7 Reasons Why Utrecht Is Awesome (Most Beautiful European Canal City)

April 16th, 2014

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Contrary to popular belief, the most beautiful canal city in all of Europe is not Venice, Amsterdam, Saint Petersburg, Annecy, Hamburg or Bruges. Rather, according to Berlin-based travel search engine GoEuro, the honor is bestowed upon our very own city of Utrecht.

 

In what appears to be a democratic process of voting, the canals of Utrecht have won the hearts of voters around the world. This is an incredible honor for a Dutch city that has remained virtually obscure, especially in comparison to mesmerizing, world-renowned Venice and the more internationally acclaimed sister, Amsterdam. 

 

I’ve often been snubbed (on more than one occasion) by other expats (mainly from Amsterdam and Americans) when they learned that I lived in Utrecht. I don’t blame them. After all, it takes a certain je ne sais quoi to recognize the gem of a city that Utrecht is. To be able to appreciate Utrecht, arguably a genuine hipster’s paradise, you need to embrace independent thinking, creativity, progressive politics, and hundreds of years of history – preferably with a Dutched state of mind. Most importantly, Utrecht attracts only those who yearn to go off-the-beaten path.

 

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For the culturally-sheltered mainstream tourist, Utrecht will appear a bit too far (35 kilometers away from Amsterdam) and too unknown (who’s ever heard of Utrecht?). And with all the accolades that Utrecht has been receiving through the years and yet still remains in the limelight, I have a sneaking suspicion that the locals would actually prefer to keep tourists away. After all, part of Utrecht’s charm is that it’s the best kept secret of the Netherlands. Utrecht for the Utrechters some might say.

So please forgive me for joining the bandwagon of publicly recognizing Utrecht as a wonderful place on my little space on the internet. Since I’m a firm believer in appreciating not only the aesthetic beauty of the canals of Utrecht and yearning beyond the superficial, I would like to further elaborate why Utrecht is awesome:

 

1. Utrecht is awesome because it is the only inner-city canal in the world to have wharfs.

As mentioned by GoEuro and my Dutch husband (as local as you can get), Utrecht’s canals are one of a kind in the world with its wharfs and wharf cellars. Back in the Middle Ages (circa 12th century) when the main flow of the river Rhine moved south, parts of the old river bed were dug out to create the Old Canal (De Oudegracht) and wharfs were added to create an inner city harbour system. Clearly a direct example of Dutch ingenuity, boats were able to directly dock and unload their cargo onto the wharfs lining the canal The wharf cellars had pedestrian walkways and provided storage at water level, hence creating a unique two-level street system along the canals.  While Utrecht may no longer be an important trade center, the unique wharfs of Utrecht now dotted with restaurants, craft shops, cafés and boutique still hold tribute to its former glory and significance.

 

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2. Utrecht is awesome because it embodies the European café and restaurant terrace culture.

If you want to experience an authentic, genuine Dutch city, head over to Utrecht. Thanks to its canal wharfs and various squares serving as restaurants, bars and cafés, Utrecht has arguably one of the largest outdoor terraces in Europe. An added bonus is that it’s a car free pedestrian zone albeit everyone should be on the lookout for cyclists.

 

3. Utrecht is awesome because it is quintessentially Dutch. 

If you want to get a genuine, unadulterated impression of the Netherlands, you’re seriously wasting your time in Amsterdam. Amsterdam is an enchanting, international city, complete with a strong expat bubble community, but it fails to represent what the Netherlands is all about. Utrecht will definitely show you what it is like to live in a bustling Dutch city, complete with a lasting accurate impression of the Dutch culinary scene, how the Dutch translate customer service and hospitality, and other Dutch pleasantries. Guaranteed you’re in for an experience, especially if you take advantage of the wharf terraces that can’t be found anywhere else in the world (not even Amsterdam).

 

4. Utrecht is awesome because it is one of the happiest places in the world.

According to BBC travel, Utrecht is the fourth happiest place in the world.  Utrecht provides all the big city amenities while still maintaining a provincial, small town vibe. For happy-obsessed Americans, it might be worth visiting Utrecht to see what true happiness looks like.

 

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5. Utrecht is awesome because it has Hoog Catharijne.

One of the largest indoor malls in The Netherlands, Hoog Catharijne houses over 150 stores. It is connected to Utrecht Central Station, making the city easily accessible to the rest of the country, Europe and the rest of the world via Schiphol. And it is usually the first impression a tourist  gets when they venture into Utrecht. Whether or not that is a positive first impression depends on who you ask.

 

Hoog Catharijne serves as a litmus test as to whether or not you are a genuine Utrechtser. If you loathe Hoog Catharijne, than welcome to the club of Utrechters who vehemently despise the monstrosity. If you actually enjoy visiting the mall, then chances are you might be a foreigner and/or an outsider. On the positive note, Hoog Catherijne works to filter out the nearby villagers and foot traffic streaming into the city. It also provides a welcomed, consumer-driven distraction for those who are less inclined to appreciate the cultural aspects of Utrecht.

 

6. Utrecht is awesome because you just need one day to navigate the city center by foot with your eyes towards the Dom tower.

Part of Utrecht’s charm is that the city center is actually quaint, especially in comparison to other world cities. Initially designed and preserved as a Medieval fortified city, the heart of the Utrecht is enclosed by an inner canal ring that is a little less than 6 kilometers around. You’ll naturally gravitate towards the Dom Tower, the tallest church tower in the Netherlands and the reigning symbol of Utrecht.

 

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7. Utrecht is awesome because it masterfully relishes in the old world beauty that inspired the Dutch masters while gently embracing the beauty of its present.

Utrecht thrives not only in the aesthetic beauty of its canals and stately buildings, but also in her artists, poets, musicians, writers and anyone else who possess an artistic spirit. Utrecht is a slice of bohemia, a haven for everyone and anyone that wants to call her home- free thinkers, philosophers, wanderers, conservatives, and entrepreneurs.

To fall in love with Utrecht is to fall in love with life, its possibilities and all the different hidden and unexpected treasures that await you.  I hope you’ll consider visiting Utrecht, one of the world’s unsung heroes.

 

Insider tips when visiting Utrecht:

1. Visit Utrecht on a Sunday morning, preferably before 9:00am.
Since the Netherlands is the part-time work champion of Europe, visiting Utrecht during a weekday may not guarantee avoiding the crowds. After all, since a lot of people work part-time chances are that the terraces will be filled with people, especially if there is a remote possibility of sunshine. The most ideal time of visiting the canals of Utrecht would be on a Sunday morning before 9:00 am when the rest of the city is still sleeping in from a night out. Once you’re done strolling around the canals and taken the requisite photos,  terrace cafés will be opened.

