This past week, I had a moment of clarity in which I finally started to know where I am, what direction I’m going and how to navigate my path. And I’m not talking figuratively, but literally-how to navigate my way through the maze of seemingly identical, twisting streets here in Rotterdam. Coming from a place where the streets are laid out in a perfect square grid with every turn a right angle, adjusting to Rotterdam, where almost no streets are straight, the buildings all look pretty similar and the name of a street changes every couple of blocks you travel, has been a bit of a challenge. For the first several months I basically had no idea how to get anywhere unless the GPS was on (and that’s driving, cycling and walking). But then, suddenly, I recognized where I was and I knew what was further down the road if I kept going or what I would run into if I turned a certain direction. I knew how to bike to the stores I wanted to get to. I also successfully took a tram into downtown, got off at the right place, knew when my stop was coming up without looking, wandered around without getting lost and found another tram stop to go the opposite direction back toward home. And finally, I was able to drive to our weekly violin lesson without needing the GPS. Now, this may not seem like much to people who are used to navigating new cities or have moved often and had to learn a new town, but for someone who has basically lived in two very easy to navigate towns in their life and who never drives in cities that we visit, this is a big deal. Now, I can say- I know where I am!
While the Christmas season is fast approaching, the Dutch are already busy celebrating Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas is similar to Santa (in fact we told our kids that he is his cousin) but he definitely has his own methods and traditions.
In a nutshell, Sinterklaas, who is very tall, skinny, old and stoic, lives in Spain (used to be Turkey) and each year he travels to The Netherlands by steamboat along with his helper, Zwarte Piet, and his horse. We happened to stumble upon a celebration of the arrival of Sinterklaas a week ago as you can see in these pictures.
Once Sinterklaas arrives, he travels around the country on his horse. Children leave their shoes by the fireplace (or radiator should you find yourself without a fireplace) and put treats such as carrots and hay in the shoe for Sinterklaas’s horse. Then the Zwarte Piet comes down the fireplace, collects the treats and leaves a treat for the child such as a small toy or candy. Two popular food items for children to find in their shoe are kruidnoten, a small spice cookie, and solid chocolate letters, generally the child’s initial. Children also sing Sinterklaas songs up the fireplace to encourage the visit. Then on December 5th or 6th, the family gathers for a meal and while they are eating there is a knock at the door. When the children go to the door, they find a sack of gifts from Sinterklaas.
Now, this sounds like a fun tradition for children and adults alike, but poor old Sinterklaas is not without his controversy. The trouble is Zwarte Piet is portrayed by white people in blackface, often with exaggerated African features. Apparently, this goes back to a story that was written in the 1800s in which Sinterklaas arrived with his “helpter” who seemed very much to be a representation of a slave in the Dutch colonies at the time. Currently, this practice is very emotionally charged here in The Netherlands. Some Dutch folk say it’s tradition and it’s not meant to be racist, it’s just in good fun for the holiday. Others say it is racist and that the Piet should either simply be smudged with black smears because they are covered in soot from the fireplace or they should remove the Piet from the holiday altogether. It is impossible not to stumble upon (often heated) debate on this topic.
In our house, we are trying the Sinterklaas tradition this year, but with a few modifications. We have talked about the Piet and what that means and we have decided anyone can be a helper-any color, any gender, any size, shape, etc. Also, we are not putting our shoe out every night for 3 weeks-nobody needs that much junk! Instead, we put them out 2 times each week. So far, Sinterklaas has been a fun addition to the holidays and we’ve enjoyed the cultural lesson. And parents, let me just say that there is as much excitement and anticipation about getting something small or candy on several nights as there is with a big item just one night a year- just in case you were wondering!
We have been recyclers for years. We collected magazines and catalogs and some school papers as well as plastic jugs and bottles. We also recycled cardboard, some glass and batteries. We had bins in our garage for these items and every month or so, we would take paper, cardboard and plastic bottles to a bin up the street and glass and batteries to the recycling center. I thought we were doing pretty good. But recycling in The Netherlands is a different game. It is not mandatory to recycle here though I feel like most people do make an effort (at least around our neighborhood) as the city has made it pretty easy to do.
In my kitchen, I have 4 trash cans-1 is very small right next to the sink for greens (food and plant material). Then I have one average size trash for actual trash (I also have very small cans for trash in the bathrooms and laundry). I have two larger ones-one for paper and one for plastics. Then in the garage, I have a container for glass. Every Friday, the city comes to the house to collect from large bins that are stored to the side of our house. One week they come for trash and the next week they come for green waste. Then once a month, they pick up paper from another large bin. We are responsible for taking the plastics and glass to recycling locations throughout the city. Some glass can be recycled inside the grocery store for money back. In addition, inside some stores, they have bins for recycling lightbulbs and batteries. There are large bins all over the city for recycling plastics (which now includes plastic items as well as milk boxes and aluminum/tin cans. In addition, there are bins all over the city for all recycling categories to promote recycling and for people that live in apartments that can’t use home bins. They even have those bins for recycling clothing, shoes, and home goods for the Salvation Army throughout the city.
As the trash needs to fit into the bin, when we have large items, we have two options. We can either take the items to a recycling park ourselves and they will tell us which portion of the park it should be sorted into, or we can contact the city to come pick it up. For example, when we moved in, we had a lot of cardboard. We went on the city website, scheduled a pickup day and drug all of the cardboard to the end of our driveway. When I got home from dropping the kids at school, it was gone. We will have to schedule another pickup soon as we have both cardboard and a broken suitcase that we need to get rid of.
