Pink toilet paper and other oddities.

I’m stretching my comfort zone and let’s just say it isn’t too comfortable stretching one’s zone. It’s always easy and pleasurable to stretch your comfort zone up (say, moving from an apartment to a house, upgrading a vehicle or a promotion at work) but moving it sideways or down takes a little effort, time and struggle. It would be suffice to say I am being challenged in anyway but up.  Right about now I’d like to simply momentarily still the comfort zone movement.

To be more precise, I do miss things from home, beyond the obvious (in alphabetical order) family, friends and my TiVo but I mostly miss the feeling of ease when I’m living on my home base. At first the ‘missing something’ sentiments were small heartfelt nudges of longing but now they have revealed themselves as early homesickness symptoms, such as when you know a cold is coming on when your throat is scratchy.

Instances that wouldn’t occur to you as a big deal, become issues and big deals. There are no longer any quick trips to the grocery store. The only items I can buy without thinking is produce. I don’t need to read a label to know that those are apples and those are tomatoes. But then, with only 5 people behind me in line, oops, sorry, excuse me, I feel like an idiot, I forgot that in Spain, the produce is weighed and priced with a label before you get to the cashier. Get back to the produce section smarty pants; you’ve still got lots to learn.

When you can’t read the labels due to a language barrier, simply purchasing laundry soap, whitener and softener becomes a half an hour ordeal. It would help if the brands from North America were similar, so I could use some educated guesses, but the brands are not even close. (Which also reminds me, I miss having an ‘automated’ dryer. Hanging clothes on a rack to dry for a couple of days just isn’t doing anything for me.)

There is a great marketing story about a famous baby food maker who donated millions of jars of baby food to a starving country in Africa. The mothers refused to feed it to their children, even though the children were emaciated and near certain death. They finally figured out the problem via a translator; the mothers thought the jars were full of dead baby remains, referring to the photo of a baby’s face on the label. Once they hastily changed the labels to show what foodstuff was inside the jars; such as carrots, chicken, pears, etc. the food was quickly consumed. I get that now. Unless I understand the photo on the label, or visibly see the item, it stays on the shelf.

I miss my spices. I feel like I’m learning to cook all over again. The spices here are different and there are different spices. There is just something off about them and I can’t put my finger on it; it’s frustrating the hell out of me. I now regret taking 22 pairs of socks and not one favourite spice from home. Don’t get me wrong; I love trying different foods (as long as they don’t originate from crawling on the ground) but I also adore my comfort foods; foods that I can cook quickly and without thinking. I’ve done this learning to cook thing once already and I’m not too keen to try it again.

What I wouldn’t do for a regular cup of hot Canadian coffee. Coffee here is served stronger, not as hot and is only available con leche – with milk, no cream. I miss my coffee cream and have resorted to making my own, mixing whipping cream (I think it’s whipping cream) and milk. But it’s still not the same.

And – gasp! – What’s THAT? Solid PINK coloured toilet paper??? Perfumed pink toilet paper?? Did they not get the memo circulating around the internet years back that toilet paper with dyes and perfumes can cause cancer?? That your babies will be born deformed if you use pink toilet paper?? That carrying coloured toilet paper to your car can cause muggings and kidnappings in the parking lot? Finally – finally – it’s my turn to feel smug that I knew something they didn’t know and I did. So there. (Whether the information about coloured and perfumed toilet paper is true or not is not up for debate. Please don’t take my moment away.)

I miss not knowing what’s going on around me. I miss knowing the rules. I miss not having to think about things. (How much to tip? Why are the streets closed today? Can we park here?)

I feel so incompetent starting every conversation or exchange with, “Do you speak English?” and then dealing with the struggle that endures when they don’t. (Note to self: When English is denied, do not ‘test’ their honesty about their English-speaking skills by a) repeating the question two or three times or b) mentioning out loud that even your dog understands English.)

All in all, it comes down to I miss feeling smart. I miss my automation. I miss my familiarity. I like the fact that I’m shaking up my life a little and stretching my viewpoint. I’m enjoying dusting out the cobwebs and learning everything new. I just wish I could do it all wearing clean clothes from a dryer and Timmy’s in hand – ordered in English – extra-large, double cream. Oh yah, don’t forget the lid, pour favour.

We stand on guard for thee.

Even the swans didn't know what to think of the Alberta license plates.

The official beginning to our great ‘lets go live in Europe’ adventure actually started on January 15. Even though I left Canada on Dec 12, I’ve been in and out of B&B’s and hotels, so the official date we started towards Spain, where we have an real villa rental, not charged by the night but by the month, was in my mind the 15th. Car loaded up, belly’s full, dog on lap, no European registration on the car and iffy insurance, we ventured off facing south and just kept driving, although no speeding or other traffic violations in mind as to not command any unnecessary attention from the police.