 

2. Contrary to popular belief, the best place to get a panoramic view of Utrecht is not climbing the Dom Tower but at the V&D Department store in the East side Hoog Catharijne. Located at the top floor of V&D is La Place café, a glass covered cafeteria style eating establishment offering sweeping views of the city. Plus, it saves those who are less physically inclined a trip up the 465 steps of the tallest church tower in the Netherlands. Out of politeness, grab yourself a cup of coffee and take in the views.
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Bram Junior’s Nijntje Themed First Birthday & Baptism Celebration

April 9th, 2014

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I can’t believe that it’s been a year since my son’s first birthday and baptism celebration. We wanted to create a sentimental baptism and a fun, filled colorful birthday extravaganza that incorporated our family’s three cultures – Dutch, American, and Filipino. Since he was getting a double-celebration I wanted to take extra care with all the details and was fortunate to stumble upon vendors who was willing to work with my vision (after of course, countless hours of research, interviews and budget considerations). It was also a fun challenge preparing a party for 100 of our closest family and friends – we’ve been very blessed to have wonderful people welcome us into their lives and we couldn’t resist not sharing the joy of such a special day with each and every one of them.

 

For the theme, we we naturally gravitated towards Nijntje for sentimental reasons. Nijntje is a beloved nursery character created by Dutch writer and illustrator Dick Bruna. Dick Bruna is one of Utrecht’s most distinguished residents. Our son also happens be born in Utrecht (and so was his dad/my husband), spent his first year living in the heart of the city (Oudegracht) and celebrating his first year of life in Utrecht. Don’t you just appreciate how everything falls together?

 

To keep it small and intimate, we held his baptism at a small chapel in Saint Augustine’s cathedral presided by our family priest. Taking advantage of our talented friends, we had two guitarist and three singers singing This Little Light of Mine, He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands, and the Prayer of Saint Francis.
Going Dutch style, we choose the Chapel room of the Centraal Museum of Utrecht conveniently located a 5 minute walk away to host the festivities. Guests enjoyed a Filipino buffet with lechon (roasted big), pancit (Filipino stir fried noodles), two types of lumpia (shrimp and beef), rice and mechado (Filipino meat stew). For guests who had more discerning Dutch tastes, we provided ham and cheese Nijntje Dutch sandwiches. The dessert table featured treats such as red velvet cake pops, mango cupcakes, ube cupcakes, three types of chocolate pops, ube ensaymada rolls and colorful macarons.  To satisfy our guests thirsts, we served organic juices, coffee, tea and other beverages.

 

For the children’s entertainment we set aside a special play corner filled with toys. We also had a photobooth set up so they can take home an extra keepsake. A special wishing corner was set up asking guests what they would hope for our son in his grand adventure of life. We also made sure that our guests didn’t leave empty handed, providing take-away Nijntje boxes to fill up with sweets on their way home.

 

And truth be told, it was a great experience in design & event planning for me. I really love celebrating life and making all the pieces come together. While I am a bit disappointed that I won’t be able to throw another birthday extravaganza for my two year old birthday boy, I’m still looking forward to making memories on his special birthday weekend. Stay tuned for what we did with our blossoming toddler.

 

Photography: Melody Rae Photography | Cake & Sweets: Sweettoot | Birthday Stationery: Alex Tebow Designs | Birthday Banners, suitcases, props: Dille & Kamille | Catering: Kimara Party Catering
Venue: Centraal Museum Utrecht  | Church: Chapel at Saint Catherine’s Cathedral 

 

Why I am Not Throwing My Almost Two Year Old a Birthday Party

April 8th, 2014

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In a couple of days my son is going to turn two years old. I’m looking forward to it albeit my heart strings ache for the baby that’s no longer here and the excitement at the kind of boy he’s becoming.

 

And he’s not going to get a 2nd birthday party.

 

Before jumping into the judgemental band-wagon and classifying me as a cheapskate, scourge of a mother let me provide you some insight.  I love celebrating life in general and usually get excited over any excuse to celebrate it. My son had a 1st month introduction party, half-year birthday celebration, and an epic first birthday extravaganza. For my son’s first birthday Nijntje-theme party, we rented the Chapel room of Centraal Museum of Utrecht with 100 of our closest friends and family. To celebrate, he had his own catered buffet of Filipino delicacies served with Villeroy & Boch plates and cutlery, a dessert buffet with 12 different sweets, a play corner, photo booth with accessories, a wishing corner and a three-manned refreshments table offering the finest organic juices and beverages. For his more discerning guests, he served ham and cheese sandwiches in the shape of Nijntje and their choice of unlimited Fristi and Chocomel. Thrown in for good measure, my son also had his own private baptism with a choir and two accompanying guitarist as part of the festivities. Of course, one of Amsterdam’s finest photographers to hallmark the special occasion was also there. He had two special outfits – a three piece Janie and Jack suit and tie and a Ralph Lauren button-up and corduroys to get dirty in later. Yes friends, it was a first birthday party that was truly memorable, no expenses spared for our little prince.

 

BUT…

 

My son was absolutely miserable, clinging desperately to me and his dad throughout the entire time.

 

And since I’ve now welcomed an open invitation for unwarranted criticism on my little space on the internet, here are my reasons for not throwing my son a 2nd birthday party:

 

1. The Costs
I really would love to simply throw a party in our backyard but I’m wise enough not to even bother praying to the weather gods of the Low Countries for tolerable weather anymore.  Any venue able to accommodate all our guests plus food, decor and other miscellaneous rentals would cost as much as three round trip tickets to San Francisco. I’d like to start being more mindful of our expenses instead of going for broke. It’s a special privilege to be a stay-at-home mom and there’s no shame in being more kind to our fragile bank account.

 

And in the future when or if my son does ask for a party, I’m definitely going Dutch and literally severing only cake to all his guests – one piece each and off they go to the infamous Dutch party circle. Maybe I’ll throw in an extra cookie, or cupcake and one of those jumpy castles for good measure. Maybe.

 

2. The Guests
We really are blessed to have a lot of people love and care for our little man. They’ve actually been incredibly generous with us throughout the years. But inviting them to these occasions without being able to spend quality time with them is quite embarrassing and one step closer from testing the ties that bind. Obviously when you apologize for being too busy during the party, they give an obligatory half-hearted reply that it’s not a problem and you two exchange understanding looks of going through the requisite motions of cultural expectations. You also recognize their glass-eyed look of utter boredom that you yourself are all too familiar with. And bless the hearts of parents who bring their children along, as well as ones who have no children at all, in fact, everyone and anyone who ever attends childrens birthday parties – there’s a special place in heaven for them.

 

Chances are birthday parties for the non-verbal and non-school age kids (the four and under crowd) are for the parents anyway. The sooner we’re all honest about the parties being more for the parents, the sooner we’ll all be happier not having to put up with pretenses and probably have a better time. Perhaps birthday parties should be renamed as “Surviving the (insert year) of Parenthood”. Rather than giving the child another unnecessary present, wouldn’t it make more sense to give a bottle of wine or champagne to commemorate the parents for keeping their child alive for an entire year?

