MY LIFE RIGHT NOW

This is my life right now (or, yesterday morning).

IMG_3706

I sit cross-legged in my grandma’s old rocker-glider in my fuzzy slippers and running shorts, day-old shaven legs covered by that sweater-y throw I traded with my sister because gray matches her couch and brown matches the vibe of my 19th-century apartment: the lower unit of a two-story place–a studio, technically, because beyond the panes of its French doors to this sunroom, it is all one connected, open space; even the door to the bathroom never fully latches, something my cat likes to remind me at the most opportune moments of intended privacy, nudging his hardly-little-anymore orange and white face against the chipped-paint door below its antique knob, exposing his mom to the world, or at least our next door neighbor and his overly-sensitive automatic security light fixtures that beam through the windows that I never got and very likely never will get treatments for because in about three months I move out to graduate school.

Finding that new place to live is part of the Spring Break roadtrip my mom and I are about to take together. Our first stop is to the castled familiarity of EIU, our shared alma mater, where I will speak on a panel at the English Studies Conference about my experiences so far as a high school teacher, then tomorrow we’ll head E to IU to sample its gates and surrounding community–a healthy balance of sketchy Craigslist finds and junky-website apartment complexes.

And I am nervous–weary, at least–knowing that nowhere can quite match the quaint and quirky perfection of this place I am in right now. My half-read library books and partially-finished crossword are resting on the gas radiator, my empty copper mug is resting on the wooden windowsill, and every night, I am resting on my bed beneath an ornately crafted ceiling, beneath the occasional piano pitches of the Office theme song from the tenant upstairs, beneath the stars and everything else covering us and the rest of this crazy, big, vast, exciting world.

This is my life right now, and I love it.

And yet, this is my life and still will be no matter what space my cat and I inhabit. I will still probably wake up before the sun from an unshakeable internal clock; I will still certainly continue to craft myself unnecessarily gourmet breakfasts for one; and I will still absolutely continue to entertain and challenge my mind with words and perspectives–reading, writing, analyzing, thinking, sharing–the actions that will so explicitly define my life as I work towards my PhD in Comparative Literature. I have made the decision to walk away from my position in public education because I know with almost uncharacteristic certainty that taking these next professional steps through graduate studies is what I want to “do with my life.”  Blankets and mugs can tagalong into new homes, but the real comfort is in these things that I do.

Cats and breakfast foods help too, I’m sure.

 

seeing Germany and the Czech Republic

Just pictures, no words.

Besides these: one of my biggest takeaways from this very independent experience abroad has been realizing how much I do appreciate the people nearer and dearer to home. I miss you (probably), whoever you are reading this. So take a look and enjoy the sometimes artsy and a little bit fartsy beauty of the things I have seen this week, but if you want to real stories beyond the images, I challenge you to ask. Send me a message, give me a buzz (mom term), whatever. Let’s get together, drink warm beverages, and talk–I’ve said enough in this blog for a while anyway, and I want to hear about your life as well. I promise to bring little Dutch treats that hopefully won’t get too smushed in my luggage during my flight home that is, crazily enough, tomorrow.

contemplating “I” or a lack thereof

As I nostalgically and somewhat time-passingly (because finally for one brief moment in life, all pending lessons were planned, assignments were completed, applications were submitted, etc., glorious, etc.) read through some of my older blog posts, I started noticing something that I didn’t realize was quite so noticeable: my “I” key doesn’t always work. I thought that I, if not spellcheck, usually caught these lapses along the way, but I actually found many “wth”s and “n”s and sentences without that intended first-person subject.

Besides hoping that this lack-of-vowel is only happening on wordpress and not in all those lessons, assignments, and applications, I also can’t help but think about the irony of a disappearing “I” and how it can be seen in the context, not just the syntax, of my posts.

I have admitted before that I sometimes find blog posts incredibly difficult to write. Sometimes just for the most basic reasons–at the end of a day spent planning, completing, and submitting in front of a screen, staring at it even longer and fighting that pesky key is just not always what my tired eyes and numb fingertips want to do. As the smudgy pen stains all over the side of my right hand attest, writing is physical.

But of course, it’s psychological as well, which is what I spend more time overthinking about. I find it challenging to channel all these traveling and teaching experiences and observations into a space where they can be shared with family and friends–who I do know appreciate my stories and even claim to write fanfic*–without feeling like I am constantly, selfishly focusing on I I I, me me me, my my my.

But in my overly-critical critical analysis of my posts, I started noticing a shift; I do still write in the first-person, but it isn’t always about that person. I am realizing that it is okay to forcefully push that shift+i combination as often as I do because that is simply the perspective through which I am seeing the world. Frankly, the close and personal point-of-views tell the pieces I enjoy reading the most, and, in return, I like giving people things they can enjoy reading.

