Archive for the 'Amsterdam' Category


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.


  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.


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!


The Neverlands

Straight On Til Morning by Amanda Visnell

I bought a goldfish this week. His name is Captain Hook.

This came about because I’ve had a bumpy time getting back into the swing of things while combating jet lag and yet another cold, so one gray morning a few days ago, I wandered into a pet shop and promptly decided that a small swimming companion might be just the ticket. In the past I’ve named fish after characters in whatever book I happened to be reading at the time, but I’m currently in the middle of two very depressing books (Richard Wright’s Native Son and Diary by Chuck Palahniuk). So instead, I chose a book that I hadn’t even realized I’d been reading so much of: Peter Pan.

Three-year-old Alex is completely and hopelessly fascinated by Peter Pan. And not just Peter; in fact, his most extreme obsession is with the relationship between Captain Hook and the ticking crocodile. He is at once horrified and mesmerized by the fact that the crocodile wants to eat – yes, eat – this man. He can’t stop talking about it. At any given moment he is either pretending to be the pirate or the hungry beast. All he does as Hook is say, “I’m Captain Hook!” and all he does as the crocodile is say “tick tock tick tock!” and pretend to bite me. Stunning performances on both counts.

This only began about a month ago. Tired of the previous favorite  – some awful Mickey Mouse book about alphabet soup – I switched his interests over to a lovely storybook adaptation of the Disney film. Alex was hooked instantly. And I, as though teaching him the alphabet, had him repeat the names back to me: Tinker Bell, Wendy, Mr. Smee… After the second read, he’d already committed to memory the names of every character and place. It got in his head. In the middle of totally unrelated activities, he’d randomly look up at me and say, “Where’s Captain Hook?”

Since then, his generous parents have also gotten hold of both the Disney DVD and an audio version of the original by J. M. Barrie. Now, my previous knowledge of Neverland and all its wonders was quite extensive due to my own earnest Disney upbringing – for example, I couldn’t stop singing “You Can Fly” the whole time I was in London with Big Ben staring down at me – but after the last few weeks, I now call myself an expert. And I am in no way complaining, only looking forward to whichever Disney delight he chooses next.

It’s funny, the places we end up that we could never have imagined when we were younger. I remember myself as a kid on the couch fixated by the mermaids and the children soaring through the air, or singing the soundtrack by heart, or standing for too long in the cramped line for the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland, the one that lets you sail over Neverland and London in your own flying pirate ship.

Now I sit in the playroom of an old Dutch house on a quiet block lined with streetlamps glowing orange underneath the magic moon. A little boy standing on the furniture holds a tiny plastic retractable telescope to his eye and, his every nerve poised and tingling, announces that a pirate ship and a crocodile and mermaids are in the canal just outside. He can see them in the water. It’s all play, of course, but who knows? Imagination is a powerful thing. And although “all children, except one, grow up,” I’m sure if we all looked a little closer through our tiny plastic telescopes, we’d be surprised at what we might see.

When there’s a smile in your heart
There’s no better time to start
Think of all the joy you’ll find
When you leave the world behind
And bid your cares goodbye

You can fly.


Black and White

It’s snowing! Really snowing. No one can tell me it’s hail or sleet. There are big, air-light fluffs of ice spinning and swirling and decorating the sky in millions of white polka dots. The spindly black tree branches are now laced with a fine, sugary frosting and the houseboats on the canals are dusted in a thin layer of soft ice.

Everybody here thinks I’m crazy for getting so excited about the snow. But they kept telling me it wouldn’t snow in Amsterdam – or at least not until January and even then it would be hardly anything. This rather unexpected November downfall is, I’m sure, hardly anything as far as winter weather is concerned, but it’s something I have only seen a few times in my life, and to me it is magic.

The house is warm and the soft gold lights inside provide a distinct comfort against the cold, white tangled air on the other side of the window. It is Sunday and everything seems quiet. A white-gray sky cups the city – rooftops, black cobblestones, bridges, canals – in its solid, steady and seamless presence as I sit inside this tall, crooked Dutch house, watching the blur and listening to nothing.

