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East Meets West

January 25, 2010

I have no words today so here’s a photo instead.

The Tuk-Tuk and the Bicycles

When you want to cross the canal on this little ferry, you have to catch the attention of the customers patronising the outdoor café (on the opposite bank) in the  hope that one of them will feel charitable and energetic enough to wind the squeaky handle that will pull the rope initiating movement across the water.  The white plastic jug suspended below the rail is for tips, should you feel so inclined.

Aahhh, those lazy, hazy, distant days of summer.

A Hard Choice to Make

January 7, 2010

Conversation around the dinner table a few nights ago:

Fourteen: What languages do you think you’ll choose next year when you’re in Year 7, Ten?

Ten: Erm… I think I’d like to learn Napoleon.

Stifled guffaws from Fourteen.

Husband: Hmm, Napoleon, is that a language?  Where do they speak that?

Ten: At the North, um, you know, the North Pole.

Me: Are there people at the North Pole?  Who lives there, Ten?

Ten: The Inuits.

Fourteen: Napoleon’s not a language, Ten.

Pause.

Ten: Well, anyway.  I’d also like to learn that language that’s got a different alphabet with symbols.

Me: Like Arabic or Chinese, do you mean?

Ten: No. Hearts, squares, stars and hands, things like that.  You know.

Me: Do you mean Wingdings?!

Fourteen: You want to learn to speak Wingdings?  Ha ha.  That’s not a language, there aren’t any words.

Ten (Backpedalling furiously): No, I don’t want to learn how to speak it, just to write it.

Aww, that’s my boy!

No business like snow business

January 4, 2010

Today is the last day of the holidays 😦

Every other child in the country went back to school today apart from those attending the same school as my children, all of whom return after the two week Christmas break on Tuesday.  This is because Monday is an ‘inset’ day for the teachers.  A what?  How convenient that the ‘inset’ day should immediately follow the holidays.  Hmmm… I can’t help but be sceptical.

I go back to work on Wednesday afternoon, being a 50% part-timer working the latter half of the week and I’m really looking forward to that…  not.  Husband went back today but I don’t think he dreads his return to work as much as I do mine, fortunately for him.

Milly, our spare cat, (see previous post) went home yesterday.  The house is eerily quiet without the sporadic ther-dunk-dunk-dunk of cats fighting upstairs to interrupt the peace.  Stella has returned to her previous pace of life, pretending to be old and doddery at the grand old age of three and a half and is currently seated next to the lap top doing a fair impression of a nodding dog as I type.  Why don’t you just lie down if you want to sleep, dopey feline!  Next she’ll be dribbling and incontinent and knitting mittens.

Having a cheeky young whippersnapper usurping her authority reawakened the wild child within.  No longer is our TV viewing interrupted by the streak of a giant stripey-grey furball with eight legs and two heads rolling past.  Only when the romping turned nasty, with teeth and claws drawn, would one of us step in to break it up, usually unsuccessfully, as the ball would somehow steer itself to the remotest and most unreachable spot behind the Christmas tree.  This probably saved us from a few shredded arms.

The Christmas tree has gone, too – the day after New Year’s Day – taken by an enthusiastic friend of Ten’s who is trying to win the prize offered by the town council to the child who collects the most post-Christmas trees.  Such a clever ploy – all the children of The Hague race around clearing up trees conveniently left outside front doors in the hope that they will be the one to win the coveted iPod that is on offer.  They do the same with bags of spent fireworks on New Year’s Day.  Saves the council a fortune in clean-up bills.

If you have never experienced a Dutch New Year’s Eve, you wouldn’t believe me if I tried to describe it to you.  Suffice to say that there are fireworks (turn speakers up loud for that link) going off literally everywhere you look by midnight and up at the beach they build gigantic bonfires using JCB’s and pallets.  That last clip is an excellent example of young children being allowed to run around unsupervised with fireworks which they often light and let off whilst holding.

It’s an incredible spectacle, with the whole skyscape lit up.  Every household buys their own equivalent of the London Eye’s stock of fireworks (using savings put by for offsprings’ weddings and university fees, I suppose) and all are set off at midnight.  The noise is amazing, as are the colours and even the smells.  It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before and it goes on for a couple of hours.  Last New Year’s Eve we were in England and Fourteen and Ten were unable to understand why I tried to send them to bed before midnight.

‘Really, there’s nothing to see,’ I insisted.

Ten dutifully went off to bed but Fourteen steadfastly refused to believe me and stayed up watching Jools Holland with us.  At midnight she raced outside, her expectant face turned skywards.  One rocket went off somewhere across a field.  That was it.  This year she said she never, ever wants to spend New Year’s Eve in England again.

The Christmas / New Year break proved to be fun, eventful and relaxing as well as exhausting on occasion.  I don’t think I’ve ever eaten and drunk so much for such a prolonged period without doing any form of exercise in between.  The latter I blame on the snow – how can you go running in 18 cm of hard-packed snow and ice?  Once the snow went though, I did pull my trainers back on and greeted afresh the delights of over-zealous dogs (read ‘uncontrolled and off the leash’) and their innumerable deposits that did not melt away with the snow.  Aaah, the flip side of the delights-of-Dutch-life coin.  Being all cosy and cossetted in the house with my family I had forgotten for a moment where we were – until 31st December at midnight, of course!

