26 December, 2010

See, he IS real!

I haven't been around to blog lately because I've been crazy busy. Soon I'll blog about hectic December with its myriad of emergency vet visits, school-related demands and other various activities. And on top of that, I'm feeling really stretched across three cultures: the variety makes life rich and interesting, but it can also leave one rootless; floating.

December always seems hellish to me-- I've only just cleaned up after Thanksgiving and need to start scrambling to organize Dutch Sinterklaas. Right along with Sinterklaas comes German Advent, and with that we race headlong into the Christmas season, which is celebrated in different ways depending on which culture we happen to find ourselves in.

This year was a little topsy-turvy: we celebrated Sinterklaas with my parents and Christmas with Michiel's parents. It was so nice to be able to spend time with family, but as a result of celebrating each holiday outside of its specific cultural context a lot of tradition fell through the cracks.

And I have no one to blame but myself. Without the cornerstone of religion or childhood Sinterklaas memories to give the holidays meaning, December has devolved for me into a series of obligations in the middle of an already busy time.

I bought all the gifts, grudgingly baked for a myriad of holiday parties and sent heartfelt Season's Greetings to faraway friends. Somehow it all got done, but the magic has definitely been lost along the way.

This year we celebrated Christmas in Holland, where it isn't as big holiday as it is in the States. We were supposed to have opened presents with Michiel's brother's family, but their kids were sick, so their visit got postponed. Making a purely pragmatic decision, M and I decided to wait and open presents when we can finally all get together at New Year's eve.

We had a really nice day-- we took the S and B out for a long romp in the snow in the Biesbosch and my MIL prepared a beautiful dinner which we shared with M's 100 year old Oma. By sheer coincidence the kids saw a version of A Christmas Carol and we talked about Scrooge and Dickens.

Last night I was tucking S into bed when he gave me a sleepy hug and said: "Merry Christmas, Mom." And suddenly it hit me: I'd wished everyone else a Merry Christmas but hadn't even said it to my own sweet son. This is the kid who stoically accepted the fact that presents wouldn't be opened for another week and didn't complain about the half-assed way we celebrated Sinterklaas or the fact that this year we didn't even put out stockings for Santa!

That swift, hard realization shattered my heart into a thousand pieces. Christmas is supposed to be special, and it's my duty to uphold that magic for my kids, regardless of how old they are or how loudly they declare that they don't believe in Santa. I am supposed to be the keeper of tradition and in that area I have failed miserably.

Obviously being with loved ones during the holiday season is important, and we're definitely enjoying that. Clearly the gifts aren't central in our house, so I feel like we're doing something right there as well. But there's also an element of anticipation, childlike wonder and timeworn tradition which are vital, and in that respect I've completely dropped the ball.

But you know what? Something magical happened last night! Sometime after we'd all gone to bed, probably while I lay crying into my pillow, a note arrived. It appears that Santa has been delayed by the snowstorms that have paralyzed Europe, but a trusty elf managed to get through with a handwritten message.

He hasn't forgotten us after all! Somehow he knew that S and B have been kind and honest and sweet to each other this year. His letter instructed us all to put out our stockings on Monday night. (And he said they should be BIG!) (He also asked that we not forget to leave him cookies.)

Santa may be finished with all of your houses but he still has one last stop to make, and I'm so grateful that he's decided to visit us this year after all despite my lack of faith and general Bah Humbug attitude! And this might be one the most precious Christmas gifts I receive this year!

17 December, 2010

Winter fun.

I don't think any of you will be surprised to hear that winter has hit hard here and it just keeps on coming! Just last night we got 10cm of snow and there's apparently plenty more where that came from.

I'm not a winter person under the best of circumstances and this unseasonably cold and stormy weather has left me, shall we say... a little cranky.

Wednesday afternoon we were at a friend's house and the kids cleared a bunch of snow to reveal a long patch of smooth ice. They were taking running starts and skimming across the ice on their boots. Which, of course, went really well until it didn't anymore. K and I happened to be looking out the window and saw B go down hard and his face hit the ice. We actually heard the sound of the impact all the way inside!

Convinced B had knocked out all of his teeth, I ran outside to help him and wiped out hard on the next slippery patch. *grrrrrumble*

So in the end B was more or less OK, and I put an end to this particular form of winter fun. On the way home my car skidded twice on the icy roads. *grrrruuuummmble*

I was writing a crabby ice-related email to M when I heard splashing water. outside. in -5 degree (celsius) weather. ???

