If it’s not Scottish…

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The extraordinary Forth Bridge, now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

If you watched Saturday Night Live in the early 1990s, during the Mike Meyers years, you’ll know how that sentence ends.

We’re a week back from Edinburgh already but a family situation presented some unexpected travel (more on that in my next post) and I’m just now getting around to sharing some thoughts about our first trip to Scotland.

For starters, Mike Meyers is right: if it’s not Scottish, it’s crap. Scotland, at least what we saw of it, is beautiful. Friendly, accessible, easy to get around. And the people we encountered had one significant thing in common: they were really, really excited about being Scottish.

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To be clear, we each only had one glass. I didn’t drink all of those…

We didn’t have too much time in Edinburgh, especially since I had scheduled us on a day-long “Discover Malt Whisky*” tour. I’m not usually one for group tours, but this seemed to be the best way to get out of the city and drink whisky without having to deal with driving. We were a group of 13, and we had a wonderful, wee Scottish woman serving as our driver and guide. (If you want to know anything about how historically inaccurate “Braveheart” is, just ask me.)

Our first stop was Glengoyne, and our first taste was served at the not-so-respectable hour of 11:30 AM. Then it was off to tour the distillery and learn about the process of making whisky. There are a number of things in the world about which I often ask, “Who the hell figured that out?”. That you can eat a lobster. Industrial manufacturing. Aircraft carriers. Well, put the distillation of alcohol on that list, too. That someone looked at a field or a handful of barley and could see – or taste – the results sort of blows my mind.

After a wee lunch at a wee cafe near Loch Lomond, we toured a second distillery. Deanston is housed in a former cotton mill, and is also completely self-sufficient in its energy production. At each distillery we had two tastings. Happily, I think one could easily spend a lifetime learning about whisky and looking for the one you like the best.

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We sort of forgot that to be of any use, a castle has to have a view. Ideally, from a perch on a hill. Which visitors now need to climb.

August is Festival Season in Edinburgh, so we were able to take advantage of that and see a few free performances, including a brass band at the Botanic Garden. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard a 20+ piece brass band play Bohemian Rhapsody. We ate and drank well, walked a lot (Edinburgh is much hillier than Amsterdam!), toured the Castle, walked the Royal Mile, stopped in to St. Giles, and climbed the 287 steps of the Scott Monument.

(Ok, only I did that last thing. My dear husband stayed on the ground. But yes, it was totally worth it. I mean, just the fact that the city even HAS a monument to a writer is incredible. It is the largest monument to a writer in the world. Go Scotland.)

One thing I hadn’t anticipated was the relief I felt being surrounded by English again. As soon as we arrived at the airport it hit me: I can read all the signs! Ads, posters, bus maps – I could understand it all! Of course, I knew everything would be in English. What surprised me was the difference it made in my ability to relax, which has made me think more about my experience in the Netherlands. It’s not as if being in Amsterdam is that hard, from a language perspective. But even though everyone here speaks English, there’s always that awkward dance of Dutch attempts and English follow-up that I do with cashiers, waiters, and too many other people to count.  Without that complication in Scotland, I could just approach everyone, unthinking, in English. Of course, there’s still the Scots accent…

As with its whisky – the “water of life – you could spend a lifetime exploring Scotland itself: its history, which is proud and complex; its land, which is both beautiful and fierce; and its people, which are all of the above. You could spend a lifetime, and it would be time well spent.

*My spell-checker doesn’t like the way I’m spelling whisky, but there’s a method to my madness. If you’re interested, check out this whiskey vs. whisky article.

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Sail 2015! Or, another amazing thing about Amsterdam

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Boats!

There is SO MUCH going on in this lovely adopted hometown of mine. We’re leaving tomorrow for a weekend getaway to Edinburgh and though I”m looking forward to it, in some ways we could not have picked a WORSE weekend to leave Amsterdam.

For starters, there is the Grachtenfestival, a 9-day feast of classical music in, like, 50 venues around the city. It culminates in a huge concert on the Prinsengracht canal on Saturday (which we will miss).

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Ships!

But the big news right now is Sail. Every 5 years, Amsterdam plays host to this giant nautical event. There are tall ships, old war ships, and sail boats from around the world. Yesterday was the sail-in, and through Sunday there will be concerts, events, tours, and so much boating it beggars belief.

Of course, an event like this, spread out along the IJ River (a central waterway not just for pleasure boats but commuters and transport vessels) is bound to cause a few hiccups to daily life. My bike ride home, which normally involves a 5-7 minute ferry ride, took almost an hour an a half due to an overcrowded ferry and heavy river traffic. And then there’s the 2 million or so visitors and tourists that the event is expected to draw.

Still, even with a few inconveniences, it seemed like something we shouldn’t miss. When you think you’re in a place for a limited time, you don’t want to skip anything as significant as Sail. I mean, who knows where we’ll be when Sail 2020 comes around? There is, generally, some self-imposed pressure to do EVERYTHING on offer in Amsterdam. It was not a pressure I felt in Boston – there always seemed to be time to visit a museum or check out a festival. But there is a greater sense of urgency here, of wanting to experience everything so that when (if?) we leave, we’ll have no regrets.

