The Dutch


The Dutch people are….

TALL!!


My former neighbor Chris came to visit and he fit right in (he’s 6’6″).

I read about how the average height of a male is just under 6 feet and a female is 5′ 6 1/2″ ( in comparison a US male is 5’6″ and US female is 5’4″ on average) but to see it everyday really is noticeable. I often wonder as I try to cram myself into teeny tiny bathrooms (know as WC here because they are literally closets and not the walk-in version of suburban Chicago) how do the 6’6″ Dutch men manage???

Sun Lovers

Even if it’s 40 degrees Fahrenheit they sit in the sun!

Typical Dutch weather 
The Dutch people are accustom to crappy weather year round so the second the sun comes out they all flock to the nearest cafe to have a drink. They turn their chairs to the sun and bask in the rays as long as possible. I read a blog comparing the Dutch to sunflowers. They are not unlike Chicagoans on the first spring day above 65. I get it and I’m happy to join in this practice but draw the line at about 55 degrees (the Dutch will sit in cafes even it’s 4 degrees Celsius about 39 Fahrenheit)

Active

The majority of Dutch ride their bikes on a daily basis but in addition to that I see people running, walking, playing soccer, doing boot camp in my neighborhood park, kayaking. Many of the neighborhood kids play field hockey and/or soccer (voetbal in Dutch). There are far fewer obese people but plenty of junk food which leads me too….

French Fry Obsessed (friets in Dutch)


I have always loved fries but seriously the Dutch take it to a WHOLE new level. They serve friets with everything! You will be out for a fancy dinner at an expensive restaurant and they will still give you a side of friets with your 39 euro fish special.And don’t forget the mayo, no one gives you ketchup unless you ask. My girls have wasted no time adapting to this Dutch habit and we happily make a trip to Frietwinkel (fry store) at least once a week.

Fond of Flowers


The gardens here are truly awesome, from Keukenhof Gardens (the Disneyland of Flowers) to your neighbors’rose bushes, they are colorful, beautiful and smell amazing. Not to mention buying fresh cut flowers is dirt cheap! I have bought fresh flowers every week and it makes me so happy just to have them in my house.

Fun-loving


Every weekend we see numerous party boats on the canals, roaming bachelorette  parties and impromptu BBQs in the park (not matter what the weather). These people are hardcore and the biggest party of them all is Koningsdag (or actually Koningsnacht). Koningsdag is Kings Day a national holiday celebrating King Willem’s birthday of April 27. The night before is referred to as Koningsnacht (Kings Night) and since everyone has the next day off it becomes an all night affair of partying. I compare it to every Chicago summer festival, block party and yard/garage sale taking place in one 24 hour period!!!! This year Koningsnacht was the coldest and rainiest ever on record but it did not keep the Dutch from partying like rock stars. We thin skinned Chicagoans only lasted 90 minutes before we headed home to warm up.

I think everyone thinks they have the “craziest” weather but honestly after living here for 4 months The Netherlands may win. 

 

 

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Gratitude

  After two months of living in a new house, in a new city, in a new country I’m VERY grateful for so many things.  Here are just a few…..

My Bike

I love not having to get in a car and drive places.  My bike can take me to most places I need to go quickly and way more pleasantly then getting into a car.  I don’t even mind the biting wind and occasional sleet. I love the feel of the sun on my face and my tired legs once I get off.  Right now it is all so new and different that I relish each and every ride. 

 The Canals

The Dutch Canals have served many purposes over the years including drainage (since most of the country is below sea level), for transportation, as water supply, as sewers and for defense against an enemy.  Now days these canals are used occasionally for transport (the keg boat) but mostly for recreational activities and I never get tired of riding on them or past them.  Utrecht is unique in the world for having a two tiered canal system, one was for warehouses and one for homes and businesses. 

    
   
The Flowers

After living in Chicago for 42 of my 46 years I became accustomed to spring being a short lived season at best (in between 80 degree days and snow showers).  The Netherlands is a country that has a LONG spring and the flowers to go along with it, this is the land of tulips.  First came the crocus, then the daffodils, next were hyacinths (I did not know how wonderful these smelled!!) and now the beloved Tulips.  Although tulips originated in Persia since the late 1500’s the tulip has been a symbol of The Netherlands.  I will be visiting the famous Keukenhof Garden in two weeks (it is only open for 6 weeks a year) and will definitely be posting about my experience.  Right now I just enjoy walking or riding my bike and seeing flowers everywhere (not to mention being able to buy them at every corner for as low as 3 euros for 10 tulips!!) 

