The beautiful things we never use

It took me three days to find the china. Service for twelve should not have eluded me for so long. I eventually discovered it, but only by looking behind every door and in every box. As it turned out, before we moved to Amsterdam I had packed the dishes and stored them safely away. In the china cabinet.

In truth, it wouldn’t have mattered if it took me three months to find the china. It’s been nearly fifteen years since we received it as a wedding gift, and since then, we’ve used it only a handful of times. At least four place settings are on display in the aforementioned china cabinet, ready to be pressed into service for any Tuesday night dinner – an occasion that never seems to arrive.

One of the benefits of moving across the ocean and back again is the chance to consider your possessions. When we packed up our house several years ago, I handled (and I mean that literally) most of our stuff. Box after box was filled and donated to the Salvation Army. What we kept was stored in plastic totes, labeled, and put in the attic.

The process reversed itself when we returned to Boston. This resulted in another pile of boxes for donation; my threshold for “stuff” had decreased after our four years living abroad. There was no great virtue behind our minimalist approach to life in Amsterdam: the constraints of space and practicality dictated our choices.

Now that we are back in our very American-sized home, with space to spare, I’m resisting the urge to re-populate the rooms with stuff we no longer need or that is no longer meaningful. I think I’ve mostly been successful. But I’ve noticed in myself an unexpected reaction as I continue to work through the boxes and totes that hold our things. It happens when I come across something beautiful. A hand-embroidered tea towel made by my grandmother. The Depression glass sugar and creamer set that was my mother’s. My own china dishes. Things that were packed away long before our time abroad. Things that have always been packed away.

All these beautiful things we never use.

Well, enough. Why am I saving these things? What are they for, if not to be used?

I don’t think my impulse to protect and preserve certain things is unique.  We may all have a “good [fill in the blank]” that we’re saving for a special occasion; something that, due to its cost or provenance, we feel we cannot waste on the everyday. But there’s something to be said for loving and valuing the everyday enough to give it the good stuff, no? What are we waiting for?

So dine with the good china. Dig out the special underwear (yep, gentlemen readers, most women have them). Cut some flowers from your garden and put them in that vase that’s high up on a shelf, safe and forgotten. Bring out the beautiful things. Use them up.

About time

You can read that two ways:

First, as in, “Finally, a new post! It’s been forever!”

Alternatively, as in, “I think we need to have a talk about how you’re managing things.”

I really don’t know how regular bloggers stay so, well, regular. Priorities, I guess. This little site is about forty-two places down my list of things to do on any given day, which might explain why I’ve written nothing since mid-December. Since then we’ve been back to the US for Christmas, had a lovely New Year’s Eve in Amsterdam, been sick for a few days, and survived a particularly bleak and windy Dutch winter. (Yes, I know winter’s not over yet…it’s only February, and it was 0 degrees Celsius this morning, but the days are lengthening and the sun is shining and dammit, we’ll take it. And we’ll call it spring if we please.) Magere brug

I have also officially finished another online class, one more step in my seemingly-endless march towards a Master’s degree. Yesterday I turned in my final assignment and my next class doesn’t begin until Tuesday, so I finally find myself with a little extra time. This whole week has given me some time to myself, as my dear husband has been back in Boston taking care of some things at our house. So for the first time since I moved here three years ago, I’ve been on my own. Back to single-serve portions of salmon for dinner, as I did then!

In that first winter in Amsterdam, I was in the habit of waking up early on Sunday mornings and biking around the frosty, empty city. I was trying to get used to cycling. I had to get the feel of the back-pedal brakes on my bike. And I had to try to figure out the semi-circular layout of this new place. Sunday mornings I had the city to myself; I’d bike around, get lost, and eventually find my way home again, all before most Amsterdammers were awake.

feb-morning-2018-e1518971307393.jpgThis morning I woke up early, even though I had been out late at dinner with friends. The sun was shining and the light over the city was so pure and lovely that I just couldn’t stay inside. I threw on some clothes and headed out into the freezing morning cold. No destination in mind, just a wandering path from one canal to another, over a bridge, a stop at the Amstel. Once again, I had the city almost to myself. There were a few morning joggers, and a handful of people who hadn’t gone to bed yet. But mostly, it was just me, greeting the morning on now-familiar streets, even if I still don’t know their names.

As I biked up Prinsengracht, the hour struck 9:00 am. The Noorderkerk and the Westerkerk traded chimes, never quite getting synched up, but providing a brief, happy soundtrack to my morning ride. And in spite of the cold, and the thin layer of frost on my bicycle tire, I couldn’t help but think that spring was in the air…

It’s October Already?

