This Month in… Lieve (10 Weeks Old), Kahlilah and the parents trying to keep up with them

•August 27, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Things here with the family are busy but good. Over the past month Lieve soared past 8 pounds—an important milestone for us since that’s when we could put her in the Baby Bjorn and I could get back the use of both my hands!  In fact, I’m pretty confident she’s now over 9 pounds. I would have an exact number for you but we’ve been so busy that I totally spaced her second check-up.  She’s really rounding out with lovely little fat rolls on her legs and wrists.  She’s most definitely outgrown her preemie and many of her newborn clothes and is getting close to being able to wear some of her 3-month-old outfits. She’s also a lot taller, as we can tell by her almost outgrowing her bassinet. When we first got her home from the hospital, she probably was about 2/3 as tall as the bassinet.  Now her head and toes are almost touching the ends!  It’s good, then, that we’re moving soon and we’ll be able to set up a proper crib for her. Her growth is a huge relief to me of course since, as her sole source of sustenance, I fretted and worried that I was doing everything right. There’s a lot of pressure (and guilt) being in that position, but it’s eased now.

Lieve continues to be quite an easy baby. She sleeps well (typically waking twice a night to nurse and one final time when she likes to be cuddled by her Papa) and cries relatively rarely and briefly. She loves being in the Baby Bjorn, where she has stayed sleeping for up to three hours (very helpful to me given how much organizing and cleaning I’ve had to do lately—see last paragraph). And, most exciting, Lieve has reached her first developmental “leap”—characterized by better eye sight (she definitely looks at us now), socialization (she smiles when she sees us and when she sees her baby books) and even vocalization (she’s started to coo a bit). In particular, she loves looking at and listening to Kahlilah.  While I’m sure they will have their moments growing up, so far they are just plain sweet together. I also wish we would have thought to video tape when we first showed Lieve a book since her reaction was strong and immediate! She broke out in a big smile and kept smiling all the way through it and a second book.

Speaking of Kahlilah…I better give an update on her too. While I hear from her teachers that she’s excelling at school (helping the teachers, helping fellow students, taking on more responsibility, really advancing in her Dutch), she is challenging her parents a lot lately. It’s not really a surprise: she’s dealing for the first time with knowing and understanding what it is to move and leave behind friends, home, school and routines. Although she is very excited that she will live near her Titi (Albert’s mom) and that we will see a lot of other family much more often while we live in the US, it’s still hard to say goodbye. So, we’re doing our best to help her deal with it and grit our teeth through the tantrums. Some days I do better at that than others.

But, it won’t be much longer…we are leaving in just under two weeks. Luckily, two of the biggest stressors are done: we finished both the packout and the housing inspection (to make sure we didn’t trash the place). For me, now, that means I can just relax and enjoy the rest of our time. Unfortunately for Albert, though, he still has a bunch of work-related tasks that are keeping him busy. But, to keep things balanced and fun, we spent last weekend seeing some Amsterdam sights that we still had on our list (Rembrandt’s house, Amsterdam Museum, row house museum, and the city archives where they have several pieces from Ann Frank’s family); restaurants, patisseries and bars that we still wanted to try; and a park and locally-sourced organic market that we hadn’t checked out yet. And, for our final two weekends here, we head to Munich to check out the city, biergartens, Neuschwanstein Castle, and Dachau; and Brussels for Albert to enjoy the Brussels Beer festival and for all of us to enjoy our final Belgian frites, croquettes, chocolate and waffles.  Given all that, this may be my last post from Amsterdam…if so, all I can say is that I know that these past two years have been some of the best of my life and I am incredibly thankful for the chance we were given to raise our family while we explored this incredible country and continent.

Family photo in Volendam, the Netherlands

Family photo in Volendam, the Netherlands

This Month in Lieve: 1 Month Old

•July 25, 2013 • Leave a Comment

SistersThroughout Kahlilah’s first year, I was pretty diligent about writing a blog post each month to update family and friends on her development. I’m going to try to do the same with Lieve, although fair warning that I may miss some of the first few months because we are B.U.S.Y. busy right now.

Since Lieve’s birth (here is her birth story if you want to read it) and after Albert’s 2-week paternity leave, things have settled into a pretty good routine. Albert brings Kahlilah to school, so I am able to stay home most of the day with Lieve. Since she was born 4-weeks premature, weighing just 6 pounds, my day has to be broken into pretty strict 2-hour increments of nursing and napping. Luckily, our efforts have paid off and, after a slow start, Lieve is growing well and just hit 7 pounds. She also had her 1-month check-up last week with positive results: the doctor was pleased with her weight (2nd percentile), length (2nd percentile) and head circumference (5th percentile), and found everything else (eyes, ears, organs, etc.) to be healthy. While she is low in percentile on the growth chart, we are happy that she is at least ON the normal growth chart! Especially considering the chart is based on Dutch babies, in the statistically tallest country in the world.