Earlier in the day, Husband had been packed off to the infamous Simonis fishmongers at the harbour to buy, amongst other things, oysters.  It’s a tradition in our house to kick the evening off with oysters and champagne on the 31st.  This year, or I suppose I should say, last year, Simonis had the oysters on a display table in the middle of the shop and were offering free samples.  Once his oyster was sucked off the shell, the empty half was then filled with vodka straight from the bottle and that, too, was consumed in one swift gulp.  Husband reported back via sms that he had a nice warm feeling in his belly for the duration of the shopping trip!  Hmm, I should coco.

Before Christmas, we had huuuuge snow and, on a walk out one evening we encountered amongst the many snowmen…

… a real igloo!  Not so much made with bricks as carved out of a giant snowball, perhaps, but it was brilliant and was the first and only one I’ve ever seen or been inside, for that matter!

♥ Happy New Year to all three of you, dear readers♥

… and here’s to a deliciously exciting 2010 xxx

The crown is knocked off centre…

December 19, 2009
tags: ,

Today we acquired a new cat.

I had completely forgotten that I had offered to have a friend’s cat over Christmas while she was away.  Fourteen bumped into her at the shops a week or so ago and was surprised when asked whether she was looking forward to having Milly for Christmas.  I was highly embarrassed at having been nailed for the numb-brain that I am – I really have no recollection of offering to have Milly, despite being more than happy to do so.  On top of that, the friend whose cat she is happens one of the most reliable people I know – the sort who would come round at four in the morning if there was a problem despite the fact that she and her daughter (another Ten) don’t have a man or second carer about the house.

Stella, the old queen, is FURIOUS.  Her whiskers have been well and truly knocked out of joint.  At first, upon Milly’s arrival, Stella serenaded her in the same tuneless droning usually reserved for long car journeys.  Believe me when I say it’s enough to make your blood run cold.  Milly, in her turn, was quiet and unresponsive and didn’t seem too bothered.  Two hours later, when she was still in her box and probably a bit bored of the whole fuss and nonsense, she responded in kind by hissing and growling through the bars like a Very Big Dog.

At first, the children and Husband thought it would be a good idea to let Milly out of her catbox immediately she arrived but soon realised what a bad idea that was when Stella had her cornered behind the Christmas tree and was torturing her with the aforementioned caterwauling, so back in the box she went.  We spent a fairly tedious majority of the afternoon trying to cajole Stella into coming close to the box just to have a look inside.  For her it would be like looking into a mirror and seeing a younger, prettier and much slimmer version of herself but this proved to be no temptation.  It was outright war as far as she was concerned.

Milly decided fairly early on that all this hostility and  posturing was a complete waste of time and once out of the confines of her box, started enthusiastically exploring Stella’s territory.  Needless to say, Stella is in a big huff and is sulking under the table.  Whenever Milly comes near, she shouts at her and whenever Stella ventures out for a change of scene, Milly follows her like a faithful puppy.  Stella’s having none of it, though.

Anyway, we’ve tried talking to Stella, giving her special treats and attention and even explaining that there are two laps available for TV viewing (one was not at all amused when Milly decided to sit on my lap whilst we watched a recording of Live at the Apollo earlier this evening) but all to no avail.  She’s having none of it and has skulked off to sulk somewhere whilst the young, lithe one usurps her authority and veritably flaunts her position.  I had to laugh earlier when Fourteen said:

‘Aww, I feel so sorry for Stella.  She looks so fat and ugly next to Milly but I still love her.’

Phew, thank heaven for unconditional love….

Wow, a whole post dedicated to our feline friends.  I’m turning into the mad old bag lady with an abundance of cats…

One, Two, Tree…

December 14, 2009

Yesterday, finally, we bought our Christmas tree.

We weren’t able to purchase it last weekend as our corner of the globe found itself in the middle of a two week rain storm and you just can’t buy a Christmas tree in the rain, can you?  Yesterday, the rain cleared and the cold arrived for real.  We set off to the tree seller’s on foot as it’s less than quarter of a mile away but I insisted that we go the back route as I was in full ‘tracksiut and slip-on trainers’ Waynetta Slob mode.  There was a real danger of bumping into someone we know as the area we live in is very international and it’s such a small village. I hadn’t even brushed my hair since getting up.

The tree sellers in this country take up residence on the corners of busy shopping streets, appropriating a few parking spaces for occupation by their trees and caravan.  The children made what proved to be an excellent choice of tree, which I managed to get for €10 less than the original price quoted by Pikey Tree-Seller No. 1.  As soon as you open your mouth and they hear the non-native Dutch customer, you run the risk of paying over the odds for anything that doesn’t have a price tag firmly attached.  It’s the over-paid-and-over-here mentality and is oft seen as something to take advantage of.  We looked round a little longer and settled on the first tree we had selected and asked its price again from Pikey Tree-Seller No. 2, who quoted the lower price.  Thus in a sweetly ironic twist of fate, the tree-sellers became victims of their own dubious methods.

We carried the tree home, set it up in the living room and left it to ‘settle’ overnight.  It is a surprisingly beautiful tree,  triangular and symmetrical and still smelling of Alpine forests, which I am sure is where it comes from.

Today, I spent the whole afternoon decorating the house.  Fourteen helped – she did most of the tree after I had had my annual strop about the lights and how difficult they are – and a beautiful and artistic job she made of it.  I created some sparkly and, let’s face it, quite cheesey, snowy scenes in the fireplaces with lights and glitter and all manner of kitsch things, I hung baubles on red ribbon from the chandeliers and strung tinsel garlands across doorways and mirrors.  Strings of star-shaped lights hang between the living room and dining room and vivid red poinsettias add the final touches.  Ten ran away right from the start without hanging a single bauble, although not before asking if he could eat one of the chocolates destined to hang on the tree.

