Tuesday, 29 March 2016

What she wants

"Why are those people pushing strollers?" my daughter asked as we cycled past the golf course one recent Friday morning. She had just recovered from a nasty case of chicken pox and I had decided to take her out for a breath of late winter air. Her question of course made me laugh. "They aren't strollers, schatje, they're caddies; to carry around golf clubs and stuff," I replied. I have always enjoyed these creative 'misinterpretations' she makes, as well as her outspoken opinions and attitudes. She is one of these girls who knows what she wants and if she ends up not wanting what she initially thought she wanted, she knows why. (Confused? Please read on.)

Take her attitude to Chico*, for example. A doll that cries and runs a fever when you pull the pacifier out of its mouth. You can make it better by sticking a thermometer in its ear and a needle in its butt (no joke). "I really, really want one of those," I would hear N say every time the advert blurted onto our TV screen. "Really, really." This surprised me somewhat, since N has never shown much interest in dolls. But okay. For Sinterklaas (difficult-to-explain Dutch tradition I have written about before) we - or should I say 'Sinterklaas' - got her Chico. "Lovely, isn't he - now you can push him around in that stroller you never use," I said. Soon enough she invited her best friend over (the one she's going to marry someday) and they played doctors and nurses all afternoon, with N being the doctor and friend J being the nurse. May I say with a grin on my face that it was truly moving to see such emancipation in two five-year-olds.

Pretty soon though,  N started to ignore the doll. In an attempt to arouse her interest, I got Chico downstairs one day and placed him beside her on the sofa. "Perhaps you should change his nappies," I tried. She looked at me, then at Chico. "I don't smell anything," she replied. I'm not one to give up, though. "Okay...," I said. "It's bring-your-own-toy morning coming Friday; how about taking Chico to school then." To my surprise, she reacted enthusiastically. And so Chico was carted off to school quite lovingly the following Friday morning.

When I came to pick her up at the end of the morning however, I noticed Chico wasn't sucking on his pacifier. Nor was he crying or running up a fever. "How can that be?" I asked, truly surprised. N looked at me and sighed. "Another kid in my class wanted to play with the pacifier, so I gave it to her. Then I got fed up with all that crying, so I switched him off. Look, there's a switch on his back." I couldn't help laughing. "Good idea, schatje," I said. "Sometimes parents would love to switch off children." She looked at me with her hands on her hips and immediately replied: "And children would love to switch off parents!"

When I tucked her in that evening, I burned to ask her one question, namely: why oh why had she  lost interest in Chico so quickly, a toy she had wanted more than anything? She looked at me thoughtfully for a minute and said: "...Chico looked so much fun on TV. But now I realise that sometimes things can look fun on TV and be disappointing in real life. TV and real life are totally different!"

I merely gave her a kiss and a cuddle, for what could I possibly add to such wisdom?

* Name altered to avoid advertising.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Binkie boy

Meet Binkie. A new member of our family.
Now Binkie is a strange cat of sorts - if, in fact, you  could call him a cat. Oh, he purrs, snuggles in boxes, rubs your legs and all that other cat stuff, but he is also in the odd habit of following us around. Everywhere. And I don't mean just to the toilet. He not only follows us all the way to the shops (seriously), the tennis club or the children's school, but he is also in the horrifying habit of following our car as far as his little legs will allow. On an average day I will look in my rear-view mirror to discover Binkie running after our car like a some kind of dog desperate to be taken for a walk in the woods or on the beach. It's heart-breaking really. And pretty scary, what with all that traffic. In fact, I am always relieved to find him alive and well when I turn my car into our street. 
Thankfully, there he will be: sitting on the fence, waiting for one of us to come home.

We got him from the animal shelter late autumn. He had been found roaming around some neighbourhood or other. The folks at the shelter were reluctant to let him go, due to their conviction that something was wrong with his left paw, which he kept holding up for some reason unbeknownst to them. 'When we squeeze his paw, he doesn't react, so he's probably not in pain,' they said, and: 'it's a bit of a mystery.'

It wasn't much of a mystery to us.We just figured he was using his paw to point at the door: 'I'd like to leave, please.'

A few days after our visit, the folks at the shelter came to the conclusion that, since he had now taken to holding up his right paw, nothing was really wrong after all. And so we rushed over to adopt him.
He likes to drink from the toilet (remember to flush please, children!) and sleep in the sink. He likes to nibble at toes under blankets and wait patiently to lick the last drops of rice milk from my morning cereal bowl. And when he's tired he likes to retire early to the laundry room to snuggle up in a pile of dirty washing.

He's only been with us for three months, but it's as if he's been here all along.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Ich bin ein Berliner

...I'd always wanted to say those words. Unfortunately, I'd never had the opportunity because, until this summer,  I'd never been to Berlin. After the thrill of Paris, we were keen to visit another city - a slightly cheaper one though, since we wanted to stay ten days instead of three without risking bankruptcy. So when a number of colleagues mentioned Berlin being relatively cheap as well as relaxed and child-friendly, the choice was easily made. But we didn't want to be tourists for ten days. So instead of booking a hotel, we opted for an apartment through Airbnb in the relatively quiet suburb of Neuköln. And I'm glad we did. It was super: a regular neighbourhood with regular locals - son S even enjoyed playing soccer with the neighbouring boys and girls, communicating with hands, feet and bits of German he was picking up. And I of course enjoyed imagining having moved house. "We've moved to Berlin, you know," I pictured myself saying to anyone willing to listen.
I also imagined eating out every night for the rest of my life at the fabulous local cafes. Nothing posh, just life-worn street eateries serving good, basic food: veggies and fruit, fresh herbs and spices. And good coffee. Boy, the coffee was good! But not only the food and drink were deeply satisfying. Just kicking off your shoes, sitting back and watching Berlin's colourful inhabitants pass by: that alone made the trip worthwhile. A dip into my diary, in which I recorded a kaleidoscope of images, not only of the people, but of Berlin itself: 'polished nails holding cigarettes, flip-flops, bare feet, boys with braided hair, sunglasses, breakfast in the afternoon, multilingual chatter, laughter, faces close together, laptops, books, newspapers, graffiti, cobblestone streets, slow traffic, trees, playgrounds, high-ceilinged apartment blocks, entrepreneurism, cappuccinos and fresh mint tea.'

Entrepreneurism? I hear you wonder. Yip. One thing that struck me about Berlin was the number of 'businesses' or 'niches' popping up all over the place. It seems people simply hog a space in the city and do their own thing. Quite successfully. None of the red tape we have over here, apparently. In that respect Berlin seems to be a blank canvas for boundless creativity and that certainly gets my heart pounding.
And so I imagined us moving there. Setting ourselves up in a neigbhourhood surrounded by the many artists (writers!) who so happily flock to the Berlin to settle deep within her bowels. I mentioned this flight of fancy to one of the neighbours who was in charge of the house keys. "Berlin is just fantastic'," I said, to which he replied without hesitation: "Yes, in summer." When I stared at him, expecting more, he added in his attractive German accent: "In winter it's a whole different story: cold and dark."
Oh. In that case: Ich bin ein Berliner... in den sommer.


(Just in case you are wondering: the kids of course wore safety helmets while biking; I don't for the life of me get how they're not wearing them in these photos). 

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Something with apple

Last week saw the 44th birthday of a very good friend of ours. "Shall I come over for coffee and pie?" he asked cheerily on the phone. And indeed, come Saturday morning he showed up on our doorstep with his infant son, as his wife was out of town. Just days before, another friend of ours had mentioned "all that delicious baking" I do and I was forced to reluctantly admit that well, I hadn't done any - save the odd batch of biscuits - for quite some time. Why I haven't done any baking? I'm not sure. I could say I was swallowed up by work at school. Or by work on my book. Or by lots of nice outings and general busyness during the summer holidays. Or simply by a kind of kitchen lethargy. A combination of all the above is probably most accurate.
Anyway. "Shall I come over for coffee and pie?" rang in my ears all Friday through to Saturday morning and a kind of panic gripped me. Much like at the start of every school year, I wondered: "Can I still do it? What if it turns out my teaching/baking 'successes' have been nothing but flukes all along?" Silly, self-absorbed thoughts, of course. As with teaching, the best thing to do is ignore thought altogether and just get on with it.  I was in the mood for 'something with apple', and so I dusted off my favourite kitchen companion Nigel Slater for a bit of inspiration. As I got on with preparing the dough and peeling/coring apples, I felt a pleasant quietness emerge within me, a deep sense of satisfaction in what I was doing. To cut a long story short: I found myself completely in the moment and apparently I hadn't been there for a while. And when I pulled that glorious, golden pie out of the oven - well, that must have been the highlight of my day.

When our friend had been, seen and eaten, I set about clearing out my baking cupboard to give it a good clean. Then I reorganised all my baking necessities, throwing out stuff that was over the use-by date (quite a lot, to my shame). Measuring spoons, bowls, whisks, flour, packets of baking powder and all sorts of other useful utensils and ingredients passed through my hands. And as they did so, I felt an old familiar thrill.


The photo has nothing at all to do with the pie. I asked M to leave a piece of pie for me to photograph, but he 'forgot.' Hence a photo taken in a Berlin cafe where we drank some lovely green tea. We spent part of our summer there (in Berlin, not the cafe) about which I will write later.
Apple Shortcake
Adapted from The Kitchen Diaries, by Nigel Slater
For the pastry:
150g butter, softened 
150g raw cane Sugar
250g spelt flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
lemon rind of one organic lemon
a little milk to finish
For the apples:
5-6 apples
lemon juice
50g butter
1 tablespoon raw cane sugar
  • lightly butter an 18cm pie tin (Nigel says a shallow one, but since I don't own one of those, I used my usual loose-bottomed springform tin)
  • using a hand mixer, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy
  • gently mix in the egg, then stir in flour, baking powder and lemon rind
  • with a light hand, work ingredients into a ball in the bowl or on a thoroughly floured work surface
  • cut pastry in half, wrap one half in glad wrap and store in fridge for a half hour
  • roll out the other half of the pastry to line the tin (this may require some patchwork), then store tin in fridge for a half hour
  • preheat oven 180 degrees Celsius
  • peel and core the apples, slice them into wedges and throw them in a pan of cold water to which you have added the lemon juice to stop the apples discolouring
  • heat a pan, allow the 50g of butter to melt
  • when the butter sizzles, add the apples, bake until they have coloured lightly, sprinkle the sugar over the apples and cook until lightly caramelised
  • remove the pie tin from the fridge, carefully transfer the apples to the pie tin
  • roll out the other half of the pastry and cover the whole pie (again, this may require some patchwork); press the pastry edges together so as to 'close' the pie
  • brush the top with a little milk
  • bake for 40 minutes
  • allow to cool briefly, then eat warm with unsweetened whipped cream

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Brave little legs

In the turmoil of our busy lives we had three days of respite in Paris. It was the middle of the May holidays, M and I were tired and the children rearing to go. We took the Thalys from Rotterdam, marveling the fact that it takes a mere three-and-a-half hours to get from our front door to Paris. (When we came back on cloud nine, we discussed the possibility of going there every weekend, but that, of course, would be financial suicide).
It is not difficult to be swept away by the magic of Paris. The beautiful buildings, cafes and restaurants, the buzz on the streets. We had no intention of visiting museums and the like, our plan was simply to soak up the atmosphere. And soak it up we did. On the first day a two-and-a-half hour boat trip on the Canal St. Martin where I took the following photos in an attempt to capture the beauty of Parisian street life.

Parisian gentleman relaxing on balcony
One of the many attractive appartment building to be found throughout the city

A colourful chaos

Locals look on from the bridge

Airing the bed linen

Another attaractive appartement building (I love bright colours)

I have a weakness for this kind of scene: a cosy cafe in an old building with a blue door

If you look closely, you will see the market stalls on the banks of the river

The rest of our trip was spent taking the metro from one part of the city to the other, hanging out in parks and playgrounds, visiting tourist attractions such as the Eiffel tower (the sight of which had the children squealing with delight) and talking to local folks, who were very open and friendly. In talking to a woman (my age, young children, good job, resident of Montmartre) an interesting thing occurred to me: we always seem to covet the things we don't have. I was expressing to her how wonderful I thought it would be to live in an apartment in the middle of Montmartre, to be part of the buzz so to speak. 'Mmm,' she said, and began listing the things they were severely lacking: parks, playgrounds and space for children, despite the fact that her neighbourhood is predominantly populated by young families. She also told me that, in spite of their good jobs, she and her husband could not afford to buy a property there. And that owning a house with a garden was completely out of the question: the mere thought of it made her laugh. In short: she was lacking the things we have in abundance.  How interesting.

(There was another thing she was lacking, but I didn't want to point that out to her: good cappuccino. I've been told Dutch folks are spoilt on the cappuccino front - provided you drink them in real coffee houses, not the touristy ones -  but I didn't realise this was literally true. The cups we drank in Paris were pretty shocking, if only for their price: 6 euros!).

May I just take a moment to mention how incredibly well the children did: all that walking and not one word of complaint. Just enthusiasm and in-the-moment fun. Though I must admit daughter N said at the end of the second day: "My legs are so sore from all that walking: aren't they just brave little legs!" Yes, I said, giving her a cuddle: They sure are brave little legs.


Thursday, 9 April 2015

Maybe so, maybe not

My car was due for its annual inspection, so last Wednesday, off I went to the garage, a one-man shop located on the outskirts of my neighbourhood. I met my mechanic on the way, who rolled down his window and informed me that he had some errands to run, but that I could leave my car parked on the lot and throw the keys in his letterbox, no worries. And so off I drove, and parked my car in a space outside his workshop. It was a lovely, sunny morning and as I was walking towards the letterbox I was admiring the surroundings. My mechanic not only works on the property, but lives there as well in a pretty farm-house type dwelling. His children grew up there and he still keeps goats which my children love to pet and feed. Anyhow: there I was admiring it all when I mindlessly dropped my keys into his letterbox.
     Yes: mindlessly dropped.
     My keys.
     My house keys... my house keys, oh no!
     I peered into the letterbox and believe I even called out: 'Sorry, mistake, silly me, come back up please!' And for a crazy second I even thought I could rewind the moment ('Back a few seconds, please!').

