Sunday, 16 November 2014

Sinterklaas

 




How easy to live abroad an be politically correct when it comes to the Dutch Sinterklaas, or rather 'Black Pete' discussion. This year, however, I find myself at the front line of the 'Sinterklaas war', which makes me feel surprisingly emotional.

Not because I do not want to change the tradition. No, I am all for changing the look of 'Black Pete' and make him into a colourful pink, green, purple, fair haired, dark haired or ginger Pete. I don't think children will notice and it certainly won't take anything away from what is in its core a fun and festive tradition, geared towards young children.

What I do find difficult, however, is a small group of international parents in the Dutch International School I work for, who really do not like our school to celebrate Sinterklaas (in whatever shape or form). Their arguments being that they are not Dutch, nor will they ever become Dutch and they sent their children to an international school to give them a broad and open-minded view of the world in which there is no place for the internationally criticised figure of 'Black Pete'.

That I find tricky to deal with. My children (now 13 and 11) have celebrated many traditions in the different countries they have lived in. In Italy for instance they have enthusiastically celebrated 'Carnevale', dressed up for it, sung the traditional 'Carnevale' songs and eaten the fried sugary snacks that come with it with gusto.

In Italy they have also learned to celebrate 'La Befana', a witch, generally portrayed riding a broomstick and always covered in soot, because of her habit of entering children's houses through the chimney. La Befana brings Italian children presents on Epiphany (6th of January).

While living in Switzerland my children have come upclose and personal with Samichlaus and his rather sinister tramp-like helper Schmutzli, who is believed to stick naughty children in his bag and kidnap them. The pair of them by the way also hand out presents of course, this time on the 6th of December.

Learning and getting involved with the culture of your host country always is part of the curriculum of any international school. Teaching primary school children in a Dutch International School this means you will always talk to them about King's Day (Koningsdag) and teach them how to ride a bike. I have never been more proud than when a group of our older primary students passed their cycling exam (Nationaal Verkeersexamen). And yes it also means, as a school, you will celebrate Sinterklaas.

I love Sinterklaas and all that it entails. The fact that as a child you can put your shoe out overnight and find it filled with sweets or small gifts the next morning (I would invariably wake up around four am). The funny poems adults write each other to accompany their presents. The excitement as a child to go watch Sinterklaas sailing in from Spain, safely seated onto your father's shoulders.

Although I have always loved Sinterklaas, when my children were the perfect Sinterklaas age we happened to live in England, where Mr. S. and myself took the executive decision to  celebrate Christmas, rather than Sinterklaas. We simply weren't clever enough to explain to our then 3 and 4yo children, that father Christmas would fly in from Lapland on his present laden reindeer pulled sleigh to shower each and every child in England with presents, except for our two.

One of my fondest memories though, is the huge Sinterklaas party the children and I organised in England, where we invited lots of our friends over for a Dutch celebration. I explained a little bit about the tradition and all the little and bigger guests got a chocolate letter in their shoe. I even convinced my elderly neighbour to knock on the door and throw pepernoten (traditional cinnamon Sinterklaas delicacies) inside to the utter delight of the mob of young visitors.

Thinking about it still brings a smile to my face. I found myself grinning from ear to ear again last Friday when a group of mums from all over the world came together to wrap tons of fake presents to decorate the school. The looks on the children's faced when the entered the school this morning was priceless. And they will again be thrilled when Sinterklaas and his rainbow coloured helpers visit the school on the 5th of December. And that really is all that it should be about. Excited children, happy memories.










Sunday, 2 November 2014

Guinea Pigs



I dreamt about guinea pigs last night.Something, I might add, that is very, very unusual for me, as animals don't figure largely in my life. Until three weeks ago that is, when my daughter finally got to choose two guinea pigs. Now I feel like a new mum.

Within hours after their arrival in our household I completely and utterly surprised myself by cooing over the guinea pigs, like I would over a new born. It is completely ridiculous, as Mr. S. doesn't hesitate to point out, but I can't help myself.