As must inevitably happen with a second child, we often compare our experience with Lieve and Kahlilah. Overall, Lieve is MUCH easier than Kahlilah was at this stage. (Of course, Kahlilah was born 2.5 weeks earlier than Lieve so that probably contributes to the difference.) Lieve really doesn’t cry too much and is easy to settle when she does, which means that we are actually getting a decent amount of sleep at night. In contrast, we were tearing our hair out with Kahlilah at this stage since she would often cry for HOURS at night, leaving Albert and me ready to tear into each other with how grumpy we were with lack of sleep! As a result, I feel like the marriage stress typically found after a birth is a lot less this time around…which is great considering how much else we have going on right now!

Besides caring for a newborn, we are also getting ready to move back to the States in early September. Typically, preparations start 3 months prior to departure, with each month piling on more and more to-dos. This means that, when Lieve does sleep, I am madly trying to cram in as much organizing, packing, and calling as I can. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t!  But, so far, we are in pretty good shape with our to-do list. Luckily, we already have the most important tasks completed: we found a house for us to rent and a school for Kahlilah. We will be living in the DC area for a couple years, and we are excited to be able to live in an actual house for that time (although we are also a bit scared to get back all the stuff we put into storage way back in 2008 when Albert entered the Foreign Service). Because we didn’t have any luck with the DC public school lottery for 4-year-old preschool spots and to get more bang for our housing buck and to be closer to family, we decided to live just over the DC border in Maryland. We were lucky to find a great 4-bedroom, 3-bath house with a den (read: man cave), extra storage and a backyard. The house is walking/biking distance to the Metro for Albert’s commute and to Kahlilah’s school. The school is a great bilingual (English-Spanish) Montessori program—meaning that Kahlilah will be able to continue in the same educational philosophy that she’s had and excelled in while we’ve been in Amsterdam. I’m excited to see how her Spanish develops there, since lately her level of Dutch has surged past her level of Spanish. It’s cool to hear her speak (and sing!) so much Dutch, but I also am anxious for her to maintain and develop her Spanish vocabulary, especially in anticipation of our next trip to Chile to visit family.

Well, I better wrap this up since this 2-hour slot is finishing and it’s time to nurse again! Until next time…

Lieve Melissa’s Birth Story

•June 27, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Lieve Melissa's Birth DayWhile most of the “birthing action” happened on June 19th, the process really started the Friday prior when Chela started experiencing some contractions and other early signs of labor. After calling the clinic and not reaching anyone (despite it being business hours), she called the hospital and was asked to come in to be checked out. Due to Kahlilah’s premature birth, they decided to keep Chela for 24 hours of observation. Although Chela experienced regular contractions (3-5 minutes apart) a couple times over that day, in general things stayed quiet. While Lieve didn’t decide to come out that day, both Albert and Chela agreed that it was a good test run. They realized they still had much to prepare, particularly since this time they had Kahlilah’s care to consider—not to mention the dogs. The hospital sent Chela home the next afternoon, saying that she could go into labor as soon as a day or two or as long as a couple weeks. (Both Albert and Chela had a feeling that it would be sooner rather than later.) Chela was instructed to take it easy—no housework, no bike-riding, etc.

Early Wednesday morning, around 1 a.m., Chela felt a “prick” to her uterus, which immediately made her question whether her water had broken. But, nothing happened. So, she went back to bed. Over the next couple hours, she started to feel achiness in her lower back. A bit before 3 a.m., she woke up Albert to have him put counter-pressure on the ache. Albert wasn’t bothered by being woken up, since he had set his alarm to go off at 3 a.m. to watch the U.S.-Honduras World Cup qualifying game. Albert was smothering a shout when the U.S. barely missed scoring a goal 15 minutes into the game, when Chela came into the living room to say that she thought her water had broken. At that moment, both went into action timing contractions, watching for more water loss, and ultimately calling the hospital for instruction. The hospital told Chela to go in, so both Albert and Chela busied themselves for departure as well as getting Kahlilah and the dogs ready. The preparation took so long that, as Albert went to turn off the computer where he had been watching the game, he was able to see the U.S. score the game-winning goal.