    
 The Food

Fresh, fresh, fresh!! I’m living in a country roughly the size of West Virginia so that makes it quite easy to get local produce and milk and cheese and meat.  It truly makes a difference!! I can still go to my grocery store and pick up processed food but who needs it??  I go to the store or market every day and see what looks good (I feel like the woman in Eat, Pray, Love). 

    
 The History

Museums, architecture, walking tours, there literally is not enough time to truly investigate all there is to see and do relating to history in Utrecht or any city in The Netherlands (but I am trying) 

    
    
   
 

The Parks

We have a park 1/2 a block from our rental house, it is a newer more modern park with a fantastic playground for kids, petting zoo, large pond, a man-made hill to look out over the entire park, a section for the dogs of the neighborhood, a canal that ends in a waterfall fountain, several soccer fields, a running path and it’s own upscale restaurant complete with row boat to take you to a floating platform on the pond for a  REALLY romantic dinner. I walk through the park daily and observe the animals, kids, adults and ever-changing array of flowers and greenery.  That is just the one by our house, I have many more to explore. 

   
IWCU (International Women’s Contact Utrecht)

My new club and a great way to keep busy and make new friends.  I have met women from Australia, Scotland, England, Dubai, Ireland, Denmark, The Netherlands and a few Americans so far.  I also volunteered to be the new group secretary so I am sure I will meet a ton more in the coming months. When you are an expat these type of groups can be a lifesaver! 

 ISU (International School of Utrecht)

This is the school that Molly and Lucy now attend.  They love it! Last week they spent 4 nights in Terschelling, an island of the Northern tip of The Netherlands and had an incredible time riding bikes, building a raft, watching sea lions, having a bonfire and most importantly getting to know their new classmates.  They will never forget such a once in a lifetime experience. 

 Travel

Mike and I made a conscious decision to move to a country that would allow us easy access to traveling Europe.  Although the terrorists have done their best to slow us down we will not be deterred.  We have already visited Bruges and Ghent in Belgium, Paris, Haarlem, Amsterdam, and Delft.  We have plans to visit Austria, Germany and Portugal in the next 6 month. We feel blessed every time we visit a new place, and honestly every time we leave our front door. 

    
    
    
   
 

I realize that we are still in what the Expat community refers to as the “Honeymoon Phase” of living in a new country.  I’m sure very soon the irritation of not speaking the language will grate on me, or shared walls with my neighbors will become a bit much, or the incessant rain the people keep telling me about (especially in the fall) will put me in a funk.  But for now I will keep my rose colored glasses on and be thankful for each and every day I walk down the cobblestone streets of my new city. I’m so glad that the conversation that started one year ago this week on a beach in Key West turned into a new chapter in our family life.  The t-shirt I saw today on the Oudegracht (old canal) says it all…. 

 

Paris: A Study in Contrasts

imageHere’s the deal, I’ve never really wanted to visit Paris. I know, I know…how can anyone who loves Europe and took 6 years of French class say that??  But it’s true. Once I started traveling in Europe in my late twenties I learned fairly quickly that the BIG cities were just not my thing, too crowded, too confusing and frankly too overwhelming. It was hard for me to enjoy anything when I was worrying about how I was going to get to the next thing (no matter what that next thing was). So when we made plans to visit Paris it really had more to do with proximity than anything else.  I slowly warmed to the idea after all the fabulous input from friends and family about all the cool things to do, and see and eat in Paris.  Then Brussels happened…..

Obviously traveling in this day and age comes with some degree of uncertainty and fear of terrorism, but traveling 3 days after a major attack, on a train that stops in the city where that attack happened, to a city that is still reeling from its own terrorist attack seemed particularly daunting! initially we thought we would have to postpone because the trains weren’t running but much like Chicago after a snowstorm, things quickly get back to business as usual. So unless we wanted to pay for four nights at a Paris hotel room that we wouldn’t be staying in, we needed to be brave and go. We can’t let the terrorists win right?

I’m so incredibly proud of my girls because they were scared but agreed with us that not going was just not an option. We got up at 6:00 am to bike to the train station in the dark to start our journey. The train ride was uneventful, Brussels didn’t appear to be any different then Antwerp from our vantage point. When we arrived at the Paris train station we were greeted by a line to show our passports (apparently a new addition since the attacks in November) but that moved along smoothly. We were now ready to explore Paris. After waiting in line for a taxi for approximately 15 with no movement we decided to brave the Paris Metro with our bags. It was a wise decision since it became our main mode of transportation the entire time we were there and was easy to use as well as clean. When we emerged from the subway the first thing we saw was The Eiffel Tower…….incredible!! I will never forget my first glimpse. It was the perfect introduction to this one of a kind city. I was truly in awe of this incredible structure, and continued to be every time we were in its proximity (which was several times a day due to the location of our hotel).

