May 27, 2008

Four weeks, three bikes

Does it make me more of a local now that I've had a bike stolen? That's the only positive spin I can put on the situation. Well, that and the fact that I'm riding my third bike in four weeks and I have yet to pay for any of them, because I know some really generous people.

See, my roommate owns two bikes - the Good Bike (which is now also known as the "stolen bike") and the crooked bike (pictured, and which I've been riding the past month when she's in town). While I wasn't looking forward to her leaving Amsterdam, I was looking forward to taking ownership of the good bike and just hanging on to the crooked bike as a spare. But this past Friday afternoon, she discovered the good bike had gone missing - from right outside our apartment! That made us two people with one crooked bike between us (and the crooked bike was suffering from a busted tire, so that had to be fixed), and obviously that's not going to work. I mentioned my bike problems on facebook, and what do you know, within 24 hours I had another bike courtesy of a new friend that I've known for about 2 weeks. "Are you sure you want to give me this bike," I asked, "given that the other one was stolen from exactly where I'm about to lock up this one?"

"Of course," he replies, "It's no problem." So now I'm riding this cool Peugeot bike around Amsterdam, feeling like I should be in Philadelphia or something, leaning way down over the handlebars and lifting it on to the racks without any problem because the bike weighs nothing. It's not the most practical Amsterdam bike, but man, it's fun (and quick) to ride. However, it's not mine, so I'm going to suck it up and buy myself a new bike this week.

The way I understand it, there's a few different ways to obtain a bike in Amsterdam. You can be lucky, like I've been, and have friends who will give your their spare bikes. Or you can go to the junkies and get one for 20€ or so, in which case you're probably buying the exact bike that was just stolen from outside my house. In this city people steal bikes very openly, very often, and without hesitation. Then they sell them. Honestly, I can see the temptation behind buying one of those stolen bikes because when you go to a shop you're looking at spending at the very least 100€ (more like 150) for a pretty basic, somewhat junky, bike. If you want a "nice" bike you're going to spend at least 300 Euros. And why spend that kind of money when the thing is just going to be stolen and you have to buy two locks anyway? That tacks another 30-50 € on the price.

But I just simply can't buy a stolen bike. I've had bikes stolen in the past, I've had parts of my bike stolen in the past (the most memorable time was when someone stole my bike seat in Philly and replaced it... with another seat that didn't fit), my friends have had bikes stolen, and it happens all over the place, not just Amsterdam. The feeling of finding your bike stripped of its seat, handlebars, pedals, etc - or just seeing it not parked where you left it - it's just terrible. I mean, I already loved my roommate's good bike, and I had only ridden it a couple times. She was totally connected to it and loved it. People love their bikes, it's just the way it is, and if I bought a stolen bike I couldn't live with myself knowing that someone who might have loved that bike went out one morning to discover it had gone missing.

So after I looked through the neighborhood for the stolen bike and came up empty, my roommate and I comforted ourselves by getting some beer on a lovely, sunny, Friday afternoon and heading over to Vondelpark on foot, where we relaxed in the sun for an hour or so before heading to a fancy chocolate shop for more stolen-bike comfort. At 4.30am late Friday/early Saturday I was riding my third borrowed bike home from Jordaan, watching the sun rise and purposefully making my ride take as long as possible by riding around the Oud West until I got myself lost. It's harder and harder to get lost now, though it does happen.

My roommate leaves for Rome tomorrow, and then I'll be on my own for the next month or so. In July, one of my very close friends from New York will be coming to stay in Amsterdam with me for a month, which I'm really looking forward to, and hopefully another visitor or two will be popping up from Paris sometime in June. I suppose if getting a bike stolen (a bike I didn't pay for, mind you) is the only thing I really have to complain about, things aren't so bad, are they?

