Saturday, 30 May 2015

Brave little legs in Paris


In the turmoil of our busy lives we had three days of respite in Paris. It was the middle of the May holidays, M and I were tired and the children rearing to go. We took the Thalys from Rotterdam, marveling the fact that it takes a mere three-and-a-half hours to get from our front door to Paris. (When we came back on cloud nine, we discussed the possibility of going there every weekend, but that, of course, would be financial suicide).
 
It is not difficult to be swept away by the magic of Paris. The beautiful buildings, cafes and restaurants, the buzz on the streets. We had no intention of visiting museums and the like, our plan was simply to soak up the atmosphere. And soak it up we did. On the first day a two-and-a-half hour boat trip on the Canal St. Martin where I took the following photos in an attempt to capture the beauty of Parisian street life.

Parisian gentleman relaxing on balcony
                              
One of the many attractive appartment building to be found throughout the city

A colourful chaos

Approaching one of the many locks



Locals look on from the bridge


Airing the bed linen

Another attaractive appartement building (I love bright colours)






I have a weakness for this kind of scene: a cosy cafe in an old building with a blue door


 
If you look closely, you will see the market stalls on the banks of the river

The rest of our trip was spent taking the metro from one part of the city to the other, hanging out in parks and playgrounds, visiting tourist attractions such as the Eiffel tower (the sight of which had the children squealing with delight) and talking to local folks, who were very open and friendly. In talking to a woman (my age, young children, good job, resident of Montmartre) an interesting thing occurred to me: we always seem to covet the things we don't have. I was expressing to her how wonderful I thought it would be to live in an apartment in the middle of Montmartre, to be part of the buzz so to speak. 'Mmm,' she said, and began listing the things they were severely lacking: parks, playgrounds and space for children, despite the fact that her neighbourhood is predominantly populated by young families. She also told me that, in spite of their good jobs, she and her husband could not afford to buy a property there. And that owning a house with a garden was completely out of the question: the mere thought of it made her laugh. In short: she was lacking the things we have in abundance.  How interesting.

(There was another thing she was lacking, but I didn't want to point that out to her: good cappuccino. I've been told Dutch folks are spoilt on the cappuccino front - provided you drink them in real coffee houses, not the touristy ones -  but I didn't realise this was literally true. The cups we drank in Paris were pretty shocking, if only for their price: 6 euros!).
 



 
May I just take a moment to mention how incredibly well the children did: all that walking and not one complaint. Just enthusiasm and in-the-moment fun. Though I must admit daughter N said at the end of the second day: "My legs are so sore from all that walking: aren't they just brave little legs!" Yes, I said, giving her a cuddle: They sure are brave little legs.


 

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Maybe so, maybe not

My car was due for its annual inspection, so last Wednesday, off I went to the garage, a one-man shop located on the outskirts of my neighbourhood. I met my mechanic on the way, who rolled down his window and informed me that he had some errands to run, but that I could leave my car parked on the lot and throw the keys in his letterbox, no worries. And so off I drove, and parked my car in a space outside his workshop. It was a lovely, sunny morning and as I was walking towards the letterbox I was admiring the surroundings. My mechanic not only works on the property, but lives there as well in a pretty farm-house type dwelling. His children grew up there and he still keeps goats which my children love to pet and feed. Anyhow: there I was admiring it all when I mindlessly dropped my keys into his letterbox.
     Yes: mindlessly dropped.
     My keys.
     My house keys... my house keys, oh no!
     I peered into the letterbox and believe I even called out: 'Sorry, mistake, silly me, come back up please!' And for a crazy second I even thought I could rewind the moment ('Back a few seconds, please!').

So there I was. House nearby but no keys. When a vague sense of panic and annoyance ('What will I do now? How could I have been so stupid!') had settled, I looked at my surroundings once more. Normally I would have rushed back home to get onto the computer to do some work, but that was now not an option. Enjoying the outdoors was. And so off I went for an hour's walk which did me the world of good. I felt winter crankiness dispel with every step, I felt myself waking up. How lucky I was! When I arrived back an hour later, refreshed, my mechanic was well and truly at work. I didn't even need to tell him the story: 'You're not the first to have thrown your house key in my letterbox and enjoyed a morning's walk,' he said with a cheery grin.

