December 25, 2008

Road trip, European style!

The days that lead up to my road trip from Amsterdam to Aprilia, Italy were hectic and incredibly fun. I was very proud of myself for remembering to make a second set of bike keys before I left and get myself some insurance. Insurance in the Netherlands is easy and cheap, if you do it through your bank - or at least it was for me, I never know if these things are generally easy or if I just keep getting lucky. I ran into ABN AMRO on Friday afternoon at 4.30pm, and I left at 5pm with liability, travel, and apartment (renters) insurance. Basically, my apartment can burn down or get robbed, I can run over someone on my bike and injure them drastically, and I can lose my laptop and camera and all my clothes while I'm traveling and I'll be totally covered, all for about 10 Euros a month. Amazing! All that combined with the fact that I have health insurance makes me feel like the safest person in the world.

Anyway, I had fun saying goodbye to Amsterdam. Even though I've been thinking for a while now that I really wanted to get out of the city (just because it had been a while since my last trip), the fact is, I always have such a good time being in Amsterdam that forcing myself away from the city doesn't seem that urgent. However, after a few hours of sleep, I woke up on the 21st of December (a Sunday) to leave for a fabulous road trip to Italy. Joining me were three other great people I met through Couch Surfing, all of us on a mission to take V's car back to its home in Aprilia (about 50 km south of Rome). So what's one of the least fun ways to start a sunday morning road trip? Finding out the car you're planning to take has been broken into! As far as breakins go, this was a "lucky" one. Someone had smashed the drivers side window and messed with the lock, but they didn't actually take anything or mess with the car beyond that - and for once it didn't rain, so the car was dry on the inside.

But obviously, it's hard to feel lucky when you're looking at a car that has a 1500 km trip ahead, in December, through Germany and Switzerland, and there's no window.

That's where our good friend plastic came in. We were all determined to go, window or no window, so we taped up some plastic to where the window had once been, the glass was cleaned up, and off we went. We all knew that the fact that it was Sunday was going to make getting the window fixed more difficult, and the fact that the car was insured in Italy and not the Netherlands made things even more complected, and of course the owner of the car didn't have time to make a police report. After I finally managed to get a cup of coffee (the fact that I even left the house that morning without coffee was a very rare thing for me to do) and could start thinking clearly, I made a few calls and we all started to work together to call service agencies and emergency roadside repair places. I know a lot more about how to fix a car in the Netherlands on a Sunday now than I ever knew I would, so let me share a piece of information: it's really expensive if you're not insured in the Netherlands. If you are insured here, then you're in good shape, because someone will come out and fix your car without a problem and it won't cost you anything (I'm taking about a broken window of course, that's where my experience begins and ends). But if you don't have Dutch insurance, a temporary window - really just some hard plastic - will cost you €185 if it's a Sunday. That's a lot of money.

To make a long story short, we drove all the way to Freiburg, Germany with plastic on the window. And honestly, it wasn't really that bad. We weren't cold, it didn't rain, and the only annoying thing was the noise. But no one pulled us over and the plastic held strong the entire way. The four of us switched around a lot in the car, except for me - since I don't have an EU driver license, I was really only a "last resort" driver. I had a good time the entire way, but of course we were all happy to arrive at our destination for the night and meet up with our CS hosts. A dinner party was thrown together, wine was opened, and within 5 minutes we were all laughing and joking around and having a good time. I went to sleep that night in a comfortable bed and felt amazingly lucky and content.

After sharing a really nice breakfast with our hosts the next morning (Monday, the 22nd), the 4 of us gathered together again to head out for the day with a little bit of a delay. See, we had all assumed that Germany would be the answer to our car problems. I mean, it's Germany! Germans love cars, they're efficient, and they know how to fix things. But the first 3 places my friends tried didn't work and they all sent us in the direction of a repair place a bit outside the city. The good news, when we got to that place, was that they could fix it, and fix it properly and perfectly. The bad news was that it would take a few hours - but all things considered, that wasn't so bad. The owner of the car was happy that her window would get fixed the right way, not just with a temporary solution. We had food, we all had books and computers, and there was a really comfortable waiting area. When we were asked if we wanted coffee, we all enthusiastically said yes - and about 10 minutes later, a wonderful angel from German Car Repair Heaven bought out 4 real cups of coffee (I was expecting something instant) with real milk and sugar and cookies and cakes. I have to say, that small gesture completely made our morning. Everything was fixed and ready to go by about 3pm, and we were back on the road. Fortunately, we had just enough daylight left to see some beautiful parts of Switzerland. The sunset was beautiful, the Alps are spectacular, and seeing a landscape that is the total opposite of Holland felt really special.

We had to drop one of our travelers off near Milan, and I was sad to see him go. When you spend 2 days in a car with someone, you do get this bond to them - I felt like we had all become a little international family (we came from the US, Brazil, the UK, and Italy). He headed off to Genoa and me and my two friends drove the rest of the night to our destination, arriving around 3.30am. I slept like a rock until 12.30pm the next day, and woke up to a beautiful lunch being served by my host. I was drinking wine before I even had a sip of coffee and I saw palm trees and sunshine when I started my day. I mean, if those two things aren't the sign of a good holiday, I don't know what is.

There where three specific things I wanted to note down that happened as soon as we arrived in Italy: everyone started to drive like a lunatic, a very thick fog surrounded us for hours and hours, and the food instantly became incredible. Honestly, a highway rest stop in Italy could be a fancy restaurant in a different country. We stopped a few times for coffee along the way and I give a lot of credit to the drivers of the car, because the fog was really, really intense for a really long time.

It's Christmas Eve now (actually, Christmas day), and I feel completely at home in my friends apartment in Rome. I'm hoping to keep this blog pretty well updated during my trip, so I'll leave this post off here for now. Happy holidays!

December 16, 2008

The song "Hazy Shade of Winter" was written about days like this one

I love fog. It makes everything seem mysterious and spooky, or at least I make up a story in my mind that turns Amsterdam at 10am into a spooky, secretive type of world. Hey, when it's -1°C (30°F) and I'm trying to psych myself into leaving my house and getting on my bike, the one thing that works for me is making up stories.

This previous weekend was a really nice combination of running around and having fun but having enough time to relax with friends. On Saturday I went to my final Italian lesson in the early afternoon, met up with a fellow expat blogger around mid-day, and went out dancing at Occii at night. I must sound like a broken record here, but a Saturday night at Occii is another example of why I love Amsterdam so much. As soon as the music started playing, people started dancing - no one stood around being too cool or too disinterested (ahem, New Yorkers, I'm looking at you). It was really cold that night as well, but by the time I left I barely noticed the temperature and enthusiastically rode my bike through the park without holding on to the handlebars. All the other people that were out were in a similar state as me (as in, we had all probably had more than a couple drinks), and it seemed like none of us could feel the cold. Even the group of French tourists that had managed to fall all over each other and their bikes in the cycle lane on Sarphatistraat were having a good time, and didn't mind that I laughed at them as I tried to make my way through.

On Sunday night I said goodbye to a good friend - one of the first girls I met when I moved to Amsterdam, someone that I definitely got used to having around. I try not to be too sad about friends leaving (especially since I've been the friend that leaves so many times), but when they leave to go to Australia, it's always a bit harder. I mean, Australia isn't a place I can just hop over to for the weekend. Still, if there's one thing I've learned from moving around from place to place, it's that the goodbyes are never final.

There's only five days now before my trip, but in my mind, I'm already pretty much on holiday now. I got together with my travel companions (the people who I'll be driving with) recently so that we could all get to know each other a little better (a good idea, considering we committed to spending 2 days in a car together!). Not only do we get along, I already feel like the three of them are old friends. We're leaving at noon on Sunday, and I can't wait.

It's about 12.30 on Tuesday afternoon, and from my office windows Amsterdam looks like a scene from a fairy tale. The old houses with their triangle roofs, the naked tree branches, the absolute white sky, and the thick fog that is still hanging in the air. Absolutely beautiful. I just wish the canals would freeze...

December 10, 2008

Countdown to vacation

Can anyone else believe there's only [fill in your amount of days here] until [the deadline for whatever you have coming up]? I have 10 days before I leave for Italy!

I saw the last movie of 2008 at the OT 301 last night - and what a way to end the year - Guy Maddin double feature! When I first walked in to the OT301, I was in a half-annoyed mood. Annoyed really isn't the right word, but I felt a rant coming on... how is it that I can walk around in a major European city on a Tuesday night at 9.30pm and still not find anything to eat? I literally walked in and out of 2 different supermarkets, 2 different night shops, a few other quick-food type of restaurants, before settling on take out indonesian. Rice, tofu, egg, tempeh - it's not terrible, it was fairly cheap, but still. Why, why can't there just be some fresh bread at the supermarket? Why is 9.30pm such a late time to get a decent dinner?

Anyway, when I entered the OT301, I bought my ticket (4 Euros) to see an amazing movie I've never seen before. I ordered a beer in English (I actually try to do that in Dutch most times, but at this place a lot of people that volunteer don't speak Dutch). The two folks behind the counter started speaking French to each other. French music played in the background. Another group of people came up and started speaking in Spanish. And by the time I had started to eat my food, I was eavesdropping on another conversation going on in Italian. Dutch was being spoken somewhere in the background. Ok, so I have to accept that this is not the city of my dreams in terms of food. But it is a city where I can bring my crappy Indonesian takeout into a legal squat-turned-movie-theater on Tuesday nights, eat it while I drink a 2 euro beer, enjoy the free wireless and sounds of five different languages swirling around me while I waited for my friends.

The wintertime in Amsterdam hasn't really been so bad yet - there's actually some great things you can do during the winter that aren't quite the same during the summer. Like finding an almost empty bruin café in the Jordaan, the type of place that is the very definition of gezellig. It was a small, modest little bar with a beautiful view, and had the perfect atmosphere for a cold winter night. A friend and I each had one drink, sat for about 2 1/2 hours, and were happily left alone to just enjoy our conversation. And even though it seems kind of daunting to ride home at 2am when it's zero degrees (32 fahrenheit), after a couple minutes I had warmed up from cycling as quickly as I could down the Marnixstraat. Only what... four more months to go, before it might start getting warmer again? I think I can handle it. Every so often there's a morning like today, where it's bright and sunny and not that cold, I hear the folks opening their shops call out "good morning" to each other, the tourists walking around seem delighted with all the boats, and things are good. I know I'm lucky that I don't have to wake up and go to work in the darkness, by the time I get out of bed in the morning, the sun is up.

Last night the sky was clear, and on my way home I decided to ride down the Stadhouderskade for fun. That's the road that's under serious construction and while there is a path carved out for bikes, a huge part of that is those big metal-type plates laying on top of sand (the sand that is underneath the street they're ripping up). Seeing stuff like that really blows my mind, I mean, sand! I grew up in the mountains. If you dug a whole in the street of New Paltz, you would not find sand, you would find dirt. Anyway, riding over those boards, on top of sand, in the middle of Amsterdam - that's really surreal. Like being on the beach, except - ok, the sand reminds me of being at the beach, that's really it. I could just as easily avoid the construction and take a different road home, but I like the oddness of that chunk of road, and I love crossing the Amstel over the Mauritskade bridge.

Things are really, really, really busy right now - but with every passing minute I'm more and more in holiday mode. I know these next ten days will fly by, hopefully with lots of fun along the way.

December 4, 2008

Check your lights

There's a law in the Netherlands that says cyclists must use lights when they ride at night. White in the front, red in the back. A lot of people have lights on their bike, but those get stolen frequently - my solution is to keep little lights pinned to the bag I always carry. As long as I go out with the same bag every time (which I do about 90% of the time), I always remember my lights.

The other day I actually got stopped on the way home for a bike-light check! Ok, my lights are pretty small, but they follow the rules, so I was good to go. A few other people weren't so lucky and the police were writing tickets.

It reminded me of one of my favorite Dutch TV commercials - a public service announcement that I first saw on

December 2, 2008

I just realized the leaves have mostly fallen off the trees...

I keep looking at the calender in amazement. December? how on earth did it get to be December? A lot has been going on the past couple weeks, and I have a feeling that the next several weeks are going to be just as busy - I just keep reminding myself of all the time off I'll have between 18 Dec - 7 Jan. I put in as much time as I could at the Documentary Film Festival, I've made all my Dutch and Italian lessons, and I managed to pull off a very successful Thanksgiving party. It meant a lot to me to see my home full of people, eating matzo ball soup and exclaiming over the size of the turkey when we took it out of the oven.

But let's get back to that vacation time I was talking about. My last day of work is 19 December, and I leave for Rome on the 21st of December - traveling by car! I can't believe my luck. Me and three other people are taking two days to drive from Amsterdam, stopping in Switzerland along the way. A real European road trip is something I've always wanted to do, and I can't imagine better timing. When I started looking at dates and prices to come back to Amsterdam, I just selected the cheapest price and ended up with a 30 Euro one-way ticket from Pisa back to Amsterdam. I don't intend to plan much in advance for this trip, other than to learn as much of the language as I can and probably buy a guide book. So much of my life has to be planned in advanced, organized, made into time tables. At work I handle other people's schedules. I really don't mind that kind of thing, but I'm very much looking forward to just letting all that go for a few weeks. Insanely, an old friend from New Paltz (the town where I grew up) is living in Naples and plans to be in Rome for Christmas, so hopefully we'll try to get together.

A short post, just limited by the fact that I have no free time. But it's not a bad thing - work is great, and my free time has simply been filled up by fun, friends, and food. Usually all at the same time, which is exactly the way I like it.

November 28, 2008

Quick update from the Kriterion

Updating this blog was on a bit of a hiatus due to lack of internet at home (which I think is finally getting fixed, once and for all, this weekend). In the meantime, I've been keeping unbelievably busy with work, the IDFA, Dutch classes, Italian lessons, climbing, parties, planning trips, and so on.

I had a lovely day off from work on Thursday and spent a lot of time preparing for the Thanksgiving dinner I'm hosting tonight. I went over to a butcher at the Albert Cyup market who gave me my lovely 10-kilo turkey, a chicken, and 3 kilos of chicken livers. My goals for tonight's dinner, besides the turkey, are matzo ball soup and chopped liver (liver pâté). I have never made any of those things, but after spending most of my life watching my grandmother make the exact same foods every thanksgiving of my life, I figured that somewhere inside me this knowledge has become ingrained. So I strapped the turkey to the back of my bike, put the chicken and bag of livers in my backpack, and pedaled home.

I couldn't believe it when, last night around midnight, I tasted the chopped liver... and it was exactly the way it was supposed to be. Success! So when my roommate got home and asked me how my day was, I stood in the middle of my incredibly messy kitchen - borrowed appliances all around me - and all I could say was "it was really fun!" All I really want this Thanksgiving to be is a long, lingering night over tons of food that creates a huge mess. It should be too loud, very confusing, and everything should start late. That is all I need to remind me of the Thanksgivings I grew up with.

Ok, I'm giving myself about 30 minutes to learn everything I can online about how to cook a turkey and download all the podcasts I've been missing out on. Ready... go!

November 21, 2008

And on the 20th/21st of November, it snowed in Amsterdam

Actually, I can't really say for sure if it's snow. Hail, absolutely, yes, that's there. But what's happening outside right now is more than just freezing rain and it's not only hail... the tops of cars and metro stations and trams are now covered in a thin white layer of something very snow-like. Yes, that's snow coming down. I'm sure it won't stick, but at least for a moment, it's there.

And what a day for it! I heard about the snow in New York City and Philadelphia all day, and even got a message from a friend in Germany telling me about snow there. It was weird, actually, to all of a sudden hear from a bunch of different people in different places "hey, it's snowing!" When I got on my bike this morning, the sky was clear and blue and it was insanely sunny, so much that I wished for sunglasses. By the time I arrived at my office - 15 minutes later - the sky had turned dark and cloudy, the wind picked up, and it had begun to hail. 30 minutes later, I was standing near the windows admiring the clear blue sky. So strange.

And what is happening tonight is just beautiful. I am very, very happily spending the evening in my apartment after a few hours at the climbing gym. I was in the middle of catching up on a weeks worth of personal emails when I was distracted by the sudden hail/snowstorm going out outside my living room windows. All the cyclists were hunched over their handlebars, and the passengers sitting on the backs of the bikes were trying to use their "driver" as some kind of shield from the elements.

From my living room window, I can see one of the Weesperplein metro exits. A group of 20-something tourists came above ground, and started to freak out about the weather (as I'm sure when they got on the metro, it had probably been totally dry). One of the guys ran away from his friends to embrace the storm, then he made his friends go out from under the roof so he could take their picture. Everyone that I could see from my window was having fun with the weather, and I really enjoyed watching them. After about 10 minutes it calmed down, and the tourists put away their camera and went running to wherever they had planned. And of course, through the wind and snow and hail and rain, there were always people on bikes going back and forth along the wide bike lanes on my street.

I don't pretend to be a huge fan of cold, rainy, windy days. But there's something really nice about catching the first snow of the season, however brief it might be, and know that friends in different countries and different states in the US were all experiencing the same thing.

November 20, 2008

Something just seems different

The International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam begins today (20 Nov)! I have been swamped at work lately, which means I haven't found the time to sit with the program and read about every single film, circling which one I want to see, and order tickets in advance. Note to self: next year, take this time off from work.

I'm in the midst of one of the busiest periods I've had in a really long time. Other than pulling a lot of really long days and nights at work, I just started a new round of Dutch classes (every Wednesday night) and signed up for private Italian classes twice a week. I'm starting to miss my apartment... the idea of spending time at home with a DVD or book on a Friday night is sounding better and better (though let's be honest, it probably won't happen).

I've mentioned this before, but it's something that has struck me every night this week as I'm rushing to class or work or pedaling home at midnight - as soon as I get outside, into my city, I'm feel relaxed. At the end of a busy day, I have that time on my bike to cycle though Amsterdam. My ride home is always peaceful and quiet. I sing along to my favorite songs or listen to podcasts and often take a detour through the museumplein. The bridges that run over the canals are lit up all year round, and when I get to the Amstel I always have to slow down - or stop entirely - to admire the view. That ride home always, always makes the day worth it.

Back in NYC, I used to have to go back and forth all the time from my office to our edit house (for work reasons) on the subway. I took that F/V train from Broadway/Lafayette to 23rd street at least a zillion times, cramming myself on to packed subway cars, dealing with delays, construction, the after-school crowd, crazy people, skipping stops and ending up in Brooklyn, or whatever else the MTA (that's the name of the metro system in NYC) wanted to throw at me. Here in Amsterdam, when I run back and forth between an edit house and my office, it's a 5-minute bike ride.

That right there makes all the difference. I'm still busy, I don't get to see my friends as much as I would like, I don't travel as much as I want, I have to cancel plans at the last minute, I'm always wishing for more sleep - but busy here is still drastically different than busy in New York City. I prefer it here.