Well, not quite yet, but by the time I write and post this, it may be.


A lovely sunset to enjoy on my commute home…September is so pretty

September has gone by in a blur and I’ve fallen far behind. I haven’t told you anything about our wonderful trip to Lyon, or how amazing the weather has been for the past few weeks, or how my longest race to date (10 miles!) went, or that I’ve (finally!) re-started my graduate program and I’m taking a fascinating class in negotiation and mediation. Add in ongoing training for a 1/2 marathon, general life administration, and a full day, company-wide event that was about 5 months in the planning, and you’ve got my September.

But…I’m not going to tell you anything about anything right now. I think I’m just going to ride out the rest of September and start again when October rolls around this weekend. The wonderful Indian Summer has officially ended in Amsterdam. The windswept rain came in today, with more predicted for Saturday and Sunday. So I’ll make a cozy weekend of it, and settle in to write, maybe with a cup of gourmet hot chocolate sent from the other side of the world by a friend we made in Berlin. I’ll tell you about that, too.

Until then, enjoy what’s left of September, my favorite month. It’s been a good one this year, and I’m grateful for that.

Change your life to save your life

I recently read an article in The Atlantic that I cannot stop thinking about, for a number of reasons. It introduced me to a rare genetic disease called fatal familial insomnia, or FFI. And it introduced me to a remarkable couple who have transformed their lives in order to find a cure.

In short, FFI is marked by progressively worsening insomnia, eventually resulting in total sleeplessness. Death follows quickly, normally within a year. In between, as you might imagine, FFI causes memory problems, weight loss, paranoia, and general physical and mental deterioration. It’s a particularly brutal way to die.

The Atlantic article focuses on the daughter of a woman who died of FFI; the daughter found out that she also has the gene. Unless some novel treatment is developed, she will likely develop the disease and die of it. Average age of onset is about 50. She is 30.

This young woman – Sonia – is a Harvard-trained lawyer who was working as a consultant. Her partner, Eric, studied urban planning at MIT and worked as a software engineer. At first, they did what anyone would do when faced with an illness: they educated themselves. They learned all that they could about the disease. They discovered that there was promise and progress in the research that was underway.

And here is where the story really got me: they became part of that research. Not as guinea pigs or volunteers or fundraisers. As scientists. Of course.

Both of them quit their jobs and started working as laboratory technicians at Massachusetts General Hospital. In 2013, they crowdsourced funds for a research project. By late 2014 they were enrolled in a doctoral program at Harvard Medical School.  Eric has already published some of his work, contributing to the body of research about this disease.

I am awed that two people, faced with the possibility of one developing a fatal disease, would act so definitively to find a cure. I am awed by their intellects; that they could both pivot from their current professions and so quickly become experts in a completely different discipline. I am awed by their progress, their determination, and their optimism.

Most of us dream about changing our life, or at least some part of it. For many, the dream becomes a plan. And if we’re brave and persistent, and maybe a little bit clever, the plan can succeed. But rarely are our lives on the line. The willingness to change your life in order to save your life requires another kind of daring, a stronger brand of courage, altogether.


Where to go? What to do?

When you live in a city that welcomes some 5 million tourists each year, you’re bound to be asked for recommendations. What to do, what to eat, where to stay – these are common questions put to anyone who is seen as a resident, and therefore, an expert, of a particular place.

I have a hard time with these questions. (For starters, we don’t generally stay in hotels in Amsterdam, which makes supplying a hotel recommendation near-impossible.) But practical considerations aside, recommendations – particularly for travel – are pretty personal. When I share a favorite quiet corner of Amsterdam, or tell you where to find a great selection of Dutch beer, or lead you to a museum that’s not the Van Gogh, I’m telling you something about me. About what I enjoy, and what I value. Which may not be the same things that you enjoy or value.

Sometimes I imagine that one day we will have a visitor who will take all of my recommendations. In this fantasy, this person not only has a terrible time but he/she also decides that I’m actually pretty boring, or nerdy, and by the time they leave they will be thinking to themselves, “Hey, why am friends with her anyway? She just sent me on the lamest tour ever of what is supposed to be a city of sin and drugs and excitement (or at least some decent shopping). This is the last time I do anything she recommends.”

Sometimes I stress out about this imaginary visitor. But more often, I think that if anything like this ever happens, it will be the visitor’s own damn fault. After all, isn’t part of the fun of travel doing some research in advance? Figuring out where to go and what to see, yourself? And isn’t another part of the fun in the random exploration? Following a hunch down a narrow street in Orvieto to find the best lunch of your life. Chatting with a glass artist in a small gallery in Eze. Ordering Chinese food in Czech (ok, just pointing at the pictures) in a tiny restaurant in a tourist-free town far from Prague.

