Moving to Holland is not easy, but it's worth the effort. This blog tells the story of shifting from American life in Pittsburgh to Expat life in the Netherlands,
and all of our European adventures that follow.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Kanick's East German Christmas Vacation

To sum it all up, we had a wonderful time with the Taylors this Christmas. They have a great apartment, and Brandi had everything ready to make us feel right at home (complete with house slippers!). We spent a lot of time laying around in our PJ's, cooking great food and watching classic Christmas movies on repeat. They also showed us around Dresden, which is a really interesting East German city, with a lot of history and beautiful buildings.

The famous Frauenkirche

The Christmas Markets
One of the best parts about being in Germany during the holidays is visiting the Christmas Markets. There are several markets scattered around Dresden, but the main "Strietzelmarkt" is the largest, and nicest, one that we have seen in Germany. It is touted as the oldest Christmas Market in Germany, and has been around for 576 years. It also has the tallest "candle pyramid" which towers over the entire market.

We especially enjoyed the stand that sold tiny little doughnuts sprinkled in powdered sugar that melted in your mouth. One stand sold sweet heart shaped waffles, and another had the standard potato pancakes (kartoffelpuffers) served with applesauce. There was also a stand that sold delicious barbecue beef sandwiches, which had an entire cow rotating over a spit. And, in addition to the traditional glühwein, they sold all sorts of variations including a honey based 'mead,' eggnog, and glühbier.

We bought some traditional wooden handcrafted decorations, including a nutcracker, a candle pyramid (the one with the spinning top), and a smoking man selling glühwein (you put incense in him and smoke comes out of this mouth).

Gotta love the German-style Santa hats

Best Idea of the Week: Nominee

Chris and Chad went out on a snowy adventure to take an empty crate of beer back to the store, and pick up another full one, using Austin's sled. Once at the store, they decided that it would be better to get not just one, but three cases of beer to take back. Needless to say, when they finally got back home, they both had their coats off and were sweating heavily. The three full cases of beer may or may not have been heavier than they thought it would be... hmm.

We did manage to have some fun in the snow, though:

Best Idea of the Week: Winner
We were so caught up in enjoying the Christmas Markets and the great food, that we didn't get around to picking up a tree until Christmas Eve. Only they did not have any tree stands left, and Brandi and I could not find one in the few remaining shops that were open in town. So, we got creative and used what we had, a beer crate. It actually worked perfectly.

Best Quote
During the cleanup of the great Apocalyptic Boxing Day Flood of 2010 (when the washing machine accidentally drained into the hallway instead of down the bathroom sink), Chris pointed out that the stack of old rags that he used to keep, and that Brandi had made him get rid of, would be perfect for "just such a water based apocalypse." She concurred. This is the cleverest way we have ever hear anyone say "I told you so." ;)

Christmas Day
Brandi had covered all of the bases for Christmas morning, including stockings and stocking stuffers. It was great to see Austin's face when he came upstairs and discovered all of the presents that Santa had brought. He enjoyed unwrapping all of his gifts, and in typical fashion wanted each one taken out of the box immediately so he could commence with the playing.

During the unwrapping process, Austin managed to sit on one of the bows and it stuck to his bottom. It was too cute, so we had to let him walk around with it all morning.
For dinner, we cooked a goose! Her name was Gertrud (since we name all of the birds we roast), and she was tasty. I kept thinking of a Christmas Carol when Scrooge sends the boy out to fetch the best Christmas goose he can find.
It was great to spend time with the Taylors in Dresden, and it was long enough that we had ample time to just relax and enjoy everything. We all Skyped with our families, which was great. If you have to be away from home, it's nice to have good friends to spend the holidays with to help keep the home sickness at bay.


Many more pics are up on Flickr:

The Taylor's also have their pics up:

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Leavin' on that midnight train to Dresden

We finally had an opportunity to take a night train in Europe!

We were excited about the prospect of spending the holidays with the Taylors in Dresden, but trying to figure out how to get there from Rotterdam ended up being a bit tricky. As it turned out, the best option was to take a night train.

We decided to make the most of our night train trip and reserve a 2 person sleeper car for the trip there. It was very cool. We had our own private cabin with two bunk beds, a fold out table, and our own sink complete with towels and drinking water. We had a lot of fun. We watched a movie, ate some dinner, and then turned all of the lights off and laid in bed watching the snowy moonlit German countryside pass by our feet through the window. It was better than a movie.