It reminded me of that Buddhist story which I won't relate in full here, save the gist: sometimes unfortunate things may not seem as unfortunate as we at first think. May I rush to say that this was only a mild inconvenience and nothing compared to life's true misfortunes, of course. But still. It's easier to train ourselves in this way of thinking when we start small.

A small misfortune was also the fate of the Eiffel  I showed you last month. Yes, as a number of you predicted: it was knocked over. By accident. By one of son S's friends, who came over to play. He was pretending to be a fighter pilot of sorts, and the tip of his wing touched the tower ever so slightly, causing the whole structure to come crashing to the ground (poor kid!).  Ingrid was right: we should have glued it.  Is it a pity the Eiffel is gone? Maybe so, maybe not. I suspect not. I suspect it will make room for new things.

There is one more thing I would like to share with you. It concerns the mother duck and her ducklings below. I discovered them in our garden (yes, in our garden!) when I came home one day last week. We had been having ghastly storms over here and just the evening before we had seen footage on TV of a mother duck whose ten ducklings were blown away by the wind -  unfortunately son S saw it too and was inconsolable. So the next day - incredible as it may seem - there was this duck family in our garden for the first time ever. Can you believe our amazement?
 

 
 
 
 
 

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

A glimpse of Paris

 
Last week was Spring break. A freezing cold Spring break. Not that it was freezing as such, it just felt that way each time I stepped outdoors and an icy wind sliced into my face. The combination of cold weather and young children means a need to find things to do indoors, but preferably outside of the home. Staying indoors at home means getting on one another's nerves and an endless number of disputes to settle.

Hence we ventured out into the world of museums, using our newly acquired museum membership cards. Firstly, we visited the Kunsthal in Rotterdam, where the children were spooked out by an odd Scandinavian film on a large screen in a darkened room. Not a good idea. After the haunting intro (something to do with plastic surgery performed by surgeons wearing balaclavas), we hurried out and visited Ron van der Ende's  exhibition in the room next door: flat sculptures - or reliefs, if you like - of modern phenomena; suspended on the walls, they give the effect of an object moving into the space.  These were fascinating.

Later in the week we went to the Gemeente Museum in The Hague where we visited the Mark Rothko exhibition. Thankfully we had booked our passes on the internet: besides the one permanently outside the Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam, I've never seen a longer queue for a museum.  After the children's frightening experience at the Kunsthal, we also took the trouble to ask museum staff whether there was anything we should avoid with the children. No, the current exhibitions were pretty safe, we were assured.

As for Rothko: I'm not sure what to think. Although there was one painting I would love to have hanging on the wall above my sofa, I can't help thinking that if Rothko were alive today, he would be laughing all the way to the bank. M and I found ourselves more fascinated by the beautiful Berlage building of the museum: the bold colours, stained glass windows, and art deco archtictural features and tile work. The children went along with everything quite nicely, but for them the highlight was surely the interactive bits involving the history of the building, and the juice and cake they gorged in the beautiful, central conservatory.

No doubt inspired by our visits to the museums, we did some creative stuff at home. M has always had a fascination for design and craftsmanship. In fact, at times he still regrets not having studied engineering. So, when he has the time, he likes to get son S's building blocks out and build something quite intricate. And since we're going to Paris with the children in May, what better way to look forward to the trip than to have our own personal Eiffel to look at (until someone knocks it over, that is). The result is on the photo.

Of course the children's imagination got rolling. They envisioned a fire breaking out and fire fighters coming to the rescue. And before long, as these things go, a crowd gathered, anticipating heroic action.

 
 

 
 
 

Saturday, 10 January 2015

At the kitchen table


Just before the Christmas holidays, on the day we left for France, a dear friend of mine moved away. She lived just a few streets from me, and our sons have been tight buddies since starting school together some three years ago. For those three years, we would see one another at the school gate for a friendly hello, as well as popping around to each other's house regularly to sit at the kitchen table for good coffee and equally good conversation. A lot was discussed at those kitchen tables, and her warmth and ability to listen always left me feeling happy and at peace.

She had announced the oncoming move months ago and although we talked at length about the new house, new schools and new life that was awaiting her and her family, I refused to let my own feelings of sadness and impending loss run their course. When I broke the news to son S, he burst into tears and dealt with his emotions healthily as children tend to do. Yet for some silly reason, I thought it would be childish for me to grieve this event. I mean, H was only moving to another city, it was just one of those things I felt adults should take matter-of-factly.