This is not to say that I am not a good host, and that I won’t provide some recommendations. My Dutch coworkers often insist that I know more about events, sites, and restaurants in Amsterdam than they do. In truth, we’ve developed a short list of traditional-but-fun (and not too touristy) activities for visitors that are in regular rotation. And we’ve gotten pretty good at mixing up the short list to meet our guests’ interests: art, shopping, history, food.

The best guests are the ones who come with their own short list and an open mind. We had a friend visit last July (hi Peter!) who was a gung-ho independent traveler. He took us to places we hadn’t considered going to, and uncovered hidden local gems that we had overlooked. And truly, all of the friends and family who came to visit last year were great guests: relaxed, curious, interested, and just happy to spend time together.

To be able to explore a beautiful city with people you love – to share those great, random, memorable adventures together – is a gift. One which I’m looking forward to sharing with our 2016 visitors. (Still, 2016 visitors, this does not mean you’re off the hook. Do your homework!)


Others out there: do you like offering recommendations to visitors or planning their activities, or is it a source of stress? Do you still ask for recommendations (like I always do!) from longer-term expats or locals?


Catching up

Catching up: that’s what this post – and this whole week – is about. We’ve been in the U.S. since last Tuesday. We’re a bit displaced in our own home, living out of suitcases and digging through boxes that we packed away months ago. We’ve had 60 degree weather and now, our first snow of the season (which is quickly turning into a slushy mess).  Our schedule has been full with holidays, and lunches and dinners with family and friends.  We still have a few days and a few more celebrations before we return to Amsterdam.

It has been wonderful to spend time with people we love and get caught up. Even with all of the available technologies for staying in touch, there’s no substitute for being present with people, face to face. For a long-overdue hug. For a slice of Dad’s famous cheesecake. For sharing a memory and a good laugh.

In the days before our visit to the U.S., we spent a weekend in Paris. To catch you up on that adventure, it was great. Since we’d been to Paris before, and since this trip was so short, we didn’t feel any pressure to see the sights or do anything in particular. Happily, Paris is perfectly willing to accommodate the desire to stroll and eat. And repeat.

I’m proud to say that I did stick to my resolution to speak French while in Paris. And for the most part, the French went along with me. Once, the concierge at the hotel switched into English but I just barreled along in French. No surrender!

The weekend in Paris helped put me in the holiday mood – the city was alight and festive, even though it was unseasonably warm. We didn’t put up a Christmas tree in Amsterdam and we don’t have a tree here in Boston, either. I didn’t do my usual shopping or cookie-baking – many of the markers of the holiday were missing this year. But the spirit in Paris was contagious and made it, finally, feel like Christmas.

And so here we are, on the brink of another new year. The time has gone by so quickly – the year itself and this short stay in the U.S. With any luck, I’ll use the flight home to do some more reflection on all that’s been and all that’s to come in the new year.

To all of you, a happy and healthy new year. May 2016 bring you the best of all things…

Happy Thanksgiving, America

It is a clear, crisp November morning. Sunny, for now, though it’s early and clouds are inevitable. In a few hours most of the east coast of America will wake up and, groggy, pop a turkey in the oven and start preparing that most American of meals, Thanksgiving Dinner.

In Amsterdam, it is an ordinary Thursday morning. The minds of the Dutch – children especially – are focused on Sinterklaas and December 5th.

And so we make our own holiday this year. No attempts to find or buy a turkey, no “orphan dinner” with other expats, no pumpkin pie, no Macy’s parade. Instead, we’ll be heading to the airport and hopping a flight to Malta. No real reason to go to Malta, except that it’s there, it’s close, and it’s warmer than Amsterdam. We’ll spend Thanksgiving wandering around a place we’ve never been, together. We’ll have dinner at a brasserie. Or maybe Italian. Tomorrow we will be more adventurous and spend a day at the Maltese Falconry Center. Black Friday indeed.

Wherever you are today, wherever this finds you, and whatever you’re celebrating, may it be a wonderful day. If you can read this, if you are somewhere warm and dry, if there’s food in the fridge and some money in the bank, if friends or family are within reach, then there is reason for gratitude and thanksgiving.  Today. Every day.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Abraham and Sarah?

File this under “Strange Things Dutch People Do”. One of my colleagues is turning 50 tomorrow, and in addition to saying “gefeliciteerd” to her and congratulating everyone she knows, we will also be surprising her with a Sarah doll.


