The first of probably many posts about bikes

Growing up in Minnesota there were two family sizes: regular car or minivan.

I was only eight when we became a minivan family so I don’t remember it clearly, but for other families, switching from regular car to minivan was a rite of passage. Whether you like minivans or not: four kids is too many to have in a regular car backseat. Unless one of them is only two inches tall and can sit comfortably and safely in a teacup or an Altoids tin. (Having a kid who’s only two inches tall seems really stressful. I’d much rather have two-inch-tall dad.)

I haven’t seen too many minivans in Amsterdam, but parents are definitely bringing their kids places, it’s hard to miss. And it seems like there is absolutely no limit to how many kids you can have on a bike. No matter how big your family is, it is a bike family.

The popular thing in our neighborhood is dads biking around with a small child in a little seat on the handlebars, and a larger child standing on the bar behind the dad’s back. It’s strange to see three faces stacked like that, all facing in one direction, all sort of grimacing because of the wind.

People also set two larger kids over the back wheel, sitting with their legs dangling on one side, like little ladies.

And then there are the bakfiets, where kids sit in little chairs squinting if it’s nice out, or covered in plastic like enormous leftovers if it’s rainy.

I haven’t taken any photos of people, so enjoy this family of models in a bakfiets:

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Do you like that photo pretty much exactly as it is, but wish the kids were wearing helmets? No problem:

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Other popular ways to cycle include holding an umbrella with one hand, reading something on your phone, or listening to music. This morning I saw a woman biking without using the handlebars, because in each hand she was clutching a tote-bag sized bundle of lettuce.

Then there are the people who look just like everyone else, but I bet if you look closely you can see a little bit of hair peeking out of the pocket of their backpack, and tiny little fingers, it’s their two-inch-tall dad, on his way to work.

Ghost apartment

Our new apartment is great, I’m not complaining about it. It’s so great that it has a fancy thermostat, the kind you control not only by adjusting the display on the wall, but also via an app you can download.

The apartment’s former tenants used the app to set the thermostat on some sort of schedule, but we don’t have the app yet. It’s only available in the Dutch iTunes store, which we need a Dutch credit card to access, and the bank won’t give us credit cards until we’ve been receiving paychecks for 90 days. So for the next 40 days our thermostat adjusts itself as it pleases. It’s like living in a great apartment with some very finicky ghosts.

Our invisible roommates will get very warm, maybe they’re doing ghost workout videos or baking ghost bread, and they’ll turn the thermostat down to 16 degrees.

We put on sweaters and go to sleep but the ghosts wake up in the night, peckish and FREEZING, and they the thermostat up to 22 degrees to make themselves comfortable.

For those of you who haven’t been thinking about Celsius thermostats as much as I have lately, which is hopefully everyone, 22 degrees is very warm. I’ve been thinking about thermostats a lot. The goal of a fancy thermostat might be to think about the thermostat less, but ours makes me think about it almost constantly. I don’t mind. I like our ghost roommates, they’re helping me get the hang of Celsius way faster than I anticipated.

Our apartment has floorboards that used to match up, but right now there are quarter-inch gaps in between some of them because the apartment is a little bigger this year than usual. The apartment’s size fluctuates a bit, because of wind or because the entire city is built on sand.

Sometimes we’ll be sitting at the table and everything will adjust slightly, and sometimes I’ll wake up in the night because the ghosts have turned up the heat, and I’ll hear all kinds of shifting sounds.

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Hoe spel je dat

Forget periods, bar mitzvahs, or the legal voting age, I think I became an adult when I started dreading getting mail.

There is nothing worse than a bunch of sealed envelopes filled with notes form people I might have to pay or may have already paid, mixed in with sealed envelopes filled with advertisements and sealed envelopes filled with scams, mixed in with the occasional sealed envelope with a letter from my grandmother in it. I have a vague memory of mail being all about getting birthday cards full of money, but now I mostly get birthday cards from former dentists and they never have money in them, just notes about how a birthday is a good time to schedule an annual cleaning.