Arriving at the hospital around 5 a.m., a friendly woman in the ER accompanied the family through a labyrinth of hallways to get to the elevator and up to the eighth floor. They put Chela in the “big” birthing room, which signaled it was “game time” since the previous Friday she was placed in one of the smaller, monitoring rooms. Kahlilah enjoyed the big room, with all the gadgets to play with, including a birthing chair on wheels. In the first 1.5 hours, the contractions were light so Chela was easily able to breathe through them, snack in between, and listen to music. The main concern during that time was taking care of Kahlilah. Given the early hour, Albert wasn’t able to immediately reach friends that had offered to watch Kahlilah.  Luckily, Albert finally reached them and they came to pick up Kahlilah at 7:30 a.m. They fed her and took her to school and were overall life-savers. Albert was also firing off emails to arrange care for the dogs. After both Kahlilah and the dogs were arranged for, both Chela and Albert were relieved and could better focus on the task at hand.

At the same time Albert went downstairs to hand off Kahlilah, Chela started experiencing regular, stronger contractions—some of them coming two at a time. During this period, Chela was cared for by one nurse, one midwife and one midwife-in-training that came and went as the labor progressed. The nurse in particular was very caring, with decades of experience, which was reassuring to both Albert and Chela. When Chela seemed to be in extreme pain and Albert would begin to worry, he would see the nurse comforting Chela while calmly eating a sandwich and watching the fetal monitor, which made Albert feel like there was nothing to worry about. Albert knew things were progressing when the nurse put down her sandwich to completely focus on Chela. Every aspect of the care they gave Chela was night-to-day in comparison to what she received in Venezuela with Kahlilah. As opposed to being placed on a metal table that looked like it belonged in a morgue, she was in a nice, comfortable room with modern equipment overlooking the beautiful Amsterdamse Bos Park. The staff was focused on her needs, there to comfort and assist her, and not solely focused on a doctor’s needs. Also, during labor, she was encouraged to get up, walk around, and take a shower. The shower, in particular, helped Chela deal with some of the pain. However, soon the pain became so strong that she didn’t feel able to move around anymore. Just like the labor with Kahlilah, it developed very fast. She went from 3 cm to full dilation within an hour; total active labor was 3 hours. Chela let out an expletive when she was told she was at 3 cm. since, at that point, she already felt a lot of pain and was scared of having to experience it for a long time while she waited to dilate more. She needn’t have worried, since the labor was so quick.

Now might be a good time to mention that, as soon as the contractions strengthened, Chela started to repeatedly emphasize that “she does not do well with pain” and “maybe having a second child was not the best idea.” She repeated (loudly) the first phrase so many times during contractions that the midwife had to very forcibly tell her that they understood that she didn’t like the pain and that she needed to stop shouting or she’d hyperventilate. During contractions, Chela focused on Albert’s face or the steeple she could see through the window behind Albert. To her, it felt like the world shrunk down to that small space between her and Albert. Albert remembers in those moments seeing a facial expression that Chela had never, ever made before. It reminded him of the “blue steel face” from Zoolander—eyebrows drawn up to a point high on her forehead. Albert talked Chela through the contractions, often repeating the phrase “absorb and release the pain” until Chela snapped “I don’t want to absorb the pain; I want to get rid of it!” (But, really, he was great—calm and reassuring. So much so that the nurse said she told the midwife that she’d deliver a baby with him anytime!) But, back to the labor… Chela was particularly worried because she had developed allergies that week to some of the flowering plants and trees and felt like she wasn’t able to breathe through the contractions because of the congestion. The allergies, her asthma and the pain made her feel like she couldn’t catch her breath. When the pain was particularly bad, Chela said (again, repeatedly) “I know I’m not supposed to want it, but I want some medication.” Unbeknownst to Chela, the staff giggled a bit at her profuse apologies for requesting medication. After discussing the options and their pros and cons (another major deviation from the experience in Venezuela, where the doctor made the decision and administered the medicine without consultation), Chela ultimately decided to get a shot in the leg that would help her with the pain but mostly help her relax. At first, Chela told Albert to make the decision about which medication to use since she felt she didn’t have the mental capacity to weigh the pros and cons. However, the midwife emphasized that it was the mother’s decision to make. After the decision was made, Chela watched the clock like a hawk while the nurse prepared the medication and administered it, and for the 10 minutes that they said it would need to take effect. It was the longest 20 minutes Chela could remember. Ultimately, it helped calm Chela but she ended up giving birth within a half hour of its administration so its effect was limited.