I noticed Husband had gone very quiet and slightly mono-syllabic – usually a sign that something is wrong – and so asked whether all was ok, only to be met with the response that he found the whole decorating fiasco a bit of a nightmare and very stressful.  I was slightly stunned.

‘Stressful?  But you’re not doing it, I am,’ would have been an apt response but instead I did a reasonable impression of a gold fish for a second (mouth silently opening and closing) while I tried to digest and make sense of this comment.

‘What about me?’ was my inadequate response.

“But you enjoy doing it,’ came the reply.

Hmmm… that’s not quite how I would put it.  The whole task of decorating the house is stressful in the extreme, to the point where I am filled with dread upon waking on the morning of Decorating Day.  I see the whole project looming in front of me like a huge snowy mountain or a nasty rash – it sits there, all big and impossible to conquer, slightly threatening, a little bit irritating and definitely not going anywhere until the job is done.  I have to grit my teeth and try my hardest to remain civil with the family and try to make it all seem like fun, whilst inside a raging storm is threatening to give my farcical act away by manifesting in the form of steam coming out of my ears and the top of my head blowing off in the manner of cartoon characters.

Do it we did, though, and the house looks very Christmassy for it.

I did not, however, make it home from the tree-sellers without spotting an ex-colleague of mine from my previous place of work.  This man is tall and handsome, dresses well and even smells expensive.  His wife, whom I saw with him as I skulked behind the trees, is cut of the same cloth – beautiful, chic and elegant.  I have not seen him in over a year and point blank refused to let him see me in the People of Walmart condition I had allowed myself to wallow in all morning and then had the gall to appear in in public.  I could just imagine him going to work on Monday in a state of shock at my disheveled appearance, reporting that he had “seen Purplejake at the weekend and my god did she look awful.  I guess things haven’t been going so well since she left…. Has she been ill, do you know?”

Lesson learnt: never, ever go out of the house looking like a bag lady, even if it’s only to buy milk from the corner shop.

Punchlines

November 30, 2009

I had to laugh today as I was perusing The Local Expat, a freebie English-language local rag that can be picked up in most shops around here.

An advertisement for a hair salon doing its utmost to project an image of über-cool chic ran the catchy slogan  ‘Indulge your hair and expose yourself!’ which I’m sure must have all the native English speakers doubled up with laughter.

On the whole the Dutch speak pretty good English but they often miss the finer nuances of the language and are too stubborn and proud to believe that there is any need to pay a professional translator to write their slogans in English for them.  This may be seen as a pity if you are a language purist or a blessing if you enjoy being tickled by naïve but enthusiastically misplaced translation.  TV adverts are in Dutch but often have an English slogan comprising empty words that make no sense whatsoever.

Included amongst those are ‘Born to be cheap’ for a telecommunications company that uses sheep around the boardroom table in their ad.   I think there is supposed to be a pun, the point of which I haven’t quite figured out yet, between ‘cheap’ and ‘sheep’ but I can’t see ‘born to be cheap’ as something to boast about in the English-speaking world.   Another example of  a clumsy slogan that says nothing is ‘True quality matters’ for a small car which incidentally is being chased around town by a giant butterfly.  What is ‘true quality’  and does it really matter more than plain old quality, I wonder?

Ah well, c’est la vie, as we are so fond of saying in England.

In the words of that great philosopher and observer of modern man Del-boy Trotter, “mange tout, mange tout.”

Thirteen Fourteen

November 19, 2009

Today Thirteen turned Fourteen.  Gosh, I feel so grown up having a Fourteen year old!!

It was very hard knowing what to buy her for her birthday so we took her shopping and let her choose everything herself.  Plus  she’s too grown up for a kiddy party so is having friends round ‘to chill’ at the weekend.  Add to that the fact that she didn’t want to go out and eat with us because she ‘doesn’t really like going out to dinner’ and hey presto, everything conspires to make me feel slightly inadequate as a parent.

We used to do such exciting things for her birthdays and were always so involved.  A Belgian chocolate workshop one year, limousine hire for an hour on her 9th, innumerable birthday parties before that with games and jelly and ice cream and party bags to take home… so much preparation beforehand and clearing up afterwards really made the whole episode huge.  Now I feel like a parent on the fringes looking in through the window.   Well, afterall, she is growing up and we just have to accept that.

Travelling to school today she wore the birthday hat – shaped like a cake and covered with candles – and managed to persuade the bus driver to let her travel for free for her birthday.  When he demanded proof, she just pointed at the hat, which did the trick nicely!

Growing up fast she may be but she still took Avon crisp to school to share with her friends and has gone to bed with her new panda duvet cover!

A Trip Down Memory Lane

November 5, 2009

When I was a child we used to go on day trips to visit various family members, or sometimes they would come to us.

One particular favourite relly was (still is) Auntie Dot, she of Avon Crisp renown (more of which later.)  She still lives out in the wilds of the Cotswold countryside.  Autumn was always a brilliant time of year to visit, as we would go out for long walks across rolling hills, along bumpy farm tracks and over magical bridges spanning fast-flowing rivers where we would always stop for a family game of Pooh Sticks.

