Friday, March 28, 2008

A Pirates Life Fer Me!

This last week I have been sailing the high seas, hoisting the Jolly Roger and pillaging with a crew of rowdy mateys.  I was just mindin' me own business and going about me daily routines until I went to track me 15lbs of weightloss on Spark People and a brilliant marketeer grabbed me by the wrist and drug me into the land of pirates and me haven't come back out since.  Me free time be spent rounding up pieces of eight and sword fighting, drinking games, and pillaging. 

My girls have their own Club Penguin memberships and I figured that to be a luxury.  Often I will hop on their accounts and waddle around with their penguins, sometimes even redecorating my youngest's igloo (her idea of decor is something atrocious).  I found it such great fun that I was willing to give Puzzle Pirates a try.  I was a little reluctant only because I noticed on their front page that you could pick up Puzzle Pirate cards at any Target store.  Bells started going off in my head that this is yet another internet money-grabber, but the games looked like all the similar games I used to love to play when I had the free time before my three little monkeys started swingin' the vines.  I love it!  My monkey man loves it!  When I am away he takes over (ssshhh, don't tell anyone I let me man pretend to be a sexy and daring lassie) and he even keeps up with my level of expertise.  I guess that is the real clincher: it isn't just the same game over and over again.  It's full of all the favorites (a pirate variety of them anyway), but the level gets harder as you progress.  Besides I can buy me own ships too!  In one week I've gone from a stowaway on the navy to an Officer of a Dutch crew ;)  I know these are not fine excuses to have been away for so long, but when does a pirate maiden ever need excuses anyway?

Friday, March 14, 2008

Where's the Golden Smurf?

We've got a Dutch store that really knows their marketing strategies!  Albert Hein is in constant competition with the other grocery stores and have been accused of having too high of prices in years past.  In an effort to draw more customers they've tried to prove that their just as thrifty-priced as the next guy by having cheap sales with special little gadgets to draw you in.  The year before we came Albert Hein created a sensation with the little fuzz balls with sticky feet, plastic eyes, and antennae.  For the life of me I cannot remember what they or even us call them.  If I were here during the craze I'm sure it would be a name I would never forget.  We've all played with them at one point in our lives, but the Dutch grocery store promotion took it to a whole new level.  With every euro you spent you got closer to receiving a free fuzz ball from the store and if you spent over a certain amount you could get this overgrown critter that was almost too big to put on your dashboard.  From what I hear people were putting them up for sale on the internet starting at 50 euros!

The latest craze has not only reached the adult population but also the children.  I've seen children waiting at the end of each aisle begging the customers leaving for a piece of the pie.  And I've also seen grandmas grab their cherished prize to their chest and deny these innocent little faces the joy of the game.  The Belgian created Smurfs are celebrating their 50th anniversary and now every Dutch person knows about it!   With every 15 euros spent the cashier hands you over a little package with a toy smurf hidden inside.  They've got all the most popular smurfs and you can "collect them all"!  With each package you get a zegel (coupon) which you can paste onto a form.  After filling in the total spaces with your zegels you can purchase a nice-sized stuffed smurf for the total of 4 euros.  Zegels or air miles are nothing new for the Dutch, as it is something you are asked every time you check out.  If you are one of the many people who collect these sticky squares you'll let them know you'd like them and they'll add it onto your final total and hand them over to you with your receipt for you to post into coupon books.  Once filled the books are returned for discounted prices or tickets for various museums or amusement parks.

In America I clipped coupons, but would not be distracted towards an item which wasn't on my shopping list just because I had a coupon for it.  I have never bought a lottery ticket in my life.  But the smurfs have captured me!  I've already gotten three stuffed Smurfettes for my girls to put in their Easter basket and they have collected every available tiny toy smurf except Gargamel's cat, Azrael (see, I can remember all these names from Brilsmurf (Brainy) to Smurfin (Smurfette), but Albert Hein was genius and planted 50 golden smurfs in those bags of smurfs.  They will not say what you'll get if you open up one of these packages and happen to find a golden smurf, but it's got to be good!  I'm thinking as good as a free year of groceries or a even 50% off for a year.  This delusion actually puts excuses into my mind to do shopping at Albert Hein rather than my regular and cheaper store, Dirk van de Broek.  I have found sales which my menu just happens to fit around at Albert Hein and I find myself lingering between cash registers debating which line is most likely to dish out a golden smurf!  I've gone blueming mad!  I know my chances are very slim when they've put out 27 million of the little blue buggers, but for some reason I can vividly imagine watching my kids tear into one of those packages to reveal a shiny golden smurf.  Genius, I tell you . . . genius!


