Sunday, December 27, 2009

Snow, Snow, Snow

At last, the snow is finally melting. I may sound like a party pooper but by the time you're down to the last few patches of snow on the ground, very little of it is still white and I've grown very weary of trying to brush grey sludge off the kids clothes before they come inside.
Ok, snow is lovely for the first few days, even a dedicated summerphile like myself will admit that. Once it started it seemed the snow would never stop, drifting down first in tiny pin-pricks of white then developing into big fat fluffy flakes. It was so light that it was possible to scoop up a whole snow-shovel full of the stuff at a time; I know because I had to dig the car out. Several times.
We were puzzled to hear the distinct roar of a tractor motoring around the house at one stage, and looked out the windows to see a snow plough clearing the roads outside, a very rare sight for us. It returned twice more during the day to try and keep the roads clear. It failed.
One bright side was the we had fitted winter tyres on the car just 48 hours before - a brilliant bit of foresight for which I would like to claim the credit. If only it had been my idea!

The bunny bungalow has been winterised with sheets of plastic, an extra thick layer of shredded hemp on the floor and the boudoir filled with a bale of fluffy straw to keep them warm. I also had the brilliant idea of buying a large covered cat litter box, filled with an inviting pile of tasty hay (in 2 different flavours) and a snug base of hemp to keep their bottoms warm. I removed the swinging door and it looked so inviting, just like a warm little cave, that if I was small enough I would have crawled in there myself. The bunnies took one look at it, voted to completely ignore it, and prefer to sit in the cold snow instead. Typical.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Our Piano Maestro

Some time ago hubby and I decided to enrol Niels for piano lessons. At 8 he's a good age to start, and we were both keen for him to take up a musical interest. We both had piano lessons as kids; hubby for a couple of years and I had lessons from 7 to 17 years of age, and I still love to play today. In fact a few years ago I shipped over the piano I learned on from New Zealand when my Mum shifted houses; she didn't want to keep it any more and it's a nice piano, and I'm quite attached to it. This summer I had the interior mechanism fully refurbished, a costly job but one which will last it for another 25 years or so. Built in 1939, it's a Wilma, originally made in London and now having travelled from the UK to New Zealand and back again by ship before being trucked over to Holland, it's a well travelled instrument!

I digress. While Niels had initially been reasonably open to piano lessons, the day that the teacher rang up to tell us what time to turn up he threw a huge hissy fit and we had our biggest argument EVER. And that's some record, let me tell you. He screamed, and ranted, he wailed, he jumped up and down on the spot, and every door in the house was slammed at least once. We were the worst parents in the world ever, possibly the universe, cruelly re-living our childhoods through torturing our first born son with the agony of a musical education. How Could We???

By the time lesson day rolled around Niels and I had reached an impasse. Waiting on the hard plastic chairs outside the lesson room, Niels stared stonily at the scuffed floorboards of the former church, refusing to speak to me, much less look at me. The minutes ticked by, interrupted only by the faint twanging of a kid getting guitar lessons in some back room. Suddenly the door burst open and the music teacher strode in. Niels face was a picture; having expected a grey haired old lady smelling of mothballs and cat piss, he was so stunned to see a young man with longish hair wearing a black t-shirt that his mouth literally dropped open. Mr Andro introduced himself with a big smile and swept Niels, who by this time had a goofy grin on his face, into the room. I sat through the first lesson amazed as Niels rattled off lists of questions; what do the pedals do? Why has this piano got 3 pedals instead of 2? Could he play rock music? Would he always be his teacher and was he interested in adopting an 8 year old boy?

As we walked back to the car, Niels bouncing like a squirrel that's just downed a can of Red Bull, I couldn't help but smile at the transformation and offer up a silent prayer of thanks to all the Gods that exist for Mr Andro. When Niels got home he raced up to Carl and yelled "It's so cool, my piano teacher is a DUDE!"

He's loved his lessons ever since, is more than keen to play for family and friends, and recently had his first 'recital' together with other students from the music school. Enjoy.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Like A Fish In Water...

Being such a water-logged place - two thirds of the country is below sea level after all - in the Netherlands kids are expected to learn to swim at an early age. There is a national system of swimming lessons in place whereby kids can gain three diplomas; A, B and C. In theory no child is allowed to swim in a public pool without some sort of floatation device unless they have achieved the minimum qualification, the A Diploma.