We both agreed and planned our first stop months ago: Canadian National Vimy Memorial, about ten kilometres north of Arras, France.

I’ve always wanted to see Vimy Ridge Memorial. I’ve seen the WWII Canadian cemeteries and museums in Holland and I’ve been in the vicinity of the VRM many times but for some reason the timing never seemed right. Witnessing the 90th Anniversary Remembrance Day ceremonies on TV a couple of years back sparked the urge to see this majestic tribute in person. I promised myself the next time I was in Europe, I was making the effort to go see this great national treasure. I certainly wasn’t ready for impact this memorial would play on my psyche.

It was a very misty, foggy and cold day, somewhat peaceful and spooky at the same time sort of day. The drive into France was uneventful and somewhat boring considering we couldn’t see much past the roads. It took a few wrong turns and u-turns but we finally found a sign indicating we were on the correct road and in the correct direction. Strangely, once we made the last turn to descend into the memorial site, we both became silent and sombre, unaware at what we were witnessing.

At first I didn’t realize what my eyes were showing me. I initially thought it was a strange landscape with little rolling hills followed by

miniature little valleys. Tall, slender dark trees (Wayne pointed out how young all the trees are, still not cluing in) poked up from the gentle rolling grass, almost making an enchanted little forest effect.  Immediately there are bright red signs; probably announcing the Canadian aspect of the memorial or hold it – stop – what does it say?  Then the realization arrived all at once; this enchanted forest is actually hundreds, no thousands, of bomb shell blasts that still scar the landscape.  Very raw and startling reminders of what happened here almost 100 years ago. Suddenly this ‘gentle’ landscape revealed itself through the fog for acres and acres, an apt metaphor for what just happened to me. It was only once I was at the actual memorial viewing all the names of the soldiers who died here did I realize that between and betwixt the bomb blast scars and mounds are many unknown soldiers buried in their final resting place. That’s when the enormity of it all starts to hit you; many fine, young Canadian men – lost to their families on many levels, are hidden forever among the displaced soil. I can’t remember at what point I realized the only flat terrain in the vicinity was the base of the memorial and surrounding cemeteries.

Few words were spoken for the rest of the visit. The whole area of 107 hectares became a holy sanctuary of enormous proportions and with us being the only visitors at that particular time, it only emphasized the privilege we were bestowed by having the place to ourselves. Walking into the cemeteries felt sacrilege, like we were invading the still energy that surrounded us.  We were hesitant to enter the gated graveyard area until I realized we can only truly honour them by acknowledging them. Even though the headstones mostly indicated “A Soldier of the Great War” and nothing else, with some having at least a regiment title and the very few with an actual name, somehow you knew who they were. No names were needed to make an instant connection.

The memorial is massive. I understand on a clear day you can spot it from very far away. We could barely see the outline but she encouraged us to draw near with no fear. As she revealed herself through the misty day it was difficult not to shed a tear for those who have passed on in such horrendous ways. It was only +1C and the wind was biting. It was tough to complain, though, when you realized at least we didn’t have tired wet feet, empty stomaches, dead buddies, bombs, bullets and enemies to deal with. If you closed your eyes, in the silence, you could hear the echos of a blast and a soldiers last scream. The memorial only added to the sacredness of it all. I will not go into detail here of the memorial as there are many fine websites that do a better job of it than I ever will. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_National_Vimy_Memorial.) I will only say that it was haunting and mesmerizing and it took me a few days to let it settle within my realm of understanding.

As we were leaving, I turned around once more and saw the most amazing sight. The Canadian flag, flying proudly, with the VRM in the misty distance, tucked firmly below, as if the memorial was being fiercely protected by today’s Canada. It represented to me our past allows us, as Canadians, to be proud and hold our head high as we have sacrificed our most precious resources for the right to do so. The past is not so distant in our young country’s history and is present with us today but do not let it fade away in the mists of time. It also reminded me to be vigilant and protective of  my birthright and not to forget the shoulders of the giants I stand on; no matter where I go or what land calls me to visit, also reflective of Canada’s military to this day.

Every Canadian should visit this mystical site and memorial at least once in their lifetime. Simply to in person remember and thank the ordinary people who gave up their lifes so that strangers – us – enjoy our lives in peace today. Plus, it will make you very proud and remind you of everything good to be a Canadian.

