July 28, 2008

A lot of luck

A few things were ticked off my list - my address has been changed with all the places it needs to be changed, I've come to terms with the fact that Dutch classes will have to wait until September, I got a new phone, and I bought my tickets to Rome for late August. All that stuff is great, but I've got to say, the best feeling of accomplishment in the past few days was getting some furniture for my apartment. The couch was free (thanks, freecycle!) and the other items were incredibly inexpensive.

I know it doesn't seem that interesting, the story of this furniture, but bear with me. I found an ad on Expatica - a guy was trying to get rid of all his furniture, which was great timing for me. We talked on Thursday afternoon, and after I excitedly selected what I wanted, I realized he didn't live in Amsterdam - he lives in a town about 40 minutes away. I said, you know, forget it. I am already totally over coordinating moves and furniture going up and down narrow staircases and through windows and scheduling time with movers and friends to help out, and the idea of going outside the city limits of Amsterdam made everything seem more complicated. The prices for the furniture I wanted (a big wardrobe and wine rack) were great, but I just figured I would keep looking elsewhere.

But this guy, this really nice American guy (who was raised in upstate New York and is returning to the Philadelphia area!), says "no problem, I have a car, I'll bring the stuff to you." He showed up on Sunday afternoon, carried everything up my stairs (the wardrobe is from Ikea and he had taken it apart to get it down his stairs), put it all together with the tools he bought, wouldn't accept any extra money for gas or time or help, and just insisted that I return the favor to someone, someday. It was such a great feeling to finally hang up my clothes (I also got a free bag of coat hangers courtesy of freecycle!) and get my suitcase off the floor - that guy totally made my entire weekend.

Other highlights of the weekend included a midnight showing of Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Kriterion, dinner at Bolhoed (an organic vegetarian restaurant in the Jordaan), riding my bike through the city during a thunderstorm, hanging out on the terrace of the Soundgarden, and a big picnic on Sunday night in Vondelpark. A proper summer weekend, definitely.

July 23, 2008

Address change, and all the fun that goes with it

Since all the "big" administrative type of paperwork is taken care of in terms of me living in Amsterdam, I thought it was time to tackle all that little stuff - for example, officially changing my address from my friend's apartment to my new place. Everyone said "it's so easy, you can fill out the form online!"

So I did a google search and I find this page which points me in the direction of this form, which is only in Dutch. Not wanting to lose my momentum for Getting Shit Done, I ran down to my company's HR office and asked them for help with the translation.

Over an hour later, I was finally done. It was just stupid stuff that held up the process - I needed the full names of the residents of my old place (think about it, can you really say you know the last name of all your friends, and if so, can you really spell those names correctly?), a scan of my passport (but they wouldn't accept PDFs), my phone number... except wait, I just lost my phone... that added a few extra steps. But in the end it was all done, and if you have all your shit together, it really shouldn't take that long. My (Dutch) colleague told me she didn't have to take as many steps as I was taking to change her address, so I'm guessing this is a different process for foreigners. Either that, or because I didn't have my phone on me (so they can verify things via SMS), it just meant I had to provide more information.

Once this was all done I started trying to find Dutch classes to sign up for in August, but I haven't gotten terribly far with that. The University of Amsterdam classes are expensive, and the Volksuniversiteit doesn't offer anything until September (though they are a lot more affordable than UvA). I think I might start looking for private lessons. If anyone reading has a recommendation, I'm all ears.

Next up: replace my mobile phone, figure out why Telfort can't hook up my internet service at home, change my address with my bank, properly furnish my apartment, and buy tickets to Rome for late August (to visit my old roommate). Speaking of apartment furnishings, I've actually had some pretty good luck with Amsterdam's Craigslist and Freecycle. These sites don't seem to get very heavy traffic (especially compared to the New York City version), but within a few minutes of posting an ad on freecycle and responding to an ad on craigslist, I scored a free DVD player and have a few promising leads on couches and shelves. I'm also keeping my eyes peeled on the sidewalks, which is where I got two of my dining room chairs. There's also Marktplaats, which is mostly in Dutch (Freecycle is entirely in English, and craigslist is mostly in English). I wish I could just snap my fingers and have all this stuff magically take care of itself - but I just keep reminding myself: all the hard stuff is done.

