Naked (and Healthy) in the Netherlands

So, speaking of nudity… Oh, wait, we weren’t speaking of nudity, were we? Because we’re American and generally Americans don’t talk naked talk when first getting to know each other. In fact, I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the number of American friends, whom I’ve known for years, who would never want to talk about nudity, especially in a public forum, never mind actually join me at a spa where bathing suits are forbidden. Which is just about every spa in the Lowlands. Breasts and penises abound! (Fair warning, if reading the words “breasts” and/or “penises” offends you, feel free to shield yourself by not reading any further, and definitely not actually venturing out to a real, live Dutch spa.)

For the rest of you, if you can stand reading something that includes these anatomical terminologies, then just “bare” with me while I get to the good stuff, namely: why visiting a Dutch spa is good for your health, but also good for your self-image. And, no, as far as I know I was not raised by hippies.

The Netherlands is not the only European country to require your birthday suit in place of your bathing suit. Norway, Finland and Sweden have similar practices, and you may already know that the Scandinavian countries, as well as the Netherlands, are home to some of the happiest people on the planet. I wonder how much their “bare all” policies contribute to this reported happiness.

Among other things that we might borrow from the Dutch, their self-confidence, indeed even their spa-time nudity, is a refreshing change that some of us can learn and benefit from. I’ve witnessed at three different Dutch spas that there is no shame about body type or weight or length or width or what hangs how low or how null. And there is no threat of predatory behaviors, either, nor creepy voyeurism, nor jealous suspicions about whose partner looked where for too long. Actually, many couples enjoy the spa together and show no signs, at least that I’ve observed, of intimidation or self-doubt or oh, frankly giving a damn. It’s an exercise in purity, and I dare say you might like it.

Some of us might be aware of various efforts in the US lately to better represent and appreciate, if not celebrate, every (female) body type. Dove® believes in real beauty (Real Beauty Campaign); Special K is fighting ugly body talk (#FightFatTalk); even Sports Illustrated has size-12 model Robyn Lawley on its cover (Makes History); ModCloth modeled a new swimsuit line on their all-sized, non-Photoshopped employees (ModCloth Real Women); etc, etc. Is there is a shift happening while we’ve been away? I can’t say how effective it’s been so far, but surely something’s in the air, or at least on Facebook. And I am all for it! Pre-26-year-old me was a size 6. Now I’m a steady size 12, and I’ve never had kids so I can’t blame any babies for this excess belly. Since my husband still loves me, and no doctor has warned me about any serious health problems, I’m coming to accept this phase of my weight, and not shy away from a spa visit where I can attend to an often neglected, forgotten tenement: my own temple, my own body. (Maybe the spa will even help with those extra pounds. Here’s hoping.)

No, I’m not saying that we’ve got to burn bras in the town “plein” or go forever topless at Zandvoort or even our own backyards (though my neighbors across the street are likely getting a petition together to make curtains mandatory at my place, and some of my college roommates still accuse me of scarring them for life – “Ever heard of pants, Mandie?!”), but I will challenge you to give it a try at a spa, where not a single Dutch person cares about your so-called cottage cheese thighs or droopy boobs or spider veins or extra-long second toe or knobby knees or man hands or mysterious patch of hair there or all those other parts you love to hate. Not only do these things not matter, but they’re probably not noticeable or true to begin with!

Remember that the point of the spa is to rejuvenate, to take care, to revive, to indulge, to appreciate and nurture the health you have, no matter what that health looks like. And without a suit or sarong or towel or “cover-up” (gosh, do I dislike that term). These spas are small paradises in an otherwise often gray country.

Sure, they’ll be numerous breasts and penises crossing your path. Maybe that idea makes you flinch and think, “Ugh! TMI!” But remember to keep your focus on You – Beautiful, Magical You. Remember, too, that those strangers and their respective parts are not there to offend you or judge you or compare you or tell you what you must change to be a better version of yourself. They’re simply on their way to the next Turkish steam room or panoramic open hearth sauna or simulated waterfall or Hamam bath or outdoor hot tub.

Think of it – outdoor hot tub! Where you’re actually taking time to rest, maybe meditate, and finally reward yourself for the many accomplishments you’ve had since moving here. Because we all know, as expats and immigrants and gypsies and STARS (Successfully Traveled and Relocated Spouses*) that there are many, many accomplishments that go un-celebrated for us leading ladies.

Treat yourself. Nurture yourself. Surprise yourself. See yourself. Meet yourself. Get naked.

Been to a Dutch spa? Share your story in the comments!

