Monthly Archives: September 2011

YOU’VE GOT MAIL

In the United States, the debate has been going on for years about the uncertain future of the Post Office. The public has been told about the loss of revenue and the problem does not seem to be solved by raising the cost of a stamp. It is no surprise to hear that people are using the post office less often, as the Internet has changed how we communicate with each other. There was a time when I was writing letters every week, and now almost all of my mail is email. As I left America, the discussion was still going on and there was no definitive answer to this increasing problem.

In the Netherlands, I quickly learned what a “private post office” really means. In 2009 it was announced that all of the post offices would close. Right now there are 14 post offices left and the last one will close in October, the post office in Utrecht. Basically, the government run postal services are now considered semi-private. Since I moved here, I have not been in a post office. I have done all my postal business in a “sales points” location.

There are 2400 locations throughout the country where you can do all of your postal business, from buying a stamp to mailing packages. These locations are grocery stores, book stores and convenience stores. There are two places that I frequent: one is in a book store and it is large enough to have a special section of the counter just for postal needs and the other one is a dinkie little store where you can buy a stamp and a newspaper at the same time.

The interesting thing about this is the delivery system. Mail is delivered to your home, Monday-Saturday, IF it is in an envelope or a magazine—something with your name and address on it. This mail is delivered by someone on a bicycle. Circulars and all other sale items are delivered by another company, they are usually young people walking up and down the neighborhood with a bag of ads to put in your mail box. Everyone is given stickers to put on their mail box, if you do not want to get any ads, you just say so and they will not be delivered. Packages are brought to your home by a delivery company, but they will not leave packages if you are not home. If you live in an apartment building, the package can be left with a neighbor. If not, the package will have to be picked up by you at a selected location.

You can designate a “pick up” place when you order something online, if you know that you will not be home from 9-5. And this I find most interesting: there are places are all over the community that are designated package pick ups, like a gas station, as they are open more hours than most stores. You can also pick up your package at a hardware store, grocery store, or a video store.

Basically, in one day I could get three different companies coming to my home: bringing me my mail, the sale circulars and a package. And so far, I have not had any problems. The locations are very handy as they are all over the town or city. If the store is open, then you can do your postal business.

From what I know, the transition from the two types of post offices in the past few years has gone pretty smoothly. I cannot find any huge negative aspect of this change, except for those people who have lost their jobs. The human component to this situation should not be forgotten. In America, a major change would be devastating to thousands of federal employees. As many Dutch people have had to face the same challenge.

But from a customer’s point of view, it does not seem to have impacted services. And as it is typical Dutch, the people here have adapted to this new way of doing business. For practical reasons, the changes were made for economic reasons. Whether it is popular or not, I have no idea. But I can tell you that I do get my mail, it is just done a little differently.

Recommended reading:  84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer

NATIONAL TREASURE

She raised six children in a small town in southern England. She was married, but it seemed like she was alone sometimes. The burden of running the household and raising children was purely on her shoulders. The family lived in a two bedroom terrace house and had very little money. The period before, during and after the second world war were tough and lean, but they managed.

She was my grandmother and I loved her dearly. Even after her children became adults and most of them were out of the house, she was still working hard each day. I have no idea what time she got up in the morning, but she was always hard at work when I came downstairs. She was busy all morning and then would have a quick cup of tea with my aunt and then she was back at work, getting ready for the big dinner at noon. After the meal, she would sit in her easy chair by the stove and have a small glass of sherry and start to read a romance novel, but she would eventually nod off for a few minutes. When she would wake up, she always seemed surprised that she had napped. She would pull out her basket of mending and would try to lower the pile of items that needed to be fixed by her capable hands. I loved to watch her. This was when socks were still being mended. If you could put a needle through a piece of material, then there was sewing to be done. Nothing was thrown away, it could always be fixed by Nana.

Today, I went through a sewing basket of a woman I have never met. I know her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, but she died in 1999 at the age of 90, long before I came to the Netherlands. As I went through the basket I saw a life. I felt not only her life, but my grandmother’s too.

I found green, white, black, red, blue, brown, pink and gray thread all wrapped around wooden spools. There were small containers of pins, needles and buttons. I love the buttons. They were all sizes and colors, for shirts, dresses and coats. I imagine that each button has a story. As I went through things, I realized I was holding onto a blue smooth button and I didn’t want to let it go. There were also pieces of white chalk, yarn, and thimbles. Most of the contents can be thrown away, but they have been kept for sentimental reasons. Maybe the basket will never be emptied, and that is okay. To me, it is like a historic document or a diary.

