January 31, 2008

Timely inspiration

It's official: I am no longer a New York State resident. I gave away all of my furniture and books, got rid of five pairs of shoes (!), and forced all of my possessions into one large suitcase and one backpack. Even though I spent my last day in New York slightly hungover and very stressed about getting everything done (I packed at the last minute, as usual), I was in good spirits. I had a very easy flight to Portland, Oregon on 29 January, and I will remain here until 3 February. It's a great city - despite the chilly temperatures and constant rain, there are still tons of people out there riding their bicycles, which I think speaks very highly of the people who live here.

After my last day of work in NYC (which was 25 January), I spent a quiet Friday night at a friend's place. I took the opportunity to catch up on the podcasts posted on Citizen Reporter, a blog run by a good friend of mine who lives in Amsterdam. One of his recent podcasts was an interview with two video bloggers, and it couldn't have come along at a better time. Now, leaving my job is something that I've been planning to do for a long time and on my last day, I felt mostly excited. But I was also conflicted up until the last minute - I genuinely liked my job, I enjoyed the company of my co-workers, and I really, really like working in post-production. However, I have bigger goals. Even though this makes me sound like some kind of idealist hippie, I really want to help change the world. I want to eventually make a feature-length documentary, but even before that, I want to start producing shorter video projects that help other people tell their stories. I want to get more people to start caring about the world about them.

I heard a lot of my own thoughts said in a much smarter, more experienced, more articulate voice when I listened to the interview with Ryan (of Ryan Is Hungry) and Jay (of Moment Showing). These two people, in one thirty-minute interview, squashed every speck of doubt I had about quitting my job to run off and try and change the world. They are ex-television producers/editors and now they teach video blogging techniques all over the world ... I'll be honest, I kind of want to be these people when I grow up. Except I already am grown up, and I don't have to wait, and I don't need any more affirmation that what I want to do is a valid choice. I made the decision to leave, I have my plane tickets for Europe (depart NYC on 20 April, arrive in Paris on 21 April), and I am determined to do my best to help make a real difference. It just so happens that what I'm passionate about takes me outside my home country, so I need to figure out a way to make a real life for myself in Europe. I really hope that Amsterdam is a place I can live and make my home, but if it doesn't work out - well, Europe is a pretty large continent, and I should learn more languages anyway.

If you're looking for a little inspiration, listen to the interview. I feel very fortunate to have such smart and inspiring friends.

January 22, 2008

The Amsterdam housing market (for renters)

A friend of mine recently passed along last week's very educational issue of Amsterdam Weekly to me. I think anyone who is thinking about moving to Amsterdam should immediately read Volume 5, Issue 2, 10-16 January 2008 - just brace yourself first. This blog post references some of the "highlights," and this link will bring you to the page where you can download the PDF. If they stop archiving back issues, contact me and I will email it to you. The topic: Mapping the Rental Housing Market. On page three, the reader is greeted by the friendly words, "If you are a visitor and in the midst of being charmed by this easy going ol' town and are beginning like many before you to entertain the idea of moving here, don’t fucking bother. We don't want you here. Just sod off."

The author's point is that there is no housing available in all of Amsterdam.

Of course, he or she is writing for the Amsterdam Weekly, which leads me to believe that he or she is living in Amsterdam, which means it can be done. That's how my brain works... nothing is impossible! But this article certainly helps put things in perspective - it's not going to be easy. At all.

On page six, the introduction starts with "Finding a place to live in Amsterdam can be mind-boggling and expensive, whether you’re a native Amsterdammer, a newcomer or a student. To have success, you need networking skills, plenty of insider info, and the patience of a saint... or a boat-load of money."

I found what I hope are well-researched facts about the housing market, because I love facts. Once I have facts, I can deal with the situation. Here are a few of my favorite:

There are 376,233 houses in Amsterdam for about 743,000 residents, according to the city’s housing department.

In 2006, almost 82,000 people applied once or more for the 11,000 apartments housing corporations put on the market.

Amsterdam's housing shortage is worse than any other city in the Netherlands, and demand for units is only increasing.

I realize that none of this sounds incredibly optimistic, but it doesn't make me want to give up. First of all, I have never considered looking for my own apartment in Amsterdam – I want to rent out a room and live with roommates. I am positive that will also be a very challenging task and will require tons of patience and a lot of luck, but it's not like I'm attempting to get into my own apartment that people have been on a 7-year-long waiting list to get.

