Mindfulness

happinessRecently I have been thinking a lot about ‘living in the moment’, finding a better ‘work-life-balance’ and – dare I say it – ‘mindfulness’.  And then all of a sudden today I feel completely happy and ‘in the moment’. And I have not made any effort to ‘focus on my breathing’, ‘use all my senses’, or ‘consciously feel my body’ (let alone honour it for the sacred temple it is).

No it is just a gloriously uncomplicated day. I wake up quite late after an epic ten hour sleep and decide on a whim that eating five chocolate digestives makes for a lovely breakfast when washed down with three cups of strong milky tea. I finish off painting the room upstairs that I have been working on for the past three days and then plant some tulip bulbs still wearing my paint smeared jogging bottoms and a shapeless cardigan. A quick but lovely cappuccino and a cheese sandwich later and I am on my bike and on my way to the rowing club to coach my daughter’s team.

Manure

It is a totally lovely autumn day and the girls are all in a good mood (which is quite something for six twelve and thirteen year old girls).  The air is quiet, the sky blue, the trees are showing off the most beautiful autumnal colours I have seen (noticed?) in a long time. The day is mild enough for me to cycle along the canal without wearing a jacket. A whiff of manure from a nearby farm makes lift my spirits even further in a way only scents can.

My daughter is uncharacteristically generous when discussing my coaching abilities on the way back home. Which probably is a really smart move as I – also totally uncharacteristically – agree to clean her guinea pigs cage. Something that I not so long ago vowed I would never do, as the 12yo was the one who wanted the guinea pigs in the first place. Not me.

 Waistline

While Mr S., the 14yo and two of his mates watch the match between Manchester United and Manchester City I decide to totally ignore the pile of ironing and the overflowing laundry baskets and bake a cake. It turns out really well and the abundance of 14yo boys in our house this afternoon means everyone is digging in and I don’t feel any need to watch my waistline either. Nice!

After eating too much cake, it miraculously is five ‘o’ clock (already!). Time to light a fire and pour myself a glass of wine (Mr. S. sticks to beer). The children as it turns out, have actually done their homework, so we don’t need to raise our voices, which makes for a nice change on Sunday night.

Uncomplicated

Dinner consists of a hearty stew, concocted the night before by Mr. S., who invariably likes to take us through the steps to get to this perfect result. He also never tires of discussing how he could tweak the recipe to get an even better stew next time. The children and I happily oblige. It is just a totally uncomplicated, lovely and relaxed night. In fact just as uncomplicated, lovely and relaxed as the day has been.

So who needs mindfulness, when a good night’s sleep, some fresh air, scrumptious food and hanging out with your loved ones, can give you the exact same result? So here is to spending time doing uneventful things, hanging out at home and being totally unadventurous. Cheers!

 

What does a perfect day look like in your life? I would love to find out!

hamburgers

Burgers

The 13yo recently turned 14, leading to festivities, which, amongst other things, saw 8 of his mates gobble up an oversized cake in two minutes flat. This meticulously planned get together at the birthday boy’s house went on for exactly 7:53 minutes. The boys spent the rest of the afternoon on a nearby football pitch. Kicking the hell out of each other.

A week or so after the cake eating feast, the ‘gang’ again gathered at our house for the real party: a night of ‘chilling’. Cool as cucumbers as they are at this age the guys all turn up at the exact agreed time, ready for burgers, sausages, crisps, chocolate, or basically any type of food you care to shove their way. Such joy! Mr. S. fires up the BBQ, while I cut up the ubiquitous carrots, cucumber and apples, as even after twelve years of party teas, I am still not ready to let go of the hope that some kid some day will accidentally eat a carrot stick.

We start off with sausages, generously covered in ketchup, mayonnaise and curry sauce. The second course consists of burgers, rolls, ketchup, mayonnaise, curry sauce, cheese, some tomatoes and lettuce leafs. On to the third course – we are now fifteen minutes into the meal – of profiteroles and chocolate sauce. It seems 14yo bodies can easily handle 3000 calories in one sitting. But even more surprisingly, considering the fact that the boys are heading for a Guinness Book of Records entry for fastest meal, they manage to have a lively conversation at the same time.