I stare out the window and melt in the pure happiness I get from the knowledge that I didn’t have this in California.


Bring your Jukebox Money

an old favorite

It’s amazing the way music will follow us wherever we go. Certain songs will continue to appear in different contexts throughout your life, and in doing so will add to the catalogue of emotions and moments that will forever be attached to them. I encountered some such songs while out last night with my new Danish friend, Anne.

We first sampled the Mediterranean cuisine at a delightfully garish and kitschy restaurant in the Pijp neighborhood, moving on to drinks at a nearby bar and then some live music at Bourbon Street, a popular venue off Leidsplein.

The act of the night was a various collection of Europeans covering a various collection of popular American songs. Anne and I bopped along in appreciation with the rest of the crowd, but when the drummer kicked off with that familiar beginning to “Love Shack” by the B-52’s, I was immediately transported back to a Livermore High School dance.

This was one of those token numbers we could always count on, one that every Bay Area DJ hired by LHS would throw into the playlist. (Other dependable selections were “California Love” by 2Pac and Dr Dre, “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” by Shania Twain, and Garth Brook’s ever-popular “Friends in Low Places.” Did I mention our mascot was the cowboy?) But “Love Shack”… this was a sure-fire crowd-pleaser. There was something strangely exhilarating about showing off our much practiced hormone-charged moves under the green and purple lights of the gym to a song that you might hear on your mom’s favorite radio station.

So I am standing there in this bar in Holland, Grolsch in hand and staring up at the “Bourbon Street: Amsterdam” painted on the stage upon which performs a band called GSI: Groove Scene Investigation (no, I did not make that up), but in my mind I am 15, enthusiastically thumping my hips in the air and flailing my arms about, eyes closed tight as I sing along, “everybody’s movin’ everybody’s groovin’ baby.”

When they play “Billy Jean” I am suddenly sitting on my knees on the floor of the multi-purpose room at Arroyo Seco Elementary School during the talent show. A boy in my grade—4th or 5th at this time, I can’t remember—is dancing on stage to the Michael Jackson hit. His name is Chris Walker. He’s black and lanky with a shaved head, everybody loves him, and he is hitting every Jackson move dead on. Myself and the other girls in our grade have rushed the stage as though witnessing a celebrity, and we squeal in admiration at every flick of his wrist, our eyelashes fluttering and our bony, tennis-ball knees growing red on the cold linoleum.

But I am actually standing in this crowded European bar, my feet growing sore in my leather boots as Anne and l subtly moving to the beat as we watch one of the band members move his fingers over his keyboard the way those of a monkey move over a soggy piece of fruit.

Later they play Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” I instantly recall sitting at our Dell family computer, a 12-year-old who has recently discovered Limewire—the free music-downloading program. I play Madonna’s powerful pop-gospel track over and over and over again, and in between AOL Instant Messenger conversations, my bare feet pound on our thick brown carpet as I sing as loud as my lungs can manage, eyes closed and with more emotion than I knew I had.

This emotion continues to materialize every time I hear “Like a Prayer” thereafter, including this summer when I rode in the passenger seat of my friend Sara’s car—full of recently graduated girls ready for a night on the town. We had our makeup on and our top buttons undone and Madonna and her choir rang out from the car stereo as we sped over the 110, the downtown LA lights rising and sparkling before us, full of glamor and promise. I danced and moved and shook and rocked as much as can be done while strapped in by a seatbelt. My ponytail and huge round earrings whipped about as I grew euphorically dizzy from the rocking movement of the car, the fast LA freeway traffic, and the sheer volume of our excitement.

And now here I stand, the neck of my Grolsch warming in my grip as I watch the fat singer on stage, probably Eastern European, with massive sideburns and a greasy ponytail, as a V of sweat develops on his olive-green polo shirt between his soft man-boobs and he shrieks out (rather well, actually) the high-pitched choir part that brings home the end of Madonna’s song.