July 21, 2008

Residence permit - done! Next up: rain pants.... almost as important.

I received a letter from the IND Front Office last week, conveniently on a night when I had a few Dutch friends over for dinner. I turned to Micha and asked "hey, would you mind translating this for me... Oh wait, nevermind, they also sent the same letter in English" (can this get any easier?). It had these beautiful words:

Hierbij berichten wij u dat uw verblijfsdocument is binnengekomen.
Your residence permit is ready. We would like you to collect the permit.

I had to pick up my permit in person, so I went to the office today (at Orlyplein 141-147) with my letter and passport. About 90 seconds after I walked in the building, I walked out with my residence card, valid until the 9th of June 2009 (it matches my work contract dates). It's so official! The card is the same size as a US Drivers License and is pretty much the last step I need to take in making my life here "real." Now all I have to do is change my address to my new apartment so my mail will go to the right place. The one other administrative step I might take is obtaining a Dutch drivers license. I would honestly be perfectly happy to never drive a car again, and I have zero plans to ever own a car as long as I'm in Amsterdam. But some American friends told me that if I go within the first 6 months of my residency here, I can simply trade my US license for a Dutch license, without having to take any tests. I suppose it couldn't hurt – if I ever wanted to rent a vehicle for some reason, it would be nice to have that convenience.

Today was incredibly rainy and pretty chilly in Amsterdam, but I've mastered a system for making it through my commute to work. I bring an extra pair of jeans with to work in my (water-resistant messenger style) bag, and I keep an extra pair of shoes at my office. Hair goes back in a ponytail, and my bangs get pinned back. Headphones go on (I wear over-the-head headphones to listen to my ipod in the morning, as earbuds don't really work for me), which also helps hold my bangs back, and the headphones somehow help keep my hood firmly in place. After five minutes of entering my office, I had changed into dry pants and shoes, my hair was brushed and in place, and since my (waterproof) jacket kept the top half of me dry, no one could have guessed that I rode through the pouring rain this morning. I have to admit though, this 2-pairs-of-pants thing is a little annoying, so on my list of things to do is acquire a pair of rain pants.

While I'm on the topic of cycling, let me take the opportunity to recommend a fantastic blog: Amsterdamize, which I believe was inspired by Copenhagenize. If you're a bit obsessed with bicycle culture or have a thing for pictures of bikes, it's quite possible you could spend an entire day (or more) going through those two blogs and following the links to other blogs and watching the videos and so on. I love Amsterdamize because it's published by a native Amsterdammer, and he writes about bike culture here with just as much love as I have for it - but provides the type of insight and background that I wouldn't be able to do (well, not yet, but give me ten years).

I missed my bike while I was visiting friends in Berlin this past weekend. Berlin is really bike-friendly and I would have loved to explore the city on 2 wheels, especially since I was hanging out with a good friend from Amsterdam while I was there. Having 3 people and two bikes never would have stopped us from taking bikes anywhere in Amsterdam (she's ridden me on the back of her bike before a few times), but the Berlin bikes aren't really built to carry extra people. We attempted to ride together anyway, with me on the seat and her standing up on the pedals - it worked for a little while but eventually we gave up. Anyway, despite not having a bike, I had a fantastic time in Berlin. It was my second visit there, so I mostly just hung out with friends and stuck to their neighborhoods. The most notable thing that happened was running into a guy from New Paltz at a friend's house party on Friday night. I grew up in New Paltz, New York, and it is not a big town. And even stranger than running into him at a party (which was being hosted by someone I've known for about a month), I ran into him again (!) the next day at the Berlin wall. Nice guy, and hey - if he happens to read this - sorry I didn't call on Saturday night, my phone ran out of credit.