So Mr. S. and I are now completely up-to-date with all the boys’ teachers and their qualifications (‘boring’, ‘really boring’, ‘can’t teach at all’). Of course they are being taught by some good men and women as well, because some of them are labelled ‘can be funny’, ‘okay’ and – best in show – ‘not so bad’. I hate to think what they would make of me, or Mr. S., had we been brave enough to try and teach these boys ‘French’, ‘Humanities’, or ‘Biology’.

After the festive dinner, they all retire to the front room to watch films on Netflix. They are in to action comedies at the moment, a genre that Mr. S. and I haven’t explored really. At least not in the last twenty years. Not that we are allowed to watch this film with them of course. Our place is firmly in the kitchen, making sure cokes, crisps and chocolate biscuits find there way to the hungry troops at regular intervals.

The next morning, however,  I get a blow-by-blow account of a film called ‘Big Dan’, about this ‘really small guy, mum, who has to go to prison, because of embezzlement and is really scared to get raped in prison. So that’s why some Kung Fu master teaches Dan to defend himself, mum, and then when he goes to prison he beats the crap out of everyone and they all call him big Dan, even if he is only 1,60 or so’. The 14yo thinks I might really like this film. And you know what? He might be on to something.

So here’s the plan for next Friday night. ‘Big Dan’, a big bar of Tony’s Chocolonely (salted caramel!), me and the 14yo: heaven!

In Love

in loveIt is official. I am totally in love with the Netherlands. It was not easy to get to this milestone, but these past few weeks at least I really feel I have arrived!

It definitely helps that for two weeks or so now the weather has been absolutely gorgeous. Hot and sunny, sweltering even, meaning I got to drink lots and lots of guilt free glasses of chilled white wine or rosé. When/if summer arrives in the Netherlands you have to really make the most of it. Not having to wear socks, by the way, always cheers me up. But there was more, much more.

The Tour the France in Utrecht for instance. I never ever watch cycling, but the past weekend with the Grand Depart in Utrecht there was no escaping from it. I could not help noticing how absolutely glorious Utrecht, Rotterdam and the county of Zeeland looked, filmed from a French helicopter. I must have spent an unprecedented sixteen hours or so watching a bunch of sweaty cyclists battling it out, and much to my amazement (and that of Mr S., a hardcore Tour de France fan) I loved every minute of it. So much so indeed, that for the past couple of days I find myself really paying attention to the Tour the France news on the radio.

Going back another fortnight we celebrated the ubiquitous musical week. A very Dutch phenomenon, where every Dutch pupil in the last grade of primary school (aka ‘groep acht’) performs an end of primary school musical. The excitement this brings is unsurpassed. At least for a 12yo girl.  Months of practice, sourcing and making costumes, experimenting with make-up culminated in four performances in two days.

All Song and Dance

Although my 12yo did not talk about much else besides this musical for the past months, she somehow had not mentioned that she had quite a large part. I knew of course that she had been given the role she wanted, that of a police officer (to make absolutely one hundred percent sure that she would not have to wear a dress on stage), but somehow she had convinced me and Mr S. she only had a few lines.

For years and years now attending assemblies and other performances that included our daughter, always meant we a. would not see her as she had positioned herself safely on the back row, even tough she is not particularly tall, or b. her teacher would put her on the first row, as she is not particularly tall, and she would sing with her mouth firmly closed, looking like a rabbit in the headlights. Not that it mattered, we were always really really proud of her participating at all.

So completely prepared to tell her it does not matter, we love her anyway and by the way think that she said her one line extremely well, we take our seats. The opening song, and there she is, front row, all song and dance an absolutely radiant. Not only is she on stage during every song, singing her little heart out, she also turns out she is the star of three whole scenes together with the other police officer, the tallest boy in the class. One scene even involves her going into the audience with a microphone to interview people and even that she does with great ease.