November 13, 2008

This is a post about bloggers, driving, whisky, and travel

Things have been busier than usual lately with the usual life/work/friends kind of things, but there's a few random things I wanted to share with the internet.

Meeting real-life bloggers:

This past Sunday I was standing on line at Batavia with a bunch of other foreigners who had all signed up for Dutch classes being administered by the lovely folks at Couch Surfing. We were all introducing ourselves and starting the usual get-to-know-each-other conversations. When I introduced myself to one of the two non-Italian people standing around me, his response was "Tamara? Do you... have a blog?"

Turns out that Mr Glen and I were signing up for the same Dutch classes! He's another new-to-Amsterdam blogger and all around nice guy. It took me a few minutes to get over the small-worldness of the situation, but what a cool way to meet someone. I mean, "cool" if you um, think bloggers are cool. Anyway, I really like the way Glen writes about Amsterdam, so check out his blog and then maybe one day you'll meet both of us at some random cafe.

Getting a drivers license in Holland:

I know how to drive (and yes, I can drive a stick shift) and have a valid US drivers license, but I haven't needed to drive since arriving in Europe. A few days ago, I got a really cool offer to do a ride share to Italy in December, which I thought sounded way more fun than flying. Only deal is, I would have to share some of the driving responsibilities, which makes sense. Turns out there's this law that says Americans who move to Holland can obtain a Dutch drivers license without having to take any lessons, if they do it within the first 6 months of their arrival IF and only if they're employed and subject to the 30% ruling. So while I am employed and have a contract and a legal residence and all that, I am not eligible for the 30% ruling, and for some reason THAT is the reason I can't get the Dutch license the easy way. As the nice woman who works in the HR department put it "so basically you're screwed." Well, it's not really that big of a deal. If I desperately need to get a license here one day, I'll take the classes and do it the "hard" way. But for now, it doesn't really matter all that much, it just means I can't (legally) help drive a car to Italy.


Yes, a topic that deserves its own paragraph. Tomorrow night I'm going to Leiden for the International Whisky Festival and I am psyched. The admission fee of €40 includes unlimited tastings from 19.00 - 23.00, during which I plan to taste everything I can while still being able to stand upright. There's two major reasons I'm exited about this - #1, I'm going with someone who really, really enjoys whisky, possibly even more than I do, and who knows way more about it than me - so I'll get to learn a lot. #2, an event like this would cost ten zillion dollars if it was in New York City. Or at least $150. Or $500. I don't know, really, but there's no way on earth I could do something like this in New York for 40 bucks, so that's all the more reason to take advantage (and visit Leiden for the first time).


For as much as I love Amsterdam, I have been feeling a little claustrophobic lately and anxious to get out and be somewhere different. I'm going to do my best to visit Antwerp next weekend and Paris sometime in early December if I can find a rideshare or an amazing deal on tickets, but I also keep reminding myself that I'm very close to having all my debts paid off (lingering moving costs) and that having a zero balance on my credit card - especially these days, as the interest rate is skyrocketing - is worth postponing a trip to Paris. I also have to remind myself that I have a 16 days off in late Dec/early Jan, and I'll be spending the entire time traveling around Italy, hopefully entirely debt-free. I've started looking for Italian lessons in Amsterdam to add to the list of things I do besides go to work - climbing, Dutch classes, movies once or twice a week, and just the basic fun stuff with friends and hosting guests.

Anyway, since I've decided to stay in Amsterdam this weekend, I'm going to try and take care of the most important ingredient needed for the next big event: ordering a turkey for Thanksgiving.

November 7, 2008

...The train off in the distance, bicycle chained to the stairs - everything, it must belong somewhere. I know that now, that's why I'm staying here.

Thursday night is one of my favorite nights of the week - it's the only night that I don't have reoccurring plans, and it's the night all the stores are open late. This is important to know, if you're visiting for relocating to Amsterdam - things close early in this city. Very early. Shops and department stores shut their doors between 17-19hr (19 if you're lucky). On the plus side, there's way more open on Sunday in Amsterdam than there is in a lot of other European cities - and we have one one night of the week where all the stores stay open late, and that night is Thursday. Getting used to that has made my life much easier.

What doesn't stay open late is restaurants or supermarkets, which always causes me a bit pain when I think about the 24-hour organic supermarkets that existed all over my former Brooklyn neighborhood. Going out to dinner even at 22hr is taking a risk, and if it's getting toward 22.30, you're basically out of luck. Hours do run later on weekends, and there are a few gems out there that serve late, but in general you're completely out of luck if you want anything that resembles decent food after 22.30. On the plus side, even if you get stuck eating street food, you're doing it in an absolutely beautiful city. I sat with a friend last night as he ate something unidentifiable at about 23hr, and after making jokes about the food and holding myself back from going on a long rant about how not getting decent food at 22.30 was taking away a basic human right, I looked around and noticed where we were. We had walked down quiet, mostly empty streets, in a beautiful neighborhood. We laughed at two adorable dogs (of course not on a leash), playing with their owner. As we wandered, we tended to walk right down the middle of the street, only getting out of the way for a passing bike or two - I didn't see a car drive by all night. And when we sat down to eat, we chose a bench on a beautiful canal in the Jordaan neighborhood. Streetlights were reflected in the water, all different types of boats were parked along the sides of the canal, and then a family of ducks swam by. I mean, really. The crappy food seemed very unimportant.

There are two other only-in-Amsterdam moments I've been meaning to write about. Earlier this week I was riding home along the Stadhouderskade around midnight, which is a pretty major road for traffic, buses, and bikes. They had shut down a very long piece of the road for construction and put up metal gates and signs to keep the cars away and the bikes from using the bike lane. But as a cyclist, I had nothing to worry about - the bike detour signs were also up and pointed me toward the middle of the road, where a temporary bike lane had been constructed. Even in the most bike-friendly areas of the US or Paris that I've ridden in, this just simply wouldn't happen.

Another thing that you might notice if you're out late is that all the traffic lights are out. This isn't cause for alarm, this is normal. I don't know what time they get turned off, but after a certain hour there just seems to be no need for traffic lights, and everyone is just expected to use good judgment and watch out for each other. Honestly, it completely works. Cars slow down at intersections and look both ways before going through, always, of course, yielding to cyclists.

It's been a really beautiful week here. As I rode into work this morning, the sun was shining, the yellow and orange leaves were falling lightly off the trees, and I was singing along without shame to Simon and Garfunkel playing on my ipod. No one looked at me strangely or gave me a hard time for A) riding a bike B) assuming I had the right of way in every situation where there was an automobile or C) singing out loud. These are the little things that I never want to take for granted, yet now it all feels so entirely normal.

November 5, 2008

The 6AM victory - watching Obama win the election from Amsterdam

There will be approximately one zillion blog posts about the US elections, but what the hell, I'll add mine to the mix.

For a few days I just want to be happy about this. I know, Obama is just a politician. I know that there's no way he's going to come through on all the promises he made, I know that just because he won it doesn't mean that the world is saved and everything is sunshine and roses from here on in. I know all that. However, I am completely caught up in the moment and only have the energy to think of the positives right now.

I met up with a bunch of people last night and watched the election results until about 6am this morning. I was the only American in a room of Dutch, Austrian, and Germans, and we sat in my friend Laura's apartment in the Zeeburg watching CNN & BBC over a couple bottles of wine and beer. Throughout the night I ran between the television and Laura's computer to double-check everything CNN was reporting on various different blogs. When Obama was declared the winner, it was about 5am, and four of us were still awake - me, two Germans, and a Dutch guy.

It was a different type of energy, obviously, than being in a huge crowd of people in New York City. But I have to say, standing in that apartment last night with three Europeans, all of us watching history unfold - that was amazing in its own way. No one would believe Obama had really won until McCain started to give his concession speach. Again, it was very late, we were all feeling slightly loopy from lack of sleep and wine, but we waited anxiously to see the acceptance speech. We killed time by making fun of CNN's holograms and the dry tone of the reporters on the BBC.

However, when Obama started speaking, we all fell silent. During McCain's speech, it was easy to talk back at the television and make comments as he spoke. But while Obama was talking, none of us said a word. It was six in the morning, and I could see lights turning on in other people's apartments as they got up to start their day. Obama's speech was beautiful, and when he was done, the four of us all just kind of looked at each other. One of the Germans started to clap. Then we all started clapping, high-fives were exchanged all around, more wine was opened, more SMS messages were exchanged with our friends in the US.

I replayed the speech this afternoon and felt chills go down my spine when I heard my favorite part again:

Tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.

For that is the true genius of America - that America can change.

Today I am exhausted but elated. My friends in New York told me stories of hugging strangers on the street, fireworks, celebrations. My Dutch friends started sending me messages of congratulations early this morning and parties have been going on all night and all morning here in Amsterdam. Obama didn't just win, he won early and by a landslide. I honestly can't remember the last time the entire world was this happy because of something the United States did right.

To all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world - our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.

It is a really, really good day.

November 3, 2008

A bit of the American-abroad experiance leading up to the US election

My first Halloween in Amsterdam was a complete success. I made it to two different parties and was invited to a third around 4.30am, but I had to give up around that time to head home. The most important part of my first Amsterdam Halloween - well, besides riding around like a lunatic with two people on a bike dressed as monsters - was the fact that clearly, there is an all-night party scene for this holiday, which means I can live here for the rest of my life quite happily.

