Thursday, January 2, 2014

Holidays in Cambridge and Leiden

It has been a long time since we’ve posted anything but it will be an understatement to say that we've been busy. There have been adventures with a mouse caught in our new extractor fan over the stove, a stomach bug on Christmas Day, the experience of moving via bike, removing the rust stains from our former landlady’s floor only to remove the finish on the floor as well, spending a night on the frigid tile floor in an airport and making a Christmas tree out of cardboard, and a lot of walking cold and wet attempting to transfer utilities and accomplish errands in a country that treats holiday vacations with the utmost of seriousness. From this description you could think that we are not all that happy, or that our time has been more trial than joy. If so, you would be mistaken. To tell the stories, I will employ a fictional grandchild, Ted.

OWEN: Our first Christmas after we were married, we had just moved by bike.
CLARA: That’s right, oh goodness. You were a saint trekking back and forth.
TED: No way! Grandma, they had cars back then.
CLARA: Yes, and at that point our only car was back in the U.S.
OWEN: Yes, in old country. But the Dutch love their bikes, and we still had the use of our landlady’s at the time.
TED: So you moved, like, a couch, on the back of a bike?
OWEN: We didn’t have a couch yet.  Or any large furniture.  So it was a lot of trips, some of them on foot, but it was doable.

We went to the thrift store, did a lot of searching on Marktplaats (the Dutch version of Craig’s list) and to find furnishing for our apartment, so before long we had a used fridge, a used washing machine (which we installed ourselves complete with cutting and reconnecting wires and it doesn’t leak and hasn’t electrocuted us, but washes our clothes beautifully), a used bookshelf, a used couch, and after a well-researched trip to Ikea we emerged victorious, and the pile of boxes came to our new doorstep that night. Many of our new friends have been so kind and helpful, we don’t know how we could have got the fridge home without some of our friends and their car. People say that constructing Ikea furniture with a significant other is a real test of a relationship, but if that is the case, Owen and I have nothing to fear. We have had a blast putting everything together, the crowning achievement being the STORA bed (lofted to make the most use of our little studio), which was quite the challenge and is now pretty impressive. Constructing the furniture has brought back memories of getting legos for Christmas. Except in the end we get furniture! It’s really starting to feel like home.

No sooner had we had three nights in our apartment than we got on a plane and flew off to England to be with one of my college friends for Christmas!

CLARA: Oh that was just such an adventure.
TED: For you guys, “adventure” is code for “things going terribly wrong.”
CLARA: We went to England to visit a lovely friend of mine from college. She was studying at Cambridge. And she set us up so nicely in a flat all to ourselves, just around the corner from her place. It was really lovely. Except that your grandpa got a stomach bug.
OWEN: The night before Christmas. Or the morning of, depending how you count.
TED: Yuck! So you didn’t do anything on Christmas just sat around in someone ELSE’s empty apartment?
CLARA: Well. We took care of each other. And we relaxed, and watched a movie. And Erin, my friend, was such a dear. I had Christmas Breakfast with her, and Owen—Your grandpa—slept, and we skyped with our families. It was actually really lovely.
OWEN: But the rest of the week was also lovely.
CLARA: Yes! We started out taking the Stansted Express into London! Words cannot express what a joy it was to be back in England: you could see that it was England just by looking out the window.  There’s something so lovely about the rolling landscape and the blue painted trim...
OWEN: And the English language everywhere.
CLARA: Yes! It was so odd to be back in a place where English was the primary language!
OWEN: It didn’t stop our Dutch-learning brains from working in “translate” mode, though. I kept trying to put together Dutch sentences in my mind before I said anything, and your grandmother even said “Bedankt” when the conductor handed her back her ticket.
OWEN: We walked around the city and got lunch at a pub on the South Bank.
CLARA: It wasn’t the pub we were aiming for, that one was closed, but it was so lovely.  All decorated for Christmas, it was cheery and warm and balm to our souls on a wet windy day.
OWEN: Fortified with lunch, your grandmother showed me Shakespeare’s window in Southwark Cathedral, and visited her friends at the Tate Modern.
TED: I thought your friends were in Cambridge?
CLARA: No, dear, he means the paintings I had known there when I had studied in London.  We met my real friend at King’s Cross station and took the train together into Cambridge.
OWEN: Do you remember the Indian take-out?
CLARA: So delicious!

Other adventures in our week with Erin involved a Boxing day barrel race in Grantchester, long, happy conversations, board games, picture telephone (adapted for three players), visiting Churchill college (where Owen studied in Cambridge) and taking pictures with all the sculptures. Also Erin introduced us to some magnificent British comedy, and I will never look at Chummy from Call the Midwife the same way again.

After leaving England we returned to a new apartment still full of unconstructed furniture, without curtains on its giant storefront windows, and a great many problems still to fix, but we have been working happily and faithfully and it is nice to be able to see the progress.

New Years was amazing in Leiden. We went to a really lovely Oud and Nieuw party, and had a really great time getting to know some of the people from our own church and friends of friends. When we got down to midnight we all chanted together counting backwards (in Dutch of course) and the whole group toasted with champagne and then formed a couple of circles so everyone could go around and wish every other person a happy new year, complete with kisses to the cheeks. Perhaps they knew we didn’t know? But they provided the cue “three kisses” in case we got confused. No hugs though, as “Hugging is much more intimate.” But the reason that new year's here is amazing is the fireworks. It may be a little old brick city, but EVERYONE buys and sets off fireworks. It’s only legal for the one day so starting at 10 am there were bangs going off, but at midnight? There is no official city display, and there doesn’t need to be, because everywhere you look there are intoxicated Dutch setting off colorful explosives. We walked back soon after the hour hit and there were rockets shooting up on every side, glittering over the canals, illuminating the old city. Random strangers shook our hands and wished us a healthy, happy, or lucky new year.

We wish you one as well.

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