Archive for October, 2008


D’il Mio Libro Piccolo: Flat Worms

I made it a goal this year abroad to read as many classics or important books as I can. Majoring in English, I somehow still did not manage to get them all done in 4 years – a fact that actually surprises a lot of people. No, I have many, many more to go; the hard part is deciding where to start.

Luckily, it turns out that Amsterdam will decide for me. There is some sort of tax on books here from what I’ve heard, so the merchandise in the many English book stores is a bit out of my price range for regular purchases. They’re great stores, particularly the American Book Center, so I have to be careful not to get carried away and spend an entire week’s pay in one visit – maybe I’ll just treat myself on special occasions.

Fortunately, one Friday afternoon last month after spending a couple of wistful hours in the ABC, I stumbled upon the outdoor Boekenmarkt in the Spui, a weekly used and antique book market in one of the city’s squares that apparently only plays hooky during gale-force winds. It isn’t a huge market, but being full of books I could spend hours there even if I went every week – and most of the books aren’t even in English. There is one booth, to my delight, with a small but sufficient assortment of books that I can both read and afford to buy often.

The selection of classics is limited, which is perfect because it greatly reduces the decision-making process. It’s just an added bonus that most of them are cool old editions under 5 euros, and I get to spend the afternoon surrounded by books and people who love them.

My first choice was Cannery Row, a Steinbeck favorite that I’ve had on my list for some time. It’s a short, easy read and the setting and characters are instantly appealing. I’d suggest that anyone who struggled with The Grapes of Wrath at the age of 16 give this one a try. It draws you in immediately and won’t disappoint.

It’s one of those books that I knew I would enjoy with the first sentence: “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” Such a random assortment of things that it somehow makes clear and perfect sense. Especially as the book goes on.

What I really love and feel can be applied to life and literature in many ways is what he offers at the end of his short opening:

“How can the poem and the stink and the grating noise – the quality of light, the tone, the habit and the dream – be set down alive? When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book – to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves.”

To see the capturing of flat worms, a small and obscure project to say the least, as this great metaphor for the way stories are told and lives are lived – this is why we should read his books. And why I’m glad the Boekenmarkt placed this one front of me.

The flat worms remind me somewhat of my time in Amsterdam thus far. It’s certainly different than my last experience abroad – a shorter length of time in which I had a built-in social network of students and I did nothing but sight-see and travel and learn about the culture the entire time. Here I am mostly alone aside from the family and scattered random social engagements, I work 35 hours a week, and I have less money to spend on travel. I struggle with the fact that I am living here, that I can’t be doing and seeing and going to museums every second because I have some serious assimilating to do.

It’s like the window in the corner of my bedroom that leaks when it rains. I can’t hear any drips, but when I wake up in the morning or come upstairs at the end of the day – having battled the rain outside or listened to it falling on the rooftop as I fell asleep – there is always a little puddle there.

I don’t realize how much I’m doing or learning or adjusting to here until I step back and really look at it. Without noticing I’ve situated myself over the last 2 months into this city and into a new life abroad. I showed up on September 5, and since then the experiences and transformations just started to ooze, crawl and leak into my life on their own.


Bottomed Out

There are times when I ask myself what I’m doing here. One of those times was Thursday morning when Noah, the 1-year-old I look after, surprised me with an explosive crap. I apologize for being graphic, but there’s no other way to say it. We were in the kitchen as I cleaned up after breakfast and made sandwiches for a picnic lunch…and when I started to smell something foul, something stronger than anything confined to a diaper might be, I knew I was in for it.

Tiny spots appeared on the floor.. spots of something that I couldn’t remember having served for breakfast. I left the PB&J open on the cutting board and got to the bottom of things – literally. The yellow sludge had oozed out of his diaper, down his pant legs, past his white socks, and into the world.

It was far more than baby wipes and a changing table situation could handle, so I took everything off, threw the toxic waste and contaminated goods in a garbage bag, and placed him in the tub for a hose-down. His 3-year-old brother, Alex, stood nearby and watched while enjoying a box of raisins and I sat there pumping baby soap into my hands and scrubbing between Noah’s fat rolls thinking to myself, I’m thousands of miles from home in a place where I have basically no friends and don’t speak the language for…this?

It was about 45 minutes before Noah was finally clean and upstairs. I was afraid to dress him again lest it should strike twice, or – heaven forbid – three times. Not wanting to hang out in the bathroom all day waiting for another eruption, though, I dressed him and we set off for the day. First stop was the famous cheese shop down the road where they know the kids and always offer a free taste (to the au pair as well). Then the patisserie across the street that has been voted best in the city in past years. We each got a bite of chocolade as I paid for our little brown paper-wrapped package of sweets.

