Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's in Holland

Here is what I am eating right now, that I must wipe off my fingers frequently in order not to gunk up my keyboard: Oliebollen.

Here is where we have been for the last week: Marix and Mary Heersink's House in Dieren, Holland:

View Larger Map

This is what two crazy-cute nieces look like singing "Silent Night": (videos now on YouTube instead of Facebook, so even people over 40 can see them!)

This is a toilet with a little platform so that you can examine your poop before you flush it away!

This is me standing next to Van Gogh's The Sower at the Kröller Müller Museum. (This probably didn't need to go to YouTube, but the still camera was out of batteries.) There was a poster of this painting -- from the Met's Van Gogh in Arles exhibit -- at Spring St. since 1984. It gave me quite a flashback:

Here is the Heersink family hockey game in progress in Arnhem. Twenty Heersinks battle it out for dominance of the ice and bragging rights until the next game:

We will be leaving the land of free high-speed internet Saturday morning and returning to Kenya. We have so many great DVDs that Bridget's parents brought -- hopefully they will last us for a while! We miss the dogs and the sun, though our time in Europe has been filled with hospitality, generosity, and copious piles of high-lipid foods. We are filled with gratitude! Gratitude and meat!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Germany is not Kenya

The first day we arrived in Germany we were so jazzed just to eat in a restaurant. We made a little video to commemorate that blessed event:

Actually, the instant we landed in Berlin's Tegel Airport it was clear we were fully submerged in capital-c Civilization again. But it's somehow more civilized than America, so it's more like all-caps CIVILIZATION. Here are some things that we like about Civilization:
  • Running water
  • Running HOT water
  • Mercedes-Benz taxicabs (with integral seat-warmers) that whisk you – in a leathery, silent, but thrumming embrace – to your hotel
  • Electricity
  • More specificaly: lights at night. Lights at NIGHT! Like, not from petrochemical lanterns, or battery-powered headlamps, but from hot tungsten filaments connected to a municipal power supply that – if you can believe this – never turns off.
  • Refrigeration
  • The produce is huge. Like mutant huge: The Incredible Carrot; The Incredible Fennel; The Incredible Bunch of Cilantro that Ate Cleveland!
After our two-day transitional stay at the art'otel, our first hosts were great, thank you Lynn and Eric! We were the first houseguests to crash in their Prenzlauerberg apartment, as they only recently moved to Berlin. Their couch was awesome and the six-floor walk-up was a much-appreciated way to warm up after being out on the frigid streets.

Our second hosts, Utz and Silke Schernikau (plus children Jacob and Lara) were also awesome. People are awesome! We have noticed that German kitchens should have three faucets: one for hot water, one for cold water, and one for Nutella, which everyone we've visited has a GIANT jar of Nutella in an easily accessible place in the kitchen. And if you finish the Nutella, in a late-night spoon-snack scenario? You will wake to find it replaced with a full jar, as if by elves, by the time you wake. German morning magic!
  • Nutella
  • the meat aisle of German supermarkets, which hopefully I will photograph tomorrow. 
Stay tuned.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Wherever you go, there you are

Yesterday we were in a cafe having a delicious, expensive, gourmet lunch. I had nothing to do but enjoy myself and spend time with my brand-spanking-new husband tootling around a beautiful European city and spending money given as wedding presents. So, I figured it was a good time to do some existential worrying about those pressing questions, like: what is the point of life? I mean, do any of our efforts really make a difference -- what would it even mean to "make a difference" -- like, a difference in what? What would I even be shooting for if I could magically produce any outcome I wanted this instant? You know, things that need to be figured out here, today, at this cafe table.

At times like this, I can really experience being my own worst enemy. There was this irritatingly audible, vapid-seeming young American girl at a table next to us, telling in syrupy tones the poor young German man (who either was unable to perceive her vapidity on account of her foreignness, or whose foreignness was obscuring his own vapidity from me) that "you can't run from yourself," which, despite being trite, is nevertheless true. Even having everything I could imagine wanting at this moment, I am still just myself.

It's illuminating to shift suddenly through such different cultures. In those last days before we left Kenya, I romanticized my projection of Europe, a place where everything works and we can get everything we want and I won't be frustrated by what I was experiencing as this insane apathy on the part of the Kenyans, this sort of radical acceptance of suffering that seemed to allow for the unacceptable. For example, riding a matatu into Nairobi is the equivalent of a 90 minute mechanical bull ride: do you picket the president's office in outrage about the state of the country's roads? No, you accept that this is how things are. Someone breaks your dog's leg: do you get bent out of shape and start trying to change the way people in your town treat animals? No, you just hope that the dog's leg gets better. Or, fuck it, get rid of your broken dog and get a better new one. I mean, you didn't even give him a name anyway. The educational system is based on slavish regurgitation in preparation for the incomprehensible standardized exam that will determine the entire future of your students: do you demand changes to this archaic and unreasonable system? No... you get the idea.

