April 27, 2008

I need to talk about bike riding, just to get it out of my system

I still don't really know that many people in Amsterdam, so when I find myself with free time and no desire to unpack, buy practical supplies for my apartment, or clean ... I bike. The weather has been absolutely perfect lately. I'm talking warm, sunny, blue skies, and cafes full of people eating outside. On Saturday, I spent several hours enjoying free wireless internet at Debaille, a cafe in Leidseplein. I left around 6pm and didn't stop biking until about midnight. It doesn't really even start to get dark until 9pm or so, which makes the days feel incredibly long - and when the weather is as perfect as it was on Saturday, all those daylight hours feel really great.

I'm getting better at finding my way around, and it's a good thing I'm spending so much time by myself. I find that as soon as I'm with someone else, I naturally let them take over and guide me around. On Saturday night I rode home with a friend and rather than pay attention to street names and how many canals we were crossing, I just concentrated on the conversation - which of course is not a bad thing, but still, I could have benefited from learning a direct route from de Pijp to the Oud West.

While I was in the center of Amsterdam today, I had my first pedestrian run-in. He stepped in front of my bike (while I was in the bike lane) and I didn't have the time to ring my bell, so technically, I hit him. Or collided into him, if you will. I imagine he was probably a little bit hurt, and I fell down and was also a little hurt, but I felt the need to scold the pedestrian. "Look before you walk next time!" I said, which is probably about ten times more polite than I would have been in New York (when a simple "fuck you, asshole" would have done). Everyone around me was instantly concerned about the welfare of my bike and cast disparaging looks at the sad pedestrian, who dared step foot in the bike path. It's moments like this when I feel like I feel like all is right with the world - cyclists always win here.

I say I'm averaging about 6 hours a day on my bike. At the end of the night, I'm exhausted (which is one reason why I haven't done nearly enough cleaning/unpacking/apartment-sorting out). Now, I've been riding for what feels like my entire life, and I've ridden in all different types of places - from the middle of nowhere to the heart of Chinatown in Manhattan. But these Amsterdam bikes are unlike anything I've ever ridden before. No gears and no hand brakes - to stop I push back on the pedals and also get a lot of use out of stopping myself with my feet. My hands feel like they have nothing to do! My left hand stays firmly near the bell while I'm riding through the center of the city, but once I'm outside the super-busy area... it's so strange, but I do like it. The bikes here are simple machines. Comfortable, not built for speed or going up hills, but perfectly built for this city.

I'm leaving for Barcelona tomorrow night, just for a quick 3-day vacation to avoid the madness of Queens Day here in Amsterdam. Having never been here for Queens Day, I don't really have any opinion of it one way or the other, but my roommate isn't a fan and convinced me a few months ago to go out of town for the holiday. I've never been to Barcelona, but I have a guidebook to read from 1995, some high school Spanish skills, and a wonderful friend who will meet me at our hotel on Monday night. So I pretty much think I'm all set.

April 26, 2008

Day four in Amsterdam: Full force in the honeymoon stage

Finally, after all the planning and waiting, I'm in Amsterdam. And right now, I am definitely in the honeymoon stage with this city, the type of stage that pretty much anyone else (unless you're in the same kind of situation) would find either annoying or silly or boring. But you can only have this feeling once, when you finally do move to that new city or town that you wanted to get to so badly - so I'm going to enjoy it as long as it lasts.

If you're looking at a map of Amsterdam and find Vondelpark, my new home is near the "bottom" of the park, just across the canal (Sloterkade). My unpacking process is isn't moving that quickly, which is mostly due to the fact that I'm spending all day out and about and trying to get my life established - a slow process. I had a meeting this past Thursday about a potential job, and after studying a map before I left, was able to bike myself to the office without getting lost at all. When that was over, I wandered around the middle of the city looking for a place to buy a prepaid mobile phone. After about 30 minutes or so without any luck, I stopped in the closest hostel I could find to ask for advice. The girl at the front desk, who was smoking a joint (the center of Amsterdam smells like a combination of bakeries and marijuana at every turn), pointed me in the right direction and said "it's a little bit of a dodgy place, but it's cheap," she said. Perfect! I got a mobile for 35 Euros and added in the three people that I know here in Amsterdam (hey, have to start somewhere, right?) and felt like, damn, that was a successful day. In New York, a job meeting and a new phone would be no big deal - probably something I could do on a lunch break. But something about being in a new country and here on my own makes any small accomplishment into a big victory. Again, honeymoon stage.