 

3. The Gifts
Whether or not we ask for no gifts or gifts, chances are that we were going to get gifts anyway. So confession time - I was one of those moms who actually specifically requested what gifts we would want for our son- either duplo, cold-hard cash, wooden toys or books. And we still ended up with a Chakra candle. I’d like to believe that my son is pretty advanced for his age, but I’m sure that a candle would be a perfect opportunity for a one year old to burn the house down.

My son has everything he could possibly need, or even want. Even in terms of books, which I used to be a firm believer that you could never have too much of – we’re one step closer for having to stage an intervention and keep it under control. Not to sound ungrateful, but I’d rather spend the money we threw on the party (see costs) on a memorable family trip than accumulate more material stuff that we don’t need.

 

4.  The Giveaway Goody Bag
Not only do we have to consider food and location expenses, but we’re also supposed to send all of our guests with parting gifts. The more “affordable options” consists of cheaply made, cancer causing plastics covered in toxic paint made in some obscure factory guilty of several human rights violations and are guaranteed choking hazards for babies. We all collectively suffer from having too much stuff – do we need to create another generation addicted to accumulating crap? As a firm believer in having some kind of consciousness for the environment and fellow mankind, I thought I would sidestep the cheap, toxic crap by offering home-made sweets instead. In hindsight, I’m not sure whether avoiding the threat of cancer and choking, or causing an intolerable, murderous sugar high would be better.

And let me be the one who says it – you know those personalized giveaways with the picture and/or name of the birthday child and date? There’s a good chance that it will end up in the garbage bin along with unnecessary guilt for getting rid of it. Guaranteed future trash to continue polluting our planet earth.

 

5. The Time (Before, During and After)
Anyone who wants to throw a decent party knows how much a time investment it takes before, during and after. For a neurotic, detail-orientated mom like me, the planning in my head starts at least six months prior. Then there’s the actual preparation for the party the days before and day of, a practice in the art of logistics and planning and more than a few helping hands. During the party, we’re preoccupied trying to make sure that there’s enough food, that the drinks remain free flowing and that the guests are okay. And I had to do it with a 12 kilo bundle of joy permanently attached to my hip. I don’t even want to write about the cleaning that goes on afterwards, even if a cleaning service was hired. Personally, I would rather spend the day giving undivided attention to my son and spending quality time as a family.

Let’s also not forget that the timing of the whole birthday party would actually be around the afternoon, an inconvenient time which coincides with my son’s regular two-to-three hour nap. God forbid he gets the idea that there’s a wonderful party happening all this time when he’s asleep. But more realistically, I know that my son would be giving Jekyll and Hyde a run for their money. Chances are he also might simply insist on simply sleeping through the majority of his own party (which he’s already done held on Halloween and Christmas). So why should I even bother inviting people to a party for someone who would rather be sleeping?

 

6. The Toddler
Excuse me for being presumptuous but most of the time, the three and under celebrants often appear stressed, tired and on the verge of an epic tantrum, nervous breakdown style (unless they already had one and are on to their second, or third). They say that children mirror their parents…

The last reason for not throwing my son a 2nd birthday party and arguably the most important – it would simply be for his sake. He’s a precocious child who loves, loves being outdoors. As his mother, it’s my duty and honor to nurture his highly sensitive soul. And though it’s also my responsibilities to set boundaries and to challenge him, I also need to be mindful of who he is. His birthday should be about celebrating him.

 

 

Shouldn’t a birthday celebration revolve around the wishes of the one we’re celebrating? Perhaps I’m also becoming a bit more Dutch in that I would rather something low key for our little man for the gezelligheid (undefinable Dutch terminology evoking warm, happy cozy feelings). It would be less of the standard birthday party but more centered around him and all the things he loves to do or would like to do.

 

Notice the apparent absence of the excuse that the child won’t remember it anyway? Pictures say a thousand words and maybe one day my son would be wondering what we did for his 2nd birthday. I’m prepared to let him know that we decided not to throw him one for his sake, that we wanted to make it special based on the child he is and not the child we thought we’d have. He’ll get an entire weekend with the undivided attention of his parents, a birthday cake, his favorite foods (probably dinner or lunch at sushi restaurant) and weather permitting, a trip to the zoo and a walk in the woods. And we’re still going to be taking pictures, tons of it actually.

 

My arguments for not throwing my toddler son a birthday party are obviously a byproduct of first-world toddler and motherhood problems.  I should be expecting thank-you notes from our dearest friends and family soon for NOT having to make them go through another three-to-four hours of torture. And if you happen to still get invited to a low-key event for our little Junior in the future, you can’t say you haven’t be warned.

 

What I Learned as a Parent in the Netherlands

April 3rd, 2014

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In less than two weeks, my son will officially be two years old. He wasn’t suppose to arrive until May, on my 30th birthday actually, but he made his entrance a month early. His special day also marks my two year anniversary into motherhood. And I’ve recently spent a considerable amount of time in anticipation of his birthday contemplating what being a mother is all about.

 

I’d like to figure out this mothering gig while my son is still young. The cliché “The days are long but the years are short “first uttered on Gretchen Rubin’s lips resonated deeply across the hearts of moms around the world and into mine. I’m determined (or perhaps more accurately delusional) to enjoy the highs and lows of motherhood, taking in the collective wisdom of mothers -especially the ones with the empty nests. After all, the most precious gifts of life is to have the grace to listen to the hindsight and unsolicited advice of others, the resolve to follow one’s intuition, and the fortitude to learn from one’s mistakes.

 

Being a mother in the Netherlands- the world’s epicenter for the happiest kids in the world- can be both inspiring and intimidating. With their world renowned pragmatism and tolerance, the Dutch have carved out a near perfect work-life-family balance that parents around the world would be envious of.

 

Modern day parenting, rife with the tensions of various recommended parenting styles can make parenthood outright confusing, especially when the philosophies are undeniably polarizing – stay-at-home moms versus working moms, attachment parents versus disciplinarians, helicopter parenting versus free-range parenting, and child-centered parents versus parent-centered parents.

 

Today’s parents have become the ragged, how-am-I-going-to-make-it-to-the-end-of-the-day, eyes burning exhausted, anxiety ridden generation in pursuit of fostering the elusive Pinterest-Facebook-Instagram-Twitter American childhood for their privileged offspring. Writer Bunmi Laditan struck just the right nerve in her article “I’m Done Making My Kid’s Childhood Magical” which described the empowering realization that “Parents do not make childhood magical. Abuse and gross neglect can mar it, of course, but for the average child, the magic is something inherent to the age.” Suffice to say, we’ve made parenting a lot harder on ourselves than our parents and grandparents ever did.

 

Whether we choose to be inspired by infamous tiger mommy Amy Chua, hands-free mama Rachel Macy Stafford, sophisticated alá French parenting Pamela Druckerman, or down-to-earth Dutch parenting (what I’m advocating for), chances are that our children will grow up just fine. Though to be perfectly fair, the underlying goal of all these parenting philosophies is essentially the same: to raise children into well-adjusted, balanced, productive, happy adults.

