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.

Power Girl

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Completely unexpectedly my girl has decided that she wants to come out running with me. Something to do with the upcoming school sports day and the need to become really ‘strong’.

Naturally I leap at the opportunity to spend some one-on-one time with my daughter. But ever since my son burst into tears because he could not keep up with my running (on his bike!), I am a bit hesitant to let my children accompany me when I go for a jog. I do not like to be perceived as a drill sergeant, allthough sometimes I am just that.

But then my daughter mumbles ‘Vita Parcours’. Of course, our own local hill here in Switzerland boasts one of those running trails, interrupted by sturdy wooden exercise equipment. Great idea! Off we go!

She looks absolutely adorable in her too short dance trousers – she has grown a ‘bit’ since we bought those in the Christmas holidays – and her brothers too big running shoes that she insists on wearing. I better not tell her that though, as she is – completely unlike me – prone to mood swings. But all stays well in the world, so minutes later we skip through the forest.

It turns out to be great fun to look for the signs that will explain our next set of excercises. We stretch away at some stations and jump on and over tree stumps and wooden barriers at others. My girl turns out to be very fit. And strong. She relishes in showing me how well she can do push ups on the ground and pull ups while dangling high above the ground.

She is positively shouting with joy after she finds out that I can not do any of these things. I can just about manage to hang limply from rings and bars for about ten seconds, but that is it. Push ups are a definite no no. I never had much strength in my arms. End of.Now that I am home again, sipping a cappucino and typing up this post, I think I never want to go this fitness ordeal again. I should just stick to what I do best: running.

Not my daughter though, she disappears into her room to work on a fitness rota, comprising multiple weekly visits to the forest fitness trail. Oh dear. If I fall silent on this blog, it probably means that I can not lift my arms far enough to reach my keyboard. So unless I too become ‘strong’ very quickly, I will have to learn to type with my toes.

Picnic

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Criss-crossing the Netherlands on various day and weekend trips these past few weeks has rekindled my love for the motherland. It almost feels like I am seeing the low horizons and endless skies for the first time.

Over the past six months I have been pretty much blind for what the Netherlands have to offer. Moving back after eight exciting years living abroad felt a bit like an anti-climax. No new horizons to explore, no alien culture to conquer and going to the supermarket was like a deja-vu. My surroundings felt way too familiar to really appreciate them. The fact that we moved to a new village in a part of the country that I had never seen before, did not change that feeling one bit.

My eyes were not ready to see beauty close to home, nor was my heart ready to let new people in. After the draining months of prolonged farewells, an exhausting move and a month of unpacking boxes and trips to the skip, I simply was not ready to look at the world with expectant eyes.

Luckily autumn came to the rescue, giving me a perfect excuse to hibernate. Within the four walls of my rented house I could easily pretend nothing much had changed. Armed with my knitting needles 500 grams of wool and endless cups of tea I could just about face my new life.
But now it is spring and the sun has been shining bright for at least six weeks. Fresh, almost see through leaves have magically appeared, countless tulips open their flowers and little lambs are frolicking left right and centre beckoning me to come out of my shelter. And I must admit that after visiting the famous Keukenhof, I am feeling a lot more upbeat about Holland.

Even the ubiquitous tulip/wooden shoes/windmill paraphernalia that I find in most places I visit can not seem to dampen my spirits. The little multicoloured windmill my friend bought me a the tulip festival has quickly become one of my most priced possessions. I love how its moving vanes and tulips set the scene just outside my back door.

Last weekend I mingled with tourists from every corners of our planet to have a wonderful Easter stroll round the Museum Square in Amsterdam. The sky was the brightest of blues, the façade of the Rijksmuseum looked truly magnificent and I did not even have to wrestle my way in to get a look at the paintings, because I can do that any day, so in effect it can wait for a rainy day. No, I just sat and watched and ate an ice cream and it was lovely.

The rest of my Easter weekend I spend visiting friend in Zeeland, the far south western tip of the Netherlands, where the land is so flat and the villages so few and far between that the sky really takes centre stage. I used to live in this beautiful corner of the world and felt the roots I grew tug at my feet. Life seemed simpler, or at least gentler in this peaceful corner of the world. I surprised myself by enthusiastically taking various pictures of a photogenic dike with typically Dutch houses and a windmill.