At bed time I no longer give my daughter a good night kiss. Well no, I might eventually still give her a kiss, but not until I have talked to the guinea pigs at length, arranging their toys and ensuring myself they are tucked in nicely in their straw burrow.

This all really annoys the 11yo, who a.) is the proud owner of the guinea pigs, as she can't point out often enough and b.) feels she should be far more important to me than two guinea pigs. It doesn't help that she has a bunk bed, of which she occupies the top bunk, while the guinea pigs live on the bottom bunk.

So now when I come to tuck my daughter in all she hears is me busying myself with the guinea pigs. She can't see me from her position in the top bunk, nor can she see the guinea pigs, who always happen to do some incredibly funny tricks, just around bed time.

I am, by the way, not the only one who has completely been won over by the guinea pigs. My son can also quite often visits the guinea pigs in their rodent enclosure. He even went so far, as sitting in his sister's bedroom for around two hours, when he came home early from school to an empty house. According to my son, the guinea pigs, who, despite them being girls, have been christened Ollie and Cheesy make great companions.

Although Mr. S. admitted the other day that our two furry friends are 'quite nice', he doesn't really want to pick them up. He did the first days the guinea pigs were around, but since he found out they go to the toilet wherever, whenever, he is less keen. So most nights my daughter and I snuggle up on the sofa, each holding on the a guinea pig and a towel (to counteract the aforementioned toilet business).

The 11yo now insists she is going to teach Cheesy and Ollie some tricks and has devised an elaborate obstacle course to train them. Patience, she informs me, is key. First they have to be tamed. Instead of running over to her when she enters to room, the guinea pigs currently still run for cover. Lot's of picking up and stroking and talking to them quietly, whilst feeding them treats is what needs to be done.

I should know this, as I have been trying to teach my daughter some tricks over the years (along the lines of: 'flush the toilet', 'don't drop your clothes wherever you take them off', 'put dirty crockery in the dishwasher', 'return home with your jacket, mittens, hat, umbrella' and 'keep your bicycle keys in the designated drawer'). She is always very polite when I point out the dirty clothes on her bedroom floor, or a floating turd in the toilet and promises me to really try and remember what is expected of her. And then she just gets on with whatever she was doing before.

I on the other hand get so annoyed that I - on more than one occasion - yelled at her. I have also binned all the dirty socks and undies lying around and laughed when she couldn't find her bicycle keys for the umpteenth time. To no avail. But now I have a cunning plan. Instead of yelling at her, I will stroke her and feed her nice treats, whilst talking to her about tidying, flushing and keeping track of belongings. I bet you I can tame her. She will be putty in my hands.









Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Surprise!

 


The combined birthday and wedding anniversary surprise weekend organised by Mr. S. last weekend featured sanding, painting and trotting around Ikea. It must be love, or otherwise I must be mad, but this week I  can't stop smiling.

On my 46th birthday last May Mr. S. solemnly declared he was going to book us a weekend away. We were to go somewhere fun and exciting just the two of us. He told me September, but then got operated on his ankle and couldn't see himself hopping around on crutches in some far away and exotic place. All right, October then. Since 14 October 2014 was our 14th wedding anniversary, October seemed a good idea.

In the meantime, however, we bought a house. The same house we have been renting for over a year now and still has the washing machine in the middle of the landing, ill fitted curtains in my bedroom, lights that don't work, a huge climbing frame in the garden and boxes everywhere. So, instead of going away, he proposed a DIY weekend. No children allowed.

Except for the fact that the 13yo has a hockey camp and needs to come home on Friday night, which Mr. S. only tells me about on Wednesday night. So instead of going out, we stay in. And because we are fairly tired from traipsing around the Dutch equivalent of B&Q and lugging paint, wood, nails, light bulbs and countless other thing inside, we just have crisps, beer, some French cheese, crackers and garlic bread for dinner.