Apparently when someone turns 50 here in the Netherlands, they are given an Abraham doll (for men) or a Sarah (for women). I can only assume this is a Biblical reference to the advanced age of our religious forebearers Abram and Sarai.

Tomorrow is the actual birthday, and my colleague will bring in cake or sweets for everyone in the office. Yes, on your birthday, YOU are responsible for providing the cake. And I’m told that in my office the standards are quite high: you can bring in a store-bought cake if you must, but you will be judged for it. Homemade is the way to go.

I suppose every expat has a list of the strange, seemingly inexplicable traditions and habits they encounter in their new culture. The only thing more fun than commiserating with other expats about these, umm…unique Dutch characteristics is discussing them with the Dutch themselves. People are either completely unaware of the behavior in question, or they are experts, who will then offer differing (and contradicting) opinions of the origin and meaning of the behavior. I’ve sparked a few lively debates by asking a seemingly innocent question.

The unexpected benefit to uncovering things about my host culture is that it also calls into question my own culture, and makes me think more critically about elements of American life that I would normally take for granted. That is a benefit of any travel, but living and working abroad lets you see a bit more of what really goes on behind the curtains. That is, if the Dutch believed in having curtains.

So tomorrow we’ll eat cake at a ridiculously early hour and I’ll get to practice that rough Dutch “g” sound in “gefeliciteerd”, and maybe I’ll learn a little more about Sarah. I’ll be sure to report back if I do…

Bouquets, pandemonium, romp and mischief

No, the title of today’s post is not a summary of the past few days, although it’s not far off!

Those are the words for groupings of, respectively: pheasants (though only at take-off), parrots, otters and mice. I’m not sure if other languages have such a richness of vocabulary to describe pluralities of animals. It’s one of the things I love best about English, though. It seems excessive to have such colorful and poetic ways to describe a grouping of animals. Still, I can’t help but think my life would be a little bit sadder if I didn’t know that gnus traveled in “implausibilities”.

So why am I thinking of animal groups at all? I am recovering from a weekend so filled with love and friendship that I feel hard-pressed to describe it adequately. As I was biking home today, I was reflecting on the fact that my weekend was book-ended by old friends and newer ones. I spent time with people who have known me for half my life, and others who have known me for a year, or just a month. I witnessed and shared in  interactions between people who are secure in their affections and share deep bonds.  Then I joined in the struggle of a friend who is far from those he loves, and who is hungry for the connection that comes from being seen and known.

These experiences left me feeling that “friendship” may be too limited a word for the richness and variety of our human relationships, no matter if the bonds are battle-tested or just newly forged. Maybe instead I’ll steal a few outrageous words from the animal kingdom to modify the insufficient “friendship”. Who couldn’t use a congregation or a charm or even a flamboyance of friendship from time to time?

As for this past weekend and all that it brought me – laughter and memories, connection and re-connection, tears of joy and expressions of frustration – well, that’s an easy one. It was an exaltation of friendship.

“Work that is real”

Hello all! I promise that an Amsterdam-related update is forthcoming. Today, though, I want to both keep my April poetry streak going, and share something with a very important group of people who have been much on my mind.

Most of the folks reading this blog are current or former employees of Partners In Health, the US-based non-profit organization where I spent the better part of my life and career  – 16 1/2 years, to be exact. PIH is where I “grew up” in many ways. It is where I gained professional skills, to be sure, but it is also where I developed an understanding of the world from a perspective of social justice, service, and human rights. I may have moved on to a new city and a new job, but my heart is never far from PIH, and what I learned there continues to animate and inform my work.

PIH has been in the news lately due to their (and yes, it’s still hard to say “their” and not “our”) involvement in West Africa combating Ebola. Several weeks ago, an American clinician working with PIH in Sierra Leone tested positive for Ebola and was evacuated to the US. I learned yesterday that the clinician had been discharged from the hospital and declared a survivor, to everyone’s great relief.

My colleagues and friends in West Africa have been so present in my mind these past few weeks, and I thought of them all today when I came across the poem below.  Credit goes to the lovely folks at Still Harbor for directing me to this poem through their weekly round-up of meaningful things on the web.

To my PIH family: you are the people I love the best because of your ability and your willingness to “do what has to be done, again and again”.  I’m sending this out to Boston, Haiti, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Liberia, Malawi, Peru, Lesotho, Russia, Mexico, and everywhere that past or current PIHers are working, studying, struggling or celebrating. Your work is as real as it gets.

To Be of Use
by Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.