 

Lately, I have been doing a lot of that pointedly personal kind of writing, the cause of my aforementioned smudgy hand. I penned many thank yous to colleagues and mentors in my last couple of days at school, and I plan to continue writing letters over the course of the next week as I travel around Germany and the Czech Republic. I am actually ditching the “I” key and my laptop entirely, primarily for that physical reason of less weight upon my backpacking back…but also with the added psychological bonus of being able to fully focus on the experience–just my eyes instead of the “I”s, or something clever like that. Fanclub, help me out here.

So apologies to you avid followers who will have to wait at least a week to hear about my my my adventures, but I I I promise they will be stickily clacked out eventually, probably from the good old U.S. of A. Which is crazy for me me me to think about. It has all been craziness. But, I am ready (as is my backpack with minimal clothing but ample paper and pens) for a little bit more.

*Al, now I’ll know if you actually read these posts or just like them for the facebook cred…not that I would have any frame of reference to suspect you would do something like that, in like, I dunno, an English class like Backgrounds of Western Lit or something where you would ask that “chick who sits in front of me” if you could copy off her reading quiz. Right?

shaking students’ hands

Today I was reminded why I am here, why I have gone through this crazy, challenging, and changing experience abroad: to teach.

Amongst everything I have done on this side of the Atlantic, some of my favorite moments have occurred in the classrooms, through interactions with students, especially in the past couple of days, such as:

-when the third-year students recited the sonnets they wrote with skilled rhymes, beautiful metaphors, and some honest, deep emotions

-when my second-years were challenged to not just watch the movie clips they have begged me for weeks to show them but to critically engage them through film analysis

-when the first-year class diligently copied down the flowchart I drew to determine when to use this/that/these/those then enthusiastically traced their fingers down the lines to respond to my questions about this cat, that cat, these kittens, and those kittens–their adorableness just about matched the pictures in my presentation

-when one girl laughed at the Black Peter pickup line I made up and snuck into a presentation, mostly for my own entertainment–I’d like to get to peper-know-ten you better!

-when, at the beginning of the lesson, my fifth-years were able to accurately answer all nine of the Shakespeare trivia questions I have been drilling them with for weeks; but then, even better, at the end of the lesson when I asked what they had learned about Shakespeare, they did not simply recite these facts but instead discussed the larger impacts of the Bard’s works

-when I overheard two fourth-year girls analyzing Doodle’s death in “The Scarlet Ibis,” not just with their own speculation but also by referencing the text, AND the fact that I was actually able to hear this English-teacher’s-dream kind of conversation because I had finally managed to find a way to make those boys in the back of the room quit making weird noises for a good, really good, five minutes

It’s the little things, some might clichedly say, but the little things become big deals. To think that all of these moments happened in a language that is not the students’ own is still so impressive to me; the levels with which they can use English to engage in critical thinking varies from year to year, but even those first-years’ tracings will eventually lead to the intellectual conversations I wish I could continue having with the older students. Knowing that I have played a little seven-week role in this developmental process is so rewarding.

The best reward, though, came in the form of handshakes. I think I have already mentioned this occasional custom, but until today, I had not had an entire class pause one-by-one before me on their way out. It wasn’t just the brief moment of close and clammy hand contact but also the eye contact and smiles that accompanied every single shake. Some said nothing, some said, “Thank you,” and some added a few more encouraging words, still resonating in my head, about how much they appreciated my teaching. It’s a big deal to me.

And it was a big deal for me–to decide to teach abroad. But as I enter my last couple of days around these young Dutch minds, I am confident that it was the best big decision I have ever made.

 

falling in love with Utrecht

I ❤ U-trecht. After my first visit to meet the COST program coordinator with the other student teachers, I had a crush. I couldn’t stop thinking about how much I wanted to spend more time getting to know the city. When I explained this contemplation to Hans, the coordinator, he graciously offered me a night’s stay at his classic narrow Dutch home nestled in a quiet neighborhood just beyond the center of town–my heart was fluttering and my plans were set.

Actually, my initial intentions were to visit Amsterdam all day Saturday before heading over for the night, but as I went to bed already into the early hours of Saturday, I had the sudden sleepy idea to switch my plans around, a sort-of-spontaneity enabled by this awesome train deal from Albert Heijn, a grocery store, for a weekend pass anywhere around the Netherlands for 15 euro, less than the cost of a trip to either city alone. Best decision that resulted in the best day.