As I watch the performance, I string these recollections along like beads on a necklace. And as each one fades as the music slows, I wonder: how did I end up here, now? It’s impossible to imagine where you’ll be, who you’ll be with and what you’ll be doing later in life, especially when you get so caught up in certain moments that you feel you may have actually stirred up your brains, but it’s nice to know that wherever you go, you can always revisit the places you’ve been with just a little reminder.

Just like a prayer, your voice can take me there
Just like a muse to me, you are a mystery
Just like a dream, you are not what you seem
Just like a prayer, no choice your voice can take me there


The New President of Europe…I mean, America.


As an American in Europe, I have been subject to countless inquiries and discussions about the recent election, both leading up to it and now that the results are in. The majority of foreign people I meet bring up the issue of the US presidency in one way or another, and usually investigate my views before deciding whether I’m passable for further conversation and association. When I walked into my Dutch class after the election, my teacher said, “So, Shannon, are you happy?” The room was silent. I said, “I am so happy,” and everyone chuckled approvingly, folded their arms and leaned back in their chairs.

I most certainly did not talk about politics this much while I was in the States. This is probably a combined result of the desire of people here to ask my opinion specifically as I am often the only American present, the ubiquitous hate for Bush in Europe, and their love for Obama. Whatever the cause, though, Europeans (and non-Americans in general, for that matter) seem just as invested as I am in the outcome of the election – the only difference being they didn’t put an absentee ballot in the mail.

For this reason, when my friend Charlotte from Paris asked me if I was disappointed that I couldn’t be in the States during the election, I told her no, that in a way it’s more exciting to watch it all happening from across the ocean. The results were announced somewhere around 5:00 am in Amsterdam, and not wanting to merely be lying in bed when the historical moment arrived, I went to an all-night election party. The event (one of many in the city) was at the Hilton and saw around 700 attendees throughout the night. There was American food – hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, ribs, and some very dry corn on the cob. For snacks they had pizza, popcorn, tortilla chips and french fries. I ate as much as I could to feel better about the 20 euro entry price.

I went to the party with my Dutch friend Eva and we chatted with a rather random selection of other Obama fans: a few other Dutch people, a German, another American, a guy from Suriname, and a few excitable Nigerians. As the night wore on, we watched Obama’s promising lead with each CNN update in between listening to the scheduled panel discussions. There was also a comedy performance by two American guys and some live music by a woman whom you might see in a cheap club in a sketchy Vegas hotel. I felt jittery and wide awake until my nerves settled, the wine started getting to me, and the clock neared 5:00.

The room was still full of eager onlookers, and though I did my best to keep my head from nodding and my eyelids from weighing down, the “experts” on CNN just weren’t holding my interest. But suddenly the numbers spoke and the official announcement flashed on the big screen – and I joined everyone around me in an eruption of cheers and applause. Eva and I hugged as though we hadn’t just met 2 weeks before, but rather had been waiting for years to share this with each other. The Nigerian men we’d been talking to started bringing us drinks, and we all watched with tears in our eyes as Obama accepted his victory and stood with his lovely famiy on the verge of history. It was a powerful moment – and of course the cinematic music added to the emotion.

After the American buffet breakfast, I bid farewell to my foreign friends, walked out to the dark street and rode my bike off in the thin rain. I didn’t make it home until 7:00 on Wednesday morning and had to get the boys out of bed at 7:30. For a minute I regretted going or at least staying so late, but I quickly remembered that I can sleep any night, but this – likely one of the most important historical moments that will occur in my lifetime – this was worth staying up for.

I lay on the floor of the play room that morning dozing as the kids played and jumped on top of me with squeals of delight. They were as excited about the election as the rest of us. I have seen first-hand the extent to which the rest of the Western world cares about US politics; it often seems as though they take personal offense to much of what goes wrong – on the way to the boys’ daycare, “Fuck Bush” is spray-painted on one of the building fronts. Every time I see it I wonder what kind of person who vandalizes property in Amsterdam felt so personally offended by Bush that they were compelled to deface these bricks? How did it come to this?