When the baby was ready to be born, she came fast—in one final push. Chela and Albert were surprised to see her come out all at once and quickly placed on Chela’s chest. Later, when Lieve was taken by the pediatrician for assessment, Chela and Albert noticed all the blood Lieve left on Chela’s nightgown. Since Albert was watching the soccer game prior to going to the hospital, he was still wearing his centennial version U.S. soccer jersey. Although Albert wanted to hold Lieve, he remembered thinking later on—after seeing Chela’s blood-soaked nightgown—that he might ruin his brand-new jersey. But, he needn’t have worried because he wasn’t offered Lieve until she had been cleaned up and wrapped in a blanket later. Once the drama of the actual birth was over, Albert also had lost some of his nerve and had to leave the room a couple times while the midwives took care of business with Chela and also to call family. Chela was basically oblivious to everything else except Lieve. Chela held Lieve for over an hour, as the midwives took care of her, and until the pediatrician came for the assessment. Lieve, born at 10:48 am, had an apgar score of 9/10/10, weighed 2.75 kilos, was 47.5 cm long and had a head circumference of 33 cm.

Chela and Lieve ended up having to stay in the hospital for five days, as she had been born a bit premature (36.5 weeks) and later developed a bit of jaundice. In terms of the hospital stay, it was both better and worse than in Venezuela. On the positive, the nursing staff continued to be very patient focused (compared to Venezuelan nurses that were very doctor focused) and were ever present to help with changing Lieve, helping her to sleep, and helping Chela to breastfeed. Chela was also very happy that the hospital supported rooming in with the baby. However, on the negative, Chela had to share a room with another mother and her baby, which made getting the babies to sleep at the same time very challenging. Nights seemed to go on forever. The roommate also happened to be, let’s just say, different, which made rooming together uncomfortable at times. Also, husbands were only allowed to visit during certain hours and children were allowed to visit during even more limited hours. In contrast, Albert stayed in the room with Chela in Venezuela. Given that Albert couldn’t come without Kahlilah, he only was able to visit Chela and Lieve about 1.5 hours per day. Chela was mostly bored the whole time, but also lonely and sad that Albert and Kahlilah were missing out on the early days of Lieve’s life. But, the days passed in 3-hour cycles of changing diapers, nursing and sleeping and, soon enough, we were all home together five days later on Sunday June 23rd…now, a family of four.

To read Kahlilah’s birth story for comparison, follow this link.

Favorite Things (I’ll miss)

•October 29, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Two things are happening that are making me feel like our time in Amsterdam is counting down. First, at the beginning of October we passed our one-year anniversary here. Since we’re only on a two-year tour, we’re now over halfway done and I’ve already started seeing things and thinking “Oh! That’s the last time we’ll do/see/taste/hear that.” Second, at the beginning of November, we’re supposed to hear where we’ll be sent for our next post. I know from the past that, as soon as I know where we’re going next, I start mentally “checking out” of where we are now. Last time, when we were at our last post and we found out we were going to Amsterdam, “checking out” helped me; it gave me a light at end of the tunnel. But, this time, given how much I LOVE living in Amsterdam, it’s quite different.

On one hand, I feel like the transient life we lead prompts me to appreciate and take advantage of the opportunities that are around us. (By the end of December, for example, we’ll have visited 20 countries in one year.) On the other hand, I can also find myself falling into the “grass is greener” outlook—always looking to the next post for better x, y or z and not working on, accepting or appreciating what we have at the current post.

So, to deal with all these conflicting emotions, I thought I’d start writing down some of my favorite things about living in Amsterdam—little and big.

I’ll start with something little… I love that in so many Dutch stores/places of service they have cappuccino machines and offer you one while you shop/wait.  Hair salons. Clothing stores. Auto repair shops (seriously!).  Everywhere, it seems. I love me my free cappuccinos!

The Mother Web

•October 25, 2012 • Leave a Comment

When Kahlilah was born, it was like a million invisible strands connected us. For a blissful six months, nothing disturbed that web. But, then, Kahlilah reached six months old and we decided to start introducing foods. Until then (and, for that matter, much after then), Kahlilah was breastfed. But, the moment I put the spoon of pureed bananas in her mouth, I felt something change. For nine months in the womb and for six months since her birth, I was her only source of sustenance. No longer. A strand connecting her to me snapped. It was bitter and sweet, bitter knowing she needed me a little less and sweet knowing that she was on her way to becoming her own independent person.