Without moving away from the Netherlands and living abroad for almost a decade I do not think I could have ever seen my country, nor understood the identity of our national symbols with such fresh mind. I always laughed at this windmill fantasy of Holland, but actually seeing an antique windmill in a spring green field adorned with lambs and narcissus, these days almost moves me to tears. Tulips are indeed absolutely wonderful and I love the fact that you can buy arms full of them for very little money so my house is never without in vase filled with tulips in the spring.

Wooden shoes are of course a bit of a nuisance. No one actually wears them. Or may be some farmers still do, although the reason eludes me, as wooden shoes must be the single most uncomfortable shoes in the world. I must try them on one day, just in case I am totally wrong.

As far as national symbols go, we have done all right in the Netherlands. Our easily recognisable, quite decorative and brightly coloured windmills, tulips and wooden shoes don’t need much explaining around the world. Come to think of it so don’t the gondola’, the boot shape and the Colosseum of Italy, nor the cowbells, cuckoo clocks and pocket knifes of Switzerland. England our first expat country is probably the trickiest of all places we lived to define by just a few symbols. Cricket, cream teas, school uniforms, rose gardens, liberty prints, cooked breakfast are all part and parcel of English culture, but which one to choose to unify it all?

One image that springs to mind is the ability to have a picnic in the rain. And I mean to sit and eat completely unperturbed when the heavens open. I have witnessed, on more than one occasion how people just flip open their umbrella’s while they continue eating. No panic, no screams, no running for cover. My favourite school trip with my son’s class was one to the seaside at the end of June when the rain was pouring down, but the kids just went on with it, making sand castles, playing chase and jumping the waves. Of course we all had an ice cream, even though our lips were blue and we were shaking violently from the cold. We were at the seaside after all.

So I dare the tourist crap making industry to come up with one of those little glass domes with a pick nick scene inside. The minute you hold it upside down or shake it, instead of snow, rain should fall and umbrella’s should magically open. Or even better, let them produce a whole series of these with different rainy scenes (the beach, the camp ground, the Easter egg hunt, the summer fair, the diamond jubilee to name but a few).

It will be an absolute delight to look at them. Especially on – the not infrequent – rainy weekends when on Saturday I will be getting soaking wet watching my son’s hockey game and on Sunday I will be getting soaking wet coaching my daughter’s rowing team. Because how wet, cold and miserable I might be when I get home, it could be infinitely worse. I could have been picnicking after all.

 

Expat Life with a Double Buggy

I’ve added this post to the June 2015 Expat Life link party. Click on the picture above for more great expat blogs.

BBQ

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May be inviting 20 plus people for a BBQ, without owning a BBQ, wasn’t the best idea. And may be, just may be, planning this BBQ on a Sunday, whilst at the same time being out from dusk till dawn on the Saturday before, wasn’t such a great idea either. Our worst mistake however, was feeling invincible and certain we were going to pull it of.

It wasn’t until last Monday, weeks after I invited both our families for a Whitsun BBQ, that Mr S. casually mentioned that we do in fact no longer own a BBQ. Apparently we (well Mr S of course) threw it out whilst we were living in Italy. We were way too polite to try and light the BBQ on our Italian balcony and smoke out the neighbours, so by the time we left Italy the unused and unloved BBQ was covered in rust (according to Mr S) and not worth taking with us to the new destination.

In Switzerland we had one of those lovely brick built fire places, complete with its own chimney. BBQing became our second nature. We (well actually Mr S) loved charring burgers, or grilling the hell out of some ribs. Lovely.

Luckily our rental place in the Netherlands doesn’t come with a build in BBQ, because Mr S. long since dreams of buying himself a ‘proper’ gas BBQ. And not just any old gas BBQ, but a really, really big one. As this is an important purchase, he decides to take a day off.

After he had a nice little lie in and three cappuccino’s, Mr S is ready for some serious online investigating. For a while he is completely lost to the world, but then the 12yo, who doesn’t need to be in school until ten on a Friday morning, decides to take a look as well. Within minutes both the boys have a in depth conversation about ‘flavourisers’, titanium, extra burners and are watching promotional films of outdoor kitchen with lovely names like the QR4200, or PL250A.

