Home for the Holidays

“I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.” Bing Crosby’s deep voice came from my phone, while I was preparing panettones for our Christmas morning breakfast. I was happily mixing the nuts and fruits into the sticky dough and thought about that song. Home for the holidays…I knew that this song was originally written from the perspective of American soldiers, stationed overseas during WWII, but it sounds good to nearly everyone. Home for the Holidays. If you check the amount of people traveling during these weeks, most people do just do that: going ‘home’ to celebrate with their loved ones.

It made me wonder what my home is. This is my fifteenth Christmas in Maine and I have a beautiful house that is decorated in the Christmas spirit. I love being home. No work, no stress, my favorite chair, a glass of wine or a cup of tea, a good book, some baking and cooking and everything else is optional.

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This is a dishtowel I got for Christmas: pretty appropriate!

I think back of Christmases long ago, where we spent one day (First Christmas day) with one set of parents and another one (Second Christmas day) with the other set. In both cases, you had to dress somewhat nicely, didn’t do much other than chat, drink and eat. It never felt all that satisfactory somehow. Christmas felt somewhat as an obligation, a time of stress and social events, where you can’t really do what you honestly want to do. A time in which you don’t want to disappoint your loved ones and by preventing that, you disappoint yourself a bit. It’s all for the greater good, to please your family, etc.

Now I think of it, it really never occurred to me that ‘going home’ at Christmas time would even be an option: I am home.  And because we live so far away, there is no social pressure or expectation for us to go ‘home’. It’s delightful, really! I get to do what I would like to do, my kids don’t even dress on Christmas day, but stay in their pajamas all day and I don’t care. We eat a nice breakfast (those panettones were absolutely delicious), open the gifts (one from each person, so usually about 4 or 5 per person: nothing too crazy) and clean up. The kids play their new games, try out the new art sets or do whatever they want to do. I read my newly obtained book (without new books, is it really Christmas at all?), drink a glass of wine and I feel truly merry.

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This wonderful handmade vase just arrived in the mail, sent by my parents. It’s the Netherlands. I have now my ‘home country’ in my home!

Home for the holidays to me means being in my home, here in Maine. Home is the place I fell in love with many Christmases ago. Of course I miss my family, at times even terribly, but in general I kind of like the no-stress holidays. I have moments that I wish I could ‘beam’ myself to the other continent to have a cup of coffee with my mother and father, go shopping with my sister, drink a whiskey with my brother or play with my nieces and nephews. Traveling to the Netherlands during holiday season and hopping form one house to another however, does not very much appeal to me.

Every time I cross the bridge, I feel like I am coming home. This island has become a home for me in a way words cannot describe. I don’t know what it is, maybe the mountains, the ocean, the climate, the people and community, the fresh air, the amazing starlight skies. Maybe all of them. No matter what, this is the place I call home and this is where I want to be during the holidays. As for the other ‘home’: I’ll be there in my dreams!

One more hour of sleep…

It’s amazing what stress can do to your sleep. We probably all have had these experiences where you have an appointment, or a flight to catch the next day and you just don’t want to be late. You wake up every hour and eventually hit the shower feeling groggy.

Last night I had the opposite: I have a hard time allowing myself to sleep in, because the weekend is short and there is always so much to do.

But the weird system of Daylight Savings came to the rescue and granted all of us with an extra hour of sleep. So even if I would sleep till 8 am (old time), it would still only be 7am(new time) and that is respectable for sleeping in on a Sunday. I had such a great night of sleep without that feeling that I really should set an alarm, because I didn’t want to waste my weekend away. I woke up at 7:45 old time, but it was only 6:45 new time, so the whole day was still ahead of me!

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Reading this back makes me smile. ‘Sleeping in’ till 7am… When did this happen? Part is to blame on having kids. Any parent can probably attest to the fact that the internal clocks of children do not always work the way yours does. If you bring a child to bed much later, you’ll experience that most of the time he can’t sleep because he is overtired and therefore screaming, and he will still wake up at his usual time (equals early!) and being cranky all day.

The other part I think is caused by ‘the Maine Way of Life’. Coming from Europe, where most board meetings started at 8pm and lasted till at least 10, my default bedtime was somewhere around 11. I had to get up ‘early’, around 7am and in the weekends sleeping an hour extra was completely fine. When I moved to Maine the first time, I noticed that when I walked the dog at 10 pm, not a single house had the lights on. If there was an evening activity that wasn’t done before 9, people were saying that it was ‘way past their bedtime’. I learned that you can’t really call anyone after 9pm anymore.

