Happy New … House?

 

“Are you sure that you want to make an offer so close to the holidays? Aren’t you leaving for a road trip to Florida tomorrow? Maybe you’d like to wait until you get back?”

“Susan’s words,” I will tell Hubbie a few days from now, “really should have warned us.” Only right now, even though her questions slightly surprise us, they do not alarm us in the least. Because, let’s face it. Approaching holiday travels have nothing to do with making an offer on a house, do they? It’s not as if we’re buying the place. Chances are the seller won’t even bother to reply to our offer.

“Well,” Hubbie tells Susan over the speaker phone, “we are indeed leaving tomorrow, but we’d just like to get the whole process started before.”
“Okay,” Susan replies, “There are two ways we can do this; the written way, but that might be hard to follow up on during your trip. Or we can do it electronically.”
What about doing it over the phone? It’s just an offer we’re talking about. Hubbie looks at me. I shrug my shoulders.
“Let’s do it electronically,” he says at last.
“Okay. Just send me an e-mail containing your and your wife’s full names, your current address and the amount you’d like to offer.”
“Will do that in a minute,” my husband replies.
“Oh, also add the date you’d like to settle the sale, will you? And the coordinates of the bank that’s lending you money. And a scan of a check for 5% of the bidding amount. And are you going to take a loan for the full amount minus 10% or minus 20%? Also, please mention the interest rate. And …”
What? Why does she need all that information?
“Wow …,” Hubbie suddenly sounds much less relaxed and cheerful than just five minutes ago, when he lazily suggested the offer-making to me. “You need all that now?”
“I do. Once I have it all, I can prepare the paperwork and send it to you.”
The paperwork? What is she talking about?
“You mean you’re not just going to send an e-mail to the seller to inform him about our offer?” Hubbie asks.
“Oh no, we need official trace of this. Know what? To make it easier on you, you can call the bank and ask them to forward the loan information to me directly.”
“Okay,” Hubbie says, sounding a bit wary, “I’ll do that now. Talk to you later Susan.” He sighs as he hangs up.
I understand why. Just listening to the conversation made me tired.

Where we come from, when you like a house, you just pick up the phone and tell the owner how much you’re willing to pay for it. He thinks it over for a few days, then usually comes back with a counter-offer, which you usually counter-offer again and so on. Sometimes a real estate agent is involved in the game, but only as the oral relayer of all offers. After a week — or maybe even two — everyone agrees on a price. That’s when the potential buyer realizes he’d better start looking for some money to hand over when the ‘compromis’ or the contract is signed. A few days later, in the cosiness of the house that is the object of the buyer’s desire, a certified bank check covering a 10% downpayment gets exchanged. Rather ceremoniously — and often using a nice and heavy pen — each party signs a contract of some three pages, committing the seller not to accept any other offer and the buyer to finding a loan within three months. More often than not a bottle of bubbles is produced and both parties toast to a successful business deal, stoically ignoring the clause that states that should the buyer fail to find a loan, the 10% down payment will be returned to him and the sale will be cancelled.
It is a rather slow process as you can see. Hence why we want to get our offer out  before leaving for Florida.

In America however, things seem to be done differently. Luckily my husband already contacted the bank last week, just to get an idea of our purchasing capacity. He promptly calls Sandra at the bank, who works Saturdays and Sundays, as if that is the most natural thing in the world. No single Belgian bank would even think of assigning an employee for weekend loan negotiations. Sandra kindly agrees to send all necessary information to Susan within the next hour. We look into our finances to find ways to get enough money in our checking account for the 5% down payment, knowing that writing an uncovered check is a big felony in the US. Then we prepare a mail for Susan containing our offer amount and preferred closing date, four months from now. As I am putting on my coat to leave for some last-minute errands with Eloise, the phone rings.
“About that settlement date,” Susan says, “April is really far away. There’s no way the seller will accept that.”
“Oh, so you think we’d better propose the end of March?” I hear Hubbie ask.
Susan chuckles, as if in response to a joke. “I’d rather go for mid-February,” she says, “at the latest.”
Wow, that’s less than two months from now!

