Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Vive la France

Praz de Lys was beautiful this weekend – we were often in clouds or sometimes above clouds and it added a sense of mystery to the whole place. Imagine being on the side of an alp in the mist and the only other sign of life besides your own breathing is the sound of cowbells coming across the valley. Here are some memories from this weekend.

I was the only American in a group of about ten other folks and our meetings were in French. At one point one of them asked me in English, “Would it help you if we spoke slower?” I laughed and said, “The only thing that could help me would be a brain transplant from someone who can speak French.”

At another point I decided to show off my French skills by saying, “Sont des mots qui vont tres bien ensemble.” (As in “Michelle, my belle”) I thought I had them fooled for a second until my friend Vincent said, “It’s funny you learned French from the Beatles because I learned English from the Beatles.” He then went on to say, “I can’t believe the same guys could go from writing I Want to Hold Your Hand to A Day in the Life in four years.” That’s an insightful comment. Then he said, “A Day in the Life is ….” and he used a French phrase that we don’t have an English equivalent for (Amanda Munroe – do you have any idea what he would have said?) He explained it to me as “having nothing that led up to it and nothing that could follow it.” Sort of like “one of a kind” or “singular” maybe, but more powerful than that. I’m not sure. Anyway, it was a nice intercultural moment. Vincent went on to tell me about the day he shook hands with Ringo Starr in the Geneva airport, and I told them my theory of the Beatles – that Paul was a musical genius, John a creative and philosophical genius, George the spiritual heart and Ringo the mascot. The French folks stopped for a moment to contemplate the depth of what I was saying and take in this new truth. There were a lot of “hmmms” in French accents around the table. I like France.

At another point in our meetings, when a new idea was presented, one of them said, “I am very disturbalized by this.” That’s my new word of the week.

I learned there are no French words for leadership, fellowship, or discipleship. “We don’t have a lot of ‘ship’ words,” my translator (and our staff person in Lyon) Marie-Aline said to me. They don’t have a word for leader the way we use that term in Young Life, either. I asked what a volunteer leader is called in France and she said simply a volunteer. That loses something in the translation. But then I asked what the team leader is called and she said “animator” and I thought that was a tremendous word.

In the morning they all poured their coffee into cereal bowls and sat dipping bread into their bowls of coffee, before picking up the bowls and drinking. If I could have remembered the term Vincent used in reference to A Day in the Life, I would have used it to describe their morning coffee ritual.

I got confused by the kissing etiquette. In the Netherlands, it is right cheek, left cheek, right cheek. In Belgium it is one time on the right cheek. But in France, where the bise is synonymous with their culture, I noticed some people were starting on the left while others started on the right. I called time out and demanded an explanation from the rules committee. Turns out the bise differs according to geographic region. “Do you ever get mixed up and wind up kissing on the lips?” I asked. “Oui.” Ooh lah lah.


As I left for the airport, I had the nagging thought that I was forgetting something. I even got out of the car before leaving for the train station and said, “I need to get my phone,” but it was in my pocket, so I got back in the car and left with an uneasy feeling. I fell asleep on the train and it wasn’t until I was in the airport that I realized I had forgotten my passport. After a few moments of panic and self- flagellation, I called Gretchen and asked her to get my passport and come to Amsterdam with it. Maybe, just maybe, if she could get on a train quickly enough, she could get there in time to save me.