 

So here are some insights and observations I’ve collected during my two year journey into motherhood in the Netherlands, the kind influenced by Dutch pragmatism and American sentimentality (warning: full of clichés):

 

Everyone judges, mothers often being the most notorious. Don’t believe those who say otherwise. Judging is a natural reflex and sometimes an essential filter for survival. It’s why we’re given an intuition and are encouraged to listen to it.

 

However, compassion, kindness and empathy goes a long way. When you see another mom struggling with a cholically newborn, or a toddler throwing an epic tantrum, consider giving her an understanding nod, or comment on how precious her child is. What you give to the universe is often what you receive back in return, often in three-fold.

 

Sleep-deprivation is the universal Achilles heel of parenting babies, toddlers and young children. Getting 8 hours of continuous, uninterrupted sleep would be like winning the lottery.

 

The way you talk to your children and about yourself becomes their inner voice. Be mindful that you are their first teacher and the lessons you teach them stay with them.

 

All the other parents around you are also learning about parenthood as they go. As children, we’ve suspected that our parents didn’t have a clue, but can only confirm it once we became parents ourselves. Everyone else is faking it until they make it, some doing it more confidently than others.

 

Actually, it’s when we become mothers ourselves that we need our own mothers even more. Bless those motherless mothers who find the fortitude for mothering without a map. I am one of them, I would know.

 

There are no absolutely perfect mothers and fathers. Not the kinds that we’ve fabricated in our Pinterest pins and Fakebooked. Striving to be a good enough parent might be the key to being a happier parent and raising a happy kid. The Dutch would know. It’s a culture where overall acceptance of averageness is ingrained in the psyche- “Doe maar gewoon, dat is al gek genoeg” (Just be normal, that is crazy enough). They deserve serious street credibility for raising happy kids into happy adults.

 

Irrational and inappropriate (public) displays of emotions from little people come with the territory. The best investment you and your family can make is not in the Apartment therapy worthy nursery but rather parenting communication classes. The investment will pay off from the toddler to the teen years, long after that nursery has been long been the victim of bodily functions, writings, and other abuses of your growing child and thrown away.

 

Love your child for who he/she is. Parent him/her accordingly.

 

Having a regular set schedule your children can make the early years so much easier and more enjoyable. Listen to the cues of your child and plan his eat-play-nap schedule around it. And the moment you learn to embrace taking the two hour afternoon naps along with your toddler, you’ll be looking forward to it everyday. Doing the dishes, folding the laundry, and cleaning the house can all wait.

 

Playdates, especially for the three and under are more for the parents and less about the children. Spending undistracted, regular time reading to them, singing and teaching them songs, playing ball and taking walks may be better time spent in the long run. You and your child will both be grateful for it.

 

Let your child play outside. There’s a world full of magic, wonder and beauty for you and him to explore. And as soon as they can walk, they’re ready to get on their own walking bike.
Don’t forget to take time for yourself. Don’t make yourself a martyr.  Let go of the irrational guilt which often accompanies motherhood.

 

Remember the importance of dating your partner-in-crime husband/boyfriend/wife. Remember to take the time to love him too. Your love for one another will make this parenting business a whole lot easier and lot more fun.

 

Build your tribe. Whether it includes grandma and grandpa, aunts and uncles, an au pair and/or a collection of kindred (parent)friends, you’re going to need them. An extra pair of helping hands can be a sanity saver if you have an entrepreneur husband and thousands of miles away from supportive family.

 

Revel in the quirks of your child. Don’t forget to keep a journal of the things they said. Their words will make you laugh, cry and fall in love with life all over again. Treasure their innocence and keep it safe in the pages for them to read when they’re older.

 

It’s definitely okay to eat chocolate sprinkles (occasionally) for breakfast. The Dutch call it hagelslag. And pancakes for dinner are acceptable too.

 

Your whole world has ultimately changed the moment you welcome your child in your arms. Whether or not you believe in God and a heaven, the life that you have with your family is the life that you’ll want to have forever. Record the milestones and the pageants, but also don’t forget to document the random every-day events. You never know what these kids will remember and it’s often the ordinary that stays closest to their hearts.

 

And last but not least, you are mom enough. No matter what.

 

You’re Welcome Mr. President

March 25th, 2014

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Being an American in the Netherlands leading up to and during the Nuclear Security Summit  (March 24-25) has filled me up with lots of irrational pride. For the past two days, the Hague has been the center of the universe as world leaders from 53 countries and 5 international organizations negotiate on reducing and securing nuclear supplies and keeping them out of terrorists’ hands. Who wouldn’t be proud that we’re one step closer for not blowing up our beautiful, irreplaceable planet earth?

Inspired by Buzzfeed’s article Welcome to the Netherlands Mr. President,  I’d also like to share some interesting tidbits of Dutch-American influences. We all know about the soft power America has on the rest of the world. Little does everyone else know about how influential the seemingly obscure tiny Northern European country of only 16,839,840 has on American culture (past, present and future).

 

The Dutch were the original New Yorkers
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Image of Native Americans watching the arrival of the first Dutch colonists at the Hudson river.
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Actually, the Native Americans should be the undisputed first inhabitants of New York state and the rest of the United States. But it was the Dutch who founded New Netherlands (now New York) in 1614, being among the first to steal barter the land from the Native Americans and create a flourishing, world city of New Amsterdam (New York City). Knowing their time was up in 1667, the Dutch exchanged Manhattan for Suriname. What the Dutch left behind is a city of love for liberty, entrepreneurial spirit, tolerance, an established banking system and a future concrete jungle where dreams are made of.

 

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 The Dutch names Jan (“John”, pronounced as Yan) and Kees (“Cornelius”) were and continue to be common names for boys in the Netherlands.  Urban legend has it that the word “Yankee” is a combination of the two names originally referred to Dutch-Americans but is now the beloved baseball team of New York.

 

Many famous and influential people in America were Dutch or had Dutch ancestry.

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Thomas Edison, Audrey Hepburn, Eddie van Halen, the Roosevelts (Theodore, Franklin and Eleanore), Walt Whitman all had Dutch ancestry. And let’s not forget that Carice van Houten who plays Melisandre on Games of Thrones is a beloved Dutch actress.


Many all-American nostalgic food is actually Dutch in Origin

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Many of the current mainstays of the American diet were introduced to the New World by the Dutch such as pancakes (pannenkoeken), waffles (wafles), doughnuts (oliebollen), coleslaw (koolsla), pretzels and cookies (koekjes). While over time these Dutch treats became Americanized (bigger, sweeter, and fluffier), the culinary contributions of early Dutch settlers should not be forgotten.

