We’ll call that a success

Our housewarming party is in the history books! And I’d say it was a good one. (Not to brag, but one guest actually said it was, and I quote, “The best housewarming” he had ever been to.) We worked pretty hard getting ready, and we ran around a bit during the party itself, but we both also had time to relax, talk to friends, introduce people to one other, and just enjoy the gang that we had assembled.


The Jenga-like interior of our fridge, pre-party

The lesson for me in all of this is that in entertaining, some things matter: have enough good food and plenty of booze, with choices for everyone. And some things don’t matter: no one cares if the napkins match the plates. Or if the napkins match anything at all.

I felt like I was able to lighten up a little bit, even though, yes, I did snap at my dear husband when he put the cookies on the table in the plastic tray that they came in. But, c’mon. Desserts should be plated. He’s known me long enough to know better.

I also asked for help, and found that people were more than happy to be put to work assembling a salad or refilling the ice bucket. I’m reminded of a good friend with whom I volunteered as a youth mentor for several years. When creating the schedule for weekend events with dozens of teenagers, she would build in what she called “introvert time”, for those in the group (including her) who needed some quiet. It just occurred to me that for some party-goers on the introvert end of the Meyers-Briggs scale, a few minutes of focused alone time making a salad might be just what they need to re-charge before they head back into the social, extroverted fray.

Finally, I learned to trust other people to take care of themselves. Get them their first drink, then show them to the bar and let them help themselves to a refill. Make an introduction, and then let a conversation unfold. No one is going to go hungry or sit alone in a corner. Sure, if left to their own devices, half of your guests may end up crammed into the pantry well after midnight, drinking whisky and making music with a harmonica and your sauté pan. But isn’t that how most good parties end up?











It’s party time

I dream of being one of those people who entertains effortlessly. Who always has the right wine chilling and the right snacks in the pantry. Who can throw together a platter of cheese and fruit and crackers in five minutes. Who has serving dishes and ice buckets and cocktail shakers at the ready. Like Martha Stewart, but without the condescending smugness. Or the jail time.

Unfortunately, I am NOT one of those people. Don’t get me wrong – I really like parties. I like going to them, and getting a peek into someone’s home and life. If it’s a good night and a good party, I meet at least one or two people that I find super interesting (and I tend to monopolize those people once I find them).

Theoretically, I also like to host parties. For one thing, I want to be able to reciprocate the hospitality and friendship that have been extended to us. I enjoy bringing people from the various spheres of our lives – co-workers, expat friends, neighbors – together and seeing what happens. In the best case, everyone meets one or two people that they find super interesting.

In spite of how much I like parties, I am not a natural party-giver. The details stress me out. Party planning becomes a spiraling frenzy of questions that I can’t answer. How much beer do we need? How much food? More red wine or more white wine? Do the plates match the napkins? Do we even have napkins? When should I buy the vegetables, the cheese, the flowers? And on and on…

So it may surprise you to hear that we are, actually, throwing a party. In two days, to be exact. For about 30 people. I am nowhere near ready for this.

First, our oven is broken. Sort of. The bake function crapped out so we can only grill or broil. I had planned to make a delicious chocolate bundt cake and maybe some American-style chocolate chip cookies. I’m a pretty good baker but I know my limits – you can’t broil a cake.

Second, this is one time that I miss having a car. Getting enough food and drink for 30 people is a slow process when all you have is your bike and your fietstassen. We started stocking up on beer a week ago, buying a few bottles every time we went to the grocery store. Then we found out that our local liquor store delivers. Perfect!

I’m sure that everything will come together, and with any luck I’ll keep my cool in the hours leading up to the party. The trick is to focus on what matters, and not get so wrapped up in the trappings that I forget about the point of this whole thing: our friends.

It’s not been easy to build a community here. People are busy with their own lives and commitments. Unlike those who move here for love, we’re probably not here forever. The fact that we’re somewhat transient may make people less willing to invest their time in us, whether they are conscious of it or not. But, little by little, we have made connections and made friends. It takes effort and consistency and time, and often we needed to be the instigators, and make the first move. And now we get to enjoy the pay-off: a home full of fun, super interesting people.

Now to put them all together and see what happens…


Finally: Berlin (part 2)

There are places in the world that grab you right away. Places where the beauty or energy, or maybe just the light, captures you from the start. Marseille tops my list. Paris. Amsterdam. Other places sneak up on you. Make you work a little harder, look a little more carefully.

