Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Why We Do This

In case you are wondering why we haven't jumped ship on this house ordeal ages ago (a question we often ask ourselves), know that during the last week of November, we've gone to the beach or playground or both every day...and today we played at the beach in short sleeves. It was a gorgeous, warm and sunny day, and look at the day's beautiful conclusion:

That alone is worth the flight.

Head Scratching

First thing Monday morning, we met with our contractor. We did a walk through, and without really nit-picking, we still came up with four hand-written, letter-size pages of items that needed to be finished. He walked through with us and agreed to all items. It was a very polite and relaxed exchange. Then we sat down to talk, and we told him point-blank that we had no confidence that he would finish the job. Given all the delays, he is owed no further money at this point, and there will be no more coming from us. If he wants to try to finish, he has until Friday morning, at which point we will hire a new contractor. If he wants to walk now, the end result is still the same, since we will pay him nothing more whether he does more work or not. I've never seen him so quiet and pale. He clearly wasn't angry; he was stunned. After months of abusing his position with us, he just didn't see this coming. We weren't angry or rude, but we were united and firm...and he knows he doesn't have a leg to stand on. In his shock, he even signed an agreement I wrote up on the spot setting our terms in writing. Now here's where the head scratching begins: he still wants to keep working. He doesn't think he can finish by Friday morning, but he does think he can finish by Monday. He wants us to meet with him Friday to evaluate his progress and consider allowing him to finish completely, even though he acknowledged he wouldn't be paid either way. This is most puzzling. The best we can come up with is he wants to somehow preserve his reputation and avoid being reported to the state as an unscrupulous contractor (thereby risking loss of his license and insurance). Honestly, we want him to walk so we can get another, more reliable crew in there ASAP, but we'll give him the week. Our back-up, highly recommended contractor (who was not available for over a year after Katrina because he was too in-demand) can't start until next week anyway. Still, it is all very strange. He is working. He even has a crew over there, doing detailed paint touch-ups and who knows what else. There's no sabotage. He really seems to be trying. I don't get it, but there it is. We'll keep you posted.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Once more with feeling

Tomorrow, we head back to Ocean Springs for another two weeks of trying to finish the house. This time, Markus will come along to physically restrain Jennifer from throttling the contractor with her bare hands. Of all the times we've said this will be the last trip, this one really has to be. It's silly how close but how far the house is from being done. If someone would actually do his job, it would be ready to go in a week or less. It's insane. But we have to go back to police the work (or get the police involved, either one). On the upside, it is a treat in itself to have Markus with us for two weeks, so we're trying to focus on that. Ellie will be thrilled. She's such a seasoned traveler at this point that as soon as I started setting out clothes, she said, "Packing. Airplane."
Right-o, kiddo.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!

While I am most sulky about missing the big meal (not cooking it here until mid-December), I am trying to remember that giving thanks is what it should be all about (though giving thanks over copius amounts of really delicious food helps). We, the members of the dipe squad, have a great deal to be thankful for, and we remember that each and every day. I could write up a big sappy list for ya, but the posting would be awfully long and it's mostly for ourselves anyway. The holiday season is one of my favorite times of year because it makes us all remember to appreciate what we have and what we can share. We hope you will enjoy this day and share it with friends and family you love! And, if you can squeeze it in, have an extra slice of pie for me!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

New arrival

Our dear friends Laura, Peter and Cy welcomed a beautiful, healthy baby boy into their family this past Sunday afternoon. We are so happy for them and wish them all the best!

These friends close out the 2007 bumper crop o' babies among those we know. We will kick off the 2008 marathon but will be closely followed by four others we know of within a month or two. Whew! Must be something in the water. Drink it filtered, people!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Not just for babies

These popular infant videos don't limit their appeal to humans...

Saturday, November 17, 2007


This morning, Sinterklaas arrived in The Netherlands from Spain on his steamboat, the S.S. Madrid. The dipe squad, along with thousands of other families and the Spanish ambassador, was in Scheveningen harbor to greet him. Sinterklaas lives in Spain, but he makes the boat journey to the Netherlands and Belgium with his helper, Swarte Piet, to deliver presents and goodies to all the good little children on his feast day, December 6th (except in Holland, the 5th has evolved as the big present day).