 

The closest foreign analogue to Obamacare (Affordable Health Care Act) is the Dutch Health System
When the United States of America, thanks to the leadership of President Obama, decided to join the rest of the world and try to provide health insurance for all of its citizens, they looked towards the Netherlands as their example. The Dutch Health system and the Affordable Health Care act were both inspired by Stanford Health Economist Alain Enthoven’s theory of managed competition.

 

Wishful Thinking: That American Kids can be just as happy as Dutch Kids

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I’m also hoping that Americans can also be influenced by the Dutch on how to raise the happiest kids in the world. Perhaps your (brief) time here Mr. President Obama may have inspired you to help pave the way for American kids. The future generations will thank-you.

Oh The Places to Live: Homeownership vs. Renting in the Netherlands

March 12th, 2014

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Writing about homeownership in the Netherlands is like talking about politics with Republicans and Democrats gathered around the dinner table. Or some would even suggest trying to convert someone of a different religion to your own. It is incredibly personal and can easily be misconstrued as being offensive and causing personal injury despite one’s best intentions not to be.

 

Yet I have a sneaking suspicion that my family and I are not the only ones in our current predicament – to rent or to buy a house. And while occasional whispers among friends, neighbors, colleagues and acquaintances are being exchanged on how to tackle the dilemma, the housing crisis in the Netherlands is left unwritten and silent in the blogosphere. Before delving more into the conundrum of homeownership, it’s crucial to provide some context.

 

Contrary to popular belief, the most indebted European households do not reside in Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain. Rather, the infamous title belongs to households in the Netherlands - the Dutch who ironically are world renowned for prudence, frugality and thrift.  In 2013, household debt in the Netherlands was more than 250% of disposable income, according to European Union statistics agency Eurostat.  Much of this can be directly attributed to mortgage debt.

 

Years before the financial crisis of 2008, Dutch banks granted mortgages that often exceeded 125% of the value of a home – generously covering taxes, transactions costs, renovations, furnishings, and even new-car purchases. The Dutch government also encouraged homeownership by providing substantial mortgage tax breaks. All interest paid on a mortgage loan is deductible from taxable income, creating substantial tax relief and thus a strong incentive to buy rather than to rent. The amount of tax relief depends on factors such as the marginal tax rate with benefits increasing proportionately with income and the amount of the mortgage.

 

A paper written by analysts Windy Vandevyvere and Andreas Zenthöfer for the European Commission in reference to the housing market in the Netherlands concludes, “Taxation policy, and in particular the favourable tax treatment of home ownership through mortgage interest deductibility (MID) creates incentives for a misallocation of capital toward housing, artificially raises housing prices, disproportionately favours high-income taxpayers, has ambiguous effects on housing tenure and has encouraged high household indebtedness.”

 

Since 1 January 2013, reforms by the Dutch government have been implemented to address the current housing market crisis. Part of the measures include no longer allowing interest-only mortgage where the loan amount is greater than 50 percent of the value of the property.

 

From a superficial glance, homeownership would be a more pragmatic option. As the universally accepted adage goes, ” Renting is like throwing your money away.”

 

Casual conversations regarding the allure of the mortgage tax relief often neglect other costs (both in time and money) that should be taken into consideration, such as but not limited to:

  • Insurance premium
  • Home maintenance (roof leakage, faulty drains, water boiler, clogged toilets, etc)
  • Yard work, pest control
  • Remodeling
  • Fluctuations of the housing market

 

Other tax-deductible fees such as valuation fee, mortgage broker fee, notary fee, percentage of the mortgage interest, administration costs, etc are still expenses out-of-pocket.

 

Like the American dream, homeownership in the Netherlands is considered by many to be a symbol of success, a right  of passage into being responsible, honest, hardworking citizens. Owning a home, we were raised to believe, was the essence of the good life, at the very heart of our material aspirations. The belief that a house was the best investment one could make is so ingrained in our collective psyche that it’s almost a religion. But how much truth lies in that sentiment given today’s economic climate and the current reality of the Dutch housing market?

 

Now that it is no longer a given that home-prices will appreciate in value, homeownership is no longer a straight-forward prudent buy. In fact, it could spell out financial disaster.

 

University of Amsterdam analyst Johan Conijn asserts that approximately 700,000 Dutch households are at risk for negative equity, owing more to the debt of the house than the actual market value attached to it. According to Rabobank, one of the major banks responsible for mortgages, house prices are on average 20% lower than the peak of 2008. Rabobank urges caution amidst improved overall sentimentality, stating that “The rise will be modest, as borrowing capacity has declined in recent years and a relatively large number of households are still saddled with potential negative equity.” Thus, just like their American counterparts, many Dutch households face the reality of being underwater and may have to wait a while for prices to recover.

 

And another important fact to consider is how much choice do people in the Netherlands really have? The private rental market in the Netherlands is quite small, selection is limited and highly competitive. As more people are waking up to the reality that homeownership or upgrading may have to wait, rental prices are also increasing with growing demand.  Furthermore, the private rental market is not regulated by the Dutch government, allowing real estate agents and homeowners freedom to fix the rent and are not restricted to a price maximum.  Many people have sucumbed to homeownership simply because they genuinely feel that they have no choice but to buy – priced out of the private rental market and yet earning too much to qualify for subsidized housing rentals.

 

Based on my own personal experience as a home renter, I am a vocal proponent of “try-before-you-buy“. There’s only so much you can learn about a house until you actually live in it. Due to the current stalemate, many homes for sale are also available for rent for one year with the possibility to extend until sold. The year gives you and your family a trial period to become familiar with the house, all it’s quirks, and whether or not the neighborhood is the right “fit” for your family. It gives you more time to get a more accurate valuation of the house for sale beyond the initial superficial impressions of the house. Renting also affords you the freedom and flexibility of moving without major financial repercussions, of being tied-down to a house or apartment that may not be worth its current mortgage.

 

As a proclaimed homebody who loves to nest, I also have my heart set on the idea of a dream house. But our current reality as a single-income household, coupled with our commitment issues of not yet finding a place that truly speaks to both our hearts, also means that dream will just have to wait. Renting also enables us to live in a house with a reasonable rent that we would not be able to afford under a mortgage. And the reality is, which is true for many young families today, whatever house we could buy right now, is not the house that we envision staying in for the next three to five years.  Until then, I have to confess that I’m having lots of fun re-discovering the Netherlands as we search for our next place to call home.

 


Disclaimer
: There are a lot of variables that could make purchasing or renting more advantageous. The benefits of renting or homeownership are different for each individual’s personal circumstances. Please consult a financial professional before making any important decisions. The article written is more to illicit a discussion -an exploration of the Dutch housing market and an attempt to challenge the status quo rather than to provide a definitive answer.

Oh The Places to Live: Village, Suburb, or City

March 7th, 2014

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View from our previous apartment in Utrecht, the heart of the city center.