When I get back home two hours later, I find Hubbie concentrated on his computer screen.
“I just got the offer documents from Susan,” he says, turning the laptop to me. “We need to initialize each page electronically and then sign the whole thing.”
I look over his shoulder and scroll down the first page of the document, then wait for the second page to materialize — which takes forever — then slowly move on to the third, then to the … Wait a minute;
“How many pages are there exactly?” I ask.
“Fifty-four,” Hubbie sighs.
Oh dear, this is going to take forever…
An hour and a half later we submit our signed offer to Susan who promises to get in touch with us as soon as she gets feedback from the seller.
“Merry Christmas in the meantime,” Hubbie says.
“Yes, well, I suppose we’ll talk before that,” she replies.
That soon? Christmas is only three days away. Surely the seller will need more time to think this over?

On Sunday, our car packed to the brim for our 2,000 mile trip, we hit the road. Traffic is smooth. We’re almost in North Carolina when my phone rings.
“Hi Helene, Susan here. I just heard back from the seller’s agent. He’s making a counter-offer.”
Wow, that’s quick! I write down the seller’s price and promise Susan to get back to her.

Hubbie seems as surprised as me with the quick reaction. While his gaze fixes on the road, we discuss the counter-offer, quickly agreeing it’s too high. Fifteen-year-old Eloise, whose focus on the tablet does not seem to impact her capabilities to listen in on our conversation, quickly interjects,
“You’re not going to let the house get away, are you? I really like it. I can see us living there.”
Seven-year-old Thibaut, his eyes trained on his swaying tablet, immediately chimes in,
“Me too, I love the house.”
An hour later I return Susan’s call. “We’ll meet the seller halfway, but that is our final offer,” I announce.
“Okay,” Susan says, “I’ll get you the new paperwork. Do you have internet access?”
New paperwork? Not again!
“We’re in the car right now. I’m not sure when we’ll stop for the night. Given that signing the paperwork on my computer took ages, I’m not sure how it’s going to work on the I-phone.” With this reply, I hope Susan will offer to just orally relay our new offer. No such luck.
“Let’s just give it a try,” she says, “You won’t have to sign as many pages now. Only about, let’s see, fourteen.” Fourteen?

“What if he doesn’t accept our final offer?” Eloise asks, looking up from her tablet for a few seconds.
“Then the house was not meant to be for us,” I reply.
“You don’t even sound as if you’d care.” She sounds shocked.
“We do, but not desperately. We’re pretty sure there are other good houses,” Hubbie replies while I slowly upload and sign one page after another on the I-phone.

Monday morning we wake up to a bright blue Savannah sky. I check my e-mail before hitting the road for the second stretch that will take us to an Orlando hotel close to Hubbie’s grandparents. A message from Susan awaits me.
‘The seller says that at that ridiculous price, he’d rather take the house off the market,’ it reads.
‘Too bad,’ I reply, relieved that I didn’t get myself too emotionally involved in all this. It’s sad we put all this time and effort in it, but at least we now know what to expect if we bid for another house. If anything, we have learned that it’s better not to ‘just start the process’ right before leaving on a trip.

The kids look disappointed as they climb into the backseat.
Once we’re on the road, Hubbie and I briefly discuss the fallen-through deal and jointly decide that we’re not sad it didn’t work out. We really liked the house, but it was all getting too serious too fast. Besides, we’re still contractually bound for eight more months to the rental house we live in now. It’s all for the best. We switch our focus on the holidays ahead and on the quality time we will enjoy with Grandma and Grandpa.

After checking into our hotel, Hubbie and I get installed on loungers while the kids jump into the pool. I fire up my laptop and check my email, only to find another mail from Susan.
‘The seller wonders why you omitted initializing page 13,‘ it reads. ‘Since he’s a lawyer, that makes him very suspicious. I will forward that page right away so you can sign it.’
What? Why would the guy read through a boring 54-page contract if he thinks our offer is ridiculous? Looks like he still does consider it!

That evening, while we seemingly leisurely stroll through the Downtown Disney area — home to our hotel — I hyperventilate at the thought of our pending purchase. What happened to our stance of ‘just making an offer and see where things lead’? Somewhere along the past two days things got pretty serious.
Trying to relax me, Eloise sums up the positives about the house and Hubbie reassures me that we are financially all set to take the plunge. I try to convince myself that I am totally okay with buying a house in the US; that I am ready to take this step that brings us closer to permanent US residency. Meanwhile, Thibaut is blissfully ignorant of my little panic attack. He’s just happy; to be at the Downtown Disney Lego store, to be close to Grandma and Grandpa, to be part of this family that might soon move into a new house where he just knows he will be happy too. Oh, the bliss of a confident and stress-free childhood!

