We leave the Netherlands in a few days and I would be terribly remiss if I didn’t write something about windmills! These are probably the most well-known symbols of Holland — up there with wooden shoes, tulips, and blue-and-white Delft pottery. They are really lovely and worth an entire photo study. Ironically, we did not get a single picture of our family with a windmill the whole five months we were here! Eindhoven does not have any, and mostly we saw them from the car window, driving through the countryside, looking like this:

this is how we saw most windmills

At one point there were literally thousands of windmills in this little country, but there are fewer than 1,000 left. Many of these still work/spin and are open in the summer for tourists. Unfortunately, we realized this too late and never got inside an operating windmill. But we did learn lots about them. Windmills performed specific jobs: most of them pumped water or milled flour or lumber (hence the “mill” part of wind-mill). They tend to stand near old farmhouses, but out in open fields, away from trees and buildings, to catch the omnipresent wind. The wooden sails were covered in canvas cloth and attached to a separate top section, which could rotate around to face the breeze.

The sails turned a main vertical spindle, harnessing the wind energy through a series of gears to perform work, such as spinning  mill stones to grind grain. Since much of the Netherlands is below sea level, many windmills were used to pump water out of farm fields: these were usually set up in a series of three or more, each one using an Archimedes’ screw to move water up from one elevation to the next. In the 19th century, steam engines began to replace windmills and today the old windmills are preserved as part of the national heritage. Most of the ones we saw have large braces holding the old sails in place, like this one in the nearby town of Veldhoven which has been converted to a restaurant:

the now-typical braces holding up the sails

we met friends here for a farewell dinner

The Dutch clearly love their windmills and they show up on everything from beer taps to Christmas market stalls:

Delft-blue windmill beer tap

top of a Christmas market stall in Maastricht

Ironically, wind power is back in vogue as a clean, sustainable resource and the Dutch landscape is once again dotted with windmills. These are the tall modern wind turbines we are starting to see in the U.S. and don’t compare at all to the old windmills in the charm department. The Dutch have also built large off-shore wind farms to move these more unsightly turbines out to sea where they bother fewer people. I’m not sure how they effect sea birds and they do cost more to maintain, but are still considered a highly efficient and safe form of energy. Which just goes to show, you just can’t beat a good (old) idea.


Getting in the Spirit

It’s going to be a very strange Christmas for us this year: no lights, no stockings, no guests, none of our usual house decorations, ginger bread making, neighborhood parties, wassailing, Christmas eve pageant, baking, or visiting with friends. We’re not even doing much in the way of gifts, since Sinter Klaas has already paid a visit to our house and we have a serious space shortage in the luggage for getting home next week. Missing all our usual holiday traditions is turning out to be perhaps the hardest part of this whole trip for me: I’m the super-sentimental member of the family, so I’m even missing watching the Grinch (not available streaming — darn you Netflix scrooges!).

However, I’m determined to get in the spirit as best we can. I feel like the Who’s down in Whoville, celebrating the season without all the who-toys and who-foods. So in keeping with this cartoon metaphor, we went and got ourselves a Charlie Brown Christmas tree:

who knew you could get a tree on a bicycle? and this is nothing: later in the day I saw a guy riding with a full-size tree!

It had to be something tiny that could fit on the back of my bike, but we didn’t know it was so crooked until we got it home and propped it up on top of a little garbage can, draped with the stained table cloth. However, it looked a lot better once the kids made some decorations out of foil wrappers they saved from their Sinter Klaas chocolates and origami paper. We also hung up some red and green paper chains, which made the place look a bit more festive.

all home-made decorations this year, but no lights

Also helping us to get in the mood, the boys’ school had a “Christmas evening” last night, though I was struck by how unabashedly Christian it all was. It seems especially odd at an International School where a sizable portion of the student population is not Christian, but I think this reflects both the British model the school is based on as well as Dutch tradition. In the U.S., it would have been a “holiday evening” with Chanukah and Kwanzaa thrown in the mix and the songs the kids sang would have been far more secular (and I probably would have felt more comfortable). Instead, we got a dozen or so traditional Christmas hymns with all forty verses. (Oops, did I just imply that the concert was loooong?)

real candles for decorations -- another sign we weren't in the U.S.! (and naturally the teachers had to stop Ian from trying to light his song book on fire)

the concert was in the gym and I liked the lights hanging from the basketball hoop

A few days ago we also visited another Christmas market, this one in Maastricht, which is way down in the southeast tail of the Netherlands, about an hour from Eindhoven. This is another quaint, medieval city with cobblestone streets and I think we are getting a little jaded with all these impossibly cute European cities.

a plaza in Maastricht

more three-story buildings, churches, statues, and nice street lights

yummy Belgian waffles!