Sometimes we would borrow a neighbour’s dog to take along.  I remember one, a shimmering red setter who bore an uncanny resemblance to a race horse.  He shot off like a streak of lightening across a field  in hot pursuit of a hapless rabbit, selective deafness coming into play when I blew the comedy ‘soundless’ whistle his owner had handed to me, saying he would come straight back if I gave it a good blast.  I think the clue lies in the name!  Surprisingly enough, he, like me, showed no signs of hearing the soundless whistle as he disappeared out of sight over the horizon, tongue lolling about somewhere behind his ears such was his speed. He left me in a total state of panic.  I’d lost the dog!  That was the first and last time I ventured out alone for a walk there.  Suddenly, the fascinatingly beautiful and mysterious countryside seemed vast and remote and very, very lonely.  I ran all the way home to Auntie Dot’s, tears streaking my face, only to find the wretched hound sitting on its master’s doorstep drooling like a halfwit.

‘Oh, um, here you are.  I’ve brought you his lead back,’ I said, as though he was meant to beat me home.

The best part of getting home after a long constitutional in the crisp autunm air, pockets crammed with shiney conkers, was the pot of tea and selection of home-baked goodies that Auntie Dot would wheel out on her golden hostess trolley.  Oh, how I loved those cakes and what exquisite agony it was to have to make the choice of which to have first!  A second slice was always permitted and somehow that hostess trolley lent the whole ritual a pedestrian glamour, a small spark of magic in my childhood world.  Did I mention that it was all consumed in front of the log fire cuddled up with the cat?

Now, as I said earlier, more about Avon Crisp, which is really just Very Special Rice Krispie Cake.  Auntie Dot made it for the first time on a boat on the River Avon – thus the moniker.  Here, for your delectation, is the recipe, which I share with you at the risk of alienating my lovely Auntie.  I swear though, one bite of this heavenly sweet treat and you will be transported straight back to somewhere very special in your childhood:

Ingredients
100g / 4 oz of each:  butter, toffee, marshmallows
Small box Rice Krispies

Method
Melt the first three ingredients gently in a large saucepan, stirring with a wooden spoon from time to time.  Remove from heat and add enough Krispies to coat them all in the mixture. Stir in gently and tip into a dish lined with baking paper.  Once set, lift out and cut into squares.  Enjoy (with a good cup of tea)!

Having shared the secret with you, I expect you to make it and report back to me.  (Did I mention that I have a sweet tooth and that you, too,  might need one to enjoy this?)

On the subject of a sweet tooth, I am ashamed to admit that I have lost count of the amount of Hallowe’en tuck I have stolen from Thirteen.  I wonder if she has noticed yet.

Avon Crisp

What the ****?!

November 4, 2009

Now, I ask you, what the heck is this all about?

Mini Beauty Queen

False nails and drawn-on lips on a little girl??  Not to mention spray tan, make up and tooth veneers.  Frankly, I find it distasteful in the extreme.  I know I’m not the only one but obviously there is a huge market for this sort of thing and it must rake in billions of dollars of turnover for someone.  But why?  Why oh why would someone want to subject their little girl to this kind of treatment and  stereotyping at such a young age?  In my humble opinion all that polishing and glossing has the strange effect of making them look like middle-aged bible-belted housewives.  I think it verges on the obscene and find it leaves an unpleasant after-taste.  Does it make you feel uncomfortable?  Are you squirming a little in your seat?

It’s almost as bad as owners dressing their pets up for special events like Hallowe’en.  I find that sick too, but during my search I did find this one which made me titter somewhat:

Banana Dogs

Hmmm, dogs as bananas.  Yes, I can see that one catching on.

Still, at least those costumes can be removed and do not strip those unsuspecting canines of their dignity on a permanent basis, unlike ears that have been trimmed to make you look fiercer or claws that have been removed to stop you ruining the furniture or tails that have been amputated for – actually, why do they cut some dogs’ tails off and leave that awful waggy little stump that resembles an alien trapped under the skin?  Come on people, these are living things we are messing with, not stuffed animals or mere accessories to our throw-away lifestyle.

How can you do this to a cat and have any skin at all left on your arms:

Cat's Bum

It’s fine if you want to do disgusting stuff to yourself…

Catman

… and apparently Catman has since had permanent whiskers inserted alongside his lip and cheek implants, his filed and capped teeth, his surgically bifurcated lip, his tatooed skin, his trimmed ears, his slitted pupil contact lenses and teeth caps and dyed hair.  If that’s what rings your bell, fine.

But please, don’t do it to your children or your pets!   I refuse to get on the soap box and say why I think it’s so wrong but I will say that those child beauty pageants speak volumes to me of Mamma trying to satisfy an aching need within herself, rather than her little girl.

 

On Yer Bike!

October 26, 2009

Today started like any other Monday in our household.  I got up, took Ten to school and came home via the supermarket.

Just around the corner, though, things are very different.

The trial of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic opened today.  How strange that something that had such a massive impact on so many people’s lives and something that is now receiving so much global attention could take place so close to home and yet have  so little significance in my own humdrum routine.

Something that strikes me as even more bizarre is the fact that after less than half an hour proceedings had to be adjourned due to Karadzic’s refusal to attend, claiming, if the media reports are correct, that he needs more time to prepare his defence.   Instead they are going ahead tomorrow and the judge has requested him to attend so that proceedings will not be further delayed.

How can someone choose whether or not to turn up in court?  If you are indicted to attend, which I believe Karadzic was, then doesn’t that make it pretty much obligatory?  I have just looked up ‘indict’ in an online dictionary and am no closer to understanding as the given definitions are both  ‘summon’ and ‘accuse’, whilst further investigation yields  ‘impeach’ and ‘request.’  So not obligatory, then.  I guess that’s the stage at which imposing counsel comes into play.  Any legal eagles out there who would like to help clarify???