In Portland I would wait so long to check the mail that the mailman (he was a man, I met him) would sort through it and throw away my junk mail, to make more space in the mailbox. I thought this was a service USPS provided that everyone made use of, but a few people have told me I was wrong about that.

I also thought moving would be a way to escape mail, but apparently I was wrong about that too. There is just as much mail. The only difference is now all of it is in a language we can’t read.

When a piece of mail arrives here I can tell it’s going to be about one of the following things:

Just kidding I don’t have a clue what it’s about!

It could be a bill, it could be an insurance form, a ransom note, a contest entry, a poem, a bank statement, or an invitation to a birthday party.

I don’t even know which part of the letter is the salutation: I just realized this week that the word I thought was the name of our insurance company is actually just the word for “city.” Or it can also mean township or village, or just an area people live in.

This week I needed to mail a form to a museum and I didn’t really understand any of the form, but it seemed to say I could put it in an envelope, write the address on the envelope, and then put the envelope in a mailbox with no stamp. That seemed ridiculous, so I wrote the address and then went to buy a stamp. As I was about to put the stamp on, the woman I’d bought the stamp from glanced over at my envelope and said that address didn’t need a stamp.

Weird, I told her, that’s the same thing the form inside this envelope said.

“This word is how you know” she said, pointing to a ten-syllable word that looked like all the other words on the envelope.

So there you go. Now I have a stamp in my pocket that I’m saving for later.

I’m not sure how to end this except to say that if someone gives you three wishes today and you have one to spare, and you use one to wish that we get less mail, I will be forever indebted to you. I will not miss those birthday cards from any of my former dentists, I will not miss the sealed envelopes full of advertisements, and I will not miss the mail we’re getting now, whatever it is.

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Sometimes it’s nice out lately, here’s a photo.

Boerenkool grof

If you’re not yet convinced that Dutch people are the smartest people in the world, you haven’t yet met the Dutch woman I overheard at the grocery store this week.

And if you’re not yet convinced I spend a lot of time in grocery stores in Amsterdam, you haven’t haven’t heard many of my stories about Amsterdam yet.

Anyway, the woman in the grocery store.

An English-speaking man was looking at a bag of cereal and talking to himself, until he turned and started talking to nearby people about the cereal. He held the bag up to the person closest to him, who happened to be this Dutch woman.

“What doesn’t this say? Is this German?” he asked her. I guess he could have been asking me too since I was also there but I didn’t even consider that option until just now.

The woman, who didn’t work at the store and wasn’t German, just a regular person weighing her vegetables like we all do, looked over at the bag.

“Yep this is German, but I speak a little German. It says that the cereal is wheat-free” she said, pointing to an especially confusing-looking part of the package.

“Oh, so like it doesn’t have gluten.” he said, tossing it in his basket with the confidence of a man who spoke both Dutch and German.

“Well, it might not” said the woman who, I feel the need to repeat, did not even work there. “Gluten is a protein found in wheat but also rye and barley, so just because the cereal is wheat-free doesn’t mean it’s necessarily gluten-free.”

The man looked at the cereal again, and then thanked her. Then the woman walked away before I could ask her for life advice or what sort of stock options I should be using.

I would say it’s something in the water but I’ve been drinking lots of water and I don’t feel much more useful.

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A pet with a job

 

The world tells you that there are only two types of people: cat people and dog people. My family has a dog, so cats aren’t my thing.

mcgee
This is McGee

Bu that changed a few weeks ago when my colleague Teresa told me about her cat – she and her roommate got him because they had mice in their apartment. Cats in Amsterdam are like children a hundred years ago. People have them not because they’re cute and they love them, but because there is work to be done.

And I don’t know why it was that idea that got me into cats, but it was. I want a cat. A pet with a job.

Teresa says her cat doesn’t even need to kill mice, its presence alone scares the mice away.

I wanted nothing more than an apartment with mice so that we could get a cat who could scare the mice away using only its natural musk or a well-timed look or hiss. But we moved into an apartment four floors up from the street, and it seemed unlikely.

Then I came downstairs one morning and found a miracle on the counter – a mouse poop.

