Bread: A Cultural Study

It’s no surprise that Dutch people like their bread. The filling of a sandwich seems like an afterthought: a few thin slices of cheese placed between two thick loaf-sized pieces of bread.

Having grown up in a very health conscious household (see My Happy Place) and with American bread tasting mostly like cardboard and acting only as a vessel for sandwich meat, I never understood this Dutch love. Since March, my husband has jumped eagerly onto the sourdough baking train. He hums and haws about his bread, and panics if there is even the slightest possibility we may run out.

I shrug, and skip it usually, preferring to save my stomach space for things I enjoy more (like Popcorn). But the other day, I had an epiphany at lunch. I do sometimes actually like bread, but in the less popular, perhaps more provincial kind of way. I absolutely love a fresh and fluffy hamburger bun. That airy, zero nutritional value taste makes my toes curl with joy.

My mom never used to let us eat white bread when we were little. It was whole wheat or bust in our house, perhaps making me appreciate a good fresh, generically made and generically produced meat-holding (ie hamburger or hotdog) roll. When the Dutch and the Germans start a war about who has the better, tastier, more creative bread creations, I come out of left field and vote for something no one really wants or even considers: the bag of bread most people throw away after their cook-out.

But, friends, I had a romance at lunch the other day. I mixed a good ol’ American hamburger roll with some butter and Dutch chocolate sprinkles (hagelslag) for a marriage between two cultures, neither making much sense but both being a perfect match together.

Slippers

My dad had three pairs of shoes: his LLBean duck boots, and his black slippers – one pair in suede, and the other in leather. The leather ones had hard plastic soles and were deemed his dress slippers; he’d wear them to formal events accordingly.

Growing up, I never thought of this as particularly strange. I can’t think of a time he wore sneakers, for instance. During my childhood, he was at one time a limo driver and at another, a country club bartender, so he did own one pair of shiny tuxedo shoes for work, but otherwise there was nothing in between. He went to the supermarket in his slippers, to weddings, to restaurants.

The two sets always sat by the door, ready for their next event. Before we’d go out, he’d pick accordingly. Sometimes he’d ask to make sure. “What type of thing is this? Should I wear my dress slippers?”

I think now that my dad was ahead of his time. Today, shoes seem obsolete when considering the comfort of working and bunkering from home. Everyone has a pair of dress slippers now.

Inspired by him, whenever it’s not raining, I put on my “formal” slippers and step onto the balcony, or into the grass, to enjoy the rays.

I like to think he’d approve, as I stand outside in my PJs for all the neighbors to see, me in my formal slippers, ready to take on the day.

Things That Make Me Happy – The 2020 Edition

Taking out a new face mask from the box for a special day out

The security of having hand sanitizer in my pocket

Seeing a message from a friend I haven’t heard from for awhile

Organizing my books by color

Street lights turning on when I happen to be looking at them

My cat taking a nap on the washing machine

A plentiful amount of liquid hand soap in the bathroom cupboard

Seeing my in-laws when they drop by for a yard coffee

Getting pictures of the babies I know

Changing into different pajama bottoms after a shower

Realizing that I brushed my teeth at all the right times of the day

Discovering how much I miss my husband after he comes up from the downstairs office for his lunch break

House Plants

The sound of rain on our roof when I fall asleep

Finishing all the laundry

The cat actually sleeping in one of the millions of beds we’ve purchased for him 

Birds perching on our balcony railing

Remembering there are still snacks in the house

A new soft pair of socks

Re-reading old birthday/holiday cards

My niece picking up my video call

Rock lamps

Eating mangos in winter

Wearing red plaid

Good lighting

A perfect selfie

A comfy sweater

Easy access to warm blankets at any indoor sitting location

A perfectly timed gif

My dad’s winter hat

A Coffee Mug’s Life

Our mug collection is robust and varied, crammed and stacked on top of one another in two full kitchen cupboards. Each feels important, but when I am having a particularly sensitive day, I always pick the mug with a cow.

I have a confusing relationship with this mug. It makes me contemplate the life of an object in relationship to its owner.

Several years back, I had spent a few days picking out this mug in The Netherlands when I was visiting with my now-husband, then boyfriend, Mark. At the time, Mark and I were both living in the States, one of us in Boston and the other in NYC. As we had both come many times before to the Netherlands separately, this was the first time we came together, as a pair. Our debut.

For this important event, I wanted to pick out something special for my dad. All the weed paraphernalia felt too gimmicky; the tulip key chains too generic. With my dad being a compulsive (instant) coffee drinker all day long, a mug felt just right. I carefully selected one with a cow that spoke to me, projecting a level of absurdity I knew he would enjoy.