Thursday, March 13, 2008

Cultural Design

Something about my perception has recently changed.  Within the first year of this cultural journey I went from viewing the Dutch culture out of something similar to amazed alien eyes to the drastic difference of seeing it through a sophisticated know-it-all American's eyes.  Somehow it went from innocent amazement to criticism of a Cro-Magnon civilization.  Personally I think it was more an instinctive self-preservation reaction than a judgmental one, but nonetheless it wasn't pretty and it didn't feel right.  There were moments when it seemed I was being judged by individuals around every corner and at some point I decided to turn the finger on them, innocent or not.  It is hard to explain the adjustments which I've gone through during this international transition, the good ones or the bad, but I've once again reached another corner.

You know it when you pass by a non familiar bridge standing steady over the lapping water of a small canal and get a sudden urge to snap a photo just because you know one day you'll miss it.  And instead of seeking out the store with the limited supply of American pudding mixes you pick up a different carton of vla just to see if it happens to be different from the last failed attempt.  Even better is when you realize that you actually like the concept of buying pudding in a carton and being able to pour it into a bowl . . . or even liking the taste.

For so long I'd concentrated on what I was missing from the states, how things tasted differently, and why would anyone want to do this or that differently.  Like the time I finally tracked down cheddar cheese and it only came in a 6oz paper wrapped package and I almost cursed the best cheese makers on planet earth for not stocking my cheese.  Just how was I going to garnish my tacos now?!?  Strangely, what I thought was an open-mindedness mentality began to reveal it's layers upon layers of discrimination.  I grudgingly shredded young Belgian cheese over my tacos and, over time, put away the thought of making tacos before someday returning to the states and began relishing the different variety of dishes I could make with this limited amount of glorious cheese.

It is still amazing to me to see a culture of people who look so much like us but do things so differently.  "Different" is a word I've used often since our move and I've used it in (pardon the overuse) different ways.  But once I stopped accusing the differences as being absurd and started looking for their purpose I found I could look at this world around me in a new light.  Yes, there are still things which I think the Americans have perfected, but I have also figured out that not all which is different is wrong.

It has been a while since I've shared stories about the Dutch, their customs and country.  It probably stopped about the time the newness rubbed off and started tearing at me with its jagged edges.  There are several things I'd like to introduce my non-Dutch readers to.  I hope you'll see the differences from the weather-worn expatriates' view and not the cynical better-than-you Americans'.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Good morning! How ya doin'?


"Hoe gaat het?"

Literal Translation: "How goes it?"

Translation: Let me hear everything that's been going on in your life since the last time we had a chat.

Very much unlike the American way of acknowledging one another (Q: "How are you doing?"  A: "Great!") the Dutch are actually quite honest with one another.  We learned early on not ask a Dutch person how they are doing unless we had several minutes to share in conversation with them.  My husband often got strange looks when he'd pass by a coworkers desk in the morning using our standard polite way of greeting, "Goedemorgen!  Hoe gaat het?" (Good morning!  How ya doin'?)  The coworker would stop what he was doing and stare at my husband with a bewildered look on his face wondering just what he was after.  Surely he didn't want to hear what was up first thing in the morning and why would he be so rude as to interrupt him when he could tell he was in the middle of something?  In America the coworker may not even look away from his monitor and simply reply, "Great!"  Not only that, but you would expect the same reply if the person had just had the best date of their lives the night before or if they'd just come back from their mothers funeral.  Well, yesterday I got a Dutch response.

"Hoe gaat het?"  I asked a woman I don't often chat with but she seemed interested in a little chit chat while we waited.

"Het gaat." (It goes.) I could actually hear the period plunk down at the end of her sentence.  My instinctive response, raising of the eyebrows, was enough to open the gates and with another resounding plunk she slid out the simple statement, "My husband and I are getting a divorce."