So with Halloween behind me, the only thing left to do is stress about the US elections. I've been asked countless times what I'm going to do on Election night, and the answer remains the same: I have no idea. I do know I'll go to work during the day and I'll go climbing in the evening, and when I get done with that it will still be prime voting time in the US and I will be cursing the time difference. If you listen to BBC or Radio Netherlands podcasts, you hear all kinds of positive things about how Obama is ahead in polls and it's impossible for McCain to win, but I just can't buy it. I have been living in a wonderful bubble for most of my life, surrounded by educated, liberal, like-minded people. I like my bubble, it's a happy place. But because of that bubble, I had no idea what the rest of the United States was really up to back in 2004 when Americans elected Bush again. That was a very, very depressing day.

A recent Deutsche Well podcast featured interviews with people in Africa and Europe talking about how they're volunteering for the Obama campaign. These volunteers are not American, have never lived in the US, have no plans to live in the US, and obviously can't vote for the US president. Yet they're taking part by encouraging their American-abroad friends or American tourists to register and vote for Obama with absentee ballots. Here in Amsterdam there are countless different events and parties going on. Things like this make me feel an intense pressure to have my country deliver the candidate that the rest of the world wants so badly, but I just have no idea if the same country that voted for Bush twice can turn around and vote Obama. I also have no faith in voting machines and I worry about an electoral college tie and find myself saying and thinking things I'd never thought I'd say. Like - good, I'm glad Obama is spending a zillion dollars to saturate the market with advertisements - you know, zillions of dollars that could be feeding starving people all over the world. In fact, let him raise even more, whatever it takes, hopefully the American economy will get even worse because that seems to help him out in the polls. I mean, honestly, I've said that stuff out loud! I can't wait for this to all be over so I can start thinking rationally again.

I also tell myself this: if McCain wins, my day-to-day life - and the lives of most of my friends - will not really change for the worse. It can not possibly get worse than Bush - that's the good thing about hitting rock-bottom with your elected officials, there's really no lower you can go.

So what's it like being an American abroad during this election? Well, while I don't get hit with radio and TV ads every other minute, the news about the US election is in every paper I read, in every (European) podcast I listen to, and is talked about extensively on the Dutch radio station I listen to every morning and night. I do get asked by strangers if I've voted and who I voted for once they find out I'm American. I get asked what I think is going to happen, and what it's like in the US right now - which I can't really answer since I'm not there. I can only tell my friends (and random strangers) here that everyone I know in the US is voting, and they're voting for Obama. There are already stories of people waiting for 6 hours on line to cast their ballots (early voting... though those votes won't start to get counted until the 4th of November). The Americans I know won't let anything get in their way of voting, even if they're overseas - from Columbia to Korea, they're all voting.

But that's just the Americans I know. I can't speak for the rest of the country. I just hope that we - the global community - get the result that will be best for the world. For now, we wait and keep our fingers crossed.

October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween from Amsterdam!

It's pretty safe to say my melancholy mood has lifted over the past few days. A few days without any rain, some quality time with good friends, and my daily bicycle-riding fix was pretty much all I needed to start feeling like all was right in the world. Since daylight savings time hit and it's now always dark when I leave work, my bike ride home or to the climbing gym looks completely different, but one thing remains the same - Amsterdam is a beautiful city, night or day. I love this place.

It's also safe to say that I am 100% in the Halloween spirit. My company is hosting a big pumpkin-carving party today (the 31st), which really makes me appreciate my job - walking in and seeing pumpkins and Halloween decorations was the best way to start this day! Since I waited until the last minute, I figured I would throw together a costume that didn't take too much effort, and just assumed I wouldn't have that many options about what to buy. Turns out I was completely wrong, and the costume store on the Raadhuisstraat is stocked with anything you could want for Halloween. Everything is significantly more expensive than what I'm used to paying, but they have all the right stuff. As I walked around in a happy little Halloween daze, I listened to the people talk around me in Dutch, Australian-accented English, Italian, French, and Spanish. All there to shop for Halloween. It was quite a world-coming-together moment for me.

Today my plans include pumpkin carving and party hopping (and rock climbing - which isn't particularly Halloween-themed but luckily my climbing partner is very patient with my enthusiasm for this holiday). I'm going to start at Batavia, a bar close to Centraal Station that is hosting a free-to-get-in, costume-mandatory party. The backup plan to that is Getto, a bar on the Warmoestraat. I also really like the sound of the event taking place at de Nieuwe Anita - a Texas Chainsaw Massacre "Scream a Long" screening and after party. I love having options!

Other than getting ready for Halloween, there's other things I'm ticking off my list. I finally bought myself a pair of water-resistant rain pants, which means my day-to-day life has just gotten one thousand times more comfortable. I'm also working on getting my roommate officially registered at my apartment. My landlord agreed to write a letter stating that he could stay in the apartment as my guest - according to the guy I talked to at the DPG, this would be sufficient enough to get my roommate in the system (of course, he'll also need all his paperwork and a copy of my housing contract). Once he's registered he can apply for his BSN/SOFI number, and once he has that he's able to get a bank account. I'll update more about that next week once everything is done, because it might be helpful information for someone looking to do the same type of thing.

And now, back to work/obsessing about Halloween. Thanks to everyone who has commented and emailed lately - it always makes my day to hear from a random stranger who found something I said helpful, or to just know that my friends are reading. One of these days I'm going to move this blog over to wordpress and update the design a bit. I never meant to leave this blog looking so generic - anyway, that's another thing on my list of things to do.

October 29, 2008

How many places can be considered home?

I'm sure everyone can relate to the feeling of missing someone or someplace - even people that have lived in the same town their entire lives have probably seen their friends pick up and move away, or have seen their town drastically change before their eyes to the point where it's not the same place anymore. But for those of us who have chosen to leave our home countries, I think there's a different kind of missing friends or places. Sometimes it's like this yearning, where I feel a certain something - a bad mood, a good mood, whatever - but I know exactly what would be perfect. And that exact thing is say, my favorite bar in Brooklyn with a good friend who speaks exactly the same way I speak, who will never say "what?" if I say something kind of slang-ish. Or if it's my favorite bar in Philadelphia, it's ordering a lager and not having the bartender say "what kind?" because in Philadelphia there is only one beer you get when you order a lager. My old bike is still in Philadelphia, being watched over by the same friend that was there to say goodbye to me just a few hours before I left to move to Europe this past April.

A good friend of mine from Brooklyn got in touch with me the other day to excitedly talk about holiday plans, and I had to say "oh, I'm sorry, I haven't told you yet - I'm not going home for the holidays, I'm staying in Europe." Instead of feeling excited about the fact that I'm saving myself a ton of money and stress and making really fun travel plans to explore new places I've never seen before ... I felt kind of sad.

This past Sunday night, I had about 11 people over for dinner. Seeing my home filled with friends eating and drinking is my favorite thing in the world, and I am incredibly lucky to have made such good friends in such a short time. I am so appreciative that my phone rings and a friend on the other end is telling me about three different Halloween parties going on this Friday. Everything about my life right now is the best good luck story ever - I landed a great job that sponsors me to live exactly where I want to be, I ride my bike every single day, I have a fantastic apartment, amazing friends, etc. But I admit, I was in a bit of a funk for the past couple days. I started thinking, wait... now I have to get a haircut in Amsterdam? I always planned to get a haircut in New York. And what about a winter coat? The plan was to go to Beacon's Closet in Williamsburg for a winter coat! I've been dying for a new pair of 8 gauge earrings, and I've been buying my jewelry in the same place for past ten years - Infinite Body Jewelry on 3rd and South in Philadelphia. Obviously, there are winter coats and hair salons and earrings in Amsterdam. But - that's not the point! In my mind, a new winter coat, a haircut, and a million other things (like a real onion bagel) were waiting until I was back in New York.

Now is missing out on any of that really so bad? Of course not. My life is comfortable and happy, I'm going to get some much-needed travel time over the holidays, and I'm absolutely sure this funk will pass. But I wanted to write about it anyway, because it's all part of keeping this blog and talking about my life in Amsterdam. I don't forget how fortunate I am every day for everything that has gone right in the past six months - but that doesn't mean that I'm immune to some elements of homesickness. I feel so wonderfully at home in Amsterdam that I don't even want to think of leaving... funny how that's possible. To love where you are, but be wishing to be somewhere else at the same time.

October 23, 2008

October in Amsterdam - Halloween, museum night, zombie movies, and new discoveries

The next few weeks seem to come with that pesky (read: lovely) problem of having too much fun stuff going on. In addition to the huge Amsterdam Dance Event Festival & Conference, it seems like everyone I know is having a party, or inviting me to a party of someone they know.

For me, this time of year has always been anxious preparation for Halloween - excluding the years I spent living in Europe. However, unlike the year I spent sick with food poisoning in Budapest, this year in Amsterdam I am determined to celebrate! The program at the Filmhuis Cavia is showing some scary movies, along with the OT 301 and the Nieuwe Anita and probably a few other places I'm forgetting. Halloween is a very American holiday that is creeping into Europe slowly, but in my opinion, it's happening in a very lame way. There might be a few bars or clubs that do Halloween parties, but unless you grew up trick-or-treating and having a whole Halloween month, it's hard to understand. Halloween isn't just dressing up in a scary costume (costumes don't have to be scary!), it's about carving pumpkins, hayrides, haunted houses, trick-or-treating (or if you're too old, handing out candy to trick or treaters), attending or participating in a parade, scary movies, decorating your house or apartment - the whole deal. In the states, it's not just a one-night celebration, it's the entire month. It's not just for children, it's for everyone.