However, I also found out that it is completely acceptable to start sawing and building and hammering at 6:30 am! In the summer, the sun comes up at 5am and with that all activity begins. That same sun goes down, even in the height of summer no later than 9pm and I guess Mainers adapted to this rhythm. Seriously, I feel guilty vacuuming my house at 9pm, in case the neighbors can hear it, while the same neighbors are using their nail gun at 6:30 in the morning and when they see me walking the dog, a cheerful ‘morning’ will be uttered.

So as a Maine-igrant I have adapted right along and moved my bedtime till around 10 and get up at 5:30 every day, and before 7 in the weekends. This worked seamlessly with having small children, who I could put to bed at 7pm and if I was lucky they might sleep till 6 or 7 the next day. Here’s the catch though:

Kids grow up and become teenagers. Even Maine teenagers have this weird night/day schedule, in which they are most productive after 8 pm and can’t get up in the morning. In the weekends they often sleep till 10 or 11 (Honestly, maybe even later if I let them, but I don’t), and go to bed way after 1 am. It’s a whole new situation in my house: me saying good night to my kids, because I go to bed. I am so thankful for the fact that we have a large house with a room in the basement, where they can watch movies or play video games without me hearing it. And I am also so happy that when I designed my house, I put the master bedroom on the first floor, so I can sleep while my kids are having sleepovers upstairs and are chatting, giggling, laughing or talking in their bedrooms far past midnight. And I can start cooking, cleaning, doing laundry in the morning, when they are still fast asleep. I have already had a productive morning by the time they slowly wake up.

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Even the dog is tired….

 

That Daylight Savings though….I love the one in the fall when ‘clocks fall back an hour’, but really do not like the spring, when ‘clocks spring forward’. Adjusting to a new rhythm is hard enough without this Daylight saving and honestly, I am not looking forward to having it be dark at 4 pm. And already not looking forward, when we have to give up this extra hour. For today, it’s perfect however. Already did laundry, had some ‘me-time’, and cleaned the bathroom. And it’s only 8:21!

You’re better off just having it done

I won’t lie: I was nervous.

Not only was this our first ‘public appearance’ as a couple, but I had to meet the entire family and friend circle. Okay, “entire family” sounds bigger than it really was: he has one sister (at that point in time she was single), two parents, an uncle and aunt and two cousins, one with a partner. That was the entire family.

I’ll never forget it: me in a dress to attend my boyfriend’s graduation. We had only met a few weeks before and with him living in the south and me in the middle, we only really spent a few weekends together. But here I was: at the university campus, meeting the family.Leiden

They spoke funny. Local dialect, especially among each other. Couldn’t really understand it, but they all looked quite friendly. I couldn’t remember who was the mom and who was the aunt. Same for the males. Who would be my boyfriend’s father?

This bigger guy: he had sparkling brown eyes, like a child who’s up to no good. He seemed friendly, engaging, happy and energetic, and despite his funny dialect, and his loud thunderous voice and laugh, he seemed like a good guy.

Turned out:  He was indeed the father of my boyfriend and over dinner we had a chance to talk. Me, in my spontaneous ways (especially when I am nervous I have a tendency to blurt) invited him over to stop by if he was ever close to the city I lived in. He appreciated me drinking beer (something his son or the previous girlfriend didn’t do). He liked that I loved food (the previous girlfriend apparently was anorexic and the father, a big ‘live in the moment’ kind of guy had lots of trouble with that), and my talkative nature.

I was surprised about one week later, when he followed up on my offer. I came home from work to find my boyfriend’s dad on my stoop. “I was in Amsterdam, and you said I was welcome to stop by.” I liked it. He took me out for dinner and I learned so much about him. We made plans to go to ‘carnaval some time. We talked about ‘Koninginnedag and how we would one day celebrate this. together. We talked about some bands we both liked. Right then and there I knew I wanted this man in my life.