Secondly, I was able to learn a little about why rent is so low in Amsterdam. Again, when I say the "the rent is so low," understand that I’m comparing cost and sizes of Amsterdam apartments to New York City and Paris apartments, since those are the last two cities that I called home. If you were to compare Amsterdam to Berlin or Austin, Texas, it might not seem as affordable. However, in NYC it is perfectly common for people to spend more than half their monthly income just on rent alone. In Paris, 9 square meters is a very standard studio apartment size. Now, the current housing law in Amsterdam "creates a disincentive for owners who want to rent to someone else, for example, if they go out of town for a few years. While property costs go up an average of five to ten percent every year, owners can only (legally) charge rent based on a point system that is tied to the inflation rate, which increases about one to two percents annually." That's the reason there are so many illegal rentals in Amsterdam – why would you rent out your apartment under cost? The article continues, "The city's policy... is designed to create neighborhoods with a mixture of rich and poor residents. If we would let the market dictate the prices, they would be sky-high. We don't want ghettos and we don’t want a city centre only for the rich."

That concept is the polar opposite of everything super-capitalist "let's just push the poor out to the ocean as the rich get richer" New York City is about. 57% of Amsterdam’s housing stock is classified as cheap (rents of up to 520 Euros a month), but only "35% of Amsterdam residents are categorized as low income - that is, earning a household income of no more than €1,633, after taxes." So while it's a lovely idea to think that the city wants to keep the neighborhoods mixed with rich and poor, it does seem that the system needs a bit of a tweak. As a tourist in Amsterdam, it was pretty obvious to me when I was in a richer neighborhood – though I have to admit, I don't recall ever feeling like I stumbled into a low-income area. The entire city seemed pretty nice, so if I was in a low-income area, I never really knew. If you were to walk down my street in Brooklyn, there's no mistaking the fact that it's low-income. Besides the huge housing projects, there's just a general feeling - the empty lots covered in barb wire and broken down trucks, the trash everywhere, the run-down buildings... New York City does not, in any way, shape, or form, try to mix up the neighborhoods, and I don’t think it ever has.

Now let me compare Amsterdam to Paris: Almost everyone I knew who rented in Paris (which includes two-income families), lived in 40 square meters or less. One of the families I babysat for was a single mom and two kids, and they had about 30 sq meters. The other family was mom, dad, and a 2-year old, and they had about 40 sq meters. I knew professionals – teachers with advanced degrees and good jobs – that lived in about 25 square meters. The cost of a 25 sq meter studio apartment in the 10th district of Paris (not the "hippest" area of the city at all) was about 750 Euros a month, and that was a couple years ago. The people I knew with the cheapest rents lived in 9 square meters and paid between 450-550 Euros, depending on the neighborhood. I have yet to find an ad for a 9-sq-meter apartment in Amsterdam.

Back to New York: when people move to New York City and look for apartments (and I have heard of people who have come here, tried, failed, and left for Jersey), that is that. You do nothing else. When I moved here, friends that that were so happy to finally have me in the same city would finally get me out to a bar and say "so, what’s up? how are you doing?" and I would reply "do you really think the Myrtle stop on the J train counts as Williamsburg?" or "I saw a place advertised as a 3-bedroom that really had 1 bedroom, no closets, and cost $2600 a month plus a $3500 broker fee, is that normal?" The second time I looked for a place to live, I tried to just refuse to talk about it. Friends would say "what's up?" and my answer would be "I'm looking for a room. I have nothing else to say." And honestly, I really did have nothing else to talk about. It was all-consuming.

My point is: every city presents its own challenges. Whether it's tiny sizes, lack of availability, absurdly high rents, bribing brokers or landlords, if there are people living there than there's a way. Here's my very simple apartment-hunting tip that applies to every city in the world: do the research and arm yourself with as much information as humanly possible. If Amsterdam really does defeat me, I'll be the first to admit I was wrong... but since I really hate doing that, I'll just have to not be defeated.

I have been wanting to start a collection of helpful Amsterdam links for a while now, so by all means, let me know if I left anything out.

Altijd Wonen
Amsterdam Craigslist
Students for Students

Housing organizations that can fill you in on housing rules and regulations:
Dienst Wonen
Huurders Vereniging
Studentwoningenweb (for student housing)

January 18, 2008

Video project updates and helpful SOFI/BSN information

It's a two-part blog post today! First: Dutch immigration law update.

