Friday, September 25, 2015

Cali-cation - Yosemite, Tahoe, Sisters and COUSINS!!

It must have been about 6 months ago when my cousin was telling me about her fabulous summer plans which included spending a lot of time with my younger sister, Marie, and niece, Sasa, in Cali, including camping in Yosemite. I was super jealous. Then I had a really good idea: go to Cali
and go camping in Yosemite with my sister and niece! Not very original, but pretty good nonetheless. Plan was proposed and accepted, and tix were bought. (Actually, one ticket, which was part of the brilliance of the plan - go before Ebba turns 2 and I would have to pay 2 full fare tickets.)

The plan got even more brilliant when I decided a stopover in MN would also be necessary. Hard to visit the US and not see the grandparents. Turns out that was a brilliant plan, because Grandma helped ease the pain of jetlag so that when we arrived in Cali we were 100% ready to go. The fact that Grandma also prepared a full Thanksgiving meal for our arrival was not too shabby. Really.

Four days in MN was not long, but it was enough to squeeze in a few visits with friends and lots of time with the grandparents. We also ate donuts, which was very important to me.

Lekker donuts!
We arrived in Cali and got to check out my sister's new house in Oakland and see Khiza for the first time since he became a father! Soon, however, we were off for 4 days of camping in Yosemite! We arrived with almost enough light to set up the tent, but not quite. Our friendly camping neighbors lent us theirs (that night and every night thereafter) as we discovered that the lantern we brought did not, in fact give off light. We all slept amazingly well in the fresh mountain air (when air mattresses weren't leaking, of course).
Visiting a National Park with two toddlers sort of set the pace. There was lots of gathering of sticks and stones and simply playing in nature. We took the obligatory drive up to Glacier Point for the inspiring views over the valley and Half Dome. The kids were content climbing on rocks and driving log trains to San Francisco to visit Gigi. Nature really is the best playground.

Family photo!
Toot toot! Off to San Francisco!
Nights around the fire were always capped off with s'mores (duh). I even tried one using Dutch stroopwafels instead of graham crackers. You lose the nice crunch, but gain soft caramel. Definitely worth a go, if you happen to have stroopwafels with you next time you go camping.
As if camping in Yosemite hadn't given us our fix of natural beauty, we drove on to Lake Tahoe to celebrate the wedding of Alana and Patrick. We checked into a hotel and enjoyed the luxuries of showers and clean sheets. We spent nearly 2 hours the next morning swimming in a heated pool in the warm sunshine. It was glorious!

After celebrating National Cheeseburger Day at lunch, it was finally time to see the lake! We headed over to Emerald Bay for a hike and to enjoy the view. Time did not allow us to go all the way down to the bay, with its' enticing blue waters. However, we made time the next day by leaving the kiddos with Uncle Khiza and Marie and I rented kayaks and actually got out on the lake. I even took a quick dip in the chilly (62F, 16.5C) waters. I got my lake fix!
Hike down to Esmerald Bay
That evening we took a sunset cruise on Lake Tahoe and toasted to the happy couple! The views were stunning and I enjoyed half-conversations with many, as I often had to run to catch Ebba before she toppled overboard. Just as the after-party was kicking into high gear, Marie and I said goodbye to the Tahoe crew and headed back to Oakland so Ebba and I could make our flight the next day.
The Mac Crew
Goodbyes are never easy, especially when such distances separate us. But having been able to spend so much time together (the most in many, many years) left me feeling full of sister love and grateful for the opportunity to have had that time with Marie. We had conversations we had been meaning to have for years, shared the joys and frustrations of parenthood, and got glimpses into each other's lives that just don't transcend Skype. I was also so happy that Ebba and Sasa were able to really forge bonds that will (hopefully) lead to their own lifelong sisterhood.
PS - Wonder where Simon was during all of this. My guess? Eating pizzas and watching movies.In reality, lots of after school play dates and fun weekends with his Pappa.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Sunny Sardinia

I remember reading the book The Blue Zones many years ago, which sought out the longest living cultures and tried to understand what made them live so much longer. Indeed, people living in these Blue Zones reach the age of 100 at 10 times the average rate. One of the Blue Zones highlighted in the book was in Sardinia, and I am not sure I even knew where Sardinia was at the time. But after reading about it, I knew it was a place I had to visit. And I just did.