Moving onto more mundane things, I swore in the car today on the way into school.  I called another driver an arsehole and immediately regretted subjecting Ten to my Dark Side again.  I felt the light atmosphere recede, the way an oyster draws itself in when you squirt it with lemon juice, and sat in frustrated silence wondering how to make things alright again.  The apology was almost out of my mouth when I swallowed it back down.  It didn’t seem like the right thing to do, so I sat in silence some more, feeling inarticulate and useless until Ten’s mind drifted off elsewhere and he piped up with:

‘Did you remember what I told you about last month when I was on the bus going to school and we passed Thirteen riding without her helmet on?’

The black cloud had passed over and his butterfly mind had flitted elsewhere – onto his favourite subject of victimising his older sister.

‘Eh, yeah, I talked about that with her so you can forget about it.’

We live in the land of bikes and yet no-one, literally no-one (except for the French) wears a helmet.  Cycling half an hour to school on some very dangerous stretches of road, she confided in me recently that she gets abuse thrown at her by passing Dutchies for wearing a helmet.  She is the only one amongst her peers who wears a helmet.  I find this fact astounding.  Don’t other parents care, or do they become wrapped up in the ‘when in Rome’ attitude and think that because Dutch culture does not embrace the helmet then they don’t need to either and their child will be fine?

I have been reading arguments for and against wearing cycle helmets.

One Dutch study suggests that wearing a helmet can help prevent head injuries in bike-only accidents (as in the cyclist falls off rather than colliding with a car) which are apparently the most common form of accidents.  I don’t think anyone is naive enough to believe that a helmet will protect your head if a juggernaut drives over it.  I have also been told of a study, no evidence of which I can find on Google, whereby the Dutch AA (the ANWB) reported that 90% of head injuries on children under 10 are bike related.

Yet another argument, this one from Denmark, suggests that wearing a helmet does not contribute in any way to protecting your head from anything but superficial damage and can even increase the risk of head and neck injuries in a collision.

In the mean time, I have also spoken to a good friend of mine, a medic, who tells me that she would never consider allowing her own kids to go helmet-less as she sees first hand those children brought in to ER after cycling accidents.  That would probably be enough to convince any parent.

Whom to believe, or rather, where to place one’s faith?  We all want what’s best for our children.

Thirteen soldiers bravely on, wearing her helmet (I think… I hope… I trust) and suffering the insults and abuse of her Dutch peers, all because of the parental adage:  No Helmet, No Bike.  In the mean time, she has adopted a defence strategy for herself which she employs at random moments.  It involves putting on her sad puppy face, adopting a barely audible victim voice complete with stooped attitude and saying:

‘Mummmmmm, I don’t want to wear a helmet any more.’

This tactic is regularly employed in the hope that by constantly chipping away at me like the proverbial dripping tap, I will eventually break and will give in, in much the same way that her persistence eventually persuaded her father to allow her to have a Facebook account.

It’s death by drowning and she thinks I’m oblivious.

Good Cheer and Sparkle

October 24, 2009

So that’s it then.  Christmas 2009 has been decided.  We’re still in October but we know where we’ll be and who will be with us.   We’re talking The Hague with Family!

Here’s a picture of Stella getting into the Christmas spirit:

Stella Claus

You can see she just loves it.  Look at the jaunty angle of her hat!

Christmas is a strange thing – the build up is huge; the anticipation, the excitement, the twinkly decorations, the cheesey music and the sparkly wrapping are all far more exciting than the actual day itself.  I have to admit to loving it all.

Being fortunate enough to live in the Netherlands where Sinterklaas, which takes place in early December and only has a two week build up, is still the primary festive celebration, we are not subjected to Christmas from the first day of September onwards, which means we are not already suffering from jingle bell fatigue by the beginning of the twelfth month..

When we first arrived here in 1997, it seemed that Christmas had hardly been heard of.  The whole country geared itself up for the Sinterklaas celebrations, after which the sales started.  This meant that if you waited until December 6th to start your Christmas shopping, you could buy everything at 50% off!  The wiley Dutch though, never ones to miss an opportunity to make money, have since cottoned on to Christmas within the international community and now it’s huge here as well.

Traditionally, Sinterklaas, a caucasian bishopy-type, sails with his Moorish slave, Zwarte Piet,  from somewhere in Spain to the Netherlands, usually arriving two weeks prior to December 5th.  He disembarks from his boat, clambers upon his white horse and rides through the streets whilst Piet and his other helpers, (caucasians in black make-up dressed in Minstrel costumes) throw sweet treats to the children lining the streets to greet him.  On the night of 5 December, he goes around to every house.  He has a big book in which are written all the names of the children and whether they have been good or naughty.  If you have been a good little boy/girl, he leaves you a present in your clog, which you have left outside your bedroom door, along with a glass of milk (for him) and a carrot (for his horse.)

Sint

Woe betide you, however, if you are unfortunate enough to have erred on the side of naughtiness during the year, for Sint will beat you with his staff and then Piet will bundle you up in his sack and whisk you away back to Spain and set you to work!  In more recent years though, I think Sint has softened, no longer beating the naughty children and I believe that Piet has ceased his abduction activities.  The unfortunate ‘blacking up’ still takes place and is actually quite shocking to see.  There seems to be no objection to this bizarre process from anyone apart from the transient ‘ex-pat’ community, most of whom are astounded by it.