(For more about the amenities available at Dutch spas, check out my ACCESS Health article “Spa your way to wellness“, featuring spas in Amsterdam, The Hague, Valkenburg, Bad Nieuweschans and Maarssen.)

Spa article ACCESS Spring 2013

*credited to Apple Gidley at the 2011 Families in Global Transition Conference

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‘Mean Girls’ starring me, Queen Latifah & Mini Anden: a dream

I woke myself up this morning with the sound of my own sobbing. I was crying in a dream, the likely result of too much Chinese food mixed with homesickness/9-11 sadness/stress over finding work/anxiety about my first tennis competition this Friday/an episode of Chuck. If I (still) had a psychologist, he would have a fun session working this one out. In fact if any psychology students are reading this now, feel free to use any of this as a case study in expat psyche.

So in the dream I’m on my way to something like an indoor tennis club, only it reminds me a little of a bowling alley and also somebody’s house with a nice yard. There are a number of girl groups gathered, teams I guess, and they’re not nice girls. There’s something heavy in the air, something gossipy and competitive. I don’t know who’s team I’m on, but I must have had a team somewhere because it’s getting time to play and I need to get my gear. I leave the girl groups to find my bag and discover that some Mean Girl (or Girls) has filled my shoes with water and stuffed them in my tennis bag. Now they’re soaking and I’m fuming. I storm over with the evidence and confront the Mean Grils, yelling, “Who the F@#! put water in my shoes and stuffed them in my bag?!” This is repeated several times with much Brooklyn emphasis.

No one is willing to step up and face me. Suddenly among the Mean Girl groups is Queen Latifah, who of course is totally chill and regal and knows it wasn’t one of her girls (obviously she is pack leader on her team, even some parts of dreams are accurate). She won’t even dignify my accusation with a response. Actress Mini Anden is also there with a group of skinny bitches (it’s a dream so I can say that) who are eyeing me like I got what I deserved and I know it’s one of them but how can I know who? I can’t play tennis and I’m pissed. My boyfriend shows up in the dream trying to break us all up and forget about it and move on before I throw a shoe – a wet shoe even – at somebody’s head. Queen Latifah encourages her group (which may or may not have included Wanda Sykes) to move on to the front porch and barbeque there in the rain before their match. Mini’s girls scatter into smaller groups, some of their eyes still on me. Mini follows me to the window where I’m watching Queen Latifah and Wanda Sykes hold umbrellas over the grill, the light of the flames on their faces. Mini is stretching with her fingertips to the ceiling she’s so tall and says, “I know you think I did it.” “No,” I say, “I know it wasn’t you, but it was one of them.” I am still very angry but somehow I know it’s not Mini. She gets a chance to show her true colors a minute later when some other girl comes up to her saying she’d like to go for a ride with this boy she likes only they don’t have a car. Mini offers, “Want me to drive you? Let’s go.” Somehow this confirms that Mini is nice and just happens to be friends with Mean Girls but not really like them. She invites me along for the ride too so I can clear my head, get away from the drama.

We get into an SUV and although I’m in the front seat I’m riding backwards. I can see the teenager with her boyfriend in the back seat, both very happy to be on the way to wherever. Then I look out the window at the streets. I see the awnings of familiar places, blurry with the passing of our speeding car. I realize we’re in New Jersey, and I start sobbing. Uncontrollably. I’m crying and crying and Mini asks what’s wrong. I manage to say through sobs, “I don’t even like New Jersey but I miss it so much!” All the while I’m still holding the wet sneakers.

At this point my sadness in the dream is actually making me sob and it wakes me. As dreams don’t often do this, I had to write it down. I guess I’ve got some issues. Where to begin? First of all, last night there was an episode of the NBC series Chuck on TV, starring a Charlie’s-Angels-like girl group of agents, including the character Carina played by Mini Anden. She is 5’9″ tall but seems much taller, probably the heels. The theme of the episode was about accusing a chick within the group of being a traitor, so I can see how that gets mixed up in my dream. Still, the tennis thread is a bit real because this Friday I’m playing with a team in a travel competition. Those of you who know me know that this will be my tragicomedy of the week. I’m not terribly good at sports and although I’m not terribly terrible at tennis, I’m not a winner either. I don’t want to let the team down, and I also don’t want to play against Mean Girl opponents, which might be the case with this first club we challenge. My boyfriend reminds me to be patient and that it comes with time and practice; it’s no wonder he made an appearance in the dream to try to smooth things over. He is very good at this in real life, and he did prevent any violent shoe tossing in the dream so overall a welcome addition.

