04
Sep
09

The Big Move

moving, by nataliedee

Hello loyal readers! Yesterday I moved across the world, from Amsterdam back to California, and I decided that I’d move the location of my blog too. I’m saying goodbye to WordPress and starting up with Blogger. You can read all about what’s coming next for me at http://holesinmyrainbows.blogspot.com.

This location will stay right where it is, as well, so you can come back and read any of the old favorites whenever you want. I mean, the post about that really nasty diaper? How can you live without it?

Your interest in HIMR has been much appreciated and I look forward to keeping up the new and improved site for your enjoyment. Please keep reading and stay in touch!

Dank je wel!

29
Aug
09

ANOTHER little engine that couldn’t

Thalys.. deceiving, isn't it?

Ah, Europe! The land of convenient and affordable train travel! Where you can hop on any locomotive and ride that rail from country to country and see everything you’ve ever dreamed of with total ease, freedom and, of course, speed.

This, at least, is what they tell you.

Those of you who have read my previous post about train travel know that even the European rail can let us down sometimes, but everyone says it almost never happens. And since lightning doesn’t strike twice, as they say, I was more than a little surprised – not to mention bitter – when the trains let me down again. And when I say let me down, this is what I mean:

Saturday 13 June 2009, times are approximate

9:00 am: I ride my bike to Amsterdam Centraal.

9:26 am: I am seated comfortably on a Thalys train as it pulls away from Amsterdam right on time, due to arrive in Paris Nord at 1:35 pm that afternoon. I am going to Paris to spend the weekend with my brother, sister, and brother-in-law before they come to Amsterdam. I haven’t seen them in almost 6 months.

11:30 am: The train makes a routine stop at a little station in a town on the Netherlands/Belgium border.

12:30 pm: The train is still sitting at the station. No one has given us any information.

1:30 pm: They finally make an announcement. The train cannot continue on this track and is turning back to Amsterdam. We are instructed to go outside the station, where buses will pick us up and take us to the central station in Antwerp, where we can catch another Thalys train to Paris. We herd outside, where we join a crowd of about 300 people from other trains that faced similar fates. There are no employees or officials, no buses, it’s not clear where or when they’ll be stopping at the station, and it’s very, very hot. I debate getting on a train back to Amsterdam and calling the whole thing off. If it’s anything like the last time this happened to me, it could take all day.

2:00 pm: An unmarked bus pulls up to the curb, and the crowd surges toward it. I wrestle my way through the mob and manage to get one of the last seats. There are people packed into the aisles and fighting each other as the bus pulls off toward Antwerp.

3:00 pm: The bus arrives in Antwerp. No one has told us where to go or when the train would be leaving for Paris, so I wait in a long line at the international travel desk. Once at the front, an employee tells me that the Thayls train from Antwerp will probably also be delayed for an indeterminate length of time, so we have to go to Brussels and take a Thalys from there. She gives me a new ticket.

4:00 pm: Train leaves from Antwerp to Brussels.

4:45 pm: Train arrives in Brussels, but I realize the woman at the info desk didn’t tell me which station the Thalys would be leaving from. I assume it’s Brussels Centraal, so I get off there. I can’t find the train on the departure screens, so I wait in line again at the international travel desk. I ask to confirm the Thalys train going to Paris at said time. “Yes, that train is on time,” the employee said, “but it’s not leaving from this station.” Momentary panic. Fortunately I have enough time to get to Brussels Midi before the Thalys leaves.

5:15 pm: I wait with a crowd on the platform designated for the train that will finally take us to Paris. There is already a train sitting there but no one is let on. People are confused. They make an announcement in French that our train is actually leaving from another platform, so a mad luggage-toting race down the escalator and through some corridors ensues. They let us on the correct train – people who had actually reserved this train and many who, like me, were on the final leg of a relentless chain of delays. I sit down but am soon approached by a spry French gentleman in his 60s; he insists that I stay in his seat, that he’ll stand and let me know when his legs get tired so we can switch. Things are starting to look up.

5:30 pm: The train departs. The people sitting on the aisle floor next to me – a man from Colorado with a few missing teeth, a gold chain necklace and a Loony Toons tattoo (a walking definition of white trash) and his overweight 9-year-old daughter – won’t stop talking to me.

6:15 pm: I give the seat back to the French gentleman. He lets me sit on his suitcase in the aisle. I make myself comfortable and immediately notice that the people I am sitting behind (trash from Belgium this time) are watching a movie on their laptop. I then notice that it is amateur porn. Hardcore amateur porn. In such a crowded train, with people looming over them in the aisles, they must realize they’re not the only ones who can see this woman’s elastic orifices. I mean, who does that? After the glorious grand finale, they turn off the movie and start playing solitaire.

