A letter to Tala on her second birthday

My dearest Tala,

Feliz cumpleano! That’s how they say ‘Happy birthday!’ here in Madrid, Spain, where we’re celebrating your second birthday. How special is that?

Tala and Mama street art Madrid

Today we’re celebrating your birthday with brunch and a visit to one of the world’s most famous museums. But I also want to celebrate your birthday by telling you what a wonderful little girl you are growing up to be. I can’t capture all the ways in which you are so very special, because you are changing so fast but I will try. I hope when you’re older, you will read this and smile as Mama tells you what you were like at the age of two.

Tala Retiro Madrid

You know how to express what you want, and your language has really blossomed in the past year. You understand Dutch, English and Tagalog, and even more amazingly, know when and to whom to speak which language. I’ve stopped taking note of all your new words each week because I can’t keep up anymore.

Even if it drives me bananas sometimes, I’m secretly proud of the way you firmly say Ayaw! (Don’t want!) because it takes the guesswork out of so many things. The way you use language makes us laugh sometimes. I cherish the way you stumble over words as you try to grasp them: ‘t’ is your default consonant (polka dots are ‘totatots‘), and you haven’t quite gotten an ‘r’  yet (chair is ‘chaiw‘).

Tala at the beach

You love to cook at your little kitchen, and to dance when you hear music. You love singing: Twinkle Twinkle, Incy Wincy Spider, Happy Birthday, Gabing Payapa, Ili-Ili, Somewhere Over The Rainbow, Fly Butterfly. You love when I bounce you up and down on my knees to This is How The Gentleman Rides, and stand oh-so-still to keep your balance when we sing I Can Put My… (Beanbag, Bunny, Ducky) On My Head.

You love counting—one to twenty in English, isa hanggang sampu sa Tagalog. Dutch kids don’t learn that at school until the age of four, but you have a competitive Asian Papa who is really good at numbers.

You are a compulsive arranger and rearranger. I wonder where you got your compulsion for neatness, but I’m more than grateful for it. You love Nijntje, flags, cars and trains, dogs and cats, polka dots and hearts.

And oh, how you love books. You can read quietly by yourself around Mama, but when Papa is home you insist he reads to you. He must have read The Cat in the Hat to you a hundred times by now.

Like any other toddler, you have your meltdowns when you’re tired or when you don’t get what you want. You hate shoes, and you’re shy around other kids. You thrive on routine and repetition, two of the very things that can drive Mama up the wall.

But I like to think you’re special in the way you understand certain things: that you need to play quietly for a while so Mama can work or rest, that Papa is crazy about you and you can twist him around your little finger.

Tala MixMaxBrasil

Your sleeping times are changing—fewer naps and much later bedtimes—because you find the world so very exciting and it’s hard to calm down. I know, because I can hear you chattering to yourself in the dark after we’ve laid you down to sleep, practicing the new things you learned that day.

My beautiful baby, you are het poppetje in Holland, la bambolina in Italy, la maniquita in Spain. Total strangers come up to us and tell us what a little doll you are, which makes Mama not-so-secretly proud.

My little doll

You teach, exhaust, surprise, delight, and amaze us constantly. I wish I had an inexhaustible supply of patience, energy, and love, because you deserve all of what I have and more. When I’m running low I try to remind myself that I’ll never have you, as you are right this very moment, ever again. I’ve never worked harder in my life than I do to take care of you. And every time you hug me, kiss me, learn something new, or call me Mama, I feel as if I’ve been rewarded with an infinitely precious jewel.

Happy birthday, my love. I wish you many years of happiness, and that the world you are so excited to discover is generous and kind to you.

I love you so much. Now let’s go to brunch.

Your teary-eyed loving Mama

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Date night: Hotel de Goudfazant Amsterdam Noord

On my birthday, Marlon took me out for dinner at a restaurant I’ve been wanting to try: Hotel de Goudfazant in Amsterdam Noord.

Date night Hotel de Goudfazant Amsterdam Noord

Don’t be misled by the name: it’s not a hotel. Hotel de Goudfazant is a casual French restaurant with a cool, industrial-chic vibe. This former garage still shows its industrial bones, despite the awe-inspiring glass bottle chandelier that hangs in its huge dining room…

Hotel de Goudfazant Amsterdam Noord

and the large open kitchen, where you can watch the cooks hustle to get your dinner on the table. I love this touch of drama: the kitchen becomes a theater where the cooks are the rock stars.

Open kitchen at Hotel de Goudfazant Amsterdam Noord

I say “cooks” and not “chefs,” because I actually know one of them personally. One of them is a classmate of mine in Dutch class. “So you’re a chef,” I said.

“No, I’m not a chef, I’m a cook,” he replied emphatically. Seeing my puzzled look, he added: “They are very, very particular about the distinction between a chef and a cook here in the Netherlands. Only the boss is the chef. His assistant is the sous-chef. Everyone else is a cook.”

Makes sense, right? After all, chef literally means head, chief or boss in French.

Oysters and champagne Hotel de Goudfazant Amsterdam Noord

As the birthday girl, I got a glass champagne and oysters on the house, care of my chef—er, cook friend. Now that’s a way to start a date night!

Hotel de Goudfazant has a classic French menu with staples such as terrine, venison, steak and lobster, although there are seasonal variations as well. Here, French doesn’t mean fussy and hip doesn’t mean hoity-toity—the atmosphere is casual and unpretentious, and service is friendly and attentive.

Because of the low ambient lighting, I didn’t get any decent food photos (you’ll find lots on their Yelp page). But I did get to wander around the rest of their amazing industrial space, as well as hang out with the staff after closing time. Check out more of Hotel de Goudfazant, after the jump.