I get a lot of information about living in the Netherlands from other bloggers, and one of my favorite blogs to read is Winderige Dagen - a 26-year-old American woman publishes this blog and writes candidly about her move to the Netherlands and offers great advice and tips. I strongly recommend that anyone who is considering a similar move to check out her blog. In a recent entry, she speaks about obtaining her SOFI number (the Dutch Social Security Number). Except it's not called a SOFI number anymore, since November 2007 it is referred to as BSN - burgerservicenummer.

Her experience with the Dutch bureaucracy has been confusing to say the least, but in the end she was completely successful and offers a lot of incredibly helpful information on what you need to do to obtain the BSN.

Changes to Dutch immigration law for 2008 can be found on Expatica.com.

The second topic in this post is a small announcement: I finished a short video project that I started in late November (2007). I have a list a mile long of everything I wish I did differently, of course, but it's a great feeling to say it's done (for now).

Working on my own video project for the first time in years was, overall, a great experience. I had very limited experience with the HDV camera I was using, and I had to more or less teach myself Final Cut Pro as I went along. Several years ago I might have been more confident with a camera and an editing system, but I had no idea how to build websites or upload video to the web. In order to learn, I ask a lot of advice from friends, but mostly I just start trying until something works.

The video project is up on my website, and I'll probably put it up on YouTube sometime tomorrow. It's about raising a child with Down Syndrome, and I interviewed my friend Adine (I've known her for over 20 years) at her house in upstate New York. I didn't really plan anything and only had an hour of tape, so I just asked questions and tried to piece together a story that I thought might help someone else learn. As I interviewed her, I was learning how to ask the right questions and how to guide the conversation - which is part of the reason why I think the second half of the 10-minute video is much stronger than the first half. I was incredibly lucky to have a subject who was so willing to be involved.

I watched my video on a television for the first time last night and started to cringe at all the things that I know I could do better (if I only had one more day to edit!). I even thought about not showing anyone except Adine. However, Adine saw the video, loved it, and forwarded it around to her family. I got an email today from Adine's mother-in-law that said "Thanks for taking on this project. I hope it helps change perceptions about the condition." Honestly, just knowing that Adine and her family like it is good enough for me. It was a great learning experience and it's something that I'm not going to stop doing. I can't wait to keep learning more.

If you get a chance to see it, I totally welcome any comments, suggestions, or criticisms of the video. The only way to improve for the future is to figure out what I did wrong in the past. Comments are welcome here, or feel free to send me an email - tami.mahoney@gmail.com.

January 14, 2008

The final two weeks in New York City

With just a little over two weeks left in New York, I'm finding that every minute of my time is booked up, though I'm certainly not complaining. All of my free time is generally being spent with friends, running around, and having fun. I finally made it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan and was delighted that they accepted my expired, phony ISIC student ID - but I must remember to try and get a new one before I leave the states again.

My father came down over the weekend to take a carload of photo albums, comic books, and a few other items that I don't want to permanently get rid of but I won't move overseas with me. My grandmother's beautiful silver coffee set, the coffee mug my old roommate made for me - all those items are packed up yet again in a box and will live in my father's attic for an undetermined amount of time. It is a little sad to see my apartment start to be emptied out of my things.

I received a wonderful gift in the mail from my friend Christine, the girl that I'll be staying with when I arrive in the Netherlands in April. She sent me Geert Mak's "Amsterdam: A Brief Life of the City," which I've been devouring anytime I get a spare minute. There is nothing that will make me fall more in love with a city than learning its history, and this is a totally new subject for me to learn and obsess over. I fell for the author's writing style when, in the first chapter, he explains the early history of Amsterdam by saying "...the young city drew strength from the fact that it was situated close to so many important cities, at least by the standards of the day. Added to this were factors that so often lead to great success: 1) chance; 2) an invention that was to have momentous consequences; and 3) above all, the stupidity and short-sightedness of others."

In the next two weeks, my main focus has to be wrapping up my life here in New York. My co-workers and supervisors are being incredibly kind and supportive of my decision to leave, and while right now I'm still excited, I have a feeling that my last day at this job is going to be pretty hard. In addition to getting everything in order at work, I need to change my address in a million different places, try and see a doctor, donate all my furniture, and of course buy my tickets to Europe (which I'll do tomorrow after I get paid).

By the way, if anyone is looking for the best deal between New York City and Paris, Air India always has the best prices. There's a daily flight between the two cities, and I'm going to pay a total of $560 USD for roundtrip tickets. They also make it very easy to exchange tickets for a different date and only charge a $75 fee, which isn't actually that much compared to other airlines. Plus, the airline attendants don't think it's weird when you request a vegetarian meal. Being able to change the date for my return trip is important, since I really have no idea when I'll be able to go back to the states. I've randomly picked December 22 2008 as a return date, figuring it would be nice to be home for the holidays - then again, it might be nice to spend the holidays somewhere totally different. It is always cheaper to buy roundtrip tickets and change the return flight rather than buy one-way tickets between the states and Europe.

Though I have been having a great time in New York City lately, this weekend my neighbors were robbed (at knife point) and I had to step over two dead rats on the sidewalk outside my house. It comes with the territory of course, but it is nice to remember all the things I won't miss.

January 3, 2008

Getting ready to leave New York - first Portland, then LA, and finally Amsterdam

I purchased one-way flight tickets from New York City to Portland, Oregon and from Oregon to Los Angeles. I leave New York on the 29th of January, and I'm spending five days in Portland before heading to LA to begin my (temporary) new life as someone who works at an accounting office as of February 4.

While in Portland I'll be meeting with the woman I talked to about a potential job in Amsterdam at an editorial company. Getting in with this company would give me the best chance at a legit way of living and working in the Netherlands and would do wonders for my career, so obviously that is my first choice. The company has their main office in Oregon, a very small operation in NYC, and a growing operation in Amsterdam. I already met someone from the NY office and really fell in love with the entire company and filled my head with all types of wishful thinking.

I also started writing out my application for the Binger Filmlab. From what I can learn about this school, it sounds like a dream. If being accepted meant that I got to apply for a student residence permit, the timing would be perfect. It would also be absolutely amazing to spend five months working intensely on my film in a creative and supportive environment.

In the time between Christmas and the New Year, I really went back and forth a million times about taking this next step. Quitting my job here in New York, moving to the west coast for a few months, planning out my living situation in Amsterdam... it definitely all started to seem a little overwhelming. But what I keep coming back to is this very simple fact: if it doesn't work out, I'll do something else, and that will be okay. If the weather or the flat landscape of the Netherlands depresses me too much, or if I really can't find a way to get the proper permits, or if I run out of money, then I will just simply do something else. I mean, it's possible that I might try to make the film and discover I don't really have the dedication that I think I have, though of course I really hope that's not true.

Here's the thing I've learned after having moved around a bit from city to city, and it's a very simple lesson: I need to allow myself a decent amount of time to figure things out. When I lived in Paris, I honestly never really felt like it was my home until I had been there for about a year. It took about that long to figure out my routine, to find my regular spots, and to stop having to ask questions about the culture/language/policies before doing everything. After about a year, I had been to French doctors, done little things like give directions to other Parisians who would end up lost in my neighborhood, and I found a job. When I moved to New York City - a place I've been visiting my entire life - it took about six months before I felt similarly comfortable. I had to learn a lot of things about this culture that I didn't know that I needed to know, if that makes sense. I had to act like a ten-hour work day was something I was totally familiar with, when in fact I had just moved from a country where I worked about six hours a day max. I had to figure out how to survive without any health insurance, it took months to find an apartment, and everything in NYC is done through favors and friends and knowing the right people. The rules are always bent and things are always just a little (or a lot) illegal, from apartment terms to work conditions.

Living in Paris was originally a six-month experiment that ended up stretching on for almost two years. There was so much I figured out as I went along, and it's been the same for NYC. I thought I would move to NYC and stay for a few years, but after about six months here, everything in my personal life changed and it prompted me to come up with another plan. I love this city and I love the people here, but this isn't the life that I want right now. If you had asked me about a year ago, I would have given a totally different answer.

So what I'm going to do is keep trying to learn as much as I can about living in Amsterdam. I'll keep listening to podcasts on Radio Netherlands and trying to teach myself as much as I can from books, message boards, blogs, and expat communities online. I will save as much money as humanly possible in the next several months and keep working on research for my documentary. However, I know that no amount of research is really going to teach me all the things I'm bound to pick up along the way. No matter what happens, I'll keep this blog updated and hope that someone out there is reading, and maybe even learning through the mistakes that I'm bound to make!