So I have to say, the fact that there are a few extra zombie movies in Amsterdam during the next few weeks is pretty nice bonus. There are at least two costume-mandatory parties that I know of, and I have a bunch of friends here that are pretty excited. Ok, by "pretty excited" I mean they know when Halloween is (31 October) and understand it means dressing up in a costume. For Europeans, that's pretty good. :) And in addition to Halloween, next weekend is also Museumnacht. On Saturday, 1 November, tons of museums and other venues will stay open until 2am, transportation will be free, and there will be tons of other events and parties going on. The website recommends to get your tickets in advance and warns that it was sold out last year.

Also important to remember to set back your clocks this Sunday if you live in Amsterdam, which is always fun. An extra hour of sleep, and if you happen to be out at 2 or 3 in the morning, that extra hour is cause for celebration. "Sure I can stay out longer, it's not 3am after all, it's only 2! Let's get another drink!" So let's not focus on the fact that daylight savings time also means more darkness and the inevitable arrival of winter... I would rather just look forward to an extra hour of partying.

Last night I discovered another wonderful new gem in Amsterdam - the Moskito Film Lounge. I'm not even sure if that's the right way of saying it (I'm adding the word "Lounge" myself), but I went to see a short film that some of my friends were involved in making at a venue that felt like someone's living room. It bought me to a neighborhood that oddly, I've never been to before. I say "oddly" because the first six weeks that I spent in Amsterdam, I went everywhere. I was lost all of the time on a variety of different borrowed bikes, and I used to ride for eight or ten hours a day. I still find myself saying upon arriving in a new neighborhood "oh I know this place, I was lost here once!" But the area above the Westerpark (I was on the Zoutkeetsgracht) was totally new to me. It was very Amsterdam - boats, canals, small bridge - but there seemed to be something particularly charming about it, and I rode around for a while exploring when I headed out. Before leaving, I talked to a a friend about doing a short film project together. When I left, I felt inspired, and very lucky to be exactly where I am.

October 21, 2008

Good thing I had already wanted to change my plans

Ever since early 2005, I've been flying on Air India to get from Newark Airport (one of the 3 NYC area airports) to Charles de Gaulle, in Paris. The flight has never changed - it leaves from either 9pm or 10pm from Newark every day, and at 2.30pm every day from Paris. So when I moved to Europe this past April, I bought roundtrip tickets. I left from Newark Airport on 20 April, and my return ticket was for 22 December.

Over the past several days I had been thinking a lot about travel, money, holidays, etc., and decided that rather than go home for Hanukkah/Christmas/New Years, I would stay here in Europe. A huge part of that decision is due to financial reasons - even though I have (well, had) a ticket to the US, I would still have to purchase one back to Europe and fly at a very expensive time. Being in the states over the holidays would mean running all over the place on trains or buses or renting a car - also expensive. Then the major deciding factor came - there were some schedule changes in weddings and events that I'm planning to attend in the spring/summer of 2009, and basically I know that I'll be taking a trip to the states in both May and August. It started to not make any sense to have 3 trips to the states planned for an 8-month period, all at peak travel times. If I have to let one of those trips go, the winter trip makes the most sense. I would rather be in the states when the weather is nice, when I have more money saved up, when the rest of the world isn't all trying to travel at the same time, and so on. So having made that decision, I called the Air India office in Amsterdam to find out the best way of changing my e-ticket. I have done this with Air India in the past and it wasn't complicated.

Well, it wasn't very complicated when Air India was still flying from Paris to New York. Turns out that daily flight has gotten the ax as of this month! Wow, good thing I wasn't planning to use my ticket home, huh? I wondered if they would have bothered to tell me anything if I hadn't checked. I talked to a few different people yesterday, none of which could really help me, except to say that there were no other flights available for the 22nd of December. I was advised to send an email, since I purchased the ticket online - anyway, to make a long, confusing story much shorter, I was pleasantly surprised to actually receive an email back from the airline about 12 hours later. They told me I could change the ticket to fly in late April 2009, re-booked on continental airlines, for a $75 USD charge. That's exactly what I was hoping for, and that $75 USD charge is the same price I paid about three years ago to change a ticket. I mean, I still wish the airline had contacted me to let me know about this pretty major detail, but in the end it all seems to be working out (assuming Continental doesn't go out of business before April 2009).

And now I'm left to my own devices for a winter holiday in Europe! I have a lot of time off work between Christmas and New Years, and I'm pretty excited about making some travel plans. I've been feeling pretty anxious to travel somewhere new lately, but between financial reasons and having so many visitors in Amsterdam, it seemed like I wouldn't get more than a weekend away. Now I have sixteen days to work with, and since I have plenty of time to plan and I'm just sticking to Europe, I can keep it all very affordable. Right now I'm thinking of taking that time to travel slowly from southwest Austria (starting in Innsbruck) to southern Italy (maybe going all the way to Sicily). If I think about all the things I'm likely to be missing by the time December rolls around, it's snow, mountains, and sun (well, I already miss the mountains). With 16 days in that area of Europe, I could get all of that! I'll have to do a little more research into it, but I remember that train travel in Italy isn't very expensive. I'm looking at flights right now that are priced between €7 to €55 - a whole lot cheaper than flying to or from New York City! I might stick to Amsterdam through Christmas and then travel from the 26th of December through the 6th or 7th of January, which would make things even more affordable ... can you tell that as I write, I have five different airline and train websites in the background? I love this part of the planning process, when everything seems like a good idea. The only place in Austria I ever spent time in is Vienna, and in Italy I've just been to Rome (twice) and spent many hours sitting in a park in Bari, so this would all be fairly new for me.

So, if anyone reading has advice/tips/recommendations for what to do with two weeks in Austria and Italy in late December and early January, I'm all ears. I wouldn't even normally plan this much in advance, but traveling around the holidays - even at "off" times or days - well, things do get booked. If anyone else is in the same position as me, let me advise you to check in with your airlines and confirm your plans now! Hopefully the next time I use Air India, it will be to actually go to India. Too bad, I'll miss having some decent food on my cross-Atlantic flights.

October 16, 2008

As I write this blog post, I have the latest US presidential debate in the background. I still haven't figured out what I want to do on election day. Do I stay up all night watching the results? Do I go to Presidents Night at the Melkweg? It's basically an election night type of party - well, i guess the atmosphere of the "party" will depend on how the results turn out. Do I just go to sleep at a normal time, wake up in the morning, and find out what happened? The Netherlands is 6 hours ahead of the east coast, 9 hours ahead of the west coast. Voting booths close around 8pm around the country (maybe later), so that will be 2am here.

I'm registered in California, which will vote democratic. I have many, many doubts about my absentee ballot being used for anything other than recycling container filling, but I'm sending it in - if for no other reason than to take part in what will (hopefully) be the biggest overseas vote in history. When some reporter says "record amounts of Americans living abroad sent in absentee ballots this year," I want to be part of that record-breaking number. It's all I can really do - well that, and donate money to Obama's campaign on behalf of some of my European friends (I've been asked a few times!).

Anyway, three weeks from now we'll have the answer. Until then, I am grateful that the Daily Show streams episodes from the website, because it's a wonderful relief.

Focusing on day-to-day life in Amsterdam, I'm wondering what happened to my bike overnight to make my front wheel squeak and made me work twice as hard to pedal to work this morning. I'm still having a really great time climbing, taking Dutch classes once a week, going to the movies one or two nights a week, trying to find time to sleep. But there's a few important things I really need to take care of that I've been putting on the backburner.

1. Find a doctor, dentist, and optometrist. I've got this great health care that I'm not putting to use!

2. Get my roommate registered at my apartment, which means hoping that my landlord agrees to write a letter saying that he can stay. My (Australian) roommate has to go through the same process as I did in order to get his address registered, apply for a SOFI/BSN number, and then a bank account.

3. Order some curtains that actually fit my bedroom window and get a real internet connection set up at home, rather than just cross my fingers that the open network I use remains open.

4. Buy a ticket to Paris. I really miss my friends there, and I've been anxious for a weekend trip out of town. There's a million places I haven't been that I would love visit, but I think a weekend with good friends in a city that will always feel like home sounds like a good November trip.

5. Figure out what to be for Halloween! Yes, even here in Holland, I found out about a huge Halloween party planned for the 31st. I'll go ahead and add "Halloween costume" to my top priorities- after all, what's more fun - making a costume or going to the dentist?

October 13, 2008

Ten days in Amsterdam

I had a good friend in town for the past ten days, so I took a bit of a break from blogging (and everything else) to enjoy my time with her. It was her first time in Amsterdam, third or fourth time in Europe, and I was (obviously) hoping to show her a good time. When I said goodbye to her this morning, she said everything had been perfect, so mission accomplished! She was originally planning to do some day trips to other nearby cities, but ended having such a good time just hanging around Amsterdam - and we still didn't do tons of things that we talked about. Here's a brief-as-possible rundown of her trip, in case you're wondering what someone does with ten days in this city.

Day One, Saturday: picked her up at the airport and encouraged her to nap (the time difference from NY to Amsterdam is rough!) while I ran some errands during the day - she didn't protest. When she woke up we took a walk around my neighborhood, I showed her where the bio supermarket is, and we started catching up on the past five months of our lives. Once it got dark, I put her on the back of my bike at night and cycled us over to Cinema Paradiso for a lovely Italian meal - we spent at least 3 or 4 hours in the restaurant and had ample time to catch up, one on one. Went out for drinks with some friends at a bar on the same street, then rode back to my house around 1am and stayed up late with whiskey and good conversation.

Day Two, Sunday: dinner party at home! What better way to introduce her to what my life is like in Amsterdam? I put out the word and got about 12 people in my apartment for a really nice little party. The day was spent food shopping (me) and jogging (her).