Maastricht also had an ice skating rink set up in the middle of their Christmas market (this one could have seriously used a Zamboni)

the boys are really enjoying all the skating here -- I see many trips to the Schenley ice rink in our future

John finally gets some bratwurst

While not technically related to my Christmas theme, I digress here a moment to share some photos of several buildings in Maastricht. In each of the Dutch (and Belgian) cities we’ve visited, I’ve really enjoyed spotting the signs above doorways that provide clues as to their original occupants.

The Prince of Orange city house

crows? blackbirds? I love them here

"the black sheep"

"the dragon fields"

Actually, these photos are a reminder to me of why we are here: to get out and really experience a different part of the planet, to get our kids thinking about a world beyond the U.S., and to learn what’s really important to us. I’ll admit I probably don’t need all my Christmas placemats and pillows (though I adore them). Living in the Netherlands with so little stuff for the past five months has certainly underscored the much more important people in my life, and has really been the best Christmas present I could ever ask for.

Cafe Culture

If ever you wanted proof that the Dutch are hardier than us (well, at least me, anyhow) you need look no further than Eindhoven’s outdoor cafe scene. Even in December now with frigid temperatures, rain, sleet, and blowing wind, you will find the many cafes in the central market district packed with people. And very few of them have those tall gas warmers that we sometimes see in U.S. restaurant patios. Wearing all their winter gear, young and old sit for long stretches of time to enjoy coffee, a beer, or one of the Netherlands’ ubiquitous snacks — french fries, sausages, apple cake.

the main market district (Eindhoven Centrum), lined with cafes

Some of the cafes simply have rows of chairs lined up facing the street, usually under an awning for cover from the rain, so that people can sit and watch the world go by. You rarely see the Dutch eating large meals at these places, maybe just a small tosti (a grilled sandwich, often with ham and cheese). But they are jammed all day long and you get the sense that people enjoy stopping regularly for leisurely small snacks and meals, rather than gulping down a couple large portions in a day. The traditional, old neighborhood places are often “brown cafes,” so called because their walls are stained brown from years of cigarette smoke. Most of those in Centrum are the more modern, “white cafes.”

one of the many outdoor cafes in Eindhoven

The Netherlands has recently clamped down on smoking inside many buildings, so some of the attraction at these outdoor cafes is the ability to light-up (way more people smoke here than in the States). But that is clearly not the main draw. There is not a single Starbucks in Eindhoven, and coffee is always served in a ceramic cup with a nice little cookie or piece of nougat on the side. Some locals tell us they get offended if the cookie comes in a wrapper — you expect something fresh with your drink. You just never see people walking around with paper to-go cups. Having a coffee is as much an experience as a drink.

this fall, children made paper lanterns that hung for a while over outdoor tables in Centrum

When we first moved here, I quickly learned that these cafes are not coffee shops. Here in the Netherlands, “coffee shops” are where you go to get marijuana, which is apparently legal to both consume and sell, but not to transport (which raises all sorts of questions about how it gets to the shops). When we signed our lease I was surprised to find a clause specifically forbidding us from growing pot in the garden. That really cracked me up, especially since we had just put together a lease for our own renters back in Pittsburgh and I couldn’t imagine a U.S. agreement containing such a stipulation.

There’s a little place in our neighborhood called the “Flying High Cafe” which has a cute airplane logo outside: back in August I suggested to John that we try the airplane restaurant and after a good laugh, he had to explain that this was a “coffee shop.” Oh, now I get the “flying high” part. These neighborhood pot shops are regulated by the government, which has been talking this year about allowing the number to expand. There’s quite a bit of controversy around them, with politicians trying to keep them as local places that don’t attract out-of-town drug tourists. I can’t say that I’ve noticed a large number of stoners hanging around Eindhoven, but perhaps the pot contributes to the famously laid-back Dutch attitude.