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Even more ships!

And so, we headed out into the throng of people, walking down to the IJ and eventually finding our way to a bridge that was thoughtfully turned into a bar and terrace, where we could watch the parade of ships and wait for the nightly fireworks. It was an extraordinary sight, just for the sheer number of boats and people and activity all around us.

The fireworks were late getting started, which we learned about thanks to Twitter. The good news is that we were distracted by the fact that we actually understood a Dutch joke / comment that was made in response to the delay notification! It’s the little victories that make the difference.

When the celebration ended, we started on our way home, making our way through the families and visitors and all the bikes. (We had the good sense to walk.) We’ve noticed, on more than one occasion, that the Dutch are really good at having fun, particularly in large crowds. The tension that you might feel in the U.S. when you’re in a heavy-drinking and slightly rambunctious crowd doesn’t seem to exist here, at least not in the venues where we hang out. From King’s Day to Pride to Sail, the Dutch have good fun, enjoy themselves, but not at anyone else’s expense. And certainly not to the point of being confrontational or belligerent.

The rest of Sail will carry on without us. Our next door neighbors will continue their nightly revelry (they are currently singing what I imagine to be Dutch sea shanties). The city will continue its once-every-five-year celebration of all things nautical, and by the time we return to Amsterdam on Monday, things will be back to normal. But it’s been – once again – one hell of a party.

August in the Netherlands

Subtitle: Am I the Only Person in This Whole Country Who’s Working??

One of the major differences between the U.S. and Europe, as many people are quick to point out, is the vacation policy. Europeans in general get a lot of vacation. They tend to stare with a combination of horror and bewilderment when you mention that most Americans get about 2 weeks of annual vacation.  For most of my Dutch colleagues, two weeks is the minimum amount of time required to start to relax. The idea of taking a 7 or even a 10 day vacation – especially if you need a day or two just to get where you’re going! – makes no sense to them at all.

Most of my colleagues are on holiday now. I get very little email; what I do get is most often an automated out of office reply. These tend to go something like this:

Dear colleague, I am out of the office on holiday until 30 August. Thank you.

No follow-up, no promised response date, no “if this is urgent please call…”. The first few I received were a little shocking. Surely people can’t be on holiday for that long? Three weeks? Sometimes longer? And with no one to back them up? Not even the empty promise of responding “as soon as possible”?

After a while, though, I got used to these curt messages. They are clear and no-nonsense. The person I’m trying to reach is away; best if I just note their return date and try again later. If the recipient is Dutch, I’m sure they simply read it, nod, and move on. I imagine that such a cut-and-dried out of office message must be liberating to write, especially compared to the notifications we use in the U.S.. My out of office messages in Boston included several email addresses for colleagues, the phone number for the reception desk, and the assurance that I would respond promptly upon my return to the office. Oh, and sometimes my mobile number.

Unfortunately, vacation-taking is one area in which we have been slow to adapt to the Dutch way of doing things. (Eating herring is another, but we’ll leave that for a later time…). We’re keeping most of our vacation time for our return trip to the U.S. for the holidays, and we’ve only planned a few short trips or long weekends over the next few months. The idea of a 3-week holiday just seems…un-American.

So for now, I’ll enjoy my quiet office, and my less-crowded city streets. With everyone in the south of France or Bali or Spain or wherever they are, life is a little easier for those of us who stay behind. Fewer commuters mean the morning ferry isn’t as terrifying as it usually is. And with fewer people in town, I can actually get a dinner reservation. On a Saturday night. At a place with a terrace. Which is where I’m off to now…

Will the circle be unbroken?

Back in early March, shortly after I revived this blog, I wrote something called, “Why now, and why here (Part 1)”. I talked about why I chose Amsterdam for this adventure of ours. I spoke about the connection I’ve long felt with the Dutch, and the reasons, both practical and silly, that brought me here. That covered the “why here”. As for the “why now”, I sort of cryptically deflected it for another time.

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Wedding day, May 2004

What I was skirting around was having to connect our move to the death of my mother on August 5, 2014. Maybe I wasn’t ready to make the connection, or to talk about it in a public space. To be fair, one didn’t directly lead to the other. I had been talking about moving abroad for some time, and my mother was supportive and excited for us, encouraging us to make our plans regardless of her health.

They say that you’re not supposed to make any big life decisions in the year after a significant loss. Well, I blew that one. Instead of following the common wisdom, I took off, alone at first, to a place where I had no community, no support. I also had no triggers; my mother had never been here and there was little to remind me of her.

Maybe I was trying to outrun my grief. Maybe, in the face of loss and the regret that inevitably comes with it, I felt a greater urgency to do something that I had always dreamed of doing – no time to waste. I’ll admit I haven’t really given it much thought. There’s time to figure it out, if I’m so inclined: “grief is real and loss is for life, as long as life. In any case, I’m not sure it matters.

What follows is a bit of patchwork (an analogy my mom would have appreciated) written inconsistently over the past year. Although I’ve tried to piece it together in a way that might make sense, it is, like all handmade things, imperfect.