6:45 pm: With my in-car entertainment over, I resort to my iPod and with Yann Tiersen soothing my nerves I look out and realize the beauty of the countryside between Belgium and Paris. The sun is warm and low over the hills and everything is glowing.

7:30 pm: The train arrives in Paris Nord. I take a deep breath and head for the metro.

8:00 pm: I walk up to the hostel where I am meeting my siblings and see them through the window. I jump up and down, waving wildly, and I know immediately that 11 hours of delayed train travel was worth it just to see them 2 days before I would have anyway.

But seriously, what the hell?

26
Aug
09

The Extreme Au Pair Challenge 2009

We love winter.

Ladies and gentlemen, my time as an au pair has officially come to an end. There have been ups and downs, blue skies and thunder storms, laughing fits and crying fits. (I’m referring to the children, of course.) Overall it’s been a truly great experience, but I can definitely say that I’ve tested my limits in more ways than one.

My beloved family has of course found a replacement au pair to bring into their home, and have asked me to spend a week with her and the kids to aid in everyone’s adjustment. She arrived today, and as it’s a Wednesday, she’s lucky enough to spend the entire day with yours truly while the parents are at work.

To give her a proper initiation into this world, I thought about giving her what I’ll call the Extreme Au Pair Challenge. She ought to know what’s in store for her, after all. Before I relinquish my bedroom, cell phone, bike keys, Rabobank account, Dutch language textbook, and position in the family, I thought I’d have her do a test run first with the following assigned tasks and high-pressure situations. This way, the family would know whether they can count on her, she’d know what she’s getting herself into, and, well, I would have a little fun.

Timed Challenges:

  1. A planned route on the bakfiets that includes conquering steep hills, criss-crossing repeatedly over tramlines, dodging strategically placed pedestrians, navigating narrow lanes between traffic traveling in both directions, and negotiating sharp turns and awkward driveways.
  2. Morning prep: Changing poopy diapers and helping the 3-year-old in potty training on the toilet before applying socks, shoes, sweaters, coats, hats, mittens, persuading each boy to choose only one small toy to bring to school, and strapping them both into the selected vehicle of transport–all without provocation of tears.
  3. Getting both children to sleep without resorting to extra bottles of milk. Extra hugs may be administered.
  4. Removing them peacefully from the playground equipment at school using negotiation only, not bribes or force.
  5. Sweeping all crumbs, grains of rice, bits of play-doh, piles of sand, leaves, dead bugs, and plastic yogurt lids from the kitchen floor without disposing of any cherished toys in the process.
  6. Reading Yertle the Turtle in its entirety, without skipping a line and without brushing aside earnest questions from the 3-year-old.
  7. Mastering the pronunciation of Dutch words, gezellig, gelukkig, and achtentachtig.
  8. Making a friend your age.

Scenarios:

  1. You are preparing dinner for 5. There are 4 chicken breasts cooking fast on the skillet and no back-up food in the fridge. One kid is down the hall crying, having peed his pants and soaked his jeans, socks, shoes and the floor with urine, about to walk through the house in distress. The other kid has fallen down in the backyard, and is crying loudly over a very mild knee-scrape. The doorbell rings; it’s the grocery delivery man and his truck is holding up traffic on the street outside. Prioritize.
  2. You are giving the kids a bath. One is covered in soap and crying because water got in his eyes. While dealing with this, you notice a gigantic turd float by and realize the other kid must have sneakily squeezed one out during the commotion.  The water, and the children, are now contaminated. Take the plastic toy bucket and proceed.
  3. You are home alone with the kids, eating dinner together at the kitchen table. It’s a stormy night. The 3-year-old stops eating and looks behind you through the big glass doors into the dark garden and asks, “Who is that?” Investigate.
  4. You’ve locked yourself out of the house with both children and no money an hour before dinner needs to be on the table. Both parents are at work and the neighbors are out of town. Frantically curse the universe and your own foolishness for several minutes, then solve.

I thought about putting her up to all this, but of course she’ll experience her own set of challenges, screw-ups and personal triumphs in good time, so I’ve decided to keep my own to myself. Maybe they can make the Extreme Au Pair Challenge a reality show on TLC or something. Instead I bought some flowers for her room, took her out to lunch, and will spend the rest of the week doing my best to make her feel welcome and prepared. She’s a very nice girl and I’m sure she’ll do a great job.

As for me, I think I’m ready to pass on the torch.

