Wednesday, November 29, 2006

my hero!

we spent thanksgiving weekend in the BEAUTIFUL city of ghent, between antwerp and brugge in belgium. we'll be devoting several more blogs to our adventures there, but since we still do not have internet access at home, i just wanted to share one quick story with you. i'll post other stories later...

our hotel was actually a former monastary, and our extremely spacious and lovely room overlooked a little courtyard and a chapel wall. though the monastary was beautiful, it was definitely not built necessarily for comfort. the halls carried sound throughout the whole building, our room had no telephone, and the floor boards creaked. but how quaint! we were sleeping in a monastary!

i was exhausted our first night there, after travelling on a train for 5 hours and spending a few hours in amsterdam before we caught our connection. it was thanksgiving, and so i was feeling just a little homesick. and finally, Finally i got to go to sleep, after a very long day of sightseeing and travelling.

when just then, the people upstairs came "home" to their room.

clomp clomp CLOMP murmur murmur CLOMP crash CRASH! so loud! they didn't mean to be that noisy, but being in an old monastary will amplify any sound you make. and i'm such a light sleeper, that the smallest sound will wake me up. so needless to say, i was getting really grumpy. i was SO TIRED, and all i wanted to do was sleep! and the people upstairs weren't helping!

all my tossing and turning and grumbling woke up adam, who was very patient with me as i decided to just sleep in the side room that our hotel room had. i figured that in the side room, where i could turn on the bathroom fan for background noise, i wouldn't hear the people overhead tromping around in their room.

i was just about to lay down when i grabbed the powerstrip that was on the bedside table, to place it on the floor so i wouldn't electrocute myself in the night. all of a sudden POP as it sparked right in my hands! i screamed, jumped back, and in the process, i blew out all of the power in our wing of the building. adam came rushing in to find out if i was okay, and i just started to cry i was so tired and now scared.

so now there's no power, i'm scared half to death, and i'm still tired. so adam decides to wander through a dark monastary, looking for the night guard, to turn the power back on. he's gone for quite a while as he tracks down a person he's never seen before in a pitch black monastary.

and when he comes back, not only is the power back on, but he is holding in his hands two earplugs that he got from the guard! my hero!

i did sleep well the rest of that night and the next day bought more earplugs that i will always carry with me when i travel. when we came back to our room that next evening, after a full day of sightseeing and drinking incredible belgian beers, we found that housekeeping had removed the powerstrip. good idea.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


on saturday after enjoying a lekker lunch of fried fish and french fries (or dutch fries, i guess), we walked to the train station nearby to enjoy a dutch christmas tradition: "intocht."

intocht is the incoming of sinterklaas and his helper "zwarte piet" (lit: black peter). sinterklaas is the original santa claus, but instead of living at the north pole with a bunch of elves and reindeer, he instead lives in spain with his helper, black peter. he comes to the netherlands on a boat and on 5 december (his birthday) he leaves goodies in the shoes of all the good little boys and girls. intocht happens in every village across the netherlands, but the big official one is on 5 december. if you've been bad this year, then sinterklaas will take you back to madrid with him. (on a dreary day like today with less then 8 hours of daylight, madrid sounds glorious. but to dutch boys and girls, it's actually a scary thing.)

our intocht was pretty small and gezellig. we got to the station about a half hour before sinterklaas arrived to make sure we got a good spot to view the festivities. (in hengelo he comes on a train, since there are no ports here for his boat to dock in.) all the little ones were dressed up like black peter, which would have been cute had it not been so offensive and politically incorrect: they all had black face paint on. apparently there's some confusion about black peter, whether he's black because he's a moor that comes from spain, or if he's black because he's actually a chimney sweep. either way, it's really awful to see all these people dressing up with black face paint. a strange practice for a country that's otherwise so liberal and openminded.

but anyway, we waited around taking pictures of the itty bitties all dressed up, and listened to a marching band play christmas songs. (a funny note about our marching band here: hengelo is a small, backwoods town, and so the musicians here aren't the most outstanding: as the band director was starting a song, one of the tuba players in the back wasn't ready. so he quick grabbed his tuba, but as he was picking it up, he dropped his hat. so now he has to pick up his hat and put it on. by the time he fixed himself up, the song was almost over. how quaint and funny!) we didn't recognize any of the tunes, but all the wee ones knew all the words. in fact, in order to get presents from sinterklaas you have to sing songs as loud as you can. that part was actually really cute and sweet. i need to learn these songs so i can sing along next year!