But now, here in the lovely city of Berlin, there are just a new set of circumstances that grate on me. The air hurts my body and makes going outside unpleasant; the sun barely lightens the gray pall of the sky, making everything the weak color of despair; I feel useless, like my only purpose is to take pleasure, to use up stored "happy capital" when my instinct is to hoard and save it for some hypothetical "later." It reminds me of the following poem:

The Obligation to be Happy
by Linda Pastan

It is more onerous
than the rites of beauty
or housework, harder than love.
But you expect it of me casually,
the way you expect the sun
to come up, not in spite of rain
or clouds but because of them.

And so I smile, as if my own fidelity
to sadness were a hidden vice—
that downward tug on my mouth,
my old suspicion that health
and love are brief irrelevancies,
no more than laughter in the warm dark
strangled at dawn.

Happiness. I try to hoist it
on my narrow shoulders again—
a knapsack heavy with gold coins.
I stumble around the house,
bump into things.
Only Midas himself
would understand.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Chocolate, Cheese, and Hot Running Water

We are experiencing a little bit of Africa burnout. It started, as I knew it would, as soon as the school term ended and our day-to-day feeling of usefulness was harder to sustain.

Little things that wouldn't have irritated us before all of the sudden seemed almost intolerable, like the intermittance of the water supply to our house. When we arrived, we expected no water! We washed our dishes in buckets for the first two weeks! But ever since it started raining a tiny bit more, we've come to expect an unfettered flow.

Whatever: my point is that we are on edge. We have started to be WAY critical of the people and culture around us. We are starting to feel like colonialists, looking around and thinking "This is not the right way to do things! Here, let us tell you what you are doing wrong!"

Time for a break. Tomorrow we fly to Berlin. A week and a half later we go to England, then after Christmas we go to Holland. With ubiquitous access to wireless internet, it is possible you will see more posting from us over the next three weeks. But it's also possible that we will be too busy eating chocolate-covered cheese while soaking in tubs, and we will not post at all.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


For a while there, just after it got dark, we could see the constellation of Scorpius really clearly on the Western horizon from the porch of the house. It was bright, obvious, harmless, and helped me learn to find Saggitarius.

None of these things were true about this guy:

...who I found on the porch, lurking under my rain boot as I prepared to go to the computer lab at 8am this morning. I "found" him using a sophisticated technique wherein I reached for my rain boot and, with the lightning-quick reflexes that have elevated my species to the top of the food chain, extracted the poison from his barb with the pad of my left ring finger. That's the finger on which I wear my wedding ring, so I knew he'd go for it -- scorpions are notorious romantics.

So then I said "Shit! Fuck! God damn it!" and went back in the house.

Bridget hates it when I walk back into the house shouting obscenities for no apparent reason, because she always expects that something Really Bad has happened (decapitated student, black mamba bite, government overthrown by military coup), but usually I've just forgotten to bring some mildly-important piece of paper with me.

But this time I was shouting obscenities because I'd been stung by a scorpion. I wasn't shouting because of the pain (which hadn't started yet) but because literally one minute earlier I had made a joke wherein I predicted that our rain boots, so long unused, had probably been colonized by giant, mutant, hybridized Spider/Scorpions in the interim -- and that I'd better shake them out extra-well and be prepared to do battle. It was a classic early-morning not-very-funny joke that seemed funnier because we had only just had our coffee and our brains were only functioning at the level of like gibbons.

Which is how I explain going from joking about scorpions to being stung by one in under 60 seconds. Under-caffeinated gibbon-brain.

To be fair, I had already assiduously checked and shaken and banged around my first boot, and was satisfied that it remained uncolonized by arachnids. I was about to repeat this procedure with boot #2 but the sly scorpion seen above, probably awakened by and in a state of high alertness as a result of the banging and shaking of boot #1, got all UNDER the boot instead of inside it.

Anyway, one trip to the clinic and almost 10 hours later, it still hurts, but I have to assume it hurts less than it would have without the local shot of lidocaine to the sting site, the IV shot of hydrocortisone, the Aleve, and the Panadol.

The guy above is dead, by the way. My mercy has its limits. (Not really. I just wanted to bring his carcass to the clinic so they could see what had got me.)