Teacher

So now I am not only love with the Netherlands, but also with my 12yo’s primary school and especially with her ‘groep acht’ teacher. An amazing lady who apparently got out of bed at one in the morning during the overnight school trip to make a cup of tea for our daughter, who complained about a tummy ache, who convinced my very very stubborn 12yo that reading Dutch books could be as much fun as reading English ones by bringing in her own books from home specially for her, who made our daughter pass her end of primary school exams with flying colours and turned out to be an even bigger Harry Potter fan than our daughter (Mrs S and I did not even know that that was possible). It was lovely to be able to thank this teacher at the musical after party and to have a good old giggle about the fact that the 12yo was wearing a dress for this occasion!

Another Dutch tradition made sure that our daughter got officially kicked out of school, whilst being cheered and high fived by all the younger children. This was closely followed by days and days of going to the swimming pool, hanging out with friends and very, very late nights.

Just the other night, totally exhausted from all these festivities, I find the 12yo in tears. She is sobbing with such conviction and determination, that at first she can not draw enough breath to tell what is wrong. But eventually she calms down enough to confide in me she would love to stay in primary school and do ‘groep acht’ all over again.

But I just think she has fallen in love too. Fallen in love with the Netherlands, Dutch schools, Dutch friends and – dare I say it – even with Dutch books. So I guess she is going to be absolutely fine at her Dutch secondary school in September. And if she is happy, I am too.

Taking Stock

MrsS-Taking-StockThe other day, my OCD playing up, I decided to clear out my kitchen drawers. I just knew my whole life would fall into place if I just managed to somehow put the order back into my kitchen drawers. And today was the day I was going to tackle it.

The plan of course being, that after the kitchen I would straighten out the rest of the house. Just entering the front door would be enough to put me in a Zen like state from now on. That was the idea anyway. Long before I opened the kitchen drawers.

Who knew that I had so much food stashed away, I could feed the whole village for a week, without once having to go to the shops. I count eight (eight!) tins of tomato paste; another seven tins of chopped tomatoes; enough flour to bake bread and cakes to last us for months (years?) and twelve half empty bags of different types of pasta, all with slightly different cooking times of course.

I have long since suspected the Pasta Mafia of intentionally selling pasta in such quantities to guarantee people always end up with an odd assortment of non-matching pasta shapes, wasting away in cupboards world wide. But I digress (although from now on we are buying just one type of pasta). Back to the drawers. The sheer volume and diversity of my rice collection makes me giggle. There is sushi rice, basmati rice, risotto rice, wok rice, brown rice, white rice & wild rice. And then their is couscous, bulgur, quinoa, organic quinoa and barley.

I could also perfectly see my tendency to completely getting hooked on a food trend to only abandon it within weeks. But not before buying all the necessities to change my diet for ever. So I shamefacedly look at tubs filled with (expensive) poppy & hemp seeds, dried cranberry’s, apricots and dates. Undoubtedly very, very good for you, but not that easily incorporated in a life, in which I eat breakfast in my car four days a week (after several ‘accidents’ I decided that peanut butter sandwiches don’t leak, crumble or otherwise spill my outfit for the day, whilst at the same time fill me up for a good couple of hours).

Pulses turn out to be another weakness. Buying pulses that is. Because I find packet after packet of dried split peas, lentils, chick peas and mung beans. And then I have not even mentioned the tins of mixed beans, chick peas, white, red and brown beans, butter beans & kidney beans. Funnily enough I do not find countless packets of crisps, chocolate biscuits, or Maltesers, nor do I find dozens of bottles of forgotten wine, or ten different flavoured chocolate bars. These items clearly never last for more than a day.

Now that I did take stock, I feel I should eat all this food. Two spoons full of hemp seed a day, topped up with some butter beans straight from the tin should do it. Lentil soup, lentil salad and lentil casserole will be a daily fixture from now on as well. And of course lots and lots of rice and pulses. Hungry anyone?

 

PS: Please, feel free to come help me eat all this food. There is only one condition. You have to bring chocolate!

47

47_lemon_meringue_pie47. That is right, I turned 47 the other week. My children are of the opinion that 47 is still quite young, some of my older friends and colleagues call me a ‘spring chicken’, Mr S., bless him, seems to think I do not grow older at all, but I feel perilously close to 50 and yes that makes me feel a tat old.