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Looking back now, a week later I’m so grateful we made the trip but Paris is a city of contrasts. Here are some of my personal highs and lows:

The HIGHS

The Architecture

The Eiffel Tower. the Louvre, the Sacre Couer, Notre Dame, the Palais Garnier and The Arc de Triumph, each more beautiful and awe-inspiring then I could have ever imagined.

The Food

Every meal we had from the corner cafe to the Trip Advisor recommendations were delicious. The highlights were lunch at Cafe St. Regis on Ile St. Louis, Berthillon Ice Cream and our behind the scenes tour of Baguette Margot Patisserie in the Montmartre area.

The Fashion

As a tourist who was dealing with rain and cold I accepted the fact that I could not be comfortable and fashionable at the same time but the Parisian women were impeccable. From their perfectly coiffed hair, to their expensive designer shoes, I was floored. They wear skirts and dresses the way Americans wear yoga pants and jeans. Scarves are everywhere and worn in a multitude of ways, each one chicer then the one before! Window shopping and people watching was endlessly entertaining.

The History

As an American living and traveling in Europe you are constantly reminded how young our country is in comparison. Although much of Paris was rebuilt during Napoleon’s reign (thus the similarity of many of the buildings with the lovely wrought iron details) you will come across buildings from the 1600’s and even earlier. I never get tired of the winding cobblestoned streets.

The museums

I have no comment because my family refused to go to any, Heavy sigh.

The LOWS

The Homeless

Every big city has a homeless population but Paris has a large number of homeless women and children (most are refugees from Syria).My heart would break every time I saw a mother with 2-3 children huddled in a doorway begging for money. As much as I have read about the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe to come face to face with the suffering brings it all home.

The Police

The Police were highly visible on our entire visit. They are everywhere and in full force with bulletproof vests, automatic weapons and barriers. It was comforting at times to see them but overall it left us with an underlying feeling of dread. Not exactly what you need when on “vacation”.

The Dog Poop

The French love their dogs and take them everywhere but apparently they do not feel the need to pick up after them. We were constantly scanning the ground so we didn’t spend part of our vacation scraping dog sh*% off our one pair of shoes!

Disneyland Paris

I’m a Disneyphile and felt I could not make a trip to Paris without venturing to Eurodisney (now known as Disneyland Paris) especially with two 12 years who are also Disneyphiles. Unfortunately, this turned out to be my least favorite day of our trip! It started with a 3 hour travel time to finally arrive at the gates. What should have taken 45-50 minutes tripled due to an unexpected stop on the train (we are not quite sure why we stopped since they gave us NO explanation but we speculate that a suspicious package was found at another stop on our route). After we stopped they made us ALL get off the train and told us that there would be special buses to take us where we needed to go. To make a long story as short as possible, we pushed ourselves onto a special bus after wandering around trying to figure out which bus was the correct bus (no one waits in an orderly line in France). Packed like Sardines we drove for 20 minutes got off at another train station that was roped off, there they told us in French to wait for another bus that would take us to another train stop to get back on a train that would then take us to Disney. We only knew this because we befriended a lovely French woman who translated for us (and our two new friends from Northern Ireland who were as confused as we were). We tried for 30 minutes to get on another bus but the mass of humanity trying to push their way was too much for me. We gave up and thanks to Uber finally made it to Disney at 12:45 where it proceeded to rain until approximately 5:30 pm. In addition to the rain about 1/3 of the park was closed for renovations.  My girls still loved it….go figure.image

Looking back now with a little perspective I know that this was a trip that we will remember and talk about for years to come….epic. Paris is overall a city that needs to be seen to truly be believed, it every cliché you have heard and yet so much more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Praying for Brussels

March 22 began like many other days since we moved, hectic morning get everyone up and out to school and work. The girls were excited to ride to school on their bikes by themselves for the first time. I realized things were different when Lucy texted me to let me know they had arrived safely but that their teacher was late due to some issue with the trains. She asked me if their dad had any issues. I didn’t immediately think this was anything to be concerned about because train delays are normal here in The Netherlands. The trains are comfortable and clean but the timetable is not always reliable. I texted Mike who was on a train but he said it was abnormally crowded did I know what was going on. By the time I checked CNN.com he had already texted back,  “Brussels airport appears to have been bombed this morning”

My heart sank….here we go again. And just like September 11, 2001, November 13, 2015 and so many other dates I thought “what is this world coming to??”.