So far, the way I've spent most of my time here is riding my bike (well, my roommate's bike). Since I have the time, I decided that I wouldn't use a map to get around while I'm out, which means it takes me a long time to get anywhere I need to go. Riding from my place to the library yesterday was fairly easy - only a few wrong turns (the main branch of the Amsterdam library is very close to Centraal Station, which makes it easy to find). Getting TO the center of Amsterdam doesn't really cause me any problems, it's when I try to get home that I end up riding around in circles. Still, on Friday night I rode home (after enjoying a lovely dinner with new friends) as the sun started to set and didn't arrive home until well after dark - which meant I got to see the canals all lit up. Not a bad reward for being lost. On Friday evening I spent enough time lost in the Oud West neighborhood that I'm hoping the area is a bit more ingrained in my head.

After not riding a bike for about three months, the feeling of relying on it as my sole method of transportation feels fantastic, and a million times more natural than it did to drive a car while I was in Los Angeles. I adore my new neighborhood and apartment - the balcony in the back looks on to all the backyards, which are full of flowers and trees, and I'm so glad I got here just as spring is beginning, to watch everything come to life.

April 21, 2008

From New York to Paris

I’m writing this somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, on my way to Paris. Finally getting ready to live up to the name of this blog and start expat life all over again.

I left Los Angeles on the 16th of April and landed in New York around 10 at night. Starting that very first night, I didn’t go to sleep before 4am the entire time I was there. Just too many people to see, too much fun to be had, and since I don’t have a job... there was plenty of time to enjoy it all. I stopped by my old job (I worked in television post-production for a little over a year) to see the folks that I used to spend 50+ hours a week with, and armed with advice, I headed to B&H to spent close to $1000 on an HDV camcorder and accessories. All that money I made at the accounting office sure is getting spent quickly.

So I mostly just ran a lot of errands, did some last-minute shopping, and enjoyed the hell out of the first real spring week in New York. Of course, four days is not nearly long enough, and I found myself wishing I had an extra week. I am incredibly blessed with the best friends in the world – the type that wouldn’t let me pay for anything ("it’s your last day here, it’s on me!"), that will stay out until 4am to catch up over drinks (even with work the next day), and will always have a place for me to stay and encouraging words. I also have an amazing family that is behind me 100% and will all go way out of their way to help me out. So right now, it’s really hard to leave all that behind. I still have friends that have known me since I was a little kid, and hanging out with them – and not having to explain anything, because they know me so well – well, I just really hate thinking of being away from that.

But. I also really love thinking about seeing my friends in Paris and Amsterdam. We may not have the same history, but the friendships I do have with people in Europe are pretty amazing. When I told my friend Lada that I would take a taxi to her apartment in Paris from the airport at such-and-such time, her immediate response was "are you insane? Do you think I won’t be there at the airport to meet you?" My other friends in cities all over Europe have been just as encouraging, supportive, and wonderful as the friends I have in the states.

When I arrive in Amsterdam on Wednesday night, my friend (and future roommate) won’t be around – we actually won’t see each other until we meet up in Barcelona on the 28th! So I will really be on my own, and I have to admit, I think that’s kind of exciting. I’ll have to go out and figure out where to buy groceries without someone pointing me in the right direction, and even though that doesn’t sound like a big deal, it’s those types of little things that will be small victories in those first few weeks. Now, if I can get my suitcase up the stairs of her apartment by myself, that will be a way more impressive victory...

But before all that, I have two and a half days to just relax and enjoy Paris. I don’t imagine I will have too much difficultly with that.

April 15, 2008

The journey begins - goodbye west coast!