May 22, 2008

One month down, and I've finally gone to the post office

The first time I was in Amsterdam was back in the Spring of 2005. I hardly knew anything about the city before I arrived, and I remember being surprised by two things - 1) that it was so beautiful and 2) that it seemed really diverse. I still think these two things almost every day. This past Monday night, I rode my bike home from the Lloyd Hotel after a great evening of free music - European musicians performed with artists from all over Africa and Europe as part of the Virus Free Generation Tour. The (South African) host of the night spoke English to the room, the artists performed in English, Slovak, Zulu, Swahili, Sardinian, Italian, and probably a few other languages that I'm forgetting. I sat with a group of new friends - Dutch, Croatian, Austrian, etc - and as I looked around the room I realized that out of the 100 or so people, we could have probably come up with at least thirty languages, easily. Every Monday night, the Lloyd Hotel hosts these free events, completely open to the public. You're not even obligated to buy a drink, though there is a nice bar. This Monday there's even a Tango Orchestra performance!

So the diversity, the combination of people who end up in Amsterdam from all over the world - this really appeals to me. In some ways, it reminds me a bit of New York City, just in the way that everyone seems to be from somewhere else, but every so often I'll run into a born-and-raised Amsterdammer. This makes for good stories, but at the same time everyone has heard all the stories... so one more foreigner showing up here from somewhere else really isn't that big of a deal.

And then there's the beauty, and this is me still being in the honeymoon phase. I still simply just love riding my bike across the city late at night, when it's quiet. On Monday night, my roommate and I rode home together, side by side, and only occasionally saw a car on the road. We crossed canals and rode past the windmill and the beautiful homes along Koninginneweg, not too far from where I live. It was such a great night, and to end it with the ability to cycle so easily, riding next to a friend the whole way ... it's just very special. Spring is in full bloom, and everything is so green and alive. I know I sound like a big hippie here, but whatever.

I've been trying to make myself take care of some of the more practical matters, like getting a printer cartridge refilled, going to the post office, and picking up a few things for my apartment. On the advice of practically everyone I've met I finally went over to the Albert Cuyp market and was successful getting just about everything I wanted. This is where you want to go to get everything from new bedding to envelopes, bike locks, food, clothes, etc - and at very, very affordable prices. However, if you plan to buy a mattress topper, I would advise you to maybe put some thought into how you're going to transport it home if you go via bike. As I rode home I just had to hope that I wasn't going to need to use my brakes or bell, since my hands were completely full holding the mattress in front of my handlebars in a very specific way (I got home without incident, fortunately).

It's really exciting to be in this phase, where there's still so much to see and discover. However, in the next week my first priority will be to spend as much time as possible with my current roommate, before she takes off for Rome. After spending over 8 years in Amsterdam she's leaving for a more southern climate. It will be great to gain a friend in Rome, but I'll miss having her around. Because of her generosity, I had a place to stay when I arrived here... but I also gained so much more than a bedroom, I gained a friend that I'm sure I will have for the rest of my life. And I can't thank her enough (though I'm going to try!) for making me feel so welcome here.

May 17, 2008

The important stuff: patatje, picnics, frisbee, and waterproof jackets

You might think that now that I've had a few weeks in Amsterdam, I'd have all kinds of things to say. But really, when people ask me what I've been up to since I've been here, it can easily be summed up: picnics, biking, frisbee, beach, drinks, hanging out. Trust me, I could fill up a blog very easily with all my thoughts about cycling here in Amsterdam, but I resist the urge. But it struck me the other day - I spend no money on transportation. It's just another one of those ways that makes Amsterdam fairly affordable.

I think that I've had more weather-related conversations in the past few weeks than I have had in my entire life. The weather in Amsterdam - up until today - has been nothing short of perfect. And wow, do the folks who live here like to emphasize how rare that is. I pointed out the other day that there are other places in the world where the weather isn't that great either, and that actually, if I think about it, the weather in New York kind of sucks. Hot and humid in the summer (and over-air conditioned), bitterly cold in the winter, etc. But there's no arguing this topic with a Netherlands local. The beautiful weather that stretched on for a couple weeks (and is due to return in a couple days) was surely a once-a-year opportunity, and therefore every moment must be spent appreciating it.

