getting Away With It

Some would say that I'm overly strict with kidlet, making him put his own dirty dishes in the sink and expecting him to help out with the housekeeping when and where he can.  I don't let him eat much sugar--I consider myself fortunate that he loves having fruit and does not object overly much to vegetables.  I make him pick up his blocks when he makes a mess of them (I do help gather them together).  He's well-behaved in public, accepting "No, we're not getting that" with nary more than a shrug.  

So it might come as a surprise when I say that I let him sleep in our bed.  I didn't, early on.  I did co-sleep/bedshare with him--just me and him--when he was very small, but once he "graduated" to waking up only once a night I moved back to our bed and he slept in his room.  And since then, he's had his own bed in one form or another.  Which he usually stays in. 

But sometimes, about 2-3 times a week, he'll wake up in the middle of the night, come to our bedroom, and crawl under the covers with us.  And I'll let him stay.  Firstly, experience has taught me that if I do send him back to his room, he won't sleep and he'll come in just about every hour, waking us up in the process.  And that, to me, is far worse than having a kidlet smooshed between us, with his foot in my ribs and taking over my pillow.  We've slept with our cats for five years--we're used to being dislplaced.  You can get used to sleeping in a funny position.  You never get used to being awakened 4-5 times a night.  

Secondly:  it's not as if he refuses to sleep in his own bed.  He loves the bedtime ritual, and is actually quite amenable to going to bed.  But he's also at that age where he's starting to become independent, pulling his pants on and off for the potty all by himself, voicing requests and having them respected (or not), being allowed to run around the Garage for Fun all by himself.  I am told that so much independence can be a little scary for a kidlet.  If he needs a night of cuddles to make sure that we still love him, I'd be cruel to turn him away.  

And thirdly, well, it's just ridiculously cute to wake up together, to see him snuggled up between the pillows and sleepily open his eyes, and then realize that Mommy's awake, too.  And that means that he's allowed to get up.  And the ensuing bouncing on the bed that waking up invariably entails.  

In short, there's nothing to be gained by making him sleep in his own bed.  He's always been a good sleepr and quite good at falling asleep on his own, and it's not like he's pathologically attached to us, either.  He just needs a little extra cuddle every now and again.  What kid doesn't?  

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Flow: Going With It

Confession time:  I love paper products.  Moleskine notebooks, nice pens (rollerballs and fountain pens), that sort of thing.

Unfortunately, aside from being on a rather tight budget, I can't usually justify buying another notebook just to let it sit and gather dust.  I mean, I love trees, too.  I do 90% of my writing on a device with a keyboard these days--the other 10% is reserved for making lists and keeping track of expenses--so it's not as if I actually use a full notebook.  And even if I did need all that paper, well, I've already got several notepads that are sufficiently empty that I can just use.

But the desire for good, quality paper products continues to haunt me every time I pass the Moleskine rack at the Dekker van de Vegt.  I love the way Moleskine products feel, how nicely they fit in my purse.  It's like an itch that simply can't be reached.

But lately (just to overextend the simile) I've gotten a backscratcher:  The Flow:  Book for Paper Lovers book, a huge, fat book full of cards and crafty paper and paper dolls and stickers and DIY envelopes and flags and did I mention stickers?  It's got wrapping paper and paper bags and posters and banners, thank-you notes and gift tags (one problem solved for next year) and postcards.

It wasn't cheap, but that's partly why I always ask for boekenbon, gift certificates that can be used almost every bookstore when people start pestering me for wish lists for my birthday and Christmas (well, that and I never know what to ask for).  And strangely, it has been immensely gratifying to have the book with me.  Rediscovering the thrill of paper dolls is the last of it.  Having cards to send to friends for different occasions is a huge bonus for me, at least--that's a major reason why we don't send out birthday cards, actually (I know, bad Dutchie):  the first is that I rarely remember to, the second is that I never remember to buy cards.

I started this year in a dangerously optimistic mood.  Who knows, maybe we'll finally get into a sort of groove this year, maybe I'll finally learn to go with the flow.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Life with a Chromebook

A few months ago, the laptop I was using died.  It just refused to see any network connections at all, and insisted on being connected through broadband, which we don't have.  But I didn't panic.  I had a netbook, and while I knew it was slow and pokey it was at least enough to get stuff done, right?  Except it wasn't.  Maybe a 1.3 GHz processor is fast enough for most things, but for some reason every single page took at least one minute to load (even Facebook), and as for typing...You know how sometimes you type something on a website and the words show up a minute later?  Yeah.  Except all the time.  And it would freeze every 10 minutes.  And tell me so only 2 minutes after I noticed it had frozen.

One of the best things about social media, I've decided, is being able to solicit opinions about stuff.  Most of my friends recommended that I purchase a Chromebook rather than an all-out laptop, and thus far, I must confess I am rather impressed.  I mean, I already spend most of my time online using Google products--Chrome, Drive, I even have a G+ account, Gmail, etc--and the only thing I was using Office for was to write stuff for clients, and occasionally update my spreadsheets of expenses for my accountant.  

Even so, I had a hard time believing that a Chromebook, with all of its shortcomings, could possibly be sufficient for me. Maybe it's just because I grew up in a day and age when more was always better--more storage, more RAM, more power, and the latest OS--but it felt like a dare to order the pretty blue thing (yes, I got the blue one, just because I could).  It helped that I had a tax deadline--in order to have the VAT count towards my 2014 expenses, I needed to order it before 1 January--so on the very last day of 2014, I just sat down and clicked "order", without thinking about the pros and cons any more.  

Getting Chrome to work at first was a little sticky:  when you get your Chromebook, you are asked to enter in your Gmail account and your password, and then it sort of processes and thinks....and in my case, it processed and thought for a long time until finally, thinking that it couldn't possibly take this long, I shut it down and started it back up.  I suppose that's the nice thing about Chrome--even if you do botch up the setup process, Chrome is such a light program that there simply isn't very much to botch up, and after entering my password again everything just worked.  I was delighted to find that all of my work on Google Drive was already there, that my bookmarks were still there, that all of the passwords I'd had saved were already there.  Basically, it just transposed my entire Internet history from the dinky netbook to the Chromebook.  

By and large it's been a wonderful experience with the Chromebook; at least some of it also has to do with the Bluetooth headphones that I bought along with it.  Being able to talk on Skype without having to hold the phone is certainly a plus; being able to listen to podcasts or whatever while I'm away from the laptop is positively delightful.  No, it may not be able to run 90% of all the programs that are out there, but then again, I don't use 90% of the programs that are out there.  It does what I need it to do, and that's enough.  

The main downside, as I see it, is the very limited hard drive space.  I know, I know--Drive offers 10 GB for free, and that'll be sufficient for most of my documents--but I also want to have all of my pictures at my fingertips.  I am debating whether to get an external hard drive, but that would kind of defeat the point of having a wireless system.