Worried that chocolate and cheese would only feed the yellow sludge monster, I dropped the groceries off at the house and set off for the park nonetheless. It was a perfect sunny day and we sat at a picnic table, the three of us lined up in a row on the bench eating vruchten (fruit), boterhams (sandwiches), and of course, koekjes (cookies). WIth the sun on my face and two little smiles shining up at me from the picnic bench, I felt like the day was looking up.

We saved all the discarded crusts in a plastic bag so the ducks could eat lunch too, so we headed over to the pond, Alex helping unstable Noah trudge through the muddy grass. The ducks ate, Alex squealed in delight, and Noah was so interested in the water that he almost fell in. All in all a successful trip to the park. I put the two boys, with faces happy and dirt-covered, into the stroller and made it home in time for their nap.

There were no other explosions that day, and I realized that when it’s as bad as it was, it’s pretty unlikely that it’ll get anything but better. Plus, the risk of running into shitty times is worth the chance that you might get to have a picnic in the sunshine.

Oh, and also the family took me to Switzerland the next day.



I made some commitments this weekend that didn’t go well at first. I got connected with a girl in Amsterdam who is distantly related to one of my aunts by marriage. She invited me out for drinks and dinner on Saturday night, so I told her I’d meet her at 6:00 in the Jordaan. The first 30 minutes of our meeting didn’t go well because I was still trying to make it there.

That afternoon I’d decided that it was time for straight bangs. I also decided I would cut them myself. My friend warned me about this, saying every time she’d tried they came out uneven. But I often lack the patience and the funds to go to a salon, so I went for it. It’s a good thing Eva had enough patience to wait for me at the bar for half an hour, though, because I had to re-trim my bangs at least 4 or 5 times before they were acceptable; and even then they were longer on the left side and hanging over my eyelashes. I cut, cut again, cut again, blew dry, cut again, blew dry, cut, blew dry…then finally threw my coat on and ran out the door.

I hurried down the street on my bike, hoping to shave some time off the 15-minute ride. Struggling up a little canal bridge, I looked down the street ahead of me and saw some construction blocking the way. I hesitated, kept going straight, then decided to take a left instead and go up the other canal to avoid tricky and time-wasting maneuvers. The bike was already coasting briskly down the other side of the bridge, and the turn I’d committed to was sharp.

Last week I had the bike at a repair shop for a new tire valve and to have my brakes checked. I stood there in the old shop piled high with injured, rusty bicycles as a group of experts sat nearby staring at me through a cloud of smoke. The repair man took a quick look and told me, cigarette dangling out the side of his mouth, that my shoddy brakes would stay as they were. That it was an old brake system and couldn’t be improved. That I’d just have to brake early as I’d been doing. That I’d have to be careful.

Brake, brake, brake, brake! – I pushed down on the back pedal hard and willed the tires to grip the cobblestones and slow me down. It was too late; the front tire rammed straight into the corner curb, causing the bike to fall hard on its side, and me on mine, sliding onto the sidewalk. I fell on my bike. I couldn’t believe it. My greatest fear realized. As I stood up and examined the hole in my black tights, the dirty scrape on my knee showing through, a man stopped and said something in Dutch. “Bad brakes,” I told him.

Embarrassed, I quickly got the bike back onto the street and hoisted myself on again. Almost immediately I wobbled and headed straight, again, for the curb. I hopped off, exhasperated, sure that the bike suffered damage in the crash and I’d never make it to meet Eva. In fact, the handlebars were twisted at a 45-degree- angle. I’d steered in the direction the handlebars pointed me, and so went right back to the curb. I pushed and pulled and could not get them back where they belonged, so I rode down Prinsengracht the whole way with the handlebars aimed at the buildings to my right, peering through my curtain of bangs and just making sure the front wheel was straight.

I finally made it and walked into the bar, sweating, bangs askew. Eva was completely forgiving, sympathetic, and we spent the rest of the evening talking, laughing and becoming fast friends. When we left the restaurant – each of us walking slightly off-balance after sharing a bottle of wine – Eva (Dutch through and through), set my handlebars straight and showed me how to do it for the next fall I have.

And yesterday I took out my scissors again. I can proudly say my bangs now fall evenly across my face, and hang just low enough over my eyes to allow me to see things clear and level, to allow me to see balance.


The Little Engine that Couldn’t

When it was time for me to leave Deutschland on a 4:00 pm Sunday train out of Munich, I arrived at the station early to make sure I caught the train to make it home before midnight; better safe than sorry, I always say! I climbed aboard the trusty locomotive, found my assigned compartment, and stared dumbly at the German sitting in my seat. “No reservations,” he said. It had changed to a first come, first served situation, and an old train.

