Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas

In what is becoming an annual tradition, our holiday greetings come to you from yet another new location.   We are living in Wassenaar, The Netherlands, which is a small village north of Den Haag.  Due to intercontinental postage costs, higher environmental awareness and general laziness, we are utilizing the internet to post our Christmas Card this year.  We hope that you are not too offended.

Our opportunity to move to Europe arose when Lori accepted a position with Shell Corporation, which is headquartered in Den Haag.  She joined Shell in May and is responsible for their refineries and chemical plants in Europe and Africa.  Being new to the job and the company she’s on the road quite a bit, but luckily most of it is on the same continent. 
Mark, Grant, the cats and dog joined her in late July and three weeks later Grant began seventh grade at the American School of The Hague.  In the Dutch tradition he rides his bike to and from school, rain or shine.  But mostly rain.  He played baseball this fall and is swimming this winter.  We’re still adjusting to the 6:00 am swim team practice time.  He also stays busy playing piano, oboe and a variety of video games.  

Kate is a senior at Vanderbilt University studying Chemical Engineering.  In addition to being busy with Senior Design classes she works for the school coordinating a study of autism detection in 9 and 18 month old children.  Her other full-time job is filling out medical school applications – she has just about reached her limit on answering essay questions.   One bonus of our relocation was that Kate upgraded her car.  She’s now driving our BMW X5 and is already putting the heated steering wheel to good use. 

To date, Mark’s Netherlands career has been as a house-husband.  Despite all that time on his hands, our Dutch neighbor keeps asking if we’ve found a gardener (yardman) yet.  That’s a pretty clear indication that Mark needs to step up his landscaping performance.  Perhaps it’s all the time he’s spent on golf lessons, cooking classes and Dutch language classes.  Whether being a stay-at-home Dad becomes a permanent career is still under review. 

 We are enjoying our life in Europe and invite you to visit.  We are only 25 minutes from the Amsterdam airport and have plenty of spare beds and bikes.  We have relearned how to drive a stick shift (on our only car) and would be glad to show you around.  You can also visit virtually, via our blog, 

Our best wishes for a beautiful and blessed holiday season.

Mark, Lori, Kate and Grant


Zwolle is a town of slightly over 100,000 people situated about 100 km east of Amsterdam.  It is about a 2 hour drive from our home.  There are two primary reasons to visit Zwolle.  The first is visit Willem Uiterlinden who is an oboe repairman.  Grant's oboe was having some issues adjusting to the cold weather.  His teacher located Willem, an appointment was made and off we went.  Willem's shop is located in the basement of his home.  As you can imagine, there are oboes and oboe parts everywhere.  He is an exceptionally nice person who repaired the oboe on the spot.   Then he proceeded to give Grant a short lesson to make sure the oboe was put to good use.  The bill for this one hour visit came to a grand total of 30 euro -- the bargain of the century. 

The second reason to visit Zwolle is to eat at De Librije (The Library), one of only two Michlelin 3 star restaurants in Holland.  (There are only 80-90 in the world).   If you're wondering why a town like Zwolle would have a 3 star restaurant, it's because Jonnie and Therese' Boer grew up in the area and like living there.   They are famous for using food from the region. 

I'm not sure how Michelin awards their stars, but it could be related to time spent eating.  We were seated at 12:15 and selected the four-course lunch.  We walked out of the restaurant at 4:30 after enjoying all four courses plus many, many amuse-bouche's.   On a per hour basis, the meal was priced quite reasonably.  Seriously, the food was delicious and we had a great experience.  The owners personally presented the menu and wine list.  They were also very active in the dining room, so they certainly aren't resting on the laurels.  Next time you're in Zwolle, I highly recommend a visit. 

Here's an additional piece of Zwolle trivia for our Canadian reader(s).  The town was liberated by a single Canadian soldier, Private Leo Major from Montreal.  Well done, Leo. 

After the big (and long) meal

Happy Birthday Lori!

We celebrated Lori's birthday by getting 3 more inches of snow.  There was no wind, so the trees were beautiful with their branches loaded down with snow.  Kate and I took Graber for his morning walk in the neighborhood, then we all (including Graber) piled into the car to go to the Wassenaar Market.  They were having some challenges dealing with the snow, but most of the vendors managed to open that morning.  Graber thought that it was all very interesting, especially the free samples from the cheese man. 