But back to Christmas.  As a child, I loved it and of course my parents made it very special for my sister and I as, I am sure, do most parents.   Somewhere into my teens, the shine faded somewhat and approaching my twenties the whole thing became a bit of a damp squib. Once the babies started arriving though, it all became wonderful again and I just can’t help loving it.  Every year I buy more deccies for our house which groans with the weight of them all.  The children are given a new decoration each, wrapped up and ready for them to hang on the tree, which we have selected from the seller on the corner and which we have walked home carrying it horizontally between us, the kids sucking on the bag of vile sweeties the tree seller always gives them.  I love the smell of pine that pervades the house when the tree first goes up.

Buying the Tree

Something I do confess to not enjoying during the festive period is Christmas shopping; you know, that aimless wandering around shops trying to think of something for everyone.  And the only job I truly hate, actually despise, is putting the lights on the tree.  I’m afraid I’m a little bit anal about it and won’t let anyone hang anything on the branches until the lights are just so.   Once it’s done though, we’re good to go!

Soon I’ll be making my new CD of Christmas songs to play in the car (but only as of 1st December!) on the way to school- or indeed on the way anywhere.  I don’t need the excuse of children in the back to listen to a bit of Dean Martin singing ‘Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow‘ …

So anyway, as I said, we’ll all be together in The Hague for Christmas.  My sister and her Tadpoles will be coming from Paris, my mother will be coming from deepest darkest Wiltshire and we’ll be here in The Hague, hoping for snow and lots of Christmas cheer.  I’m fortunate enough to work with a couple of Christmasophiles, one English and one Danish, and together we will be making sure that the spirit lives on in the office in the shape of sparkle, decorations and Secret Santas.

I can’t wait!

Anticipation

Nurse Ratchett and Doctor Dearth

October 8, 2009

I had a slightly unnerving encounter with our company doctor recently.

Actually, she’s not really a company doctor.  I work for a large international organisation and we don’t have our own doctor but rather one on loan ( or hire, actually) from a large medical association’s ‘rent-a-doctor’ scheme.  This doctor is available to us one day a week.  Truth be told, she is a little bit eccentric, with her constant wide-eyed smile and repetitive giggling.

In my place of employment, every member of staff has to undergo an annual medical test which must, presumably, serve some purpose or another.  I’m really not sure what as the tests that are carried out in the nurse’s office and then the doctor’s strike me as a bit random.  There is no fitness or cardio-vascular-type analysis that takes place on the treadmill whilst electrical crocodile clips are clamped onto various parts of your anatomy, there is no urine test, no weight measurements and no looking down your throat or into your ears.  Doctors always do that to my children whenever they have an appointment so I assumed they are standard tests carried out no matter what your ailment.

When I arrived in the nurse’s office, the first thing that struck me was the bitterly overpowering smell of a recent cigarette on her breath.  This lead me to notice that her well-worn clothes (no white coat or rubber gloves in evidence) were slightly grubby, very bobbly and had lots of loose threads hanging from them.  I was pleased to notice, however, that at least her fingers looked well-manicured with short, clean nails.

On to the first check and, coincidentally, my most dreaded: the sight test.

I am always apprehensive before any test involving sight as I know my eyes are about as refined as those of an elderly mole and will yield a dubious result.  I will end up feeling as though I have failed.  I will have to explain, as I do every time, that I can barely read with my right eye whilst my left eye, which quirkily is also my lead eye, is so short-sighted that I qualify for some special discounts on corrective lenses for it.  As you can imagine, covering my left eye and asking me to read a line of letters with my right is no easy task even with the letters close up, huge and well-spaced.  Put them too close together at a great distance and in a microscopic font and you can count me out of the competition.  This sight test had an added novelty factor to it, though, which was that rather than a chart on the opposite wall of the room, the equipment used was desktop and bore a striking resemblance to one of those Viewmaster toys that probably date back to the 1950’s.  Remember them?  They were always postbox red and had a circular cardboard disc with miniature photographic transparencies of famous landmarks and cities that once inserted could be viewed by attaching the Viewmaster to your eyeballs via suction.  I bet Bill Bryson had one.

Viewmaster

The test started and I was all ready to shout out ‘Paris! Rome!’ for comedic effect once we were underway but she stealthily stole my thunder by using the element of surprise.  Instead of pictures, there were three columns (A,B & C) and three rows (1,2 & 3) each containing little boxes or cells some of which had stars in them, spots, numbers, letters or a combination of any of the above.

‘What can you read under B2?’ she asked me.

I thought she was trying to catch me out.

‘Nothing,’ was my smart reply.  They’re just spots.’

With a sound like the first spoonful served from a fresh jelly, I tore my eyeballs away from the Viewmaster apparatus and gave her my most smug smile.  The anxious look of concern that met my gaze told me straight away that I had made a blunder.  I hurriedly looked back down at the columns and rows of jumbled figures and symbols and stared fixedly at B2.  All I could see was spots.  The more I stared, the more they danced around.  Now I began to panic – this was definitely going to be a 0% result if I couldn’t even get the first question right.  What if I need perfect vision to stay in my job?  They might sack me if they find out I’m blind as well as a bit of a doofus.  The more I looked the more everything started to move and wiggle and jump.  Then I noticed that there were no stars or spots or symbols at all but only letters and numbers in the other boxes but they were so small in B2 that they were completely indistinguishable from little spots on the page.

We continued agonisingly slowly through a whole series of awkward questions with me offering up more and more wild guesses, most of which were hopelessly wrong, as nothing was holding still or visible to my right eye.  Once we got on to the left eye, I became a little less twitchy as I was able to get some correct answers.  I started to calm down.