When I came back home and gifted him this mug, it immediately became his favorite. I’d find it propped up on his bedside table, by him watching TV, always half full of cold coffee he had forgotten to drink before making himself another cup, in a different mug, also somewhere forgotten in the house. Each time I’d come to see him, I’d look approvingly at this mug, remembering all the trips to The Netherlands I had made, and despite him never having visited himself, all the times I had thought about him there.

Now that absurd cow is looking back at me as I write this post, half full of cold tea. When my dad passed away a few years ago and I was packing up both his things and my own to prepare for my move, this was the one non-clothing item I decided to take with me.

But even though I purchased it here, it still feels strange to use. This mug has made the same journey my husband and I have done many times – from The Netherlands, to America, and back. This cow is back home, yet it had an entire life before this moment. Like me, it sat with my dad outside on the porch smoking cigarettes. Like me, it kept my dad company while he watched the Pats or read a book. Hopefully, we can give this cow even more memories, different than the ones before, but still with the same amount of love. To many more years with cow cups. Cheers.

Christmas Wishes

It’s Christmas. I am trying to take stock. Find something to be grateful for.

There is always a long list, of course, but in yoga, it’s difficult to remember what you are grateful for about yourself.

I’ve concluded the key to getting through this pandemic is to stay confident in your own decisions – what you deem safe, what you feel comfortable with, and how you’d like to navigate this new world.

This is what I struggle with the most. Staying confident. I always err on the side of caution. But when is too cautious? What is too cautious? Am I overdoing it? Am I not doing it enough?

I am also used to making do, to getting by. I forget that when I am cold, I can turn the heat on. That when I am inconvenienced, I can often fix the problem I am having. Instead, I grit my teeth and carry on. But sometimes some luxury is nice, sometimes an indulgence is okay.

Am I making the right decision?

There is no answer to that question, only the one you make for yourself. I’d love someone to tell me; I’d love some universal rule book for this year, an encyclopedia on how to have a social life, how to go grocery shopping, how to have holiday cheer. But that doesn’t exist. We all have to make our own way. And remember that we are in this together. That compassion is more important than judgement, than right or wrong, than good or bad. We are all struggling in different ways. So this Christmas, I will try to feel close to you all, despite being mostly alone. I will try to connect, despite being apart. I will send only good holiday energy into this world. And wish you all brightness, warmth and love.

Merry Christmas.

An earlier Dutch Christmas, deeply focused, in PJs

Christmas Presents for Myself

It’s Christmas Eve, and I can count the number of stores I have physically entered on one hand since March.

Working through feelings of isolation, the lack of any real Christmas plans, and not having seen many human faces in real life for awhile, I have taken on a new way to cope. I have become obsessed with Facebook Marketplace to decorate our new home. The perfect way to shop: outside, supporting the community, meeting your neighbors, picking up their trash. A win-win.

A couple weeks back, my husband and I walked in the rain for 28 minutes each way to pick up two small lidded trash cans for 4 euros total from a student-looking girl named Marlou. Our masks and clothing soaked, glasses full of water and steam when we arrived, I was so excited to see her. I wanted to be Marlou’s best friend. This happens often now, when I interact with strangers: the mailman, the lady with a dog, a neighbor who gives me a courteous wave. I am so desperate for human interaction that I thank them endlessly, wanting to profess my love and invite them into my life forever.

This past weekend, we picked up a new lamp from a man who was clearing out his garage. We stood outside, the lamp between us on a trash can, exchanging pleasantries while I tried to pay on my phone. Except mine were not pleasantries. They were calls for human connectedness, in celebration of being able to buy an appliance from another human being when all stores are closed and all human contact is discouraged.

I can not stop with these endeavors. Every day I look online for new things we could get.

“Do we need an ugly end table?”
“No.”
“But it’s free…”

Luckily, my husband is still a good sport about these adventures I secretly sign us up for. It doesn’t help that in The Netherlands, during this time of year, it is always raining and mostly cold when we walk towards our free bedroom mirror 30 minutes away.

When I was young, we used to vacation in Maine in February (cost savings!) and my mom loved taking my sister and me on walks along the coast. What grew into a yearly tradition also inspired my dad to give them a title: Blizzard Walks. When I first met my husband’s parents, during our first Christmas together in The Netherlands, his parents took us to the beach. It was a blizzard walk I’d never experienced. The sand whipped into my face so hard and so strong that it stung. Mark and I gripped onto one another over four layers of clothing, trying to stay upright as we walked towards the water. That’s when I realized we were a match. I had found another family who willingly went on these types of trips for fun.  The whole time we were walking for those trash cans a couple weeks back, sopping wet in the pouring rain, my husband and I kept shaking our heads, “another blizzard walk.”