All well and good, after all there are canals everywhere, and in fact our neighbourhood is ringed by 3 canals, the closest of which is only about 20 metres away, so being able to swim is pretty important. Canals, you may have noticed, are not fenced, and nor are the thousands of other bodies of water in the country and you need to be able to get yourself out, or stay afloat long enough for someone to help you out. According to the statistics about 20 young children drown each year in this country, and it is in fact the leading cause of death in boys aged 2-5, although most drownings happing around the house in fish ponds. Still, swimming is an important activity to learn to be safe, have fun, and be confident around water for the rest of your life.

Having lived in Singapore's tropical climate, confidence around water is not a problem for our two little water rats, who swam literally every day unless there was a thunderstorm when we lived there. Niels had his A,B and C diploma at age six, which is pretty good. Lessons involved the Mums' gathering around a luxurious outdoor pool at the Maplewoods Condo, drinking melon juice or cappachino under the palm trees while a sun-tanned instructor taught the kids in groups of 4 or less. Not a bad way to fill an afternoon!

Carl had only just started lessons when we left, and once we arrived back in Holland we enrolled him here and carried on.

Ask any parent what they think of swimming lessons in the Netherlands and the response is invariably a rolling of the eyes and a long groan. With one 50 minute lesson per week, in groups of at least 12 kids, supplemented by however often you go and practice, it takes around a year - usually longer - for your child to get their A diploma. A year of getting them to the (indoor) pool in rain, hail or snow, waiting around in what feels like a chlorine gas filled green house, getting them showered, dressed and ready to go back outside with however many layers of clothing the season dictates. Finally, last month, the moment had finally arrived; Carl swam his test and was awarded his diploma. Of course he also expected a silver cup just like Niels got when he got his A diploma, a little extra thing we do because after trying so hard we feel the boys deserved it.

A bonus was the Carl had managed to sit his diploma the day before he got his tonsils out, perfectly timed because he then wasn't allowed to swim for two weeks. I enrolled him in the classes for his B diploma and expected another few months of lessons before he got that. However last week, after just 3 lessons since getting his A diploma, he was told he could alreaady have a shot at the next one; and last night he passed it! So two diplomas at 5 years old, not bad at all. Now just the 'C' to go...

Monday, December 14, 2009

Ryanair from Dusseldorf May Not Be What You Think

Below is an email from one of my Dutch colleagues, Mr Jan Dierperink, who suffered through something which was unfortunate for him, yet fortunate for us because the way he describes it is brilliant, and if you know Jan you can hear almost his voice as you read . Read, laugh, and if you're ever flying out of Germany, learn! Published with Jan's permission, of course.