Which reminds me, on my list of things to do: get a real phone contract.

July 15, 2008

Close to home

Yesterday was a long day at work, and during one of the many moments in the day where I was waiting for something to happen, I got into a conversation with a colleague about Milan, Italy, and how different it is to live and work there than it is to live and work in Amsterdam. I asked him to explain what it was about Milan that is so incredibly different, and as he talked it sounded like he was describing New York City. It's one thing to spend a day at work being crazy and busy and dramatic and high-strung, but it can be horrible to leave the office and be greeted with crazy, busy, dramatic, high-strung people all around you. "It was just too much," he said, "Too expensive, too crowded, just every aspect of life was totally rushed and stressful, never relaxed, ever." I remember that feeling, of leaving work at the end of really busy day - say at 9 or 10 at night, and still having to deal with crowds of people pushing me through the subway, the sounds of car alarms and horns honking and smells and sirens. Sometimes that atmosphere can be fun, intoxicating, the kind of thing that made me feel alive every minute of the day.

But sometimes it was just too much. And I think one thing that everyone who lives in Amsterdam can agree on is that this city - as far as cities go - is the opposite of high-stress and dramatic. I love that. It's totally different than where I came from, and that's what appeals to me.

However, I also love the fact that I stopped for a sesame bagel with chive cream cheese on my way to work. Sometimes a little taste of home is nice.

So I ended up missing the film I wanted to see last night, but I still went to De Nieuwe Anita to meet up with my friends for a few beers. It was a nice evening, made even nicer by the fact that the smoking ban is in full affect and I went home without my clothes and hair smelling like smoke! The Dutch establishments I've been to since the first of July seem ready for the ban (they did have 2 years warning, after all). Smokers are being told that even when they're outside, they can't just drop their cigarettes on the ground, they have to use ashtrays. Coffeeshops have their own bizarre set of rules where it's still legal to smoke pure marijuana, but if you mix it with tobacco, that's not allowed, unless there's a special smoking room. If there IS one of these special smoking rooms, the employees aren't allowed to go in and clean up after people (because the ban exists to protect the workers from second hand smoke). Again, it's weird, but people will get used to it. I'm just trying to piece information together based on what I've read and heard - but overall, the folks who live here seem pretty okay with the ban. It certainly has made my life easier.

July 14, 2008

I'll be back in the summertime, with a handful of flowers and a bottle of cheap wine...

I've been happily settling into my new apartment for the past few weeks - "nesting" as one of my friends calls it. It's far and away the nicest place I've ever lived on my own, and big enough to host dinner parties, lunches, and late-night post-bar gatherings. Looking around my living room and seeing a group of friends eating and drinking is one of the best feelings in the world - even if we all still have to sit on the floor because I only have 4 chairs. The weekend that just passed felt like it lasted forever, which is the best thing a weekend can do. I was at the Soundgarden on Friday night, ate some of the most delicious pannekoeken on Saturday, drank a few beers at the Kriterion, took a long bike ride with a good friend, and generally didn't do anything hard or stressful or complicated.

Of course, all that being said, it's not like I was really excited for Monday morning to arrive, especially because Monday morning arrived for me around 7am (about 1.5 hours before I normally wake up) due to some construction project going on pretty damn close to my bedroom window. Why anyone feels the need to do the loudest part of the construction job at 7am is beyond me, and since I'm not much of a morning person, losing out on over an hour of sleep did not feel like the best way to start my day. When I finally dragged myself out of bed and went about getting ready for work, I was feeling pretty out of it - but my mood started to lift when I looked out the front windows on my apartment and saw the sun streaming inside and bright blue skies. After a cup of coffee and strawberries on the balcony, I put on my headphones and headed out the door. Riding to work while listening to music on my ipod is just simply the most ideal way to start my day and always puts me in a good mood. It also helps that I love my job. By the time I got to the office today I felt (relatively) awake and happy.

You know the metro newspaper, the same one that exists in a million different cities around the world? You usually find them in metro or bus stations in the morning. Here in Amsterdam, there's a woman that stands near the bike lane, handing them out to passing cyclists. I love that.