My boyfriend became my husband and just like that, this nice guy with his mischievous brown twinkle eyes became my father-in-law. We had a connection from the start. He bought me a beer glass for when we visited, so I could have a beer in my special glass at their house. We did follow up on our plans and I went to ‘Carnaval’ with him and his friend group. One year we did celebrate ‘Koninginnedag’ together, where I nearly traded my boots for a pair of good old Dutch wooden shoes. IMG_9302His laugh, always loud and boisterous, his tickles left bruises, he tried to wash off a tattoo I had placed on my shoulder, he couldn’t believe it was real.  When I was pregnant, we compared bellies (he won) and despite us moving to the US, I never felt our connection became less. On the contrary.

When visiting my in-laws, he and I would bike to get fresh cherries. He knew everyone. You couldn’t walk anywhere with him without having to stop every 30 seconds for a chit-chat with someone he knew. He was generous and loved to eat. He would teach his oldest grandson to eat ‘salted herring ‘like a proper Dutch man’. DSCN0772He would play tricks with my middle child, showing off his missing finger. He would laugh out loud with my daughter, with jokes that were neither good or funny, but made them laugh nevertheless.  He was always willing to drive us anywhere and most recently he took my oldest son and his girlfriend and me on a college tour through the Netherlands.

And then, this Saturday, there was this phone call. I can’t say we didn’t totally expect it: he was a big guy with multiple diseases and could possibly benefit from a healthier diet and more exercise. But he always said he rather lived life to the fullest and drink his Heineken and live a bit shorter than to have to suffer through diets and other nuisances to increase his life span. His motto:  “Je kan ‘t mae ‘g had èn …” (maybe this translates in something like ‘you’re better off just having it done’, although it sounds much better in this Dutch dialect!)

So on the last day of summer, on a campground near his favorite river, he took his last breath in the camper. So like him, to enjoy this last vacation. As if he knew.

And now my husband will fly to the Netherlands, 3400 miles away from us, to attend the funeral service and help his mother and sister sort things out. The kids and I can’t really come. Realistically, it’s just not worth the hassle. We discussed this years ago, my in-laws and I, we made a plan. The kids and I will come once things have settled and we can actually enjoy each other. When people will not be all sad or overcome with emotions. When we can go sight-seeing without feeling guilty of having fun in a time like this.

And so this is what will happen. We will follow a little bit of the service through WhatApp, Facetime or Skype. We, as a family ,planted a tree in our front yard in his memory. A cherry tree of course.

Kees, I am so grateful for having known you for half my life. You made that half seem full. I will miss you, but never forget you. Drink a beer for me, wherever you are now. Knowing you, I realize you will never be alone. Cheers!IMG_4166 (1)

The freedom of summer

I wrote a piece about the bus service on this island, but realized during the last few days of the summer vacation that I never published it…Oops! I felt the need to do so, still, so here is a blog that should have come out in the middle of the summer vacation, not on the last days…

It’s summer here on the island. This means a true invasion of literally thousands of tourists a day, causing traffic jams and parking problems, issues that local folks don’t normally have to deal with. The population of the island quadruples at least, causing things like Wi-Fi and cell phone coverage to slow down. I haven’t left the island for weeks, because I don’t want to be stuck in traffic (only one way up and off  the island!).

But summer also has some big advantages. Besides the obvious like seasonal employment and nice weather, there is an added freedom: the Island Explorer.

The Island Explores is a free shuttle bus service, set up to encourage people to leave the car behind to minimize traffic on the island. A tourist service, maybe, but local kids (and adults as well) can also use this bus service.

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For my ‘island kids’ this is a huge win and an opportunity to make last minute plans with friends (“I’m going swimming with such-and-so, be back before 10!”, “I’m heading into town today to grab an ice-cream with my friends!”) or to go places without having to depend on a parent willing to drive, such as a summer job in town.

I love this. Being born and raised in the Netherlands, where kids as young as four-years-old can safely bike to friends, school, soccer practice or music lessons, I found the dependency on transportation here in Maine a big disadvantage for our children. For kids to go out on their own and explore the world a little bit bigger than their own backyard is healthy for their development. For the longest time my children didn’t have cell phones, as we always knew exactly where they were at any given moment, because we had to bring them there. No wonder children can start Driver’s Ed at 15! I get it.

But during the summer, they can do what any kid wants to do: explore, taste the freedom, be independent, because of this fantastic bus service.

