Fri
31 Jul

Dutch Camping

During the summer months (or at least the part of summer that has good weather) the highways of Holland become filled with caravans as Dutch people make their way to camp sites all over the country (and nearby countries if they have enough patience and petrol). The Dutch love to go camping but it is not camping as most of us might know it.

For the Dutch, camping does not mean roughing it in the woods, fighting against nature, scavenging for bugs and trying to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together. No, when the Dutch go camping they go camping on their own terms. Being away from home does not mean that you have to miss any of the luxuries of home. Gas cookers, refrigerators, washing machines, televisions and DVD players are just a few of the things considered essential camping equipment by the Dutch.

Likewise, having a caravan, which by its very nature is mobile, does not mean that you actually have to be able to travel anywhere with it. Dutch campsite spots can be rented for as long as you like. Once they have found a camping site they like the Dutch will settle down and start the process of turning their caravan into a permanent, non-moving summer home/bungalow, complete with a conservatory (front tent), heating, indoor plumbing, outdoor kitchen station and a garden (which in itself will include a garden shed, garden furniture and several garden ornaments).

However, there are a few things that are out of the Dutch’s control.

Most camp sites only have one spot where the mobile network and/or wi-fi is any good. This spot will often be out in the middle of a random field somewhere next to a cow. That’s why most phone calls usually involves a five minutes hike first.

The weather rarely acts as expected (or desired) either. Beautiful sunny weather will often be interrupted by a sudden hurricane or rain storm. When this happens everyone seems to enter a strange state of denial. During the most extreme weather there will still be someone swimming in the outdoor swimming pool, someone will still be attempting to have a barbeque and someone will be chasing a runaway sun umbrella across the campsite because they didn’t think it was ‘that’ windy.

If you have children things will be extra busy as you either try to keep them entertained or keep them out of trouble (or both). People often underestimate how much work this is. That is why you will often find a group of exhausted and stressed parents who mistakenly thought it was a good idea to hold a children’s birthday party on the campsite.

Despite the few things that are out of their control the Dutch still love camping and once everything is set up, the weather is good and the children have settled down (or gone off exploring) it is time to relax…… after you’ve mowed the lawn, washed the caravan/tent windows and done all the other little maintenance and upgrade tasks that you suddenly realized needed doing.

I know all of this because I have a caravan… A caravan with heating, indoor plumbing, an outdoor kitchen station, a garden and many other things.

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Fri
24 Jul
Becoming Dutch
This cartoon first appeared in the July/August edition of DUTCH:The Magazine
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Fri
17 Jul

Sleep Deprivation

(The following is a story I wrote last year for a story telling night. It has never appeared on this blog until now. Since I’m away on a camping holiday this week it seemed appropriate. Enjoy).

When my daughter grows up she is going to be a scientist.

This might sound like quite a bold statement to make when considering that she is only 21 months old but I know it to be true. She will be a scientist.

Please don’t think that this is the statement of an overly proud father or a father who has already decided for himself what his children are going to do because this simply is not true. However, she will be a scientist.

She has not officially stated this intention and we’ve yet to find any scientific equipment hidden within her bedroom but it does not make it any less true.

I know that my daughter Sophie will become a scientist when she grows up because it is the only logical explanation that I can come up with for the sleep deprivation experiment that she is currently putting my wife and myself through.

Now, I know that sleepless nights are nothing unusual for young parents. I’ve become quite familiar with them and I certainly know that I’m not the only one to experience them. I’ve spoken to enough tired and blurry eyed parents to know that they are regularly denied a quiet night’s sleep too. We’ve all suffered sleep deprivation.

And I had become quite good at operating on a certain level of exhaustion too. As long as I was not required to operate heavy machinery, do anything productive or use cognitive thought I was able to manage and sort of function.

However, this is no longer the case. The sleep deprivation has become more extreme. It is as if the financial backers of Sophie’s sleep deprivation experiment have threatened to pull out unless they start to see results. As such she has doubled her efforts when it comes to keeping Mummy and Daddy awake.

This was no more apparent than on our recent weekend camping trip in the East of Holland.