And with the events that followed, it’s a miracle I ever made it back to Amsterdam before the sun rose the next day…

Sunday (times are approximate):

4:00 pm – On the first leg of the journey, a 5-hour train from Munich to Duisburg. I am standing with my heavy backpack outside the WC in the rattling connector between two cars, next to a German man who doesn’t speak English but is able to suffocate me with breath worse than the stench coming from the toilet behind me.

4:20 pm – I find a seat on the floor in the narrow aisle outside the compartments.

5:15 pm – Enough passengers get off in Nuremburg that I am able to get a seat by a window. I relax.

5:30 pm – They begin to make announcements in German to which the other passengers react negatively. I cannot understand a word. Announcements occur roughly every 15 minutes.

6:45 pm – The train arrives in Frankfurt, not Duisburg, and it is the end of the line. The girl next to me tells me to go to platform 18 to catch a direct train to Amsterdam. No one knows what happened with this train, but at least they’ve given us accurate instructions for next steps.

7:00 pm – I buy a Coke and a water in the station, not bothering with food.

7:10 pm – I find an aisle seat (again, no reservations). It’s a new train and I feel relieved. Surely, nothing will go wrong with this one.

8:00 pm – I am enjoying Running with Scissors, which I found on my train from Amsterdam to Munich and am now extremely thankful to have it. The breathing of the woman next to me sounds like a helicopter with the engine dying.

8:15 pm – They begin making announcements in German to which the other passengers react negatively. The German announcements are very long, around 5 sentences, and after each one they say in English, “Ladies and gentlemen, there will be a slight delay. We apologize for the inconvenience.” The announcements occur roughly every 10 minutes.

8:30 pm – Announcements are made in which they mention Amsterdam multiple times. The helicopter next to me does not speak English and I have no idea what is going on.

9:00 pm – I finally get up to ask the people in front of me to translate. What I gather is that there was something on the track, we had to go back, there is a delay, but ultimately this train will go to Amsterdam.

9:30 pm – The train makes a routine stop in a small town near the Germany/Netherlands border.

9:45 pm – The train is still sitting there.

10:00 pm – All the lights turn off, then back on.

10:15 pm – The entire train makes a sad noise and then shuts off. We sit in darkness. I am staring at the sign outside with the name of the town, but can no longer remember it and it is too small to easily find on a map for the purposes of this post.

10:30 pm – More announcements. The man speaking sounds tired. I move up a seat and befriend the woman across the aisle. Her name is Ambaar and she is returning to Utrecht (near Amsterdam) from a 3-week trip to India. From now on she will translate all the announcements for me and provide pleasant conversation.

10:45 pm – I use the WC. It has no running water. I then go to the cafe car where they are handing out free food, and bring a club sandwich and a jumbo Twix back to my seat.

11:00 pm – The train people admit defeat and announce, “Ladies and gentlemen, this train is out of order.” We wait.

11:30 pm – They are sending for a bus to come get us and bring us to Amsterdam. We will have to wait 1-2 hours for the bus to arrive. They offer to let people stay in this tiny town at a hotel for free.

Monday (times are approximate, as I am barely conscious by this point):

12:00 am – Announcement: there will be no bus. Instead there are taxis assembled outside that will take us to the city of Arnhem, where we will then get a bus to Amsterdam. Everyone walks outside. There are about 60 people, and outside we find only 2 taxis, each one holds 6-8 people. Now we are waiting in the cold.

12:15 am – Ambaar investigates and only one taxi is going to Arnhem. We slowly creep through the unmoving crowd and are the first ones in the taxi. Off we go through fog and darkness with about 8 others.

1: 00 am – We arrive at the train station in Arnhem. The cab driver lets us out and sends us to the other side of the large station where there are busses already waiting.

1:10 am – We get to the other side, and there are no busses. Only cab drivers offering to take us to Amsterdam for 200 euros.

1:30 am – I am waiting outside the empty station in the cold in Arnhem with about 15 strangers. Ambaar has taken a cab to Utrecht. I feel like I’m on Survivor. Perfect strangers placed on a deserted island and forced to figure it out. People are heckling cab drivers and debating possible solutions. I stand quietly.

1:50 am – Still waiting, cold, and growing nervous.

2:00 am – A train station official comes outside to find out who we are. There are taxis assembled on the other side of the station to take us for free to Amsterdam. People begin to run. Yes, run.