Going to the Wassenaar Market

Clearning Snow at the Market.  The trailer on the right is the Poultry Shop.  The stand on the left is fruits and vegetables.

 That evening we went out for dinner then came home for (non-homemade) birthday cake.  For those of you trying to count the candles, I married a younger woman so this was not even close to being a milestone birthday. 

Happy Birthday Lori.  Note the tell-tale box underneath. 

The neighborhood church is one of Graber's favorite spots to go potty on his walk.  Sometimes God gets mad and rings the bells -- it scares Graber and he slinks away. 

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Where We Live, Part II

As you may have read, Europe has been battered by a snowstorm.  It snowed all day on Friday so Grant got out of school early.  Since that was the last day before Christmas break, that means they did nothing for a shorter amount of time.  Lori was supposed to fly home from England that night, but that wasn't to be.  She was very lucky to get out the next morning....most of the airports in Great Britain have been closed all weekend.  (FYI...she flew out of Liverpool which is named John Lennon Airport)

And then there's Kate.  The girl who has seen her Christmas flights cancelled or missed each of the last two years.  It looked like that opportunity would present itself again, but we were lucky and she arrived only an hour or two late.  She was lucky as well; there were plenty of flights from the US that were cancelled. 

I thought I would use this opportunity to give you some more photo's of where we live.  The shots are similar to the last posting; only the season has changed.  We've had about 9 inches of snow.  I made very good use of my new snow tires.  There was no wind, so the branches are loaded down; it's quite beautiful.  We're supposed to have rain by Wednesday so we'll enjoy it while we can. 

The Canadians across the canal should be feeling right at home.

Dog in Jail

I hope that those tulip bulbs are nice and warm underground.

Snow Dog. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Where We Live

Now that we've been here for almost five months (and because I'm running short on other material) I thought it might be interesting to explain a little bit about where we live. 

We're renting a four bedroom home that has several unique features.  First, it is a modern architectural design.  White painted brick outside, lots of odd angles to the walls, large windows, etc.  It doesn't exactly fit into the neighborhood, but there are one or two others like it.  Second, it is on a large lot...probably 1/3 of an acre which is huge for Holland.  This feature has been very popular with the four-legged member of our family.  We're extremely fortunate to have a "stand-alone" house.  Most Dutch homes are "twee onder een kap" or "two under one roof" because space is at such a premium. 

View from the front yard.  It's hard to remember when everything was this green.  The area to the right used to be a pond.  The landlord had to "fix" the pond prior to us moving in.  His fix was to fill it in and sod over it.  That's a much better solution for us.   

The front yard.  The dirt is the area where the trucks drove when they filled in the pond. 

The long driveway is nice except when you have to fetch Graber to bring him in.  He loves to hang out at the gate by the road and watch the neighborhood. 
One common feature of Dutch, and most European, homes is their lack of closets.  None of our bedrooms have any closets.  None.  Our solution was for Lori to brave a trip to IKEA on a Sunday to choose and order 13 closets.  These were then delivered to our home before our goods arrived from the States, so Grant and I spent a week carrying IKEA closets upstairs and assembling them.  We got very efficient.  When I was young, the bedroom that my brother and I shared didn't have a closet.  My parents bought a cardboard model from JC Penny.  It lasted about a year before rough-housing and other abuse did it in.  Then my dad built a plywood model that is still in use today.  The IKEA closets are fairly robust, but I don't think they'll last 40 years. 

This is what 13 unassembled IKEA closets look like.  Note they are on the ground floor and need to go up the stairs on the right. 
The Dutch do not typically do a lot of baking.  If they want that type of food they go to any number of the great bakeries.  Therefore, ovens in Dutch homes are quite small.  We have a combination oven -- it is a microwave and a regular oven.  As you can see in the photo, it's not even as big as a large US microwave.  None of our cookie sheets fit.  To make cupcakes you bake 12, take them out of the pan, then refill and bake the next 12.  Expats affectionately call these small ovens "Easy Bake Ovens" or "Barbie Ovens".  The apparatus above the oven in the picture is not a nuclear reactor. It is a steam oven.  Supposedly you can cook all sorts of things in this oven, but to date we've only used it to steam vegetables.  Our refrigerator is a little bigger than a large dorm fridge so we go to the grocery store every 2-3 days. 

The kitchen is huge for Holland.  Note the single light bulb....that's it for light.