Sardinia is a rugged, rural island, lined with clear turquoise waters, sandy coves, and jagged cliffs. During the summer holidays it swells with tourists who come to splash in its warm waters. The landscape is brown and dusty from the unbearable heat (says this Northern girl) of a Sardinian summer. But I can now tell you that May is the perfect time to visit Sardinia.

We traveled a bit around the northern part of the island, and it made me realize how much it has to offer as I felt we saw so little. The landscape varied in each area, and the number of small hidden secluded beaches was really impressive! We stayed at small agriturismos along the way, all of them with a homey feel, good food, limited English, and - most importantly - animals!

Our first destination was just outside the small village of Arzachena, just inland from the Costa Smeralda. Our B&B was tucked away in the rocky hills, with a lovely pool and an unbelievable breakfast spread. We explored some beaches, rested by the pool in the sunshine, and did some hiking.

From there we headed south to check out some of the beaches near Cala Galone. Lucky for us, the weather was on our side and perfect for playing at the beach, and even swimming in the chilly water. One of the beaches we found had a warm tide pool, and it was so perfect that we ended up back at it the next day. At the end of the day we headed back to Los Canales where they served up a nice pasta dinner for the kids. Once we put the kids to bed, we set down for the set dinner menu and enjoyed local Sardinian specialties (such as suckling pig), wine, and date night in Italy with our kids sleeping nearby!

Our last stop was outside the city of Alghero, at a nice little farmstay. We explored some beaches, and enjoyed all the animals on the farm. There were baby goats and 2 week old piglets! So cute! We also had a memorable meal, again without kids, that included 11 appetizers, that nearly all came directly from the farm (including the wine)!

Gelato in Alghero
One of the highlights of my days was my early morning dates with Ebba. Unlike her brother, she is not one for sleeping in. In an effort to let the boys get some sleep she and I would head out each morning to explore our surroundings. By the time we were all ready for breakfast we had already climbed a hill and found a great view of our surroundings, or walked along the cliffs along the sea. It felt like we sharing some sort of solitude, and it was lovely.
Sardinia was a perfect place to spend the May holiday. It's low season, but still has lovely weather and so much to offer!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015


This past week was Simon's voorjaarsvakantie (spring break) and it was a staycation, baby! And not just a staycation. A Pappa's-abroad-and-we-have-wheels kind of staycation!

I was admittedly not thrilled when I learned that Martin would be gone for Simon's week off of school. It meant I would be on my own and we definitely would not be going on holiday. A week with the kids sounded like a lot of work! (And it didn't help that when Martin left Simon was sick, waking up a lot, Ebba waking up, and I was hardly sleeping at all. But whatever.)

And now it's nearly done and I am here to report that Ebba, Simon and I make an amazing staycation team!

It started off with a sick birthday boy. I was heartbroken. Not only because he was sick but because he was sick on the 2 days that Ebba was in creche and I was looking forward to spending 2 days with just Simon, something I have not done enough of since Ebba was born. But it was nice to also just be home with him, play games, and cuddle.

But on Wednesday we started making up for it. We headed to the Eye Film Institute for Het Fantastich Kinderfilmfestival. Public transport to get there included a ferry across the IJ, which is just cool! Simon went to an Emil movie with our neighbor (and his best bud), Ans, while Ebba and I walked around the institute. Ok. Toddled would be more like it. She's toddling now. It's so precious.
How could I have forgotten how ridiculously amazingly cute it is when your child learns to walk. The first few weeks are amazing. I was just mesmerized watching her toddle around, plomp! on her little bottom, and get right back up to toddle some more. Others seemed to enjoy her toddling as well.
Simon and Ans
Our handyman
They had tons of activities for kids all over the institute, and Simon used some power tools to build himself a small car (with some help). Pretty cool!

Thursday we had to make up a swim lesson that he had missed when he was sick over the weekend. It was in Noordwijk, about 40 minutes from Amsterdam so I decided to make an afternoon of it and head off and see something. Along with Simon's buddy Julius we headed off to Boerderij Geertje (a petting zoo), where there were at least 100 baby lambs that you could cuddle with. It was just oozing cuteness! Swim lessons were followed by pancakes in a typical cozy restaurant where the kids could play until pancakes were served. Goat cheese, arugula, pine nuts and honey - yum!