29
Jul
09

What I learned on my summer vacation. Part 2.

little girl in chefchaouen, morrocoFrom Tangier we took an old, un-airconditioned bus to Chefchaouen, a small town in the Rif mountains. We slept on colorful beds on the roof of our hostel in the medina. The loud, melodic 5 am prayer woke us with a start and lulled us back to sleep. We wandered through the maze of blue-painted buildings, our path crossed every now and then by a scrawny feral cat or a group of shy, scrappy Moroccan kids with a soccer ball.

We haggled for 45 minutes with a young merchant and ultimately ended up with a big, beautiful traditionally woven blanket. After walking away and being called back at least 3 times, Jordi talked him down from 600 dirham to 175 (about 17 euros). Moroccans always say about the Dutch (in Dutch), “Kijken kijken, niet kopen,” essentially, “always looking never buying.” Their reputation for being cheap is world-renowned. But Jordi stuck to his price, and we got that blanket.

That evening, we took a bumpy 5-hour bus ride through the mountains to get to Fes and, although we arrived late, easily found a cheap room in a hotel right inside the medina. The center of Fes is a labyrinthine tangle of little, unmarked alleys and crowded market streets. A map does no good, so you have to pay a little kid to show you the way, or ask a new person for directions on every corner. After a dizzying few hours of exploring, dodging the relentless advances of vendors, we sat down for a lunch of olives, couscous and sweet mint tea. The rest of the day was spent finding ways to survive the heat and buying small treasures before indulging in big pink and green ice cream sundaes at a delightfully garishsweet shop.

In the last little stall we went in, full of painted ceramic bowls, the shop owner sold us a small carved wooden box. It’s a special Moroccan design that only the owner (and the guy who sold it) knows how to open. There’s a little key hidden inside, but you have to know where to look. We’d had about enough of the typically aggressive sale tactics, but this man was kind and tactful, so we gave him our business. Like many Moroccans we spoke to, he said over and over again, “You are welcome,” and it somehow meant more than just the stock reply to a thank-you.

We thanked him and walked off after he said “You are welcome” a few more times, and holding the secret box, locked up tight at my side, I wondered what I’d ever been so worried about.

Next time, I’ll be sure not to ask “What if?” quite so much, because the best thing I can do to calm my inner worrier is pack my bags, leave the neurotic planner in me at home, and give the world a chance to prove that it can actually be very accommodating, if you just know where to look.

29
Jul
09

What I learned on my summer vacation. Part 1.

harbor at sunset in faro, portugal

Hi, I’m Shannon, and I’m a chronic worrier. Sometimes I think it must be in my blood, that old doubts constantly circulate in my veins until they are recycled and become new, fresh fears. Travel, not surprisingly, can exacerbate this tendency. Going new places and doing new things, while exhilarating, also comes with countless new worries built right in.

Earlier this summer, my boyfriend—an optimistic Dutch fellow who purposely avoids making concrete travel plans—and I were discussing our summer holiday. We had 10 free days in July at our disposal, but we’d gotten ahead of ourselves and started talking about August, September, and anything but the matter at hand.

“Hold on,” I said. “We have to worry about July before we do anything else.”

He stopped and stared at me. “Worry? What do we have to worry about, exactly?”

Without even realizing it, I’d used ‘worry’ as a synonym for ‘think’—and it wasn’t the first time. Somewhere along the way, amidst all the life changes, decision-making and risk-taking, I’d allowed worrying to become more than just a bad habit. It had become a state of mind.

As for July, we ultimately decided–due to the cheapest flights offered by Ryanair–on flying into Faro, Portugal, traveling over land through southern Spain and taking a boat to Morocco where we would take a flight home from Fes. We didn’t book any hostels ahead of time, didn’t research transportation between stops, and didn’t bring a guidebook. For me, this was pretty new; for my seasoned travel companion, this was nothing.

To my incessant questioning—‘What if we can’t find affordable places to stay on such short notice? What if there aren’t any buses going to that town when we need them? What if I get sick from the food and have to make the bus driver pull over in the mountains? What if someone breaks our knees and robs us and leaves us for dead in a ditch?’ (That last one was an exaggeration, I swear)—he always replied, “It’s gonna be OK, really.”

And as it turns out–surprising to all of you, I’m sure–it was.

Better yet, it was wonderful.

In sleepy Faro we explored the quiet streets, white buildings dotted with big red flowers. We took refuge from the heat on a shady cafe terrace, where a tiny, white-haired Portuguese woman brought us cold beers on a plastic tray. We sat and watched the sunset at the end of a narrow, empty pier on the peaceful harbor, little boats settling into sleep as fish leapt out of the water all around us, catching bugs and flopping back down on the surface with a lazy, muted splash. We ate a 5 euro dinner, invited by locals to join some group function under the stars, and were brought a pitcher of beer and platters of rice, salad, grilled pork, sweets and coffee. We spent a day on the beach, dozing in the sand after playing like little kids in the cool Atlantic. The next morning, we took a 4-hour bus ride to Seville, wishing we’d gotten better souvenirs than the needle-sharp sunburns on our backs.