The birthday is lovely though. It all kicks off with strict orders to stay in bed from the 12 and 13yo and a cup of tea from Mr S. to let me know they really mean it. Reading a book in bed – completely guilt free –  for an hour and a half in my book makes for an extremely good start to the day. (The fact that I cannot a week later remember what I read is a bit worrying but I guess that is being 47 for you).

When the three of them finally make me come down, I find the living room decorated with a string of blue and pink balloons, adorned by my daughter with smiley faces, happy birthdays and mum’s-the-bests; all up side down, as she had not realised that you do not string balloons the same way you hold them. It is just lovely.

Every breakfast item known to man is laid out on the festive table and Mr S., who normally starts asking me weeks in advance what he should get me for my birthday, now surprises me with 47 red roses and a harrowing tale about how he visited every florist in our village fifteen minutes before closing time, to find exactly 47 red roses.

Gift

The 13yo, completely true to character had not managed to find me a gift, as a consequence of which he had to get up ridiculously early (from his point of view that is) to cycle to the market, shepherded by the 12yo, who knows exactly what he should have bought his mum in the first place: three dark purple petunia’s. How very me indeed. My daughter, who started planning my gifts weeks, if not months in advance, surprises me with a hand made voucher for a ‘luxury dinner for two, completely free!’ (providing I buy the ingredients of course) in her own restaurant, which she, with a keen eye for detail, has given four and a half stars.

My daughter by the way also gives me another hand made voucher with some banknotes taped onto it to go and buy myself some make-up, which has me thinking I do look old and in desperate need of some ‘glow-in-the-dark nail varnish’, hot pink lippy and bronzing powder. On the purchase of which, she no doubt will advise me. I can not wait!

Firing squad

Shortly after breakfast, they all leave me. The 12yo to go to an all day party, involving all her friends and a subtropical pool and the 13yo and Mr S. to go to play slash watch some field hockey. I spend the morning (and the better part of the afternoon) food shopping and baking, because that is what you do in the Netherlands on your birthday. To the amazement of my expat friends and colleagues, Holland is the only country they have ever been, where etiquette requires you to bake several cakes and then bring them to work. Or else the firing squad awaits you.

I never looked at this tradition from their perspective, but after baking four (!) lemon meringue pies, I can totally see how lovely it would be if someone else would do the baking for you. The good thing though is that since the children are out all day and most of the evening too, I decide it is totally okay to accept an invitation to a BBQ from our lovely friends P. and M., who conveniently live a five minute bike ride away.

So totally against Dutch protocol someone else cooks me a totally scrumptious birthday dinner, invites some more friends and then gives me some lovely presents on top. All I have to do is turn up, drink some bubbles and be merry. The evening is such a triumph that from this day forwards any invitations for the 23rd of May will be gratefully accepted! (Mr S. will happily throw in a couple of bottles of fizz).

Expat Life

cottageLiving the expat life has opened up a myriad of possibilities in my mind. Whereas ten years ago I would only dream of buying a forever family home in the Netherlands, I now imagine myself living almost anywhere in the world. Considering I moved back to the Netherlands only a year and a half ago, these dreams of expat living are not always welcome (nor welcomed).

Certainly not by my almost 14yo son who is having a blast, living in the Netherlands, where he can cycle to school and most of his mates in less than ten minutes and has all the freedom and independence he craved for while living in Switzerland. The 12yo is also beginning to see the benefits of her Dutch life, being able to choose a secondary school all by herself and having the luxury of also making friends outside of school.

Even Mr. S and myself, though reluctantly at first, are starting to find our feet. It is really nice to have our own home again after years and years of living in rental accommodation. Having family and old friends close by is lovely and we are both becoming more and more involved in local sports clubs, which is something we definitely missed living abroad.

The minute though I set foot outside the Netherlands, I instantly want to be an expat again. So when I visited my dear friend P. in England a few weeks ago, I immediately starting plotting to get myself over the pond for a spot of expat living again. The compartment in my brain (and soul) that is labelled ‘How to behave in the UK’ opened up and out it all came – down to every scone eating, tea drinking, pretty dress loving bit of it. I always find it so tricky to leave.