Since that day three years ago, there have been many other strands broken. Some, I know to expect…her first steps on her own, her first complete sentence, her first day at preschool.  Others, I don’t know to expect but perhaps are all the more emotional because of it.  One of those unexpected changes happened today. To the outsider, I’m sure, it wouldn’t seem notable.

As I was putting Kahlilah’s coat on to leave school, she whispered in my ear if I would ask another child’s parent if she could go over to their house to play. Partly because I didn’t want to be rude and basically invite my child over to someone else’s house and partly to challenge Kahlilah to speak for herself, I told her that, if she wanted to do it, she could ask. She paused for a moment and I fully expected that she’d do her typical shy retreat, hiding behind me. But, this time, it was different; she was different. She looked straight into the eyes of the other parent and asked in broken, polite words for a playdate at their house.  (I didn’t even give her a prompt with what to say like I’d done in the past.) The parent was surprised but said that she’d be happy to have Kahlilah over next week.  At that was it, that was the moment. Kahlilah demonstrated that she is confident enough to ask (politely!) an adult for something she wants, with no help from me. It probably would not be notable to anyone else but, for me, her mother, one other delicate, invisible strand snapped.

Yes, it was just one of thousands of other strands that still connect me to her. And I know that there will be some strands that will connect us for all our lives…or at least I hope so! But, still, it’s bittersweet and I feel it deeply.  Like for a spider, what happens with even one strand reverberates across the whole web: my mother web shakes with each step Kahlilah takes towards her individuality. But, I couldn’t be prouder.

Adjusting fire while travelling

•August 24, 2012 • 5 Comments

After a pretty difficult, dangerous first post in the Foreign Service, we had the incredible luck of being assigned to a European post on our second tour.  Knowing that this may be our only chance to live in a place where it’s so easy to visit so many places, we’re trying to make all our time here count: our goal has been to visit a different country each month. (Right now, we’re in the midst of a flurry of Nordic trips to take make sure we’re visiting them when there’s still sun but not TOO much sun: we just got back from Stockholm, Sweden, soon we’ll go see the fjords in Norway and a few weeks later I go to northern Finland with my mom to explore our Finnish roots.)

Albert and I both liked travelling earlier in our lives. And we still do. (I’ll go farther than that: travelling is a part of who I am. Really, it’s a love.) But, now, we’re not travelling as individuals: we’re travelling as a family. I used to say, when I was still backpacking my way around with friends, that you see the best and worst of each other when you travel. Well, when you travel with a child, I find that PART of that rule still holds true: you see the absolute worst in yourself as a parent and, often, in your child.

It makes sense… Your child is out of her home environment, with all the normal routines, toys and snacks that are so important to her. She isn’t particularly interested in beautiful vistas, historical buildings, museums or that unusual local food. You have expectations about what you want to see, do and eat and you have often already invested money to get there to do so. It’s a situation ripe for conflict.

And, we’ve had our fair share of conflict. On our first trip outside the Benalux area (thus our first trip that required more than just an hour or two drive), we went to London. The morning of the first day found us trying to get Kahlilah to stop rolling around on the disgusting floor of the Tube station in the throes of a full-fledged temper tantrum. Albert threatened he was about to go back to our hotel, not to come out again. The afternoon found us trying desperately to keep Kahlilah entertained so we could at least walk by (not even go in) world-famous sites like the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey.  I ended up breaking down in tears, wondering whether this would be our last trip like this…why spend the money to travel to places when we couldn’t actually go in and see them?

So, what to do? Well, over the last few months, we’ve been charting a new course for us travelling as a family.

The first step was for Albert and I to TRULY accept the fact that we could no longer travel in the same way we did as individuals; we adjusted our expectations of the amount and type of activities we could do. Adjusting our expectations translated almost instantly to greater satisfaction. But, adjusting expectations didn’t mean giving up everything.

The second step was for us to be better at planning and prioritizing for trips.  For our recent trip to Stockholm, for example, Albert and I both wanted to see the Stadhuset (where the Nobel Prize banquet is held) and the Vasa Museum (where a stunning ship, sunk in the 1600s and raised in the 1990s, is shown). I also wanted to take a ferry around the Archipelago, while Albert wanted to see the Royal Palace and the changing of the guard.  Researching and prioritizing isn’t just about what Albert and I want to do, though; we are also careful to research if there are playgrounds near what we want to see/do and attractions that are more appealing to children. For example, in the process of researching Stockholm, we learned about Skansen (the world’s first open-air museum cum zoo, petting zoo and children’s museum). One parent blogger called it a “must see” for parents with children, so we added it to our list of priorities.  Finally, we make a short list of things we’d like to do ONLY if we have time and if things are going well.  For Stockholm, these optional activities were to check out the shops in the Old Town, Junibacken (a children’s museum dedicated to the Swedish author of Pippi Longstocking and other tales), the Nobel Museum and the Photography Museum.  We ended up being able to briefly do the first two activities but not the rest.

