We spent April Fool’s Day in Utrecht this year. I know… I can’t believe we didn’t go there sooner too.
We’d passed the famous city many times on the way to Amsterdam but never made it a destination. It is only about a 45 minute drive. This is one of the pluses of living in Europe and NL especially; everything is within reach making exploration easy and fun.
We knew it wasn’t going to be a super long day because of M’s knee (for those of you who don’t know, he had surgery last Fall and it’s been a long recovery). First we drove to Griftpark – I learned of it via another blog and I’m so glad that we stopped there first. It gave the kids a chance to blow off some steam at the playground and ‘boerderij‘ (farm). The Netherlands is very kid-friendly and there is no shortage of places for children to play and the ‘boerderij‘ is one of the coolest. You get to pet or see the animals up close (e.g., goats, peacocks, rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens, sheep, cows, donkeys, pigs) and always for free. I’d say most cities and villages have one (at least in our region they do) and even though they’re more or less the same, I never tire of taking the kids there (no complaints yet either).
When we headed to the ‘centrum‘, it was early afternoon, just in time for the one-hour canal boat tour. I missed about half the narrative because the kids got restless about halfway into it. I think it was a bit of a pricey ride (34 euros) but now I can say we did it and it was a welcome break from all the walking.
Once we got off, we wandered around the city and enjoyed some ‘vlaamse frites‘ (Belgian fries) right away. Talking about fries, the Dutch absolutely love them and with a lot of ‘fritesaus‘ (mayo really). We found out earlier this year that the Dutch never say “fries with mayo” when they order, they say ‘frites met‘ (fries with); the “with” implies that you want mayo. Duh, right? So when we eat our fries with Heinz ketchup, I always feel so… American?
I didn’t get to see much of the city itself in the end so I vowed to return on my own soon. Until then Utrecht!
We spent a Sunday afternoon in February walking through the biggetjesbos (pigs forest) in the town of Aarle-Rixtel. I saw the ad in our local newspaper and it seemed like the perfect activity to get the family out of the house.
The walk starts at the Brabantse Kluis (www.brabantsekluis.nl) – an old farmhouse converted into an inn and restaurant, and there is a small barn in the courtyard where you can pet the friendly cows. For six euros, you can purchase a small green backpack at the gift shop, it contains: a walking guide, a juice box, “pig” candy and a pig-shaped pen.
The walk took us 2.5 hours in total but we made a few stops including one for lunching. We passed the Klooster Huis (a convent), a man-made grotto and piggy statues but the sight that I personally enjoyed the most was the pig farm as it gives you a glimpse of a real pig farm (www.varkensinzicht.nl). Since this is a self-guided walk, the farm has two areas open to visitors: in the first area, behind plexiglas, you see the adult pigs in the barn, most of them sleeping. The second viewing area is the nursery; we saw several sows nursing their piglets including some that were likely only a few hours old since their umbilical cords were hanging. They were very cute but sadly, we saw two dead ones that hadn’t been removed yet. At first, I didn’t want the kids to see this but then again, that is life so they did see it and of course they asked lots of “why” questions.
Even though the walk was a little longer than we had expected and the weather was on the chilly side, we all enjoyed this walk and plan to do it again in the spring or summer.
We experienced a bout of cold weather in January so, taking inspiration from our relatives in Norway, I decided to help feed the birds during this unusually frosty period. It was also a fun activity to do with the kids.
First, we put plates with a cut-up orange, apple and some peanuts. The peanuts were hands down the favorite.
Deciding that the plates were not enough, I went to my favorite garden store (www.intratuin.nl) and bought a small bird house. Then, at the hardware store of all places, I bought a bag of black sunflower seeds for 3 euros. Well, I think we had a few fans…
I noticed two magpies starting to build a nest here. They are noisy sometimes but very pretty.
And here is a bird that got my attention last month when the grass was still green. I was setting up a mole trap and carrying dirt when I noticed that this chunky brown bird did not fly away when I passed it. Grappig (funny).
I decided to see how close it would allow me to sit and watch. It was eating worms and I ended up sitting about 5 feet away from it. It just looked at me but didn’t seem one bit scared. That was neat.