I went outside to see S doubled over with laughter. B was dumping buckets of water out of our 2nd story bathroom window and it was splashing all over our front steps and forming a big puddle in front of the front door. Ice rink, anyone? Where did I put my sequined leotards?

I wonder how many of us are going to survive through Christmas? Anyone want two slightly used boys? Cause I've got a couple going real cheap...

01 November, 2010

Quel délire!

One of M's cousins has sent his son to spend a few days with us. This kid is a delight, but there's just one catch: he's French and speaks only very basic English. So we've got M speaking Dutch with me and I'm speaking English with the kids, who are speaking German with each other. And here we are all trying out our limited French on A! It's fun, but pure insanity.

My brain, she is tired...

27 October, 2010

25 October, 2010

Cutting edge birthday gift

Last month, out of the blue B turned to me and said: "You know what I'd like for my birthday? A sharp knife so that I can whittle wood!" I said something to the tune of: "Why sure! When pigs fly." and went back to whatever I was doing.

A couple of days later, however, serendipity hit! The wooden canoe museum in Stuttgart (Holzkanumuseum) was holding a day-long workshop in which children could make their own woodcarving knives (with the help of a parent.) What an amazing opportunity!

M and B spent Saturday afternoon cutting, sanding and even sewing! And now B is the proud new owner of a supposedly kid-friendly whittling knife!

(**As of this afternoon we already have our first (minor) whittling injury, but other than that things seem to be going well... *knocks on wood and spits over shoulder* For those of you considering a call to child services: don't worry! He's only allowed to whittle when either M or I are around to supervise.)

19 October, 2010

16 October, 2010

Дай нам Алясочку назад!**

Last night M and I went to see Любэ in concert with a couple of Russian friends. We've had these guys on rotation for almost 20 years, so it was *amazing* to be able to see them performing live! (The people-watching was such a treat as well!)

**Give us Alaska back!

06 October, 2010

Finally catching up on posting!

We rounded out the summer vacation with a trip to Paris to visit M's cousin and his family. The weather was beautiful and M's cousin lent us his deux chevaux! What a treat! We made a quick trip around the area and then came back and ate stinky cheese and drank Bourdeau out in the garden! It doesn't get much more French than that, does it?!

We also spent an afternoon in Disneyland Paris. The crowds were inSANE! I'm glad that the kids got to see it but don't feel the need to go back any time soon!

Here are a couple of pictures from that weekend plus one of B's ingenious solution to the woes of chopping onions.

S was away last week on a class trip to a youth hostel in the country. We certainly missed him, but B also really enjoyed the perks that come with being an only child! Here is documented proof of one of his over-the-top dessert creations: bunny s'morez! As a vegetarian this is about as close to bunny meat as B is planning to get, but I thought the exploding marshmellow effect was a particularly cruel / funny twist!

S is now back home, safe and sound. He had a great time-- he brought several cool music playlists along and relished his role as the class dj. How is it that he's getting to be so big?!!!

30 August, 2010

Vacation week 4e: Austria

We woke to the sound of several explosions in rapid succession. My first sleepy thought was that the Campground Clochard had snapped and was running amok amongst the campers. M jumped out of bed and dashed outside. I found him in his underwear staring groggily at the framework of the tent in front of our caravan. (He later said he thought one of the poles had snapped and had slammed up against the caravan.)

There was another loud explosion and we jumped back inside the caravan. As we climbed back into bed I remember asking: "You think we're safe in here?" and he answered something like: "I could probably poke my finger through these flimsy walls. You think it would actually stop a bullet?" And then we inexplicably fell back asleep.

When we woke up several hours later we peeked outside, and instead of seeing a row of corpses or police tape, we were greeted by an Austrian couple on their way to wash their breakfast dishes. When we asked what all the noise was about the man laughed jovially and said: "A wedding!" and walked on.


Apparently two young people from the tiny village were getting married. Rural Austrian weddings, at least in this part of the country, are a full day affair which gets kicked off by firing a cannon at very-dark-o'clock to get everyone out of their beds. (This particular cannon was in a field about 100m from our caravan.)

The entire population of Gleinstätten gathered on the street outside of our campground. They were all gussied up in traditional dress and had separated themselves into distinct groups which were arranged as stations that the bride- and groom-to-be had to visit in succession.