The third step, and this one was really important, was to learn how to better recognize the clues Kahlilah and each other give as to when we need to “adjust fire” during the trip itself. This can mean recognizing when Kahlilah is hungry and/or tired and/or restless and we need to stop what we’re doing and get her fed/rested/exercised. This can mean recognizing when one of us is tired and losing patience and the other needs to “take the reins” dealing with Kahlilah. This can mean recognizing when it’s best that we take turns visiting a site, so that the person visiting the site can actually enjoy it and not be worrying constantly about Kahlilah breaking something/talking during a tour/having a tantrum and Kahlilah can enjoy some down time and not have unrealistic expectations placed on her (e.g., I saw the Royal Apartments at the Stockholm Palace, while Albert let Kahlilah run around outside and then I watched her while Albert saw the Palace’s Treasury and Museum of Antiquities). And, this can mean recognizing when something just isn’t working out (e.g., when we went to Stockholm’s Old Town and Kahlilah was having none of the shops) and we need to switch activities (in that case, we went on a boat ride and then Skansen so that Kahlilah could run around for awhile).

And, the fourth step was to learn to appreciate things that we were doing (and not doing) that we wouldn’t have if we were travelling as individuals or as a couple.  A good example of this was visiting Skansen. Albert and I probably would have gone to the Nobel Museum and the Photography Museum if we were there by ourselves, but I am SO glad we went to Skansen. It is such a treasure. We went there for Kahlilah, but I think Albert and I got just as much out of it as Kahlilah did.  Furthermore, travelling with a child slows us down. And, that’s not a bad thing. (Heck, we’re a couple that overscheduled our honeymoon!) The time that Albert and I get to sit on a park bench while Kahlilah plays is precious—after all, it gives us time to relax and appreciate the trip.

What DOESN’T make me happy about Amsterdam?

•August 13, 2012 • 3 Comments

It’s been MONTHS since I blogged last, but the next topic for the Foreign Service Blog Roundup has given me a shot of motivation to write again.  The topic: something that makes you happy at your current posting.

For me, it’d probably be easier to answer what DOESN’T make me happy about Amsterdam. And I’m being completely serious…as you can see from the blog posts I wrote during our first six months here, particularly the post A Day in the Life.  The museums! The parks!!  The quaintness!!! The food!!!! The opportunities to travel all over Europe!!!!!

But, now that we’re approaching one year at post, let me see if I can find something a little more thoughtful to say. I think what makes me so happy living in Amsterdam is that you can breathe here. I don’t mean literally (although the air quality is good, which is something I’m coming to appreciate more and more as we’re researching possible next posts); I mean that the pace and the quality of life in Amsterdam is so good that you feel calm and content much of the time. If you, like me, were living in a critical-crime threat post, you can appreciate how calm can bring such happiness.

Take, for example, my daily bike ride to drop off Kahlilah at school.  First, I’m riding a bike. On nice roads. With dedicated bike lanes and bike lights. Getting a workout (but not too much of a workout, considering how nice and flat the Netherlands is).  Getting some sun (and often some rain).  Other than for my time living in Davis, California, which–before becoming known for pepper-spraying cops–was known for being one of the most bike-friendly places in the USA…I have never lived in a place where people are so healthy and so supportive of public and alternative means of transportation. Besides, if the most you can do if someone cuts you off is to ring your bell, somehow the “morning commute” is so much more enjoyable.  I never thought I’d be a bike person, but I’m becoming one here! Second, I ride through a beautiful tree-covered neighbourhood with local shops that have been there for 20 years (the gourmet grocery/deli), 50 years (the bread shop), 100 years (the chocolate/sweet shop).  I can easily stop on my way to or from the school to buy any number of good eats, drop off our dry cleaning, buy some hardware supplies, pick up my prescription, buy an English-language book, and stop by “my” friendly cheeseman to pick up some gouda on his recommendation. Everything is nearby and, since we decided to “go Dutch” and bought a cargo bike, I can simply load my purchases into the bike—with room enough left for Kahlilah.  Third, we ride along canals.  There’s something about being near the water that quiets the mind and canals, in particular, have such charm. Each has its own character.  And, they’re so quiet.  The most you’ll hear is the gentle lap against boats’ sides when another boat passes by. During the summer, you see scores of Dutch out enjoying the afternoon in their boats. During the winter, if you’re lucky, you’ll see an equal number of Dutch out ice skating.  The canals are quite simply, lovely.