Then, as they say, the plot thickened. The following events did in fact occur, and the names have not been changed to protect the innocent. During the night our train car lost electricity and heat due to the extreme cold and snow outside. We woke up around 5 AM to a freezing cold room, and were instructed to change trains in Berlin. Among the other passengers in the car were an older Polish couple (or Russian, we're not sure), who asked for our help in finding the way to the next train in Berlin. Then it got awkward. They wanted to find and use an elevator (to descend one floor) instead of the stairs, which required a 10 minute walk in the cold and snow to the very end of the outside platform. They didn't grasp the idea that we would simply walk through the small station and look for trains heading to the main station (Hauptbahnhof); instead the woman proceeded to shout the words "central station" in the face of all other people we would pass, each time she followed it up with "nobody speaks any English around here"; she did this even as we (Chad and I) received instructions for a person we spoke with while refraining from shouting. I died a thousand deaths inside in the 20 minutes that we spent with her. On the correct train to Hauptbahnhof the woman asked loudly on a train packed for Berlin's rush hour what our names were... she later used this information as the doors on the metro opened at our final stop she proclaimed "Suzy don't leave me!" The feeling of the dirty looks from the rest of the metro was oppressive.

Skipping forward, we were given consolation tickets on the next train to Dresden. Of course, the tickets were for car 126, which was not on the 8:20AM train; seriously, the train cars went consecutively from 120-125, then 127-130. After finding empty (unsold) seats, we were joined in a small 6 person train car by a wily old Russian couple. Important point: this is a different crazy couple. We helped store their luggage in racks above their seats, which was a problem since the bottoms of their bags were covered in snow and mud. We dozed off, and were awoken to the woman slowly tearing pages out of a magazine (because when you tear something SLOWLY it makes the sound more bearable, right? wrong). When she finally would finally remove a page she handed it to her husband, who would crumple that page up, and shove it under the elevated, dripping bags, and continuously poke at the pages (crinkling the entire time). They repeated this process exhaustively. We managed to sleep as they settled in, but were soon awoken (for a second time) to a strange cracking sound. The woman was cracking hard-boiled eggs on her handbag placed on her lap (not the most travel friendly of snacks for a confined space). This confused us, but seemed ridiculously funny, that is until we awoke (for a third time) to have the woman slouched over towards Chad, snoring and mouth-breathing (6 inches from Chad's face) spewing the wonderful aroma of eggyness throughout the car. Making it better was the wheezing sound associated with the woman's breathing pattern, each time making the next breath seem unlikely. In the end, it all worked, and we were only a 4-5 hours delayed getting into Dresden.
************End Scene************

For the way back, we opted for a 4 person couchette, but we ended up having the whole cabin to ourselves anyway. We arrived in Utrecht about an hour behind schedule, but at least there was no drama and we didn't loose power and heat.

All in all, we enjoyed our night train experience. It is extremely convenient to go to sleep in one place and wake up at your destination. It sort of felt like a trans-Atlantic flight, except you have a nice flat bed to sleep in, and you don't have to change time zones. We're glad we could add this to our European experience.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Every Who down in Whoville...

"... the tall and the small, was singing without any presents at all!"

Gouda by Candlelight
December 14, 2010

Contrary to popular believe, Dr. Sueuss' Whoville does exist. It is a tiny town in The Netherlands called Gouda. Each December, they have a Christmas festival called Gouda bij Kaarslicht (Gouda by Candlelight), and they gather around their tree in the town square, sing songs, and cheer as the tree is lit.

This is one of our favorite Dutch traditions that Chad and I have experienced. It does feel like you've stepped right into a story book.

We went a bit early to walk around the small town for a few hours before the ceremony, snapping pictures of the beautifully picturesque Dutch town, and sipping glühwein. The giant tree is brought in from Norway, and is almost as tall as the impressive medieval Town Hall. Stalls are set up throughout the town selling the typical holiday favorites: poffertjes (tiny sweet pancakes), stroopwaffels (flat syrup filled waffles), oliebollen (ball shaped doughnuts), erwtensoep (pea soup), and patat (french fries).

There are Santa bands playing throughout the town:

as well as drum shows, people dressed in traditional Dutch clothes demonstrating traditional dancing, and even some old men wearing wooden clogs and blowing long Swiss-like horns.

Arjen and Linda live nearby, so they bundled up the boys and brought them out.