So there I was. House nearby but no keys. When a vague sense of panic and annoyance ('What will I do now? How could I have been so stupid!') had settled, I looked at my surroundings once more. Normally I would have rushed back home to get onto the computer to do some work, but that was now not an option. Enjoying the outdoors was. And so off I went for an hour's walk which did me the world of good. I felt winter crankiness dispel with every step, I felt myself waking up. How lucky I was! When I arrived back an hour later, refreshed, my mechanic was well and truly at work. I didn't even need to tell him the story: 'You're not the first to have thrown your house key in my letterbox and enjoyed a morning's walk,' he said with a cheery grin.

It reminded me of that Buddhist story which I won't relate in full here, save the gist: sometimes unfortunate things may not seem as unfortunate as we at first think. May I rush to say that this was only a mild inconvenience and nothing compared to life's true misfortunes, of course. But still. It's easier to train ourselves in this way of thinking when we start small.

A small misfortune was also the fate of the Eiffel  I showed you last month. Yes, as a number of you predicted: it was knocked over. By accident. By one of son S's friends, who came over to play. He was pretending to be a fighter pilot of sorts, and the tip of his wing touched the tower ever so slightly, causing the whole structure to come crashing to the ground (poor kid!).  Ingrid was right: we should have glued it.  Is it a pity the Eiffel is gone? Maybe so, maybe not. I suspect not. I suspect it will make room for new things.

There is one more thing I would like to share with you. It concerns the mother duck and her ducklings below. I discovered them in our garden (yes, in our garden!) when I came home one day last week. We had been having ghastly storms over here and just the evening before we had seen footage on TV of a mother duck whose ten ducklings were blown away by the wind -  unfortunately son S saw it too and was inconsolable. So the next day - incredible as it may seem - there was this duck family in our garden for the first time ever. Can you believe our amazement?


Wednesday, 4 March 2015

A glimpse of Paris

Last week was Spring break. A freezing cold Spring break. Not that it was freezing as such, it just felt that way each time I stepped outdoors and an icy wind sliced into my face. The combination of cold weather and young children means a need to find things to do indoors, but preferably outside of the home. Staying indoors at home means getting on one another's nerves and an endless number of disputes to settle.

Hence we ventured out into the world of museums, using our newly acquired museum membership cards. Firstly, we visited the Kunsthal in Rotterdam, where the children were spooked out by an odd Scandinavian film on a large screen in a darkened room. Not a good idea. After the haunting intro (something to do with plastic surgery performed by surgeons wearing balaclavas), we hurried out and visited Ron van der Ende's  exhibition in the room next door: flat sculptures - or reliefs, if you like - of modern phenomena; suspended on the walls, they give the effect of an object moving into the space.  These were fascinating.

Later in the week we went to the Gemeente Museum in The Hague where we visited the Mark Rothko exhibition. Thankfully we had booked our passes on the internet: besides the one permanently outside the Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam, I've never seen a longer queue for a museum.  After the children's frightening experience at the Kunsthal, we also took the trouble to ask museum staff whether there was anything we should avoid with the children. No, the current exhibitions were pretty safe, we were assured.

As for Rothko: I'm not sure what to think. Though I certainly understand that colours evoke deep emotions and possibly spiritual experiences, I can't help thinking that if Rothko were alive and happy today, he would be laughing all the way to the bank. Funnily enough, M and I found ourselves more fascinated by the beautiful Berlage building of the museum: the bold colours, stained glass windows, and art deco archtictural features and tile work. The children went along with everything quite nicely, but for them the highlight was surely the interactive bits involving the history of the building, and the juice and cake they gorged in the beautiful, central conservatory.

No doubt inspired by our visits to the museums, we did some creative stuff at home. M has always had a fascination for design and craftsmanship. In fact, at times he still regrets not having studied engineering. So, when he has the time, he likes to get son S's building blocks out and build something quite intricate. And since we're going to Paris with the children in May, what better way to look forward to the trip than to have our own personal Eiffel to look at (until someone knocks it over, that is). The result is on the photo.

Of course the children's imagination got rolling. They envisioned a fire breaking out and fire fighters coming to the rescue. And before long, as these things go, a crowd gathered, anticipating heroic action.