Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Down-to-Earth - the Dutch Culture

One of the things I find fascinating in mainstream Dutch culture is the way normalcy is prized. Calling a person  "nuchter" - down-to-earth - is  a compliment. (It's also the word for sober, and I was very confused when I read a medical document that called for blood taken on a 'nuchter' stomach. In that context, it just means empty, not that for other blood tests it's fine to show up totally drunk.)  Doutzen Kroes, the famous supermodel, said in an interview that she considers herself nuchter, and values her simple background in Friesland, one of the northern provinces. Googling 'nuchter' and Doutzen Kroes brings up several hits, including a page that even calls her, translated, 'the Dutch downtoearther'. High praise for a globetrotting international beauty. But if she keeps fame and fortune from going to her head, shouldn't we all?
A common phrase I've heard here, especially from parents, is "Doe normaal." Act normal. Which somehow automatically is supposed to shut out things like tantrums, jumping on the couch, or other forms of outrageous behavior. When I went through training as a TSO moeder - lunch mom - at a primary school, the curriculum and leader actually spoke against the phrase. "You see," the teacher explained earnestly, "what may be normal for you is not normal for all of these children. In a Surinamese family, for example, it might be considered rude to look an adult in the face while they talk. Here, if a child avoids eye contact, we assume they're hiding something. So telling them 'Doe normaal' just won't work - they are being their own normal!" As a mom now myself, hanging out with other moms and their children, it's easy to see the differences in family culture, even just among the Dutch themselves. 
But in general, staying on the center of the beaten path is encouraged. Study well in school. Perform well at work but don't try to outshine your colleagues - no one likes a showoff. Have fun on the weekends - but not TOO much fun. The popular (and generally mandatory slogan) here on alcohol advertisements is, "Geniet, maar drink met mate." Enjoy, but drink in moderation. How effective this slogan actually is, I haven't checked, but I imagine that if a colleague had one too many beers after work, the response might be, "Hé, doe normaal!" 
Moderation extends to birthday parties, where the streamers and balloons are hung but generally there is no Amazingly Detailed Party Theme like the kind that seems popular in America. Guests are served one piece of cherry vlaai from the bakery per person, and nibble on snacks from little bowls. The birthday person might dress up, and the birthday child might wear the paper crown they got from school, but that's about it. Gezellig, cosy, and expected. Occasionally there might be phrases about craziness thrown around, whether discussing the weather, sports, or politics. "Het moet niet gekker worden," someone might say, looking out the window at a snowy April morning or a blistering October afternoon. "It shouldn't get any crazier." Or, discussing a politician in the new government coalition who's calling for environmental change, "Doe maar gewoon en dan doe je gek genoeg." If you act normal, you're already acting crazy enough." I've even seen that slogan on kitschy blue-and-white tiles. Whether it's a warning, or encouragement, I haven't figured out yet. 
One of my favorite songs is "15 miljoen mensen", which describes, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, the culture here. Of course, the population of Holland has grown since the song was written  - from an estimated 15 million in 1996 to 17 million in 2016  - but a lot of the verses are still recognizable. Like the line, "The land where no one lets himself go, except for if we're winning, and then the passion breaks out intensely, and no person stays inside." And the video clip for that line looks like it's taken at a voetbal match, with screaming fans wearing the national orange color. Football, or soccer, is one of the few occasions when it's more than okay to go crazy. When the Feyenoord club won the national championship last year, car horns started blowing in my neighborhood and I saw fireworks in the middle of the afternoon. The center of Rotterdam was so crowded with thousands of red-and-white-wearing fans that there were security advisories issued for anyone who was crazy enough to want to go to the city and see the awards. Because sometimes being crazy is totally normal... in moderation. 

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Newest Novel - Dutch-in-Law 2017


Maybe I'm totally crazy to even consider it, but I log into the familiar blue and white NANOWRIMO website anyway. National Novel Writing Month? Sure, I may be about twenty weeks pregnant, living in a fixer-upper house overseas, and spending my days as expat mother and wife, but why not start writing a new novel this November?

I'm sure the first people who signed up for the NANOWRIMO challenge were crazy too. And the people who first had the idea to turn the international, vague dream of "Write a novel some day" into a website with definable numbers and a voracious writing community. I didn't know anything of the sort existed until a few years ago, and now I enthusiastically sign up for almost every new session or 'camp' throughout the year. But the big pull is, of course, the month of November, when people around the world look at the slogan on the site header, "The world needs your novel," and decide it's somehow true. 

The site 'opens' a little before the all-important month, so today I log in and get started. I click through the "Create Your Novel" link, and pause at the blank space for a title. The last few times I've just used, and reused, the title "Dutch in Law", adding numbers after it. I think now I'm up to 3 or 4? But they're little more than drafts, hardly novels ready to make their way into the world. And they're mostly in journal form, and I don't know if that would even be marketable. Thinking about actually trying to publish anything slams me into a sort of mental wall. So I don't. I just leave them in neatly marked folders in my computer and in the cloud, vaguely intending to do something with them someday. But this time through, I kind of want to try something different. I'll still keep journaling, I think, but I think it would be fun to write some sort of a manual for living in Holland. Of course, there's no one-size-fits-all guide to any city, let alone country. But I could write the sort of guide I would have wanted, as a young newlywed, married to a Dutchie and trying to adapt here. And what I didn't experience, I could still write about from the experiences of others. 