Then I approached the KLM counter and told the woman there I had a big problem. She cheerfully said, “Let me see if I can help you.” I love KLM! “Do you have a driver’s license?” I pulled out the Xerox copy of my driver’s license they gave me at city hall in Dordrecht last week. I never finished the driver’s license story, so here goes. I got a letter last week from the medical director of the CBR saying that she had determined I need to wear glasses to drive. My family has known that since the summer when I was in 6th grade and I came into a room and looked at a pair of shoes in the corner and asked, “whose dog is that?” They took me to the eye doctor the next day and I’ve had glasses on since. I got the letter from the CBR on Tuesday last week, in time to take it to city hall to formally apply for a driver’s license before my Michigan license expired. I only had to go their twice on Wednesday morning last week because the first person I talked to made me get a letter from Young Life in the Netherlands about my work status that the second person didn’t ask for, but that only makes a long story longer, so let’s keep moving. They took my 53.20 euro, my documentation, and my Michigan driver’s license and told me in four weeks I will receive a call or possibly a letter telling me I can go pick up my Dutch driver’s license. They then photocopied my Michigan license and gave that back to me and said, “This is your driver’s license now, it’s okay to drive with this.”

So, the woman at the KLM counter said, “Do you have a driver’s license?” and I pulled the photocopy of my license out of my wallet. “This isn’t a license,” she said. “It’s a photocopy of a license.”

“I realize that,” I said, “but this is what your government has told me to use for a license.”

“Do you have any other identification?” she asked. I pulled out my Dutch Residency Card (see blog entry “The Worst Picture of Me Ever Taken.”) She looked and winced, but then recovered and said, “I need to show this to my colleague.” Off she went to a back room where I imagined a group of people doubling over in laughter. I think I could see them pulling back a window shade and peeking out at me. Before long she came out and said, “It’s okay, you can use this.”

I called Gretchen and asked where she was. She was sitting on a train about to leave Central Station in Dordrecht, so she was able to get off the train before it left town. Whew!

Off I went, praying that the folks in Switzerland would agree with the folks in Amsterdam. They did. The woman at the counter in Geneva even said, “Are you just going back to the Netherlands – you aren’t going on to any other countries?” “Yes,” I said. She looked empathetically at me and said, “All you want to do is go home, isn’t it?” “Yes,” I said, “that’s all I want to do.” I was like Dorothy in Oz.

So, what have I learned this week? That you can drive in Europe with a photocopy of an expired American license. That Americans don’t need passports to cross European borders by air. That French people can be fun and interesting and they don’t necessarily dislike Americans. And that, no matter how stupid, hopeless and disturbalizing the situation I create, Gretchen is willing to bail me out if necessary.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

I Hung One More Year On The Line

Do you remember that Paul Simon song that begins, "Yesterday it was my birthday, I hung one more year on the line”? Doesn’t matter if you do. Yesterday it was my birthday and I hung one more year on the line. I’m aching a bit.

Not from my advancing age, though. I’m aching with some mixture of nostalgia, regret, culture shock, loneliness, and mid-life crisis. Let me try to explain.

“People are wishing you Happy Birthday on your Facebook page,” Gretchen said. “You need to check it.” Well, truth be told, Jesse set up a Facebook page for me about a year ago and I’ve looked at it maybe a total of three times. I would have looked at it more, but I forgot the password. Anyway, I got the password from him and looked for the first time in seven months or more. I should have been looking at it earlier. There were all sorts of people there – people from high school, people from Michigan State, people from Young Life in Holland, Michigan, and from Central Reformed Church in Grand Rapids. There was the little girl who played Mayor Shinn’s daughter in the Flint Southwestern High School production of The Music Man in December, 1975. I was Charlie Cowell, the anvil salesman. (But he doesn’t know the territory!) Her Facebook page said she is a prison guard in the south and her greatest joys in life are her grandchildren! How did that happen? There was a kid I took to Young Life camp 22 years ago that we nicknamed “Tiger” because the first night we were there he danced around the cabin in tiger-striped shorts to a song called “Girls, Girls, Girls.” He’s pictured in a business suit on Facebook. There was the guy I performed “Who’s on First” with in high school. There were people in Hawaii and Germany. There was a guy I remember not being all that nice to when I was younger, and there he was, 35 years later, wishing me Happy Birthday. Facebook is like a giant “come home, all is forgiven” poster. As I read these people’s Facebook pages, looked at their pictures, and contemplated their lives, I felt all sorts of feelings flooding in and through me. Most of what I felt was regret for letting them go.

