We caught Meghann just before her family moves from Amsterdam to the island of Saba. (So that you don’t have to disappear to look up Saba, it is a Caribbean island and the smallest special municipality of the Netherlands. It consists largely of the potentially active volcano, Mount Scenery, which at 2,910 feet, is the highest point within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Thank you, Wikipedia!) I was instantly intrigued when she described her life in her 700 sq. ft. home, using terms like “micro dwelling” and “huge bathroom to fit even tall Dutch men” and “big love” during our correspondence.
Her enthusiasm is infectious. And I hope it’s the best thing you catch all day. Welcome, Meghann!
Q: Tell us all about the family who lives here!
A: I live in this cosy home with my husband Koen, my six year old son Tipp, and my four year old daughter Loula.
Tipp and Loula are only 20 months apart. For the most part, they are super sweet and loving with each other. They are both quite sensitive little creatures, but at the same time very tough. Tipp says he wants to marry Loula when they grow up. That always melts my heart. They often walk to school hand-in-hand, and are a force to be reckoned with at the playground – which does not always bode well for the other kids, much to my embarrassment!
Tipp is a sweet little boy who is super excited about learning to read and write. He calls me mooie mama, which means beautiful mama, and asks me for one extra big kiss as I walk out of his bedroom at night. Tipp’s favourite band is Kiss, he break-dances, plays a mean air guitar, and loves running and playing soccer. He is nearly certain that he is the real Spiderman, which is something he can discuss at some length. Tipp wants to be a flying doctor who knits when he gets older. He says this does not conflict at all with being the real Spiderman.
Loula is my big-eyed, independent little lady. She wants to try and do everything herself! Loula is analytical and asks amazing questions. She dances ballet, and prefers dresses “because you can’t skip as well in pants.” She makes up her own songs and sometimes sings them with a sort of soprano opera voice, which is hilarious! She calls children “kids” and adults “people” and often asks, “When will I become a person?” I love this question because, when trying to reason with momentarily unreasonable children, I sometimes wonder when these little monsters will become people!
My husband, Koen, is a public health doctor specialized in infectious disease control. Think CDC…but in the Netherlands. He works four days a week with the public health department in Utrecht province and has a side job working as a primary care doctor with street prostitutes. I think I might be the only woman who gives her husband a kiss and says “Have a nice evening, babe” as he walks out the door to go to the prostitutes!
And then there’s me. I’m Meghann. I am a maker. I design, create, photograph, and package my leather and textile products from my in-home atelier. This is a huge change from my past life in which I wrote project proposals to fund projects in developing countries, mainly from EU funding, and where the logical framework was one of my best friends.
I think I’m quite pure, in the sense that what you see is what you get. I think I am also quite honest about who I am, including my shortfalls. My husband calls me one of the most open and honest people he knows. He says I’m an adventurer. I love to laugh out loud, and when I’m sad I cry big tears. I love to cook and try new-to-me recipes with forgotten vegetables. I don’t wear make-up, and never really have. And I believe that bike-riding together with your partner is possibly the key to a good relationship.
Q: You’re an American (now Dutch!) living in Amsterdam! Please tell us how you got here, and how you found your home.
A: Well, the road to Amsterdam was a long one! I met my husband, who is from the Netherlands, while studying abroad in Nantes, France, in Fall 2000, but we only started dating in early 2003. A couple of countries and a couple of years later, we married after both graduating from the University of Maastricht in July 2005. And after a couple years in Antwerp, Belgium, we moved to Amsterdam in January 2008.
Moving to the Netherlands, in the legal sense, was really quite easy for me as my husband is Dutch. We have this amazing housing site here where you can see nearly any home available for sale in the country. We bought our home at the very peak of the market in 2008, when I was about five months pregnant. Which, in hindsight, was not an optimal moment to be home shopping. While I would probably do things a bit differently if I could go back in time, I LOVE our neighbourhood and am so happy we ended up here.