Sure, the first time my youngest took the bus, I was a bit nervous. Would she come back by herself, find her way around the different buses to hop on the right one? But then again, what was the worst that could happen? It’s a small island, she knows many people, she isn’t shy to ask. I had to allow her to figure it out for herself. All three of my children are pros now in figuring out the schedule, making last minute arrangements with friends, followed by a quick run through the woods to get to the bus stop in time. They are going places, my teens, while the car stays parked in the garage.

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It is safe to say that the Island Explorer seriously contributes on the process of raising independent children. If only we could keep it year round….

 

 

The morning after the storm

It is almost cold. Cool rather. I snuggle in my chair with a steaming mug of coffee. My feet are cold, but I won’t put on socks. It’s summer.

For many days now, it has been quite hot. I was in Europe where another heatwave and drought hit and temperatures of above 95 were becoming more and more ‘normal’ in my flat, little home country. And apparently I took the heat with me.

As soon as I came back to Maine, it started to warm up. And we had a few consecutive days with 85+ temperatures. I find that hot. Yesterday was mucky: you could feel a storm was brewing. There was no evidence of that at all: clear skies, birds singing, people on lakes and the ocean.

I had to work. Every room in the motel I work has A/C, but the office. We had three fans going, but it was hot. Sticky. Guests who were checking in told me they drove from far to escape the heat. I told them it would get better. Soon.

And there it was: a black, threatening sky. I quickly closed the car windows, sent my husband a text: Laundry!!! (got an immediate reply: already done and inside!) and waited it out. The storm, who was supposed to cool things down, came abrupt and hosed down the dusty streets. Nearly nothing can beat the smell of rain after a hot week. The roads were steaming.

Lightning flashed and thunder roared. Unfortunately, I saw firetrucks and police cars zooming by. Never a good sign. The office stayed hot and sticky, all the way till my shift was over, but the skies cleared and it was so beautiful.

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Photo credit Alice Clair

 

I came home to a house that felt like a hot, steamy shower. Quickly I installed the window fans and sucked the cool, night air into my home.

And now I am sipping my coffee, my knees tucked and my fleece wrapped around my body. The house was 64 this morning, almost cold. I am watching the raindrops on the grass reflecting the sunlight.img_4525.jpgEverything looks so green and fresh! Birds are singing loudly, while the rest of the world around me is still quiet. Sunday morning, 6 am, not much activity in this household with three teenagers. I let the stillness and coolness absorb me, my thoughts floating, my eyes half closed, while the black liquid slowly wakes me up.

 

 

I love the morning after the storm: it kind of feels like a new, fresh start. Pretty soon, I’ll have to close the windows and the curtains, to keep the coolness in and the heat out. But for now, I enjoy having goosebumps despite the summer.

Go with the flow

I’ve kept myself rather busy lately: I needed to finish my graduate course, started training for a summer job and finished up the school year slightly early due to a trip to the Netherlands with my son and his girlfriend.

But I managed to learn how to check people in at the motel, say good bye to my colleagues for the summer, complete with home baked Dutch apple pie and little goodies for the students, planned the trip, threw some clothes in a suitcase,  and finished my final two papers at Logan airport. With that submitted, I was finally able to relax a bit.

IMG_4045 (1)A little ‘ping’ got my attention and I read the text from the airline company that our connecting flight to the Netherlands would be delayed by a day. My son’s wish came true: he was going to see Iceland after all!

It’s funny how thoughts can quickly change: if you asked me before I left if I would like to spend a day on Iceland without luggage, I would have flipped out. However, with my work for the graduate course done and submitted, I somehow left all stress behind. We were going to have a great adventure in the Netherlands and as a bonus we got the chance to spend a day on Iceland!

I sank back in my (way too small airplane seat), closed my eyes and envisioned our trip. I woke up abruptly when I realized I only packed summer clothes (Iceland can be cold, even in the summer), but then realized that in the worst case scenario I could buy a true Icelandic sweater.

As I had already processed through everything in my head, I knew (despite my sleep deprived brain) what to do: get off the plane, get immediately in line at the service desk, be assertive and all would be all right.

All right it was: we received vouchers for a bus to Reykjavik, lunch dinner and a nice hotel. Yes, we were tired. Yes, our luggage never showed. Yes, we had to wait for the bus. But I didn’t need to worry about lack of clothes: Iceland experienced one of the most beautiful days ever and it was very pleasant weather.