In any case, we’ve stuck to cafes, rather than coffee shops, and have really come to appreciate the cafe culture. This is one lesson we might try to bring back to Pittsburgh with us: maybe we don’t need all those “to go” coffees after all, and could use a little more time sitting down in cafes with a friend, a real cup, and a cookie on the side.

Münster or Muenster, it’s Magical

Another day, another country, another trip to a city with two names. Yesterday we drove over to Münster (or Muenster if you’re spelling it without the umlaut), an old town in northern Germany about 2.5 hours from here and home to one of that country’s many Christmas markets. Almost everyone we met here in Eindhoven asked if we were going to get to a German Christmas market and I understand lots of people from the Netherlands head over the border to these. Cologne (Köln) hosts a very well known market and is slightly closer to us, but it’s supposed to be absolutely mobbed.

Instead, our friend, Sonja, and her husband, Volker, suggested we meet them in Münster. It was indeed beautiful, but I can’t imagine that it’s any less crowded! The streets and aisles between the stalls were just packed with shoppers and people drinking Glüwein (a traditional hot, spiced wine), kirschbier (hot cherry beer), sausages, and other treats. Many of the stalls sell traditional handmade things such as wooden toys and I was on the hunt for mouth-blown glass ornaments.

the Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market), actually one of five around the city

Münster's giant wooden "pyramid" has several layers of rotating Creche-type figures and bells that chime every half hour

Volker standing next to a booth selling sweets, including Lebkuchen hearts (large decorated gingerbread cookies)

chocolate covered bananas and grapes make great light sabers

trying the Glüwein, which I really enjoyed!

I tried some of Sonja's kirschbier, but have so say I prefer the hot wine


a stall with traditional wooden toys

bratwurst booth

Munster has an old main street with lovely buildings that look like Amsterdam or Brugge

a full moon over the Christmas market on a cold, cold night

We didn’t have a chance to really tour the city much, but we did learn one interesting story: “John of Leiden founded the Anabaptist theocracy in Münster in 1534, and declared himself king. The reign of the Anabaptists, a radical Christian reform movement, met a bloody end when soldiers in the employ of Prince-Bishop Franz von Waldeck suppressed the faction’s adherents. Three wrought-iron cages, in which the bodies of the publicly executed Anabaptists were displayed as a warning to the crowds, hang in the tower of St. Lambert’s Church to this day.”

at the top of St. Lambert's bell tower three cages still hang where the bodies of the Annabaptists were displayed as a warning to others (photo by gordo21is on panoramio)

Brugge or Bruges, it’s Beautiful

It’s pretty amazing living in a place where you can get up in the morning and say, “Let’s go to Belgium today!” The kids didn’t have school on Tuesday (all Dutch kids get the day after the feast of Sinterklaas off from school, in order to enjoy their new toys, we presume) — so with only a few weeks left on this adventure, we decided to take one of our last opportunities to see more of medieval Europe and headed for Brugge.

About 2.5 hours away by car, Brugge is in the northern part of Belgium, which is Dutch (and Flemish) speaking. But the city is also known as Bruges if you’re from the French-speaking, southern part of the country, where the Walloons also live. This is a country the size of New Hampshire that has Dutch, French, Walloon, and Flemish speaking citizens, not to mention strong dialects of each. Fortunately we were able to get by quite well with our English and “Alstublieft” (Dutch for please).

Brugge acquired great wealth as an international trade hub and the city is now a world heritage site. It’s absolutely lovely, but a bit more “alive” than Salzburg — another heritage site — which has become somewhat “frozen in time” to the point that it felt like a Disneyfied production of perfected cuteness when we were there in October. Brugge also shares that neat architectural style with the canal houses of Amsterdam, with all the decorative gables, though the buildings don’t lean out or have winches at the top. Top picks of the day:

  • Visiting the beguinage — several hundred year old almshouses built for the widows of the Crusades
  • Eating friets (fries) and Belgian waffles from the street vendors
  • Skating in the Markt (central market square) — the kids went while we stood around freezing, er, enjoying the Christmas cheer (and beer)
  • Trying out the local brew at a pub that reminded us of our wonderful Point Brugge restaurant back home and its connection with this terrific city