I'm headed over to De Nieuwe Anita tonight for a screening of Wrong Eyed Jesus (Andrew Douglas, 82 minutes, shown in English). Every monday is Cinemanita - for just €2,50 it's a great place to catch a film on Monday (though this will be the last Monday screening of the summer). I've got some good friends from Paris coming to visit this week, and then I'm headed to Berlin on Friday - I can't wait. It will be my second visit to Berlin and another opportunity to use my extensive German vocabulary (ein bier, bitte!) and hang out with a bunch of people I haven't seen in a long time. I never want this summer to end.

July 7, 2008

A weekend in Heidelberg, Germany

I spent the weekend in Heidelberg, a town in southern Germany about 45 minutes from Frankfurt by train. This town wasn't destroyed during World War 2, so it has all that charm of an old European city and was full of beautiful old buildings, statues, churches, etc. I spent the weekend catching up with my friend Annette, a German girl I met about 3 years ago in Paris through Hospitality Club. Me visiting her in Germany is something we've been talking about ever since we met, but in between her moving to Japan and me moving to New York City, it was a hard thing to schedule - until now! It is always such a treat to explore a new place with someone who lives there. On Saturday morning, Annette greeted me with fresh croissants and pain au chocolate from the french bakery. During the afternoon, we stumbled upon an African market, so I enjoyed Ethiopian coffee and food for lunch. Feeling like I might want to actually get into the German spirit, I made it a point to order a locally brewed beer after dinner, which of course came in a nice, big, mug. The beer served in Amsterdam is always in tiny little glasses, so being able to sit and enjoy my beer for more than 5 minutes felt like a treat.

I was delighted that it was very warm, bright, and sunny for the entire weekend. After spending the day walking around and exploring, I took a very unplanned nap while laying on the grass, next to the river. That felt incredible. To feel the sun on my skin, to know that I didn't have anywhere to be or anything to do - it was just total relaxation. And after the past week or so of moving and busy days at work and not much sleep, falling asleep in the sun was just about the best thing I could have asked for. Later on Saturday night, sometime around midnight, Annette and I walked all the way up to the top of the castle ruins and had the most breathtaking views of the city. It was totally ideal.

German and Dutch are pretty similar languages, and while I can't speak Dutch (yet), I have gotten used to hearing it, trying to read it, and being around it, so this motivated me to try my best to use German whenever I could (I have zero background in German, other than learning how to sing "Ach du lieber Augustine" when I was in 8th grade). This was mostly limited to "ein espresso macchiato, bitte, danke," and trying to read signs and street names as I walked around with Annette. I asked her to correct my pronunciation and translate things for me all weekend, and she never seemed to tire of doing that, which was great. On the train ride from Heidelberg to Amsterdam, I pulled out my "Dutch for Beginners" book and actually read it, instead of just skim through it. Here in Amsterdam, I should at (the very least) try and get started by ordering in Dutch when I'm at cafes and bars, even if people will most likely respond in English. I started this morning at the cafe near my office, and the woman (who sees me all the time and always speaks English to me) happily responded in Dutch. I can't wait for Dutch classes to get started in September.

Taking weekend trips to another country is one of my favorite things about living in Europe. When I booked this trip, I unfortunately had to do it by plane (due to time constraints of getting out of Amsterdam on Friday evening), even though I much prefer trains for a number of reasons. However, when I was at the Frankfurt airport on Sunday night, trying to find where I should check in for my return flight, an Air France woman told me it had been canceled. I either shocked or offended or insulted her (or all three) by saying "oh fuck" in response, as the expression on her face was nothing short of disgust. I was more just saying it to myself, because obviously no one ever wants to hear their flight is canceled, especially on a Sunday evening when I had already made plans in Amsterdam. I nervously waited in line at the KLM counter, and was offered the following solutions - a later flight with a different airline, or a direct train to Amsterdam that would get me home by 9.30pm. Obviously, I jumped at the chance to take the train, and made it back to Amsterdam with plenty of daylight still left. My bike was fortunately right where I had left it (just down the street from Centraal Station, near a church), and a friend was waiting to greet me with home cooked dinner.