That my husband is Dutch was definitely a help when searching out mortgages, energy suppliers, internet, etc. Even though it was a first home-buying experience for both of us, reading the details of the fine print and working with the banks for a mortgage is always easiest in your own native language. Although, thanks to the high level of English most people speak here, most things can almost always be discussed in English.
Q: Tell us why you love the place you live.
A: I can hardly think of a better location to live! I am absolutely head over heels for Amsterdam! This must be one of the best cities in the world in which to raise children. But I may be super biased!
Amsterdam is very easy to get around by bike, public transport, or even on foot. The canals in the center are gorgeous, particularly when lit up at night. And the different neighbourhoods all have their special feel. Amsterdam is also very green for such a dense and compact city, particularly in the area where we live.
My neighbourhood is in the southwest of the city, within the city ring. We are sandwiched between the two biggest parks – the Vondelpark and the Rembrandpark – and spend a huge amount of time in these parks, at any time of year. We go everywhere in town by bike…even in the snow!
Amsterdam has tons to offer for children. On cold or rainy days we spend time at the museums or the children’s cooking cafe where they get to choose what they’d like to cook that day; everything is at their level. It’s run by volunteers and so is very affordable. Nearly all the museums have activities for children, like an orphanage at the Amsterdam City Museum, a Sesame Street tour at the Rijksmuseum, dress up and theatre at the Shipping Museum, and Lego art at the Stedelijk Contemporary Art museum. On warmer days we head out on our bikes to the zoo or to some of the nature parks around town, where the kids get to build huts, bake bread on a fire, pull themselves across the water by rope, or just run around all day.
Prices for many activities can be very high in Amsterdam. For our family, as we live on quite a tight budget, it makes sense to have annual passes. We all have a “museumjaarkaart” which costs about €50 per adult and €25 per child and allows us to enter nearly all the museums in the country for free. We also have annual passes to Artis, the zoo, which is about €140 all together. These are big upfront investments, but we spend very little money the rest of the year apart from this. We pack our lunches everywhere we go, and even bring a thermos of coffee or beer and wine, depending on the season and time of day. We tend not to go to theatre productions, as these can be very costly, but we spend nearly every weekend in the summer at the Vondelpark Open Air Theatre, which is free and offers fabulous theatre, music, dance, and comedy.
While our home is tiny (only 700 sq. ft!) and on the second floor (considered the third floor by US standards), we have a great square out front with a playground for the neighbourhood kids. Kids of all ages play out here and, on warmer days, we often bring out juice and wine and snacks and all hang out with each other. The location on a square and the fact that we have no yard has been a huge plus factor in our social life! It means that my young kids can play outside without me being there because we know a great deal of our neighbours very well. I would say there’s just enough of the “social control” to create a warm, safe, cosy feeling here, without people being nosy.
In a couple of months we’ll be leaving our wonderful life here in Amsterdam for a new adventure on the island of Saba, where we’re pretty sure that, if fairies do exist – and we think they do! – they are likely to live on Saba. While we’re all very excited about our move, I know we’ll miss our home and life here as well. That’s why we’ve decided to rent out our home instead of selling it. I just can’t bear to completely let go of this slice of our life. I like knowing that it’ll be here waiting for us if and when we’re ready to come back.
Q: You describe your space as small but big enough. What are the must haves that make your home fit your family perfectly?
A: This is a small home with big love! Rather than must haves, I think I’d say it’s most important to realize how little you really need. Not to say that I wouldn’t love more space! But I can’t honestly think of any item I’m missing. Sure, a KitchenAid mixer is beautiful and I think it would be really fun to have one someday. But do I miss it? No. In fact, when I bake cookies and cakes with my kids, I use a fork and my arm. It builds great muscles.
I think the most important aspect to living in a small space is layout. Our home is laid out so that we have a living room and dining room in the front of the apartment, and two bedrooms and kitchen in the back of the apartment, and which all lead out to the balcony. I’ve usurped one wall of our dining room to create my atelier. It works amazingly well! While not conducive to work-life balance, I can finish up some work while my kids are snacking after school or playing on the floor in the living room.