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Zwarte Piet Strikes Again

Zwarte Piet continues to fascinate me — and he finally came to our house on Monday evening! I recently had conversations with several Dutch people who told me that this character is just as racially charged, offensive, and controversial as you might expect — and a legacy of the once booming Dutch slave trade — yet he continues to be a beloved symbol of the feast of Sinterklaas. As I mentioned before, his image is everywhere and outnumbers depictions of Sinterklaas himself by about 100 to 1.

store windows have lots of Zwarte Piet dolls

Zwarte Piet sells everything from eyeglasses ... books in the book store

at the coffee shop

Department store window with Zwarte Piet dolls

a Zwarte Piet cake advertised in the Pipoos flyer (a craft store like Michael's)

Zwarte Piet is a bit of a trickster, too. There have been dozens and dozens of Piets running around the central shopping district the past few weeks — they run around in the stores, teasing people, playing instruments, and handing out little pepernoten (hard gingerbread-like cookies). They also visit the schools and come into the classrooms where they mess up the desks and throw everything around. Cal was not happy about this.

Zwarte Piets playing in the book store recently

at the International School Monday morning

Monday morning several Zwarte Piets greeted us at the International School, playing accordion, walking on stilts, etc. and entertaining the kids until Sinterklaas arrived on the back of an open car, honking its way down the street. The kids all burst into a traditional Sinterklaas song to welcome him, which we’ve all heard so many times now it’s stuck in our heads. Then the boys went off to the classes to have big parties and exchange “surprises” (pronounced “sur-preezes”) — kind of like Secret Santas, but with a heavy emphasis on hand-made things and creativity. You also have to write a funny poem about the person you are giving a gift to. For instance, Cal had drawn his teacher’s name for the exchange and spent hours writing a haiku, then developing a number-letter-substitution code requiring her to solve 58 math problems on a “homework sheet”; the answer key was in a “report card” envelope along with a little gift card he had bought for her. Super cute.

shoes by the fireplace with little treats left in them by Zwarte Piet

our fest of Sinterklaas dinner was a traditional lentil soup, with chocolate initials at the place-settings and speculoos "lovers" (gingerbread figures) on the table

For three straight weeks the boys put their shoes out in front of the fire place every night, hoping for little treats and presents in the morning.  But they were convinced that Sinterklaas would not be coming on his feast day. Yet they got more disappointed as the day wore on with no presents. Needless to say, they were ecstatic when the doorbell rang after supper and they found a sack of gifts waiting for them outside. They were jumping around, looking up and down the street for Zwarte Piet, and yelling … pretty excited for 8 and 10 year olds! Ian wondered how Piet knew their names to put on the packages and Cal said, “From school, probably.” They were totally caught up in the magic of the moment.

leaping for joy at the sack of presents that showed up

the haul (perhaps not as big as we're used to at Christmas ... but we have to get all this stuff home in our suitcase!)

the boys are really, really into castles and dragons and such from all our visits to medieval sites

and more tiny Lord of the Rings figures -- these are models that they've been collecting here -- they have to be glued and painted, then you play a game with them

We’ve been reminding them that Sinterklaas and Santa Claus are cousins — and that they share their naughty and nice lists — but the kids are still convinced that Santa might make an appearance here in the Netherlands. Hope they aren’t too disappointed!! However, we will be bringing home a lovely story book of paintings about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet that they can share with all our Pittsburgh friends … and I’m guessing next year we’ll be getting some pressure to celebrate Sinterklaas day again.

Births and Birthdays

Happy 46, Papa!

It was John’s birthday yesterday, so we’ve been thinking about birthday celebrations here. Like everything else, they’re a little different than we’re used to, and fun to learn about. Apparently, the Dutch love to celebrate birthdays and they are a big deal, but also a lot of work for the person who is having the birthday. He or she is expected to host a big party, often for drinks and cake after dinner time, and spends the whole evening running back and forth to the kitchen. Guests are expected to say, “Congratulations!” to the host, and also to all the family members.

And if you work in an office, you are supposed to bring in cake to share with colleagues on your birthday. These cakes are not the kind we are familiar with in the U.S., however. No buttercream frosting or icing roses to be found anywhere — they are more like pastries.