Following the traumatic eye test came the strangely calm cardiogram.  This was carried out using what looked like a squid’s tentacles with more rubber suckery things clamped onto various parts of me.  Of course, as it was me, they wouldn’t stick properly to my skin and kept falling limply onto the bed which only caused her to try and jam them on with, I felt, unwarranted viciousness.  They left circular red welts when she removed them.

Did I mention that it was only after I had whipped my top off and unhooked my bra that she got around to closing the curtains?  Cheap thrills (or alternatively a sudden loss of appetite) for my unprepared colleagues in the offices over the courtyard…

I must confess to quite enjoying that cardiogram as the machine emitted a beep each time my heart beat, so I tried my damnedest to lie there and manipulate my heart rate.  I thought really, really slow thoughts in a bid to lower my heart rate to ‘coma.’  Actually, I nearly fell asleep.

During the next part of the test, which was to offer up some blood, the tables were strangely turned.  I went from the one suffering humiliation to watching the nurse crumple under pressure.

She came at my inner elbow with her syringe and, seemingly, missed the vein completely.  I could see quite clearly that the needle had not gone into my skin where the fat blue lump was bulging thanks to the elastic tourniquet applied to my upper arm bur rather, into plain old skin with nothing showing below the surface and no visible veins within striking distance.  Strange – perhaps she should try taking her own awful sight test, or do some darts’ practice down the pub in preparation at the very least.  The syringe remained eerily empty.

Now I began to notice little signs that she was getting agitated and this did not improve when the doctor came through the connecting door to collect me for her part of the test.  She stood over the two of us watching and waiting and definitely putting the willies up the nurse, who now was almost whimpering.  I knew that she would have to get some drops of the red stuff out of me before I would be released into the clutches of the cackling doctor but how many more aborted attempts would it take?  Two expectant faces were watching her at work and it was all going horribly wrong.

She took the tourniquet off, pulled the needle out and swabbed everything clean again.  Then she attached a fresh needle, patted with her bare fingers the parts of my arm she had just swabbed and came at me with the syringe again.

‘Umm… shouldn’t you put the tourniquet back on first?’ I gingerly suggested.

Let’s face it, I didn’t want to get her back up by telling her (in front of her boss) how to do her job when she was approaching me with a sharp instrument for the second time.  That may not be the smartest of moves.  Some scuffling and confusion ensued whereby she put the needle down, squeezed my vein up to bulging again, patted around and over the hole left by her first attempt some more with her fingers that had been used to do everything up to that point and then plunged the needle in again to a part of my arm where no blue was evident, at least to me.

Now it seemed that not only was my eyesight worse than crappy but I didn’t have any blood left to speak of either.  I’m usually so generous with the stuff and start gushing forth at the first sight of a needle.  The little vials are usually full within 2 nanoseconds and it can be a bit of a struggle to turn the tap off, so to speak.  Not this time, though.  My body had decided not to cooperate and had seemingly gone into a dried-up shut-down.  Finally, after much persuasion and waiting, a tiny red drop sputtered into the vial, followed some time later by another.  After a respectable amount of time, there was perhaps almost a centimeter in the bottom of the tube.  She removed the vial and replaced it with another and we waited an interminably long time for another centimeter to collect before whipping the tourniquet off and the needle out again.  Believe me, I surprised myself by the speed with which I was up and out of that chair and into the doctor’s office.

Yet I fared no better with the Doctor.  She told me the results of my eye test (fail), the blood pressure (pass with flying colours) and the cardiogram (very good.)  She then asked me to take my top off again in order to listen to my heart and lungs.  After I disrobed, she closed the curtains (what is it with these people?) and then started cackling noisily behind my back at the sight of my unconventional residual tan lines where she could still see the exact outline of the string of my bikini top and the bow it had been tied into…

I ask you, how much humiliation can two medical clowns dish out to one person in a half hour period?  Once the whole mortifying episode was over, I slunk back to my desk and wondered whether, unbeknownst to me I had just taken part in Candid Camera.

Hams and Wings

September 27, 2009

It’s funny but until now I’ve never had enough fat to be able to grab handfuls of it and know what it really feels like.

I have, however, been cultivating a fairly impressive spare tyre over the last year or so and now have enough of it that it sits atop the waistband of my jeans, quivering like a jelly when I cycle down cobbled streets.  It makes me look as though I have been poured into my jeans like a thick milkshake might be poured into the glass , but there is just a little bit too much of me so it accumulates at the top, spreads out as far as its skin bag will allow and then just sits there hanging over the edges and wobbling every time I sneeze or cough.

The strange thing about it is that, well, it’s so soft. It’s really quite nice to take a little handful and sit there squelching it between your fingers, like one of those stress toys training companies always give away for free.

It’s nothing like the fat that babies have.  Thirteen, my first, was a little Michelin girl when she was a toddler, with sausages for legs and elastic bands around her wrists but, although her fat was lovely to nuzzle, it was still quite firm and beautifully smooth.  Mine, by contrast, is uneven, slack, wibbly and quite malleable.  Although it’s nice to squeeze, as I said, it’s also quite shocking.  The novelty is also wearing off – especially as I’m now growing some on the undersides of my arms.  I dread going into a self-perpetuating wobble and falling over when I wave goodbye to people.  It can stop now – I really don’t want any more of it.  I would quite happily give it back but I don’t think it comes off as easily as it goes on.  Perhaps it could be sucked out of my midriff and injected into my boobs or lips…

As I typed the word ‘boobs’ back there, Husband appeared (radar must be switched on) with a cup of tea, accompanied by the heavily-laden biscuit tin.  It’s not as though I need any encouragement!  A little will power really wouldn’t go amiss…

Slow Cooker… or Slow Learner?