I now realise I had fallen into the old trap of not acknowledging my feelings. Of pushing them away in the busyness of everyday life and the flurry surrounding our upcoming trip to France. After the holidays, when the hectic month of December dust had settled, I did a seemingly odd thing. On the first day of school, instead of heading straight towards The Hague where I work, I took a little neighbourhood detour and stopped outside H's house. I parked my bike against a familiar tree and made my way to her kitchen window where I cupped my hands around my eyes, rested my forehead on the glass and peered into the abandoned house. There was no kitchen paraphernalia, no memo board, no bookcases, no rugs, no boxes with toys. And no kitchen table. The light in the house was bleak, the place seemed dead. My heart sank. It was as if the reality of the move sank in right there and then. For a split second, I desperately wanted to go into that house, back in time - as if I simply had a right to the way things were (as dramatic as that sounds) and no-one had the right to take it away from me. As I peered in a little while longer however, I began to get used to the empty house. And when I got on my bike for an hour's cycle to work, I began to feel a sense of peace and resignation.

Our friendship is, of course, far from over. It will simply evolve and take on a new form, much like anything else in the flow of life. Visits will be planned and made. Conversations will be held and coffee will be drunk, albeit far less frequently. But I will always miss seeing her, poised casually on her bike,  smile on her face, waiting and waving outside the school gates.

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Thank you so much for your warm comments welcoming me back - it has done me a lot of good! I'm in a bit of a baking and cooking rut at the moment, but will undoubtedly come out of it soon. I did try something new this week - carrot and coriander fritters, taken form Nigel Slater's book Tender and although the kids weren't sold (surprisingly), M and I loved them. They were more work than Nigel makes them out to be, though; cooking time wise, I thought the task was similar to baking pancakes. Here is the recipe.


Carrot and Coriander Fritters
adapted from Tender, by Nigel Slater

325g carrots (though I used considerably more), coarsely grated**
a medium onion, diced
a clove of garlic, diced
150ml full cream
an egg, beaten
3 heaped tablespoons grated mature cheese
a heaped tablespoon of flour
a handful of coriander leaves, roughly chopped

  • in a large bowl, mix all ingredients thoroughly
  • warm a shallow layer of olive oil in a non-stick frying pan
  • drop large dollops of the mixture in the pan and fry until the underside is cooked and will allow itself to be turned over with a fish slice
  • turn over and cook on the other side; they should colour a lovely dark gold
  • lay the cooked fritters on a plate and cover with a clean towel to keep warm

** it is best to grate the carrots with the use of a food processor. Grating by hand makes them mushy, which will not benefit your fritters. 



Thursday, 1 January 2015

Back, finally


Before I comment on the photo above, I would like to start by wishing you all the very, very best for 2015: may it be filled with an abundance of love, happy times and good health. I would also like to thank you for your comments on my last post. I so agree with Gillian: the longer you stay away from your blog, the harder it gets to start up again. But today, for the first time in weeks, I feel relaxed enough to sit down and write. Have I been uptight, then? Yes, I certainly have. I find December a hectic month as it is. There's the St. Nicolas hysteria, Christmas, all sorts of festive school obligations and this year there was also..... a holiday in the French Alps waiting for us. Wonderful, I know, and you won't hear me complaining about it. However, the preparations and anticipatory anxiety can all be a bit much. In fact, it makes me agitated and impatient. Certainly too agitated and impatient to write. 

Anyway. Now that I've got this "why I haven't written for a while" out of the way, onto something else. May I start by asking you to examine the above photo, taken last week in the French ALPS. Why have I capitalised 'Alps'? Because this specific location is something you need to bear in mind while admiring the photo. There is, you see, something missing in this photo... 

By now you probably can't bear the suspense, so let me help you out here: the thing missing in the photo is... SNOW! We had spent weeks, if not months, looking forward to going skiing. We had booked a little house at the foot of the slopes and fantasised about skiing from the slopes straight into our living room at the end of the day. Can you imagine the look on our faces when we arrived to find pristine green mountains and deserted ski lifts? I mean, I had heard people say "there's no snow" and all, but I didn't think that meant there was literally NO snow. For the first day and a half, hubby M and I were bitterly disappointed. We had spent all that money and effort to go skiing and now our plans were being heavily thwarted. But then we picked ourselves up, realising how lucky we were to be there in the first place. The sun was out full blast, the local folks were very friendly and we were at least getting away from it all.  And in the end, we did get to do a bit of skiing. There was a tiny learner's slope open, which meant daughter N could learn to ski, and M took son S to a much higher area where they skied together to their heart's content for two days. 