Certainly I am homesick so the crying at the end is not such a surprise. Yesterday was September 11th, which got me thinking a lot about my mom who worked across the street from the towers and had to run from the wreckage and walk across the Brooklyn bridge to safety. It’s an emotional day for New Yorkers, for Americans, whether you know or don’t know someone who survived or someone who didn’t. It’s a day that makes me especially miss my family, my friends and my city. It’s a crazy place, but mostly there’s more good crazy about it than bad crazy. (And by the way, I don’t find anything particularly wrong with Jersey other than the Turnpike traffic, but it’s not Jersey’s fault that it’s between Washington DC and New York City.)

Now, Queen Latifah and Wanda Sykes at a barbeque? Perhaps that’s connected to the recent poignant quote from Ms. Sykes which I just love: “I’m a black, gay woman. I think the only way for the GOP to hate me more is if I sent them a video of me rolling around in a pile of Welfare checks.” Or maybe some things in dreams just can’t be explained. For instance, what does water in my shoes mean?


Published! Shameless personal plug on an already shamelessly personal blog

Yup! I’m writing (semi-professionally) again, and happy to be published for the first time here in the Netherlands. My article is in the Summer issue of ACCESS Magazine, just printed last week. Click on the cover photo below to go directly to my article. It’s a travel piece about ideal picnic spots for summer. Comments and feedback welcome. (Yes, there’s a typo! Can you find it?) First let me tell you some more about the organization and my new editorial role with them.

© ACCESS

ACCESS is a non-profit organization run out of The Hague (Den Haag) which provides “FREE information, advice and support for the expatriate and international community in the Netherlands.”  There are two directors, a board, a very busy administrator, a very busy IT guy, and 80+ volunteers who keep the place running. The volunteers are often busy assisting with the Help Desk phone line, the information guides, the events and activities that support the non-Dutchies. Then some of us work on the magazine. Woo hoo! It’s super helpful to find a place like ACCESS because you a) immediately feel less alone; b) get to speak English to everyone; c) share stories, hopefully leading to new friendships; d) network, hopefully leading to new work; e) learn a lot… I could probably go all the way to “zed” with all the benefits but I need to hold the reader’s attention to the end. So reader, keep going.

I was pleasantly surprised to find the free and awesome Winter 2010 issue of the magazine at the Leiden Expat Centre. The centre is located at the Leiden Tourist Office, which is besides the Chamber of Commerce (or KvK in Dutch, as in Kamer van Koophandel). So I go to the KvK for some important eenmanszaak business stuff then I quickly stop over on my out to talk to the Expat Centre rep to find out about how I might make new friends and there I discover a magazine targeted for a newbie like myself which leads to catching the call for volunteers which leads to me writing an email to the Editor in Chief which leads to drinks in Amsterdam with the editorial team which leads to an article assignment which leads to an Assistant Editor position! Voila!

You just never know. But I’m finding out quickly that you have to try. Just try, I say to myself. This take practice though. It was not very easy for me in New York even to say try, never mind do it. It was, in a sorry, dispiriting way, easier to let The Rut rule instead of shaking The Rut by the shoulders, pushing it aside and declaring, “I’m getting out of this damn Rut and there’s nothing it can do to stop me!” Too dramatic? Okay, I’ll get back to the here where I try to embrace my circumstances as opportunities rather than trials. Don’t get me wrong, I’m familiar with the internal lectures and promises many of us tell ourselves, those mantras we hope will get us out of bed earlier, or get us to quit smoking, or get us to the gym even once this week. I get it, and I know I won’t feel like trying every day. But Oprah’s on to something, people.

But, I cannot do it alone. It takes some push from myself via mantras and the like, but also from outside of myself. From my boyfriend, for example, and from the fact that I have little to no money of my own to speak of, and that I have my mother and my boyfriend’s mother who both worry that I don’t get out of this small seaside village often enough to actually engage socially (like, talk to someone other than Mr. Internet) and make new friends, or from my dad who waits for weekly report cards on what other cool stuff I’m learning and doing… oh, and from the fact that I have dreams. You know, dreams. Those strange visions that find their way into your head and inspired the mantras in the first place.

Anyway, after all that go-after-your-passion speech, I really just wanted to say that I’ve been asked to take on the Guest Editor role for the Autumn issue of the magazine. I’m grateful for the chance to do work that I became afraid to even go after in NYC. And I can’t wait to start playing with words and images and getting out a quality publication, one that is useful, fun and helps make other expats feel a little less scared and a bit more empowered in their new home. At least, I’ll try.