Once he disembarks and greets the crowds of singing children, Sinterklaas parades through town on his white horse and alongside his helpers dressed as Swarte Piet, who are already passing out special cookies and treats.

For the next few weeks, Sinterklaas will ride his white horse over the rooftops, listening in at chimneys to check children's behavior. Children leave their shoes by the fireplace, usually with carrots for his horse. Swarte Piet climbs down the chimney (gets covered in soot, to explain his blackness in a PC way) and leaves presents in the shoes, usually chocolates or marzipan shaped like Sinterklaas or large chocolate initials for the children's names. On December 5th, children receive their big presents from Sinterklaas. Tradition has it that the gift should be wrapped in an ingenious way, and there should be an accompanying poem written specially for the recipient.
In the meantime, Sinterklaas keeps very busy, visiting hospitals, offices, businesses, and even both houses of Parliament. Since we'll be out of the country for most of his special season, we were happy to see him twice today, once in the harbor and once during his ride through town. The children's excitement on both occasions was electric, and it was fun for us to take part in a different cultural holiday tradition.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Process of elimination

Ellie looked outside this morning, turned to me with a very serious expression and said,

"Not raining.
Not dark.
Not windy."

She paused.
Then, her expression brightened into a big grin as she declared, "Sun is out!"

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Must be a squeaky mat...

There is a distinct disadvantage to being the only pregnant person in a regular yoga class.
I am a human whoopie cushion.
And everyone knows it's me.

Having a baby in Holland*

*apologies to our Dutch friends for treating this as an odd topic, but it's just different over here and people want to know

Since we've announced our pregnancy, I've heard questions and concerns from many of you about where we plan to have the baby and what the process is like in The Netherlands. From what I gather, most of you are apprehensive about (if not outright opposed to) our having the baby here versus back in the States, so I thought I'd lay it all out in a post for those who are interested in the hows and whys of birthing in Holland.

First off, yes, we plan to have the baby here. Bronovo hospital is a fairly new hospital in The Hague, and if it makes you feel good to know this, the royal family uses it for their births too (in fact, they celebrated the arrival of princess #3 earlier this year). The system here is set up for women with normal, healthy pregnancies (no obvious risks) to see midwives. Only those with obvious medical concerns see gynocologists during their pregnancies, but even then, their doctors are usually not present at deliveries; those deliveries are generally attended by whichever resident is on duty, with a specialized OB on call in case of emergency. Thankfully, I am in the former category. I had a great pregnancy with Ellie, and things are going very well this time around too. That means we see midwives. I use the plural on that, because we don't actually have a particular midwife we see. Bronovo has a midwifery practice right in the hospital, and there are seven midwives on staff. Appointments are set up with the goal of the pregnant woman seeing a different midwife each visit, so you can get to know each face and therefore not greet a total stranger while in labor (since you get whomever is on call that day/night; there's no picking favorites).

At the first visit to the midwife, I was asked if I preferred to have the birth at home or in hospital, and I went with option B. After all, who needs the mess? Since that first visit, I've been seen fairly infrequently (once every 4-6 weeks). The appointments rarely last more than 10 minutes. They take my blood pressure and measure my weight, and the midwife feels my belly and listens to the baby's heartbeat. That's it! We had an ultrasound at 10 weeks to determine due date (Feb 27) and another at 20 weeks to check organs, spine, etc. No more ultrasounds are expected. I had a blood test last week to check for gestational diabetes. No nasty sugary drink beforehand. No peeing in a cup each visit to the midwife to check sugars. The big key to birthing in Holland is their approach: pregnancy is not a medical condition. You are not sick; you are pregnant. This is a normal, healthy process for most women, and they strongly believe in being hands-off. This is actually something I really like, but this is also the scary part for most expats, particularly those who come from the US and are accustomed to birth plans and calling the shots as much as possible. I'm thinking specifically about pain medication, and how we Americans (and many other foreigners) clamour to get our hands on it.