I’m sending this out, with great love and childish hope, to my mom and all those we love but no longer see.


On the day my mom died, a friend who had recently lost her mother sent me an email. In it, she shared a quote from an essay that Laurie Anderson wrote for Rolling Stone about the death of Lou Reed, her partner of more than 20 years. It said simply, “I believe that the purpose of death is the release of love.”

(I think it’s important to point out here that my mother wouldn’t have had the slightest idea who Lou Reed was, to say nothing of Laurie Anderson. Her musical tastes ran more to Lionel Ritchie and the Bee-Gees. But hey, nobody’s perfect.)

Women in waders. Fly fishing in North Carolina, May 2010

Women in waders. Fly fishing in North Carolina, May 2010

This single sentence from Anderson’s beautiful reflection was like a life buoy thrown to me just as the sea was rising. My mom had been sick for a long time, and as her health declined we had the frank, tearful conversations that I imagine most families have in these situations. Still, the knowledge of her illness and her worsening condition remained abstract, almost up to the very moment of her death. How can we ever prepare ourselves for such loss?

There are parts of that day and the days that followed that have blurred. Even in grief – perhaps especially in grief – our brains find ways of protecting us from ourselves. Other parts of the day are crystal-clear; I could close my eyes right now and reconstruct every sensation, if not for the fact that it still hurts so much to do it.

What I both remember and find comfort in reliving is the outpouring of support that my mom’s death inspired. One after the other, friends, neighbors, former students, quilters, and teachers shared memories. Remarkably, almost everyone remembered the first time they met my mother. There was story after story of her suggesting that someone join a parent’s group, or take a sewing class, or contribute to a gift for a retiring teacher. Stories of invitation, of welcome, of encouraging someone to do more than they thought they could.

Of course, what she was really doing was inviting people into the circle of her love.

Life inside that circle was remarkable. My mom was generous with her time and her attention. She knew how to listen. She was creative and artistic. Affectionate. Curious. She was a loyal friend who would go well out of her way for others. She did not give up on people. She sacrificed – or at least delayed – her own ambitions in order to care for her family.

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The Budapest stop of our European adventure, October 2012

This is not to say that life inside the circle was always easy. While the circle of love may not have had conditions, it did have – how shall we say? – standards.  There was a way that things were to be done, and this was non-negotiable. My mother had high expectations for those around her. To do a poor job on a school assignment, for example, would be disrespectful to ourselves and to the teacher who assigned the work. Whether it was homework or household chores, there was no greater sin inside the circle than doing a “half-assed job”.

And the flip side of my mother’s fierce loyalty was that she could hold a grudge like no other. I suspect she went to her grave still angry at my high-school boyfriend for breaking up with me. In 1993.

I’ll pause here to say that trying to explain the heart of who my mother was in a few paragraphs is a fool’s errand – the ultimate half-assed job. If you knew her, you’ll know that nothing I can say will properly capture her. Edna St. Vincent Millay gets it right in her poem Dirge Without Music:

“A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,

A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the

love,—

They are gone.”

I’m not sure that there is a purpose to death at all, but I’m willing to entertain the thought that the purpose is, perhaps, the release of love. And I’ll consider it only because in the days following my mother’s death, I felt held and lifted and comforted by the love that came back from the circle she had created over so many years. My mother had stepped out of the circle. And so we all had to move that much closer to each other. And it was her love that allowed us do it.


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God, my mom would have hated this picture. I love it. Unknown location and date.

In a wonderfully honest new book of essays, Meghan Daum writes, “Most of us have unconscious disbeliefs about our lives, facts that we accept at face value but that still cause us to gasp just a little when they pass through our minds at certain angles.” The first thing on her list is the same as mine: that my mother is dead. A year has passed and this fact seems no more believable today than it did on the day of her death. My most common thought in the first few days of her absence was a befuddled, “…but she was just right here…”. As one might remark about a missing set of house keys.

That thought has by now largely passed, but I’m not sure what’s taken its place. I can say that everything about this year has been surprising. Nothing is linear. Progression is followed by regression. The fact that I moved to Europe a mere six months after my mother’s death has no doubt made the grieving process more complicated. In the early weeks after my arrival, loneliness was common. I was fine for long stretches, then found myself ambushed by grief, unable to share or manage it.

I was – am? – vulnerable in ways I could not have anticipated. And what you cannot anticipate or imagine, you cannot defend against. I have done things that are selfish and thoughtless and inexcusable, even when viewed through a generous lens of grief. I’ve had moments where I was unrecognizable to myself. And while some of those moments are shameful to me, and hurtful to others, I honestly don’t think I could have expected my heart to have protected me, broken as it was.

And the love that I want to believe was released in that hospital room? The love that closed around those of us left in the ragged circle in the days after my mom’s death? What of that? What happens to it in the months – years? – after its release? Will it become harder to call to mind, harder to feel? Does it become diffuse, stretching to reach everyone as they need it, each in their turn? Or can it continue to grow, to expand, both for and through those my mother loved, and who loved her? Could it be that it is endless? Could it be so?