For me, Berlin falls hard into this second category. I had built it up in my mind, based mostly on old images from news broadcasts and a lot of personal research and reading. And then I arrived there, armed with my imagination, and tried to make the imagined Berlin and the actual Berlin square with each other.

038Berlin is not charming. It is not quaint.  Traveling from the airport to our hotel by train, I began to grasp the size of the city.  When we started walking, this sense of scale was confirmed. Berlin is sprawling, urban, complex. The architecture varies between 18th century neo-Classical and the more austere, functional design of the Communist era.

It was difficult to orient myself to the layout of the city and, more so, to order my own priorities. Everything felt steeped in significance. Every building, every plaque, every bit of graffiti seemed meaningful. It was like walking through a riddle, unable to crack the code needed to have it all make sense.

The obvious thing to do while I puzzled out Berlin was to have lunch, and drink some German beer. Most of our first day in the city was spent eating, or walking in search of the next snack, the next beer garden. There are worse ways to orient oneself to a place.

The next day, after a failed attempt to have a good German frühstück, we started out to see some of the remnants of the Berlin Wall. Our first stop was the East Side GalleryEast Side Gallery Berlin construction, a 1.3 kilometer stretch of the Wall with murals painted by dozens of artists, first in 1990, with several restorations done since. It sits oddly juxtaposed with a new luxury  apartment tower. Construction cranes and ads for Turkish Airlines provide a somewhat surreal backdrop, and tourists take selfies in front of the graffiti-covered back side of the Wall.

Next we went to the Berlin Wall Memorial, which was, in a word, excellent. The majority of the memorial is located outside, on a 1.4 kilometer stretch of Bernauer Strasse. In 1961, what became the Berlin Wall began as a barrier of barbed wire running down Bernauer Strasse, so low that residents could – and did – jump over it.

Berlin Wall Memorial

The historical and interpretative elements of the memorial are very powerful, and you understand immediately the effects that the Wall had, on families, on neighborhoods. Where the Wall once stood is now an installation of thousands of rebar-like markers. Nearby are the foundations of homes that were evacuated and later destroyed, as many served as escape routes to the West.

The continued “strengthening” of the Wall was necessary to prevent escapes. By the 1980s, the Wall was actually two walls, an inner and outer barrier, with a range of deterrents in the middle section, commonly known as the “death strip”.  The Memorial shares stories of those killed in this section as they attempted escape. And then, as if to highlight the incredible changes since the Wall opened in 1989, two little boys arrive with their parents and start playing soccer. In the shadow of the Berlin Wall. In what used to be the death strip.

Berlin Friday 025 (2)

For the rest of our weekend in Berlin we balanced our somber experiences with relaxation and fun. We ate our way through the city on a “Beer and Currywurst Tour” led by Berlin Food Tours, sampling Berlin’s famous street food and enjoying beers at breweries and charming old neighborhood bars. The tour was excellent and our guide, Bastian, also showed us some street art and took us to the only known David Hasselhoff shrine in Berlin. The others on the tour – Australians, Brits, Brazilians, and an American couple on a round-the-world trip – were so much fun that we hung out with all of them again, some during the weekend and the Americans when they came through Amsterdam a few days later.

Berlin Friday 033

At the Pug Pub for a pilsner.

A more traditional walking tour gave us a good overview of the history of Berlin and allowed us to see all the major sites. (While very informative, that tour would have benefited from a beer or two.) I could have easily spent another week in Berlin, exploring museums and  absorbing the history, and then enjoying the sun in a park or a beer garden.

This interplay between the past and the present is what made me fall for Berlin. The past is present – nothing of Berlin’s history is forgotten or white-washed. But Berlin is also very much living in the now. The city has an energy and an attitude that just captures you.

That might be the appeal of Berlin: the knowledge that what you see and feel now was created by Berlin’s people. In the aftermath of division, there came freedom and, ultimately, reunification. But in between those historical markers, there was unknown sacrifice, loss, struggle, joy, heroism. Those experiences created Berlin today. And the creation continues – no city, no society is ever done evolving. To witness that evolution, even for a few days, is to be inspired and encouraged about what is possible.


Mother’s Day

When my dad and niece were visiting last month, we were watching TV one evening and a commercial came on for some Mother’s Day promotion. My niece, who was cuddled up on the couch with me, turned and said, “Huh…you don’t get to celebrate that anymore.” She didn’t say it to be cruel – it was more of an observation than anything else. Still, it hurt. In the days since, I’ve kept her words with me, rolling them around my head in quiet moments.