Time to hit the shops, or shop, because apparently our rather large village, only has one shop that sells half decent BBQ’s. With the warmest weekend so far this year upon us, it is eerily quiet in BBQ Land. After long humming and hoeing and looking at various ‘outdoor kitchens’, we find out why. Most of the BBQ’s are out of stock. And although forty pallets of BBQ’s and BBQ accessories are due to arrive any minute, the sales guy has no idea whether or not Mr S’s desired model will be in this shipment. He thinks it ‘likely’, or even ‘highly likely’, but can’t be sure.

Mmm, time to come up with a plan B. After some frantic browsing on the net, I find a shop, about half an hour’s drive from our home. According to their website the ‘3000 titanium pro’, should be in stock.

An hour and a half later, Mr S triumphantly walks in with a box, the size of our kitchen. The only thing between him and total happiness is a gas bottle, but that will be easy to fix later on. First he needs to piece together the monster BBQ, which Ikea fashion, comes in exactly 271 different pieces.I decide to keep my distance and hide behind a magazine at the back of the garden. Mr S is whistling. Assembling is FUN!

But then it gets quiet. All I hear are some sighs and whispers. I am probably just imagining Mr. S is muttering swear words under his breath. swearing. Any time now the whistling will start again.

But of course it doesn’t. Loud swearing and some throwing around of screwdrivers follows. As it turns out, the very expensive BBQ that Mr S just bought, is probably a display model that someone assembled and then disassembled a while back. And just like Ikea furniture, once disassembled, you can never put it back together again.

With clenched teeth and loads and loads of counting till ten, Mr S. manages to get the ‘titanium pro’ back in the box again. Silently we lift the box and carry it to my car, where it just about fits, if we pull the seats down. Of course customer service closed 5 minutes ago and the shop isn’t open on a Saturday, so there is nothing we can do.

We’ve got tons of meat, garlic butter, potato salad, corn on the cob, a special BBQ cook book, a rain cover, beautiful stainless steel thongs, but no BBQ. It takes Mr S about six cans of beer and myself a bottle of Chardonnay before we see the funny side of the BBQ fiasco (there isn’t a funny side of course, but who cares after six cans of beer and a bottle of Chardonnay).

On the morning of the party we decide to just play it cool and pretend we completely planned a BBQ-less BBQ event.And it works! It honestly turns out to be one of the best BBQ’s ever, with Mr S in an orange ‘I love BBQ-ing’ apron presiding over the hob, frying everything he manages to get his hands on. It is utterly brilliant. Who needs a BBQ?

It isn’t until I need my car the next morning to go to work, that I realise the downside of the ‘hob-be-cue’ being such a success. Knowing Mr S., the urgency now gone, probably means he won’t take another day off to return the faulty BBQ. I will probably have to drive around with the blasted thing filling every inch of my car, the caption BBQ Land visible from almost every angle.

So we’re throwing another BBQ party and all 17 or so members of Mr S’s field hockey team and their families are invited. I doubt we can pull it off without an outdoor kitchen.Oh and did I mention the party is next Saturday?

zzzzzz….

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A weekend of domestic bliss! Even a Sunday night spent wading through the spillage of the blocked downstairs toilet doesn’t seem to shake us. We just watch the football with our wellies on.

During the past few weeks Mr S. and I have had our ups and downs. Yes, we are getting used to living in the Netherlands again, but it definitely doesn’t feel like we’ve arrived. I am sort of kidding myself that I am loving it here and that we should buy a house, make a pact to stay here for a least a decade and buy tons of new furniture to cement the deal.

Mr S. on the other hand is not so sure about the whole living in the Netherlands thing, so doesn’t want to buy a house yet, let alone think about how long he is going to stay. Needless to say, furniture never even enters his head.

However hard I try not to push Mr S. – and I honestly do try – most weekends start with me wanting to discuss buying a house and more often than not telling him which one I would like to make an offer on. This weekend of course is no exception.

To my surprise however Mr S. is not only willing to discuss houses (as long as we don’t have to decide), but he also agrees to look at some furniture with me. Now! So we decide that after fifteen years, two home births and four moves we will treat ourselves to a new bed. And not that we’re pining for our lovely place in the Alps, but we head straight for ‘Swiss Sense’, a Dutch chain of bed & mattress stores that, as we are about to find out, have nothing to do with Switzerland whatsoever.According to the sales guy the ‘Swiss’ in ‘Swiss Sense’, is purely for marketing purposes. It just sounds nice. The beds are in fact produced in the Philippines.