"Dear colleagues
As u maybe know, we should've gone to Barcelona this weekend, but at the moment I am at home and typing this email, so u can feel sorry for me and pls dont laugh, ok?
Why? I will explain below.
I booked a cheap flight and cheap hotel for a weekend with my wife, without the kids and yes I really looked forward to it. So as usual we had to pack our stuff at the last minute, that means friday night and after some hours the alarm told me that it was time to wake up and get ready for the travel to Dusseldorf airport.
We were in a really good mood, me and my wife, she spoke a lot and me listening as usual haha, and in the car we checked several times, if we had passport and tickets and yes it seemed we didnt missed anything. I'd printed out the floorplan of the parking place at the airport so all looked really good, we were in time, one and half hours before boarding time and we took the monorail from parking place to airport, still in a good mood.
When we arrived in the departure hall we looked at the monitors , trying to find our flight. Bit strange that we couldnt find our flight, we should leave at 9.25 am to Barcelona but only flight on the f***king screens was Air Berlin to Munich, bit strange for us so we went to a nice old guy from the info desk and asked him very polite, dear sir can u tell us which we gate we have to go for the flight to Barcelona? He answered with : this is Dusseldorf airport, we answered, yes we also know dear sir, then he replied, you are at the wrong airport, you have to go to Dusseldorf Weeze, 100 km back, nearby Kleve.
At that moment I thought, jesus man you look very ugly, then he went on with his story and said your plane will leave in 1 hour and Ryanair is very strict so you're not gonna make it. Then we both thought, shit you become even more uglier than one minute ago. He went on talking but we ran away and took the stupid monorailback to the car and tried to find the way to Dusseldorf Weeze airport.
I drove at 180 km over highway, while Ineke sat on the seat next to me . She had a brillant idea to take some clothes out of suitcase, coz we didnt had time to check in the suitcase, people who travel with me know that I always have to open my suitcase when I am at customs.
So Ineke was sitting with her ass to the front screen and me driving like mad over the German highway, I only saw the dashboard for the speed, some German cars and the ass of my wife. After picking the clothes from our suitcase of 15 kg she had two little handluggage bags of less than one kg. For me only a shirt, beachshorts and one piece of underwear, she of course had more but ok, at the time I didnt know.
Must be a wierd view for the German drivers, a Dutch car at highspeed and a woman with her ass to the front screen but ok, I didnt care.
Almost within one hour we arrived at Dusseldorf Weeze airport. While I dropped my wife off so she could run to the check in desk I put away the car at the parking and took my little bag with all my stuff (pffff) and also ran to the departure desk.
When I arrived I saw my wife smiling; it meant she said we are just in time and then we run to the checkcontrol, imagine all passengers with suitcase only us with 2 small bags, still had to take off my belt and put all stuff in bag for the control, but all seemed good. We asked again which gate we had to go and it was gate 4. We saw still people standing there so I thought I can go to toilet quick and my wife went for quick cup of coffee. When I came back I saw , this is not gate 4 but 7 and gate 4 was all empty only two stupid Ryanair girls waiting. So I ran to my wife and shouted hurry we have to go! Of course the bankcard for paying wasnt working so took a while and then we ran to those two stupids girls and said and showed them our boarding cards.
All looked good, then one of them start to talk - I still hate her - we just took away the stairs of the plane, sir. We answered polite, well dear girl , then u put it there again, coz we want to go to Barcelona, not possible the b*tch said, I just gave the pilot the number of passengers and we took away the stair. At that moment I wanted to take away her smile of her face and to replace it with the f*king stair. But she didnt allowed us to go to the plane and all we could do was to go back.
At that moment I thought , wow why all German people in this airport look sooooo ugly. We were both in shock coz we missed the plane by just 3 minutes and Ryanair didnt help us or give us any service. All we could do was to book next flight for 100 euro per person and on the next day. We said, just put the tickest in ur a** and we drove home very sadly.
We arrived home at the same time as the flight arrived in Barcelona but the only thing it was without us.
Needless to say that our Saturday was not that good as we both expected. Of course soon we got calls from our "friends" who knew already about our stupid mistake but I couldnt laugh at that moment.
All the way back from airport to the Dutch border I thought, Germany is always raining and dark, and all people we saw were ugly too.
Anyway, now you know the reason why I am at my desk again, so if u still feel sorry but also want to laugh at me, well then you know how to find me but at least bring me a nice cup of coffee, then i will drink and you can laugh at me, deal?
I feel bit stupid when typing this but ok it was our own fault, needles to say that I still dont like the nice old guy from the Dusseldorf International airport and also will not recommend those stupid Ryanair girls to my sons.
Maybe also needless to say that , when we had coffee at that stupid airport and saw the plane leaving, I was happy that i didnt had a gun with me to blow it out of the air......
See you all in office again....................."


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Sint-ilating Days Indeed

To be honest I had considered just not blogging about Sinterklaas this year – it comes around every year and frankly by the time it’s finally over the relief is so overwhelming I can barely bring myself to write about it. However, no account of life in the Low Countries would be complete without mentioning the month of hysteria, mayhem, sleepless nights, over-tired whining kids, highly sugared foods and bone-achingly powerful sense of anticipation we’ve survived through.