You are in a sort of “review your life” frame of mind on your birthday, anyway. I started reviewing mine. I don’t have any regrets about the places we’ve lived or the decisions I’ve made or the overall direction my life has gone in. But I have real regret about walking away from relationships. And now here I am, on another continent, 4000 miles away from most of the people who have defined my life.

Place is important and God knows I’ve been seeing a lot of them. In a couple of hours, I will get on a plane and fly to Geneva and then drive down to the Praz de Lys in the French Alps. That’s what the picture is of. Can you believe I get to go to spend the weekend at a place like that? Next weekend Gretchen and I are getting on a boat in Stockholm and sailing to Helsinki. I have to pinch myself to know I’m not dreaming. But as fun and exciting as seeing all these places is, it is people that make life worth living.

Patrick Swayze died this week, and to honor the occasion Dutch TV preempted their regular programming to show a bunch of his movies. Not to speak ill of the recently deceased, but as an actor Patrick Swayze falls somewhere on my list of favorites right between Charles Bronson and Sylvester Stallone. Which is another way of saying not very high, but at least he’s above Gary Busey and Keanu Reeves. Just imagine if Patrick Swayze made a movie with Gary Busey and Keanu Reeves. Oh, that’s right, they did make a really dumb movie together about surfing bank robbers, and the Dutch showed it last week. Bhodi and Johnny Utah? Real people have names like that? Come on. They also showed Ghost and Gretchen and I wound up watching it. Whoopi Goldberg was great in that movie. Anyway, we’re watching Ghost and the thought that occurred to me was “if Patrick Swayze is dead and so in love with Demi Moore, why is he trying so hard to keep her alive? Wouldn’t he be more fulfilled if she died also? Then they’d be together.” I know I am thinking way too much about the meaning of Ghost, but it started me thinking about heaven. I hope the promise of heaven is real. I believe in it, mostly I think because I want to believe in it. I don’t have any evidence for it beyond the Bible, but I’d rather live believing in it than not. Will we know each other in heaven? ls heaven where my Facebook page goes from being virtual to real, and I will be connected to all these people from different stages and places in my life? Or will being in the presence of God so fill us that nothing else matters? Will I care one whit about the life I’ve left behind?

Which started me thinking about Bill Segrist. Bill died about ten days after we moved here, and I had promised him I would preach at his funeral, so I hopped on a plane and went back to Michigan within two weeks of starting my new life. That was a bit surreal – outside of the funeral I really didn’t want people to know I was back, because it seemed way too anti-climactic. You shouldn’t show up again two weeks after people make a big fuss over you going away. Anyway, one of the great things about Bill was that he never let people go. He stayed connected, and he sure didn’t need Facebook to make that happen. What I tried to say at his funeral was that I never knew anyone who was so unwilling to let go of people and who was so willing to be there when things were rough. When someone is in trouble, a lot of us give that person space – but Bill would move in instead of out. On the night of Gretchen’s stroke in 1985, it was Bill who was still there after everyone else had gone home. He was given six months to live three years before he died. I think he fought cancer so hard and effectively because he just wasn’t willing to let go of the people in his life. I want to be more like Bill.

We finished my birthday with a Dutch party. About eight people came over and congratulated me on having a birthday. The women all kissed me three times. That’s not a bad custom! We talked and laughed and spent several hours together. I confirmed that Dutch people don’t move around as much as Americans do. Most people here live in the town where they were born and live close to their parents and extended family. If they do move, they only live an hour or so away from each other, because the country is so small. Maybe they are on to something. Maybe they are smarter than us. But I also thought, these Dutch friends are here now and are enriching my life. I’m going to be with French friends later today and with Swedish friends next week. All of these people are enriching my life and I wouldn’t know any of them if I’d stayed on Windsor Lane in Flint, Michigan.

