It has been a very unique experience, I think, moving back to a foreign country that was my home for nearly a decade after being gone for the past five years.
So much is familiar. And so much is foreign…still, or all over again. Maybe part of it is that the kids (and Maarten and I) are in such different phases of life now. I was in the thick of the baby and toddler stage for the entirety of my first time here. Now my eldest is starting Middelbare School (6 year highschool) Monday, and the youngest 2 will be in the village elementary school.
Anyway, it is an odd mixture of remembering and discovering. Fumbling and stumbling and picking up where we left off.
This past week we experienced a longstanding Dutch tradition that was new to us and was a perfect manifestation of a very deep cultural difference between the United States and the Netherlands. My kids went to the Vakantie Kinderweek, a summer day camp, in the next village over. A group of kids they know from our village were taking part and invited them to join in for the huttenbouw or fort building.
We aren’t talking blankets and pillows, folks. Basically they take a field and dump piles and piles of old wooden pallets filled with rusty nails in it. Then they turn a huge crowd of kids loose with hammers, nails, saws and crowbars and the kids, with varying levels of adult supervision, frantically gather the best pallets and scraps they can find to start building. It is impossible to do this justice with words, let me show you:
I went along yesterday and I tried really hard to channel my Dutch-ness and bite my tongue but I was the parent shouting Watch Out! and Be Careful! the most. There was a first aid station by the entrance and throughout the day I saw a few kids walk by holding a finger, tears streaming down their cheeks, or limping by with a bloody shin (or maybe a rusty nail in their foot?? One can only assume…). I couldn’t believe that with the ratio of sharp tools and nails to kids there wasn’t a much longer line waiting for band aids, stitches and tetanus shots.
But see, it is okay because there was a sentence in the brochure about the week:
Participation in all activities is at your own risk. We can not be held responsible for damage and/or injury, or for forgotten, lost or stolen items.
And they even threw in a few extra guidelines:
– Wear sturdy shoes with thick soles
–Do not climb on the pallet piles
-Never put a board down on the ground with the nails sticking up.
So there you go, no problem! Coming from America, the land of liability, this is a breath of fresh air. People I talked to about it here say things have changed in the past 10 years, but for the most part I would say the Dutch have a strong and deeply ingrained streak of don’t complain, don’t worry, move on that makes activities like this possible.
It was also fascinating (although this is a universal phenomenon and not peculiar to the Dutch) to watch the different groups at work and the various levels of adult involvement. A number of them were clearly led by overzealous fathers with a competitive streak who (in my opinion) don’t have enough chances in their daily lives to prove their manly handiness. They took the lead from the kids and built complicated, perfect forts that, well, lacked that authentic kid character. These groups tended to also bring in a lot of extra materials from outside like sheets of thin plywood to give them a more finished look.
Other groups built refreshingly humble hovels, obviously designed and built by littler hands and minds with a limited knowledge and ability.
Our group fell somewhere in the middle, I suppose, with a certain very eager and fairly handy 12 year old taking the lead of the kids, and the adults helping to make sure things were sturdy enough, and lending a hand as needed. At the end of the 2-day building period they had a 3-story fort with a look-out tower and flagpole.
On the last night kids are allowed to sleep in their own forts (after they have been judged safe by the officials) before they are demolished and the field is cleaned up again. The tradition used to be that they would be bulldozed into one big pile and then burned, but sadly most towns have stopped doing this.
Must have been something to do with liability…