Day Three-Six, Monday-Thursday: I had to work these days, so she was on her own to explore. She took a yoga class, went to the Van Gogh museum, read a book in Vondelpark, ate lots of appelflaps and stoopwafels, and rode around the city on her rental bike. We went to the movies at De Niewe Anita (Monday), and enjoyed a long dinner at my place with some friends on Wednesday. On Thursday night, we stopped in a coffeeshop where a friend works, dropped by Da Portare Via (Leliegracht 34) for a pizza, and ended the night with big glasses of German beer at the Soundgarden.

Day Seven, Friday: I took the day off from work and we took the ferry over to Amsterdam Nord with our bikes. We spent several hours riding around, and I did my best to recall the bike ride I went on back in early June, when my old roommate took me to a really great cafe with tables on the water. I couldn't believe it, but I found the cafe, it was a beautiful day, and Ayelet got the full Amsterdam Nord experience - farms, windmills, water, big open spaces. When we got back to the city, we went to the Ij Brewery (aka: "the windmill bar") and had a glass of beer on the patio. We intended to go out that night but found ourselves quite content with wine, food, and good conversation.

Day Eight, Saturday: started the day by wandering around the Jordaan market, where I convinced myself I needed just about everything that was being sold but only walked away with a bag of lentils, a big hunk of feta cheese, and some olives. I wanted her to experience a piece of apple pie at de Winkel (on the corner of the Westerstraat), but so did everyone else in Amsterdam - the line was insane! So we stopped in a nearby bakery, got some pastries, and took everything over to Vondelpark. After a breakfast of ... well, basically sugar, we stopped at a really amazing chocolate shop for dessert. We bought our chocolates over to the museumplein, sat on the grass, and people-watched before going out for an early evening drink at a pretty basic Dutch "brown bar." Basically the entire day was spent riding around the city, eating, and drinking. On Saturday night we went to a screening at the Kriterion for the Balkan Film Festival and then out to a few clubs and bars that night.

Day Nine, Sunday: We split up for most of the day - she went to return her rental bike, visit one of the English-language bookshops, and do some souvenir shopping while I went rock climbing. When we caught up later that evening, she wanted to go out to dinner, someplace that was open late, nothing fancy, preferably with good meat or fish. I asked some friends for advice and ended up at Cafe De Ponteneur - open until 1am Sunday-Thursday, and until 2am on Fridays and Saturdays. The food and atmosphere were great, and it is one of the only places in Amsterdam I've been without an English menu! I liked that - I used my limited Dutch vocabulary to get through the list of food (and asked the waitress for a few translations).

And day ten, Monday... she left! It seemed so quick - we never made it to Nemo, the Rijksmuseum, and I never gave her a proper tour of the red light district. The weather was too beautiful to be inside museums, and since both of us love food and movies - it makes perfect sense that her trip to Amsterdam was built mainly around food, cinema, and of course cycling. For someone who had not been on a bicycle in a really long time, she took to riding around on the back of mine like a pro, and instantly took to the whole cycling culture in Amsterdam. I can't emphasize this enough: she is not a bike person. I've known her almost my entire life, and she's never been interested in cycling, either as exercise or just as a form of transportation. But by the time she was leaving Amsterdam she said that returning her rental bike felt like "losing a limb" and she was already realizing how much easier life could be in Brooklyn if she had her own bicycle.

My friend said her favorite part of the trip was the bike ride around Amsterdam Nord. My favorite part of the trip was just simply having her around. I mentioned this to someone this morning, but I felt like most of her trip was just doing all the normal stuff (eating, drinking, hanging out with friends) - it's just that all the normal stuff was a million times better because she was around.

October 3, 2008

Looking forward to the airport hug

Is there anything better than the airport/train station greeting? Hellos are the best, especially when you're saying hello to a dear friend that you haven't seen in five months. Especially when that friend shows up at the airport in Amsterdam! A very close friend of mine from New York - someone I've known since childhood - will be visiting for the next 10 days. We have great experiences traveling and living together (we shared an apartment in Brooklyn for almost a year), and I can't wait to have her here. One of the things we have most in common is food.

I love food. A lot. I love eating, cooking, preparing, prepping, thinking about cooking, shopping for ingredients, everything. When Ayelet asks what I've done over the weekend, I always include what I ate and drank and how it played into whatever activity I was doing. When she tells me that she went out to dinner with some mutual friends in NYC, my first question is not "so how is everyone doing?" it's "so what did you order?" And while Holland isn't particularly known for its cuisine, there are still some gems here in Amsterdam and I intend to keep discovering more. One thing I've noticed is that the winter vegetables like pumpkin and squash are really tasty right now and suddenly I want butternut squash to be in everything I eat.

Since I have a friend visiting I'm going to use that as motivation to get my off-peak train travel card and a museum card, which will allow me access to 29 different museums in Amsterdam for about €40. The card is good for one year, and if you live in Amsterdam you can simply order one online. I'll probably just pick mine up at Uitburo (AUB), Leidseplein 26. And next weekend I'm very much looking forward to catching a few movies during the Balkan Film Festival, 9-11 October, at the Kriterion and Studio K. Speaking of film, I went to The Movies a few days ago - The Movies is actually the name of a beautiful old cinema on the Haarlemmerdijk, and it was a lovely venue. Nice, big chairs, a beautiful lobby, and a nice looking bar.

I'm really looking forward to re-discovering Amsterdam a bit this week, but mostly, I just can't wait to eat and drink with one of my best friends... and see if I can get her on a bicycle a few times.

September 30, 2008

Dealing with reality is so... hard...

Around 8.40am this morning, I stood in front of my living room window with a cup of coffee in my hand, willing it to stop raining. I wouldn't normally be up and about that early, but I have Dutch classes on Tuesday mornings at 9am. At 8.45am, I was thinking "ok, really, I should be walking out the door now if I want to make it on time." The rain came down harder. I felt very, very appreciative that my mother had sent my rain boots to me in the mail a few weeks ago. 8.50am, and I was trying to convince myself that it had really lightened up and I didn't need to bring an extra pair of pants.

Around 8.55am I was really wishing I had bought an extra pair of pants, because my legs were soaked (my jacket and boots kept the rest of me dry). I still gave myself a pat on the back for making it to my Dutch class, especially since only 3 other students braved the elements to make it. With such a small class, we got more speaking time and much more practice. But I did kick myself for not buying the rain pants I checked out over the weekend (it was so bright and sunny this weekend that I couldn't picture a day when I would want rain gear, obviously choosing to live very much in the present with that mindset).

So instead of dwell on the rainy week ahead and the current state of the US and European economy, why not just relive a few beautiful autumn days instead? (click on any of the pictures to see their full size!)

The halfpipe located in the Museum quarter. I stopped to watch the skaters (and rollerbladers and fixed gear cyclists) for a while, trying to think if I had ever seen a skating ramp built right next to some of the most famous art museums in any other city before.

I'm sure there are approximately eight zillion pictures that look exactly like this one, which I took just outside my friends house in the Jordaan. Bicycles, canals, and boats. I will never get tired of this scenery.

The sun started to set and I found myself back in the museumsplein. This is looking away from the museums, sort of toward the Concertgebouw (it's way back there on the left).

Leaving the park area behind and approaching the city streets again, trying to soak up every minute of the long sunset as I could.

So this week might not be ideal for sitting outside at cafes, but at least I'm finally getting the time to read, study Dutch, and maybe even stay home with a movie some night this week. That doesn't actually sound so bad, does it?

September 26, 2008

Five month review: Pros and Cons of expat life in Amsterdam (it's mostly pros)

Before I start, let me acknowledge - five months isn't a very long time to live somewhere!

What makes expat life so easy in Amsterdam?

Last night, my friend Brooke and I walked from my place to the Roti Room (Eerste Oosterparkstraat) for dinner. It was perfect - warm, spicy Indian food served by a really friendly staff who insisted we not rush, that we should ask for more if we were hungry, and instructed us about which sauces to use for which dishes. Another friend happened to be in the neighborhood and stopped by to join us while we finished up the meal. Amsterdam is like this for me - people call me when they're around. I pull out my phone when I'm riding past someone's house that I know, or if I'm in a friend's neighborhood. I like that so much, and that kind of simple stopping-by-to-say-hi thing almost never happened in New York or Philadelphia.

When Brooke and I got back to my place, I had a skype video call with Kevin, a very good friend who lives in Tennessee. Skype is an expat's best friend. Not only can I talk to people without spending any money, but we can see each other, and it makes the distance seem not so great. I carried my computer around my apartment and showed Kevin where I live - he could even watch me make a cup of tea while we chatted. Later on, I caught up with my friend/former roommate who has returned to Italy, also over skype. Sometimes I really miss not having her around so that we can share every single detail of our lives with each other (we're girls, it's what we do), but as I put away my laundry last night I got to hear her explaining what she ate for dinner in Rome and what her new bike looks like, and it was almost like having here there with me. Having good friends all over the world doesn't seem that scary anymore - though of course it's always better when they're actually there, in person.

And of course, there's just my daily routine. Standing out on my balcony this morning, drinking coffee, watching the cyclists and trams go by as I listened to a Guardian podcast. I left my house after 10am and started my picture-perfect commute to work, at times noticing that I had the entire street to myself - no cars, no other cyclists. A commute with no traffic, no stress, no running to catch the train - I can't emphasize enough how much I love that. My headphones were on, the sky was blue, the sun was shining, and there's that wonderful distinct feeling of crisp autumn air. The leaves are starting to change colors, and the temperature is just cool enough for a jacket and scarf, but I haven't had to put on gloves yet (I'm sure that's coming soon).