We also recently renovated our bathroom, separate toilet, and hallway. Hooray! What was once a hallway closet that offered little space, a toilet that didn’t fit tall Dutch men, and an awful bathroom that housed a tiny shower and our washer and dryer stacked upon each other, is now a spacious hallway closet with space for the washer and dryer next to each other, a toilet fit for tall people, and roomy bathroom with a huge bathtub! Not to mention the penny tiles covering the floor!
And the big love really is important! My parents visit us from the US about twice per year, two weeks each time. The only way they can do this is if they don’t have hotel costs. So, they stay with us! We put them up in our bedroom (it’s nice to be able to shut the door on suitcases), and Koen and I sleep in the living room. When they left us this past November, my husband actually said, “I wish they could stay another week.” Not many husbands out there who would say that about their mother- and father-in-law!
Q: How do you handle clutter? Are you a natural editor, or does it take pure chaos to get you to purge items that are taking up space?
A: Ha! Clutter! The nice thing about “la vie en petit” means that there’s no space for junk or filler furniture. So in that sense, I’m a natural editor. We only buy what we really like. I’d much rather spend more money on a nice piece or item than less money on something that’s just good enough. And, as we have such little space, that’s okay to do!
We also try to have multi-purpose furniture. Our larger couch, for example, is a hide-a-bed. Our smaller couch fits so perfectly in the bay window that it actually makes the room look and feel bigger. The blue bench in our dining room stores my rolled up leather. And we use boxes under our bed to store things that we do need and use, but are more seasonal, like picnic blankets, or an extra comforter for when my parents come visit.
Our home certainly gets cluttered at times! But all houses do. The nice thing about a small home is that, even though it gets cluttered much more quickly and you can’t simply shut the door on it, it also is much quicker to pick up. We just have less stuff.
Q: You’re a talented leather and textile artist. How did you begin this business? What are your goals and biggest accomplishments so far?
A: Thank you so much! As a child, I was very creative. I took nearly every art class possible in school, from painting to pottery to jewellery to photography. At home, my mom and I would bring out our beads after dinner and make bracelets in the evenings. She also taught me how to sew, even from my own designs. I used to dream of living in Paris and being a fashion designer. That all seemed so far away at that age. We didn’t travel as a family, nobody spoke a foreign language, and pretty much every adult in my family was a teacher.
While my parents have always been very supportive of me, they also found practicality to be the most important when going to college. Studying fashion wasn’t really a possibility. So I went to the University of Washington and graduated in 2001 with a BA in Business. And a few years later, I did my Masters in European Public Affairs in Maastricht. Painting was the creative outlet that was most present in my life. But once I had kids, the time for that dwindled.
In 2012, I became emotionally and psychologically ill. I had built up this amazing career in international development, but I couldn’t do it anymore. I was so depressed. At some point I realized that I needed to create again. And also that this amazing job I had simply didn’t fit me anymore. So, I started to create again. And with warm support of my colleagues, I left my job.
While ill, I had posted some photos of things I’d made on Facebook and a friend of mine kept chanting, “ETSY!” So I looked into it and, after a few months, opened my shop. My first sale was a blouse. It was exhilarating and terrifying! But my customer loved it! (I hope she still does!) Anyway, I thought, “If all these other people on Etsy can do it, why not me?”
I’ve been a true business for just over a year now! I would say my biggest accomplishment is simply that I have sales and that, up until now, all of my reviews are glowing! My customers are looking for simple, minimalist essentials, made from high quality and responsible materials, that are versatile in where and when they can be used. They want that understated beauty that comes with age and usage and that stands out because of its simple beauty rather than from flashiness. I would say my leather Tote No.1 epitomizes that.