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We are approximately 100 miles away from Brussels. That’s a little farther then Chicago to Milwaukee. It’s too close for comfort. We have plans to travel to Paris on Thursday as well. As of right now those plans are on hold. Trains are not running through most of Belgium which is our route. We had a discussion with our girls last night about terrorism and the randomness of being caught in an attack but my stomach still hurts as well as my heart.

i will continue to live my life as much as possible without fear. This is such a beautiful part of the world and I want to embrace all it has to offer. Pray for peace.

This is the quote our school sent out to address the Brussels tragedy

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of their skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, they can learn to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart then its opposite.” Nelson Mandela

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Today is the perfect day to open a new door.

Yep, that’s right today.  Today I opened my door and walked out into my new neighborhood, in my new city, in my new country.  I was scared but I did it anyway because that is what this move was all about…new experiences.  My daughters walk through that door everyday to go to their new school, with new teachers and new friends and they come home  with stories that remind me change can be good.  They miss Chicago but don’t let it get in the way of enjoying today and everything that comes with it.

The new door that I opened yesterday brought me to a place where I finally began to make my own new friends here in The Netherlands.  I joined an International Women’s Club and yesterday was a New Members Coffee.  I was nervous to walk into a home of someone I didn’t know into room of complete strangers (when you live in a place for 25 years it is rare to go anywhere without knowing at least one person) but I knew the only way to make new friends was to put myself out there so I went.  The second the hostess opened the door and said Hello in English my stress started to evaporate.  It’s amazing how just hearing my own language being spoken put me at ease.  I spent two hours introducing myself to women from different countries, all ages, some with kids, some without, some have lived in Utrecht for years, some were recent additions like myself.  I walked out of there feeling like a 50 pound weight had been lifted off my chest. On my walk home I saw one of those quaint painted doors that you seem to see everywhere in Europe.  I stopped and took a picture of it.  Soon after I saw another one, and another.  It seems that once you start looking those beautiful doors are everywhere!

I’m just so glad I made the choice to open one

A Walk in the Park

Today I took a walk in the park because the sun was shining and I needed to remind myself of why we did this…because let’s be clear, a move overseas is no walk in the park.

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Forgive me for using this well worn saying but it is the best I can do.  I don’t consider myself a writer in any way, shape or form but I will do my best to communicate what it is like after 25 years of living in one place (Chicago) to move to a completely different place in a DIFFERENT COUNTRY!  Be careful what you wish for…

 

It has been a roller coaster ride the last few months.  We chose this move and were super excited for the opportunity to live but overseas but that does not keep you from experiencing all the hiccups along the way.  To pack a house, sell a house, find a new rental in a new city in a new country all during the holiday season is not something I would recommend! Looking back now it’s hard not think we were a little crazy to even attempt such a colossal undertaking.

That was not the hardest part…the hardest part was saying good-bye to friends and family.  We had been in our house for almost 15 years and part of our school community for 10.  My sister and I have always lived within 20 miles of each other.  To say we were imbedded in our city and community would be an understatement. The people closest to us had the hardest time trying to reconcile the Chicago-centric family they knew and loved with this new expat nomad idea.

In the end we sent some of our old life in a container to The Netherlands (trying to bear in mind that whatever home we found to rent there would NOT accommodate US size furniture for the most part).  The rest of our accumulated stuff was stored, sold or given away.  Let me tell you that the process of going through 46 years of belongings will inundate you with memories.  That in and of itself was another moving part of this experience. This came on the heels of a the 20th anniversary of my father’s death.   Giggles and tears came often as I unearthed different artifacts of my life.  This was a cathartic process and one that everyone should experience whether you choose to move overseas or not.  Purge, purge, purge!

The week after Christmas vacation, a day after returning from a Disney Cruise, with one sick child at home the container truck arrived.  Within 3 hours our stuff was loaded and on it’s way to our new Dutch home (wherever that might be).

That was 9 weeks ago and our rental house is finally starting to feel like home.  I will need these walks in the park, bike rides along canals and trips around Central Europe to remind myself WHY we put ourselves and our girls through this tumultuous experience.  We left behind friends, family, an amazing school community, the best block in Chicago and a comfortable life but my hope (as I listen to the church bells ring from Dom Tower) is for an education that goes beyond anything I can even fathom sitting here at my computer today.

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Dom Tower