These two grandmothers had some things in common and yet, many things in their lives were very different. I do know that they both gave birth in 1934 and those children are still alive: my mother, who now lives in America and uncle John, of the Netherlands. Being a mother of young children during the war will change your life. My grandmother knew war, but did not live with occupation. The Dutch people were occupied and were literally starving. These experiences will obviously impact your life. You hold onto things. You save everything. You appreciate what you have and you do not want to be hungry again. Nana would still save every single thing she could in the kitchen, and this was thirty years after the war. Their sewing baskets were in two different households, but they held the family together. There was no money for new socks, you fixed what you had. There was not enough money for food, you planted a garden. These women were both survivors and they were good mothers and grandmothers. We will never know all of their stories, but we know enough to know that we loved them. We know that our grandparents lived a life we cannot really grasp completely. They wanted us to have more chances than they had. They didn’t want us to struggle. And so they saved, they mended and they held onto things “just in case” it will be needed one day. I have the blue button from a Dutch sewing basket of a woman I have never met. By knowing her, I am remembering my nana. The thread, the pins, the buttons are all the same in England and the Netherlands. The language may be different, but the hands of these two women knew how to make things, whether it was a meal from an empty pot or a new dress out of an old dress. And they did not forget to love their children and grandchildren. Oh how Ellen and Femmie loved.

Recommended reading: The Arrivals by Meg Mitchell Moore

GONE WITH THE WIND

Here are just a few little tidbits about life in the Netherlands.

I could write an entire blog about the Dutch weather, but I can promise you it is not as dramatic as the weather in Massachusetts. If you are a New Englander there are three top topics of conversation: sports, politics and the weather. You swear you are not going to talk about the weather, but it slips out of your mouth and you end up having a whole conversation about the day’s weather and the five day forecast. In Massachusetts, there is a variety of weather:  rain, hail, ice, snow, wind, humidity and the heat. But it is also a state of absolute beauty. In the fall, when the leaves change, the colors take your breath away.

Here in the Netherlands, the weather is a little different, as things are not as extreme. If there are a few inches of snow during the entire winter, then that is a typical winter. And it is rarely humid in the summer. I am writing this as we end of the summer that was the rainiest since 1906. But there are the Dutch winds and they can really bend the branches and make you hold onto your bicycle for dear life. When it is windy, you need to hold onto your toupee as you step out the door.

Each afternoon I stand on the terrace waiting for the children to ride home from school. I can see them for about two blocks as they bike straight towards the house. On this day, they pull up and look at me, smiling. The wind was blowing like crazy and I wanted them to get into the house right away. Our daughter says “we have got to get in, it is soooo windy!” Our son then says “Jane, this is like Chicago!” I laughed and agreed with him, and as he moved away, he called out over his shoulder “it is the windy city, Jane.” I laughed and then I was struck at how a little Dutch boy can talk about Chicago. When I tell you that the Dutch know America, trust me, they do.

Let me introduce you to Abraham. Here he stands two stories high in front of our brother in law’s house. He recently had his 50th birthday, and following the Dutch tradition, a blow up figure of Abraham was rented for the occasion. Women get a tall Sarah in front of their homes, and men get Abraham. When I tell people that this is not an American tradition, they are very surprised. What do Americans do without Abraham and Sarah on a 50th birthday? I answer by saying we have great parties and presents, but I am not sure they believe me.

As we pulled up to this house, two little girls rode by on their bikes and yelled out “hi, Abraham!” Just another birthday in the Netherlands.

At this birthday party were some wonderful people and one of my favorites is Uncle John. He is quite charming and we are able to communicate a little as he knows a little English and I barely know any Dutch. He shared one of his philosophies of life and I will share it with you: “I tickle myself with good food and short trips and that helps me carry on each day.” Uncle John tickles me with his outlook.

I will close this post with color. On Sunday, September 11, 2011 at 7:30pm this photograph was taken from our terrace. America was never from my mind on this day and we, as a family, talked about it quite a bit. Our son, who was two weeks old in 2001, said to us “this was a very sad day for America” and then our daughter saw the double rainbow (there are two in the photo). The children ran onto the terrace and it was a moment that could have been in a movie. Sunday morning started with me on the terrace quietly putting out two small American flags. The day was gray and occupied with memory. But at the end of the day, color came back into our lives. Watching two beautiful children, whom I love so much, smile at two rainbows in awe….well, it makes the world seem just a little better. The world needs a tickle once in awhile.