He is not too bad this guy, until he starts jotting figures on a piece of paper. Although ‘every bed in the store can be combined with every mattress and top layer’, when we do suggest a different combination, it all of a sudden seems to get a.very complicated and b.very expensive. But we do like the bed. We do however definitely do not trust the salesman, so we leave.

But then we find an even bigger ‘Swiss Sense’ store that is open on a Sunday as well. The weather is absolutely gorgeous as we head out around two. Which is just as well as the store (one of fifty furniture stores in a massive arcade, which is pretty much how I would picture hell if I believed there was one) is very quiet. As soon as we enter the store, the manager dives upon us.

Before we have had the time for such much as a cursory look around, this guy is bombarding us with information. He talks about pocket springs, bonnell springs, foam mattresses, memory foam, latex foam and different seams. He also talks about different zoning in mattresses and shows us five booklets of different upholstery fabrics. All I want to do is lay down. At the rate that this guy keeps going, I would be able to sleep anywhere.

I soon realise that bringing an engineer to a bed and mattress store is a very bad idea. Mr S. actually seems to enjoy talking about different types of coils. ‘Let’s buy this one here’, I mutter under my breath to Mr S. when the sales guy finally draws breath.
Luckily my husband agrees and an hour and a half later of testing different mattresses and top layers (‘toppers’ in bed & mattress store jargon) he too is willing to pay the guy extra if only he would shut up. Although I now know everything about Talalay natural foam latex and have laid down on a ‘topper’ made of camel and horse hair, which is more expensive than my car.
When at the end of the process the guy is willing to ‘do us a deal’, we just nod.Whatever, we’re buying the bed. Three hours after we entered the shop, we are finally set free. The sun have never shone brighter!
We have the best time ever driving back. Hours later we are still in high spirits. So when the water from from the downstairs toilet floods our hallway, we just laugh. Who cares? We have just spent the best couple of thousand euros in our lives. Not only did the money buy us a very nice bed, but more important, it bought us fifteen years of not having to set foot in another bed & mattress store again!

Over it

 over it

Four new soup bowls sitting on my work top brighten my spirits without fail. Not because they are beautifully formed and exquisitely glazed, which by the way they are, but because of the German lady that made them.

‘Are you German?’ Friend P. and I must look very stunned at this question, because the lady in the pottery shop hastily switches to speaking French, trying to guide us round the entire contents all in one sentence. Friend P. is English, I am Dutch, we were probably speaking English on entering the shop, which is in France, because that is where we are on holiday. So German? No.

When I frantically try to unearth my school French in some far away corner of my brain, friend P., who speaks fluent German, surprises the lady with some very interesting remarks about the pottery industry. From which it takes only a very small step to discuss the painful break up of the German pottery lady and her French ‘beau’.

Within minutes of us entering her shop, the German pottery lady completely spills the beans.Of how upon coming to France thirty odd years ago for a pottery course she fell in love with this French pottery artist and how they were perfectly happy until he ran off with a Vietnamese girl. Oh dear.

Before we can commiserate, however, the pottery lady tells us how important it is not to drown in one’s sorrows. No, it is vital to learn from such life events and to move on. If only her French ex-lover would do the same. Moving on that is, or even better, buggering off to Vietnam altogether. But no, she points, every summer he, his Vietnamese wife and their children spend around three months in their pottery shop, which – didn’t we know? – is right next door.

By now two little red spots appear on the pottery lady’s cheek bones. Good thing she moved on and is in a good place now. She grabs some bowls and plates of the shelves. ‘See this spiral motive?’, she points. ‘I love it, because for me it represents emotional growth and the fact that life is a journey and one shouldn’t dwell upon the negative things, but continue to move forward’.

Not much more German is required at this point. All we have to do is nod and smile and wait for more. ‘No she doesn’t miss Germany at all’, the lady continues. She visits once a year, or since her mother turned 90 three years ago twice a year, in October and March, and that is enough. She truly loves France.

But then friend P. strikes gold when picking up an unidentifiable little blue dome. It turns out to be a salt shaker, a very clever little salt shaker. A salt shaker that the German pottery lady has come up with and designed all by herself and that has over the past couple of years become one of her best selling products.