As coincidence would have it off I went to Rome only a week or so after visiting England. Although I found living in Italy tough at the time (struggling to speak Italian, finding it difficult to make some local friends), here too I realised there is a secret Italian lurking somewhere inside me. One that relishes in driving too fast all the while honking the horn and – dare I say it – swearing. I also love (love!) sipping cappuccino’s in fluorescent, mirror adorned little bars, whilst eating sweat pastries that I would loath anywhere else in the world. I really don’t have a sweet tooth. ,

Mr S. , showing off his fluent Italian, did not stop chatting with everyone he met. His inner Italian came  out when he insisted- like a true Italian – to wear jeans and a long sleeve shirt on a sweltering hot day. And point blank refused to drink cappuccino after 11.00 in the morning. He even took the food ordering  for the whole table, acting like a true capo della famiglia. Adorable.

Together we dreamed about living in Rome (we would have a ball) all the while maintaining that we will retire to Cornwall, finding ourselves a cute little cottage to enjoy the (our?) sunset. It isn’t until I am home a good few days that I realise that although I have loved the expat life (and probably always will) it is the day to day talking to my neighbours, tending my own garden, meeting friends at the local supermarket, reading the news paper, being opinionated about local affairs and having a bit of time to build relationships is what I missed living abroad.

In my expat life friends would leave with sometimes only a few week’s notice, I couldn’t speak to my neighbours because I didn’t speak their language well enough, I couldn’t read the local newspaper, nor listen to the local radio. And although I tended some lovely gardens they were never mine to play around with. I bought shiploads of Ikea furniture in three different countries, but rarely something I really liked and mostly items that only looked sort of  right in one house but never in the next.

So may be, just may be, I should stay put for the next couple of years. Find out if I am capable of growing some roots again, watch my teenagers grow up and make their way in life, tend to my garden, paint some furniture, make some new friends and keep them close. And may be, just may be I will find that cottage in Cornwall some day.

Triangle

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Drawing (and story) by Naomi Hattaway

Some days being back in my home country mystifies me. Behaviours, or unspoken rules, that after living abroad for eight years strike me as really weird are in a Dutch context of course perfectly normal. I am the one that needs to adapt, or am I?

Just this morning while I was contemplating how lovely it is to be able to take my 10yo daughter to school on my bike, I almost bumped into an au pair from the Philippines trying to steady a heavy carier trycicle with three blond children aboard. Poor thing. Whereas I at least have long legs and a past rich of cycling expeditions, head first into gale force winds with rain slashing in my face, she has not.

Is it so much more natural, or normal to see an American au pair in a big four wheel drive Volvo collecting a couple of kids from the international school in Switzerland, or children being picked up by a private chauffeur every day from our school in Italy? Not really no. Still the image of this tiny Filipina struggling to keep her monster bike afloat, strikes me as really weird.

Just as weird really to find myself severely overdressed at my neighbour’s fortieth birthday party. She had send out handwritten invitations, hired a caterer and erected a party tent in the garden. So it wasn’t an informal, bring your own booze type of get together and yet at least half of the guests were wearing jeans and a top.

In the Netherlands it is considered perfectly all right to wear jeans, trainers and the latest knitwear wherever you go, be it a party,  the theatre, a restaurant, or a graduation ceremony. Ten years ago I would probably have thought nothing of it, but after living in England where everyone wears something sparkly and festive to go out and Italy where you wouldn’t be seen dead going into town wearing flip flops, or out to dinner wearing the same clothes you had on all day, I feel it is much nicer if everyone takes the effort to put on something special before going to a party.

My English friends will smile when I confess that I do struggle with the bluntness of my Dutch countrymen. Although my English mates have always found me cringingly direct, Dutch people can be forthright to the point of being rude. Over the past couple of days waitresses and shop assistants have told my 10yo daughter off in what I perceived as a very unfriendly manner. Yes, she was touching some things in shops that she perhaps shouldn’t have, picking wax of a candle in a café and hiding under a clothes rack just for the fun of it, but before I even got the chance to tell her to stop, someone beat me to it. And not in a gentle way with a smile on their face, no, more in an old-fashioned headmistress kind of manner.  I didn’t like it and have decided to take at least some of my business elsewhere.