It takes a little extra work to empty four trashes into the bins outside or to haul items to a recycling bin in the city, but we generally don’t have to do it more than once a week. Our biggest complaint would be that they should have a bin for plastics at the house that they pick up as it seems the majority of our trash is plastic (especially now that it includes milk containers and cans). I understand that it’s a fairly recent change that allows all of those items in plastics though, so maybe at some point, they will do home pick up. In the meantime, we just drive our bags to one of the bins every week or two.
The recycling program in The Netherlands seems pretty solid, though I know that they still have discussions about what improvements can be made. We enjoy recycling our items and don’t feel that it’s too demanding. And surprisingly, when we have separated plastics, greens, glass and paper out, we have very little actual trash (though we do seem to need a lot of trash bags!).
Today, I took a baby step toward making a life here. I went to the grocery store-alone and On My Bike!!! This may sound like no big deal, but, for me, stepping out on my own in another country is huge. And, in fact, I felt like it was a multistep process.
Step one-get on the bike path and make it to the store-check. Step two-lock my bike in an appropriate “parking spot”-check. Step three-get in the store and put a Euro in to use a shopping cart-check. Step four-pull up my app that allows me to scan as I go and pay at self-check at the end-check (one of the machines wasn’t working so this almost sent me into a panic!). Step five-maneuver around the other shoppers and get what I need whilst scanning and loading my shopping bags-check. Step six-use my phone translator to translate a few items that I haven’t learned yet-check. Step seven-successfully use the produce scale to weigh and print a ticket for scanning the item-check. Step eight-return the scanner to download my purchases and then scan my app and pay-check. Step nine-return my cart successfully so that I can have my Euro back-check. Now here’s where it gets tricky; step ten-carry my three very large and heavy bags to my bike and get them loaded on. This was a bit of a struggle. Two bags went into the carrier that I have attached to my bike, but the other bag had to hang on my handlebar. Nonetheless, I got them on and the bike unlocked-check. Step eleven-and here’s where I was really panicking because this bike was weighted down-balance the bike and pedal hard enough to get home with that extra weight-check. To complete this process, strong legs were required!
But here’s the funny part-strong legs weren’t just required for the pedaling. I felt like I needed “strong legs” to get through the whole eleven step process. I may or may not have had to talk quietly to myself today to reassure myself that I was, in fact, going to successfully complete this, but I did it. My legs, taking those baby steps, were strong enough to get me through. Perhaps, in a future step, I’ll need more strength, and I won’t quite make it. But, if I keep trying and moving forward, I’ll make my legs stronger, and by the time I’m done with this experience in my life, man will I have some “strong legs” to stand on!
Tonight we thought that we would be decidedly Dutch, so we made plans to bike to a little restaurant that we had seen in a park that we were biking through a few days ago. It had clouded up considerably, so we decided to grab our raincoats, and then we jumped on our bikes and rode for about 10 minutes to the restaurant. Along the way, we passed this field of geese and Highland cows.
We had a nice meal sitting at the glass windows along a small lake. When it was time to leave we hopped on our bikes, and had only ridden for about 1 minute when it started to rain. In the next few minutes, we really felt Dutch because not only were we riding our bikes as transportation, but we were getting poured on while doing so. I’m happy to report that our raincoats worked nicely. Next investment-rainproof pants!!
So we have now ventured out to the grocery store several times.
A few observations-
My kid is just as annoying in grocery stores in The Netherlands as at home.
You can buy alcohol in the store and the aforementioned kid might make you more likely to!
Either Americans like to buy big quantities of things or the Dutch like to buy small quantities. Either way, we either need to buy a lot and try to fit it in our tiny fridge or we have to go to the grocery store a lot (or maybe just eat less…probably wouldn’t hurt some of us!).
Many of the same kinds of things we buy at home are available at the store here. Some things are not, but thankfully there are some expat stores nearby that carry some of those missing items (and you can have them shipped to the house).
The store closes at 9 and they begin taking some things off of the shelf before that…if you want bread, it better be purchased earlier in the day.
It’s kind of fun to scan all of your items as you put them in the cart and then just pay when you get to the register.
You must take your own bags unless you want to pay or have few enough items to carry (boat with all my bags on it, please hurry up!).
While it is taking some adjusting and attempts to figure it all out, grocery shopping here is possible and it seems none of us will end up starving to death.
At this point, it doesn’t take much to make a day feel successful. The day we figured out our appliances, you would think we had just solved a complex scientific question. The relief we felt at being able to conduct some of the basic business of living in a home, was astounding. Who would have thought that appliances could seem so foreign, but when they are in Dutch and there is no manual or said manual is also in Dutch, it can seem like you will never get it figured out.
I know some of you have seen people looking at appliances on International House Hunters and wondered about it, so let me start with the fridge: nothing to figure out with the fridge except how to actually store anything in it. I think the fridge I had in my dorm in college was bigger than this thing. Next, there is the microwave: this is a microwave/oven combo. Not really sure why as we also have an oven but nonetheless, it has a multitude of buttons and a dial…hmmm. The oven is the same and none of those buttons is labeled with words, just pictures. Turns out you have to select the heat level on the microwave with a button and then turn the dial to set the cook time. For the oven, you have to select the type of heating by turning the dial to a picture and then the temperature is selected with another dial (and of course it is Celsius not Fahrenheit). And finally, there is the washer and dryer. They have lots of words but none of them make much sense. Both drums are very small, and, come to find out, the dryer dries the clothes by sucking the water out into a condensation filter that needs to be emptied of water after each cycle….that’s new! So, while none of it is very familiar, we have now used both the microwave and oven and clothes have been successfully washed and dried. We have conquered the machines and we feel good-at this point, it doesn’t take much!