So, if you EVER get the chance to travel to or live in Amsterdam, don’t pause…don’t hesitate…GRAB the opportunity and squeeze every last ounce of wonderful out of the experience you can.

Post script: I realized that I never did say what doesn’t make me happy about Amsterdam.  The only thing I can come up with is that tram and bus drivers can often be pretty rude and won’t stop for you if you arrive at the stop even 10 seconds late.  But, really, I think that stems from them being so schedule oriented…so that brings me back to one of the pros: a reliable public transportation system.  See?  There’s really nothing I don’t like about this place.

Feature Foreign Food: Stampot

•February 13, 2012 • 2 Comments

For this post featuring a foreign food I’m back to writing about the savory, rather than the sweet: stamppot.

Stamppot (literally, “mash pot”) is a typical winter dish in both the Netherlands and Belgium and is basically potatoes mashed with one or more vegetables.  I know, it doesn’t sound that foreign. But, what I find brilliant about stamppot–and a unique take compared to our typical mashed potatoes in the US–is the vegetables they mix the potatoes with:   endive, cabbage, kale, spinach and turnip greens are all traditional pairings.  I’ve been trying to add these superfoods to my family’s dinner table for the past year or so, without much success.  Albert and Kahlilah tolerated crispy kale, but didn’t ask for seconds.  In contrast, I bought kale stamppot from our local grocery store last week and it was gone before I knew it.  Mainly, you taste the potatoes–who doesn’t like mashed potatoes after all?–so the vegetables are mostly forgotten.  Why this approach to getting your kids (and occasionally husbands) to eat their vegetables hasn’t spread to parents outside the Benelux countries, I do not know.  Genius.

To prepare stamppot, you can either cook the potatoes and vegetables separately and then combine them in order to mash them altogether with milk, butter, salt and pepper or you can just cook them together in the same pot before mashing them.  Traditionally, meat often accompanies stamppot; bacon can be mixed in, sausage served on the side, or gravy poured over.  Since I’m vegetarian and the sole cook in the house, though, I passed on the meat portion of the meal…but was perfectly satisfied with my simple stamppot, my new go-to comfort food.

Kahlilah en Zo*

•January 23, 2012 • 2 Comments

I realize it’s been awhile since I updated you on Kahlilah, so I better get to it… Where to start? I think I’ll start with the word “independence.” This girl is really spreading her wings, and testing the limits of her parents’ patience at the same time.

She loves her bilingual Dutch-English Montessori school, which she’s been attending in the 0-3.5-year-old age group since mid-November.  Since she had never attended a daycare in Venezuela or in Washington DC, we were a bit worried how she’d adapt to being away from us and to interacting with other children.  We needn’t have worried. She jumped in without pause!  She actually is doing so well that we’ve agreed with the teachers’ recommendations to move her to the next age group (3.5-6 years) a bit early.  We met with them last week, and this is what they reported: she is very eager to learn, asking questions and persisting when a task is difficult; she speaks in complete and increasingly complex sentences in English, while also understanding a lot of Dutch without reproducing it yet herself; she follows instructions and can listen to stories for quite long stretches of time;  she is very independent and self-sufficient, able to easily dress herself although not yet committed to always using the potty; she interacts well with the teachers and the other students, constantly talking about “my friends”; she has superb fine motor skills, excelling in doing puzzles and measuring things for the school’s cooking sessions; she can count in English, Dutch and Spanish and she is learning the days of the week, although often confusing their order. As a result of all this, they feel that she is ready to move to the next group where she will have some more challenging activities and older children to interact with.  Another benefit of the older group is that, as of yet, it’s still not full (actually far from it) so the student: teacher is great.  All in all, we are super happy with the school and with how Kahlilah is doing there.