We drove through the weird landscape of Iceland and eventually walked through Reykjavik, where most people were smiling (possibly due to the beautiful summer weather with gorgeous blue skies). IMG_4063We were able to buy some new T-shirts and underwear at H&M and had a nice shower in the hotel. We had one of the best meals I have ever had in a sky restaurant on the 8th floor overlooking the harbor. We picked up some typical Icelandic rocks and walked back to the hotel. It was super light still, but with the darkening curtain in our room we were able to fall asleep at 7:30pm. The alarm was set for 3:15 am, to be able to continue our journey.

When we woke up, it was light again and it seemed as if the city never slept: terraces in the shopping street were still filled with people. It made it a lot easier to wake up. It didn’t really feel like 4 am anymore when we waited for the bus back to the airport. As we didn’t have any luggage to check, it was easy and quick to get through Security and enjoy a nice cup of coffee at the airport. I realized I was already over any form of jetlag.

We made it to the Netherlands and eventually our suitcases did too. We are in our second week here and are currently in the midst of a heatwave with temperatures between 86 and almost a 100 F, but it gave me the opportunity to buy some new Dutch summer clothes. IMG_4163

Yes, I am having a good time and I am so proud at myself for ‘going with the flow’ and letting go. Trust me, this isn’t easy for an A-type with control issues. But as one of my family member noticed, I have learned to be easier on myself and find the good in every situation, from delayed flights to unbearable hot temperatures. And that in itself makes this vacation a true accomplishment!

APA-Style roses and thorns

Despite a spring break, lately I have been feeling slightly overwhelmed with everything I do. Besides my work, I am enrolled in a Graduate course and the amount of daily reading and studying is quite large. Put running a busy household with three teenagers and a husband who frequently travels in the mix and you’ll get the picture.

It was around 9:30 pm, I was still working hard on my paper, which was due in 5 days and saw that the professor had graded my previous paper. Excited, I opened the document, only to find it filled with comments and recommendations of how to improve it. For a minute, my world wobbled, maybe even collapsed a bit. (I might even have shed a few tears, but there is no need in mentioning this, as I am a grown-up who can handle it just fine, right).

She gave me the opportunity to revise my paper and re-submit it by Friday (which was three days away!) and although that would have been nice, remember, I still had that other paper due.

To make matters worse, every day from then on, was already filled with kids or family activities: I had organized a school hike (which therefore I felt I couldn’t bail on), my eldest son had his birthday and for the past 16 years I was the one who made him a cake and this year could simply not be different and he would invite his friends over on Friday after school for said cake and a meal (made by his loving mother). How on earth was I going to ‘handle this just fine’?

That night, I crawled into bed (alone, husband was still traveling), exhausted, but unable to fall asleep. Two papers were on my mind. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep that well. However, in the morning, I did my usual work-out and already my mind became a little bit calmer. There were options. I had a passing grade on my paper, so I could choose not to resubmit it and just suck up the fact that for the first time since I started my graduate course, I wouldn’t have a score in the high ninetieth percentile. I could dedicate one night for revising, and use the other time left to finish the paper due on Sunday. I could email my professor and ask if I could submit my second paper slightly later (“oh, the thought of that!!!”).

I took a shower and thought back on the previous day. I had substituted in a 5th grade classroom, where the kids start their class with a ‘daily wonder’ (based on the book ‘Wonder’ and Mr.Browne’s precepts: a daily quote for the students to think about). I had written the quote on the board in my best handwriting for the kids to read, think and later discuss. “You can be upset, because roses have thorns, or you can be grateful that thorn bushes have roses.”

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Right there and then, in the shower, I smiled a bit. Yes, this quote hit home. I had written a good paper: the comments were mostly based on (my lack of using the proper) APA-style. This was the first paper I have written in, uh 21 years or so and therefore the first in English and before this course I had never, ever even heard of APA style. Yes, it was a good paper, something to be proud of. And yes, those formatting issues could be resolved rather quickly. And yes, even if I couldn’t, I could always try that APA-style formatting with the next paper.

 

I decided that I was going to be grateful for the roses and I wouldn’t let myself be down because of a few thorns!

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Thanks 5th grade!

(Who, by the way, had an awesome discussion about this quote. If ten-year-olds could rule the world….)