Rumor has it that in the not-too-distant past, the Dutch system barred women from pain relief (specifically epidurals, which are common in the US). We have friends (who are not Dutch) who gave birth in Holland within the past few years, and they report being denied any form of pain medication, even when repeatedly requested during labor. While I personally am all for going with a natural process, I am a fan of knowing there is help if I need it. The idea that they would tell me I couldn't have it just because of a cultural boundary made me a little nervous too...initially. Since then, my fears have been put to rest. At least in The Hague, the expectations have changed. There are so many international people here that the cultural belief in being hands-off and the expat desire for pain assistance have found some common ground. Although the midwives prefer for women to do their best on their own with the labor, pain medication is now available if needed. Other more mild forms of assistance are tried before epidurals, which (though available) transform the birth into a very medical process requiring catheters, IV drips, monitoring, etc. as well as transfer into the hands of a doctor (no longer birthing with a midwife).

Last night, I attended the first-ever in English presentation of "Birthing at Bronovo", for which there was an apparent need given the size of the audience. I swear, I've never lived in such a pregnant place as The Hague. There are bellies everywhere! But I digress...
The presentation was given by a midwife, a doctor, and an obstetrical nurse. They combined efforts to let everyone know what to expect for the birth and labor process, as well as the time after the birth. It was a very useful evening, particularly when (like me) you just like knowing what to expect.

This leads me to another point that has worried some of you: going home soon after the birth. If all goes well, it is common here that mommies and new babies go home within a few hours. "WHAT??!!!" you say. Actually, they have thought this through beautifully. When you have a baby in the US, you are in the hospital for at least 24 hours afterwards, during which time nurses come in and bug you miserable every few hours taking your temperature and blood pressure and generally keeping you from what little sleep your newborn allows. In my case with Ellie, add to that a FREEZING COLD room with no temperature controls, a shared room where papa couldn't stay, and fights with the nursery staff about breastfeeding and no bottles or pacifiers. It was crazy. In Holland, they believe you will recover best at home, so they send a nurse there. This nurse is a "kraamzorg", and she comes to your home (often is there when you arrive from the hospital) to care for the mother and newborn for a few hours every day of the first week. She will often help with household chores as well. Some even take care of grocery shopping and meals! Of course, the level of service is up to you and your insurance company. We're just going for maternal and baby care. The kraamzorg we have works independently of an agency and she works almost exclusively with expats. The upside to this is the fact that she speaks English, knows what people tend to expect, and also knows how to allay fears or concerns following the Dutch system. In addition to the kraamzorg, a midwife will check in on mama's recovery three or four times to make sure all is well.

Just as in the US, there is a follow-up appointment at six weeks to make sure everything is okay. You can always call and ask questions (before or after the birth), and you can come in to see them if there are any big concerns. All in all, the system seems excellent. Perhaps this is why Holland has a stellar health record for moms and babies (higher than the US, I might add). We feel confident about staying here for baby #2, and we'll be sure to let you know how it goes! Of course, you'll have to give us a few more months for that posting.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Thoughts of winter

Today, the temperature is the coldest it has been thus far (around 7 Celsius) with a strong wind (according to, it "feels like 38 Fahrenheit"). The kicker has been the alternating bright sunshine and heavy downpours of hail. This has been going on for hours, and it's the craziest thing. Literally from one minute to the next, the sky goes from beautiful clear blue to near black and hailing...and back again. When it does come down, the hail comes down so hard that at times half an inch builds up from a single shower in our garden. Then it melts in the sun, and the process is repeated. At least the hail is tiny.
All this cold weather has me thinking wintry thoughts, and I've started addressing our Christmas cards. Those of you who know me well know I am a big believer in cards and non-bill or junk mail by post. I love birthdays. I try to get anniversaries when I know them. And I am a big sender of Christmas cards. However, that's not always easy in these days of email and internet, where most correspondence is done electronically and I lack postal addresses on a number of people. This is your notice! If receiving Christmas cards (and birthday cards and whatnot) gives you a warm fuzzy feeling, be sure I have your address! Unless you're sure I already have it, just send your address to my email (which I'm not going to post here for my own privacy; if this message is meant for you, you should have my email already). Before too long, we'll be sure to send some holiday cheer (and a new family photo!) your way.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

An update in pictures

It's been a long week of not much newsworthy to report. Typical Dutch weather has settled in, making our short days cool, windy, grey and often drizzly. The skies seem to magically clear up after dark (alas), which sets in at around 5pm now. Markus goes to work and comes home again in the dark, which leaves him longing for a vacation in Maui (Gail, do you have room for visitors?). Ellie and I try to keep our days as busy as possible, which really isn't too hard with a 2 year old. She's busy all on her own, and she has definite ideas about what should be done and when. We're thinking of having T-shirts made regarding Ellie's CEO status as soon as we can take dictation on the corporate logo.