Instead of being one hundred percent Dutch as most of the people I meet these days, I have become part English (I love their politeness, eagerness to queue and – dare I say it- their over the top Christmases) part Italian (I love the fact that they all love my children and always make me feel like

the guest of honour in their café’s and restaurants) and part Swiss (sometimes it is nice if everyone just obeys the rules. I for one really enjoy spotless clean swimming pools and dog poo free pavements).

A friend of mine send me a lovely story the other day in which a circle from circle country gets on a plane to go live in square society for a few years. On moving back this little circle discovers that although he hasn’t become a square, he certainly isn’t a circle any more. Instead he has changed into a triangle, without quite realising it.

So that’s what I am: a triangle and proud of it. I even found some lovely other triangles to hang out with. Joking about our inability, at times, as square pegs to fit into round holes, really makes my day. As does fantasising about a little lady moving back home to the Philippines one day taking with her a Dutch carrier tricycle and telling everyone around her exactly what she thinks of them.

Wings

KLM_Boeing_777-200ER_Closeup_PH-BQO_YULIt has such a nice ring to it.’Give them roots and wings’.That is exactly how I have always wanted to raise my children. Firmly focussing on the roots bit until they are at least 20 of course. But as it turns out, all that my 12 yo daughter wants in life is a pair of wings.

Flying on her own to go see her best friend E. back in the UK has been top of her ‘bucket list’ (who can live without one these days?) for the last eight months or so. At first Mr S. and I thought it would be a passing phase. Becoming an Olympian rower, a Michelin starred chef and the owner of a small holding in Scotland seem to all have blown over. But no.

So she spent most of her Christmas holidays behind the laptop researching ticket prices, all the while figuring out how long she would have to safe up her pocket money before she would be able to take off. She was positively shocked on finding out that ‘minors’ can not book plane tickets at all. Not until they are at least 16 or so. Before that – oh horror – your parents have to get involved. And we did. Of course we did. We bought her a plane ticket for her 12th birthday in January.

The last three months she has lived in anticipation, counting the days. Composing endless ‘packing lists’.  I just found the last one in her bedroom, every item ticked. At least I now know that she has packed ‘2 pairs of underpants’, ‘1 teddy bear’, ‘1 jumper’, ‘1 pair of PJ’s’ and ‘M.F.S. (Midnight Feast Stuff), as she never lets me go anywhere near her suitcase. I am just hoping that at some point during her stay she will actually get a fresh pair of knickers out and puts them on. Something she at times struggles with at home.

The last few days before the big weekend, the 12yo seems oddly calm and confident about the whole undertaking. I on the other hand don’t feel at all cool and collected thinking about my precious daughter up in the air all by herself. The awful plane crash in the French Alps, which dominates the news for days on end is not helping either.

As I tug her in the night before D-day, my daughter informs me hat she has invested some of her savings into bubble gum and sweets, because ‘to relax on the plane I am just going to really pamper myself’. It sure sounds like a plan! What is there to worry about?

Half an hour later I hear her calling me from her room, something she hasn’t done in a long time. I find her in floods of tears. ‘What if the plane crashes and I never see you and daddy again? ‘And ‘what if I am too scared tomorrow and then we have wasted all that money?’ I get into her bed and tell her that most people would be scared before such a big adventure. And also that being scared now means that she is really preparing herself and as a consequence of that the journey will be fine. Fortunately she believes me and nods off almost immediately.

We’re both up at the crack of dawn the next day. We check and double check that she has her boarding pass and passport and then we leave way too early for the airport as she ‘really’ does not want to be late. Miraculously there are two other girls her age at the ‘unaccompanied minor desk’, who are also going on a little adventure. That helps!

After filling in countless papers, I have to hand her over to an air hostess who will guide my daughter through customs and will make sure she boards the right plane. A quick hug and she is off. I wander aimlessly around the airport (you are required to stay until the plane takes off), talking to the universe, asking it to keep my daughter safe. I also end up more or less hugging my phone for the 1 hour and 15 minutes she up in the air,  following the picture of her plane minute by minute until my friend in the UK sends me a picture. They’ve got her! Yay!