Easy Bake Oven on the bottom; Steam Oven on the top. 
Another trait of Dutch rental homes is their darkness.  Each room, no matter the size, use or number of windows has one light fixture on the ceiling with one 10 watt light bulb.  Okay, maybe it's a 25 watt, but no matter, it doesn't put out much light.  This at a latitude where it gets dark at 4:30 in the winter and doesn't get light again until 8:00 the next morning.  It's like living in a cave.  Needless to say, we have installed new lights in our kitchen and dining room.  The living room is probably next. 

This house sat empty for 18 months before we rented it, so the yard was in horrible shape.  I undertook several landscaping projects to try and spruce things up a bit.  Boy did I miss my Suburban when I bought plants.  As most of you know, the main reason that men take on projects is the excuse it provides for buying some new tool or gadget.  In this case, I bought is a pair of Dutch work pants.  They are great.  They have pockets everywhere.  And if you need more pockets, you can zip some onto the front of the pants.  The knees are double reinforced with a material that resembles asbestos.  You can work in the garden all day and the knees never rip out.  Of course these pants should be good; they cost about as much as a pair of Armani slacks. 

Grant and I rearranged the landscaping bed to create another parking area.  The rocks were delivered in a super sack, but I had to spread them. 

Me with my number one helper.  We transplanted the large plants behind us and put in the smaller ones.  And to make sure we didn't get deported for not being Dutch enough, I planted 200 tulip bulbs along the edge.  Whenever any digging was required (and sometimes when it wasn't) Graber was right there to help me. 

Another new bed with more tulip bulbs in the bare area.  Note the Dutch work pants -- no holes in the knees.  

Our home backs up to a small canal.  Our Canadian reader(s) will be glad to know that the Ambassador's residence and grounds are across the canal.   The story is that the Queen's children spent WWII in Canada where they were well taken care of.  In gratitude, Canada was given a large piece of prime real estate for their ambassador.  Grant has taken the boat out several times, but the range is fairly limited.  Graber loves to stand in the front of the boat and look regal.  There are a number of birds around, especially ducks.  It's fun to watch them dive under water in search of food.

The Canadians are across the water.  Grant has taken the boat out several times.  The canals don't go very far though. 
One of our diving ducks

A large hawk that landed across the canal

A heron on the neighbor's deck. 

Before our US furniture arrived, hiding places for the cats were tough to come by.  Here Goldie hunkers down in an air mattress bag. 

We have a two story foyer with a balcony around.  Goldie is in the look-out position. 
As bad as the garden was, it still had one beautiful rose bush. 

A "twee onder een kap" or duplex in our neighborhood.

Probably 30-40% of the homes in our neighborhood have thatched roofs.  They continue to put them on new homes as well. 

Another neighborhood home

The picture isn't great, but in the center of the roof is a cupelo.

A view of the sidewalk on our street.

Monday, December 13, 2010


A very old Dutch tradition is the celebration of Sinterklaas, a "legend based on historical facts".  Sint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, was a bishop in Turkey in the 4th century. As a bishop he was credited with saving his town from starvation, reviving three dead children and offering gifts of dowries to poor girls.  After he died his powers continued to grow; sailors were able to calm stormy seas by invoking his name. Sinterklaas' generosity led to the custom of giving gifts to children on the day of his death, December 6th.   This tradition probably migrated to Holland due to the large Dutch sailing fleet.

The Dutch have done an excellent job keeping this tradition alive for hundreds of years.  Every year, they choose a town for Sinterklaas' arrival in mid November.  He arrives from Spain in a boat with his helper Zwarte Pete (Black Pete).    After the official arrival, many "Helper Sints" arrive at other towns, with parades and a large number of Zwarte Pete's (600 in Amsterdam).  Sint spends the second half of November visiting all the boys and girls to see what is on their wish list.   Children are also told that if they misbehave, Zwarte Pete will put them in a sack and take them back to Spain -- maybe that's why there are so many Zwarte Pete's? 

As with any legend, many questions are unanswered.  None of the locals could tell me who chooses the official Sinterklaas arrival town each year.  I'm sure the competition rivals that of nations vying to host the World Cup.  It is widely accepted that Sint spends the off-season in Spain, but no one seems to know why.  Especially since the real Sint lived in Turkey.  Questions like these are clearly the result of adults meddling in a children's holiday and are typically only raised by foreigners. 