By the time we get to the hotel room I am relaxed enough to fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow — or maybe I am just too exhausted by the long drive.

I awake at nine, brew a cup of coffee and settle with my laptop in the sunshine on our deck. Another mail from Susan awaits me.
‘Good news,’ it reads. ‘Your offer has been accepted. We have a ratified contract.’
Wow … That means I’ll soon be an American homeowner. Contrary to my state of mind yesterday, this information instantly relaxes me. My new home is in America and that feels just fine. I owe myself a few more minutes of solitude to fully absorb this new feeling, then walk into the hotel room where I find my awakening family members.
“We’ve got the house,” I announce.
“Wow! I’m so happy!” Eloise jumps up to hug me. Thibaut follows her cue. Hubbie seems to need a few seconds to fully register the news. Then he walks up to us to complete the group hug.
“Susan needs a scan of the new check we will use to pay the deposit. She also needs us to fill out ….” While I sum up everything we need to do, Hubbie gets dressed, ready to take over the hotel business center for a few hours.

Only later that afternoon, as we are seated on Grandma and Grandpa’s couch, toasting to our new home with beer and Pepsi, do I realize what an extraordinary thing just happened. We bought a house on Christmas Eve’s day, while on the road, using a smartphone! What happened to heavy, luxury-brand pens that trace elegant signatures on the bottom of important documents? Or to champagne toasts on a new milestone?

What ensues are hectic days, shaping our vacation in quite a different way than planned.  Every morning we wake up to a new mail from the bank or from Susan — God bless her for guiding us through this — containing a new mission for the day. Can we please send proof of where those funds we wired from Belgium came from? Did we think about scheduling a visit with a home inspector before January 5? Can we please send our three last tax return sheets? Haven’t we forgotten to send a registered mail containing a notarized letter to our current landlord to end the lease, four days before the end of the month?

How often during those days do I think back about Susan’s words, the day before we left. “Are you sure you want to do this now, so close to the holidays?” Now I understand what holiday travels – or any other travels for that matter –  have to do with making an offer. Nothing! The two just don’t go together!

Then again, a new house for Christmas is a gift you can’t beat, can you?

Happy New Year!
Hélène Toye is the author of Go West, available on : http://amzn.com/1493592548

Santa Clause comes to American children. We have Sinterklaas!

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    “I’ve circled what I want Sinterklaas to bring this year,” my seven-year-old son declares as he hands me the ‘Toys“R’”us’ catalogue.
I scan his selection and nearly have a heart attack. As expected, his choices are all marked on the Lego Star Wars pages. But Thibaut strategically ignored the cheaper sets, exclusively circling four sets in the $100 to $200 range, far exceeding the $50 budget we usually grant Sinterklaas for his purchases.
“You know, those sets are expensive. I don’t think Sinterklaas has that much money,” I tell my son.
“But that’s why I chose them. Sinterklaas doesn’t need money. He makes the toys!”
“No, he doesn’t,” I reply, grateful that I decided four years ago to hang on to our Belgian version of Santa Claus, instead of adjusting to the American ways.
“Santa Claus only comes for the American children,” I had declared at the time. “Belgian children have Sinterklaas.”

A word of explanation for those who don’t know Sinterklaas is in order, I realize.

Starting out as a bishop long ago in faraway Turkey, Saint-Nicholas (or Sinterklaas) was a good man who cared for the poor, motivating the rich people to share with the less-fortunate.
Somehow over the centuries, Sinterklaas’ personality seems to have split in two.

One of his halves moved to the North Pole and started visiting the United States on a yearly basis in a sled pulled by a bunch of flying reindeer. Just like everyone who spends a lot of time in the States, Sinterklaas gained a few pounds and shed his stern aura. The man scored himself a wife and recruited a small army of little people who happily set off to work in a toy factory that would have made Henry Ford jealous. Through all those reforms, the skinny, intimidating and severe-looking  alter-ego of Sinterklaas has transformed into a chubby and cheerful Santa, whose dark eyes — almost completely hidden by his round, red cheeks — seem to light up as he utters countless ‘Ho-ho-ho’s’.