So, what I did in Utrecht is:

I got off the train and enjoyed a free coffee included with my train ticket. Thanks, Albert.

img_1532

I wandered outside and encountered a market with real Gouda stroopwafel samples and apparently this adorable couple–the sentiments unintentionally captured in their hand-holding represent the kind of good vibes I was already feeling on my date to/with Utrecht. My heart got even happier when I heard then followed the distant bellows of an accordionist playing on a corner.

img_1536

I found more music, including an accordion, at the Speelklok Museum, which was just as fun as the name sounds. I went thinking that a museum devoted to self-playing instruments would just be quirky and entertaining, but it was actually fascinating to learn about the development and purpose of these artifacts from a music history perspective; there was a guided tour that explained artifacts ranging from music boxes and clocks to violin-piano combos and these giant dance hall pieces.

From there, I continued walking along quaint streets of cafés, bookstores, art galleries, and antique shops framing the canals, all held within the sunny blue backdrop of beautiful weather.

Then I made the spontaneous-ish decision to wander down a little neighborhood path, which led me to…

This perfectly poised, posed, and friendly cat. Geez, Utrecht. Stop it already.

But it didn’t stop. I just kept walking around, in and out of stores, having the best time exploring and actually getting some quality shopping done for family and friends. At one point I took a rest on this bench, not just to capture this cool vibes shot but also to really write about how in love I was with the city I couldn’t stop gazing up at.

It was also around this point that I realized I had no more cash on me, just a few coins jangling along with my footsteps. I figured I should probably go find an ATM to be safe…instead I entered a bookstore. There I found not just a corner of English books but one in particular by Franz Kafka, whose Prague home I’ll be visiting in, wow, just about a week. I reached for it on the top shelf but could hardly graze the spine, but I was determined. And my determined self is willing to ask taller strangers for help. My determined self is also apparently capable of bargaining with shopkeepers when my jangling change only amounted to 4.05 of the 5 euro price. I chalk it up to the one that I dropped in in the accordionist’s case earlier in the day.

A day that still had hours left to spend in my now absolutely decidedly favorite place. I made my way through the Christmas light and starlight illuminated evening on my way to Hans’s, stopping to stare up at Dom Tower, walking slowly around the back to admire every angle, then as I continued on, still pausing and turning around every once in a while to confirm that yes, it was still there, and it was still gorgeous.

Its presence was also confirmed by the pealing of those self-playing bells I had just learned all about and could still hear fading as I walked through a park just outside Hans’s neighborhood. Oh, and within that neighborhood, as if I hadn’t already witnessed enough things that just made me grin, I passed an open window of a home where good old Sinterklaas was paying a visit.

I was just as warmly welcomed into Hans’s home, though, where he was just about done preparing our dinner of salad (from the last harvest of his community garden), steamed chicory (a white leafy vegetable that I’ve never seen in America), fried potatoes, and a vegetarian cheese thing (neither of us knew quite what to call it) in a fresh mushroom sauce. Not only did we enjoy our dinner, drinks, and double desserts (first ice cream with whipped cream and vla then later apple pie in a special speculaas crust), but we also shared another great conversation over those blue and white dishes.

img_1643

His perspective as a former geography teacher, among many other things, just comes out so interestingly through his stories and knowledge about people and places. His interests were also represented by the globes, model cars, and old family photos I eventually fell asleep surrounded by in the cozy guest room.

I just felt so at home and so at peace, both in his place and around Utrecht. Dwindling my day to a blog-posty list just doesn’t quite do my love for the city justice (although I do love lists and have plenty going in my dwindling days abroad). It was difficult to leave Hans’s after our typical Dutch breakfast of breads and cheeses, and walk through the park, past the Dom Tower (still there and still beautiful in the morning; I especially love the way the sun and shade are contrasting the two tornadically-split parts of the cathedral), and back to the train station.

img_1648

From there, I did venture over to Amsterdam to visit the Rijksmuseum and do some more wandering that needed to be wandered, but it was all done with lingering thoughts and a longing heart for the place I have fallen so much in love with. It’s a good thing this country lets me be as cheesy as I want.

 

 

structuredly reflecting for the fourth time

I know my dad will again be cringing at the lackluster laziness of this headline, but responding to “Structured Reflection #4,” my EIU-required writing prompt for the week, took some real effort.

  • What aspects of teaching in the host culture are proving to be most challenging?  How are you addressing these challenges?
  • Do you think you would face similar challenges teaching in Illinois?  If so, why?
  • How have you grown personally and professionally from completing this experience?
  • Has the experience broadened your global awareness?  If so, how?
  • What have you learned about yourself personally and professionally as a result of the experience?
  • How are you going to apply what you have learned from teaching in another culture in your practice (specific examples please)?
  • How will you help your students in the U.S. learn about the culture in which you taught and lived during student teaching?  How will your experience help you integrate culture into your teaching?
  • Other reflections?