Recommended reading: 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner—A visit from the goon squad by Jennifer Egan

Jane’s Boekentips

ONCE UPON A RIVER by Bonnie Jo Campbell

You know when you hear it, when you see it, and when you read it. You know when you have something extraordinary in your life. A piece of music that can still move you after all these years. An artist that unsettles you…and yet gives you peace. A storyteller that takes you on a journey that you never thought you would be on, but you are so glad you took the leap. Art is supposed to rattle you, it is supposed to stretch the lines we have drawn in the sand, it is sometimes going to make you smile and sometimes trigger emotions and even anger you. This book, Once upon a river by Bonnie Jo Campbell, does all of these things.

Margo Crane is a 16 year old living along a river in Michigan. After her father is killed, she knows that she has to escape her home and extended family, so she leaves on the boat given to her by her grandfather. Margo is not your typical teenager. She is a sharp shooter, like her hero Annie Oakely. She can not only kill a deer, but clean it and make a stew out of it. For Margo, guns are like a third arm for her. She completely lives off the land along the river, as she knows how to kill and cook any animal, knows vegetation, and doesn’t hesitate to steal from other’s gardens.

She is on the river in search of her mother who mysteriously left the family. But what she encounters on her trip are many men. Before she left her home, she was assaulted by her uncle and Margo has a confused view of herself with men. Must she be sexual with practically every man she meets? In many ways, she is like the animals she hunts.

She finally finds love and a safe place, even though it is not a perfect solution. It is with a dying old man who is honest and caring. Margo finds the home she has wanted and needed. She lives in a violent world, but by the end of this story, we know she has found some kind of peace. And she now knows herself better than ever before.

Campbell has written a story that will stir discussion and that is a good thing. I just know that I could not get the river and Margo out of my mind. I read a book that deserves much praise and I am happy to tell you: get this book into your hands and just read it.

DRUGSTORE COWBOY

In American drugstores, you can buy almost anything. It is basically a place for one stop shopping. You can purchase milk, ice cream, bread, stationary, toys, magazines, wrapping paper, diapers, cards, batteries, candy, aspirin and oh yeah, prescriptions. These stores are very handy and are similar to a convenience store, some of them are open 24 hours a day. I had to have a wooden shoe fall on my head to realize that Dutch drugstores are NOT like American stores.

Here, there are two kind of stores to meet your needs. First there is the apotheek, and this is what I call the serious store. This is where you pick up your prescriptions. But it also has just a few shelves of over the counter items that you can get without a prescription, like aspirin, first aid stuff, and cold remedies. Everyone has to wait to be helped, you get a number when you go in and wait. If you go in to get some aspirin, you cannot just go up to the register. It looks like a deli in a way, but no matter what you buy, your number needs to be called. Customers get one on one attention from the pharmacist, which is a good thing. But there is quite a wait, as some people need more attention than others.

The other store is mainly made up of chain stores that are just another kind of drugstore. They have beauty products, soap and shampoo, diapers, aspirin, and other bodily needs. There is even a small area for loose candy that you bag yourself. That is it. There are really no extras here, none of the convenient store mentality that we are used to in America.

In this country, if you need milk then you have three choices—go to a gas station, the grocery store or make friends with a cow. It seems like there is a cow on every corner and they don’t look like they are too busy. If you have forgotten your mother’s birthday and it is 9pm, you are out of luck. In America, you can get her a card, a bottle of perfume, a lovely box of chocolates, and paper to wrap them in. And don’t forget the milk for the next day’s breakfast.

This will just blow your mind….in the Netherlands, stores close at 6pm. The exceptions are  in the cities, where stores are open on Thursdays until 9pm. And on Fridays, the village or suburban stores are open until 9pm. All stores are closed on Sundays except the first Sunday of the month. And to confuse you even further, most retail stores are closed on Mondays until 1pm. If you are a shopaholic, you need to plan ahead. Trust me, the stores are really not open. I was in a large mall recently that had a big name grocery store (those stay open past 6pm). When I came out of the store (a little after 6pm), the mall was basically shut down. The stores were locked up and the lights were off. I first thought there was some kind of emergency or an evacuation. I think I saw some tumbleweed blowing through the mall. When the Dutch say they are closing their doors, believe them.

Is this too hard for me to adjust to? Not at all. It is only because we have been spoiled by retail availability. Living in America gives you full access to the shopping world, sometimes 24 hours a day. That is why some stores are open at 5am the day after Thanksgiving. We want, we get. But here, the philosophy is to plan your life around the store hours and get a life. Many shops are family owned and they cannot afford to pay a bigger staff or maybe they actually want some family time themselves. No matter what, there are great shops here and they are worth the wait. Just look at your watch before you get in the car or hop on your bike.

Recommended reading, for no other reason, than they
are wonderful books:

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

Major Pettigrew’s last stand by Helen Simonson

Every last one by Anna Quindlen