Now, if only I could capture a picture of the blue heron in our neighborhood… There is one that hangs around the canal trying to catch fish. It’s quite beautiful up close but it definitely doesn’t like to be stared at.
Hello again and Happy New Year! I have neglected this blog for too long and as one of my 2013 resolutions, I would like to revive it because there is still so much to share and some of you have told me that I should definitely continue posting.
I have been living in NL for almost 1.5 years now. I can say that the honeymoon phase is definitely over and we have entered the rejection or regression phase. In essence, you experience more downs than ups but I know it’s just a phase and I firmly believe that the key to our success is to learn the language as quickly as possible. That and taking the plunge in meeting other people. There are so many expat groups out there that there really is no excuse though one has to be careful because expats (myself included) can easily fall into the habit of complaining incessantly about your new country and frankly, that’s not good. Some bashing is healthy but not when it’s all the time. After all, we wouldn’t have moved if we didn’t believe there would be some good things here.
Both M and I are taking Dutch classes and that helps. Reading books for the kids also helps. As for the kids themselves, Owen is doing much better and he can understand and speak quite well though he still does not understand everything. Sofia, on the other hand, seems to understand everything and she is quickly becoming a Dutchie. She is now in preschool and absolutely loves it. So even though M and I struggle sometimes, it really lifts our hearts when we see that our littles ones are doing just fine.
Here’s to a healthy, bright and successful 2013 for all of us!
About three months ago I wrote this but never published it: “I really hate driving here because everything is so unfamiliar. Road signs are different, road rules are different (you give priority to drivers on your right unless they have a yield sign), you have to watch for bicycles (and they’re everywhere so it’s a nightmare), roundabouts are everywhere too, many roads are narrower than what I’m used to and they don’t have lines making you believe they are one-way roads until you see the oncoming car (Aah!!) or they have lines on the far left and far right meant for cyclists so when you have a bicycle in front of you and you see a car coming towards you, it sucks.”
Though I wouldn’t say that I enjoy driving (still isn’t the same as in Minneapolis), I am finally over my fear of driving in The Netherlands and today, I got my “Rijbewijs” (driving license) and it’s good for ten years! I walked out of the “gemeente” (city hall) staring at my new license with a big smile, as if I were 16 years old again when I passed my US driver’s exam. I should really thank M for this because it is through him that I’m even allowed to exchange my US license for a Dutch one (only countries with similar road rules are allowed to do an exchange). Otherwise we’d both have had to shell out too much money and take practical and theoretical tests which are not easy or fun based on blogs I’ve read. Anyway, none of that for us! Yeah!
The biggest differences, in my mind, between driving in the US vs. NL are that:
- drivers on your right have priority. That took some time to get used to and I still say it out loud in the car before I drive anywhere.
- stop signs have seemingly been replaced with roundabouts, which again took some time to get used to but now I’m much better.
- speed bumps are everywhere in the residential areas and boy do they work because you have to slow down unless you want to wreck your car.
So today is a good day. I can drive legally in NL and in other European countries. Happy Friday and “fijn weekend”!
This year we were introduced to a beloved Dutch holiday tradition: Sinterklaas.
He looks like Santa, his name sounds like Santa, he brings presents to good children in December, he has helpers… This “Santa” known by the name of Sinterklaas lives in Spain with his “Zwarte Piets” (Black Petes) and arrives in Holland via steamboat to a different port every year; this momentous affair is televised each year.
During the days leading to December 5, when Sinterklaas and his helpers bring presents to good children (the bad ones are taken to Spain), Sinterklaas-themed decorations are everywhere. While shopping, we ran into adolescents dressed up as Zwarte Piets meaning they had painted their faces black, wore bright red lipstick, donned black curly wigs, and wore traditional Zwarte Piet costumes (see slideshow). I should mention that I also saw small children with black faces at the supermarket or at school. I found it odd and amusing at the same time because well… that just wouldn’t fly back in the States. The PC (politically correct) story is that they’re black from going down the chimneys and being covered in soot. The non-PC version is that they are Sinterklaas’ slaves or servants.
Since we cannot escape Sinterklaas now that we live here, we have decided that he should bring chocolates, candy and a small present for the children. We are still counting on Santa Claus and his reindeer to visit us on Christmas Eve and personally, I find that he makes this time of year much more magical and fun, especially for the children.
