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.”

A Memory From America

“I seem to get along better with the squirrels,” my dad said, taking a long drag of his cigarette and looking out onto his backyard.  He blows out and continues, as if finishing the other half of a sentence that wasn’t spoken out loud, “…so that’s the other thing. These guys are all my pals now.”

His bird feeding had progressed to a new level of insanity that was surprising, even for me.  The backyard was a small patch of grass, right before a large parking lot nearly three times the size. The lawn, if one was generous enough to call it that, had one single scraggly tree. My dad had put roughly six bird feeders in it, weighing down each little skinny branch with 9 pounds worth of seeds. He explained that the squirrels were annoyed because they couldn’t get easily to the bird feeders, so for them, he had placed about a dozen mountains of expensive designer grocery store nuts at the bottom of the tree, piled among the Buddha statue covered in bird poo.  He proudly reveals that these piles come from a separate outdoor storage closet that is full of enough nuts, bird seed, peanut butter and crackers to feed a large metropolitan zoo.

I had come to his house for the weekend from my apartment in NYC, taking the train and then a bus from Springfield that drives almost everywhere around rural America before taking you where you’d like to go. My dad picked me up at the bus station, behind a Chinese food restaurant in a parking lot outside of town, and we headed back to his place.

When we arrived, I was always mixed with emotions – the feeling of being comfortable and back in the cocoon of his lunatic land, and feeling deeply overwhelmed by how lunatic that land has become. After ten minutes without a cigarette, he starts to get antsy, so I throw my bags down and we go outside to catch up.

On the balcony, he explained his latest problem: the amount of food he is throwing out onto the lawn all day has attracted more than just birds and squirrels. Raccoons are now popping by, seagulls have travelled from the ocean more than 130 miles to visit his lawn, pigeons have come from big cities to get a taste of his delicacies.  And, not unpredictably perhaps, the neighbours in his shared condo have complained.

I look out onto the lawn, and wonder, as I often do when visiting, where he can go from here.