On Friday, there was SUN in the forecast AND everyone slept through the night until 7:15!! With boundless energy we decided to head toward the beach* with some friends who are way more in the know than us. We headed to a park along the dunes with beautiful walking paths, plenty of room for kids to run and play (including playgrounds), and another pancake restaurant with typically slow Dutch service. It was cold, but sunny, and nice to see some nature outside of the city. The kids' boundless energy was all used up and they didn't make it 5 minutes on the drive home, which meant a lovely quiet drive for mama as well. A nice treat. (Also, sorry Ebba. As second born and because I mostly carry you on my back, there are no pics of you. But you were there! Yay!)

Hunting for treasure among the dunes.
And the other bit that has made this staycation extra nice, is that I have also given myself a little vakantie. The house isn't too clean, I'm behind on laundry, and I have hardly cooked at all this week. This has made for a more laid back, easy-going week for all of us.

I guess I hadn't realized how much the daily grind is just that, a grind. That pressure of getting out of the house in the morning, and that short time after school when we have to make dinner, eat, bathe, and rush to bed just wears on you. It has made me realize how my attention isn't always focused where it should be. This week I have refocused and hope I can make some changes to keep things light and fun going forward. I am so happy to have had this amazing week with my kids and fall more and more in love with them. What a lucky mama I am!

*Simon was a little frustrated when I told him that we would taking the car again to the beach. "Why can't we just take the bike?" He likes the car fine, but it's just not how we get places most of the time. I like that getting places by car is strange for him.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Where the World is Quiet

We headed to Spain once again, this time to explore the area around Seville in the Andalucia region in the south of Spain. Our first stop was Ronda, known as the birthplace of modern bullfighting and the home of the world's oldest and largest bullring. It is a popular tourist destination, which means it was filled with hordes of tourists on tour buses, which always detracts from the charm. This city was founded in the 9th Century BC, and had a lot more interesting things going on than the bullring, but with 2 kids that was our main highlight!

Safe from the bulls

Our main destination for this holiday was Finca el Moro. On its website it says, Finca el Moro...where the world is quiet. Perfect! Just what we were looking for. The property is located in the Sierra de Aracena National Park, and well off the beaten path down a long dirt road. They sell many farm products for their guests including pork, lamb, and organic vegetables. There is a yoga shala, built on the site of the original thrushing floor. Best of all, there is Violetta.
Meet Violetta.
She's a donkey that lives on the farm, and often accompanies Nick, one of the owners on hiking tours in the region. But sometimes, she just hangs out with boys like Simon for a whole week and takes him pretty much wherever he wants to go. Thanks to Violetta, we were able to take a long hike through the cork groves around the farm AND....Simon's legs did not get tired. He was thrilled, we were thrilled. There's no telling how Violetta felt about it, but she seemed pretty content.

Every morning we would walk down to the pasture where Violetta was hanging with the horses, and we would put on her donkey gear and bring her back to our house for the day and use her for our various excursions are around the farm. To go to the tree house, for example. Or to hang out in the Yoga shala, which we found an excellent place to spend some time when you have a crawling one year old and are staying on, well, a farm. We checked out their bee hives and walked through the remains of this year's vegetable garden. A deep love was formed. We now send postcards to a donkey. And wonder if she will ever visit Amsterdam. True. (We just got a response from Violetta - she had a foal named Pepe! Simon is over the moon, carries the picture around everywhere, and keeps asking when we can go back.)
A photo opp.
Simon demonstrating how a pig a pig.
Our week in Aracena was picture perfect. While it had been cold and rainy the 3 weeks prior to our arrival, we managed to score a week of clear blue skies and temps near 80F (25-26C). We visited some of the small villages during the day and enjoyed some excellent food, or had a cervesa on one of the plazas. (I recommend Arrieros in Linares de la Sierra and Maricastaña in Castaño del Robledo.) When the kids crashed at 7 we read books and enjoyed the stillness and profound blackness of night in the countryside. We didn't hurry. We didn't have wifi. The world was indeed quiet.
Where are the pigs??
Our last few days were spent in the charming city of Sevilla, where I was lucky enough to have a friend who had just moved there at the beginning of the month. Gina and her husband showed us around the city and helped to keep Simon distracted from the monotony of walking around a city with his parents. We watched Barcelona play Real Madrid in a packed outdoor patio. But the highlight was our visit to the Parque de España which included a fun bike ride through the wide avenues. Thanks to my friend Gina, Martin and I even got a date night in Sevilla!
Me and Gina reunited in Sevilla.
Ever the cool customer drinking his milk at the counter.
And just like that, she's 1!
We flew home on Ebba's birthday. She had lunch in Paris. (Ok. At the airport in Paris.) She's one!!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Amsterdam: Family Life

I decided to dedicate a separate post to questions about our family life here in Amsterdam. Here goes!