The weekend is rather uneventful on our side, but filled to the brim with fun where my daughter is. At regular intervals we receive pictures and message like ‘They had fun at the swimming pool disco and have now turned themselves into Tracy and Stella who work in a beauty salon’, ‘Yo Lisa at Yo Sushi! Giddy with excitement,  bless her’ and ‘The girls are bath bombing, face masking and hair curling’.

Before I know it I am back at the airport, ready to collect her. I am still following my daughter’s plane on my phone, albeit a little less religious this time. All of a sudden there she is again, walking towards me with a hitherto unknown swagger in her step. My daughter has grown up fast these last 54 hours without me and it shows. She truly has conquered the world and now it is hers for the taking. I am just hoping she will allow me some time to catch up.

Help Yourself!

self-help booksIt is never a good sign when I get the urge to buy self help books and an even worse one when I actually cross the line and purchase these types of books (I can never buy just one). But at the start of this Easter weekend I did. A couple of hours happy reading later I am positively buoyant with good intentions.

I am not only being enlightened by Dr. Brené Brown (Professor – and I a not making this up – in feelings of shame at the University of Houston) about ‘The Gifts of Imperfection’, I am simultaneously encouraged by Japanese tidying guru Marie Kondo that I can transform my house (and head)  into an oasis of calm. I just need to tidy my house for the next six months, and then I never need to tidy again. In my life!

But back to buying these books and why I only buy them when I am feeling less than chipper. These books with their easy, step-by-step action plans, at first glance offer the perfect solution for when I am feeling low, stressed, exhausted and overwhelmed. Instead of some painful soul searching and facing up to the fact that I at times am my own worst enemy, I just need to sit down, drink wine and read a self help book to completely and painlessly transform my life.

As I at times can drive myself completely crazy by my constant perfectionism and fear to fail ‘The Gifts of Imperfection’ (which of course can only ever work as a title when spelled in capitals) jumped out at me. Especially the subtitle ‘Letting Go of Who You Think You Should Be’, was music to my ears. As it turned out it proofed to be rather hard work to actually read it.

Not that I read more than the first two chapters, but even just these took a lot of wine. The book talks a lot about compassion, shame, the need to belong and the dark side. Especially Brené Browns’ dark side. Which turned out to be that years ago she gave this awful talk at a high school and that for the first time in her existence she didn’t bottle it up, but – Hallelujah – shared her misery with her sister with whom she, as a direct consequence of her new openness, now has this deep and meaningful bond. Really?

For some light relief I swiftly decided to give book number two a go. ‘Jinsei ga tokimeku katazuke no maho’, or ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying’, straight away commands me to be perfect. Because if you do not strive to perfection when tidying you might as well not tidy at all. Which – I have to admit – sounds rather intriguing.

Author Marie Kondo orders me to start with sorting my clothes, by collecting all my clothes, shoes and coats from drawers, storage, laundry and putting them on the floor of a calm room, preferably at seven in the morning when I am still fresh and can concentrate on my ‘inner voice’. I need to one by one pick every single item up and if I don’t shiver with joy, I need to thank the T-shirt, trainers or dress for the service it has provide me and throw it away. No mercy.  If I have done my clothes, I can move on to more difficult possessions like furniture, books and finally photo’s.

Mmm. Not sure whether I can do all this keeping a straight face, while listening to my ‘inner voice’ (and visualising the Japanese author who lives in 40 square metre bed-sit).  But I am going to give it a damn good go,  Next time that I feel stressed and overwhelmed (and silly). Which won’t be any time soon I fear, as after the long and lazy Easter weekend filled with painting the 12yo’s bedroom, dining with friends, a real day trip with the family discovering more of the Netherlands and drinking quite a bit of wine, I feel more relaxed than I have felt in weeks (months?).

And If I try the ‘Life-Changing Magic of Tidying’ method some time in the future (and I seriously doubt I will ever find a calm room in our house) I am already pretty positive that when I’ll pick up the ‘Gifts of Imperfection’ I won’t feel a shiver of joy. I will thank it for a wonderful Easter weekend before taking it to the nearest charity shop.