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Birthday # 33

Last weekend I turned the ripe old age of 33. Yay!

I’m not the type to throw a big birthday party. I did when I turned 21, and I had a smallish dinner out with friends when we first moved to Amsterdam. But nothing makes me happier than to curl up in a cozy, quiet little bubble of love with Marlon and Tala. Over the years, Marlon has become such an expert at making me feel cherished that I hardly feel the need to seek birthday adoration from other people.

I woke up to the smell of freshly brewed coffee and the sight of this beautiful chocolate ganache cake from Patisserie Holtkamp. Holtkamp is known for the best cakes in Amsterdam, and supplies their desserts to some of my favorite cafes. Tip: call ahead to order a birthday cake, because the ones in the bakery go fast!

Patisserie Holtkamp Amsterdam chocolate cake

Yes, we breakfasted on chocolate cake. And yes, Tala had some too.

Tala and chocolate cake

Then it was time to address the elephant in the room, which you might have seen on Instagram.

Giant birthday present for my 33rd

Few things can awaken your inner child like seeing a giant birthday present sitting in your living room. If you want to make someone feel younger, not older, on their birthday, this is definitely how you should do it. So let’s unwrap it, shall we?

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This man

… has been a revelation to me in the past year as a husband, friend, lover, partner, and most of all, as a father. I knew he was going to be good, but I never knew he was going to be this good.

Marlon and Tala bath

This man has been hands-on literally from day one. He holds his daughter with as much loving tenderness today as he did when she was a few days old.

Marlon and Tala in Greece

This man is always happy to see her and eager to take her in his arms. He adores her, dotes on her, gives his weekends to her, and she knows it. He has to be told, sometimes, actually many times, to put her down and let her play and learn by herself.

Marlon and Tala

This man swoops to my rescue when the last grains of my energy and sanity have fallen through the hourglass. His strong arms have carried his daughter up and down endless flights of stairs in airports, train stations, museums, our home.

Marlon and Tala in Paris

This man takes his daughter to the market every Saturday to give me precious time for myself. He occasionally returns with a new discovery—wild mushrooms, carob syrup, a lobster, how to shuck oysters—that fills him with an infectious delight. This man truly loves to cook for his family, and always makes sure I have a matching fork and spoon (because he knows I care about weird things like that). Marlon and lobster

This man has seen me at my worst in every possible way, especially in the past year. Yet he is still here, my fan and friend, my confidante and champion. He makes me laugh, forgives me and believes in me. He always has a good answer for my stupid questions like “Does this make me look like a wrestler/pillowcase/hooker?” He loves me in a way I know I will never be loved by anyone else, ever.

Marlon and me in El Nido

This man is the reason my family lives this life, why it’s so much fun, why we have so much beer in the fridge, why Tala has beautiful eyes, why I am a wife and mother, and why I want to be a better one.

Family selfie

This man turns 33 today, and I can’t wait for him to get off that plane from London and come home to his girls who love him very, very much. Happy birthday, my Googly!

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What’s in the birthday box?

Who doesn’t love getting presents on their birthday? When I was a kid, it was all about quantity—the thrill of seeing a pile (the bigger the better) of gifts waiting to be opened, the sheer delight of ripping through present after present.

That’s changed a bit over the years. I’m happy to open just one present on my birthday, knowing it’s been selected with care by someone who knows me well. Being the person who knows me better than anyone, my husband always hits it out of the park.

Birthday gift sketches on kraft paper

This year, Marlon had me at hello. It was impossible not to cry upon the sight of these doodles on kraft paper, and I almost didn’t want to open the package. Our family, our journey, our story so far…

Marlon's sketches on kraft paper1


… our dreams, our future and all the stories to come.

Marlon's sketches on kraft paper2

Stories of which I am clearly, and happily, this family’s designated documentarian.

Sony RX100 II

As much as I love my DSLR and lenses, I’ve been dying for a point-and-shoot ever since Tala was born. As the pack mule for my and Tala’s stuff, I really feel the added bulk and weight of a DSLR and one or more lenses. Digging in my bag for the camera, not to mention changing lenses, seems to take forever, like Tala’s moving at warp speed and I’m underwater.

I wasn’t satisfied with my iPhone 4 camera, but needed something small, light, and fast. Having lived in the land of manual settings for the last three years, I couldn’t go back to just any old point-and-shoot.

Enter the Sony RX100 Mark II. I first heard about its predecessor, the Sony RX100, from The Diplomatic Wife, a conscientious shopper who did her research and found it a consistent favorite on lists of top digital compact cameras. Marlon took a big risk buying me a camera without any involvement or research from me, but he nailed it with this choice.


The Sony RX 100 MII gets raves on most reputable tech sites, such as Digital Photography Review and Gizmodo. What I’m loving about this camera: small size, big sensor. “How many megapixels?” is for noobs; it’s the people who ask about sensor size who know where it’s at. Simply put: the bigger the sensor, the more light and thus information a camera can capture, which translates into better images (for a more detailed, well-written explanation, check out this article).

This camera also has the all-important shallow depth of field (two words: blurry background) I just can’t live without, plus the option to shoot on manual, shutter speed priority and, my personal go-to mode, aperture priority.

Best of all, it slips into a coat pocket, making it discreet (for those times when I want to be a stealthy blogger ninja), convenient and easy to whip out for split-second flashes of brilliance/activity/cuteness. A great compact camera for me, more pictures and videos of Tala for everyone. Win-win for all!

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