Which is fine with me! That's where all the picnics, bike rides, and beach trips come in. That's why my motivation to do any actual work was non-existent. This isn't me being lazy, of course, it's me adapting to this new culture. See how I just justified it? Part of my cultural experience included a trip to Wijk aan Zee, a beach located about 20 km or so from Amsterdam. I took part in the eating of patatje oorlog - french fries with peanut sauce mixed with mayonnaise and chopped onions. The name literally means "war fries," and even though everything about the combination seemed just simply wrong - I sure as hell kept eating them.

I've been meeting a lot of great people through my wonderful roommate, and I went to a couple Couch Surfing meetups, where I met even more great people. I'm not finding it terribly difficult to meet Dutch people who are friendly and welcoming, I haven't had any problems with ... anything, really. The honeymoon stage is still going strong, I suppose. When I woke up today, it was raining lightly and chilly, and for some reason this motivated me to finally get some practical stuff done. I rode my bike over to HEMA, the big everything-you-need department store, and stopped at the Bio Market for coffee, cheese, and bread. I was happy to notice that my jacket and bag really did pass the waterproof test, and I know I'm still in the honeymoon stage with Amsterdam when riding my bike in the rain makes me happy.

A lot of people have been asking about my job prospects, and all I can really say is everything still seems to be going well. I had a few meetings with the same company here in Amsterdam, and obviously I'm hoping that the outcome is that I'm offered the job. Until I know about that, everything is up in the air. I know exactly what I want to do if I get the job, and I have a pretty good idea for how I want to proceed if I don't get it... but it's not really worth going into details until I have an answer. Fortunately, in between picnics and trips to the beach and drinks with friends, I did manage to find the time to do a little freelance work, which is a big help. And honestly, I am really, really enjoying this time to just relax, sleep late, meet new people, and not think too much. I needed a break, and now that I have it, I'm making it a point to have a good time and enjoy living in the present, instead of always making a plan for the future. Of course, that being said, I do kind of hate that I have so many little projects half-finished or just-started. I wonder if the locals would kill me if I wished for more rain this week, so I can actually get some stuff done.

May 6, 2008

Exploring different neighborhoods in Amsterdam

I love feeling a strong sense of attachment to my neighborhood - I don't need to be best friends with my neighbors, but I certainly like saying hi and bye. I like knowing the folks who work in the shops and cafes closest to whatever apartment I'm in, I like knowing all the shortcuts, I like knowing who has the cheapest beer and who has the freshest bread. So I already feel deeply attached to my new neighborhood, became friends with some old guy named Ben who works on my street, and the guy at the tabak is starting to get to know who I am. I know I won't be able to stay at my apartment indefinitely, but I'm already starting to hope that wherever I end up next will be somewhere close by.

That being said, it was great exploring the Oost with my friend Brooke, who has been living there for over a year. We walked through the Dappermarkt and then crossed over to what I think is the Zeeburg to check out all the crazy architecture and bridges. We enjoyed a couple of beers at Studio K, which was just across the street from her house. The thing I loved about Brooke's neighborhood was the diversity and the realness of it. Amsterdam is a small city and I'm sure tourists find their way to a lot of places, but on that day I think I was the only one taking pictures and not knowing my way around. That's a good feeling - maybe I'll end up living in that area someday.

One thing that I love about Amsterdam - and I know this might sound strange given that sex & drugs is what this city is known for - is that it's pretty quiet and peaceful in many ways. There's not a lot of horn-honking or car alarms or police chases, especially in my neighborhood. But talk about quiet and peaceful ... yesterday I finally explored the north of Amsterdam, or Amsterdam Nord - and it was like I had transported myself to the countryside. After taking a five-minute ferry ride, my friend C. and I rode our bikes no more than 5 or 6 km before I felt like I was in the middle of nowhere. I saw cows, sheep, goats, windmills, and lots of open space. I rode my bike on lanes that were built in between two bodies of water, and I even rode in places where the water level was above the bike path - I'm finally starting to understand what this whole "below sea level" thing really means. The landscape of Amsterdam is so wonderfully foreign to me. I grew up around mountains, and I didn't see a working windmill until I was about 22 years old. C. and I spent about eight hours riding around and stopped here and there for a drink, a bite to eat, or to take pictures.