My husband would have made an excellent salesman. He’s charismatic, charming, persistent and has boyish good looks. Being a San Francisco Bay Area native, I had once publicly sworn (pre-motherhood) that I would never live in a Dutch village. Acclimating to provincial Utrecht was challenging enough. Living in a small Dutch town was inconceivable and unimaginable. Or so I thought.

 

Almost one year into parenthood, my husband sold me the idea of living in the Dutch suburb of Houten. Living in the heart of Utrecht was a memorable, privileged experience.  But our fourth-floor walkup became a nightmare with a baby.  We also bought the idea that family life translated into needing certain amenities – a large garden, plenty of space, and lots of privacy.  As a single-income household, our best chances of finding what we could afford and what we desired led us to the suburbs. At the very least, it would be like taking an extended vacation in an idyllic Dutch setting – a one year adventure where we would immerse ourselves in the local Dutch culture.

 

Choosing where to live is a very personal decision based on one’s lifestyle, philosophies and circumstances. My everyday reality doesn’t consist of going to local cafés, having brunch with friends, trying out the latest new restaurants, shopping at trendy boutiques, or visiting local museums. Rather, my daily life pretty much revolves around the eating-nap-play schedule of my toddler son and home-base takes center stage. He’s a child of the world, ready to explore and get in all sorts of trouble. As an aspiring writer, what I actually need most is the time, solitude and space to write. And as for my workaholic husband, he simply requires a comfortable place to unwind and sleep that’s conveniently located not too far from his office in Utrecht.

 

An important factor that shouldn’t be left unwritten and unsaid in determining where we live are finances – we’re a single-income, middle class family aspiring for a decent life and giving our son a happy childhood.

 

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Still uncertain about my decision to move to the city or stay in the suburbs, I started asking different moms about their own experiences. I ended up asking a Facebook mommy group consisting of over 4,700 members, “Out of curiosity, if you had a choice between living in an apartment in Amsterdam or in a stand-alone home with a huge garden and plenty of rooms in a Dutch village, which would you prefer, keeping in mind that you have a toddler who loves being outside. One means being socially isolated and the other one means being in a vibrant, international city with lots of like-minded mommy friends.”  There were over 100 moms who chimed in (a definite conversation starter) and not surprisingly, I received very different, passionate answers.

 

Some thought it would be inconceivable to leave their beloved city (Amsterdam). Others had enough of the stressors associated with city life and craved for space and quiet, the much sought after garden, and not having to manage waiting lists for everything imaginable (schools, swimming lessons, and other extracurricular activities for children). In hindsight, the question was polarizing because living in one place or the other doesn’t necessarily translate into social isolation, or feeling connected to a community. And reading all their answers left me even more confused than ever before.

 

A fellow mommy-blogger who moved to Zeist after living for several years in Utrecht confided, “I simply got fed up lugging all the stuff to the park . And I was tired of looking down at the ground making sure there weren’t any hypodermic needles lying around.” I’m not sure whether or not she was being facetious, but her comment made a lasting impact. The suburbs made me feel safer as I watched children playing outside in their gardens (my son included), or simply out on bicycle-only streets without any supervision. But the recent burglaries in my neighborhood and being encouraged by the local police to be more alert made me reconsider just how idyllic and rose-colored our circumstances actually are.

 

Now one year into our suburb experience and our lease up for renewal, I can’t help but revisit and re-examine our housing situation. And to be perfectly honest, this questioning happens to coincide with me going through a personal-inventory of my own life, values, role as a mother, personal goals and desires. I’ve always said that “happy parents generally raise happy kids.” Are we really happy parents? Do we need to live in such a big, fancy home (in Dutch standards) with an enviable garden?

juniorinthegarden

 

It’s been fun playing “house” yet living in the Dutch suburb of Houten has several inconveniences that I didn’t anticipate. I’m also the first to admit that my gripes are more “first-world problems” – limited selection, diversity and opening hours of stores (closed on Sundays), , being the only foreigner in a predominantly Dutch neighborhood, and feeling psychologically distant and isolated from any major city.

While I’m also a creature of habit that absolutely loves being a homebody, I also thrive on the energy that a city like Amsterdam gives. A city girl at heart, I simply get a natural high when walking around Amsterdam, taking in all the positive energy and channeling it into my hopes, dreams and aspirations. Suffice to say, Amsterdam makes me feel alive. But so does seeing the wonder and delight in my child’s eyes as he discovers the world around him, free to explore under my watchful eye.

 

The biggest deal breaker happens to be the one problem we didn’t consider when moving to Houten – my own son’s loneliness.  We were surprised and shocked at the long waiting lists for the local pre-school (peuterspeelzaall). I had naively assumed that the lack of resources for preschool was endemic to only major Dutch cities. The rapid population expansion, high concentration of young families, and limited budget made it a challenge for towns and cities to accommodate the needs of the growing population. Ironically, although my son happens to the only toddler on our street (and hence his loneliness), we were informed that we live in a catchment area with lots of young children his age. If we were to be on waiting lists anyway, I would also prefer having a lot of different options rather than being limited to a select few. The recommended alternative would be to send him for a couple of hours to créche (day-care). However, créche it’s not the same substitute as play-based learning, one that I’m keen on letting my son experience and can be prohibitively expensive.

 

Living in Houten, however, does have its benefits. We appreciate the privacy and the small town feel where, as the local pharmacists kindly told me, “Houten may be home to 30,000 people but we still like to take care of each other.” There are a lot less crowds. It’s also world renowned for being the bike capital of the world – suburb completely designed to be bike friendly for all ages.  And let’s not forget how happy my son simply playing outside, whether in the garden or out into the streets without a care in the world.

 

Where would you personally live and raise a family? Are suburbs the only answer or is it possible to enjoy a thriving city life while raising a family? Are Dutch villages the way to go for a more community feeling? Is it possible to find a middle ground where we can live in a bustling city, yet still create a safe place for children to play outside?

 

Stay-tuned for my blog post coming up about renting or buying a home in the Netherlands. The most liberating aspect of choosing where to live is that we have a reasonable amount of freedom and flexibility as renters.

 

Shameless self-promotion: If any of you know a benevolent property owner of a three bedroom (minimum), unfurnished house or apartment with a parking spot/permit in Amsterdam, Utrecht or the surrounding areas who would be excited to have tenants like me and my family for a reasonable rent, please email me at rinamae@findingdutchland.com. We’re keen on finding a house (and or apartment) to love and care for and make it a home for the next two to three years.

Dutch Carnaval 2014

March 3rd, 2014


Everyone knows about Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, attracting a fair share of revelers and tourists from around the world. Other pre-lenten celebrations, especially in the provinces of Limburg and North Brabant in the Netherlands, remain fairly off the radar and arguably one of the best kept secrets in Europe.

In North Brabant’s Den Bosch (‘s-Hertogenbosch), the fortified medieval city is transformed into Oeteldonk for three days preceding Ash Wednesday. Oeteldonk was officially established in 1882 yet carnival has been celebrated for much longer. A city after a history lover’s own heart, the oldest-known Dutch Carnaval celebrations took place in Den Bosch with accounts dating back to 1385.