sinterklaas arrived a little past 2 pm on his giant white stallion, amerigo, and was the main attraction in a parade that wound through the busy streets of hengelo. there were close to 200 black peters handing out candy and cookies to the children, and the marching band led the way playing christmas songs. now he "lives" in the little house attached to the catholic church around the corner from our house. i don't know if you can visit him there or not, but i'll find out and let you all know.

i'd like to point out with these pictures that they were all taken at about 2 pm... notice how low the sun is and how long the shadows are. hard to believe that we're still one month away from the solstice.

on another note, we still don't have internet at home, but our stuff arrived last night -- my spice rack, our bed, my massage table, our winter coats, etc. hooray!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

NUUF and 6 degrees of separation

for the past several years, i have been attending the unitarian universalist church of boulder. though i don't know if i'm necessarily a UU (that very sentence by default probably makes me one, though), i find a lot of comfort and joy and peace in being a part of a religious tradition and community like UUism.

unitarian universalism is a small denomonation, consisting of maybe only a couple hundred thousand in the USA. the numbers are even smaller here in europe, despite the fact that it originated in transylvania. (if i'm getting my UU facts wrong, someone please correct me. i don't know much about the history of it, unfortunately.) so when we moved here, i was pretty excited to discover, through my awesome UU friend neal, that there is a UU community here in the netherlands!

the netherlands unitarian universalist fellowship (NUUF ) meets on the first sunday of the month at a church on kaizersgracht, near the leidseplein in amsterdam, at 2:00 pm. so this past sunday i made a trek out there to see what it was all about. the following is my story:

i went to the train station in hengelo to buy my ticket to amsterdam, a 2 hour train ride away. when i got there, i discovered that the trains were not running into or out of hengelo, due to some construction that was being done. so i was guided towards some bus to take me to almelo, where i would connect with a train there. a rough start to my day, but it all worked out.

arrived in amsterdam around 12:30, and thought about stopping for a cup of coffee somewhere but decided instead to just go to the church, since i wasn't sure where it was or how long it would take me to get there. using my best dutch, i asked someone directions to the kaizersgracht, and which tram i would take to get there. he walked me to the correct tram, explained to the driver where i wanted to go, and the driver kindly told me that he'd instruct me as to which stop i should get off.

the driver was a funny man who was born in turkey but who has lived in amsterdam for almost 30 years. we talked in both dutch and in english about how hard it is to switch back and forth between languages, and i told him his english was very good (it wasn't really), and that made him happy. he ended up giving me his phone number (!), and then because he was so focused on writing down his number while driving a tram through the busy streets of amsterdam, he looked at me sheepishly and told me that he "forgot" to tell me what stop to get off at -- so that i could stay on the tram talking with him longer! isn't that funny! fortunately, amsterdam is a small enough town, and i've been there enough times, that i was able to find my way back to the kaizersgracht to locate the church.

okay, so now i'm at the church. i sit outside on the steps since it's only 1:00 and the service doesn't start for an hour. but then i get cold and make my way inside. i'm stopped by a few people who asked me quite protectively what i'm doing here, which really intimidated me. i suppose if i had a church in amsterdam, i'd probably be protective of it too, though. eventually a shady-looking man tells me to go sit in a corner, which i do. not sure if i made a good decision to come here today.

shortly after taking a seat, a tall canadian approaches me and introduces himself as derek, the minster of NUUF. he's lived here 15 years and came here with his wife, who is dutch. i help him fold programs for the service, and when that's done the "music committee" walks in, which is basically a husband a wife team who have been coming to NUUF for about a year. we talk about music and our favorite UU hymns, and i end up accidentally volunteering myself to help lead hymns at future services since i have some experience with singing these songs in my UU choir back home.

and then, the BEST part: a young woman walks in and everyone's like, "oh! this is valerie! she's from colorado too!" how funny! valerie is 1/2 dutch, 1/2 american, and tells me that her dad lives near denver. "in fact," she tells me, "i've been to a UU church up in boulder one time." no kidding! as it turns out, she's been to MY church in boulder! and, to make it even more amazing, valerie came to church on the very same sunday in february when i had a solo in the choir. after the service that day, she joined the young adult group for a luncheon (an event that i actually planned for that sunday). the only reason i missed meeting her that day last winter was because it was superbowl sunday, and rather than joining my friends for lunch i decided to go home and get ready for the game. it was fate that she and i would meet here, 9 months later. i cry and we hug, and i feel better and safer already.

so now the service has started. i have my nametag on, a UU staple, and the guests and visitors introduce ourselves. i learn that NUUF is approaching its 25th year, and that on any given sunday they number between 15 and 20 people. i'm pretty amazed that a group this small has survived for so many years! currently, the services are all in english, but more and more dutch people are coming every sunday, and rev. derek is hoping that soon they can start a dutch-speaking UU group, which would be the first of its kind in europe. the service has all the elements that i am familiar with: they light the chalice, they have their "needs and blessings" portion, we have a meditation, etc. the only thing missing was singing a few songs, but since the "sermon" that day involved rattles, chimes, chanting, and movement, there was still music involved in the service.

afterwards, valerie and i walked together back to centraal station, where we got a drink before i caught my train home. i cried saying goodbye to her, because i am just so touched and amazed at the beauty of the world, and the serendipities that we come across every day. i am relieved that a group like this exists out here in a foreign land, and that i have so much in common with them despite the fact that i had never met them before and that we all come from such different places. but we're not that different at all. and the fact that valerie and i would share a service together in boulder, and again one here in amsterdam, just warms my heart and makes me feel incredibly blessed to know that the world is not as big and scary as it seems sometimes.

i can't wait to go back next month. the whole experience just shifted my attitude here. suddenly i feel a little less homesick, and a little more centered. yay!

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Time and Space in de Nederlands

The other night the voice of Allen Ginsberg suddenly peeked out of Amber's laptop. We had been sitting in front of the fireplace in our new apartment listening to the selection of music that came pre-loaded onto her computer by the Dell corporation. We both stopped talking and there in the crystal silence of a darkening night in the east of the Netherlands was that beatnik croak rising from the speakers like an ungainly yet gracious waterbird. At once affectless and passionate, monotone and manifold his sound built up like a locomotive until what began as meek comments about private angst in a Paris hotel room became a rail against not only the politics of power but also the cruelty of our accidental, frail lives. He pushed through some impossible woof that keeps us from divine madness. I could seem him there under the smoke-dinged lights. I was transported to 1950s America the smell of soot the open road the cramped hotel rooms and wide spaces. It was four minutes of America in our transcendent ordinariness that channels through Ginsberg's rye voice like a lone corn stalk defiant in the beating November winds on some far away prairie. And then it was over. Back to this place and this time.

It has been two months since our arrival here but what does that mean. Clock time is objective but human time is not. It has been, not two months, but two years - two decades or two lifetimes. And then again it has been two minutes. On Saturdays we can go to the market and eat fish that were swimming in the North Sea just hours ago. We can buy them from a stand that sits on the very ground so devastated in Operation Market Garden, 1944. We can look at the Catholic Church built in 1890, itself so young as European religion goes. And within our very lungs is all that air from all that humanity. History weighs much more out here. Back home we can still feel the wilderness peeling away. Here it has been gone for some time now.

The Netherlands is small, but I bike to work every morning, which affords a pace just right for noticing individual twigs and acorns along the road, the subtle hues of browns and golds as autumn works its way from the outsides in - eating up the green heart of massive oaks, poplars, and ash. I notice the slow work of sheep who graze now this corner now that of a field that stretches long and away along the straight edge of a canal. I notice the Twente farm houses and the slow progress on one as they repair part of the roof. And the other night riding home late from a movie we watched on campus we passed the silent statues of horses in the moon and starlight, their breath rising in clouds of steam. It is Xeno's paradox - there is infinite space within the finite. If only we look.