Even though hearing Kevin talk about going climbing on real mountains made me want to be in the US, and picturing Christine eating that amazing ice cream from San Crispino made me want to be in Italy, every day that I wake up in Amsterdam I am reminded that the very simple, natural, obvious things here make the lack of mountains and good ice cream seem like a small price to pay. The one thing I'm trying to convey, and I hope it's working and I'm not being too dramatic, is that there's nothing super-amazing-unbelievable-oh-my-god-perfect about Amsterdam. It's just consistently good. Hanging out with friends, finding affordable Indian food, cycling, staying in touch with friends from home, and not feeling oppressed or stressed out from the people, atmosphere, traffic, or surroundings - this is what I like about my life here, this is why it's easy.

What are the difficulties of being an expat?

I have to attend the wedding of one of my best friends on 2 May in Philadelphia, and three weeks later my brother is getting married on the 23rd of May in California. I can't miss either of these weddings, but how on earth am I going to come up with the money for two trips to the US in May? The Philadelphia wedding was already going to be a bit of a financial squeeze, but flying to California from Amsterdam in late May? That's just going to be insane. I still have to pay off my US student loan and credit card, but all my money is in Euros now (ok, that part is great) which means monthly bank transfers, which means extra charges (only €10, but still). I still haven't quite gotten used to the European standard of getting paid once a month (in the US, every two weeks is normal), so I find that the last 4-5 days of each pay cycle I'm practically wiped out. And of course even though I live in the Netherlands and would quite happily stay indefinitely, I can't vote here, so I still feel more invested in US politics than Dutch politics. I don't like that. On one hand, what happens in the US (politically) does affect the entire world and I think it's important for everyone to pay attention, the same way we should also pay attention to what happens in Russia, Europe, Africa, etc. But my life is here now, and if Dutch laws and policies change, my daily life could be more directly affected than if the US passes a new law. It is unnerving that I have no say in the country where I live. Let's face it, I will always have to keep part of my life in the US (ie: an address, bank account, voter registration, etc) and part of my life here. For the most part that's ok, but it can become annoying at times.

Anyway, the pro/con list is done for now. Another really beautiful weekend has arrived, and I can't wait for it to get started. The first US presidential debate is on tonight, but it will be shown at 2am here, so I'll most likely catch it over the weekend. My plans consist of climbing, helping friends move, doing a bit of shopping, a party on Saturday night, and a dinner on Sunday night. I'm also going to try to get to the beach to watch the sun set on Saturday evening before the party. These sunsets are just incredible, and it's a short train ride to the sea, and come December I'll be wishing I took advantage of the long days while they were still here.

September 22, 2008

A weekend in September

I just came off one of those weekends that seemed like it lasted for a week (aka: the best kind of weekend). My new roommate and I threw a successful housewarming party on Friday, and it delighted me to see my apartment full of people from all over the world (well, mostly Europe, but we had a chunk of folks from the rest of the globe as well) dancing and drinking and having fun. I ended up closing my eyes around 5.30am on Friday night which meant I had stayed up for about 21 hours or so. Saturday was easy-going and I spent most of my time hanging out with a good friend, enjoying the sun and some quality girl-talk.

On Sunday afternoon I set off on my bike just to ride around and enjoy the city by myself, which I feel like I'll never get tired of doing. I wanted to see if I could feel a difference in car-free Sunday compared to other normal days, and I have to say - it was great, but it wasn't unbelievably different. The concerts and street fairs set up all over the place were different, of course. I encountered my first event as I rode over the Amstel and saw a dance party going on under the bridge. I made it a point to ride along the canals and all through the Jordaan, figuring that's where I would really feel the car-free difference.

The Westerstraat was nice - definitely quieter than usual. But once I got to the Lindengracht, Lindenstraat, and all the little streets around that area, I really saw a difference. The thing is, when you're cycling around on a normal day - even on the streets without a dedicated bike lane - cyclists have the right of way. If a car doesn't have enough room to pass a cyclist, they just slow down and drive behind the bike. It's completely bizarre at first, but it didn't take me that long to get used to it - it just meant that the lack of cars on the street didn't really give me, as a cyclist, any more freedom than usual. What I did love seeing were the little kids playing in the street and pedestrians wandering around wherever they pleased without having to dodge traffic, and everything did seem much more peaceful. I also made it a point to ride around the center of the city in the busiest areas. I felt a difference just about everywhere other than Dam Square. I hate Dam Square, with or without traffic. For more details about car-free sunday, check out Amsterdamize, or go to this flickr page for lots of photographic evidence.

I rode around for about 3 hours on Sunday before heading to the climbing gym, where I successfully made it up some new routes and turned both of my knees totally black and blue in the process. When me and my climbing buddies left around 7.30pm, I was treated to another long, beautiful sunset as I painfully rode home. The sunsets are absolutely one of my favorite things about Amsterdam - I'm sure I've mentioned that before. I think this weekend I'm going to try and make it a point to get to the sea and watch the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean. I forget sometimes that I can do that - coming from the east coast of the USA, I'm accustomed to seeing the sun rise over the water, but not set.

And finally, after being in the Netherlands for 4 1/2 months, I'm starting Dutch lessons tomorrow! I figure I'll take advantage of the free classes offered by my company for a few months, and then start a more intense class once I've made some progress. Let's just hope it's never pouring rain on a Tuesday morning, so I can make it to every class on time without an excuse.

September 19, 2008

Update on car-free sunday in Amsterdam

Thanks to the comments in my previous entry, I found out a little more information about car-free Sunday! Figured it was worth another post to help spread the word.

From the IAmsterdam website:

The car-free zones extend over the entire area within the A10, with the exception of Zeeburg. Between 10:00 and 17:00 traffic is not allowed into the city, but is allowed to leave. The city is free for residents to organise various events and activities.

Major routes are kept open for emergency services. Public transport and taxi service remain in operation. You can park your car for free on the designated Park and Rail (P+R) parkingareas. You will receive free public transport tickets to reach the city centre.

So taxi service will be around after all! It seems as though a lot of planning went into making this day work, and again - as someone who plans to remain car-free forever - I know I'm going to enjoy it.

The weather forecast is for a beautiful, sunny weekend. The Jordaan festival starts up today (Friday, the 19th) and runs all weekend. There will be events all over the city on Sunday as people take advantage of traffic-free streets. Anyone that lives in Amsterdam or is visiting this weekend shouldn't have to make too much effort to enjoy themselves.

September 18, 2008

Amsterdam is car-free this Sunday

This Sunday, the 21st of September, is car-free Sunday in Amsterdam. According to the HR department at my company, this means it will not be possible to enter the city by car from 10.00 am until 17.00, but it is possible to exit Amsterdam (you just can't come back in until after 17). Public transportation (buses, trams, metro) will be running, but there will be no taxis available.

I'm conflicted about this.

On one hand, I love the idea of pedestrians and cyclists taking over Amsterdam even more than they already do. It sounds amazing, and I completely intend to take advantage of it and ride in the middle of the streets and envision a world where cars don't exist.

On the other hand, Amsterdam makes it easier than anywhere else I've ever been to avoid being in a car. The public transportation system is easy and affordable, bikes have their own lanes, the entire city is very walkable, and I think I know about two people that own a car. This blogger makes a lot of really good points as to why something like car-free day doesn't really have any advantages in Amsterdam. After reading that, I thought about the day I arrived in Amsterdam this past April - I showed up with a big, heavy suitcase and a big, heavy backpack. It just made sense that I took a taxi from Central Station to the apartment where I was staying. I could barley lift my bags onto the curb, nevermind trying to lift them into a tram. And I would have really inconvenienced everyone around me had I been on a tram (by taking up too much room). So what if I was moving into Amsterdam in the same kind of way this Sunday afternoon, and I was told "too bad, we're doing something good here by not allowing cars around the city today." I could have made it work, but man, it would have sucked.

So while everyone who is leaving the city (ie: headed to the airport or wherever) can still load up their cars or taxis with luggage, anyone arriving this Sunday, between 10-17 is out of luck.

If I had my way, no one would own cars, but I've got to say, I wouldn't get rid of taxis. While car-free day sounds like great fun to me, as a car-free person, it doesn't change my life whatsoever.

Thoughts? Has anyone ever experienced a car-free day in Amsterdam (or your own city) before?

September 16, 2008

More successful bike moving

I have furnished my apartment exclusively from other people giving me their stuff or selling it to me. No trips to Ikea! That's something I'm strangely proud of, and it's also the reason why the curtains in my bedroom don't really fit the window. An amazing resource for picking up free stuff is Amsterdam Freecycle.

Last night I went to pick up 2 nice black chairs from someone in de pijp who was giving them away. When I left work, I first stopped at the market to pick up some food, and filled up my bike-messenger-type bag with cans of beans, vegetables, pasta, and bread. When I got to the apartment where I was picking up the chairs, the (Dutch) guy who was giving them away said "How are you getting these to your place?"

The same way I've gotten pretty much everything to my place (including the large, heavy set of bookshelves that now sits in the living room) - my bike. So in another bike-moving victory moment, I managed to put 2 chairs (upside down) on my luggage rack and sort of just hold them in place with my left hand as I rode to my apartment while carrying a bag full of groceries on my back. The fact that a Dutch person thought I was kind of insane for tying to do all that at once made me feel a huge sense of accomplishment.