Another accomplishment, even though I’ve not launched the textile side of my label yet, is a collaboration with Leah Duncan! While I design and will be making the clothing for my label, I don’t design the fabric. I love Leah’s work, so I contacted her some months back and she said she’d love to work with me! We both have Native American background, so we used that a bit as inspiration for the fabric design for the shirt and scarf I’ll be making. (I’ll give you a hint: Tumbleweeds!)
At this point, particularly because we’ll be moving abroad right at the moment that I am meant to launch my Spring/Summer 2015 clothing collection, my goal is to keep myself as structured as possible so that I can keep my business running through the move. And, of course, a huge goal is to sell products from my collection:) Really, more than the money, each and every sale feels like such amazing recognition for the time and love I put into my business.
To be honest, writing about this brings tears to my eyes. I’m still in a very early stage in this new career of mine and it’s been a long and winding road to get here. It might sound silly, but I’m so thankful to my husband for his support, and also very proud of myself for daring to dive off the deep end and just go for it.
Q: Describe a typical day in your world.
A: I’m slowly getting better at balance. Both of my kids are in school now, which gives me from 8:35 to 2:55 to work. I start my day with a nice warm cup of coffee, and sit behind the computer for about a half hour to answer e-mails, check Facebook, Pinterest, and a few blogs. Then I get to work. This can be designing and putting together prototypes of new products, to making a bag that has just been ordered, and getting these out the door. I feel like the orders come and go in waves, which is nice because I have moments where I’m working hard on products that I’m already familiar with, and sometimes a full week to design and try out new products! And the beauty of selling on Etsy is that I don’t have to list anything that I don’t feel I can reasonably make within the shipping time that I’ve defined.
At five minutes to 3:00, I whip on my shoes and jacket and rush out the door to pick up my kids. From then until evening I’m just mommy. Lately I’ve been trying to not work in the evenings anymore. But, when I do, I usually use that time to search for suppliers or other types of info online. I don’t like to sew in the evenings because the lighting is not optimal, and being tired leads to mistakes.
Q: What do you hope your kids remember from this very moment in their childhood in this very house? And what do you hope they conveniently forget!
A: I hope they remember the warmth and love in this house. I honestly can’t think of anything I hope they forget. Well…maybe the fact that they’re not allowed to jump loudly and bang on the floor. We’re not against this in principle, but living on the second floor of a 1930s house means that floor insulation is not at its best.
Q: What has been your favorite part about living with your own children? What has surprised you the most about motherhood?
A: One of my very favourite things is being woken up in the morning (just preferably not before 6:45!) by a warm little body coming to snuggle with me. I love this feeling! Sometimes we just lay there and fall in and out of sleep. Other times we talk and giggle about different things. Those moments are so precious.
What has surprised me most about motherhood is the intense feelings you can have: of success and blissful happiness during the good moments, but also of guilt and failure at difficult moments. It’s that deep awareness of being responsible for somebody else’s life. Luckily, the good outweigh the bad so far!
Q: Please finish the sentence: I wish someone had told me…
A: I feel like my mom warned me for everything! But I don’t know if any of it really hit home until I became a mom myself. There is just no way to explain exactly how that will feel: from the sheer joy to the utter pain.
I never understood why my parents worried so much. And they would say, “You’ll understand when you have your own kids.” I didn’t know it then, but they were right!
I’m trying hard not to parent through fear. I really don’t want my kids to fall or hurt, but it is all part of growing up. So I’m working on letting go.
Also with marriage. I used to ask my mom how you can love somebody for so long, through thick and thin. And she would say, “It’s a choice. There are times where you’re in love, and times where you stick by because you have deep respect and you love the person, even if you’re not in love at the moment.” I really took that to heart.
Thank you, Meghann! I can’t wait to hear about your new life in Saba, so please let us know if you spot a faerie or two!
I’m so inspired by your small space and how well the entire family – and houseguests – live in it. From experience, it is all about the big love! And I had to laugh about you finding your destined creative career even though your parents prodded you in a more practical direction. I hope in some way you’ve inspired other parents to be open to the paths their children are forging. Love always finds a way, right?