These questions are all ideas I have been contemplating, but putting those thoughts to words, in a brief 1-2 pages nonetheless, is a challenge in itself. These questions are important, though, so I’ve decided to share this reflection and my rambling lack of brevity on the old blog as well to share a little more honest insight into the teaching aspect of this experience:

As I looked through this week’s prompt and thought about my recent experiences, I’ve had mindsets on the mind. From a pedagogical standpoint, it’s something my cooperating teacher has been talking a lot about as she goes through a school-sponsored course on growth mindsets for students; she translates what she is learning for me on our car rides home, and we have shared some good conversations about students’ brains’ automatic, reptilian reactions to fight, flight, or freeze when confronted with academic tasks. I can certainly relate these responses to the challenges I have been facing in my own teaching.

This time spent in contemplation is partially a result of my self-reflective nature and partially a result of the language difference, which is a primary challenge of my experience at Zuider Gymnasium. As I write this reflection in the teacher’s lounge, I find myself automatically isolated from conversations due to my own lack of comprehension. This isn’t to say that my colleagues aren’t helpful and willing to speak English when I’m around, but I already know that I am not an initiator but an observer. I appreciate the observations I’m making, but it does leave a lot of time alone in my English-thinking mind.

When I enter my English-speaking classrooms, then, I feel more comfortable with the language of instruction, but I’m also challenged by the content being taught—my lessons have ranged from English grammar and vocabulary to American culture and traditions, sometimes in strict accordance to a workbook, other times with the freedom to do whatever I can possibly think to do with Trump and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. My favorite lessons, though, have been the ones where I can teach the literature I know best, and specifically Shakespeare. I am happy to report how that Sonnet 18 moment—when students realize in the last two lines that the poem is actually about the nature of poetry in itself—can transcend cultures. However, before the students can reach that aha-moment, they have to access a basic understanding of the text, and before they can reach that understanding, they have to be quiet and listen to the “juff.”

In most classes I have worked to established comfortable rapport, but there is one older group in particular where I have no command. The students just talk to each other nonstop in Dutch and have no reason not to since they can easily ignore and feign unawareness of my requests to stop; if another teacher is in the room, she can assert her authority in a language that commands their attention, but they often aren’t present while I am teaching. While I appreciate their trust in my independence immensely, I do need that support sometimes to get back to the teachable moments—shouting in iambic pentameter over Dutch chatter so the two girls in the back who really were paying attention just doesn’t have the same transcendent effect.

This lack of support leads into my second challenge: ambiguity in my real role in the school. When I am alone in the classroom and/or alone in my head, I frequently find myself wondering about what I am doing. I have always been a purpose-driven teacher—I appreciate the assurance of measurable objectives, and I find myself missing the comfort of a Common Core State Standards typed across carefully-crafted lesson plans (which are now just amount to Post-it notes haphazardly scribbled whenever I find out whatever the teacher would like me to attempt to teach). I am always asking why I am doing what I am doing, but now I find myself questioning what I am even supposed to be doing.

It’s difficult to handle and difficult to explain. But, my reptilian brain is fighting. I am responding and consequently growing—first through a greater appreciation of what I value in education, both as a systematic American institution and as an innate experience of all individuals. Confronting these challenges has required me to have these thought processes that really break down the larger questions into ideas that I can reconcile with myself.

This developing ability to simplify and clarify (though maybe not so much in this reflection) is also happening in my interactions with students in response to the language barriers. If they don’t understand the definitions, let alone pronunciation, of Shakespeare’s words, and if they don’t understand the meaning of NoFearShakespeare’s translations either, they can never reach that Sonnet 18 moment. I am learning to rephrase—not only the literature but also my own instructions—and to ask the right questions that lead students to access the content. Clarity was actually one of the greatest areas for improvement that my home-placement cooperating teacher emphasized, and I can certainly see how I have developed since. These communication and command skills also relate into the classroom management questions Dr. Standerfer often posed in our conferences—I have officially encountered the disruptive classes I that I hadn’t in the Illinois cornfields, and again, I am working to find the best strategies of garnering authority.

But of course, every class is different. While asking one student to change seats might effectively calm the dynamic in one group, requiring another student to do the same (through lots of pointing and gesturing and physically picking up his papers and putting them on the new desk while he pretends not to understand a word I am saying) will still leave that student muttering a colorful mix of Dutch and English swear words over the less-decipherable buzz of his peers. That might be the most frustrating and challenging part of all: blame it on the sporadic schedule or blame it on the language barrier, but I simply don’t know these students as individuals the way I would so desperately like to. Like the students accessing Shakespeare’s words, I am just now reaching the point where I can pronounce and remember their names.