My last day of work in Los Angeles is tomorrow (technically, today), the 15th of April, and I keep getting a lot of "wow, you sure are leaving quickly, huh?" type of comments because my flight to New York is the 16th. But Los Angeles was only a temporary move, so it doesn't seem like a quick departure to me. What else am I going to do here? Go look at movie star homes? I saved some money, enjoyed the weather and the food, and now it's time to go. But before I leave, I have to pack.

I'd like to think that I'm a good packer, but I wonder if I'm lying to myself. When one makes a "normal" move, ie: moving to a different town, you pack up all your crap in boxes and go. Of course I'm sure you throw a lot of stuff away and donate and whatnot, but for the most part, you don't get rid of everything. That's the big difference when you move across an ocean, especially if you have absolutely no idea how long you'll be away or where you might end up. So yes, I have a few boxes in my father's attic with photo albums and comic books. I will leave another box or two at my mom's house in LA with clothes and shoes - but my reasoning for leaving behind my beautiful shiny black shoes? They're heavy. I love them, but they're heavy, so they stay in the US. The goal is to get all of my worldly belongings in two suitcases, each under 50 lbs., and heavy shoes do not make the cut. I won't be moving books, movies, or photo albums. For the most part, all I'm bringing with me to Amsterdam is clothes, about 1/4th of my shoe collection (which is really hard), and a couple thousand of dollars (or about 50 Euros, ha ha... oh, that joke is starting to hurt) worth of electronics. It would be nice to think that if I do manage to settle down in Amsterdam, I could have a few boxes sent to me and reclaim some of these items. The hardest things for me to leave behind (other than the shoes) are the pictures that I keep in frames and my wonderful winter coat, which is long and warm and wonderful and completely impractical for Amsterdam in every way. I spent over four hours this past Sunday listening to the Clash very loudly and going through every item I currently own, trying to figure out if it stays or goes... and I'm not done. And have I ever mentioned that when I came to California, I only had two suitcases? I know most of the time I spent packing was really going through paperwork - years of bank statements, old passport copies, plane tickets - but still. I have no idea how that took four hours.

I know those first few weeks that I spend in Amsterdam are going to be really weird - going from a super-structured life in the US to a totally unstructured life in Europe is obviously going to take some getting used to. I have a meeting with some folks in Amsterdam on my first full day there (the 24th), and I admit, having something to do - a place to go and a time to be there - it helps, mentally.

So the first leg of the journey starts with a 6-hour plane ride east. Back to Eastern Standard Time, back to Brooklyn, back home to New York. I'll spend four days running all over the place, picking up a few last-minute items, trying not to be late to some last-minute appointments, and of course, saying goodbye to friends and family. My time is booked up nicely with dinners and drinks and hopefully, lots and lots of sleep.

April 9, 2008

Two week countdown

I'm very tired, and sometimes I wonder if it's just pure exhaustion that makes me feel like eh, whatever, moving out of the country in less than two weeks, no big deal. Will I be able to get some sleep once I'm in Amsterdam? Yes? That's all I really care about right now. Maybe next week I'll start getting nervous, but everything is about as planned out as it can be. The only things left to do are buy an HDV camcorder (exciting!) next week in New York City, pack, and say goodbye.

My friend C., who offered to host me when I arrive in Amsterdam, has decided to leave Amsterdam for Rome - I'll miss having her around, but I can't fault a girl for deciding to quit her job and change countries, right? Instead of losing a friend in Amsterdam, I just see it as gaining a friend in Rome, which works for me. But with her leaving Amsterdam (I think at the end of May) and my moving date rapidly approaching, I did start to more seriously think about where exactly I was going to live. A while back, she bought up me taking over her apartment as a hypothetical idea, and I hypothetically agreed that it was worth thinking about. Then sometime last week I thought, shit, I want that apartment. It is not a place I can stay for the long-term (it's one of the many "illegal" sublet apartments, which means that registration isn't possible, which means I can't apply for a residence permit), but for three months it can be home while I figure out what happens next. C. said that would work out great and we'll talk about the details when I arrive (in two weeks!).

