We couldn’t decide if we should bring anything or not. What are the social conventions for showing up at a stranger’s house with the intention of living there for two weeks? We made a last-minute decision. A plant. A plant is the appropriate gift. Better yet, make it an orange one to show we know a little something about Dutchness.
When our workaway host, Lin, picked us up at the bus station she said nothing about the plant awkwardly hanging in a plastic bag, slightly battered from the bus ride. I am sure we too looked a little worse for wear after 3 months on the road, so perhaps the picture wasn’t as strange as I imagined it. If you can’t have a house, why not have a houseplant?
We tossed our packs in the back amongst the car seats and farm tools, then settled in for the short ride to our new home. The only way I can explain what happened next is that we drove through some sort of time machine/warp. Here’s how it works. After about 30 minutes of driving through the messy web of freeways lacing Amsterdam, a portal opens to a different time and place. It’s not quite time travel because the setting is not entirely medieval nor interwar. But it is some combination of everything in between: a rough cobble stone street lined with brick shops, a picture-perfect castle complete with turrets and a moat, flat green fields reclaimed from the sea, and finally a lonely farm house where once a family of 10 lived in one room and the animals ruled the rest. The sign on the gate read: Vrede Rust. Peace and Quiet. After nearly 100 days on the move, to us, that sounded like a dream come true.
Alef and Lin welcomed us to their small kingdom. “Make yourselves at home,” they said, “what’s ours is yours.”
I looked at the little orange flower, relieved to have brought something to offer in return, but realizing immediately that it couldn’t possibly be enough. Lin and Alef were disproportionately thrilled with our offering.
“It’s perfect, we have lots of plants outside but none for the house!”
“Yes, we should repot it. Then it’ll really flourish!”
“Oh I really like it so much.”
We grinned like kids offering a homemade gift to parents who genuinely prefer sticky paintings to store-bought presents.
Alef and Lin welcomed us with the same enthusiasm that they welcomed that silly little plant. Homemade pasta, fresh salad, wine, and then we did the dishes. Nothing makes you feel more at home than grabbing a dishtowel and pretending that you know where everything goes.
We knew things were getting serious when they introduced us to Alef’s parents within the first 24 hours. There were hugs all around and we munched on Easter lunch together as if we were long lost cousins, rather than strangers who couldn’t always remember each other’s last names. Sure it was awkward. There was plenty of smiling and nodding at extended family members, while trying desperately to come up with conversation starters. But I’m pretty sure that’s what Easter lunch is for anyway.
This is also when we realized that our vrede rust would be short lived. Two tiny tornados with the most memorable sky blue eyes tore through the living room, tossing books and toys into our laps. Enter Indi and Jona.
Indi is 3.5, but her confidence rivals most 23.5 year olds, and her determination would put an Olympic athlete to shame. Over the next two weeks I tried to teach her to fold paper butterflies, plant pansies, and exchange English and Dutch translations. It didn’t matter what we were doing or what I had planned, I soon learned it was going to be her way or no way. Indi isn’t the first stubborn 3.5 year old in my life. But she is the first who doesn’t speak my language. So I often had to trade my carefully reasoned explanations for simple 2 or 3 word combinations usually involving one of the following: “Kijk” (look), “Zit” (sit), “Rustig,” (calm). In one moment of exasperation I came up with a brilliant combination knit together from the pieces of Dutch I heard while growing-up in a third generation Dutch-Canadian home: “niet broek, niet spele” (no pants, no play). The second I uttered the words in my stern teacher voice (yes I am becoming my mom) she stopped throwing game pieces around and looked me in the eyes. A few seconds passed as she considered her next move. I kept my face serious, even while Jakob began to chuckle in the background. She narrowed her gaze, as if preparing for a protest, then changed her mind and sat down, as if she actually wanted to put her own underwear and pants on all along.
Jona is equally forceful in his own way. At a year and a half, he may not have as much weight to throw around, but he compensates with volume. Babysitting Jona is an exercise in distraction. As long as he doesn’t hear, see, or smell his mom he is as content as a cherub in an angel food cake. But the second he realizes that his protector, his solace, his food source has abandoned him forever in the hands of malicious strangers he sounds the alarm and only “Where is thumber,” “twinkle twinkle little star,” or Jakob’s theatrical facial expressions can console him.
The first few days at Vrede Rust were an intense immersion experience in family life. From 8am until 8pm we were asking what sound cows make, wiping up spillage, and preventing little fingers from finding sharp things. Of course between all of that we were doing our actual workaway work, you know the stuff we thought would consume all of our time and energy, but that’s a whole other story. On each of those first few days, I hit my pillow at 10pm wondering how anyone could possibly stay up past midnight. Who has the energy for that nonsense? Jakob and I watched Alef and Lin closely to learn the source of their super human energy levels. Finally we just asked. Turns out the answer for them lies in a combination of hearty home cooked meals, intentional time spent working on their marriage, and a commitment to setting and achieving collective ambitions. These ambitions come in all shapes and sizes. For example, they take a long term goal like: turning the acreage into a gorgeous multi-apartment B&B and break it down into smaller monthly tasks like: submit building proposal to town council, weekly tasks like: build publicly accessible terrace by roadside, and daily tasks like: stain patio chairs, drop off Indi at daycare, bake bread, and clean-up shop. From our first day, we were incorporated into this family vision and encouraged to make our own contributions…and so we did!
Curious what else transpired at Vrede Rust? The rest of the story is coming soon.