An hour or so before the 8:00 tree lighting, everyone gathers around the huge Christmas tree in the town square, with the town hall for the backdrop. The square is surrounded by beautiful historic Dutch buildings, and the trees and alleys are lit with Christmas lights. At dark, every light in the square, and the surrounding buildings, is turned off and candles are lit and placed in the windows, hence the name: Gouda by Candlelight.

Led by a choir, they sing Christmas Carols, some traditional and some Dutch ones that we did not recognize. At 8:00 they counted down from 10 and then lit the tree. Everyone cheered, and flashes went off all over the square, like the opening kickoff of the Super Bowl. Then, everyone sang Silent Night (in Dutch). You couldn't script a more perfect ending to this festive night in Whoville.


*The pics are up on Flickr:

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Tis the Season

It's time to get into the Christmas spirit, and what better way to do that than to visit a Christmas Market (or 2, or 10).

We are a short two hour train ride from the German border, and let's face it, Dutch Christmas markets don't hold a candle to German ones. So, this weekend, we hopped on a train to spend our Saturday in Düsseldorf. Last year, if you remember, we went to Cologne, for Chad's 30th birthday trip. We loved the 7 different markets that they had throughout the city. Düsseldorf also had 6 different markets, though they were a bit smaller, and not as decorative as the ones in Cologne.

The market at Marktplatz

Great selection of handmade ornaments and decorations:

Enjoying a hot mug of glühwein:

Another of the 6 markets:

Brewing up a batch of fresh glühwein:

Chad warming up with some Pumpkin soup:
(I love the imagery of him eating soup out of a Styrofoam bowl with hobo gloves)
That evening we decided to find a place to sit down for dinner, after being on our feet all day. We must have been following our noses, because we turned several corners, had no idea where we were, and suddenly came upon this great German beer garden. We had a great traditional German dinner with 6 types of sausages, sauerkraut, potato pancakes, and of course the local brew.

It was fun to start to get into the holiday spirit, and even hear groups of Germans singing Christmas cheers. And, while we weren't blown away by the markets here like we were in Cologne, we still had a great time and enjoyed some delicious food and glühwein. We're looking forward to seeing the markets in Dresden, too. Only two more weeks!


More pics on Flickr:

Monday, December 6, 2010

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet... the strangest Dutch tradition

December 5th is a special day in The Netherlands, they celebrate Sinterklaas. Dutch families exchange presents and children leave shoes by the door which are filled with chocolates & tiny gifts. Sounds familiar, like the Santa Claus and stockings that we are used to... but there is a strange difference: Zwarte Piet. Translated this means Black Pete, which is a literal description, as they are helpers that paint their faces black.

I pulled this pic from the internet to give you a clear mental image (I also find it strange that Sinterklaas wears a Pope hat):

In most places, especially the US, it would be unheard of to pant your face black. When we first saw this in person we were shocked. But the Dutch find it perfectly normal and festive. They've all grown up with it, and enjoy carrying on the tradition with their children.

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (Sint & Piet for short) are manifested in nearly every form imaginable, from dolls...
... to chocolates and marzipan...

... to wrapping paper...

... and even Zwarte Piet cakes (eek!):

This year, we hosted the Sinterklaas party for Chad's colleagues from work. One tradition they do each year is to write a poem about another person (anonymously) which includes a lot of sarcasm and jokes about the person. Each person reads their poem in front of the group, and the goal is to really embarrass the person without completely offending them (none were too bad this year).

There is also a gift exchange. This year, the theme was for each person to buy two small gifts, one that was blue and another that was edible. The gifts then go into a pile, and a dice game begins. Depending on the number rolled, you either pick a gift from the pile, pass your gift left or right, unwrap the gift, take another person's gift, or give yours away. This goes on until each person has a gift.

I'm glad there we were able to experience this Dutch holiday tradition (mostly with our jaws dropped), but I don't think I'll adopt Zwarte Piet into my holiday festivities. We bought the Sint & Piet dolls to mark the interesting occasion, but I think I will hide them from our children until they are a bit older, as not to corrupt and/or terrify them. Tell me this Zwarte Piet doll isn't creepy! We used to tell ghost stories at slumber parties about china dolls whose finger nails would grow at night and scratch you. I can easily see this doll taking over the roll in that scary story.

I wish them all the best with their traditions, but I'll take Santa and his tiny elves any day!


More pics on Flickr:
For your entertainment, here is comedian David Sedaris' take on the holiday: