Monday, May 25, 2015

Book Update: A Big Step

First up, the Netherlands series wraps up with Amsterdam and Haarlem over on my legit writing website. Give it a click if you care to see the urban counterpart to our rural, flowery adventure.

I've recently taken a big step in the process of writing Five Suitcases, the personal memoir of the first two years of my expat experience. Until this point, the book has been written like a series of blog posts – disparate stories in separate files that relate to each other...more or less.

I preferred to start the book this way because the short-form personal story is my most comfortable writing format. Look no further than this blog to see the 500+ vignettes I've put pounded together about water heaters, concert reviews, supermarket visits, and old video games. Thinking one massive document to be unwieldy and overwhelming, I wrote the various stories of the book like very long blog posts, making references and connections when convenient.

But no longer! I have now created one long document in which to do the rest of the writing and editing of the book. Currently weighing in at 80,000 words – a bit more than twice the length of The Frugal Guide: Dublin, which is still available for free at all fine eBook distributors – this book has all the bulk it will ever need. Any new stories I tell (and I want to tell more!) will most likely replace sidebars, exaggerations, and analogies that must be left on the proverbial cutting room floor. Reading through everything I've written over the past six months, said floor looks like it will be quite messy. Does the finished book really need a long reflection about the value of a Midwest American basement? Probably not.

I was surprised to see this word count staring back at me as I pasted the final chapter into my now-massive document. All those weeks of hitting my 5000 word quota had seemed to pay off, and all the individual documents in my Five Suitcases folder had really added up to something significant.

I'm excited to have reached this stage, although I know this will be the hardest part of the project. Taking a series of (hopefully) funny stories and turning them into a cohesive product that will be read (again hopefully) in longer sessions, cover-to-cover, looks to be a laborious process. Jokes about Brooks and Irish Water are great, but how do they relate to the Barry's/Lyons tea battle or the struggle to understand a roller coaster accent through a tiny disposable phone speaker?

Happily, things are right on track for my nebulous "Late 2015" self-publishing deadline. Later this summer, be on the lookout for a chance to preview the book and provide feedback. All volunteers get secret access to this early e-publisher's proof, a free copy of the final e-book when it is released, and the chance to be forever e-immortalized in the acknowledgements of all editions of the final book. That's much better than money, right?

Friday, May 15, 2015


A long time ago, WAY back in 2013, we were struggling to figure out the ins and outs of our new Irish apartment. What is this strange washer in the kitchen? Why do all of the power sockets have switches...and why is there just a weird "shavers only" plug on the bathroom light? Are these Irish things or just big city things? Does every Irish home use an immersion water heater? Why does the water from that heater come out of our separate hot and cold water taps at skin-melting temperatures?

This week, Sara showed me a video that quickly explains why many of our apartment oddities (or normalities, depending on who is doing the asking) are the way they are. This video – from the Anglophenia series, which humorously explains British culture to Americans – is a good primer for anyone in the States to see what one might expect in an English home.

Yes, the video series is about England, not Ireland, and the Irish would be after me if I ever compared Ireland to the UK in any way. But there's simply no denying that the English left a pretty strong cultural impression when they finally let (most of) Ireland have independence. Left-side driving on the roads, blood sausage and curry sauce, rugby, and, of course, the English language.

Onward! In the video, our host explains the dual-use washer/dryer in the kitchen – although she leaves out the part about clothing not being dry after a two-hour drying cycle. She goes on to explain why there aren't any power sockets in the bathroom – so that's why we can't listen to the radio while we're in the shower? And hot and cold water taps are still separate...just because? I've been burning my fingers for nothing!

Interestingly, the last thing she shows us is the window – as she demonstrates that there isn't central heating or air conditioning in the mild climate of the British Isles – and she cracks that leaving the window open will lead to a room full of pigeons. Canny Americans will wonder, "How are birds getting in through the screen?"

How indeed? Not being plagued by sky-blocking swarms of mosquitoes, homes in the UK and Ireland usually don't need screens blocking the few precious rays of direct sunlight that filter through the clouds to their homes.

So there you are, American friends. If you've ever wondered what terrible hardships we suffer in our day-to-day lives, this video is a good start. A bathroom with no counter space? A washer and dryer that doesn't do either very well? Electrical outlets (and very few of them, mind) with switches? Believe it or not, it's possible to survive in such circumstances...somehow.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Just Back from Holland

...And boy are my tulips tired!

We are freshly back in Dublin after a holiday weekend trip to Haarlem, Amsterdam, and the surrounding countryside of the Netherlands. When we first booked the trip, we weren't really thinking flowers, although we should have made the connection right away: Holland, spring, tulips. If the super-Dutch communities we knew in Iowa (the city of Pella and most of Sioux County) went crazy about tulips – and heavy censorship, xenophobia, racism, and Dutch Reform religious bigotry – then what might we expect to see in the home of...actual Dutch people?

Flowers Netherlands
More Flowers Netherlands
More Flowers
Few More Flowers Netherlands
Few More Flowers

Yes, lots of flowers. We took a long bicycle ride through the many commercial-scale bulb flower fields and visited a popular (read: crowded) garden packed with artfully-arranged displays of Holland's most famous export. The gardens were amazing, even with the crowds. It happened to be family weekend, so I was privileged to watch part of a live performance of Sesame Street (Sesame Straat) characters singing and dancing in Dutch. Elmo gave a particularly touching performance of I'd Like to Visit the Moon. No translation needed for such a classic.

We also spent some time in Haarlem and Amsterdam, the former of which is famous for its namesake neighborhood in New York, the latter is most well known for...things the hardline Dutch Reform folks in Iowa might find...improper. Especially given that they famously edited the title of a certain Johnny Knoxville sequel to read, "Jackbutt 2" on their public movie marquee.

Non-Sleazy Amsterdam
Non-Sleazy Amsterdam

Our visit to Amsterdam was just a day trip, the perfect time for the tourist not wishing to partake in some of the city's more infamous entertainment or pay a stiff entrance fee for the art museums and the Anne Frank House. We spent the day walking through the various neighborhoods with our favorite (non-sponsored plug) Rick Steves book and audio guides. The canals and streets were full of bicycles, beautiful gabled building fronts, trees, cruise boats, and things that might have made the "Jackbutt 2" Dutch in Iowa pass out and fall into the water in shock.

Our last day was spent taking a similar stroll through Haarlem. It has its own charm and its own interesting history, but with fewer canals and much smaller crowds.

Haarlem Street
Haarlem Street

Grotekerk Church Haarlem
Grotekerk Church

Old and New Building Fronts Haarlem
Old and New Building Fronts

Finally! A Windmill!
Finally! A Windmill!

I'm writing a series of articles over on Five Suitcases with less personal accounts of our Dutch holiday. The first article covers the details of a day of cycling through the flower fields and visiting Keukenhof, the famous flower garden. More articles about Haarlem and Amsterdam to come.