And even if no one ends up reading this novel except for me, and family, it will still be fun to write. And a challenge, given how my life looks these days. 

"Dutch In Law: The Manual" I type into the title bar. Novel genre? If I were to publish it on Kindle, I'd probably put it in the international genre, maybe women's fiction. Here I settle for "mainstream." Then it's time to write a short synopsis. 

Of course, there's no one-size-fits-all guide to any city, let alone country. But there are things about living in Holland that every Dutch-in-Law should know, things every expat should at least have a nodding acquaintance with. Like the little metal circles that are the key to a smooth grocery shopping session. Or who or what the Wilhelmus is. Chocolate sprinkles for breakfast? Biking hand signals? A chipcard?The iconic rabbit that seems to be everywhere? Welcome to the Dutch-in-Law manual. 

It's a start, at least. I click "Create Novel" and make a mental note to come up with some sort of cover for it. I browse through the page titled "Your Novels", where I can see the last three I made in Novembers before. Each has a golden badge in the corner, with the word "Winner" on it. That's one of the beauties of the site: the big, scary, brilliant goal of 50,000 words for a novel. Some of the seasonal sessions have options for setting a goal word count, or even setting an hour goal for editing or revision. It's nice to have the flexibility, especially when life is crazy or it's more important to work on a past project than on a new one. But, unless they've changed the main site too, the 50,000 word goal is huge and intense. Split across days (and visible on the convenient charts and graphs), it means an average of 1,667 words a day. I normally average about 500 these days, for comparison's sake. And it takes me about half an hour; during past NANO's I probably spent two to three times that, and used Pippin's naptime as writing time. But now I need that afternoon slot for my own naps, if not for my freelance editing projects and housework. 

These days I generally try to write after my little guy goes to bed at 8pm, with the last of a day's energy before I go to bed myself. Which is just one more reason I'm probably crazy to start a new novel this month. I'll have to figure out a new time to shape words and ideas into some sort of a coherent novel, despite pregnancy exhaustion, to-do lists, and social obligations. So, really, why not? 







Friday, March 10, 2017

Happy Messy Kitchen



In our old house, the kitchen piled high with the mess, and in our new house, the kitchen piles wide with the mess. The two adults and the child who live here all have more interesting things to do throughout the day than clean, which means it's normally evening before anyone takes action. And by anyone, I mean D clearing off his part of the counter so there's space for the bread machine, and me clearing off my part of the counter so I can set out breakfast bowls and spoons. In the morning, the counter fills up again quickly, but I'm teaching Pippin to help unload the dishwasher so I can load it again.

Sometimes the mess in my kitchen stresses me. On rainy cold days, when the world seems against me, even just clearing the counter can seem too much to handle. Other days it's much more manageable, fortunately. When guests come over, the kitchen gets cleaned quickly. If there's a good movie on Netflix, the kitchen gets cleaned thoroughly (like when I binge-watched historical drama 'The Crown' during a bout of flu and scrubbed everything, including the highest part of the stove hood). The rest of the time, it stays at a reasonable level of comfort.

Today it's way more messy than comfortable, thanks to all the baking and cooking today. Dishes from the muffins Pippin and I baked this morning, dishes from the pancakes we cooked tonight. A pile of mugs from a gezellig visit this morning with my parents-in-law and a friend who dropped by. There are even guest appearances by a litter of seed packets on the table and a bucket of dirt in the sink. It's a cozy disaster, a happy messy kitchen. It's a place where I can feed the people I love, where I can plant seeds for tomatoes in pots, and seeds of kindness and helpfulness in my little boy's heart.

All the same, when it comes time to clean up the happy mess, I'm very grateful for the dishwasher.



Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Teacher

I hesitate while filling in the website form. Me, a teacher? I was looking for a free download, not a psychological cross-examination.



I'm browsing a resources website while Pippin naps. By entering simple information like my email address and a little about myself, I get access to free downloads like coloring pages and preschool 'printables'.  It only takes a few seconds to fill in my info, down to the last question or two. A few simple clicks will get me to the downloads page I'm looking for. The part that's making me pause is the dropdown box with, "I teach___ " and then a drop-down menu. The choices range from pre-K to homeschool to adult education. There's also a simple "I don't teach" option. 


Monday, January 2, 2017

The Scrubbing

Tonight I was so bored of painting my nails and reading adoring fan mail that I decided to clean my dusty-from-unuse stove.



Wait.

No, that's how it happened in the alternate reality where I'm a famous but and reclusive writer, living in a seaside loft by my lonely self, writing best-selling songs and poetry and subsisting on organic salads and fruit smoothies.

In this reality, I took a break from all my other to-do lists to scrub the stove that we use every single day. The stove that has five glorious burners so I can cook Christmas dinners for nine people or just spread out fresh pans of chocolate bark. The same stove where a gleeful Pippin helps me mix pancake batter and fill muffin molds. The same stove that was filthy and sticky from a concoction of dust, grease, and miscellaneous spatters and practically screaming for a bath.