Canada, don’t worry, you are firmly entrenched in my soul and I will be back.  And I will always stand on guard for thee.

Aaahh Freak out! Le Freak, C’est Chic.

Well, after a splendid 17 days in balmy Athens (no rain and average +20C days) I arrived back in Holland to miserable cold/sleet/snow/rain/freezing/black ice type of weather. We barely made it to the car rental agency before they closed and thankfully they were very accommodating. I wish I would have recognized this bellwether for what was about to come my way.

I received a very cryptic email from the company that is assisting with the import of our vehicle. I have come to accept that they are working with their second language and it is very common for misunderstandings. I had no idea the entangled mess I was about to enter. My plans for sweeping in and picking up my car with NL license plates and driving away on our adventure were just as frozen solid with no thaw in sight as the weather.

Firstly, the car was very much behind schedule (our schedule, not theirs apparently) but luckily there were no severe Atlantic storms the ship had to sail around and the car actually arrived 9 days earlier than expected, which put us somewhat back on schedule. Until I found out it takes at least an extra two weeks for inspection and plating, after the 2-4 days customs have their way with things. Of course, I naturally freaked out.

Using my North American established sense of entitlement, (since I’m the customer after all, who’s paying your wages), I fired off a nasty gram basically letting them know that this is unacceptable, how can it take 2 weeks to put a license plate on a vehicle, do you know how this interferes with our plans, blah blah blah. I set my self up for disappointment when I was expecting a reply something along the lines of “we’ll see what we can do” or “we’ll put a rush on it”.

All I got back was a one sentence reply, “Thankfully, this is just a misunderstanding.” Best regards, ….. What? How dare they! That didn’t even make any sense. They didn’t even address any of my concerns. Hmmph. In their eyes,  I was under the misunderstanding that things can move faster than I want or expect. No need to freak out.

It takes weeks to get any administrative things done in Europe. Weeks. It takes six weeks to get registered at City Hall. (A must if you want license plates on your vehicle in Holland.) Up to six weeks for internet or phone service approval. It’s at least ten business days to have approval to open a bank account. Or two weeks to inspect and plate a vehicle. Europeans take this in stride as a fact of life. Everybody, after all, needs a job and every job is important. Every single piece of paper completed in full, stamped and signed. I can’t tell you how many forms I’ve filled out for customs, many of them asking the same questions and wanting the same photocopies. (I asked one person if they could simply ask their colleague for the copies I just sent them and she refused, stating she needed her own copies.) And don’t forget those coffee breaks, 35 hour workweek and paid days off to simply pick your nose; all factors that grind everything to a halt.

Turns out, I need a Dutch driver’s license to have a Dutch plate on my vehicle. And yah, nobody mentioned a word about that little requirement, throughout this whole process. I asked the company, experts at shipping personal items across the pond, at what point did they assume I had a Dutch driver’s license, considering I have lived in Canada all my life? Well, I am told, that is not a real problem since I can also get special permission until I get my Dutch drivers license, from the City Hall where I am registered. But I’m not registered at any City Hall and that takes six full weeks, plus the added two weeks to plate the car and we are up to eight weeks before the car is released. And we have plans; we can’t wait around Holland for eight weeks – didn’t you read the email I sent out???

“Well, now we have a problem” he calmly says. “Would you like a cup of coffee?” I’m having a nut by this point. I, think I’m calmly – as best I can without hitting anything – asking them to show me at what part of the process did they mention I needed a Dutch driver’s license? And when I sent them the 25 page package of documents, including a copy of my Alberta driver’s license, did they not notice I did not include a Dutch driver’s license nor City Hall registration, both vital pieces of the puzzle?

As my eye starts fluttering (only when I’m nervous or upset) all I can think about is how two Advil Migraine’s and a big glass of wine won’t even fix this mess. What the hell are we going to do now? Send it back? Even if we bought a car here, I would still need a Dutch driver’s license to register the vehicle.

Long story short, and without anybody loosing a finger, we will be driving around Europe for the first 3 months with Alberta license plates with a special permit. I think that is kind of cool but I know the mounds of paperwork, lineups and hoops ahead of me in the next 3 months that somewhat take the edge off that coolness factor.

We’ve decided to take our chances and get the car to Spain and see if we can register it there. From all the research I have done, it is possible without being residents of Spain, nor the need to hold a Spanish driver’s license to have a Spanish license plate on our Canadian car, built in the USA, designed by a Japanese company.

Now, if they can only stamp that one piece of paper and hand over the car by Friday so we could be on our way. That’s a whole week for them to shuffle that paper around so everybody gets their job requirements in and I promise I won’t freak out.