Next trip: Berlin, in two weeks. It will be my second visit to that city, this time to stay with friends, and I can't wait. This summer is shaping up to be one of the best of my life.

July 2, 2008

Amsterdam style moving

I'm just coming off what felt like the busiest week of my life. Besides work and the fact that I have zero willpower in turning down invitations to do fun things (when I should really be say, sleeping) I moved! This is my second night in my beautiful new apartment, and I love it. I've moved about one zillion times (give or take), from different countries to different cities to different everything, in every possible type of weather and environment, using planes, cars, bicycles, taxis, metros, etc. So even though the weather was great during my moving process and I mostly kept a positive attitude, moving is just never really that fun... especially early on a Sunday morning.

In theory, I could have rented some sort of vehicle and driven it myself and tried to round up some friends, but the idea of driving a vehicle through Amsterdam - not just any vehicle, but some sort of large van - sounds like the worst idea on earth. So I hired movers, which is the type of thing that always seemed like such a luxury, but was actually the best decision I ever made. Lee, the White Van Man (+31 20 4122312), was amazing. We started at my former apartment and stopped at 3 other places throughout the city (I was picking up furniture from a bunch of different people who offered it to me) before heading to my new place. Our first stop was to pick up a bed, shelves, and nightstands from a nice couple with a large apartment. Now. I can not emphasize enough that staircases in Amsterdam are narrow. I mean, narrow doesn't even begin to describe it. They're narrow and steep. I have literally, and I'm not kidding, used my hands to help me when walking up stairs here in Amsterdam. So how on earth do people move furniture? Through windows.

Again, I've moved a lot. And there has come a point in my moves when I've said "ok, this is just simply not going to fit up the stairs/through the door/etc so it goes on the sidewalk." That attitude doesn't fly here; instead it's "ok, it won't go down the stairs, so go grab the rope and put it through the window." And of course this is all being done on a Sunday morning, when everyone who helping was terribly hung over. The bed was the hardest part of the move - everything else went rather quickly, and I'm really lucky to have moved into a place on the 1st floor with wide staircases (in the US, that would be considered the 2nd floor with normal-size staircases). The entire process took about 2 1/2 hours, and I felt incredibly lucky to have amazing friends and random strangers help me out throughout the day. The movers charged me about 160 Euros (including tax), which seemed like a really good price compared to what people pay in New York City. After I was finished, a friend of mine (who had just carried most of my furniture up and down the stairs) offered me a ride, and I happily jumped on the back of his bike and got dropped off in the center. I spent the rest of the day trying to visualize how to set up the furniture and daydreaming about all the dinner parties I want to host.

So how did I get this place? The same way anyone gets any apartment in a city where everyone tells you it's impossible - through contacts. That simple. A friend of mine knew someone who was renting a place, sent me the details, I got in touch with them, and that's that. I knew that I couldn't pass up the deal, because this is a legit apartment where I can register and have a legal contract and pay a fair price, so I took it. I didn't shop around at all, but I've become familiar enough with the Amsterdam rental housing market to know that I would be insane to pass this up. So there you go - the magic solution is that there is no magic solution. It works the same way here as it does everywhere else - get to know people, make contacts, put the word out, and hope you get lucky.

I've been in Amsterdam just over 2 months now, and I love this city more and more every day. I keep thinking, okay, eventually it won't seem that great. But then I'll ride my bike home from my friends houseboat at 11pm, while it's still pretty light outside... and I still marvel at the fact that everyone (pretty much) yields to me, the cyclist. The parks don't close their gates, the dogs run next to the bikes, the buildings lean drastically to one side - and I love all of this. A really good friend from New York is now staying with me for the entire month of July, and I can't wait to show the city off to her, and hope she loves it as much as I do.