Meanwhile, Sinterklaas’ other half also packed his stuff and moved from Turkey to Spain, where he started focusing on children. Before some of your dirty minds go into overdrive, a word of warning. Sinterklaas’ fascination with kids is not in the least perverted, even though he initially did enjoy the occasional spanking of badly-behaved boys. Nor is the man obsessed with children all the time either. Tradition has him living in sunny Spain all year, in the company of his mischievous servant, Zwarte Piet (literally ‘Black Pete’) and a white horse. Nobody really knows what Sinterklaas, Piet and his horse do all year. They certainly don’t keep busy making toys, the ways Santa’s elves do. The general assumption seems to be that they just lazily hang around, enjoying the warm weather and eating good food. But comes the end of November, Sinterklaas and his sidekicks start rolling. The three of them embark on a steamboat and set off for Belgium (don’t ever believe the Dutch when they say Sinterklaas is headed for Amsterdam. Antwerp is his destination, as all Belgians know). Once there, Sinterklaas moves from throne to throne, posing for pictures with children at department stores, corporate parties and youth clubs.
Then comes the night of December 5, the eve before Sinterklaas’ very own birthday. Instead of granting the poor, skinny, old man a much needed night’s rest, he is forced to mount his white horse. Now, this horse proceeds to exhibit some sudden magical powers by gracefully elevating itself onto the rooftops, where it’s hooves find perfect grip on the ice-covered tiles. Zwarte Piet — Sinterklaas’ faithful helper — walks next to the horse, carrying a big bag filled with toys. He is the one who descends down every chimney — hence his black face — artfully arranging the toys around countless Belgian fireplaces.. Grabbing the carrots that grateful children have left in their shoes to reward the magic horse, Zwarte Piet swiftly replaces them with unwrapped chocolate and candy, which Belgian kids will eat the next day — completely oblivious to any potentially funky shoe odors. In the olden days, Zwarte Piet’s sack also contained a whip which he would use on the ‘lucky’ bad kids. Their less fortunate bad peers would be unmercifully stuffed into Zwarte Piet’s sack and be delivered to Sinterklaas for a proper punishment, whatever that might have been.
Nowadays however, Europe got more civilized. Even we think using whips on kids and stuffing them into sacks might potentially be traumatic. As a result the whipping and sack-stuffing have been deleted from Zwarte Piet’s job description, considerably improving the man’s popularity among children.

My decision four years ago to adhere to our Sinterklaas tradition and to ignore Santa, was not borne out of a stubborn refusal to adjust to the American way of life. I just figured that our winters were spiced with enough presents as it was. What with both our children’s winter birthdays, Sinterklaas, our family’s Christmas gift exchanges, plus New Year? Besides, we had initially planned to move back to Belgium in a mere two years time, so why add new tradition we’d soon be dropping ?

“Where does Sinterklaas get his presents if he doesn’t make them?” Thibaut wants to know.
Now that’s a good question. Nowhere in the Sinterklaas stories, can one learn where the man gets his toys. Were they purchased at the store down the street? Does the bishop have an underground superstore in his Spanish Castle? Or does he use magic to fill Piet’s sack? It’s all very vague.
“I think he buys them,” I reply.
“That’s not possible!” Thibaut exlaims. “Everyone would recognize him if he went to the store.”
“Well,” I say, stalling while I think. “Maybe he sends Zwarte Piet to the store. He wouldn’t stand out as much.”
“With his flashy clothes and his silly hat with the feather? Mama, everyone would stare at him!”
“Well, … , I guess they just order everything from Amazon then,” I say, proud of my reply.
“For all those kids? That would take forever! Besides, Sinterklaas would have to give his password to Zwarte Piet. He’d never trust him to order stuff on Amazon!”
“Okay, …, well, …, I really don’t know where he gets the presents, but he certainly does not make them. You’d better choose some cheaper Lego sets for him to bring. He’ll never have enough money for the ones you selected.”

Slightly disappointed, Thibaut sets to work again, leafing through the catalogue in search of cheap presents. Suddenly his face lights up.
“I know what I’ll do!” he announces. “Soon I will become American, right?”
“Well, not very soon, but you will, eventually,” I reply, wondering where this is leading.
“Well, I’ll write an email to Santa, asking if he can come to our house this year already. Santa doesn’t need money to make Lego sets. He’ll bring me the ‘Death Star’ or the ‘Millenium Falcon’ for sure!”
Oh …
“What about Sinterklaas then?”
“That’s the good thing!” Thibaut jumps to his feet, all smiles. “You said we would be American AND Belgian. So Sinterklaas will still bring the good chocolate, the candy and the cheap presents and Santa will bring the cool toys!”