And yet, What’s in a name? one might ask. These students are still making an impression on me, and I am confident that I have made some kind of a difference for them. Through all my contemplation, I’m realizing that my ultimate role here goes beyond any measurable standards. To students, regardless of what I am teaching or how the lesson develops, I am an authentic English-speaking voice and cultural representative for them to learn from. To faculty, I am a resource (not only have they asked for my pecan pie recipe but also the instructional materials I’ve cooked up) and a relief; the demands of this school system can be intense, and I can tell how much teachers appreciate that they really are able to leave me alone in the classroom so they can handle their other duties. And to myself, I am developing new mindsets—professionally, personally, and globally—that far surpass these two months’ experience and will carry into my ambiguous future.

To simplify these rambling developments into the brevity of bulletpoints this reflection probably seeks, I am growing professionally through communication, flexibility, and responsiveness; personally through independence, confidence, and resilience; and globally through empathy, knowledge, and open-mindedness.

And I can also begin answering the final two questions with the requested real example—on my first Monday back in America, I will be sharing a presentation about Sinterklaas to the geography classes at my mom’s junior high for their Christmas Around the World unit. I am hoping to have a group of students here write a letter explaining their traditions (and effectively practicing their English writing skills because that’s the kind of embedded objectives I love and long for), then I will share stories of my Black Peter encounters and descriptions of the delicious treats.

Beyond those voluntary lessons, though, and to give into the tantalizing prompt for Other reflections?, I’m not sure how else or when else I will be helping students learn about the culture. Despite recognizing the larger takeaways, I do not know the next opportunity I will have to apply them in a real education setting. As days here dwindle and my inbox remains empty of job offers, the professional realities are hitting hard and have been unfortunately but honestly had me stressed. Not having any discernible plan for when I step off that plane at O’Hare (besides overwhelming my family with Sinterklaas treats) can be frustrating for my purpose-driven self when viewed through the wrong mindset.

But, when I rephrase it to myself and find the right perspective, I know that my independence, confidence, and resilience will arrive with myself and my treat-stuffed luggage as well, ready to confront whatever challenges are ahead.

traveling with Nico and Bibi: part two

I already tossed this little teaser up on the world wide web earlier today,

img_1481so in keeping with this social media-y kind of vibe (and to hopefully save some time), I think I’ll try to share Sunday’s happenings through short little tweet-ish remarks.

7:10 am. Minimal sleep but ready to go. Gladly finished off Nico’s package of smoked salmon on some artifacty bread. Packed up lunch sandwiches with a couple bonus chocolate euros.

7:55 am. Tap dancing outside car as we finish loading. Cracking jokes from the backseat as we drive away. Some call it rare form, I call it prime.

8:30 am. Channeling it all into journaling as we roll across the flat lands of the nether.

9:31 am. Crossed border into Germany. Hallo. Wilkommen. Kindergarten. Bier.

9:34 am. Saw my first “Ausfahrt” sign, which makes me laugh. Later followed by these two, which just sound painful.

10:01 am. Stopped at gas station. Bathroom had two toilets in one stall, and I had a bite of a German pretzel in true authentic gas-station-convenience-store style.

10:49 am. Arrived in Monchau.

10:55 am. Lights are strung across buildings. Faint music is growing louder. Tree is poking out around the corner. Christmas Market is happening. Heart is pounding.

img_1425

11:11 am. Nico offers to share a couple mugs of Glühwein. Hands are warm, heart rate gets slower, soul is happy.

11:34 am. Elf voice in head: OH MY GOSH! Santa is here! I know him! Helen voice out loud: Hey, wanna take my picture with Santa?

img_143412:07 pm. More walking. More pictures. More asking if we can crop out my bright running shoes.

12:47 pm. A little bit of shopping and one last look across the canal before following our own path back out amidst the mountains on the highway.

1:30 pm. Lack of remarks to represent a lack of fully focused mind and eyes as we ventured through Belgium.

2:12 pm. One window shot of Charity with Belgian homes, trees, and clouds as Nico pulls over and checks the map.

img_1447

4:23 pm. Question from the backseat: Do they sell waffles in Antwerp?

5:45 pm. Answer: ja.

img_1453

6:02 pm. Ate a little vegetable soup first then let Nico decide what kind of waffle we should get. Realizing this is the third thing we have shared today. Happy to have the same great love of sweets, treats, and warm beverages.