So I started with the poet Paul Simon and I’ll end with the philosopher John Lennon:
All these place have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life, I’ve loved them all.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

What I Want For My Birthday

Last April my immigration lawyer explained that with my “Highly Skilled Migrant Status” I would be eligible for the “30% ruling,” which allows me to exclude 30% of my income from Dutch taxes AND allows me to exchange my Michigan driver’s license for a Dutch one. I was ecstatic, because I have heard horror stories from Americans trying to get European licenses. It is usually very hard and very expensive – most Americans cannot pass a European driving test. How do I know this? Because I watch Reality TV! Once I was watching a show in England about people trying to get their licenses (I know it sounds boring but it was gripping) and it showed a woman going for her driver’s test. The first thing the examiner asked her to do was check the brake fluid. Then he made her change a tire. Then she had to get in the wrong side of the car and drive on the wrong side of the road. Okay, that last part was just because the show was set in England, but check the brake fluid? “Blimey,” I exclaimed to the telly in an attempt to sound British, “I’m not exactly Mr. Goodwrench here.”

A friend in Spain has told me his license cost him over 1000 Euro in driving lessons, exams, and government forms. Not me. I’ve been imagining walking into the Dutch version of the Secretary of State’s office (we don’t have a DMV in Michigan), tossing them my Michigan license and them handing me a Dutch license along with a complimentary pair of tiny wooden shoes to hang from my rear view mirror. Oh foolish man. What previous experience have I had with anything here that would make me think this would be easy? First, I had to clear the immigration hurdles and get accepted as a Highly Skilled Migrant. That took six weeks, cost a few hundred Euro, and involved about twenty pages of documents - including things from the US affixed with apostilles, which had me visiting county courthouses in Ottawa and Ingham counties and going to the Secretary of State’s office every day the week before we left. Then we had to file for the 30% ruling. Another bunch of paperwork, more money, and another month, but yes, this was also granted at the beginning of September.

So I naively emailed my lawyer (and it is na├»ve to email your lawyer, because he bills you for 12 minutes for each email at 180 Euro an hour, or 36 Euro an email, or about $50 an email…Lawyer: Here is the information you need. Me: Thanks. Lawyer: You are welcome. Bill - $100…when oh when am I going to learn NOT to say thanks because it costs me $50 every time he says “you’re welcome.”) Where was I? Oh yeah, so I naively emailed my lawyer and asked “How do I exchange my driver’s license now that I have the 30% ruling?” I am still thinking I can go someplace and trade.

He gleefully writes back saying thanks for the chance to send you another $50 email and here are the steps you need to take. Basically, I have to go to the Stadswinkel ( which more or less is City Hall but translates literally as “city store”) and pay 20 Euro to get a form to mail to the Central Bureau Rijvaardigheidbewijzen (any Central Reformed people who read this – you can start thanking God I am not doing the spelling bee this year because I have a whole lot of new words that would make you cringe). The CBR people are in charge of driver’s licenses. After completing their form I have to mail it back to them, then they send it to the RDW (Rijksdienst voor het Wegverkeer, good but not quite as exciting as Rijvaardigheidbewijzen) who are the people in charge of the roads. After approval by the CBR and RDW then I take the forms they send me along with a passport photo (see blog entry called “The Worst Picture of Me Ever Taken”), 53 Euro, a copy of my 30% ruling AND my valid Michigan driver’s license and in a few weeks they will send me a new Dutch license in the mail.