The first station was a bunch of co-workers from the groom's office. They all had signs around their necks with his picture which had been crossed out, a sign of his newly non-available status. He and the bride drank schnapps shots and posed for pictures.

Then they moved on to the tractor club. There were speeches and photos and more shots of schnapps.

Then the local farmers-- which was interesting because the groom had to milk a wooden cow. After which, of course, he got to drink some more schnapps.

The people in the wedding party were very friendly and even we were offered glasses of schnapps, which went down surprisingly well after our morning coffee!

The boys got packages of gummy bears, which upon closer inspection were labeled as Viagra: Get it up Gummy Bears and were to be taken liberally at any signs of "faulty piloting".

This was a very bizarre but thoroughly enjoyable morning, and the perfect way to round out our vacation....

29 August, 2010

Vacation week 4d: Croatia

It's a godforsaken gray, concrete, bullet-ridden hellhole.

This was M's cousin's exact description of Zagreb, the city where he and his family will be stuck living for at least 3 years. Not exactly a vote of confidence, but we wanted to see it anyway.

We spent a fantastic vacation in Istria back in 2007, and after spending so much time in Moscow, "gray, concrete and bullet-ridden" would probably feel like a homecoming!

So anyway, we went in with pretty low expectations and ended up being pleasantly surprised! Zagreb has some really interesting historic buildings, lots of greenery, is extremely walkable and the people were very friendly!

The historic center is quite small. We stopped off at the tourist information center where we were given a map, a handful of brochures and a cheery "Have a nice stay!".

The necktie was invented here as a reference to scarves that the Croats wore around their necks during the 30 Years' War in the 17th century. And some guy named Slavoljub Penkala invented the ballpoint pen here however long ago. Of course, with a name like Slavoljub he was destined for greatness anyway, wasn't he?! (That or he was destined for incarceration. Personally I'm glad he took the high road and invented the pen....)

The V boy ice cream rating for this city: 5 stars! Even M and I were able to partake in the ice cream action this time since there were 5 (count em, FIVE) different sugar-free varieties to choose from!

We had a great time wandering around exploring the city and then ate a really enjoyable dinner out on M's cousin's balcony. We were blessed with great weather, good Croatian wine, lively conversation and a really gratifying trip!

***Apparently M's cousin and I have very different tastes because he lived in Spain for 8 years and *loved* it. I spent a very trying week there once: had a traumatic run-in with a taxi driver and was ripped off in almost every transaction I made! That was my idea of a hellhole! NO ME GUSTO!!!

27 August, 2010

Vacation Week 4c: Hungary

Today we took a trip to Hungary, my grandmother's birthplace. I'd really like to see Transylvania, the area she came from, but it was too far away from our campsite, so we visited nearby Szombathely instead.

Entering Hungary is like entering into a completely different world. The language is totally foreign for me-- neither Russian nor German nor English helped me here. The people we spoke to were very friendly but it was hard to find anyone who spoke anything other than Hungarian, the signs were all indecipherable and I just couldn't seem to get my bearings even though I really tried.

We arrived shortly before lunch and paying for parking was a challenge, as usual. I quickly found a meter, but had to go in search of a bank to get some forint first. Then I had to break a large note, so I hopped into the bakery to buy something small. There was bread on the shelves, but none of it looked very appetizing so I bought a bag of candies for the kids. But these weren't just any old candies, these were tasty Negroes! (WTF?! The kids missed the humor of it but I have to admit that I giggled childishly every time we ate one!)

I really wanted to try some Hungarian food so we stopped a friendly woman on the street and asked her to recommend a nice restaurant. We should probably have taken it as a bad omen when she replied: "Hungarian food? No idea. I only eat Chinese food."

When we finally found a place M and the kids eschewed paprikash in favor of pizza, and I had to laugh when they got it: BBQ sauce smeared on pizza dough and adorned with slices of spam and analog cheese.

I was feeling slightly superior until it came time to choose my own fare. For lack of any other filling vegetarian options I went for a "Light Lunch": fried mushrooms, fried cheese and vegetables from a can with a side order of mayo-based sauce.

Feeling heavy and a bit nauseous we rolled back out onto the street to explore the town. The center square was actually quite pretty with a wide pedestrian area and a couple of fountains. The kids bought an ice cream with their pocket money which they happily deemed "cheap AND yummy!"