So that's the Amsterdam news. In just a little over a week I'll go from being employed at a well-paying job and driving a nice car to enter the world of freelancing and total instability. I am ecstatic about giving up the car, and as far as giving up the idea of guaranteed, full-time employment - well, it's nothing I haven't done before. And honestly, there's always New York City. I have a lot of problems with that place (mostly involving how much it costs to live there), but the longer I stay away from it the more I miss it and feel like that is where home is. I feel the same way about Paris and Philadelphia sometimes too. But NYC - that's where the jobs are, that's where family and friends are, and it will always be there for me if I need to go back.

I mentioned in my last post that because of my quiet office job, I have a lot of time to listen to news, podcasts, and music, right? I think I'm going a little overboard. I'm finding myself having imaginary arguments with people all the time, constantly yelling at the radio, and unable to have a conversation without bringing up some crisis happening somewhere in the world. Someone suggested that I try and find some comedy podcasts to listen to, so I started searching, but Flight of the Conchords led me to HBO which led me to documentaries which led to an interview with Spike Lee about his documentary When the Levees Broke, and that's what I listened to as I finished up my work day. Directly after that I listened to this special on NPR about the Iraq War Senate hearings with Crocker and Petraeus, which led to more and louder yelling at the radio, especially since I was in the car and therefore didn't have to keep my voice down. Someone at the hearing bought up the "what if there's another humanitarian crisis somewhere in the world, like in North Korea or Afghanistan, how will the US Army be able to help?" and I'm thinking gee, WHEN DID THAT EVER HAPPEN BEFORE? Wasn't there some kind of incident involving a hurricane in 2005? Right here in the US? Isn't there a genocide going on in Darfur like, right now?

So that's what I'm up to. Yelling at people who can't yell back, while I wait impatiently for the 20th of April.

April 1, 2008

Sink or swim

Since I've been in Los Angeles (which is about two months now), I have had a lot of time to listen to music and podcasts - I try to see that as a benefit of my desk job and spending so much time driving a car. I love anything that has a documentary-style feel to it, and often when I'm filing or photocopying for hours, I use the time to listen to the BBC World Service radio documentaries. Much to my delight, the third documentary I listened to this past Friday (I'm not kidding when I say I have a lot of time to do this kind of thing) was titled "Escaping the Water Wolf: With climate change bringing new threats of rising sea levels and increased rainfall, will luck and ingenuity continue to save the Netherlands from submersion?" You can listen to the program here.

The Netherlands - in case you couldn't guess by the name - is home to the lowest elevation in Europe (Fun Netherlands Factbook link here). People are living 7 meters below sea level in Zuidplaspolder, which is near Rotterdam, and the documentary talked about how climate change is going to affect the Netherlands in the future. Interesting stuff to learn about my future home.

Today I confirmed all my plans in terms of arriving in Europe on the 21st of April. I have a place to stay in Paris and friends to see for the two days that I'll be there. It's so easy to arrive in Paris - I know exactly where I'll pick up my bags, where I'll grab a taxi, and exactly how to tell the taxi driver where I want to go. I realized as I was thinking everything through that I don't know about any of that stuff in terms of arriving in Amsterdam. I know I'll arrive at the train station around 19.30 on the 23rd of April and take a taxi to my friend's apartment - an apartment I've only been to once, in a neighborhood that I've only seen at night. I don't even know the name of the neighborhood where she lives! I wonder if it will seem real - arriving in Amsterdam without a return ticket, knowing that I'm planning to stay.

I got a confirmation email from the Binger Filmlab saying that my application had been received, and I should find out if I made the short list of applicants sometime after April 10. I still put my chances of getting in to that school at 100 to 1, but we'll see. I had some email exchanges in the past few days in regards to the job in Amsterdam, and hopefully a phone call to be scheduled this week. Nothing ever moves fast enough for my taste, but at this point all I can do is wait. At least it's finally April! And remember, if you live in Amsterdam - tonight the Kaizers Orchestra is playing at the Paradiso. I love this band so much it makes me want to learn Norwegian, just so I can sing along with all the songs. I wonder if I can find the same type of thing in a Dutch band?