Mar 29, 2014

Anarchy in the UK: Family Tour

Earlier this week, our apartment buzzed with the reverberations of President Obama's helicopter procession flying overhead en route to the Rijksmuseum. Over 50 world leaders were in The Netherlands for the nuclear summit in The Hague, resulting in the largest security operation The Netherlands has ever undertaken. Tensions were high. Mark was unable to go to work for 2 days due to public transportation disruptions, and police and security forces swarmed all over Amsterdam and The Hague. Although it went off smoothly, I think we were all a bit on edge.

And all the apocalyptic doomsdaying reminded me that I haven't written about our semi-recent visit to the UK.

Actually, I didn't need a reminder. Some family vacations can't be written about until much later, after the emotional trauma has dimmed, and you can uneasily laugh about it. And by emotional trauma I mean that we rented a car, and drove around England for a few days. You could also call it The Reason We Won't be Getting in a Car Together Anytime Soon.

Hahahaha, yeeeeeaaaaahhhhh.

On New Year's Eve of 2013, we spent the day driving from York, England to Coventry, where my brother lives. The journey is about three hours by car, but my husband's ancestral town of Bardsley was just a few hours detour, which would also allow us to take back roads through scenic Derbyshire.

Here's a tip, if you are ever thinking of going out of your way to visit little towns in Europe that your ancestors once moved away from, first visit them virtually via the Google Maps street view setting-- you might find out the reason the ancestors moved away in the first place.

Also, when driving on the opposite side of the road than you are used to, and on the opposite side of the car with the stick shift in the opposite hand, narrow back roads are the exact kind of roads you want to avoid. Wide, open highways, with few turns and intersections-- those are the ideal conditions for driving when everything is backwards.

So we made it to the town of Bardsley, where my husband had been dying to go, because I think he had been imagining that we would be welcomed home by all the locals with open arms. When we arrived, it was so small and indistinct, we had already passed through it by the time our GPS informed us that we had reached our destination. The only thing around that let us know we were in the correct place, was the garbage can in front of the old church that said "Bardsley Church" on it.  And the only person around to welcome us was a foul-smelling man who knocked on the car window to ask if we had any cigarettes. When we said no, he informed us, most unnecessarily, that he was drunk, and went on his way.

And that was Bardsley.

Amazingly we managed to spend much longer there than we had intended. We soon realized that half of our scenic drive would be spent in the dark, thanks to the short winter day-- rendering the scenic drive part rather pointless.

This is the part where I should remind you that everything about this drive was backwards to us. And that the country roads in England are unbelievably narrow-- with almost no shoulder, and traffic passing uncomfortably close on the side of the road my husband keeps instinctively veering into. And, that navigating complicated roundabouts in this situation is probably considered a form of torture by some more progressive governments. And, there was the backseat situation, where my children were infuriatingly close to each other, for many hours-- also a form of torture. And most importantly, it needs to be mentioned that even the best GPS systems are not marriage therapists (though how amazing would that be?-- Garmin, call me).

You could say we were a bit on edge.

After stopping for a some snacks, we reluctantly climbed back into the car, with the sun setting and three hours of driving ahead of us. The GPS was still powering up as we pulled out of the parking lot and entered a roundabout, so we guessed at which direction to go. Clearly, the stress of the day had taken it's toll, and we were not in our right minds.

We guessed wrong.

20 minutes down the road the GPS prompts us to turn right.

"Wait, where was I supposed to turn?"

"Um, I think there was a little side road. It was hard to tell in the dark."

"What? That thing that looked like a cattle trail? What the?"

"Let's just turn around and see."

"Mom, how much--"


Turning around required an 82-point turn in a muddy driveway, and 5 minutes later we were sitting in front of the world's tiniest road, listening to the insistent prompts from the GPS to turn left.

You know that episode of The Office where Dwight and Michael drive into a lake because their GPS told them to? Yes, it was exactly like that, except instead of driving into a lake, we drove into the icy cold waters of being tired, hungry, and lost while married.

Words were said. Words were yelled actually. Words like FINE! and HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO KNOW?! and MAYBE I WANT US ALL TO DIE OUT HERE and DO WHATEVER YOU WANT BUT JUST GIVE ME THE PRINGLES. All in front of the children, who were suddenly being very quiet in the backseat.

So, we did turn left onto that road that was barely a road, and eventually it wound it's way to civilization, we made it to my brother's house, and barely spoke to each other until January 3rd. The End.

The moral is: always travel by train.