Similarly, births are a big deal here, too. Our neighbor next door, Marika, just had her third baby last week. She was due on 11-11-11 just like our friend Lara back home, so we had been using her as a “gauge,” but this baby came ten days late. I’m not sure most doctors in the U.S. would let you go that far past your due date, but medicine here is very hands off and the Dutch especially treat pregnancy as more of a normal condition, than a medical issue. In fact, a full third of women give birth at home in the Netherlands!

I’m not sure if Marika had her baby next door, or in a hospital, but 24 hours latertheir house was packed with people raising their glasses, toasting the newborn, and passing him around. We were astonished. I would have been either sobbing or screaming for everyone to get out of my house, but I’ve heard that this is really quite normal. They also put up a large wooden, custom painted sign on the house — a bit like those stork signs — and letters in the window announcing the baby. This is also quite traditional, as is his name, Freek, though I have to say this does make us giggle.

I think those are supposed to be mommy, daddy, and baby figures (ghosts?) and the window says "Here's a brother for Cas and Gemma"

Poor John did not get to host his own giant birthday party, and I’m pretty sure he’s happy about that. Instead, we had rook worsts (smoked sausages, veggie of course) and oven fries. I usually make him lemon meringue pie, but he got pumpkin this year, since I had several more lovely little pumpkins from the farm left from Thanksgiving. We hung homemade decorations from the dining room light and I even went shopping with him for a couple new shirts (this is a big deal, if you know how much I hate to shop).

The best part, though, was having the boys sing Happy Birthday in Dutch. They don’t use our birthday song, but they learned this traditional one in school. (Click below to see.) Fabulous!

Happy Birthday in Dutch

De Pizzabus

Here’s a business we would love to see someone pick up on in Pittsburgh: the Pizza Bus parks right at the end of our block in the church plaza on Wednesdays making pizza to order. Over the hump day is now officially pizza night in our house.

I’m not sure how this works as a business model, since the truck is only there for three hours, between 5PM-8PM, and it only goes to designated neighborhoods four evenings a week. That’s only 12 hours of selling time, by my calculation. But they are sure busy in our neighborhood every Wednesday! They take orders for specific 15 minute-time slots, since the ovens on the truck can only accommodate a few pizzas at a time.

The pizza is rather thin and cracker-like, and you have to order from the pre-set topping combinations. But it’s much better than the stuff we tried from other local pizza places, which all seem to be run by Turkish families and also sell gyros, etc. The truck reminds me of some food entrepreneurs in places like New York City who drive around selling wonderful things: those mobile merchants have attracted quite a fan base who follow them on Twitter and will show up to get their favorite pastries, etc. when the truck is nearby. The nice thing about this business is that it’s always there at the same time and place each week.

I really miss our local Pinos pizza, but I sure would love to see something like this succeed in da ‘burgh!

Driving is a Guilty Pleasure

About a month ago we broke down and got a car. Since then I have been feeling rather guilty for giving up our “pure” Dutch experience of biking everywhere. When we first got here, we committed to getting everywhere on bikes, buses, and trains. Then we started to find out how hard that can be. Most days it’s just fine — when we’re just going to work and school and there are no special activities — but when it’s raining, or there’s a late meeting, or you’re trying to carry something large like a special homework project, then it starts to get very frustrating.

We tried the bus system, and learned that a trip to IKEA was a many hour affair, consumed an entire evening and went late into the night, was quite difficult with large furnishings in tow, and made us worry about missing the last bus back to town. We tried the train system, and learned that they are much more expensive than we anticipated and frequently break down, stranding you in cities you don’t want to be in with children way past their bedtime. In a pinch, we called on new friends. We used a taxi. And we learned a bit how it feels to be poor and without a car.

But I really reached my limit the week I had a very sick kid and it poured down rain every day. I had to drag two soaking wet boys into the doctor’s office by bicycle and try to get to the pharmacy twice. Then a couple days later we had to ride in our dress clothes to a funeral and returned after dark with a nearly asleep child who could barely stay on his bike. That week pushed me over the edge and I started looking for a car.