In Seville, the capital of Andalusia, a Spanish friend of Jordi’s showed us around the city, teaching us about the Islamic and Christian architecture, and how the two existed peacefully in the area for years. We stood with little Spanish children, their backs a toasted brown from the July sun, in the cool spray of the giant fountain at Plaza Espana. We ate a late dinner of heavenly tapas–randomly ordered from a menu we couldn’t read–sitting outside at a little table in a narrow alley, ancient bricks adorned with glowing sconces lighting our meal. We drank peach juice on a dimly lit rooftop terrace, the adjacent cathedral luminous in the black sky, bats circling its tower.

In Cadiz, said to be the oldest city in Western Europe, we climbed the Torre Tavira for a 360 view of the city’s white rooftops surrounded by the bay. At dusk we swam in the cliffside pool of our hotel and dried off in the evening sun, watching the waves wash against the wall below. We walked along the stone path leading through the water toward the lighthouse and saw restless boys jumping off an old bridge into the ocean.

In Tarifa, a relaxed, eccentric surf town, we ate el secreto standing up in the corner of a small, crowded tapas bar that smelled like meat and old, wine-soaked wood. We drank a 5 euro bottle of red wine on the beach, laying in the cold sand and looking at the stars near the spot where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean. We swam in the calm waves the next morning, enjoying one last dip before boarding the boat across the Mediterranean to Tangier.

28
Jul
09

5 Tips for the Aspiring Au Pair

photo from design mom

Here’s a little article I wrote for Matador, an independent online travel magazine. A lot of fellow au pairs I’ve met in Amsterdam didn’t suffiently prepare for a job with a family, and found themselves in a situation they didn’t realize they’d signed up for. 5 Tips for the Aspiring Au Pair offers some advice on finding a job, and making sure you know what you’re getting into.

07
Jul
09

Late Work

de muziek boot

It’s a Tuesday afternoon in July. I’m sitting on the waterside terrace of the café de Jaren near my home in Amsterdam, drinking bitter coffee and reading A Farewell to Arms. After spending the morning letting the rain lull me in and out of sleep, I brought my computer out with me because I need to write. I know I’ve already begun to forget too many of the details that color my experience, and if I don’t write them down, not only will my friends and family never know of them, I am likely never to think of them again.

So here I sit at this little round table next to the canal, having reluctantly closed my book and opened my computer. The sun is having a dispute with the clouds and I keep taking my jacket off, then putting it on again. It is warm, but only every other moment when the cool wind holds still and the sun has a brief chance to really touch you. The cold air feels nice after a couple weeks of hot, muggy weather that I never thought I’d experience in Holland.

A man wearing a flowered shirt smiles and quietly plays his guitar. Two old women at the table next to me drink tall glasses of cold milk and their friend, older still, drinks white wine. I’ve finished my coffee and ordered a large orange juice.

There is a small boat in the water, elaborately decorated and filled with flowers and ribbons, and inside an eccentric man with a shiny green vest and a hat plays a french horn and a tiny organ. The music lifts up and floats through the sky as he raises a small wooden clog on a fishing pole to the bridge to be filled with the spare change of onlookers. He is a regular Amsterdam attraction. Traffic rolls by behind his crowd of listeners—a man with his daughter sitting on the back of his bike, her curly hair twisting in the wind, a horse-drawn carriage carrying tourists, a woman in a leather jacket pushing a stroller. There is a quiet hum, a melody even, from the chatter on the terrace and the movement of the city steadily trickling over the canal and the street beyond it.

These are the kinds of details I want to remember from the places I go and the things I do. I have some catching up to do from the last few wonderful months and I know I need to write now, but I’m having trouble drawing my attention away from this moment to focus on moments passed.

While I sit here nagging myself the way a teacher might nag a procrastinating student, I have to acknowledge my good fortune in being so often surrounded by interesting things that I struggle to relinquish enough time to write about them. But if I succeed in said struggle (which I can’t promise), you can expect an onslaught of posts about my spring and continuing summer in Europe. Though, they probably won’t appear until the end of the month, as I leave for another trip on Friday, one that will take me over 10 days to Belgium, Portugal, Spain and Morocco.

Happy Summer!




"Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" -Henry James, The Art of Fiction
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