2:15 am – I get in the front seat of a taxi with 3 others in the back, and we leave for Amsterdam. I am phsycially incapable of keeping myself awake.

3:30 am – We arrive at Amsterdam central station. The trams are no longer running. Another woman and I convince the cab driver to go into the city and take us to Keizersgracht. He gets lost, and I direct him the rest of the way. After only 2 weeks in the city, I am proud of myself for this.

3:45 am – I pay and walk down the street to my front door.

4: 00 am – I call a friend at home. Someone has to hear this.

4:15 am – I sleep.

7:15 am – My alarm goes off, and I go downstairs to get the boys ready for another week.

This post is about as long as my journey was, so kudos to you if you got through it. I thought German trains would be efficient and reliable, and when they weren’t, I thought the officials could figure it out. They couldn’t.

The end.

Prost! to travel. Anything can happen.



We spent our last afternoon in Germany at the Dachau concentration camp outside Munich. A bus full of other tourists, quiet and somber, took us to the site, where you have the option of visiting on your own or with a variety of guided tours. With limited time before I caught my train back to Holland, we chose a short tour and an audio guide and did our best to learn what we could.

Dachau began as a work camp, the first of many more that would be established during Hitler’s time in power. Upon entering, we passed through the iron gates with the unsettling inscription: “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” – work will set you free. Two days before we had taken a free tour of Munich and saw the spot on the street where Hitler’s bodyguard took 8 bullets for him during one of his earliest attempts to gain power. Then we found ourselves walking through the gates of his first “work camp” that ended up claiming the deaths of over 30,000 people.

I took a Holocaust history class in college a few years ago – one of my most challenging and most rewarding, by far. The class demanded many hours of reading and writing, and I heard first-hand stories from a good number of survivors, including one – a shining light in my life – who I interviewed personally and maintain a relationship with. She was held in Ravensbruck and liberated from Bergen-Belsen, the camp that killed Anne Frank.

Despite the amount of studying I have done on the history of the Holocaust, from the painful details to the horrifying greater implications, to actually be in a place where victims lived out these details day by day, where masses of people were killed before a world turning a blind eye – this was something different. It took no more than a foot through the gate to gain a better understanding of the suffering that went on there. The air hung heavy and low to the ground, thick with sadness. Everyone visiting moved slowly, as though trying to temporarily relinquish their vitality, to step for a moment outside their own glowing, un-ruptured souls in respect and memory of those who didn’t have a choice. They all seemed to stare either straight ahead or at the colorless gravel beneath their feet.

And everything was black and gray, with the exception of the border of grass surrounding the grounds, the grass that came before the electric barbed-wire fence. During the camp’s operation, touching the fence resulted in instant death – a desirable end for some – but if a prisoner stepped on the grass to get to it, he or she was immediately shot from the watch towers. Attempting this was called “going to the wire.”

A shocking fact I had not heard before was that the camp’s barracks were actually put to use after WWII had ended. During the Cold War hordes of Soviet refugees fled to Germany, and the government decided to solve the housing crisis by putting them in the Dachau barracks for temporary shelter. This temporary shelter remained their home for 20 years, and the camp was turned into a sort of small, self-contained village. It went on like this until some survivors came back and, in outrage, put into motion an initiative to turn the camp into the memorial it is today.

It should stand as nothing else than a reminder of what happened and a place where anyone can go to gain knowledge and better understanding. A place that continues to put the demand out into the world: “Never again.” I would encourage everyone, if you ever have the chance, to take a few hours during your travels and see a site, like this one, of Holocaust history. Remembering the bad can only do good.


Prost! We drink to Germany.

I’m happy to say that I can now cross one big thing off my to-do-before-I-die list: a visit not only to Germany but to the 175th Oktoberfest as well. We took an overnight train from Amsterdam to Munich and spent 3 days getting to know the city, understanding Bavarian pride, and joining in on some pure and irresistable merriment.

We started off our first day with some white sausages and coffee in the Marienplatz before watching the Glockenspiel at the New Town Hall go off and taking a free tour of the city. I try to sample the traditional fare wherever I go, but I have to admit I could have done without the white sausage, and could have done with some better coffee, but hey, that’s travel. With all the build-up and the big crowd waiting in the square below, I half expected the Glockenspiel to shoot fireworks or spout forth live dancers and acrobats. Needless to say, I was a bit disappointed by the show, then had to remind myself that it was designed and built in the mid-19th century and it is, after all, pretty impressive for just a big clock.

During the afternoon we wandered around the open-air market and sat in a cafe for our first beers in Germany (delicious!) and some “pancake soup” – the saltiest thing I have ever tasted. Our spoonfulls of broth actually had salt granules gathered in the bottom, and apparently it takes an enormous amount of salt in liquid before it no longer dissolves. Yum! Fortunately we were given one small glass of room-temperature tap water to share.