 

6:17 pm. Post-waffle glow reflected in lights as we walk back through Antwerp center.

img_1455

8:00 pm. Home. Happy. Exhausted. Excited.

traveling with Nico and Bibi: part one

This post goes out to my hosts for all the adventures we shared together over the past few days specifically and for their role overall in the past month and almost a half of a life. Wow. I know that in a sense I am practically already on an extended kind of vacation, but this weekend Nico and Bibi took Charity and I to a holiday home up in the forest in the northwesterly region of the Netherlands then across the country and into Germany and Belgium. The days away were a nice opportunity to see more sights while relaxing a little and finding a perspective that lets me truly appreciate the kindness, worldliness, and love of these two.

img_1324

Bibi likes to refer to her husband as a walking encyclopedia, but I’m about ready to write an entire book on them.

Our weekend started Thursday evening as they picked me up from school at the same spot where Nico often drops me off on his way to his office downtown some mornings. He knows Rotterdam well and knows that when his traffic app shows red on every possible route, it’s time to make a sneaky quick u-turn and stop off “for a bite” at a local Thai restaurant. As we sat down, Bibi animatedly translated and narrated the menu with descriptions of the food accompanied by stories of her travels, which may have taken even longer to tell than it took to eat, but our table was certainly filled with a Dutch Thai Thanksgiving feast (of which, she kept reminding us, “We could always get more!”)

This meal was a makeshift celebration of not only our American holiday but also the 25th anniversary of Nico and Bibi’s moment–seeing each other across the kitchen while moving in a mutual friend and somehow both just knowing: they were in love.

And they still very much are. It’s evident in just the simplicity of their affectionate little touches and the jokes that perfectly depict their so different but so complementary personalities. I had the chance to be a backseat observer to it all during our trips within the trip.

Friday morning we headed out from the forest and over to Het Loo, Bibi directing the show over the voice of the GPS lady until Nico calmly navigated the hybrid into an electric charging station. We walked through the crisp fall morning upon crispy fallen leaves up to the palace with the sun shining upon it, always the sign of a good day ahead in the Netherlands.

img_1217Cue Downton Abbey soundtrack to accompany our entrance and greeting from a receptionist who seemed less than happy to be there, we all agreed over cups of royal coffee and bites of royal chocolate  before beginning our tour.

I’m so grateful they sprung for the audio tour because beyond just looking at the impressive contents of the museum, I was able to hear stories and explanations about the significance of the various royalty who passed through this palace across the nation’s history.

Plus I just enjoyed the occasional humor (intentional and not) tossed into the commentary, such as the gleeful Wilhelmina, heir to the throne at all of four years old, playing with friends who were required to say “You’re it, Mom!” upon tagging her, or the miserable Queen Sophie who was buried in her wedding dress because she thought her life ended on the day she got married. I also fell in love, alongside the arduous pre-recorded voice, with the adorableness and kindness Queen Emma, essentially the Netherlands’ collective sweet grandma.

The palace also afforded some nice foto-moments for a couple of other lovely ladies.

The same can certainly be said of our next day’s first stop to the Nederlands Openluchtmuseum (or Netherlands Open Air Museum) in Arnhem. Upon this arrival, we were much more friendlierly greeted and actually somehow were invited to join as friends of the Friends of the Museum to drink their free coffee and go on their exclusive tour of the major renovations happening inside the premises. Like this cobalt/indigo paint we three admired; Charity and I have noticed that we are finding ourselves inherently joining in with Bibi’s interior design observations and obsessions–Nico likewise found his share of architectural flaws, again with the balance.

img_1401We stepped away from the tour to walk through the open (albeit very cold) air museum, which holds brick by brick restorations of Dutch homes and buildings across the nation’s regions and history. During the museum’s real season, the little wooden doors are open to interact with interpreters and watch demonstrations, but as they prepared for the upcoming winter festival, we were free to wander, peek in the dusty glass windows, and take many pictures on this also beautiful morning.

From there, we drove into the modern reality of the city, accentuated by the very newly opened Arnhem Central Station. Nico admired and critiqued the design of the organically curved steel walls to ceiling, we carried on with our foto-moments, then as we exited the building, we collectively critiqued the confusing ambiguity of the road/sidewalk/bikepaths that led us to the Arnhem Historical Cellars.

img_1387

I’ll be honest–I’m still somewhat lost on what this place actually would have been had it not been host to Sinterklaas and Zwarte Peter training, but that is exactly who and what we found beneath the streets. Charity and I were easily the oldest and potentially the most enthusiastic participants, but we successfully tossed presents in the chimney, raced a Peter with a sack of toys, balance-beamed across a rooftop, and (in a somewhat violent turn of events) threw balls at the faces of Peters to obtain our Pieten Diploma 2016.