What is your favorite aspect of family life there?
Biking. Biking. Biking.

They have the most amazing ways of transporting entire families on bikes. It's truly fascinating. I need to collect some pics and do an entire post on just that. And I will.

Biking is easily one of my favorite things about living here. The bike culture is truly unbelievable and unlike any other city in the world. It was hard not riding a bike for the first 9 months after Ebba was born, but we are back on 2 wheels and it feels amazing! Using public transport - so inconvenient. Ha! Amsterdam really is a small city, and from where we live in the center it hardly ever takes more than 20 minutes to get anywhere. I biked to IKEA once and that took 40 minutes (and I was 6 months pregnant!).

How do you feel about your children having a different childhood than your own?
This is how I think about it. My childhood happened in the past. It's done. I would love to take my children to Trout Lake every weekend in the summer, but Ed's Bait Box isn't there. It never could be the same, even if we spent it in all the same places. Like most parents, I am figuring out what childhood I want for my children. 

I wouldn't trade my childhood for anything. Not for a passport full of stamps or spring breaks in Florida (via airplane, nontheless). My childhood was truly magical.
My perfect day, age 11
So maybe their childhood won't be so different from mine afterall. There will be road trips, camping, and lots of swimming. But most importantly, there will be magic. How do I know? Because they are children and they have parents that love them. That's where the magic happens, as far as I can tell.

How baby/children friendly is it? Are there changing tables everywhere you go? Do you see lots of strollers? 
Hmmmm....well it is not as baby friendly as I had expected. We live in the Center, so it's quite busy and I do not think it's convenient with a large stroller. You might have trouble fitting into shops and will most likely have problems bringing a big stroller into a lot of restaurants in the center. I am also now discovering that many of the restaurants in the center do not have high chairs...a subtle way to keep the kids out. 

What's worse is that traveling by tram with a stroller can be a real problem. There is an often enforced quota of 2 strollers per tram! I have heard of moms who have had multiple trams pass and refuse to let them on because there were already other strollers on board. And they were probably just trying to get their baby to a doctor's appointment! Extremely frustrating!

Which is why everyone rides a bike...

There are also lots of great playgrounds all over the city. We mostly go to the big one by our house (across from the Heineken brewery), but before I had Ebba we had explored the city a bit more. 

Built-in trampoline!
We also found that there are a number of petting zoos in the city, a great way to spend an afternoon with a toddler.

Are there adult/kids friendly activities? 
Yes! So many! There are some great museums here that are great for kids, especially in the winter months or on a soggy day (there are many). NEMO (science museum), Het Scheepvaarmusuem (ship museum), and Naturalis (natural history) to name a few. And for just €25 you can get a one year pass to these museums (and about 40 more). An amazing value!

Can't go wrong with bubbles at NEMO
We recently discovered the mini disco!
In the spring and summer months, hopefully when the sun is shining, there is LOTS to do in Amsterdam that is fun for the whole family. Picnicking in one of the many large parks is always a popular option. I like going to some of the weekend markets that pop up around the city, offering local foods, arts and crafts. (Pure markt, NeighborFood Market, Sunday Market) Sometimes there's music and rides for the kids. Maybe face painting. I find that this city always has a lot to offer families, and I love it. Just hop on your bike and you're sure to find something fun to do

Are you happy with their education system for your kids? Daycare?
I really don't have a lot of experience with either yet. Simon just started school in March, and he was only in daycare 2 days/week for 6 months. Daycare is quite expensive, and government subsidies were greatly reduced in recent years. The Dutch, who have an extremely high number of part-time workers, are likely to share childcare responsibilities between spouses, grandparents, and daycare. That makes it more affordable. 