Actually, apart from every time we got in that car, the rest of the trip was not so bad. Here's the quick photographic version:

We took an overnight ferry across the North Sea in the middle of a severe wind storm. 

After 24 hours of traveling, we arrived in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was cold, windy, bleak, and also pretty cool. 

While we could barely stand to be outside for more than three minutes at a time, this bagpipe player stood outside for much longer with bare hands and bare who-knows-what-else. 

You do not want to mess with these Vikings. 

At this point we rented the car, and drove down to York with only a few near-death experiences. York is lovely, though we took almost no photos, except this nativity scene at York Minster: 
Do you see it? That brontosaurus is my favorite thing ever and just might have healed my strained relationship with Christmas.

We spent a few days with my brother and family, washing our clothes over and over again just to experience the healing softness of machine-dried clothes. And home-cooked meals. And Costco. 

Yet, we couldn't resist putting ourselves through another test of human endurance and fortitude: a 1000-piece Thomas Kincaid, Painter of Light (TM) puzzle. All I can say is, burn in hell, Thomas Kincaid, you sick SOB.

Ah, the old how-many-cousins-can-you-cram-into-a-red-phone-booth-before-they-pass-out-from-the-stench-of-urine game.

While at my brother's, I ordered the best souvenir from Amazon UK: a box of 48 Cadbury creme eggs. And I never told the kids. It was such delicious therapy. Then we picked up the worst souvenir: the all-purpose family stomach ailment.

We headed to London with our fingers crossed, and spent the day with my old college roommate.  Everything was fine, until Sam threw up just as our train was leaving Liverpool Street Station. Everyone on the train politely ignored his ralfing, which was just so British of them.

After another ferry, more trains, and thankfully no more barfing, we arrive home with a fair amount of emotional scarring, but an almost-full box of Cadbury eggs. So worth it. 

Mar 5, 2014

Majority Rules! Or Why I'm Proud to be an American.

It's been a mild, uneventful winter here in Amsterdam. No Polar Vortex. No Russian invasions. And the Oscars were broadcast at 2 AM so when Ellen broke Twitter, no one really noticed.

But speaking of heartache and woe, my kids were home for mid-winter break all last week.

We had decided to stay in Amsterdam for this break, which sounded like such a good idea at one point, long ago. But I forgot that even though I'm not afraid of many things, I am absolutely terrified of three specific things, which are: big, hairy spiders, skinny jeans, and being home all day, alone, with my children. And when I am in a constant state of fear, I cry, in random situations. For example, every time one of my kids says I'm hungry, what's for dinner?And possibly in the produce section at the grocery store while Elton John was playing. Look, I was a mess-- it was like a hostage situation here.

One day Nate asked me if he could pretty please set fire to a blueberry. When I said no, he squished said blueberry on his head.

At one point, Sam spent over 30 minutes quizzing me about every aspect of allergies, and specifically which ones can kill you and under exactly what circumstances and how likely is it. I said, why don't you go set fire to some blueberries with your brother? 

Three days in, I suggested that we go outside, and you would have thought whining was an Olympic sport. The teeth-gnashing and melodramatic collapses were exquisitely executed. Possible world records.

This week, however, the kids are back in school, emotions are back in check, and I can grocery shop with dignity again. What's more, it's time to get motivated and accomplish something, because I looked at the calendar today and did you know that it is March already? I'm not even kidding. MARCH. For realz people.

I took Sam to a blind playdate recently (this is one of the things you do as an expat), and it turns out that the kid's mother is an expert on motivation and accomplishing things; she used to be a life coach and all that. It's a bummer because she's very nice, and we have so much in common. For example, she moved here from Seattle and has a quirky little boy, same as me. She gets up early every day to run because she does marathons, and I also wake up eventually each day, and occasionally run for minutes at a time. She is an actual published author, and earns a living as a writing coach. And I publish biannual blog posts, and could probably benefit from having a writing coach. She's the type of woman who gets all the crap done, and I'm the type of woman who thinks, oh crap, I should really get something done. But first, how would John Travolta pronounce my name

Who knows though, it could be the beginning of a beautiful, codependent relationship. Or maybe not so much codependent, as one-way dependent. I think they call those stalkers.

FYI, while googling the spelling of codependency, I just came across this actual sentence on a mental health website, regarding dysfunctional families: Don’t feel bad if that includes you. Most American families are dysfunctional. You’re in the majority!

While that's not at all reassuring, it does make me feel weirdly patriotic. Strange, the things that make you miss home sometimes.

So, how's your winter going?