Are you still with me? (The Dutch people who read this blog are thinking “What’s the big deal?” while the Americans are thinking “This is why I should never leave home.”) I get the first form from the CBR. For some reason they went ahead and made it in Dutch, but I can read enough of it to know I have a serious problem. It was a medical history questionnaire and it’s one of those forms where you are supposed to answer “no” to every question. You know the questions. Are you criminally insane? Do you have narcolepsy? Do you have an attention span so short that sitting through a traffic light is going to be a problem? But right there on number 8 I can see in Dutch it’s asking if I’ve ever had an operation of one of my eyes. Time for a moral dilemma. I don’t like to brag about it, but I am legally blind in my left eye. 26 years ago I had a detached retina and had eye surgery and the result is I can see out of my eye with glasses but without them I can’t see squat. I could lie and make my life easier (which is pretty much why people lie anyway) or I can tell the truth. I guess you know what I did. (Would I be writing about this if I’d gone ahead and lied?)

Did I mention it’s my birthday next Friday? I’m not saying this to entice you to send presents (not that’s there’s anything wrong with that), I’m saying this because – by some fluke of timing – my Michigan driver’s license expires this year on my birthday. I have to have a valid driver’s license to make this whole thing work. I didn’t think this was going to be a problem in June when I started working on it, but now it is September. I am starting to think God was looking the other way on this one and wondering if I might need to jump on a plane and go back to Michigan for a day to renew my license before next Friday.

So I fill out the form honestly and late Tuesday I receive a letter from the CBR telling me I need to see an eye doctor. What are the chances that that’s going to happen quickly? But miracle of miracles on Wednesday I call the Albert Schweitzer Ziekenhuis in Dordrecht to make an appointment with an eye doctor and they say I can come in at 8am on Thursday. So I go get my eyes examined by a Dutch eye doctor this morning and 45 Euro later he finds that I am blind in my left eye but with my glasses I can see fine and approves me to have a license for the next ten years. Hoping to speed this along, I get the idea of taking the form personally to the CBR in Rijswijk. We have to go to Rijswijk anyway, because Gretchen’s residency card has come in (mine took six weeks, hers took three months; mine is good for five years, hers is good for one year. “I love socialism,” he said sarcastically.) and that’s also the city where the immigration office is. We hop on the train after the exam and head to Rijswijk. I have dark glasses on, because my eyes are still dilated. We get Gretchen’s residency card (see blog entry “The Worst Picture of Me Ever Taken” for further explanation. I promised Gretchen I would not post this picture on the internet. I did not promise I would not comment on it. Simply stated she looks like Bela Lugosi after a night out on the town. I try calling her “Stella Lugosi” but she fails to see the humor.) Then we head around the corner to the CBR offices. I stumble a few times on some curbs because the sun is shining very brightly and my pupils are still dilated. Gretchen takes my hand and begins to lead me on, and I am led by the hand wearing dark glasses into the office where I want to get a driver’s license.

But it goes well there. The receptionist promises to call another woman “just after her lunch break” on my behalf…but then she changes her mind and actually picks up the phone and makes the call! And the other woman says “send his form up” so she puts it into a vacuum tube and off it goes. The first woman says “she’ll try to put it into the system today or tomorrow” and gives me a phone number to call next week to see if they’ve acted on it. I might actually hear something before next Friday!

We go home and I have another idea. I decide to see if I can contact the Secretary of State’s office in Michigan and ask for help. I see on the web site where I can send Terry Lynn Land an email, and I do so. But I notice that really these emails are for telling Terry Lynn Land your concerns about the Secretary of State’s office. And then on the side of the page I see “Out-of-State Services” and find a place where I can call to request an extension on my driver’s license for six months! I call. I explain my situation to a woman in Lansing. She says, “Well, I can’t help you if you don’t live in Michigan.” Apparently I misunderstood the nature of “Out-of-State Services.” I try to sound desperate. I make sure she understands it’s not like I’m on vacation in Toledo. She begins to soften. She asks if I have any utility bills in my name in Michigan. Sure I do. I have bills on two continents. She starts to tell me how I am going to have to send these to her when she suddenly cracks and says, “Oh, what the heck, I’m just going to do it for you. I am going to give you six months but after that we are not going to do anything more for you. Make sure those people give you a license in the next six months.” Don’t you love Midwesterners? So, I have a six month extension of my license on the way, and I might not even need it, because maybe, just maybe, the CBR is going to come through and I can get to City Hall by next Friday with all the documents I need.