Again she points across the small garden. ‘He copied it’. And not only does the French bastard produce and sell very similar salt shakers, he sells them cheaper. ‘When he first started making them he sold them for one Euro less than mine’, she says. That left her no choice. So she lowered her price, and than he followed suit and so on and so forth.The pottery lady sighs. Good thing she has responded to the lessons this break-up needed to teach her, dealt with the pain, grown from the experience and moved on.

We buy some more pottery than we originally intended and leave to find our bikes, all the while carefully avoiding to look at the shop next door, just in case the pottery lady is watching us. It is indeed very fortunate that she is truly and completely over it.

Florence

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I sort of knew this of myself. The recent operation on Mr. S.’s ankle, however, really brought it home. I am no Florence Nightingale.

Although to start with I didn’t disappoint. Driving to Rotterdam at an ungodly hour, listing to the duty nurse, getting the crutches out of the car and installing Mr. S. in his hospital bed for the day: no problem. Leaving him behind, mooching around Rotterdam, treating myself to a luxurious cappuccino and some cake: easy peasy. Hoisting Mr. S. in the wheel chair and wheeling him through the hospital and the parking lot to the car: quite good fun actually.

It isn’t until the next morning, that I realise I am a bit of an action hero when it comes to nursing someone back to health. I love the driving – carrying crutches – taping plastic bags around the wounded ankle – getting a stool in the shower – bit of nursing. I am less great at the endless cups of tea, coffee, sandwiches and other tidbits. I just forget.

Normally that isn’t a problem. Even if I forget to eat myself, the children and Mr. S. won’t starve, because they learned – years ago – that they live in a self service household. No matter when you enter the kitchen in our house, there is always someone making a peanut butter sandwich, or frying a couple of eggs. Dinner is the only more of less reliable service I provide.

I am even worse when it comes to listening sympathetically to stories about Mr.S’s ailments. Shortly after the operation I am patience personified. Of course it hurts, someone just made two holes in his ankle and scraped a bit of bone off. That is why the nurse gave us a stash of painkillers. I provide a glass of water, Mr. S takes a pill and all is well with the world again.

Just as I start to grow in my role as carer, Mr. S. reverses back from being a patient, to being his plain old self again. He starts to walk on his wounded foot without crutches, wobbles over to the coffee machine umpty times a day, as no one makes coffee, like he does, and decides to give up on pain killers, as they can’t be good for you.

He further demands to be driven to work, three days after his operation, as he is sick and tired of being cooped up in the house. So, I drive him to Amsterdam – again at an ungodly hour – before taking myself to work in Utrecht. When I call Mr. S. from the car on my way back from work, he picks up after the first ring. His ankle really hurts, he informs me. He even sounds genuinely surprised.

It would be great, if I could come straight away to pick him up, as he hasn’t called for the taxi to come and pick him up, as we agreed he would do. As he wobbles towards the car, leaning heavily on a crutch, I really have to delve deep to try and find my inner Florence. ‘I am really glad you told me to bring a crutch’, he tells me lovingly before he reclines his seat and closes his eyes.

Mr. S. grudgingly agrees to stay home the next day, as long as we both agree it is just the one day, because really there isn’t anything wrong with him. Right. As soon as I return home from work the next afternoon, he tells me proudly that he has been cycling. ‘It is so much easier than walking’. He beams from ear to ear. From cycling it is only a matter of hours until he declares himself fit enough for driving.

Mr. S. has been back at work for a week now. He still wobbles, but does he let that stop him? You guessed right. He is a bit disappointed his ankle isn’t healing more quickly and is sharing that disappointed liberally with his family. At which point, I really, really want to smack him. Not very Nigtingalelesque, I know.

Although when I see Mr. S. carefully putting a cushion under his hurting ankle and install himself – fizzy drinks and snacks handy – in front of the telly to watch a children’s programme about dogs with the 11yo on a Saturday afternoon, I cannot help myself but salute him. He is does try to put his feet up. At least for now.

As we are still living ‘happily ever after’ and in all probability will grow old together, we’d better make a battle plan. A live in nurse, would be our best option, I think. Someone in an official white coat and in the possession of a very loud voice, who tells us when it is time for our medicine, or our nap. Someone with oodles of patience and enough authority to ensure complete submission. So we can concentrate on what we do best together: eat, drink and be merry.