September 19, 2009

I have spent the last two months lacking inspiration and am therefore dredging the safety net of my histroical musings for sustenance.  The result is that I have just raided the blogpost larder and filched the very last titbit therein, which you will find below.  This means that I now have to get serious about inspiration for writing.  I need to stir up the porridge that resides in my skull and try to jump start some synapses or spark some ganglions into action.  I wonder what synapses look like and  I wonder where ganglions reside.  On the sunny Islets of Langerhans, perhaps, where we’re going for our holidays next year, by the way.

So here you are, then.  We find ourselves transported back to sunny Sidcup circa March 1997:

Due to the fact that we have just moved into a house devoid of any pleasant décor whatsoever, we have begun with redecorating the kitchen.  As a result, the only fixture is a sink with a single cold tap which is held up by ropes attached to the window handles, as the base unit now resides in the skip out front.

We do not even possess an oven, having had it written in to the contract that the vendor should have it professionally disconnected and removed from the premises before we signed, so grim was its condition.  Oh, bad memories of the house of horrors that this place used to be before it became the shell it now is, ready to be refitted and, we hope, transformed in to our home.  I will save the gruesome skin flake story for another day and believe me, that is not one to be read before, during or immediately following meal time.

Anyway, I digress.  Our kindly neighbours took pity on us and decided to lend us their slow cooker.  I now suspect that this was a devious ploy to rid themselves of the cursed appliance that had cost them too much to justify dumping it straight into the aforementioned skip out front.

Have you ever had the pleasure of a one to one with a slow cooker?  This wretched invention has the unenviable ability of draining whatever is thrown in to it of any flavour, colour or texture whatsoever.  It’s weird really, because all it seems to do is keep your meat warm in water all day and it comes out tasting of, well, meat that has been kept warm in water all day.  Uncanny!  No matter what tasty additions you contribute to the pot, the slow cooker can secrete them somewhere other than within the food!  I made a Thai red chicken curry recently and strangely enough it came out tasting like boiled chicken.  What I would like to know is where did all the chilli, coriander, lemon grass etc that went in at the beginning go?  It must be magic.  I mean, if you tried to reverse the curry process, you couldn’t do it, could you?  And actually, why would you want to, but you know what I’m saying.  Maybe I’ll try putting cucumber in and see what it makes of that.  Perhaps Husband could be persuaded to eat it once it had spent the day getting the slow cooker treatment and no longer actually resembled cucumber in any way, shape or form.  If that works, maybe I could try throwing in my dirty washing and seeing how it deals with the stubborn stains.  The trouble is, if it can suck out all of the flavours and aromas from the foods you put into it, I bet the nutritional value also drops through the floor.  It must be like one of those amazing water filters you can use to drink the contents of the septic tank or a river that has been poisoned by toxic waste.  The outcome is basically the same.

I admit that, as a slow cooker novice, I may not be approaching it in the right way.  I did, for example, try putting pasta in one day on my way out in the morning.  When I came home that evening and opened it up to inspect the delights it contained, it seemed that someone had removed the pasta and replaced it with some old, semen-soaked flannels.

As an aside, 12 years later, upon our arrival in Australia to visit our practically-family-friends who had decided for some strange reason to emigrate there 8 months earlier, they met us at the airport and whisked us home to a wonderful slap-up meal (after the obligatory bubbles and nibbles) of Leg of Lamb Casserole à la Slow Cooker.  Needless to say , the lamb was tender, juicy, delicious, flavoursome and the wonderful aroma emanating from the plug-in porcelain cooking pot pervaded the entire house and had us salivating the minute we were through the front door.

Either the technology had improved tremendously over that 12 year period or, well, maybe it’s just a me thing.

Parenting Skills – or Unskills?

September 10, 2009

Ten:  ‘Dad, what’s a parent’s job?’

Husband:  ‘Erm, well, do you mean in relation to children?’

Ten:  ‘Yes. ‘

Husband: ‘Well, …’ mention made of raising them in what parents consider to be the best way they can with love, example, education etc etc…

Ten:  ‘But how?’

At which point all of the wind was blown out of Husband’s sails.  How on earth was he supposed to answer this awkward question, especially when it sounded suspiciously as though it was all leading down one particular pathway; that of Mean Mummy banning Ten from using the computer and all related games on schooldays.

Perhaps Ten was going to try and forge a Secret Squirrel male-bonding pact, whereby all Spoilsports (Mum) would be excluded for ever and ever.  Husband successfully managed to steer the conversation in a different direction.

We were reminded yet again what a funny little character Ten is and it brought to mind some of his previous obscure observations to which there is no answer (unless you happen to be a bit of a boffin or taking hallucinogenic drugs) like:

‘Why is the sky so big?’ and ‘Would you rather live on the point of a sword or hanging on a hook?’

Ten and I spent Monday and Tuesday of this week at home, with him vomiting violently from both ends.  By Tuesday evening, when he was over his symptoms but still sitting on the sofa wearing only shorts, he said:

‘My nipples are nothing.  Sometimes you can’t even feel them.  When I poke them in they don’t always pop back out again.’

One day, some time during his first year at school, he confided in me:

‘Mummy, I know the ‘F’ word.’

‘Do you?’  I asked, reeling.  ‘ What is it?’

‘Vagina.’