I wondered if I again proved myself American after having winced at hearing a statement like that but continued into the murky waters I'd stirred up.  What followed was disturbing as anything surrounding the "D-word" naturally is.  Only she didn't seem to detail the information with the slightest hint at being disturbed.  (This could have been the most disturbing.)  My husband and I both went through our parents divorces as children and will not be so evasive with our thoughts as to say it didn't affect us.  Our chests tighten and our minds bring up years of distorted memories and disturbing discussions whenever we hear of a child being put through the wringer of a parents divorce and yet we "understand" when things are . . . "necessary".  We've spent our lives learning that role so I found it easy to put the face on again while I listened to her reasoning, though I couldn't help but squirm or flinch inside when I heard these two statements:  "He just said he wasn't happy," and "It'll be better for us and the kids."

My husband and I have made it our goal from the beginning of our marriage (13 years this summer!) never to mention the "D-word" and work on our marriage at all costs to keep well away from those troubled waters.  Along our life journey we felt the calling into Marriage Ministries and, as fate is used to doing, we were attacked in that very area of our lives.  Pull out of it we did, but through the process I also heard the statement "I'm not happy," and I also felt it echo through the walls of my own soul.  And though it hurts terribly I feel I have to suggest that it isn't just a last ditch effort to get your spouse to boot you out the door and hopefully into greener pastures but a cry for help?  For love?  Oh, my heart weeps for this couple and their children.  Sigh . . . I feel I have digressed from the point of this entry by traveling a path my heart is sensitive towards. 

So . . . "Hoe gaat het" you ask?  Though I am still in the American frame of mind and normally respond, "Goed, en jij?" (Good, and you?) there are a few moments when I break down the daily episodes of our own General Hospital series.

Jungle Dad had surgery last Wednesday to put in a couple screws to hold the bone together, so we loaded the kids up into the car our friends had loaned us for the occasion by 7am in the morning!  We wheeled Dad into the hospital, gave him a few kisses and waved goodbye before they wheeled him into the surgery room.  The girls picked out a pink flower just for Daddy and ate at the only source of food near the hospital, McDonalds!  Though they'd warned us he'd probably be staying the night, since he was the first operation of the morning he was released that very afternoon.  Still, we did not hear the report we'd wanted to hear.  Earlier we'd been told he would have surgery, get a cast, and have to keep his leg up for two weeks but could walk on it for the last four weeks.  Instead he came out of the surgery with no cast and has to keep it up for two weeks and cannot walk on it during the following four weeks.

He's been steadily chipping away at projects at work from home, but misses all the other work he could be getting done if he was in the office but he does not see any way he can get himself to the bus stop, from the bus to the metro, from the metro to another bus stop for an hour and a half each way twice a day to do it.  So, for the next 5 weeks he'll be at home healing and using the computer for most of the day everyday.  Meaning?  Don't be surprised if I'm not hanging around the land of blog for the next 5 weeks :)  While we're still hanging out around the marriage bandwagon I'd like to state that I'd never quite comprehended the weight of the "in sickness and in health" part of the marriage vows until this last month.  It was hard seeing my husband injured so badly he couldn't take care of himself.  It is also hard taking care of three young children and a husband all day long one day after another.  But I'm getting used to the change in routine and I'm not so prone to bouts of grumpiness as was in the beginning.  Catherine has began to take on a few extra responsibilities and even Li'l Lillian is often seen grabbing a kitchen towel off the rack and wiping up her own little spills now without having been asked!

Before I close up there is one more little thing I must leave you with.  Daddy's situation seemed to have gone unnoticed by our youngest for weeks until one day she happened by his bare leg, eyes height with the long black line from the incision and its thick black stitches holding it together.  Recoiling instantly she cried out, "Owee, Daddy!"  She took a few steps back and with a wrinkled up nose and yet somehow portraying a look of innocent concern she pointed at the ugly blemish and asked sincerely, "Kitty . . . scratch . . . you?"  As if the worst possible injury she can imagine is from that cat.  (I'd have hated to run into the cat that left a scratch like that!)  After several days of having been asked the same question Daddy ended up telling her "the doctor did it".  Great!  Now I'm never getting her into the doctors office again!  But she also hasn't manhandled the cat lately either . . .