The most newsworthy item is that Ellie has started potty training. Notice how I wrote "Ellie started" not "we started." This is all her idea, as everything must be. Ellie first showed interest in using the potty at around 18 months, so I took her to the shop and bought her a little which point the idea became mine and not hers, and she lost all interest. About two weeks ago, Ellie spontaneously asked to sit on her potty...with results! Every time she asks to sit, she has success, which makes her bubble over with pride and excitement! Of course, since we are doing potty-training her way, it is not for anyone else to dictate (or even suggest) when she sits on the potty. When she wants to sit, she does; when she doesn't, forget it. So she's still in diapers for now. We'll see how much longer they last. I have a feeling that someday she will just tell me she's done with them, and that will be that.

Our week has been filled with happy Ellie routine. As particular as she can be, she is a true joy and we have lots of fun! We go to the playground, the zoo, music class, and even the pool (where she is the cutest girl in a swimsuit hands down!). I brought my camera along to the zoo today, which made me realize I have a small backlog of photos to share, starting with Halloween. Here's a brief update in pictures of our past week or so:

Contemplating the jack o'lantern

Clingendael playground and fall colors

If I were a penguin, which one would I be?

The most common view of Ellie these days

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Tradition revived

This past Sunday, we started our morning right with some hot-from-the-oven, dripping-with-butter sweet potato biscuits. The recipe is from Jennifer's great grandmother on her dad's side, and the biscuits are a tradition for guests and lazy weekends. We don't often find sweet potatoes in the store here, so I had put the recipe out of my mind. Our hot weekend breakfast of late has been yogurt pancakes, and while I stand by those, they just don't hold a candle to the buttery goodness that is a well-made sweet potato biscuit. Hooray for tradition!

My great grandmother didn't have an actual "recipe" for these, so she just told someone in the family what she did, they wrote it down, and that's now what I have. Without actually having eaten any from this recipe before you try to make them, it might be hard to gauge if you are making them right, but give it a whirl anyway. I promise it's worth it! We have yet to meet someone who doesn't love them.

Sweet Potato Biscuits

Bake 3-4 large sweet potatoes until soft.
Peel (no strings!).
Put some flour* in a bowl.
Add sweet potato mash, 1/2 cup sugar and 1/3 cup shortening**.
Mix together with wooden spoon or rubber spatula, adding more flour as needed until the mixture becomes tacky, but NOT dry.
Sprinkle dough lightly with flour and pull off a chunk. Roll it lightly in your palms to make a smooth ball (you'll probably need a little extra flour for this), and then press it onto a greased cooking tray or cookie sheet. Repeat until tray/sheet is full.
Bake at 425 for 20-30 minutes or until tops are nicely browned.
Set rack at lowest position in oven if you want crispy brown biscuit bottoms.

*The old "recipe" calls for bread flour/self-rising flour and then letting the dough sit in the fridge overnight. We have skipped the overnight or used all-purpose flour and haven't found any difference, so do what works best for you. I can't give you a measurement on how much because I eyeball it as taught, but I guestimate around 1 cup (maybe?).
**We use real butter, not Crisco or margarine, but that's personal preference
As for the extra browned bottoms, that's all personal preference. Members of my extended family are settled into firm camps on this, but there is no consensus. I just set the rack in the middle and go with simple.

I bake the sweet potatoes the day before. Otherwise, you'll be looking at almost 3 hours from start to finish on a lazy morning...not so nice for the cook or those hungry people waiting. As it is, give yourself a good hour for preparation and baking. With a recipe so imprecise, it's hard to say how long the baking will actually take until you master the technique and ratio of flour to mash. In case your biscuits remain gooey in the center the first few times, take heart. They aren't "biscuits" as such, but they are still REALLY tasty and there's no reason why you can't eat them gooey. Enjoy!