 

Spring

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So I lost the spring in my step of late. I generally do after Christmas and New Year, as I don’t enjoy candle light and roaring fires any longer, but can’t seem to find anything to replace them with. January, to put it mildly, is not my favourite part of the year.

It’s all that getting up in the dark and driving home in the dark, pigging out on stoggy food and not managing to get myself off the sofa during weekends that does me in. Every year. Although I normally pull myself together after blue Monday, this year for some reason I find it is already February and I am still quite low on energy and will power.

Time to take stock of the funny/joyful/exciting things in my life. My daughter talking for days about this birthday cake she was going to bake, certainly was one of those things. It needed to be in the shape of a book, covered in fondant, adorned with elaborate chocolate piping, she informed me. Whenever she lays out these plans I normally immediately have the urge to tell her it’s too complicated, it will never work and why doesn’t she try one of the nice recipes from one of the cookbooks she owns. Luckily this year I was way too tired to argue with her. Of course she pulled it off. All by herself. A four layered chocolate and vanilla cake, beautifully covered in red fondant, nice bit of piping. It looked stunning and tasted great!

Or the 13yo, who seems to be living in his own teenage world these days, totally oblivious to his parents and sister, but all of a sudden wants to share his mates whats app comments with me. Lots of *&^#$@* words, !!!!!!, lol’s and phrases he can not even begin to explain to his 46yo mum, but have him howling with laughter every waking hour of the day. Giggling with him proofs to be a very adequate medicine against the winter blues.

As is the 12yo’s determination to write a letter to the prime minister about camping in the Netherlands. When were coming back from her ice skating lesson the other day, she all of a sudden drew me into a long conversation about camping and why you couldn’t just pitch your tent anywhere you’d like. Something she totally disagrees with. Especially in the Netherlands which are flat as a pancake and therefore ideal for camping. According to her, that is.

The minute we get home, she is on the i-pad searching for the prime minister’s address, so she can send him a letter. My daughter, although born in a digitalised world, funnily enough is a firm believer in handwritten letters. She works on said letter for a good hour, finds and envelope and a stamp, puts her roller skates on and off she goes, en route to the letter box.

A week later she gets a letter back, signed by the prime minister. Triumph! Although she is far more impressed by his signature, than she is by his arguments. He talks about the country being quite full at places and the protection of animals at other places. It isn’t until she makes us promise she can pitch her tent in our garden this summer whenever she likes and camp out all by herself, that she smiles again, which is so adorable, it has me smiling for days.

Just as I contemplate how wonderful it is that my children are turning into such interesting and independent creatures, my son sends me a text. He has just found out his English test is at the same time as his appointment at the orthodontist. Can I do something about that? NOW? So I call the orthodontist, who informs me we will be billed for this appointment, as it is too late to cancel. Could my son may be make his way over to the orthodontist now, so he is back in time for his test?

No idea, because after delegating, the 13yo immediately switches off his phone. So I send him about 15 texts, asking him to call me, then urging him to call me and in the end threatening him that I will confiscate his phone, if he doesn’t answer me now. Eventually he does of course and he even makes it to the orthodontist and back in time for his test. Just as I am to call Mr. S. for a nice old whining session about teenagers, my son sends me the sweetest text ever, thanking me for bailing him out. I am of course putty in his hands the rest of the day, pouring him cups of tea and looking the other way as he assaults the biscuit tin.

But one of the best things that happened these past two miserable January weeks, were two emails from completely different, but very dear friends. One contained a really solid piece of advice from a wise friend I said goodbye to in Switzerland 1,5 years ago. She really helped me with a problem at work I hadn’t been able to solve myself. The fact that this friend an I only managed to get together once during these past 16 months is of no consequence. It hasn’t diminished our friendship in any way, which never ceases to amaze me.

Another lovely friend from Manchester wrote me an exciting email about a tulip festival in Sussex this spring. It is wonderful to have found (years ago) someone who shares my passion for gardening, literature, languages and chocolate. And who knows me well enough to send me uplifting messages in late January, when I no longer believe it will ever be spring.