If there’s one phrase to describe Oeteldonk to visitors it would be: a family affair. This description might initially be met with skepticism given that pre-lenten celebrations are universally associated with debauchery, public intoxication, and youthful indiscretions. Yet upon closer examination, everyone- young and old- are welcomed with open arms.


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The official start of Oeteldonk begins with the parade of Prins Amadeiro Ricosto di Carnavallo who in Dutch fashion arrives at the Oeteldonk Centraol train station. The procession follows with at a snail’s pace towards the center of the city where he would stand meet his loyal farmer subjects at the city hall. This is arguably the sweet spot for families – 11:11 am (11 being the magical number of carnival celebrations), before the notorious Dutch masses congregate and the intense merrymaking and alcohol-aided abandonment sure to follow.

The crowds lining the streets are enthusiastic but orderly. The atmosphere is nostalgic, familiar and collegial, resonating what small Dutch towns do best - gezelligheid (an untranslatable Dutch word that must be understood and learned from the heart, not from a dictionary).

What can one expect? Locals can be found dressed in Oeteldonk boerenkiela traditional blue jacket, decorated with merit badges for each Carnaval celebrated and donning red, white and yellow scarves in reverence to the Oeteldonk flag. Others choose to wear elaborate costumes and groups can often be seen wearing a theme – from Superheroes, Native Americans, Hippies, Disco Ball Attires, Pirates, Japanese Geishas, Pandas, and French Baroque costumes (my personal favorite). The beloved frog mascot, a symbol for the Oeteldonk marsh can be seen everywhere, especially in the most unexpected places.

 

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As local Margo from Brabants Bontje shares with me, “Oeteldank is a big theatrical production, for us where for three days we get to all be like children and play our special parts in a marvelous fantasy.”While definitely more subdued in comparison to Mardi Gras and Carnival, the Dutch still know how to celebrate carnival in style. And if there’s one thing that the Dutch do very well, it’s how to party. Oeteldonk is like Halloween, a town festival, royal coronation and high school homecoming all in one.

And perhaps the biggest surprise and most pleasant experience of all were all the different brass bands. In between the costumed crowds, marching bands from different local organizations blast their way through Oeteldonk volkslied (folksong) and revelers are encouraged to dance along unabashed.

After a few hours of requisite snapshots, enjoying the random music and eating Dutch treats such as herring sandwiches, french fries and Bossche bol, it was definitely time to go home. While we didn’t get to see Prins Amadeiro in the town square (he happened to still be stuck on the second bridge entering the city), we definitely had our cup full with Oeteldonk merriment.  First-time outsiders like us -exhausted, intrigued and excited- started entertaining the idea of being better prepared for next year’s Dutch Carnaval celebrations, just like the locals.

 

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The Real Secret of Parenting the Happiest Kids in the World

February 24th, 2014

consumerism

Sometimes it takes a single snapshot to get an accurate perspective of your life and where it’s headed. After a few laughs and the prerequisite Facebook post, I stared at the picture again. For a very long time.

I thought of myself as a relatively educated, down-to-earth (albeit neurotic) American who grew up in a working class family of Filipino immigrants. I thought I knew and understood the value of things. Or so I thought. Now as a stay-at-home mom married to a Dutch entrepreneur, I wanted to provide our son with the best possible life – and all the happy childhood memories I didn’t get to have.

And yet, this picture taken on an ordinary day left me unsettled. Several questions started following, one right after the other. Did my baby really need all these things for a happy childhood? Was having all these toys instrumental in enhancing his development?  Why do we even have so many toys when they obviously failed to entertain him for more than two minutes?

From the moment I became pregnant, I was inundated with messages of baby and toddler essentials. They were strategically placed marketing campaigns with lofty promises of helping first-timers like me navigate the minefield of parenthood.  Perhaps it was also because I was going to raise a baby in a foreign country far from family. Or simply because we naively bought into the idea that by being 110% prepared, we’d have the happiest baby on the block. What ever the case, my husband and I were the perfect consumers, spending an embarrassingly extravagant amount on anything and everything related to baby. Nothing but the absolute best for our bundle of joy as far as we were concerned.

But this single picture made me re-visit my role as a mother and really delve into the more challenging question- what was best for my son? Leaning into my mommy intuition, I got a giant moving box and threw 97% of all his toys inside to be donated to the local church. What was shown in the picture was only a fraction of all the toys my son actually had (let’s not even discuss his extensive library of books and impressive wardrobe).

I also had my light-bulb moment of trying to see how other parents around me were raising their kids. It’s worth mentioning that we were starting to feel (and still do) the financial strain of being a single-income household. Life in the Netherlands can be prohibitively expensive with much higher tax rates, comparatively lower salaries and generally higher costs of living. Yet the Dutch remain among the happiest people in the world. And since happy parents generally raise happy kids, I decided to start making mental notes about Dutch parenting and share what I observed.

I discovered that the real, ultimate secret to the relative success of Dutch parenting (success meaning raising well-adjusted, happy, responsible, self-confident children) was actually a simple one.  It’s the gift of time.  The Dutch (both moms and dads) have a lot of time to give to their children. AND that children have the time to simply be children.

As the part-time work champion of Europe (and thus arguably the world), the Dutch work the least amount of hours in any industrialized nation, averaging only around 29 hours a week.  Dutch laws passed in 1996 and  2000 enabled workers to reduce their hours to a part-time schedule while maintaining job security, determining their own schedule, hourly pay, paid vacation days, healthcare and other pro-rated benefits. The four day workweek, especially among working moms, is more the norm rather than the exception. Dutch dads are also beginning to embrace the new status quo, choosing to work  part-time and having their own “Papa day” to play a more equal role in childrearing. In a way, Dutch parents can have it all – be successful part-time professionals such as doctors, lawyers, teachers, accountants, consultants, secretaries and even entrepreneurs and still have the time and energy for their children. The choice of working part-time, full time or staying at home aren’t even valid options for most families in the United States.

Rather than buying into the myth of quality time, Dutch parents recognize that what their children need most is their presence. The quality of their relationships with their child(ren) is largely dependent on the quantity of time fostering the parent-child relationships in everyday routines. Dutch parenting seems to be about fully engaging in the mundane realities of life – waking up, getting ready for the day, going to and from school, mealtimes, laundry, and bedtime (rinse and repeat).  And in between those times, Dutch parents do a lot of talking. They cultivate and foster dialogue with their children from the moment they’re born. After all, part of Dutch culture is having an opinion and it starts as soon as the children can open their mouths and babble.

While Dutch parents working only part-time may also mean a lot less fancy toys and gadgets, no Dutch child seems to genuinely feel they’ve missed out on something truly essential. Quite the opposite actually. In fact, some would suggest (including newly reformed “Dutchified” me) that Dutch children are better off and happier having less material stuff and more, much more of their parents who are a whole lot less stressed out. After all, isn’t it the culmination of the little moments in daily life that shaped our own childhood memories?

