Thursday, March 10, 2011

Caution: you may have a strong opinion about these topics!

Amsterdam is full of contrasts. It is has 214 rainy days per year but has the highest bicycle commuting rate in the world. It is home to some of the world's great works of art and to display windows featuring prostitutes. You find Anne Frank's powerful story of the Holocaust housed down the street from shops where marijuana can be purchased from a menu, alongside coffee, juice and sandwiches. Amsterdam will make you react, and if you let it, it can also make you think.

Pragmatism appears to be a hallmark of the Dutch people. They seem to recognize that morality cannot be legislated, and their laws deal with reality. Prostitution exists in every country and every culture in the world; according to history, it always has. We may not like it but it is a fact. And it is a reality that does not seem to be diminished by legality. If the alternative doesn't curb the problem, could it be better to legitimize prostitution as an industry, regulate it for the safety of all who are involved and collect taxes to support such regulations?

Another reality: people use drugs. Some of us use them to wake up in the morning, or to relax in the evening, or to take the edge off a stressful day. Coffee, alcohol, and tobacco are legal drugs in much of the world. Marijuana is also on that list in the Netherlands. It is hard to describe how normal and low-key the coffee shops are in Amsterdam. They are in tourist areas, shopping districts, residential neighborhoods. They look and feel like cafes. Unlike bars, they are quiet. Many are well-lit and cheerful. Some close early (like 7 PM) out of courtesy for their neighbors. The people inside look no different than the people outside. They give no evidence of being low-life addicts. By all appearances, it seems that people are just as capable of using marijuana responsibly as they are of using alcohol or caffeine responsibly. And there is no need for drug trafficking, organized crime, gangs, black market. As I watch the death toll rise daily in Mexico as a result of drug wars, I have to wonder if prohibition causes us to lose more than we gain. Over 3,000 lives lost in Juarez alone in 2010.

These are big, big issues and can be deeply divisive. They are rooted in our cultural, religious and political beliefs. But I think it is worthwhile to acknowledge that there is more than one way to handle them and that some issues might not be as simple as right or wrong. If we cannot change the nature of human beings, then we have to choose if we want to live in a society whose laws are based on realism or idealism. And would we still feel that way if our beliefs were in the minority?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The practical Dutch and the talkative Italians

While staying in an Amsterdam B&B, we met two women from Venice. Over breakfast, we mentioned that we had been there recently and had experienced the flooding of the city. One woman said that, while it is a beautiful place to live, many residents are leaving Venice because of the high cost of living, lack of jobs outside of tourism and the constant water problems. At this point, our host jumped into the conversation and enthusiastically offered that the Dutch could build dykes and dams to control the water and save the city; after all, they're the only reason the Netherlands isn't under water. To this offer, the other woman replied that the Italian government has been discussing many possible solutions over the last several years but still has not made any decisions. Our host worried that when they finally finished talking things over, Venice would already be sunk. "But at least we'll have had a good discussion," countered the Italian woman.

After breakfast we really laughed about this exchange. Then we wondered- what character traits are Americans known for? Good ones? Bad ones? Quirky ones?

Monday, February 28, 2011

Anne Frank

Everyone knows the name and some of the story. She was a Jewish girl whose family left Nazi Germany for the Netherlands in 1933. Along with her older sister, parents and four others, she hid for more than two years in rooms above an office building. All eight were betrayed into the hands of the Nazis several months before the end of the war. Anne died of typhus in Bergen Belsen concentration camp just weeks before the liberation; she was fifteen years old. She kept a diary of her life in hiding and that is why we know her story.

I have had the privilege of visiting the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam twice within the last year. It is a moving experience and was no less so the second time. The story became a reality as I walked through the offices where business was conducted as usual while eight people remained silent through each day, fearing for their lives. And as I stood in Anne's room with pictures of movie stars and cute babies pasted to the walls, I could not help but see the author of this famous book for what she was- just a girl. A girl with a profound gift for writing and an amazing belief in the goodness of humanity, but just a girl all the same. She was growing up, she had hopes and dreams about her life, and she loved to write. Anne wanted to be an author and hoped she possessed the talent to write a great book that would live on after she died.