Oh, I guess we’d better start saving then …

Want to read more? Helene Toye’s book : “Go West: A Belgian Attempts American Motherhood” is available on http://amzn.com/1493592548

Paper Bag Lunch

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Only yesterday, sitting on my son’s friend’s porch, I boasted about my near-perfect integration into American culture. 

“Yes, it’s true,” I told Susan when she asked if moving from Europe four years ago had been hard, “It was difficult at times. Mostly I felt like such an alien. Everything I did seemed not to match the customs. I am so happy I now know what is expected of me.” If only I had known what awaited me this morning!

 

I am preparing my 7-year-old son for a field trip to the National Museum of Natural History.

“Please pack a paper bag lunch,” his teachers’ note reads. And that’s really all it takes to throw me off-guard …

 

After scavenging through the mess of my bags-cupboard, I proudly produce a small, lunch-sized brown paper bag with handles. Thibaut, always very conscious of doing the right thing, does not seem convinced. 

“Are you sure this is the kind of bag I need?” he asks. 

“I’m sure this one is perfect,” I reply self-assuredly while I slice a buttered sandwich in half. And that’s when it hits me. I don’t know how to prepare a paper bag lunch! For how do you put buttered sandwiches in a paper bag? Do you just slide them in? Surely if you do, the butter will stain the paper, make it all greasy and prone to tearing. So maybe I need to put the sandwiches into a small plastic ziplock bag before slipping them into the paper bag? But then the whole recycling point of paper is gone, right? My son can’t make me any wiser.

“I don’t know how the other kids pack their lunch, mama,” he says, sighing. “Their moms probably know how to do it.” Oh, how I long for the Belgian field trips on which every child carries his own mini-backpack containing his own sturdy lunchbox! 

I decide to go for the small ziplock within the paper bag and throw in a liquid yoghurt stick as a dessert. 

“What about drinks?” I turn to my son again. “Can you bring your water bottle?”

“I don’t think so,” he replies, “I think we have to throw everything away after the lunch.” So I take a small plastic bottle out of the fridge. Only, with the condensation on the bottle, the paper bag will surely tear, right? 

“Should I put your paper bag in a plastic bag, so we’re sure it doesn’t get ripped?” I ask my son. 

“No mama! Then it’s not a paper bag lunch anymore.” Thibaut looks exasperated, so I decide not to push it and just slip the wet bottle into the paper bag, bravely ignoring the dark wet stains that immediately show. There, the lunch is ready. But what about transportation? Will it be thrown into a big basket with the other lunch bags before being hauled onto the bus? My son’s bag will surely spill all its contents if it is not held upright, by the handles. I quickly run to my daughter’s room to grab some tape.

“What are you doing now, mama?” Thibaut exclaims. 

“I’m closing your lunch bag,” I explain.

“Not with tape! You have to fold the top so that it closes,” my son instructs me. I look at the small bag with handles, from which the top of the water bottle protrudes. “There is no extra paper on the top, Thibaut. I can’t fold anything.” My son watches in horror as I tape the top of his bag. Then I take a Sharpie. 

“What is that for?” Thibaut asks, looking on the verge of a breakdown. 

“To write you name on your bag,” I explain. “How else will you know which bag is yours?” 

“Oh, no, now everyone will know the weird lunch bag is mine!” 

What? This bag is not weird! I just shrug, writing my son’s name in neat small letters. I take a step back to admire my work. The bag looks cute, actually. Almost like a small present. All it’s missing is a colorful bow. One look at my son however, tells me that a nice bow would be over the top, so I decide to let go of my creativity.

My computer, producing a joyful ‘Ping!’ to alert me of a new e-mail, averts my attention to more earthly matters.

“The government shutdown includes the DC Smithsonian museums. So, unfortunately, we need to cancel today’s field trip,” Ms. Gomez’s mail reads. Oh, that is sad. Thibaut will be SO disappointed.

“Bad news, Thibaut,” I turn to my son, trying to find the best words to break this news. “You will not be able to go on your field trip today. But Ms. Gomez promises  – “  My lengthy and empathic explanation is cut short.

“Great!” Thibaut grabs his paper bag lunch from the kitchen counter and tears it apart. “Then I don’t need to take this paper bag!” In two moves he transfers his food to his regular lunchbox, only leaving behind pitifully looking paper shreds on the stone counter. 

 

So much for my attempts at being an American mom. After dropping off my – very cheerful – son at school, I return home, determined to find a You-tube tutorial on how to prepare a paper bag lunch. Another step forward to my complete integration.