It feels actually appropriate that in the last two months, this has become our new hobby. This year, my grandma’s Christmas gifts didn’t make it here, mysteriously returned to sender. This year, I managed some cards, but no gifts for my family and friends. This year, I expect no gifts in return. It is empty under our tree; we have no Christmas plans. But, this year, strange unexpected connections were made. I took up new hobbies. I started this blog. And I remind myself still that there are more walks to be had, more plans to be made, another year to try it all again. And in the meantime, I have given myself many gifts, from people all over this fine land, after a good and hearty walk in the blizzard.

pre-walk looks
post-adventure vibes

Christmas Lights

As my husband and I ready ourselves for the holiday, I always feel a bit homesick on the off-years we are here instead of in The States. My family is one of gaudy decorations and raw, unadulterated American consumerism; we gorge lasagna and laugh and savagely unwrap until we are swimming in piles of ripped paper and elaborate bows. Here, things are quieter, a fancy Christmas dinner, a walk, some cathartic sighs, a glass of wine before bed.

Christmas lights in the Netherlands also seem more subdued and classier than their American counterparts; outdoor lights are less frequent and tastefully executed in white.

When I was young my dad would execute the opposite of taste. Once when we went on a holiday with my mom, we came back to what my dad imagined an amazing surprise: he had painted part of the bathroom in glossy primary colors – blue, yellow and red. With mirrors already elaborately hung and the project not finished, it reminded me of a clown house under construction. My mother was not pleased.

But he approached Christmas lights with a similar design aesthetic and level of enthusiasm. He’d go outside every year with a huge tangled ball of lights, ready to make miracles happen. He’d be out there, banging and swearing and working hard, trying to make our small single level home sparkle in the sky. This would go on for about an hour, until we’d hear a loud “f**ck” yelled into the wind, and know that the project had likely come to a close. It makes me smile now, his earnest efforts for holiday joy.  Among our nice neighborhood of white picket fences, we were the family with a half strung string of lights dangling from the roof, unattended and looking lost, until my dad managed to get back up there and take it down a few months later.

My husband and I went for a walk yesterday, in the Dutch equivalent of my American suburban town – an affluent green municipality a 40 minute (bike) ride outside the city. When I walk here, it always feels comfortable and familiar, with fancy big homes and beautiful Christmas trees inside warmly lit living rooms.  Walking further outside our normal residential radius, we discovered a new neighborhood, one full of houses with deflated santas and spare lawnmower parts in the front yard. Their bushes weren’t trimmed and the grass wasn’t cut. To me, these houses looked friendly, welcoming, chock-full of as much clutter and crap that could fit onto one small lawn. I looked at my husband and smiled, “feels like home.”

My Happy Place

Despite not being particularly athletic when I was young, I grew up as a gym rat. My mom was a jack-of-all trades when it came to health; she was an instructor of yoga (before it was cool!), water aerobics (which never became cool), aerobics and Pilates. She was the gazelle to my awkward pre-teen baby elephant. Where she jumped and stretched and bopped, I awkwardly and cautiously stepped, and tripped and grimaced. I was in awe of her in her classes. To this day, whenever I hear a song with a beat from the 90s, I remember her sitting on our living room floor with her boombox, recording her latest mixed tape for class.

I was also in awe of my mother’s coworkers, her fellow aerobic lady friends, women with big teased blonde hair,  clunky white sneakers and bright neon leggings. They were all horribly in shape, and horribly in a rush. They always had somewhere to go, a next class, a son’s soccer game, out to a  lunch. To me, these women felt so full of life and so important. They were the masters of many, making impossible moves look cool to the latest beats.

My parents not being the type to spend money on a babysitter, my youth was spent mainly at the local gym, hiding in the nutritionist office when it was free. I would roam the halls needlessly, looking longingly at the vending machines, watching, disinterested, at indoor tennis matches, and old men getting out of the hot tub.  Despite being born in February in the snow, my childhood birthdays were always held at the gym’s pool, with an employee discount of course. My mom would sign us up for the latest kid aerobics, kid ballet, kid hip hop lessons, youth basketball. You named it, we tried it. My mom wanted us well rounded and full of healthy exercise wholesomeness.

Despite all this, however, if I am honest, none of it really stuck. I wasn’t a basketball star, for sure. And I didn’t really have any interest in being competitive, so never got into sports involving balls, or running, or breaking a sweat, really. I did find some comfort in swimming, which helped me transition into the more grown up version of a gym rat: a lifeguard.

My late teens and early 20s were spent milling around various fitness facility pools in the suburbs close to my home. I would put on some chandelier earrings, a full face of under eye makeup, my cute red suit, short shorts and platform sandals to ready myself each day for my own version of weirdly-dressed gym prom. I would emerge from the employee break room in full face to swing my whistle and wander around the pool, gossiping with my fellow lifeguard friends and planning our evening activities. My workouts at the same location had a similar vibe: hanging out on an elliptical machine for an hour or so, fraternizing with the staff, and then calling it a day.