I think I'll feel even more accomplished when I finally get some proper bedroom curtains, hang some pictures on the walls, and paint some of my stark-white furniture to be any color other than white.

September 15, 2008

A bit of reminiscing

This time last year, I had recently moved into a tiny little room in another shared apartment in Brooklyn. I told my roommate upon moving in that I could only guarantee I would be there for 6 months (in the end, I was actually only there for five months), because I fully intended to move back to Europe. I hadn't really thought about the details, but I was already planning for it as though was absolutely happening. I remember eating dinner with my new roommate and my new neighbors back in mid-September 2007, telling them I had planned a one-week trip to Paris and Amsterdam, and that I had always loved Amsterdam, that I had always been so happy to visit Amsterdam when I lived in Paris.

"So why don't you just move there?" my neighbor asked. She had just returned to New York after a couple years in Thailand.

"Well, maybe I will," I said.

Back in February, I wrote in this blog:

I know I love Amsterdam and I can't wait to try and make my life there. And yes, I am very, very, very nervous and anxious about doing all of this on my own. I think I get a lot of undeserved credit for deciding to make this move, but the thing that just outright confuses me is when people say "you're so lucky!" I don't get that. Anyone - certainly any American - could do exactly what I'm doing. It's easier because I don't have kids, a house, or a family to support. But otherwise... luck? I decided to quit a really great job in New York City and leave most of my friends and family to move to a country that is already too crowded, where I hardly know anyone, I don't know the language, and the weather sucks. If I succeed in making Amsterdam my home, then maybe one can say I'm lucky ... but if I do succeed it will be because I worked my ass off on making it happen.

You know what? I am extraordinarily lucky that everything kind of happened in the best possible way - I couldn't have possibly predicted that things would work out so easily. But I want to remind readers, and friends of mine that I've met since moving here - that it did take a lot of work. It took a lot of research, a lot of planning for things that never happened, dealing with a lot of criticism, second-guessing everything, and worst of all, it was a lot - a LOT of waiting.

But it was absolutely the right thing to do. I was just talking about this last night with my new roommate. He left a job and friends he adored in Berlin to move to Amsterdam, where he only knows a couple people, to start a new job and be closer to his girlfriend (who lives in Rotterdam). And I could see some hesitation in him, probably asking himself why leave somewhere when there aren't any problems? Where everything is going just fine, where you have friends and you like the city and you love your apartment?

I can't quite explain it, but for some reason, I knew I had to leave New York. Despite the fact that I had a great job I loved. Despite the fact that I had a full social life, an amazing set of friends, family, routines, etc. I mean, really, there was no reason for me to leave. Things were completely fine just the way they were. I was doing well in pretty much every aspect of my life. On my last day in NYC I was standing around with one of my best friends in the world, looking nervously at my backpack full of everything I would be taking with me to Europe, wondering why on earth I was doing this to myself again. "what if it doesn't work? what if I don't make any friends? what if this is all a huge mistake? why the hell am I doing this?" And he just listened to me ramble on and on, then became exasperated with me and told me to just shut up and leave already (in so many words).

Last week I was on my way to the movies here in Amsterdam. The screening was due to start at 8.30pm, but I had wanted to get there early to get a good seat, and I was running late. While I was cycling, I pulled out my phone to call my friend. "hey, I'm on my way, but I probably won't be there for another 20 minutes... would you mind..." and before I could finish my sentence he said "yes, Tami, I'll save you a seat," with a slight tone of exasperation (because I kinda always ask him to do that). When I arrived, the screening was sold out, but he had gotten me a ticket and greeted me with a hug. Then we went into the theater to watch Russian sci-fi from the 1960's with English subtitles.

My point is, you know who your friends are when you don't have to worry about exasperating them. I have tons of friends in the US that I can safely exasperate and annoy, and now after 4 months in Holland, I'm annoying and exasperating a whole new set of people.

Leaving NYC to give Europe another shot was one of the best decisions I ever made, and it was worth it. All the waiting, the research, the planning, etc. It was totally worth it.

September 11, 2008

Letters Against the War, and where to read it in English

One of the best books I ever read is "A Fortune Teller Told Me" by Tiziano Terzani. It was given to me as a present several years ago, and it was the type of book that I couldn't put down. The kind of book that when you're reading it, makes you reluctant to go to the dinner party or movie that you made plans for, because you'd rather be reading your book. Naturally, when I was finished, I looked around for other books by the same author and found several that have all been translated into English (from Italian).

Terzani published a book titled Lettere contro la guerra, or "Letters Against the War," in 2002, and I assumed I would be able to find an English translation in bookstores eventually. I mean, Terzani is a pretty well-known author and journalist. A good friend of mine who is fluent in Italian kept recommending this book to me and I kept wondering, why on earth can't I find this in English? Why can't I just go to Amazon and order it?

Here's the answer from Terzani himself, which I copied directly.

Florence (Italy) early December 2002

Dear Friends,

The year that is about to end has been dramatic for all of us. Never before has each one of us been so unequivocally confronted with the question of war and peace. Back from a long trip into Pakistan and Afghanistan, I started the year publishing, first in Italian and then in various other European languages, a booklet dedicated to my 3-year old American grandson, Novalis. The book "Letters Against the War" was meant to raise questions about the way to face the situation created by the events of September 11th and to suggest that violence might no longer be the best solution for this and future conflicts of mankind.

The book was an immediate success in Italy (for 18 weeks it was among the top 10 best sellers). It was well received, reviewed, and sold in France, Germany, and Spain. Somehow, continental Europe with her, by now almost genetic, memory of war and destruction, seemed extremely responsive to the neo-pacifist appeal of the "Letters." Wherever I went to talk about my experiences as an old war correspondent, big crowds gathered to listen and to discuss.

Unfortunately this was not at all the reaction of the Anglo-Saxon world, particularly of the UK and the USA, whose governments and press have taken a very bellicose, pro-war stand. All attempts to have the "Letters" published in English failed. All the English and American publishers who has printed my previous books responded with a "No, thank you" note. I did not give up. I had the book translated myself and offered it again to all kinds of publishers in London and New York.

To no avail. Even my offer to give the book for free failed.

Finally, a publisher in New Delhi (India Research Press) dared to take up the offer and his Indian edition remains the ONLY English version of the "Letters Against the War" now available in print. Now to allow as many people as possible to have access to the book, I decided, together with Massimo De Martino who in his spare time, generously run the T.T. fan Club founded three years ago, to post the whole book on the internet. You can download it for free and I would be most grateful if you circulate text among you friends and "adversaries."

It is time to think, to discuss, to argue and finally to raise our consciousness and to save ourselves. Nobody else can do it for us.

Thank you very much,

Tiziano Terzani

You can download the entire book for free here. If for any reason that link gives you difficulty, just let me know and I can email it to you.

When I think about how many lives were lost on September 11th, I don't just count the people that died that day. I'm counting the thousands of people all over the world who have died as the result of the US waging a war that still continues to this day. Unbelievable to think that seven years later, Iraqi and American and other foreign troops are still dying, and you'll still hear September 11th used as an excuse to justify it all.

The only way to make it work is to ask for help

Last weekend I helped some friends move in true Amsterdam style - from a houseboat to a 3-story apartment in the Jordaan, complete with a long, narrow, spiral staircase (and earlier last week, I moved a heavy bookshelf into my place with the help of a friend and two bikes!). Only one way to get something like 30 boxes of books (in addition to furniture and everything else) into an apartment like that - through the windows! My friends used the same mover I used a couple times - the White Van Man (highly, highly recommend giving him a call if you need anything moved).

Since they were moving a significant amount of things, they paid for a permit that allowed the van to block the street for a few hours. Parking in Amsterdam is a real issue - the streets are so incredibly narrow and there are thick, metal poles that line many of the (narrow) pedestrian sidewalks so vehicles can't pull over on the canal rings. The only way for delivery vans to unload in many places is to simply stop in the middle of the street and block traffic until they're done, which everyone is used to. Today as I cycled to work I weaved around at least 12 cars waiting for a delivery van to finishing unloading along the Keizersgracht - I can't imagine how annoying it would be to own a car in this city (and I never plan to find out).

Anyway, my friends are smart and responsible people, so they made sure to cover themselves by getting permission to block the street (I think that costs around €45). There was a human chain of people on the narrow staircase, passing up light items from the moving van to the 2nd floor (which is the 3rd floor if you're American). The movers hooked up the ropes and pulleys to the hook that hangs from the top of the building (those hooks are on just about every house in Amsterdam) and started hoisting up everything from tables to furniture, which went through the windows. I stood guard outside to make sure nothing went crashing through the glass storefront on the ground floor (nothing did). We drew quite a crowd as the move carried on - groups of tourists would stop to take pictures, neighbors welcomed my friends to the neighborhood, cyclists would pull over to smile or laugh at the scene. When all the hard stuff was over, we gathered on the roof terrace and celebrated with pizza and beer.

When I think about how much help I had when I first arrived in Amsterdam in terms of moving, apartment hunting, etc., it makes me feel like I owe the world a huge debt of gratitude. Everything I have here - a job, a great place to live, my bike, etc., is because I've had help along the way. A huge chunk of that help came from people I had only just met but were perfectly willing to carry my furniture, loan me bikes, give me a place to stay, or most importantly, introduce me to their friends. There's no real way to repay the amount of kindness that I've been shown, but I 100% guarantee that even if I barely know you, I will help you move. I still need to ask my friends for help all the time - for directions, advice, translations, tips, etc.

I usually get a few emails every week from people who find this blog and want advice, and I'm always happy to try and help. You can contact me at, or just leave a comment here.