Take that, Peter Stuyvesant!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Amanda and Anne

Our daughter Amanda came from Germany last week to visit and to celebrate her 22nd birthday with us. We had a real Dutch birthday celebration, which included our Dutch friends congratulating Gretchen and me on our daughter’s birthday. We don’t do that in the US, and we are poorer for it. It makes you think about your role in your child’s life. I started thinking about what we’d contributed beyond biology to her. What had we done as parents that helped make Amanda such a remarkable young woman? She’s twenty-two and living on her third continent, working for the German church, searching for grad schools, and is very much intent on making a difference with her life.

We are blessed to have two great children who are contributing in positive ways to the world around them. I use the word “blessed” very intentionally, because it seems to me that Amanda and Jesse are people who have temperaments, skills and abilities far beyond anything positive Gretchen and I ever gave to them. We are blessed. But having said that, I have been thinking about one positive thing we did with our kids that we can take some credit for.

We read to them. Both of us loved to read to them and both kids loved to be read to. We read long after most parents probably quit reading to their children – I think we read to them until they were leaving elementary school and maybe even into junior high. I have very vivid memories of Jesse as a boy laughing his head off to “The Wind and the Willows;” of crying with Amanda when we reached the end of “Charlotte’s Web;” and both of them really enjoying “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “The Lord of the Rings.” We loved “The Trumpet of the Swan” and “A Little Princess” and “The Secret Garden.” We tended to go for the classics, and Amanda and I remember reading “The Diary of Anne Frank” together when Amanda was about nine or ten years old.

She’s asked me since why I chose to read a book with such a dark theme to her when she was so young. I don’t have a great answer for that. I just felt she was old enough to learn some of the horrible truth about what it means to be human. Beyond that I am not sure.

Last Wednesday, I had a meeting in Amsterdam and Amanda and Gretchen rode along. We all headed to the Anne Frank house afterwards. It seemed an appropriate thing to do with my daughter, since I’d introduced her to Anne Frank so many years ago. This was my second time through the house, and both times when I’ve visited the overwhelming thought I’ve had is “this really happened – it isn’t just some story from a book or movie – and it really happened right here, not so long ago.” The house is dark, somber, and sad, with the blackout paper still covering the windows and the rooms all bare because Otto Frank wanted the world to see what the Nazis left behind.

Anne Frank has become one of the most well-known faces of the Holocaust. At one point in the tour there are some words on a wall from a Holocaust survivor who says, “One single Anne Frank moves us more than the countless others who suffered just as she did but whose faces have remained in the shadows. Perhaps it is better that way; if we were capable of taking in all the suffering of all those people, we would not be able to live.”

So when my daughter was a young girl, I chose to expose her to another girl, to introduce the whole subject of the Holocaust to her.

There is a film clip playing in one of the rooms of Otto Frank talking many years later about returning from Auschwitz(he was the only one of the eight people hiding in the secret annex to survive) and the shock he had when first reading his daughter’s diary. He knew she kept her diary, but didn’t know the depth of feeling she had about so many different things. He had felt close to her, but after reading the diary he said that he reached the conclusion that most parents really don’t know their children.

Fathers and daughters. Great and complicated stuff. A Jewish father tries to hide his family during the war. His bookish daughter keeps a diary. I am sure Otto Frank never imagined that he would spend the rest of his life as the steward of his lost family’s memory, and particularly as the steward of his youngest daughter’s memory, simply because she wrote down what was happening. I’m sure he never imagined the house they hid in would become a museum visited by millions. Almost 65 years after they were captured, and 29 years after Otto Frank’s death, one Christian father from the United States and his daughter joined the millions to walk through these bare rooms and feel the weight of the Frank family’s suffering.