We kept laughing about these ubiquitous signs that said Kotzponts-- no idea what it means in Hungarian, but when said in exactly the right way sounds like a "Vomit spot" if one mixes Dutch and English. This later proved to be very fitting when B actually threw up at one. (Even he saw the humor in the situation once he'd rinsed out his mouth.)

It might not surprise you to hear that we didn't stay very long in Szombathely. We just couldn't find our mojo and decided to take a long scenic drive back home in order to get a better feel for the Hungarian countryside.

The surroundings were lush and green, but the towns we saw seemed run-down and forlorn. There was none of the vivacious charisma that seemed to pervade Slovenia, nor the optimism that we felt in Slovakia. Instead the word that kept coming into my mind while driving through these small towns was: "hopeless".

I have to say that as much as I wanted to like Hungary I just didn't. Which maybe isn't fair to say based on one trip to one city and the surrounding areas. I hope I am completely wrong in my quick judgment, but don't think I'll be going back any time soon to find out...

25 August, 2010

Vacation Week 4b: Slovakia

Today I finally made good on my vow to return to Bratislava. I use the word "return" only in the very loosest sense, because my first trip lasted only about an hour and a half.

Back in 1991 I flew Czech Air to the then USSR for a summer study program at Moscow State University. Czechoslovakia was still a single entity but it had two capitals and some bored bureaucrat had decreed that every plane making a stopover in Prague also had to spend time in Bratislava.

(This was just the first bit of absurdity I'd experience that summer and it perfectly set the tone for my trip into the twilight zone of decaying soviet bureaucracy.)

So there we were, stuck at the airport. We weren't allowed out. There was nothing else to do but drink Czech beer, play cards and speculate about what might lay outside the walls of this heavily guarded compound.

Fast forward 19 years. I'm a lot grayer, have a family and a dog in tow, but I'm finally getting to see Bratislava!

Our arrival was perfect, one of my favorite moments of the day. We parked out on a public street and needed to pay for parking. I hopped out of the car and started searching for parking meters. nothing. Maybe we need one of those parking cards to show the time of arrival like we do in Germany? No dice.

Fully perplexed I went into observation mode: two different people passed me with what looked like a handful of lottery tickets which they had bought from a young guy in a bright orange vest. When I asked him about parking he smiled and asked me how long I'd be staying. I wasn't sure, so we decided I'd buy 4 hours worth of parking.

I gave him EUR 2,80 and he gave me 4 tickets and explained that I'd have to scratch off the day, month, year and time of day on each one. There was one ticket for each hour and I had to display them all easily visible on the dashboard. Each of these scratch-off forms was the size of a regular brochure and I saw some cars with 8 parking tickets laid out wall-to-wall all the way across the dashboard! (I can't believe I didn't take a picture of this! *kicking self*)

Coasting on my small victory in Ljubliana, I voted that we eat at a vegetarian restaurant again for lunch. (This was grudgingly accepted by S in exchange for a promise of a meat feast at a steakhouse for dinner.) We found an intriguing sounding place in the guidebook-- and re-entered the twilight zone. We were handed plates and two friendly guys doled out the gray, gloppy stuff of your choosing. (And there was a surprising variety of gray gloppy stuff to choose from!) We washed it all down with rosehip juice. It was all very bizarre and I was in heaven. S just seemed stunned.

Downtown Bratislava is surprisingly small, a fact that we didn't realize before we paid a king's ransom to tour it in a tourist train with no roof. The first 15 minutes we traveled 150 meters and the sun beat down on us and I laughed until I cried at the exasperated expression on M's face. The loudspeakers blared little tidbits about the historic buildings next to us and everything was then repeated in 3 other languages. Then the train lurched another 25 meters and the next little tidbit was given, etc.

Once the tour got underway, however, it was really worth it. A surprising number of famous composers including Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt and Chopin lived in Bratislava at one time or another. As apparently did Liszt's favorite one-armed piano protégé. (I really liked that particular factoid.)

Bratislava's got some beautiful rococo buildings and old churches and also the requisite number of wacky communist structures like the concrete UFO that dominates the skyline. Stately Bratislava Castle sits upon a hilltop and provides a magnificent view of the Danube and surrounding area. The city itself, however, has succumbed to the pressures of tourism, and is full of chain stores and noisy English lads on stag weekends. I'm really glad we went, but now my curiosity is sated and I can wait another 19 years before we do this again...