Today is Mother’s Day. And as most of my readers know, my mom is no longer with us. And I’m wondering: do I get to celebrate it?

Years ago a friend shared an essay from Charles Dickens about Christmas and how the meaning of the holiday can change as we age and experience loss. Dickens speaks of a friend from his youth, with whom he had once imagined and discussed their growing old together. Now that his friend has – in his prime – taken up “his destined habitation in the City of the Dead”, Dickens asks, “Shall he be shut out from our Christmas remembrance? Would his love have so excluded us? Lost friend, lost child, lost parent, sister, husband, brother, wife, we will not so discard you…”

So, in the spirit of Dickens and Christmas, I am observing Mother’s Day. Like most holidays, Mother’s Day isn’t a purely individual holiday – it’s not just about your mom.  (But don’t tell your mom that. Because of course it’s only about her.) It’s a collective recognition that being a mother can be hard. It’s a celebration of grandmothers and aunts and sisters and whoever else may have mothered us in some way at a time when we needed mothering. It’s a time to think about women around the world for whom motherhood and childbirth is dangerous, or deadly. It’s a moment to consider what mothers risk and dream of for their children, and the sacrifices made to help realize those futures.

And for myself, it is a day to think about my mom. More than once during this time abroad, I’ve thought about how much she would have enjoyed hearing about our lives here. She would have had a lot of questions – silly ones, about everyday things, like where we buy groceries and if we’ve met the neighbors and where we store our bicycles.

Today I’m thinking about all the little things that make up a person, a life. I could tell you a thousand things about my mom or write a thousand questions that I never thought to ask her. But today I’m thinking about how we couldn’t talk while she was baking, as if measuring flour took all her attention. I’m thinking about her beautiful complexion and how she never wore foundation.  I’m remembering the smell of her perfume.  The look she would give my dad on Christmas morning if one of his gifts didn’t quite hit the mark. And the very specific way she would say, “Hello Katie” whenever we spoke by phone. And the fact that she still called me Katie, which almost no one now does.

One of the stupid, annoying things about grieving is that the grief changes, and I change, and how I respond to loss and what I need to deal with it also changes. It sucks. So maybe this year I can have this sort-of reflective, Zen-like perspective on the universality of Mother’s Day. Next year I may ignore it completely. Who can say? Mother’s Day is hard for people who still have mothers – our relationships with our moms are complicated, in life and in death.  I don’t have any answers for you there.

So we’ll end where we began, with Dickens again. His final word, his promise to his lost friend – and his appeal to us – is that we “shut out nothing!” There’s no right or wrong way for me to observe this day or any other significant day. You take what comes, you find yourself where you are, and you shut out nothing.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Finally: Berlin

Years ago, probably in the late 90s, I spent several weeks working my way through Peter Wyden’s incredible book, Wall: The Inside Story of Divided Berlin. At 762 pages, the hardcover edition made for difficult reading on my morning commute on the T. Still, I couldn’t put it down. Wyden’s writing and detailed knowledge of Berlin were compelling, but I was also captivated by the fact that what I was reading was so current, so vivid. Not even history, yet. Barely even past.

I remember watching the news reports from Berlin in 1989 when the Wall – suddenly, unbelievably – came down. My father had spent time in Berlin during his stint in the Army in the 1960s and his experience colored the otherwise dull history lessons that I had learned by then. I struggled to understand the geography – to say nothing of the geopolitics – of the whole arrangement.  West Berlin was inside East Germany? How could this tiny, isolated pocket of freedom survive inside a Communist country? Who would allow that? For an American child growing up near the end of the Cold War, it was another mystery in another unknowable country.

And yet. There we all were, watching on TV as the Germans helped each other to the top of the wall. Watching ordinary people armed with hammers and chisels, literally dancing in the streets, a city-wide celebration. It made such an impression on me, one that has stayed with me to this day.

On Thursday we leave for Berlin for a long weekend. In my mind, Berlin seems to carry memory, weight, nostalgia. There is no explanation for this, since I have never been there. Rationally, I know that the Berlin of my imagination ceased to exist 25 years ago, if not more. But I suspect that in a city so rich with history and so committed to modernity, there will be more to discover than I have imagined.

More to come, from Berlin. Finally.