I felt very fortunate to have such a beautiful day to explore the north, and such great company. Even if I didn't have my roommate with me, it would have been a really easy trip to do by myself - and I did see a few tourists on rental bikes while I was out there. Even though city life suits me, I'm always looking for a way out. I hate that feeling of "trapped" that comes from spending too much time in the same city - or any city. I need to get away from buildings and concrete and people as much as possible. And Amsterdam makes this incredibly easy.

I took that above photo at a cafe where C. and I stopped for food. We ordered inside, then sat at the tables that were placed along the docks - literally eating on top of the water. I wouldn't want to go swimming in the water or anything, but just being around it - and hearing it all day long - feels incredible.

Even just getting to and from the north of Amsterdam was fun - we took a five-minute free ferry ride. I've been on ferries before, either on foot or with a car - but I've never seen one full of people on bicycles.

It's been so much fun to run all over Amsterdam this past week and learn my way around. I still have a long way to go before I'll really feel at home here, but fortunately we have another beautiful week ahead of us. This week I'm making it a goal to A) do some work and B) make some more friends. The friend part isn't so hard, but man, sitting down inside to actually work has been a bit of a challenge. One of these days I'll find that magic job where I get paid to learn my way around different places in the world and write about it, right?

May 2, 2008

My first Queens Day ... in Spain

After spending about 4 1/2 days in Amsterdam, I made my way to Barcelona this past Monday night (28 April). Though I booked this trip about three months ago, I didn't do a speck of research or planning for it. It's a nice story - C., my roommate in Amsterdam, was meeting me in Spain on her way back from Rome. Both of us have been so busy that up until about a week ago, we didn't even discuss where we would sleep at night. Hotel plans were made in about 2 minutes, I wrote down directions on how to find to get to the hotel from the airport, and that's about where my planning stopped. I met some really nice people on the train from the airport to the city, and they wrote down places I should go, food I should eat, and showed me what metro line to take (talk about good timing). So I ended up meeting C. at our hotel around 11pm on Monday night, and we proceeded to spend the next three days eating and drinking our way through every tapas bar in Barcelona. We rented bikes, we laid on the beach, we ate lots of fish, we struck up conversations with bartenders, and so on. Other than walking through a beautiful old church, my trip to Barcelona was all about hanging out with my friend, relaxing, and enjoying the weather - the touristy stuff will have to wait for next time. The people were beautiful and friendly, the bars were open late, the food was incredible, and compared to Amsterdam or Paris, Barcelona is a really affordable city.

C. is a very special friend, someone who came into my life at a great time and makes me feel incredibly welcomed here in Amsterdam. When we arrived home, I was delighted with how much daylight we still had left (our flight landed around 7pm, and it was light out until at least 9:30pm or so), and excited to be back and have someone else at the apartment. Even after spending three days in a row together, C. and I stayed up until past 1am, laughing and eating and making curtains for the windows out of sheets. It's really nice to live with a girl again - especially one who likes to cook and wears the same sizes as me. She's also encouraging me to start jogging with her in Vondelpark. The idea of starting up that habit (again - I have started and stopped that particular form of exercise a million times) seems like a great idea, especially since I live so close to the park and I have a lot of free time right now. The only problem is that I pretty much hate running just for the sake of running. If I was running around playing Frisbee on the beach, that would be great. But generally, running just to run bores me to death - but who knows, maybe this is the year that I'll learn how to love it.

I'm looking forward to another beautiful and sunny weekend here in Amsterdam, with plenty of biking and hopefully some meeting of new friends. Next week, I really do have to start working, and perhaps wake up before 11am. No promises though.