My father, who loved to shop for *ages* for a new car, would have been appalled at my haste. I called a U.S. company called Auto Europe and told them my only requirements were that it be big enough to fit all our luggage for the return trip to the airport, and it had to be available the day we were going to Amsterdam to pick up mom. Twenty-four hours later we had signed a short-term lease through a special program with Peugeot. Basically, we lease a car for at least a month and they agree to buy it back, no questions asked. It comes with full insurance and a 0% deductible, so no matter what happens, we are covered. Then Peugeot will be able to sell it as a used (though nearly new) car, through a popular program that allows Europeans to avoid paying the very high E.U. sales tax on new cars. In other words, it’s all a tax dodge.

Programs like this have been going for a long time now. John and his friend leased a Renault in Paris in the 80’s and drove around Europe all summer: in Turkey a donkey cart ripped off their entire door. When they returned the white car, it had a black door. Though none of that was their fault, we’re hoping there is no karmic reckoning with this particular lease! Perhaps we’ve already paid: there was a huge mix up with the paperwork the day we were supposed to get the car. John took the train to Amsterdam to meet mom at the airport and get the car, but the French office had not sent the title, etc. in time and couldn’t email the documents because their only computer was down. So after waiting hours and hours, they took the train back only to learn that things had arrived by snail mail — so he dropped mom off at the train station, got her in a taxi, and turned around and went back to Amsterdam, missing an entire day of a conference he was supposed to be at. Sigh.

we get a special red, French plate with this program that makes our car stand out

Our car is a Peugeot 3008. Dad used to tell a joke about heaven being where the Italians are the cooks, the French lovers, the Germans engineers, etc. and hell is where the British are the cooks … and the French are the engineers. Or something like that. Anyhow, if this car is any indication, French engineering leaves something to be desired! It’s an automatic, which is unusual over here, and the transmission is so clunky that it nearly dies going up any ramp out of a parking garage (about the only time we’ve driven it up a “hill” around here). You feel every gear change and can barely get it to go at low speeds. It makes me long for my Camry. However, it does have several nice features that we will miss: I like the built-in navigation system, altimeter, proximity sensors, large sun roof, and side mirrors that automatically retract when you lock the car (which also conveniently tell you at a glance from the house if you’ve remembered to hit the lock button).

our new car in front of the house

the built-in navigation system pops up on a screen in the middle, while another clear screen like a teleprompter sits in front of the driver with information such as speed projected on it

Driving these past few weeks has made Eindhoven feel like a different place. Suddenly I can take the kids to play dates at their friends’ houses (who live all over the place and much too far to bike). We’ve been to a birthday party, a Christmas fair at the secondary school at some distance from here, and had dinner at John’s colleague’s house over an hour away. We wouldn’t have been to do any of those things before. We’re also going to go back to Germany for a Christmas Market in a couple weeks. Most days it just sits on the street in front of the house (which is a good thing at close to $9/gallon), but last week we all came down with another round of colds, and it sure was nice to be able to drive the kids to school when we were feeling rotten.

We’re still committed to biking whenever and wherever we can. It’s been near freezing and quite wet many mornings, but we’re still wheeling our way to school. On a nice day, biking is absolutely wonderful — one of the things we are all going to miss the most about being here. But on a rainy day, biking is absolutely miserable — and I’m oh-so-grateful for the guilty pleasure of driving.

An Expat Thanksgiving

On Friday, we celebrated an “American” Expat Thanksgiving with 17 new friends hailing from Germany, France, Canada, and Singapore. Cooking for that many people back home would be challenge enough, but with the incredibly limited equipment in our rental kitchen — and lacking many of the usual ingredients — this year was an exercise in flexibility and creativity.

First of all, Thanksgiving requires full size pantries, refrigerators and freezers for storing all those ingredients, sinks and dishwashers for cleaning up, and most importantly, ovens for baking. Even relatively new Dutch kitchens like ours are tiny by comparison. I have to shop almost every day to make a regular dinner since we can fit so little in the fridge and we have no freezer at all. I thought this was just our house since it’s a rental, until we learned this is actually quite typical in the Netherlands. In fact, last night we were invited to dinner at the house of John’s colleague. He has a nice old row house somewhat like ours, though a little larger, that he has nearly gutted and remodeled: and his brand-spanking new kitchen has the same shrink-rayed fridge, combi-oven, and lack of storage.

that's our combi-oven there above the fridge

the oven can do one pie at a time and the fridge will hold only 1-liter cartons of milk

I’ve decided that the size of a typical U.S. oven is directly linked to Thanksgiving dinner: I can’t imagine anyone (outside of Manhattan, perhaps) who would own an oven too small to cook a turkey. I’m willing to bet that the first thought 99% of Americans would have looking at these tiny Dutch combination microwave/ovens is, “How would I cook my Thanksgiving turkey in there? Forget it!”