It is great. We completely pig out and not a single child in sight to tell us off. Just like the old days! Unfortunately Mr. S. chooses this moment of beer and carbohydrate fuelled euphoria to tell me he originally planned to take me to Rome. Rome! I would have loved to go to Rome, enjoy a balmy night under the Italian stars, eating delicious food, sleeping in an ancient palazzo.

Instead we decide to have an early start on Saturday to make the most of our child-free DIY weekend. And we do. I sand and paint a new storage 'solution', Mr. S. fits the washing machine, replaces lamps, hangs curtain rails and even offers to go back to the DIY store, because I forgot to buy enough paint brushes.

A good two hours later and with a triumphant look on his face Mr. S. walks back in. I had almost given up on him. He, however, bought himself an electric saw. In fact he bought himself the best sawing machine money can buy. Wonderful! Just what we need.

Around six we call it a day. I put on my high heels and some lippy, whilst Mr. S. manages to find a clean pair of jeans and a semi-presentable shirt. We drive to Amsterdam, have a beer on the waterfront, whilst watching an incredible sunset. We then go on to a tiny French restaurant where we have the most fabulous food and wine ever, followed by some more wine at home. We literally talk for hours. What a lovely night,

It was in fact such a lovely night that even a slightly hang over visit to Ikea the next day, can't dampen my spirits. We don't buy anything, as halfway the ubiquitous route through furniture hell Mr. S. decides he is going to make me a desk himself. Which he does. Now all it needs is about four coats of paint. 

I also need to make some curtains, tidy the whole house top to bottom, drive to the tip at least three times and fit twenty hours of painting around my day job. When our modest Dutch palazzo is ready, Mr. S. and I will go to Rome. Or we'll  go and sit on a mountain top somewhere, enjoying the view doing nothing at all. I doubt though whether we'll have as much fun as we did this weekend. Turning our house into a home.






 

Friday, 26 September 2014

10!

 





 
To my utter astonishment my 11yo daughter recently started doing her homework. Something she has, up until now, always point blank refused.

Not that she has ever picked a fight over it. No, she has always been very polite. Promising various teachers to try harder to hand in her homework. Occasionally bringing some sheets home, even doing them, but never quite managing to take them back to school.
It has driven some teachers to despair. This child, quiet as a mouse in class, utterly polite, but at the same time not following any directions. Since she has always been more than capable to keep up with the work in class, most teachers finally just gave up.
I have always secretly admired my daughter for her defiance. I was nothing like her as a little girl and I am still nothing like her as an adult, intrinsically always aiming to please. Although not quite sure how good I am at taking directions now that I come to think of it, but that is something to be explored another time.
Back to the 11yo, who I found filling in her dairy! All right she did ask me what date it was, and then what day it was, and then what month is was, but hey ho you've got to start somewhere. But she does more or less do a couple of worksheets every day, using a very clever filing system and even managing to hand some of the sheets in on time.
Why? First of all her new teacher plays the guitar, just like my daughter. For some reason that helps. This new teacher is quite strict, my daughter tells me. She has had strict teachers before though.
And then it suddenly hits me. I am not around any longer to nag her, as three afternoons a week I am at work, while she is at home, or at a friend's house. Doing what she wants, whenever she wants. Why that should include doing her homework, however, is still puzzling me.
As it turns out she does do her worksheets whilst watching reruns of the Great British Bake Off, or MI High at the same time.. Ah well, that is less than ideal, but since I am not around, there isn't a whole lot I can do about that. Asking my daughter why all of a sudden she is doing her homework, by the way, just gave me the usual unhelpful insight in her psyche. She just informed me that she has 'always' done her homework and what, by the way,  I am talking about?
Just as I am getting used to the idea that we have turned a corner on the homework front, the 11yo shows me her true colours. While tidying her room the other day (something I swore a while back I wouldn't do any longer, but still of course do regularly) I found a lipstick sealed contract. This contract states that my daughter and her best mate have betted (for a can of coke) who can get the highest mark in the next geography test. The contract states that:

- they are both going to try and get a 10 (A+)
- they will both try their best
- they are going to honest when telling each other their grades
- they will show each other their grades (so much for the oral honesty)

I never knew that my non-competitive daughter could be motivated by trying to get a higher mark than her friend. But then I read the conditions of the bet at the bottom of the document. There I find out that my daughter's friend wins the bet as she gets 'a 10 and my daughter less than a 10'. My daughter, however, wins the bet as she and her friend both get 'less than a 10'. Clever girl. All she has to do is forget to study for this test, something that comes natural to her anyway, and Bob's your uncle!





Sunday, 7 September 2014

Florence

 




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.
















Monday, 18 August 2014

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.






Sunday, 6 July 2014

(i-)Summer


                        


As it is almost the end of term, tempers run high in our house. Both the kids can be found in floods of tears, laughing hysterically or kicking and punching each other for no particular reason from dusk till dawn . Although not unusual behaviours for teens and pre-teens, these days they either display all three of these behaviours at the same time or in very, very quick succession.

It is all rather tiring and sometimes downright trying. And matters are not being helped along at all by the fact that in the Netherlands this time of  year the sun doesn't set until eleven. Suggesting - around ten -  to the kids it is time for them to turn in, only seems to be causing  (more) hysterical laughter. By the time they finally are asleep it is close to midnight these days, meaning the children are hollow eyed and grumpy in the morning, effortlessly turning the breakfast table into a war zone.

The summer holidays really can not come soon enough, because what we need more than anything is  a great big dose of boredom. At least that is what always seemed to do the trick for me when I was a teenager and in need of recuperation after a busy year in school.

Hanging out with friends, pottering around, reading books and eating loads and loads of ice creams! And inevitable getting seriously bored when my friends would leave before we did, making me count the days before we finally (finally!) packed up of our tent and the zillion other bit of necessary camping gear and drove to France. Which by the way was a three day expedition in these days, with temperatures rising to a shocking thirty plus degrees inside the car and my dad smoking cigars behind the wheel.

Once at the French camp ground it always used to take me a couple of days to truly wind down. At first I missed the telly and my friends, but within a few days boredom was replaced by newly found past times like making a very precise drawing of the 'Mairie' in a little French village while my parents drank coffee, or trying, but never quite succeeding, to build a dam in the river that bordered the camp ground. Weaving lavender baskets, using a pocket knife to make spears out of sticks, or collecting and drying interesting flowers all of a sudden became wonderful ways to while away a few hours.

Needless to say those summers are amongst the happiest times of my life. And nothing would make me happier than to provide my own two children with similar summer memories. And although on the face of it that should be quite easy, I nevertheless struggle. Because, when children (and mine are no exception) are surrounded by machines that never stop sending them messaged like 'your clan needs a leader', or 'your smurfs are missing you', it is really difficult to get them in the state of absolute boredom, that gets their imagination going.

Just banning the pods and pads is too simple, because the minute I leave the house they are on them again. No, we actually have to go places without wifi. But those are harder and harder to find, as most campsites, hotels, or holiday parks boast 'Free Wifi' these days.

I think I have cracked it though. The little summer house in a really small village in France where we are going for the first week of the holdiays only has Wifi in the local library and if the chalet in a car free village high up in the Alps where we will go at the end of the summer has Wifi, I am going to ask for my money back. I am dreaming of long walks in the mountains, building sand castles (do thirteen year olds still do that???) on the beach, making flower necklaces, watching the 11yo battle the waves in a flimsy bikini, playing card games, finishing the ubiquitous holiday jigsaw and really getting away from it all.

I am sure my children will have a brilliant summer. I bet you they won't miss their computer games one bit. Not so sure how I will cope without my i-phone though.I mean do 46yo's still build sand castles?