Somewhere between then and now, the gym has become (or always stayed) my refuge. Pre-pandemic, my social life here in The Netherlands revolved around the gym as well.  I was fully immersed in a gym girl pack, complete with weekend brunches and pre-planned class schedules.  My life was ordered in a way that was identifiable and consistent for me. A recipe for success.  

When March came along this past year though, gyms closed, and when they reopened a couple months later, to me, they suddenly felt unventilated and, more problematically, unsafe. I panicked and went cold turkey. Despite a lot of my friends returning to their workout routines, I hide and tried to kick, squat, squeak and punch at home, in front of a little computer screen, in the one room of my apartment, next to my husband on a conference call.

Aside from everything else, this was one thing I had a lot of difficulty adapting to. I missed my friends, my gym instructors, and the symbolic representation of what it all meant. I felt left out, and alone, but unlike before when I could manage that stress physically, I had no easy outlet for it anymore. No refuge.

Now, more than nine months later, I sit here feeling grateful that I have been able to go back to where it all started. We moved, and in moving, we were able to make a gym of our own – a small attic space just big enough for two mats, some weights, a computer screen, and me. Jumping joyously. With this new lockdown comes a silver lining: I can connect to live classes in both my homes –  America and The Netherlands. I yell in my pajamas, proclaiming my love for my favorite instructors, who can’t hear me, but who I have missed so much. There is one Dutch instructor who reminds me of my mom’s old crew: a flight attendant by day and a power house Pilates instructor at night, she absolutely outdoes any young male counterpart instructing alongside her in class. Her crazy teased blonde hair blows in the wind as she sings along to the music.  Like how I saw my mother when I was young, she defies time with her body, stronger than people half her age.

Yesterday, physically exhausted from a particularly intense yoga class and emotionally exhausted from this pandemic, I even cried. So grateful to be back home, where I feel safe. And where these instructors, like my mom, can remind me that strength comes in many forms. There is power in learning how to channel that strength from somewhere else, somewhere new.  

May you all remain powerful, my friends, and well exercised.

our workout loft
view from the loft

An Ode to Popcorn

I am recovering from a popcorn bender this morning.

When I first met my husband, he didn’t fully appreciate or understand the phenomenon of casual popcorn eating. Sitting in a bar down in New Orleans a few years back, I was thrilled to see that they offered endless FREE popcorn to their guests. I positioned myself eagerly next to an especially full bowl, and settled down for the long haul.

At the time, my partner and I were just getting to know each other. As is typical of me, I was oversharing, pouring my heart out with lots of intense feelings about one thing or another, all the while trying to cram as many fistfuls of popcorn into my mouth as physically possible. My mouth and heart full, he looked at me perplexed as he took in one kernel at a time and looked around the bar.

This reaction utterly confused me at the time as I have never met a bigger food enthusiast than my husband; he generally eats with such gusto and passion that all bystanders admire his fervor. But as a Dutch man who had recently moved to America, he had not yet learned of the passionate popcorn eating tradition. Dutch popcorn was part of school science experiments or at movie theaters, but rarely at home.

Today, I am happy to report that my husband and I eat popcorn with the same reckless abandon; I have taught him my ways. In this otherwise dark time of year, there is nothing that makes me happier than waking up to popcorn for breakfast, popcorn for snack, planting secret popcorn in between the couch cushions to be re-discovered all year long. In an otherwise lonely holiday season, popcorn keeps me company, an old friend, a visitor from back home when none are allowed.

Pandemic Walks

Taking a walk outside during corona times seems like participating in a gauntlet you didn’t realize you had signed up for.

Today we did an otherwise nice walk in nature if you discount The Fast Walkers. “Fast Walkers” have recently been redefined for me, because in an overly enthusiastic at-home yoga sculpt class a few weeks back, I inadvertently crippled myself by injuring my knee. This gives me a hobble that slows my pace dramatically, allowing most people, young and old, sick and well, to overtake me on a walk.

The problem is: there is a subset of women, all surprisingly with the same haircut and sense of purpose, who walk fast even for normal standards. These women are defiant walkers. They will not yield to your desires; they will not step aside. They generally travel in packs.

These women plague me. As I limp frantically to keep distance, I hear them approaching, readying to pull ahead. I step into muddy ditches, holding my breath, waiting for them to pass. I feel like an old horse who’d like to retire amongst these spry refreshed show ponies, celebrating their Saturday prancing ritual.

I remind myself in these moments, as I must often do these days, to remain compassionate and kind. We are all just trying to enjoy the sun. Get some fresh air. Gallop in the breeze. Whether racing a marathon, or slowly shuffling to the finish line, we all make it to the same place. And in The Netherlands, that place is never too bad.