Maybe. It seemed too good to be true so we investigated it from all angles with the flashlight function on my phone. Was it actually a chocolate sprinkle? Part of a cookie? A sliver of a chocolate bar? A rolled up little ball of Nutella? If you’d lived with me you would know all of those are more likely than mouse poop. Chocolate crumbs line the pockets of every jacket and backpack I have, and every time I get a new jacket or backpack I say this time it’s going to be different, this is going to be the one that doesn’t get lined with chocolate, but a few weeks later it’s too late. Most of my favorite foods are the color of mouse poop. So we sort of assumed it was chocolate, cleaned the counter, and forgot about it until a few hours later.

That’s when I found the mouse door, because there’s no other word for it. Behind the trash can in the kitchen (don’t ask why I was looking there because I can’t remember) is a tiny mouse door, straight out of a Tom and Jerry cartoon, and all around the door were more  tiny brown things that at this point couldn’t be sprinkles.

We have a mouse! Why don’t other wishes come true this quickly?

We haven’t started looking for a pet with a job yet – because the real reason I’m a dog person is I’m incredibly allergic to cats, and so is Boaz. We won’t be getting a cat until after scientists invent some kind of surgery we can get.

But I don’t regret wishing for a mouse. So far she’s an unobtrusive roommate, and Boaz pointed out that a mouse is worlds better than cockroaches. In high school I slept in a room with slugs, and our last apartment had so many ants that we could feel them in our scalp and they crawled all over us in the shower, filled the insides of our clean socks, and swam in our milk. A mouse is also better than bedbugs, and snakes, and hand-sized spiders. A mouse is better than a lot of things.

And what if she’s scaring away the cockroaches? Maybe we have a pet with a job after all.

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Image: het muizen huis

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This is McGee on his birthday. I’ll add a photo of the mouse on her birthday as soon as we figure out when that is.

Tiny horse

Is there anything scarier than the idea of an accomplice?

I first learned about the concept when I moved to France after college. In Marseille people love to warn you about pickpockets, always plural.

See that guy, asking if you dropped a Euro? What trouble could he possibly be? But he has an accomplice, who takes your wallet while you’re distracted. If anyone bumps into you on your left, their accomplice on your right is probably cutting your purse.

Accomplices don’t have to wear uniforms, or matching t-shirts, or anything like that. So conceivably anyone could be working together, and in my mind everyone was. That’s the thing about accomplices.

See that elderly woman crossing your path slowly to feed an injured pigeon a leftover baguette? Well she might be accomplices with that construction worker climbing down the ladder of the building next door, and the two of them could be in cahoots with one of those teenagers listening to music. Which teenager? I don’t know, maybe the one closest to us? And hey that injured pigeon could be in on it too. Don’t rule anyone out, that’s the thing about accomplices.

I don’t think Marseille really has too many pickpockets because my wallet never once got stolen. But it’s a hard thought to shake. And now in Amsterdam, a city with I think even less crime, my fears have moved up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Now I no longer worry about losing my money, I worry about losing my dignity. And unlikely accomplices are still the problem. I’m fine with making a fool of myself at the cash register, but what about the possible exchange the cashier has with the next customer after I’ve left?

“I can’t believe she brought the oranges she wanted to buy to the register, instead of weighing them with a small derelict machine at the back of the store and printing the weight of the oranges on a sticker and bringing the sticker to the register.” The next customer will say, and the cashier will be right there with her.

“I know – what does she think this is, every other grocery store in the world?”

Yesterday when someone asked if I needed a receipt I said no, which in Dutch is spelled nee and pronounced neigh.

“Neigh.” I said, somehow making eye contact with all thirty people in my vicinity at once. And then a little louder, in case it hadn’t been loud enough: “NEIGH.”

I threw in a bunch of thank-you’s too, but those are harder to spell.

I think there are two solutions to being worried about having dignity stolen by groups of unlikely strangers: either have no dignity to steal, or a never-ending supply.

But I haven’t decided which to do, so I’m always somewhere in the middle, walking around with the exact amount of dignity I need to get by.

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I took this photo yesterday so I would have a photo to post with this.