We’d spent the morning packing and getting ready. My wife and I putting things into bags, Sophie taking them out again and putting them back where she thought they came from. After we recovered the car keys from the washing machine and my shoes from the kitchen cabinet we set off.

Sophie took care of the in car entertainment during the long drive to the caravan by sharing with us her latest musical creation, a post modern peace combining the familiar Sesame Street tune with elements from both the Nijntje and Bob the Builder theme songs. I’ll be honest; I don’t think it is going to be a hit. There are more than a few copyright issues.

After a two hour drive we arrived at the campsite and got settled in. Sophie was going to be sleeping in her travel bed in the caravan while my wife and I would be sleeping in the front tent attached to the caravan. At least that was the plan. Sophie, it seemed, had been working on a plan of her own.

We should have realized something was up when she happily went to bed with no objection. She had even been smiling and happily waved goodbye as we left her in bed. As we sat in the front tent, enjoying a cup of tea and a much needed moment to ourselves everything was quiet in the caravan so we naturally assumed Sophie had already fallen asleep, hugging her favourite rabbit knuffel.

It came as quite a surprised when (a short while later) the window blind of the caravan suddenly shot up to reveal a happy little face grinning at us proudly.

It seemed Sophie’s brain had been working on a particular problem for the last few days and our visit to the campsite coincided with her finding the solution to the ‘How to climb out of my bed’ conundrum.

“Mama, Papa,” we lip read through the caravan’s plastic window as she stood on the caravan seating.

Getting her to sleep again was impossible. The excitement of her successful escape from bed was too much for her (and too easy to repeat).

So we were forced to form a plan B. We took out the travel bed, set up the large family bed and (after she had worn herself out a bit) we all went to bed and let Sophie sleep between us since this usually calms her down. Unfortunately for us Sophie was already working on her own plan C.

At about two in the morning Sophie decided that she was not quite comfortable yet (despite having already been asleep for a few hours). We were suddenly woken by movement as she turned over, rolled back, sat up onto her knees, looked around, laid back down, turned, spun around a few times, sat up, stood, hopped once or twice (she’s not yet got the hang of jumping), sat on her knees, laid down on her tummy, spun around again so that she was laying sideways and rolled over on to her back. She then decided to take a small break before starting the whole process over again. This went on for quite some time despite our best attempts to settle her down. She was having too much fun to sleep. This was particularly distressing for us since it’s very hard to sleep when someone is training for the Olympic gymnastics right next to you.

Never the less, I must have dozed off at one point between workouts because the next time I open my eyes I suddenly became aware of a tiny figure looming over me in the darkness, silhouetted by the window of the caravan. Sophie had positioned herself on her knees right next to my head and was mimicking the snoring sound I’d obviously been making just a few seconds before. Realizing I was now awake she fell silent, sitting there quietly for a moment, deciding what to do next. I stared back, desperately trying to will her back to sleep with my mind… It didn’t work.

Sophie was the first to break the stand off. In the darkness I saw her tiny little hand slowly reach out towards me, with it she leaned in closer until her face just millimetres from my ear and I heard her whisper, “Tickle, tickle, tickle.” We should never have taught her that.

Neither my wife nor I were safe from the tickle attacks. Sophie alternated between the two of us as we unsuccessfully tried to convince her that it really, really, really was time to sleep. More time passed.

We tried gentle persuasion, heartfelt negotiation, authoritative commands and final resorted to full on blackmail with an extra bedtime bottle.

“Thank god,” I thought as she quietly sucked on the bottle and I was finally able to lay my head back down on my pillow, “I don’t know how much more of that I would have been able to take.”

“Toot-ta, Toot-ta,” Sophie suddenly started to chant a few moments later, having finished the bottle. I groaned into my pillow.

Toot-ta is Sophie’s word for a car. She has become quite obsessed with cars lately. I am happy that my daughter is fighting the fight against pre-assigned gender roles and so-called gender appropriate interests. I just wish that she was not doing it at three in the morning. I’m fairly certain that both genders need sleep.

“Toot-ta, Toot-ta,” she continued to cry while pointing outside indicating that she really, truly, desperately, urgently wanted to go and look at the Toot-tas (I guess to make sure that they were still there).