I have tremendous admiration for the courage and devotion of her father Otto Frank, who made Anne's dream a reality. He was the only one of the eight people in the house to survive the concentration camps. He spent months searching for his daughters, only to find out that they had died within a few days of one another. He read Anne's diaries for the first time after he knew she would not come home and was amazed by how little he knew the daughter with whom he had been so close. Her wishes to be a writer helped convince him to publish her story. Otto opened the hidden rooms to the public and established a foundation to help the story live on. But he was adament that it was not just about Anne. He wanted to foster communication and awareness to overcome hatred, religious intolerance and racial prejudice in the world. Sadly, over 60 years after the end of the Holocaust, it is a lesson that we still have not learned.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Rush hour traffic jam

Don't you hate it when a local farmer chooses 5:00 PM to herd his goats and sheep right through the center of town?! Village traffic was at least ten or fifteen cars deep! Aaron and I ran three blocks to catch up so we could take these pictures and marvel at the scene. We were laughing so hard. No one sitting in their cars looked very amused...
By the way, have you ever seen shepard dogs in action? They're really amazing!

Aaaah, the country life- how I will miss it!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Why change is good

I have been feeling bad about not writing as often as I used to and wondering why it seems that I have nothing to say. When I first arrived in Germany, I could hardly take it all in. Things were so strange and new and I noticed everything- big things like people walking to the grocery store regardless of the weather and little things like the weird adoption of English words into the German language. Shoppen in der City? Really?

Now it's been nearly three years and I have gradually grown accustomed to all the aspects of my life here. I don't even notice the thatched roofs on the houses that seemed so quaint and so "German" at first. I don't think twice, though I do still complain, about heading out with an umbrella if we need milk on a rainy day. Basically, this strange new world has become familiar.

It seems that making a big change in my life woke me up in many ways. I saw things differently, even the things that didn't change. I questioned routines and beliefs that I had always taken for granted. I changed. But human nature trumps all, and over time I found a routine, formed habits. I began to do things by rote, without having to think about them. Somewhere along the way I began to pay less attention to all the interesting things around me. And I believe that it is mostly a matter of paying attention, of choosing how we view the world that determines whether we find joy and humor and discovery in each day. It's not what we see but how we look at it. So let's see what today brings...

Monday, February 7, 2011

A few of your favorite things?

What foods would you miss if you lived outside of the U.S.? It's hard to really answer that until you know what your options are in another country. It is endlessly amusing for me to see what you can get here and what is generally not available. For instance, if you love Doritos you are in luck. M&Ms? Snickers bars? Mars bars? No problem. Pringles? Got 'em. Even Snyder's pretzels are here. Cola-cola appears to be universal so no worries there. But if you are a Pepsi drinker, you've got trouble. Root beer? No way! Butterfinger candy bars? Three Musketeers bars? Nope.

I love to bake and I have been frustrated by the differences in baking supplies. I can't find brown sugar (though I have found it in all neighboring countries), baking soda, vanilla extract (they use a powder/flavored sugar instead) or vegetable shortening.

The big supermarket nearby just revamped their International Foods aisle and I was tickled to see an American section. American food is international? Well of course it is in Germany. The nearby sections for Italian, French and Greek foods looked so exotic and sophisticated with their fancy pastas, olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes and stuffed peppers. The American section looked like an accumulation of products advertised during Saturday morning cartoons. The delicacies available, and presumably in demand, include marshmallows, Swiss Miss cocoa mix, Pop-Tarts, Aunt Jemima syrup, real Canadian maple syrup (that's funny, huh), microwave popcorn, peanut butter and Lucky Charms cereal. They also had Crisco and baking soda. Maybe one of these days I'll stake out the store and watch who buys all this stuff. Maybe I could make an American friend!

Monday, January 31, 2011

Death of a Power Converter

Tragedy struck our household last week. My 750-watt step-down transformer, absolutely central to my life as a Hausfrau, gave up the ghost. It has powered my coffee maker, my mixer, my blender, my vacuum. Clearly, I cannot go on without coffee, baked goods and clean floors.

What is it, you ask? I had never even considered such a device until we planned our move to Europe. We came here with all our household belongings, including appliances that were designed for 110 volts of power, what comes out of the walls in American homes. Here, however, the wall provides 220 volts! All that power would just fry anything that we plugged in. It turns out that it's not as simple as getting a plug that fits the big round shape of the outlets. We had to buy a device to decrease the voltage to 110. But it's not only about voltage; there's also wattage to consider. Bottom line- appliances that mix, heat up or suck dust draw a lot of watts and a converter has a limit to how much it can handle. That means of course, that it's hard to find one that will meet the requirements of our appliances. We've only ever found them from U.S. companies. So, here we are just months from the end of our European experience- close enough that it seems like a waste to buy a new one and have it shipped overseas, far enough that I can't really get away with not vacuuming again.

Aaron and I had numerous discussions about the replacement of the the power converter and ultimately decided to buy another one. And that was the big happening of the week. Isn't it strange the things that can occupy so much of our time and energy? Things that are so essential to day-to-day life but really so mundane and trivial. I suppose that's just part of the business of living.