As for school, from everything I have heard about the Dutch education system I think it's great. I guess I will have to keep you posted on that one....

Also do pregnant/ nursing moms smoke weed? Or drink?

I do not think pregnant moms smoke weed here. Or at least I didn't when I was pregnant.

As for drinking, my midwife told me that the recommendation is to completely abstain from alcohol. That said, I do think that there is a more liberal view of drinking later in pregnancy than in the US. When I was in Belgium at the start of my 3rd trimester, we had dinner at the B&B where we were staying. The host could not stop offering me wine, and eying me very suspiciously when I kept declining. He did not seem to think that being pregnant was a valid reason to decline a glass of red wine with a delicious duck dinner.
I'd like to read about what you eat- what snacks kids love (ie goldfish, fruit snacks here)? Are the terms "organic/local"meaningful? 
One of the things I love about not raising my kids in the US is that there are no goldfish. Or fruit snacks. Kids eat a lot more real, whole food here than what I am used to in the US. (Gross generalization....moan. Get over it.) For example, at Simon's school you have to bring your own lunch and snack (there's not even a cafeteria!). No sugar or treats are allowed. Like most kids, Simon brings a fruit for snack and a sandwich and fruit or veggie and milk for lunch. If you pack something that's unacceptable (such as raisins!?!), it will simply be sent home.

Monster sandwich! Scary! 
But, I should probably mention chocolate sprinkles. I wrote about them here before. They use chocolate sprinkles as a sandwich topping. Incidentally, this sandwich topping is accepted at schools, too. It's very integrated into the Dutch culture. 

To be perfectly honest, a Dutch mom would probably have a totally different answer. Because I didn't grow up here, and they don't have goldfish and fruit snacks, I don't know what to turn to for "typical" kids snacks. As a result, snacks around our house are mostly fruits and veggies and home baked goods. When we're out and about, we love fresh stroopwafels (syrupy waffle cookies) and the gelato place around the corner.    

Bio (organic) and local is definitely "in" here. As I discussed in my previous post about finding food, there are quality local and organic products out there. But it has been quite challenging to navigate the food system here and find those special products. It's a work in progress.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Amsterdam: One Year Later

Amazingly, we have been living in Amsterdam for over a year already. Wow.

It's hard to reflect on a year in a new place, because there is just so much to reflect on. New country, new language, new baby! So I decided to field questions from friends on FB. I enjoyed this process because, naturally, people asked questions that I hadn't considered. It has been fun to think back on all that has happened this past year.

I decided to do a separate post on questions related to family life.

What are the biggest differences between living in Germany and the Netherlands?* 

One of the things I love about Europe is how quickly and entirely things change when you cross a border. Culture, language, the type of bread in a bakery, or the availability of peanut butter in the grocery store. Dusseldorf and Amsterdam are like night and day. Here are a few quick examples:

Beer selection
The Germans love beer and are very proud of their beer culture. It's cheap, you can drink it anywhere, any time. But it must be German beer. And probably local beer. In Düsseldorf you drink Altbier, while in Köln (Cologne) you drink Kölsch. Needless to say, there is a serious lack of beer diversity.

In the Netherlands, on the other hand they have local beers such as Heineken or Amstel, and a huge selection Belgian beers. And beers that simply aren't Dutch. Both big beer drinking countries, but totally different cultures around it.

There's a huge difference in the way that Dutch and Germans approach speaking English with foreigners/expats. I cover it below.

Things to do
There is so much more to do in Amsterdam! Festivals all summer long for kids, families, or just adults. We love the Sunday Food Market, have seen a great performance of the Gruffalo at Vondelpark, and just this week went to the theater festival Parade. There is always something going on! And of course there are parks, swimming pools, and petting zoos to keep us busy when there's not something more major going on.
Fun at a local festival
Best of all - it's Amsterdam. Even after 1.5 years here, the city is itself an attraction. Just a bike ride or a stroll along the canals to a nice coffee shop is still such a pleasure.

I really enjoyed living in Düsseldorf, but it's a much quieter place with much less going on. There are lots of things I miss about it, but I really love Amsterdam!

*Disclaimer: The cities we have lived in may not be representative of the entire countries. Just sayin'.

How did you think it would be and how is it "really"?