Leading up to December 6th, children will put out their shoes once or twice to receive a small present or sweet from the Sint.  Then on the eve of the big day, Sint leaves a sack on the doorstep of the home.  The sack will contain 1-2 gifts for the people in the home.  Dutch tradition calls for the gifts to be wrapped creatively, i.e. many nested boxes or a model of how the gift will be used, etc.  The gifts will also have a poem about the person receiving the gift, usually poking fun at them.   Can you imagine our family gift exchange with this level of expectations?  No more buying my brother Tom a model and having Mom wrap it the night before.   

So how did we celebrate Sinterklaas?  We went to the Wassenaar "Harbor" to see the Helper Sint arrive by boat.  Before his arrival they were playing Sinterklaas songs over the loudspeakers.  But he must have been late because they ran out of Sint Music and switched over to Europop.  No one seemed to mind; the Sinterklaas songs were pretty dull.  Our town is pretty small so we only had about 30 Zwarte Petes. 

The crowds await Sint's arrival in Wassenaar

Zwarte Pete ala Harry Potter

When I asked Grant why he hadn't been putting out his shoes at night, he replied "What do you mean?  My shoes are out everynight"...along with his clothes from the day, backpack, etc.  Touche' to the teenager.  I informed him that Sint needed proper shoes to put the treats in, so we got with the program and put out some wooden shoes.  True to the tradition, Sint came through with some gifts.  This is one time it pays to have big feet.

How could the Sint have missed these? 

Official Shoes
 Grant had not one, but two gift exchanges at school.  That meant two creatively wrapped gifts and two poems.  He came through though.   He built a cardboard laptop computer to hold a gift for one of his keyboarding friends.  And he made a supersize Jolly Rancher to hold real candy of the same name for his second gift.  (FYI....Jolly Ranchers were started in Golden Colorado in 1949.  The name was chosen to suggest a hospitable, Western company). 

I also took a Dutch Sinterklaas Treats cooking class.  We made speculaas, a Dutch spiced cookie.  You put the dough in wooden molds to form it before baking.   The older versions of these molds are very popular antiques.  We also made Dutch Letters, a roll of almond paste surrounded by pastry dough.  We've actually eaten these before in the US; Jaarsma's Bakery in Pella, Iowa makes wonderful Dutch Letters all year round.  Jaarsma's letters are typically "S's".  In Holland the bakeries typically make M's.  The curves in these letters require some skill to make.  As you can see from the picture, I made a hyphen. 

My baking results.  Sinterklaas Speculaas on the left.  Dutch letter (or hyphen) on the right. 

Although I'm not sure that we needed another holiday between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we enjoyed our first Sinterklaas.  The Sint has performed his annual duty and is now on his way back to sunny Spain. 

Zwarte Pete Band

The Sint has arrived!  Let the parade begin.

Rolls Royce's answer to the El Camino

Our Sinterklaas Treat Cooking smelled so good that Sinterklaas had to come visit us. Note the book with the list of names. 

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Winter is Here

We've had snow twice this week, which is early for Holland.  All together we have probably received an inch or two so we're not exactly drifted in.  However, it does impact transportation.  During the first snow on Monday evening, Holland set a national record for traffic jams.  The government actually measures the length of slowed and stopped traffic on major highways and tallies it up for morning and evening rush hours.  Normal is around 200 km.  On Monday night there were 880 km of traffic jams.  Just as a comparison, driving the entire country from south to north is about 340 km. 

The Dutch strategy to deal with a snow like this is to salt the main roads and ignore all the others.  Consequently, our road is pretty slick, which I noticed this morning as I skidded past our gate while trying to turn in. 

Graber spent the entire morning playing in the snow.

I don't know what they do to the bike paths; they seem to be in better shape than the roads.  Although Grant has suspended all bike riding for the winter, the locals continue to ride no matter what the weather.  I thought I should give this a try so today I rode my bike to grocery shop in town.  Not only was this the first time I've ridden with snow on the ground, it was the first time I've ridden a bike while it was snowing.  I only had one near miss when I took a turn a little fast and the front wheel went out from under me.  I was warm enough but goggles would have been a definite improvement.  But I made it there and back.  Grant remains unimpressed.

The road in front of our home. 

Bike path to town.  Note how well cleared it is. 

Downtown Wassenaar.  Proof that others rode their bikes in the snow.