Try as we might she could not be dis-persuaded from this early morning car inspection either. In what I can only describe as an act of desperation I took her outside to see the toot-tas. I tried to quietly explain to her that they were sleeping and we had to be very quiet so that we did not wake them up. I silently curse the toot-tas for getting more sleep then me.

But at least Sophie will now be satisfied I thought to myself. I could go back to the warm caravan and finally we might all be able to get some sleep.

And then she started pointing in the direction of the play ground. For a second I actually considered it. I didn’t have to be completely awake to push a swing, did I? It would keep her quiet too. It could work. Then I realized how creepy it would look for anyone passing by on their way to the toilets, a father and child silently playing on the swings in the dead of the night like something out of a particularly creepy horror story.

So instead I took Sophie back to the caravan, something that she was not happy about. Almost an hour and half had passed. We were about to lose our minds. In fact, I think we had lost them. Now the heartfelt negotiation had became more like desperate pleading for mercy, our authoritative commands an official surrender. We had officially ran out of ideas and so, tired and exhausted, we resorted to blackmail again and tried yet another bed time bottle.

Thank god it worked this time. Sophie slowly drifted off to sleep with a tummy full of warm milk. When a safe amount of time had passed my wife and I allowed ourselves to breathe a sigh of relief. We could finally get some sleep. We desperately needed it.

But we stayed awake for just a moment longer. We watched as Sophie fell deeper into sleep. Despite everything she looked so peaceful. I guess from her point of view she’d just had a fun late night morning playtime with Mummy and Daddy. Maybe it was the Stockholm syndrome talking but I suddenly realized that the sleep deprivation didn’t matter. I would happily forgo sleep if it meant I could have this amazing little person in my life. It might not be easy at times but it is worth it. Tired, exhausted and in desperate need of sleep I smiled and felt happy.

*sigh*

… and then she started snoring.

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Tue
7 Jul

Dutch Heat Wave

Every Dutch summer is the same. At first it seems like there will be no summer at all. The weather is terrible. It rains. It’s cold. It’s cloudy. It rains some more. Then suddenly the entire country is hit by an intense heat wave as if summer suddenly realized it was late and is desperately trying to make up for lost time.

Such extreme heat can make it difficult to think sometimes. It is simply too hot. That is why I have written a handy list of things you can do when the next Dutch heat wave hits. This year’s heat wave might have already passed (or has it) but it is important to prepare for the next year.

1) Place bets on what colour code weather warning the day will end with.

2) Try to separate your melted together hagelslag (which has probably infused to form one giant deformed hagelslag).

3) Try to understand why sunny weather can cause such massive delays on the trains.

4) Set up a fan near an open window until you realize it’s essentially the same as setting up a window mounted hair dryer.

5) Jump in a canal to cool down and then realize it was a really bad idea when you unintentionally taste some of the water.

6) Hope that the extreme summer means an extreme winter and Elfstedentocht.

7) Spend more time in the Albert Heijn (simply because they have air conditioning).

8) Cycle with your elbows raised in the air in the hope of creating some kind of arm pit ventilation/breeze (less confident cyclists may wish to do this by alternating arms).

9) Enjoy an extended ‘rokjesdag’ or (for the ladies) the often hit or miss ‘geen overhemd/korte-broek-dag’.

10) Start a barbecue and then realize that being within 50 meters of it is like venturing into Mount Doom (This is probably why the majority of Dutch barbecues happen in 15 degrees cloudy weather).

11) Drink a summer beer (before it evaporates).

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Mon
29 Jun

Moving

They always say that moving is one of the most stressful things you can do in life. I’ve always found that hard to belive because I can think of a lot of things I would find far more stressful. Trying to defuse a bomb with only child safety scissors for example, or trying to make a parachute during a skydive.

However, having recently moved I now find myself forced to reevaluate this misguided idea. Although I still can’t say that my move to Friesland was ‘that’ stressful I can’t say it really went to plan either. It ‘had’ been going to plan right up until the last two days. Then it was as if some unseen force had suddenly decided that it rather liked us living in Rotterdam and started doing everything it could to make sure we stayed. This was a bit problematic because we’d already moved most of our stuff up to Friesland.