We bought some refrigerated bottles of water at our next stop: the Olympic complex from the games of 1972, the notorious site of the Israeli Olympic team murders. The complex is now put to great use. There are concerts and other events held frequently, a lovely pond with lots of geese and swans, and many people (tourists and locals alike) wandering around the grounds and enjoying the scenery.

Early the next morning we awoke to the excited chatter of other travelers in our hostel getting ready for Oktoberfest. It was about 7:00 am and the place – a giant, permanent tent with about 60 bunk beds inside – was buzzing with the anticipation of all-day drinking. We hadn’t planned on getting up quite so early, but with the cold Germany air seeping in through the canvas walls and the giddy Australians whispering all around us, sleep was out of the question.

So off we went, not too sure what to expect but definitely sure we wanted to find out. We got off the tram and followed the crowds of liederhosen and beer maids to the entrance of the biggest beer festival in the world. We were there on the opening day of the year (it actually starts on the third Saturday of September and goes into October), and excitement was running high – and cold and bubbly. Actually, on the festival’s first day, a parade runs down the center of the grounds and the mayor then does the first tap, marking the first beer of the year. This doesn’t happen until noon, but they open up the beer tents much sooner, so many people end up crammed on the benches inside saving their seats for when the beer comes pouring out.

We found spots in the Hippodrom – a smaller tent (holding about 3500 people) and one of the most festive – next to some Swedish guys and a bunch of German girls all experiencing Oktoberfest for the first time. It was only 10:00, so we were looking at two hours of drinking Coke with these people before the real fun began, and conversation was at a standstill. That pure merriment was nowhere in sight, and I was not optimistic about spending an entire day cramped on the little wooden bench choking down beer and not talking with my neighbors.

Two hours came and went, though, and when the clock struck 12:00 it was like someone came and shook up the beer tent like a snow globe, instant change. The band started playing boisterous traditional German folk songs and everyone in the room stood up on their benches, clapping and shouting and laughing as the master of ceremonies said a bunch of things in German, inciting more cheers and applause, and the first beers were lugged out – 10 liters at a time by tiny blond girls.

From then on it was “Prost!” every 10 minutes, swaying back and forth and singing loudly with the whole table, and making fast friends. The merriment started as soon as the beer was in sight, before it was in our systems it seemed to be in the air, infusing everybody with life and warmth and joy. I won’t give details of the rest of the day unless you ask me personally, but I will say that I was much more successful getting down beers the size of my head than I’d anticipated.

I would go back in a heartbeat. After all, there are 14 tents to try and 6 million people to meet. And it seems as though every one of them must be filled to the brim with frothy, honest-to-goodness cheer that can only be tasted at Oktoberfest.



Where there’s rain…

Fall has officially begun. It has been raining all week, with no end in sight. Everyday I see more yellow and orange leaves hanging from the trees that line the canals. Last night, I got caught outside in a sudden and fierce hail storm (at least it seemed pretty intense to me). Lightning crackled in the muddy sky as big chunks of ice pattered on my umbrella and gathered in the gaps between the cobblestones.

Having never lived through a real winter in my life and unsure of how I’ll handle it, I feel a bit like I’m waiting for judgement day as I watch the black clouds creep over the city. Or maybe like a small forest critter huddling in a cave watching the rain fall outside, actually wondering if it will survive the next few months. The sad thing is, the worst they get here in Amsterdam is a lot of rain and high winds; they haven’t even seen a real snow storm in 20 years. It’s not as though I’m living in the Arctic Circle or some place like, say, Wisconsin. Even so, I’m a little scared.

It seems, though, that the weather is fickle enough to provide pockets of sun as the clouds move and change with the wind. Today we had about an hour of such luck, so I took the boys out for a walk before giving them lunch in the garden. I walked a little too far for comfort, too far to have an easy stroll home if it started pouring again while we were out there, and I couldn’t help but look up every five seconds to moniter the pattern of the clouds. So, this is what my life will be for the next year, I thought. Constant worry that one single rain cloud will purposefully place itself above my head and release it’s watery load, soaking myself and the children.

But then, as I turned the industrial-strength stroller with its built-in plastic rain cover around to head back towards home, I saw a rainbow. Full and bright and reaching from end to end.

I’d almost forgotten that where there’s rain, there are rainbows. And I can live with that.


Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera. But a rainbow is a rainbow. Always color, always uplifting.

"Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" -Henry James, The Art of Fiction
October 2008
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