While we’re at it, there’s really no such thing as mompetition in the Netherlands. Dutch parenting doesn’t revolve around the anxiety-driven endeavor to be perfect parents raising super brilliant children as much as simply being good enough parents raising well-adjusted kids. There’s a lot less emphasis in expensive educational toys, personal computers, after-school activities, ballet and piano lessons, enrichment classes and test-prep courses. In fact, some would even argue that those things are quintessentially un-Dutch and more American. Here in the Low Country, it’s more about parents sitting down and listening to the children’s day at school, regularly eating meals together around the family table, reading stories, taking walks in the forests, dunes or to the local park, maybe (just maybe) doing some arts and crafts, and most definitely letting the children play outside and bike around (weather permitting).

Doe maar gewoon, dat is gek genoeg (Just act normal, that is crazy enough)” is a Dutch cultural philosophy that also translates into letting children simply be children – free to discover, explore, make mistakes, use their imagination and play. The Dutch fully recognize and acknowledge that childhood only happens once. There’s absolutely no rush, no frantic concern over milestones being met. And our Northern European friends have long figured out that trying to raise the smartest, most accomplished child has no semblance what- so- ever on actual, genuine, long-lasting happiness.

One could even argue that Dutch parenting is actually universal parenting. The biggest difference (and which makes all the difference), however, is that the Dutch live in an egalitarian society that actually supports parents.  And I’m simply grateful for living in a society that allows me to give and let my child have a simple, carefree childhood with all the time he can possibly hope for.

p.s. Feel like wasting more time at work or procrastinating a bit more ? Let me help you. Join my Facebook page to get guaranteed random updates on life in the Netherlands and articles that moved me enough to share.

Brazo de Mercedes

February 18th, 2014

AcostaFamily
I’m a nostalgic person. Or perhaps, more accurately, a sentimental fool. I love looking at photos of my family’s nearly forgotten past. This photo was taken for an annual family reunion according to my father’s foggy recollection. Ironically, it’s also one of the last taken as waves of family members would immigrate to the United States.

I start making up stories in my head, tying up all the pieces of fragmented memories my father and relatives recall about their Philippines and the pictures that history books portray of that time. It was the Philippines of the 1950s and 1960s when hard-working, industrious and educated middle-class families thrived under a progressive economy. My great grandfather Silverio Acosta became mesmerized by the American dream and instilled those seeds of unadulterated ambition and promise of a better life in his children. Fifty-four years and five generations later, not a single relative is left in the Philippines.

Now that I’m a mother, I’m trying to teach my son about his Filipino heritage while reconciling the fact that I myself identify with being American rather than Filipino. Most of all, I also want my son to grow up in a home filled with love, security and belonging. It’s what motivates me to learn, understand and comprehend Dutch culture and all its nuances, especially if we were to permanently settle in the Netherlands. Hilariously (or not), I’m actually more Dutch at heart than Filipino having lived and spent more time in the Netherlands than I’ve ever spent in the so-called motherland. Perhaps whether or not I would like to admit it, I’ve become a third-culture kid.

These are the stories, dilemmas, and thoughts that come to my mind when I’m in the kitchen, my own refuge where I try to experiment and ambitiously try to replicate traditional Filipino recipes. I imagine the good old days in the province - what life was like for my great great grandmother Isabel, her husband Saturino, their 8 children and grandchildren (the people in the picture). I wonder what the family reunion was like, and I can’t help but let my imagination get the better of me.

Around 5pm, the perfect nostalgic hour between lunch and dinner when the sun is still out but no longer insufferable, the entire family would gather in the living room. The eldest son would start playing Malinak Lay Labi on the piano and in traditional Filipino fashion, everyone else would gather in song. And of course, they would all be enjoying a merienda (afternoon tea). On this particular eveningthe ambrosial Brazo de Mercedes takes center stage, delighting everyone to their heart’s content.

By baking Brazo de Mercedes and other Filipino treats in my own kitchen, I hope to recreate snapshots of family memories in the Philippines. It’s my way of teaching my son about our Filipino culture. After all, food is the language of heritage. And I have my heart set on mastering the art of speaking it.

 

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Arguably the most decadent and cherished Filipino dessert is Brazo de Mercedes, a pillowy, fluffy meringue filled with a thick, rich yema custard and rolled into a log. Brazo de Mercedes essentially means “the arms of Mercedes (Our Lady of Mercy)” in Spanish.  It’s a dessert that evokes a warm, sweet embrace in the arms of a loving mother. Or possibly a dessert that has romantic insinuations. Regardless of what connotation the dessert has, it’s sure to evoke some kind of emotion, which isn’t surprising. After all, the Philippines is the most emotional country in the world.

Brazo de Mercedes is best served with coffee or tea for merienda. Taking a bite of Brazo de Mercedes is like having a piece of sunshine, a perfect way for everyone in the colder parts of the world to keep warm until the promise of spring and summer finally comes around.


Brazo de Mercedes Recipe
This is my modified recipe for Brazo de Mercedes made especially for my 22 month old son in mind. I’m also convinced that the universe conspires to help you along the way. One of my closest friends Rhea was kind (and patient enough) to teach me how to make this beloved dessert.

 

For the custard
1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
2 tbsps. unsalted butter
1/4 cup of water
10 egg yolks

 

For the meringue
16 egg whites
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla essence

Confectioner sugar for decorating
Additional butter to grease the parchment paper

 

Preparation

Pre-heat the oven to 175 C (350 F) and line a 14 x 16 cookie sheet with greased parchment paper.

Separate the egg yolks from the whites.

Using a whisk, combine the sweetened condensed milk, vanilla extract, butter and water in a mixing bowl over a double boiler using low heat.  Gradually add one egg yolk (10 total) at a time and continue stirring the mixture to prevent curdling. Keep stirring until the mixture has the consistency of custard. This will take approximately 15-20 minutes. A sign that the custard is ready is that the mixture will stick to the whisk. Once done, remove from the heat source and set aside.

Using an electric stand mixer (Kitchen Aid), whisk the egg whites, vanilla essence and cream of tartar until soft peaks form. Gradually add the sugar and whisk until the meringue forms firm, glossy stiff peaks. Proceed with caution not to overmix the meringue.

Evenly spread the meringue mixture on the lined cookie sheet. Bake in the pre-heated oven until browned, approximately 15 minutes. The meringue will puff up a bit while being baked and it will deflate once removed from the oven.

While the meringue is baking, prepare another sheet of parchment paper and sift confectioner’s sugar over it.

Remove the meringue from the oven and invert it onto the prepared parchment paper. Gently peel away the parchment paper on top. Spread the custard evenly on 3/4 of the cooked meringue (brown side).  Roll the meringue tightly into a log.

Best served on the same day it is made.

 

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