On a totally different note: daughter N has a new fascination for the world of mammels. Whilst flipping through her new encyclopedia, she came across a photo of a mole. Now she knows moles only from children's books, so seeing a photo of a real mole was relatively new to her. After staring at the photo in surprise for a few moments, she suddenly cried out: "Hey, Mr. Mole isn't wearing his glasses!" Before I got the chance to reply, she added with a twinkle in her eye: "Oh, no - wait. He must be wearing contacts." Kids - don't you just love 'em.

 

Friday, 21 November 2014

A gentle push


There are times when I have to give myself a bit of a nudge. A gentle push, as it were. My last post was almost three (!) weeks ago, so an obvious example would be a gentle push to sit down at my computer and write a new post. Now I could tell you that I've been very busy, too busy to spend time on the computer and that would certainly be true, but only in part. The other part is something else, something much deeper, an interesting phenomenon I have been observing in myself. It is the one of my mind creating all sorts of obstacles that make getting to my computer, sitting down, going to my dashboard and actually writing, virtually impossible. In that sense it is not my busy schedule that is my worst enemy, but my own mind.

Let me explain. There have been a number of moments in which I have had time to at least start a post. But then on my way upstairs, I have found my mind (and body) wandering over to the hamper in order to sort out some laundry. "Damn, no more time left to write. Gosh I'm busy." Or, I have found myself moving over to the computer only to take a detour and start clearing out a cupboard. "See, I'm just too busy to write. Just look at all this clutter I have to sort out. By the time I'm done I'll have to go pick up the kids and then there will definitely be no time to write." I think you get the picture.

Of course there are other areas of my life where my mind gets in the way. Big time. Take football. Up until last week, I had never kicked a ball in my life - except to play with the kids - but had instead stood on the side-line fantasising about being named (Wo)Man of the Match. Particularly on school sports days, when staff/pupil matches are the highlight of the day. Whenever I've been asked to join the staff team, I have feverishly declined with the blatant lie "I simply don't like football" and that has always made me cringe inside. Because in actual fact, I love football.  It's just that a bombardment of thoughts get in the way: "I couldn't kick a ball to save myself, what will everybody think when I make a fool of myself, and heck, how will I know when I'm off-side?!" And of course there's also the whimp in me: "O boohoo, what if I get hurt?!"

Last week there was no time for the avalanche of thoughts to take root. It was sports day, the staff team was one member short and I was picked to fill the gap. "Go on, you can do it," my German colleague said playfully when she saw my apprehension. I was wearing my sports kit, but if the truth be told only because it's comfortable and looks hip. "But...but I can't actually play football, I'll make a fool of myself," I blurted out. "I always make a fool of myself and I love it," said the Art History teacher laughing. Oh. "But...but I won't know when I'm off-side," I stammered. "We don't do off-side," said the librarian. Oh. By the time I got round to the "What if I get hurt" bit,  the whistle had been blown and both sides were charging for the ball. And boy, did I charge - like my life depended on it. We drew 1-1 and I can honestly say that I gave it all I had. And that I loved every minute of it. And that I'm ever so grateful for the gentle push I was given. And that what I loved most was the team spirit and camaraderie (there was even a group hug!).

I can't wait to sign up for the team next year.



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The Dutch tradition of St. Nicholas is just around the corner and this always makes me crave baked goods with mixed spice. So last weekend I made a spiced loaf (kruidkoek). It's easy to make, fat free and an incredible treat at any time of the day, especially with a little butter (so no prizes for guessing what my kids found in their snack boxes this week).

Spiced Loaf (Kruidkoek)
adapted from Koken van A-Z by Marin van Huijstee

200 wholemeal spelt flour
4 teaspoons cream of tartar
pinch of fine (sea) salt
100g palm sugar
2 teaspoons mixed spice (Dutch: koek/speculaaskruiden)
1 egg
150ml milk

  • preheat the oven 175 degrees Celsius
  • grease a loaf tin with butter or baking paper
  • sift flour, cream of tartar, salt, sugar, and mixed spice into a large bowl
  • add the egg and a splash of the milk, give it a whisk with an electric hand mixer before adding the rest of the milk and beating until well-blended and smooth
  • pour into the prepared tin and bake for 45 minutes (check to see that a skewer comes out clean)



Monday, 3 November 2014

Comfort and coconut flour cake brownies



The start of November and this weekend Mother Nature thought it was Spring.  Only for a short while though - she has well and truly conjured up Autumn today. But back to the weekend, and what an incredible two days it was. Whole days spent outside, golden leaves raining down, the warmth of the sun on our faces. It was wonderful.



But before the weekend came along it was Friday. Friday morning is the one time in the week that gives me a quiet, empty house all to myself. A quiet, empty house in which I can sit down at my computer and WRITE. Last Friday morning, however, was also the annual open morning at the children's school, so that threw a spanner in the works writing-wise. No matter, though. I enjoy watching S and N doing their thing, so I forfeited my writing morning and went to their school instead. 

My first stop was daughter N's class, where I watched beloved Miss. C start the day with morning prayer, songs, and talk about the days of the week and months of the year. Next, she addressed the seasons. "What season are we in now, children?" she asked, to which she received an enthusiastic show of hands. Everyone agreed it was Autumn (you can tell because the trees are shedding their leaves, and there are loads of fat spiders in huge webs and beautiful conkers to be found). This lead to Miss. C's magic box. It turns out Miss C has a magic box from which she conjures up some mystery object every Friday. This time she opened it to reveal a (crochet, hand puppet) snail which she slipped on her finger. "Now how did this little fellow get in there?" she asked mysteriously, wiggling her snail finger at the class. 
     "It crawled in there!" one child exclaimed. 
     "It was put there by magic!" another one called out. 
     Then N put up her hand. "I think you put it there," she said matter-of-factly, whilst I shifted awkwardly in my seat wishing she would play along.
     "Yeees, I suppose I did put it there," Miss C replied somewhat sheepishly. After allowing Snail to slither to parts of her body which the children had to name, it was time to discuss a picture on the Smart Board. It showed two children sheltering from the rain under an umbrella. The picture led to the theme of protection. 
     "The umbrella is protecting the children from the rain," Miss C said, after which she invited one of the boys to come and stand next to her. 
     "In what way are you sometimes protected?" she asked him.
     "Well, like this," he said, wrapping his arms around himself, to which he added, "N does that. She protects me when I'm not feeling well." 
     "N protects me sometimes too, when I've hurt myself or when I'm feeling sad," another child added excitedly. 
     "Yes, N is good at that, isn't she," Miss C said kindly.
There was no shifting awkwardly in my seat this time. This time I was beaming. My daughter the caretaker, the nurturer. Just like her brother.

Speaking of which: S had his first ever evening party. A Halloween party, organised by our tennis club. After playing tennis dressed up as ghouls, the kids ate pancakes and played games. They were given a funny looking lollypop to take home, attached to the foot in the picture below. He came home at 8 p.m., grinning from ear to ear. 
      "You must be very tired," I said as I was helping him to bed. 
     "What about me?!" N called from her bedroom rather exasperatedly. "Do you know how tired I am after a long day of school with eighteen children in my class to look after?!"
     Now that's my girl.



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One of the nicest comfort foods is a good old brownie. I don't make them too often because I can't keep my hands off them.  Last week, however, I couldn't resist making a batch, this time using coconut flour. They turned out surprisingly well, though I must say they are cakey rather than fudgy. There's also a slight crunch to them due to the high level of fibre in coconut flour, which some may like and others may not. (I like.)

Cake Brownies
adapted from The Healthy Coconut Flour Cookbook by Erica Kerwien

55g coconut flour, sifted
40g unsweetened cocoa powder
0,5 teaspoon (fine sea) salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
6 eggs
160ml maple syrup
75g butter, melted
2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  • preheat oven 180 degrees Celsius
  • line a brownie pan (about 20cm by 20cm) with parchment paper 
  • whisk together flour, cocoa, salt, and baking soda
  • in a separate bowl mix eggs, maple syrup, butter, milk, and vanilla until well blended
  • add the wet to the dry and blend well (I use a hand mixer)
  • bake 20-25 minutes, or until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean; be careful not to overbake