The celebration of Sint’s birthday starts with his arrival by steamboat from Spain, accompanied by hundreds of Black Pete’s (like Santas little helpers on speed with better costumes and a healthy dose of naughtiness thrown in). For a more detailed explanation see my previous blogs on the subject, here and here. Once he officially arrives in the country during a televised day of fun, Sint then spends the next week sailing into every city, town and village in Holland on a variety of steamboats, magically appearing in many different places on the same day. How odd.
He appears at every school; the Sinterklaas Journaal news program is broadcast every night on t.v.; every event from Scouting to Market Day is brightened with a liberal scattering of Petes and a Sint.
It’s also open season for the kids; they are allowed to put a shoe by the front door every few nights, accompanied by suitable bribes such as carrots and apples for Sints’ horse, a drawing, a hand written wish list, or even beer for the lucky errant Pete who may have fallen off the wagon. It is a stressful job, after all. In the morning sweets and/or a little present will have magically have appeared, a practice which really should be stopped because it just encourages the little blighters and can you imagine how many little gifts etc have to be found throughout the ensuing three weeks and by whom???....I digress.

Finally, on December 5th, the Big Day arrives. This year, early in the evening on December 4th the phone rang and a deep voice asked to speak to Carl. Taking the phone in a hand sticky with the remnants of the chocolate Sint he’d found in his shoe that morning, Carl’s eyes grew rounder and rounder, his mouth forming a perfect ‘O’ of amazement and he turned to me and announced in a voice husky with shock “It’s…..SINTERKLAAS!!!” Indeed, the good man himself had rung to make an appointment for the next day, and would it be convenience to pop by? Barely able to squeak out a “yes”, Carl handed the phone to Niels who by this stage was literally bouncing from foot to foot, face red with excitement. He breathlessly asked Sint, in his very best Most Polite Little Boy in the World Ever voice, if he would bring a Pete or two as well please??
You can imagine how much – or how little – sleep was had that night. The next day Sint and his official entourage arrived at 4pm sharp, bearing the big red book of secrets and two large gifts. The boys were amazed at the depth of Sint’s knowledge of Scout groups, school classes, hobbies they enjoy and swimming diplomas recently gained…was there no end to this man’s wisdom?? All too soon it was over, time to open the presents. More amazement; how could Sint possibly have known that Carl LOVES Transformers more than life itself and that Niels would practically passout from joy at the WW1 model airplane kit?
Now that it’s all over, we’re looking forward to two little boys sleeping through the night once more, sugar levels lowering from pre-diabetic to something akin to normal and the ceremonial burning of wish-lists. And if you're wondering what I've been doing every evening since hubby went back to sea...just take a close look at Niels present and, I beg you, have some pity for me. At least life is returning back to its normal routine.

But wait…isn’t there something else happening towards the end of the month??....

Monday, December 07, 2009


Now that it’s starting to look like winter really is about to start, I’ve started hunting for slippers. You’d think that this wouldn’t be difficult, but have you seen what’s available out there?? If you eliminate the fluffy, the impractical, the pink, the prissy, and the downright ugly, the list is very short my friends. Very short indeed.
Currently I’m swishing around in my last pair of embroidered blue silk slippers I picked up in China Town, Singapore, during the Chinese New Year celebrations, but they won’t last forever and frankly despite having a high drop-dead gorgeous factor, they aren’t exactly warm.
Today I wandered through a couple of shoe shops in Zutphen looking for something wearable. I spotted some Ug Boots – if you’re not an Antipodean you probably call them sheepskin boots – and out of sheer nostalgia picked one up and looked at the price tag. Holy shit, I kid you not; they were 149 euros!! We used to slop around in Ug boots as kids on the farm, back when they were fashionable the first time around (yes I’m that old). I’m embarrassed to admit to actually having worn these outside of the house on several occasions, apparently convinced I was making a bold fashion statement rather than looking like a Neanderthal twit.
Mind you, I was tempted to order these Play Boy slippers from Amazon, not because they would be practical or functional or even comfortable, but simply because left unattended in a corner they would remind me of several real house bunnies I’ve had in the past, trying to look inconspicuous while actually plotting to chew through the telephone cable or strip the wallpaper.
On the website they are right next to the ‘Bedroom Athletics Women’s Muffin Slipper’- now if that isn’t a name created to grab your attention, I don’t know what is!
What I really want is for the companies who make kids slippers to start turning them out in adult sizes. I mean check out these Dr Who slippers; who wouldn’t want a matching pair of Daleks on their feet??

What about these ‘Junior Dare’ slippers – I would TOTALLY answer the door wearing these!
And how about these froggy ones…how cute are these?
Come on slipper manufacturers, you're missing out on catering to a major market segment!