When I first moved here, I was definitely excited about it. I had certain expectations of what life would be like here, and how I would like it. I was optimistic. And I have not been disappointed.

What has been the biggest surprise?

The biggest surprise for me has probably been how much I need the support of other expats. This doesn't apply only to our move to Amsterdam, it was something that I slowly learned in Germany and have been reminded of as we settle into a new city again.

When I first learned that we were moving abroad, I pictured myself a year later sipping coffee and chatting fluently with my new German friends. I figured if I was going to live in Germany, that was the way you do it. Two months after moving to Germany, I literally stalked a young couple with a small child speaking English in the street because I realized I needed to meet people that I could talk to. People that would talk to me. Turns out those people are other expats.

When we moved to Amsterdam I knew that I was going to be part of the expat community here, and I knew that forums like Amsterdam Mamas were going to offer me great support. And I was right. It's FB page is a place where you can ask questions about where to find things that would be so easy find back home, or just ask for advice on dealing with your difficult child.

BFing group friends and babies.
This sequence of events pretty much sums it up. I found out about a cloth diaper meet up through Amsterdam Mamas. I attended and met some other expat moms who told me about an upcoming event on giving birth in the Netherlands, and I was 7 months pregnant. I attended that info session, and met a Canadian doula who would be my doula for Ebba's birth 3 weeks later. When I had breastfeeding issues, she suggested I contact a former LLL leader for some help. She helped me out and I started attending breastfeeding/mother support groups, where I have met lots of new moms with babies and made new friends.
Ebba and her buddy, Nico
I have probably made it sound too easy and idyllic. It glosses over the first 8 months we lived here when I hardly made any friends at all, because I was pregnant and just didn't have the energy. When you move to a new city you are always starting over. I had just left behind a great group of friends in Düsseldorf and really didn't want to do it again. But I've started over, and I'm building again. It feels good!

Do you miss speaking English with other native speakers? How much stress do you have around language?
I get to speak to plenty of native English speakers. English seems to be the "other" language here in Amsterdam. My favorite brunch place is run by Kiwis, and the menu is in English and the servers speak English, not Dutch. Dutch people have to switch to English to order. It's quite strange, really.

This is quite a change from living in Germany, where you really had to speak German in your daily life. I NEVER speak Dutch. And I will admit that I am not proud of that fact. Being already familiar with German, I have picked up quite a bit through listening and reading, but I never really attempt to speak it. Except to small children. It's just not necessary. Which doesn't mean I shouldn't try harder. I really should. I will.

How many tranny hookers did you see?

I have passed by the windows in the Red Light District a few times, but I can't be sure how many were tranny hookers. Hard to put a number on that one, sorry. (There are some good Asian supermarkets in that neighborhood, ok?)

What did you dislike most about your first year in Amsterdam?

I know this might sound odd, but I have been having a hard time finding food. In Düsseldorf, we had a lovely Farmer's Market in our neighborhood every Wednesday and Saturday with all locally produced, high quality products. It was small yet it had everything you needed and I never questioned the quality of what I was buying for my family. I rarely purchased vegetables, eggs, chicken, or meat from a grocery store.

Here I have been largely shopping at the chain grocery store, because it's convenient. Part of the it just the logistics. By the time we moved here Simon was done with the nice big stroller, which also served as my "trunk" equiavalent for hauling things around. I can't really carry more than 2 grocery bags, especially with 1 or 2 kids in tow, or while pregnant.

Of course there are nice markets here as well, but it has taken me a long time to sort them out. The Saturday Noordermarkt is great and has lots of organic options, but it's packed. The Albert Cuyp Market is walking distance from our house, but it doesn't seem very high quality. I have finally settled on the zuiderMRKT in Oud Zuid, a quick bike ride away. It's reminds me of my German market, except the it serves fresh crepes (bonus!). It's perfect. Except for when it rains, like this past Saturday, and I just can't bring myself to get over there. But I found good food, and that's important.

It's funny, but writing this post has reminded me what a hard year it has been. I had honestly kind of forgotten, now that we are over the hump of making new friends and figuring our shit out. Moving to a new city, especially a new country, sounds exciting and romantic. And it is, or it can be. But it's also a lot of hard work and emotionally exhausting. I'm glad we've passed that year mark, and don't plan on moving again any time soon.