AND we got to sit on the lap of the big man himself, who informed me that although he lives in Spain, he does not speak Spanish. That tidbit did not stop his friendly helper Peter from inviting me out for cervezas later…

img_1361a moment so perfectly captured by our official photographers. Nico and Bibi followed and guided us through this intensely festive hour of my life that I am still trying to process as reality and not some cerveza- or pepernoten-induced state of delusion, but there is even video proof (just a picture here but present on Charity’s stellar blog) of our Peter karaoke session to prove that all of my Sinterklaas dreams really did come true.

img_1369

Our final stop of the day was maybe a little more subdued in comparison but just as fascinating as a look into another aspect of the nation’s culture at Bronbeek, a former palace that now houses elderly soldiers as well as a museum about the Dutch involvement in the East Indies.

I’ll admit that I found the exhibition frustratingly confusing at first without a full understanding of the context, which wasn’t helped by the fact that we accidentally walked through the first half in backwards chronology. The significance began registering, though, as I resettled and began the second half with the understanding of post-WWII sentiments for decolonization, something I could connect with more personally familiar events in history. I read the personal accounts translated along the walls and pulled out the embedded drawers to view the artifacts within, and I realized something about the way I experience museums–I am interested in the story being told, but I am more so concerned with the way the story is shared. I think it has something to do with my training as an educator and interest in the innate ways that individuals learn, which also explains my frustrations upon initially receiving the information unintentionally backwards.

I was able to walk away from the museum with a deeper understanding necessary to appreciate the significance of another story shared within its walls. After sampling some authentic Indonesian cakes (or maybe Philippine or partially Portuguese…I’m still not certain what the conclusion of Nico and Bibi’s Google research was) in the museum’s café, we met an East Indies immigrant and navy veteran who has volunteered at the museum for seven years. Charity and I learned as much from what he told us in English, but what we later learned through Nico’s translation of the extensive conversation they shared is that this man’s brother was likewise a soldier and was in Nagasaki on the exact moment when and exact location where the atomic bomb was dropped. By the fate expressed in this fateful encounter, the brother was standing in the perfect center of the cloud, unaffected by the radiation just feet away, and he was able to use his own two to walk past the surrounding obliteration and live to tell the story that was told to us.

Crazy. The things you learn by going places, interacting with people, and learning about each other through our stories, the refrain I keep recapitulating in this blog and in the graduate school applications that I finally finally powered through to submit last night. I was inspired and motivated after receiving one more beautifully told narrative for the day as I watched a movie with Nico and Bibi, De Storm, which relates the North Sea flood of 1953 that Bibi’s mother lived through in Zierikzee. The film blended real footage within the fiction in the same way these stories seem to keep weaving in and out of my life in the artful, meaningful way I like to think that they do.

And so much of it goes back to Nico and Bibi, who after the film ended, sat with me in silence for a few moments as the credits rolled and reflected through our empty cups of coffee and mint tea on the table. I have no idea the thoughts going through their minds as we experience these stories together, just as I can never know what impression my short cameo is making in their lives, but as I sit here in the backseat recollecting and composing thoughts while Nico again drives us across the country, I know that they both occupy many many pages in mine.

feeling sentimental, grateful, and celebratory

I cried a little at the Lidl Wednesday night. Classic Helen to get most emotional about Thanksgiving while grocery shopping. I was wanting to make my Dutch colleagues an indulgent American treat, but as I wandered the aisles that simply did not hold canned pumpkin, boxed stuffing, or conicoupiaed fruit, it struck big time: I miss home.

And I feel like in the past week, I have used the word “miss” more times than I can count on my turkey-traceable hands. As I received all sorts of crazy kind text messages, Facebook posts, and e-cards (the best lame tradition from my mom) on Monday, I found myself responding the same way over and over, realizing how many incredible people there are in my life–who somehow seem to like me and who I just miss being around–in that annual way that special day always seems to imply.

There are actually three generations of birthday celebrations shared within this week of thankfulness. In addition to my own, Elsie’s is today, and Ma-ma P’s would be the 29th–a couple of misses who I especially miss in oddly similar yet achingly different ways. With their shared wits, hilarity, and just loving presences, we can only imagine how Ma-ma would react to seeing Elsie, all of two years old, chasing meow-meows and blowing kisses.

I get this mentality of sentimentality from my dad, who already posted wistfully, fondly, and wonderfully about our memories of Novembers past:

Every year about this time of day on Thanksgiving Eve I gaze wistfully to the west and fondly remember several years of road trips to Kansas in the days when the kids were younger. Just Hannah Schulte, Helen Plevka and I (Reid Plevka always had to work at Kroger, so he and Jeanenne stayed in Morton) made the those trips. The miles – including one year into the teeth of a hellish, early season blizzard through which we should never have driven a puny Ford Escort – were rich with music, conversation and general silliness. They were among the highlights of my year. The destination to my hometown served as a combo Thanksgiving/birthday celebration for my aging mom, who lived alone by this point. I miss my mom throughout the year, but I especially miss her this time of year; I also miss those two little travel companions. But, I’m thankful for the wonderful memories.