M had a Sinterklaas function at work but we didn’t stay long because Owen got sick not even 15 minutes after we arrived. But it was nice, there were treats and toys for the children, and a play in the cafeteria. Employees received a chocolate letter (typical Dutch candy for this holiday) with a Zwarte Piet – total HR red flag if they tried this in the States.
I love Thanksgiving. It’s one of my favorite holidays and I intend on celebrating it every year if we can. Getting the food this year was no problem – I found turkey, fried onions, pumpkin, spices, etc. but since we are the only ones celebrating, it is not as much fun for some reason.
We had decided against turkey because it was too expensive (10.50 euros a kilo, you do the math) but we ended up roasting one anyway because the butcher ordered it for us. I think it came from Germany. Anyway, it was not big like those in the States but the right size for our family. Our side dishes were green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, gravy and of course pumpkin pie. Everything was delicious and I was very proud of myself because my pie was delicious and it was the first pie I ever made (all from scratch including the dough).
In a few days, the Dutch will celebrate Sinterklaas – a Dutch Santa Claus who brings gifts for the children on December 5. But this Santa is not very politically correct if you are familiar with Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Piets (Black Petes). For example, here’s what I found in my box of clementines this year. More on this holiday in my next post. I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving!
Last Friday, our visitors said goodbye but it was a different kind of goodbye because I know I will see them again next year. Maybe even as early as spring since I told grandma that I would take her to see the tulips at Keukenhof (www.keukenhof.nl) when she comes back. Otherwise, I’m happy to report that thanks to all the driving I did during their visit, I am no longer as anxious behind the wheel (still happens in unusual traffic conditions such as when pedestrians or cyclists walk/run in the middle of the road without a care).
Fall seems to be quickly turning into winter here. We finally cracked and turned on the furnace last week and today the morning dew turned to frost on my bike seat. The thought of winter does not bother me after two decades in the Minnesota tundra, this should be a breeze. Oh and no shoveling!
I conclude this post with new pictures of our adventures (you’ll recognize Amsterdam but the cathedral is in Den Bosch). My favorites are those from a recent Sunday morning bike ride in the countryside. On our way, we found a vending machine selling 2 kilo bags of apples and pears. That day, we also found homes selling walnuts, squash, peppers and eggs. All used the honor system where you take what you want and put the money in a box or tray since there is never an attendant. Nice.
Tomorrow we will be welcoming our first guests since moving to the Netherlands. My grandmother and my aunt are traveling from Spain and will be staying with us for a couple of weeks. We’re all looking forward to their company and the timing is perfect because both children are home all week for “Herfstvakantie” (Fall Holiday). It will also mark a special occasion as Sofia will be meeting her great-grandmother for the first time. The rest of us have not seen grandma since April 2007 so you can imagine what a fun reunion it will be!
I will be driving to Amsterdam-Schiphol on my own which will be a test of sorts. Ever since we moved to the Netherlands, I’ve forgotten how to drive. I’m serious. Roads, signs and rules are so different here that it feels like I’m learning how to drive all over again. It’s been very frustrating and challenging but after taking two trips to IKEA on my own these past two weeks, I have gained some confidence back and I feel ready to tackle the hour and a half drive with those crazy Dutch drivers (they’re fast and much more aggressive here).
By the way, our new car is an Audi A4 station wagon. Station wagons, in general, are quite popular around here as a family-type car. I don’t see too many SUVs, hybrids and minivans though some people have them, of course. Speaking of wheels, both Owen and Sofia have new bicycles too. Owen loves taking his to school every day and Sofia likes to ride hers just as much except we have to stick to bicycle paths because she likes to ride on the left side of the road.
Enjoy the slideshow with random pics of what we’ve been up to lately.
This weekend we celebrated Sofia’s 3rd birthday. Back in Minnesota, we would plan a nice meal and invite our families for the day but now that it’s just the 4 of us, it is a more intimate affair and I would like to think that this will bring our family closer together.
In the morning, we decorated the living room with garlands and red sweetheart roses that Sofia picked out at the supermarket. She opened her birthday cards and presents after “slagroom” cake and in the afternoon we went for a long bike ride through a couple of small towns.
We had a really good day – see for yourself in these pictures.