Posts Tagged ‘Amsterdam


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.


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


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.



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.


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.


Rain… no wait, Reality Check

Today I rode the bakfiets in the rain. The magic is gone.

Say goodbye to sunny rides in the bakfiets, boys. Say hello to a thick plastic cover and a poncho-wearin' au pair.

Say goodbye to sunny rides in the bakfiets, boys. Say hello to a thick plastic cover and a poncho-wearin' au pair.

"Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" -Henry James, The Art of Fiction
February 2019
« Sep    

  • 21,212 hits