Major emphasis within the Montessori approach is placed on independence, and boy are we seeing the effects.  Most effects are very welcome.  Kahlilah can do a lot on her own now, which is great for her and great for us.  However, she basically wants to do EVERYTHING on her own now – not yet recognizing which things are within her power to do and which are not.  As a result, everything has become a battle.  Getting dressed when she needs to, putting on coat and mittens, getting into the bicycle to go to school, putting on her seatbelt to go to school, and on and on.  Counting to 1 and talking about consequences has had no effect. Basically the only way I’ve shut down full-scale tantrums is to walk away.  Sometimes by the time I come back (30 seconds to a minute later), she has settled down and will let me help her.  Sometimes I have to walk away again.  And again.   This trend certainly tested our limits when we were on vacation to England last week (check out the photos by following the Flickr link to the right).  During one tantrum, she laid full out on the floor of an Underground (Tube) station. One thing I have to say about parenthood is that it strips you of any sense of public shame.  People stared.  People probably talked.  But, what was I to do?  I had to be a parent.

But, let’s not end on that note.  Please check out the video at this link – I love it because it shows so many aspects of Kahlilah right now: her independence, her interest in talking/singing/chanting, her facial expressions.  For those who don’t speak Spanish, the video shows Albert, Kahlilah and I practicing a Chilean chant used at sporting events as well as a similar chant for the USA.   Enjoy!

*En Zo roughly translates to “and such” in Dutch. There are so many stores here that use that phrase in their name; there’s Kaas en Zo (Cheese and Such), Haar en Zo (Hair and Such), Vis en Zo (Fish and Such), and so on…er, I mean, en zo.

Feature Foreign Food (and Word): Hagelslag…Lekker!

•January 9, 2012 • 7 Comments

Believe it or not, my last post featuring the very foreign (practically alien) cauliflower-like vegetable Romanesco didn’t draw in the readers. Okay, alright.  I can understand that. If I couldn’t get my husband and daughter to be that excited about eating a strange vegetable, I guess I should have assumed it would be difficult to entice people to read about it.  So, this post, I’m going with CHOCOLATE.

Ah, chocolate.  Some many ways to enjoy you.  I have to admit that, normally, I may be a bit high-brow in my choice of chocolate.  I blame my mother.  Her truffles set such a high bar that I feel a responsibility to try truffles where ever I go, if only to prove that–yes–mama knows and does best.  But, here in the Netherlands, hagelslag lets me enjoy chocolate like a kid.

Hagelslag are basically chocolate sprinkles, or jimmies as some people call them.  Not so foreign, perhaps, but in this case it’s not the food that is foreign but rather the use of it.  Rather than sprinkling it on top of ice cream as Americans do, the Dutch–adults and children alike–eat it on top of bread and butter, sometimes even making a sandwich of it, for breakfast and often for lunch!(This delectable photo is from the blog The Eaten Path, which also has a great post on this phenomena.)

Hagelslag, which in Dutch is based on the word for “hail”, comes in many different flavors and colors. In particular, the blue or pink ones are used upon the birth of a child. It also comes in different price points, as they say: there’s both cheap hagelslag and high-quality hagelslag.  For example, I learned online that “only hagelslag with a cacao percentage of more than 35 can bear the name chocolat hagelslag. If the percentage is under the 35%, it has to be called cacao fantasy hagelslag.”  Cacao fantasy?  Hilarious. So, when I tried it, I went for a good brand in a dark chocolate version.  I also followed recommendations and used white bread as the base (why, really, try to convince yourself that this is anything but dessert by using whole-wheat?), toasted and buttered it, and ate it immediately after the hagelslag had just slightly melted.  And, the verdict?

Lekker!!!  “Lekker” means “delicious” in Dutch and I really can’t think of another word in any language that more perfectly sounds like it should mean delicious.  Take a second and say it out loud:  ˈlɛ.kər.  Doesn’t it have a nice smacking feel?  When I first learned the word lekker in the Fast Dutch course I took before moving here, I immediately loved it.  To me, words like lekker seem like they should be universal–should cross languages and cultures–because how they feel in your mouth when you say them or how they sound in your ear when you hear them bring to mind their meaning exactly.  Another word I’ve come across like this is “kwan.” It’s a word used in a number of Filipino languages and it means “thing” and particularly something that you may have temporarily forgotten.  So, in English, it might better translate as “whatchamacallit” rather than just “thing.”  In addition you can modify kwan to mean a person’s name that you’ve forgotten, the equivalent of “what’s-his-name.” I love that word!  And, when I was trying to learn Cebuano while living in the Philippines, I REALLY loved it–what’s not like to like about a word that let’s you cover up that you don’t remember vocabulary you should have learned already while at the same time sounding like a local?!?  (Have you come across any words that you’ve loved precisely because they sound/feel like what they mean? If so, please post in the Comments–I’d love to learn more.)

So, there you have it folks, lekkere hagelslag – this month’s feature foreign food.  I hope you enjoyed reading about it as much as I enjoyed “researching” it.