I am happy for the opportunity to view my home from an outsider’s perspective, and even happier to see that perspective begin to change. There is little to do now but wait and see if Obama pulls through – but I can confidently say that in this time of failed policies, closed minds and youthful apathy I am more proud than I may ever be to say that I voted.

And it only cost me a few minutes and one postage stamp – a 92 euro cent stamp with a picture of the earth in the shape of heart.


Just a Nice Day

by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd

Yesterday was a great day. It was the kind of day that makes me feel nothing but contentment—no, bliss—with my decision to come to Europe. Nothing really special happened, it was just a nice day in my new life abroad. After taking the boys to daycare I came home and got dressed to meet my new friend Eva for lunch. She works in restoration and conservation of ceramics and glass for the Rijksmuseum (national museum) in Amsterdam, and I got to have lunch in the fancy building where she makes her magic – she, and dozens of other creative individuals who spend their time making beautiful, centuries-old art even more beautiful than it was when they found it.

After lunch I used my museumkaart (an annual pass that allows entry into about 20 museums year-round) to pop into the Rijksmuseum and see the new and very hyped-up exhibit by Damien Hirst. It’s basically a platinum mold of a human skull that is completely covered in diamonds. It’s called “For the Love of God” because that’s what his mother said when he told her what he was going to do. The skull is dazzling, to be sure, but it’s more a business venture than a work of art—and a successful one at that.

Once I checked that off my list, I rode over to the American Book Center to buy a birthday gift for Marijke – the mother at the house and now like a cherished big sister to me—and peruse the used books. Happy with selecting a good gift, I then treated myself to a kopje koffie and an amazing date tart in one of my favorite cafes on Utrechtsestraat. Settled in by the window—the taste of grainy brown sugar in my mouth—it was all so pleasant that I couldn’t even concentrate on my book, but instead just sat there and melted into my delicious, colorful and oh-so-European surroundings.

On the way home I stopped at the flower stand on the corner to buy some birthday bloemen, then went to get the boys. We got home and made a lovely construction-paper card for Mama with markers, crayons and stickers before eating leftover lasagna for dinner. After this it was off to my Dutch language class. There’d been spatters of rain in the afternoon, but now the night was clear and cool. I coasted over the little bridge on the Amstel river—lit with white lights as it is every night—and looking at the many city lights reflected on the black, peaceful surface of the water, I couldn’t really believe that this is my routine. This is now the everyday.

I rode home from class under the black, empty and sparkling sky with Charlotte, a French girl I sit next to. We had a few laughs and made plans to go out for dinner the next night where her boyfriend works as a chef. I got to the house and heaved myself up the 5 flights of stairs to my bedroom, stopping on the way to have one of those nice talks with Marijke that always lasts longer than we both plan and always keeps us up past our bedtimes.

Up too late but for once not really concerned about it, I flopped into bed and took a deep breath. I was just about to open up my book when I noticed—out the top window of the pointy, angular roof of the house, the only window in my room that always remains uncovered—the moon, almost round and commanding the sky. It was as though it had placed itself there, in my window, on purpose.

Perhaps it was the rhythmic pumping of blood through my body, or maybe the rise and fall, rise and fall of my lungs as I lay in bed and let my breathing slow, but I could have sworn that the moon itself was pulsing, throbbing, breathing. The white glow on which it floated swelled and shrunk and swelled again, offering in complete and pure loyalty to light the sky with every incandescent fleck of its being. Here was promise of the most fundamental kind.

Then, out of nowhere, a single thick cloud moved mechanically across the rectangular window—like a stagehand was holding it out of sight and dragging it through the set for a special lighting effect. The moon’s light dimmed, shrunk off, choked, and I thought “Oh my god, this is a sign.”

But the cloud moved on as quickly as it had come, and the block of sky I saw out my window was once again still and clear, and the moon once again bright. And I realized—as I’ve been learning more and more—that with many things in life, luckily for us, this is just how it happens.

"Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" -Henry James, The Art of Fiction
December 2018
« Sep    

  • 21,211 hits