So, taking a cue from the very first Thanksgiving, we made ours a pot-luck. I managed to supply all the traditional items — sans turkey, of course, for this vegetarian family — including homemade  stuffing, mashed potatoes, mushroom gravy, cranberry sauce, roasted vegetables, green beans, apple pie and pumpkin pie. I did break down and buy rolls from the bakery. Our friends brought homemade dumplings, a cous-cous and cabbage dish, and pumpkin soup. Add several bottles of wine and you have quite a party! And the upside of being in a rental — when a glass of red wine smashed all over the table, we all just gave the Dutch shrug, as we’ve come to call it, which essentially means “Oh well.” It’s a lot easier to clean up and move on when it’s not your antique linens and crystal stemware.

flowers from the Friday market and "pumpkins" (fall squash) from the local farm

the patio furniture made it a table for ten (and the place settings helped hide the stains on the table clothes I found in the cupboard)

"gezellig" -- the Dutch have a special word for a cozy, homey feeling -- and candles are a big part of it

Being a historian, I imposed a little history lesson on our guests before dinner, explaining the story of Thanksgiving. And there’s even a Dutch connection! You see, in 1609 those religious radicals who would become our pilgrims (though they weren’t called that until a couple hundred years later) fled England and went to the Netherlands, which was relatively more accepting at the time. However, the English actually hounded them there and sent officers to arrest the community’s leader, who escaped in the nick of time and went into hiding. They were also getting worried that their children were learning Dutch and losing their culture. So in 1620 they decided to buy passage on a couple of English merchant ships bound for the new world.

Now we all know about the Mayflower, of course, but that second ship was leaky and forced the group to stop for lengthy repairs before they even got away from England. And then once they were out to sea, they wound up turning around to go back and transfer all the people and cargo, delaying their departure even more. That’s why the pilgrims arrived so late in the fall in 1620 and wound up having a disastrous first winter in which half of them died.

We probably all learned in school that it was the Native Americans who taught those English radicals how to survive and supposedly came to that first harvest dinner of thanks-giving. But did you know that when the pilgrims came ashore, they were met by a Native American who spoke to them in English?? Turns out that a man named Squanto had been enslaved by a previous English ship and taken to England, where he somehow managed to escape and get back, having learned the language. Squanto is the one who taught the pilgrims how to grow corn, eat pumpkins, make maple syrup, fish, and avoid poisonous plants.

I found myself thinking a lot about Squanto this Thanksgiving and how simply amazing it was that he showed such kindness to a bunch of starving English people, when he had been enslaved by their countrymen. And how sad it is that this early cooperation between Native Americans and European Americans stands as one of the only examples of its kind in our history. While I love our Thanksgiving holiday and its broader meaning of pausing to give thanks, I can completely understand why Native Americans do not necessarily celebrate the day. But in honor of that early moment of cooperation, we taught our new friends how to make pilgrim and Indian hats. We also made hand-tracing turkeys (though our Canadian friends report that they do this in Canada, too).

one of the dads wearing an Indian feather

a microcosm of Eindhoven: all of the men either work for Philips, a Philips-spin off, or used to work for Philips

Oi Leng spent half the meal jumping up and down to make her fresh dumplings - amazing!

the "kids table" -- i.e. coffee table -- held seven kids

Cal and his friend Thibault

Ian and Maia

apple pie and pumpkin pie on my desk!

And here’s proof that it really was Thanksgiving — pie! No canned pumpkin, evaporated milk, or pie pans, but we pulled it off with pulp from fresh roasted winter squash, cream, and a couple of tart pans. I’m thankful for my kitchen conveniences back home and familiar food supplies, for Trader Joes and the seitan I would have made into our main dish in the U.S., but this Thanksgiving gave us the chance to be thankful about new things: I’m thankful for new experiences, new friends, and the opportunity to hit the “pause” button on our American life and renew our focus and priorities here for a few months in the Netherlands. That’s a lot to be thankful for, indeed.