We only needed to pickup a few last things from our old apartment before we handed the keys over to the new owners and said goodbye to the place forever. So my wife and I hired a van for two days and drove back down to Rotterdam. We spent Sunday morning cleaning up the apartment and loading the van. There was more work to do than we realized and the van was a little smaller than we thought so things were already getting a little difficult. Around mid day we decided to take a short lunch break before I started physically breaking stuff in half to make them fit in the van (like a frustrated Tetris player).

We went up stairs to visit our neighbours who kindly fed us (because the last of our kitchen items were berried somewhere under a box of light fittings in the van). We spent about an hour with them chatting about how the move was ‘theoretically’ going well before saying our goodbyes and returning to work… At least that is what we tried to do.

As my wife walked down the steps towards our apartment her pace started to become slower and slower. I could not see her face (because she was in front of me) but I could tell that something was wrong. It was the kind of ‘try to act natural’ slowing of pace people use when they start to realize they have forgotten something important and are not quite sure what to do about it yet. She stopped before she reached the bottom step and after a moment’s pause started to pat the pockets of her jeans.

“Oh no. I think I’ve…”

She didn’t have to finish the sentence.

My wife had forgotten her keys. She’d left them inside the apartment. In fact, she’d left every spare copy of every key we had re-collected from friends and family inside the apartment (including mine). Basically, we were locked out. This was made worse by the fact that there was still stuff in the apartment that had to go in to the van and the keys (currently locked inside the apartment) had to be given to the new owners the next day. We started to go though our options.

  1. Phone the real estate agent and get his copy of the key (“But it’s the weekend and he won’t be at the office”)
  2. Break down the door (“I don’t think the new owners will like that and you’re not that strong”)
  3. Look up lock picking tutorials on youtube (“We already disconnected the wi-fi”)
  4. Climb up the outside of the building and get in over the balcony (“We’re on the third floor and you’re not spider man”)

We stood in silence for a while, just looking at the door and trying to think up other solutions. I was about to try a combination of option 2 and 3 (using a screw driver) when my wife suddenly remembered that there was actually one spare key left. We’d not collected the one from our downstairs neighbours yet.

We quickly collected the key, averted disaster, got back in to the apartment, continued working and I spent the rest of the afternoon taking the mickey out of my wife for what had happened. This would later turn out to be a bad idea because within less than 24 hours I would be the one making things difficult. In fact, I’d already done it. We just didn’t realize it yet.

By the end of the afternoon we had finished loading the van and cleaning the apartment. We left the van parked outside the apartment, took a tram into the city center and checked into a hotel for the night.

The next morning we returned to the soon-not-to-be-ours apartment and met with the real estate agent for the final inspection. Surprisingly, everything went according to plan. All that was left was to drive to the notary, sign the last of the official documentation and hand the keys over to the new owners. It was just a short 15 minute drive away and we still had 40 minutes until our appointment, plenty of time to get there.

The real estate agent drove ahead in his car. We got into the van, planning to meet him there. I turned the key to start the engine and… nothing happened. I tried again… not even a whimper. The van refused to start.

“Oh no. I think I…”

My wife started laughing before I even finished the sentence. I’d left the lights on since we’d arrived the morning before. The battery was dead. We were not going anywhere, not in the van at least.

We had to phone the office of the real estate agent, and ask if they could phone him, to ask if he wouldn’t mind turning around and coming back to pick us up. He could not help laughing as he picked us up 10 minutes later, having heard the whole story from his secretary.

Luckily everything else went as planned. We made it to the notary on time, signed what had to be signed and handed over the keys. The real estate agent was even nice enough to drive us back. He couldn’t jump start the van for us though. He didn’t have any cables.

So we called the ANWB and asked if they could come and jump start our van. As we waited outside the apartment that was no longer ours, with the van that was temporarily not working, the new owners arrived to have a look at their property. They seemed surprised to see us. They must have thought we were having real trouble letting the place go. The truth was more the other way around.

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