 

He mostly shared memories of the journey, so I’ll offer some more details about the destination. Like the kitchen, where, when a boiling pot of potatoes caught on fire, Ma-ma hollered for one of us to grab the soda, to which Hannah and I exchanged confused glances between each other and a can of 7Up. And the dining room just beyond, where, during one of those Thanksgiving meals, I asked what was making a weird squeaky noise, to which the entire room went silent except for the continued whistled breathing through the nose of Cousin Jeff. Then just down the road were the downtown Christmas doin’s, where one could guess how many candy canes were in a giant wrestling shoe or twinkling lights on an artificial tree, through which we won a K-State license plate holder and a ceramic bird thermometer.

These quirky traditions, with witty, hilarious, and loving people all around, create those wonderful memories.

Life takes its own journey to different destinations, though, and traditions change. Thanksgiving has become a quieter affair (less nose-squeaks, at least, but still plenty of cutlery drop clangs (glance at Reid)) as Hannah, Mike*, and Elsie take their own little family road trip and the rest of us stay home in Illinois. But this year, there was even one less Plevka at the table and in the wine-drinking hall (a quirky tradition coincidentally established when Brittany entered the scene, yeah?).

Instead, I had Dutch Thai Thanksgiving after my hosts picked me up from a day at school that still managed to leave me with many thanks to give.

I did end up successfully putting together some pecan pie bars, which were a pretty big hit, I’d say. My colleagues asked for the recipe and said thanks in the same genuine way that they all told me, “Congratulations!” on my birthday. I even received my first kiss-kiss-kiss on the cheek from one particularly sugar-buzzed and enthusiastic teacher.

I love being included in these quirky Dutch traditions of modest and honest appreciation. My favorite, though, comes from the kids.

It’s not something they do every day, but after one class yesterday, three students approached me, shook my hand in succession, and each said, “Thank you for this lesson.” The sincerity and enthusiasm they expressed reflected the gratefulness in my own heart.

My destination might be a little further than usual this November, but the journey has been entirely worthwhile. I know that what I am doing over here matters. And when I do return home, the celebrations will be sweeter than any treats.

*I should note that my brother-in-law Mike also has a November 29 birthday, and he likewise has his own wits, hilarity, and loving presence (I mean, the guy kisses the top of my head every time we say goodbye), but…it just didn’t work out with the whole misses/miss thing I was going for. I surely miss you too, though, Mike, and don’t call you Shirley.

**Correction: Ma-ma/Mike birthdays originally stated as 28th instead of 29th. Credit owed to Hannah for helping my aging mind.

going places, seeing things

A few snapshots of the weekend.

Utrecht–On Saturday, Charity and I took the train up (and over and around and under and across, see previous post) to meet our COST program coordinator, Hans, and the two other student teachers. Despite our delayed and diverted train, we still had plenty of time together to tour the city, which I’ve heard described as having the coziness and charm of Amsterdam but with real people who actually live a non-tourist life there, and relax at his place. After warming up with tea and apple pie, we sat and talked about our experiences; he also invited along a former teacher friend to keep us entertained while we cooked. Great company, and wow, really great food that might make up for a Thanksgiving abroad.

Delft–The next day, Bibi took the two of us out on another little day trip, first up to this home of Delftware, that iconic Holland white and blue design. We first just walked around the cathedral and city square, taking many of what are becoming either overly posed or awkwardly candid photos. Except that one in the Christmas ornament. So cool, possibly my favorite shot of the trip yet.

After an adventure around the town to find a public toilet (which is the normal term over here instead of restroom or whatever, but I still can’t get myself to say it without giggling) before anything actually opened earlier than noon–we ended up at a riding school and got to pet some new equestrian friends while waiting to use what, I mean, really was just a toilet. Then it was off to a bit fancier setting, the Koninklijke Porceleyne Fles, the sole remaining factory of the Royal Delft pottery company, for a tour and, oh, maybe some shopping.

Den Haag–After my field trip with the students Friday, I was excited to visit this city again. We even went to the same museum, The Mauritshuis, where I could look even closer at the pieces a second time and share some of the stories I remembered–like this painting about painting paintings of paintings, to which I tried to add another layer of trippy meta-narrative.

img_1145

That’s it for the snapshots of snapshots of shooting snaps and shopping shoots for now.