August 31, 2008

Amsterdam events, American politics, and so on

The best way to do this post is a two-parter.

Part One: A proper summer weekend

This weekend was insanely beautiful in Amsterdam, and everyone rushed out to enjoy. It feels like the city has come back to life, and all the students have returned (which explains why it's now almost impossible to find a good bike parking spot near my apartment, since I live right next to the University of Amsterdam). The Uitmarkt festival, which ran this past weekend, opened up the start of the Dutch cultural season. Cinemanita starts again this Monday at De Nieuwe Anita with a screening of Faust (!! Jan Svankmajer). After a quiet August, I'm really excited to have too much to do again, too many things to choose from, and acknowledge that my biggest problem is figuring out how I can fit all this fun stuff in my schedule.

In my case, the best part of Amsterdam this weekend was hanging out with my good friend C. I fully intended to give her my guest bike while she's in town, but unfortunately, the back tire needs to be completely replaced and the bike is parked somewhere completely far from where I live or work. Luckily, our friend Mark was quick to offer his guest bike, and said it would be fine for C. to go pick it up around midnight on Friday. "I'll give you a ride!" I offered, and as we were getting ready to go I felt obliged to admit to her that I had never actually rode anyone on the back of my bike before. I have been a passenger many times, but never a driver, so to speak. C. allowed me to use her as my guinea pig, and I happily rode her from my place (which is in the Center-East of Amsterdam) to Mark's house in the Oud Zuid - a fairly significant ride! The first few minutes were a little wobbly, but we made it through crowded intersections at Leidseplein and Vondelpark without incident and both of us arrived at Mark's house safe and sound.

It was a good thing we picked up the bike on Friday night, because on Saturday the two of us spent a huge chunk of the day cycling. We used C's very helpful Voordeelurenabonnement to purchase train tickets to Santpoort Zuid at a 40% discount (tip: you can always take your bike on a train in the Netherlands, but you have to pay for a bike ticket at well). From there, we rode a few kilometers to Brederode Castle -originally built in 1282 - and admired the ruins. After a drink in the lovely little terrace, we rode through the woods for a while, going up and down what I would be tempted to call actual hills. Okay, for the Netherlands, they WERE hills. In a flat country, you take what you can get. We ended up at a lovely beach, spread out our towels, and enjoyed the sun. There were tons of dogs running around chasing balls, topless women, little naked kids building sand castles, plenty of folks enjoying a beer or sharing a bottle of wine - and I thought to myself that all these little things belong at a beach. But the beaches that I've been to in Long Island, Los Angeles, or New Jersey don't allow dogs, would charge you to just walk on the sand, many discourage alcohol, forbid dogs, and certainly don't allow topless sunbathing.

I love living in Europe.

Part Two: American issues

I'm mailing out my absentee voter registration tomorrow. It's crazy to think that in 65 days, the US will have a new President, and I have no idea what's going to happen. Everything about American politics is a mystery to me - McCain picking Sarah Palin as his running mate? Where on earth did that come from? I'm trying not to get my hopes up on two fronts. #1, I don't want to assume Obama can win. I mean, we're talking about a country full of people who elected Bush into office in 2004 (the popular vote did NOT give Bush the presidency in 2000, so I try avoid saying that the actual American people voted him into office twice). I also don't want to assume that if Obama wins, everything will magically get better and Americans will suddenly be able to have access to education and health care. So I remind myself of these two things often.

But you know what? When I voted for Kerry in 2004, I was doing it because he wasn't Bush. That was it. When I vote for Obama this November, it's because I actually think there is a possibility he could do a really good job as president. For any Americans living abroad that need to get their absentee ballots, you can go to to figure out what you need to do. Some states let you do everything through email, but annoyingly, California is not one of those states (and even more annoyingly, even though I spent most of my US life in New York and only 10 weeks living in Los Angeles, I'm registered to vote in California).

However, the much more pressing issue right now in the US is Hurricane Gustav. People have already died in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Jamaica from this hurricane. The devastation in Cuba has been terrible. Gustav is due to hit New Orleans tomorrow (Monday) morning, and as I watched a clip of Nagin's (Mayor of New Orleans) press conference, all I could think is "this can't possibly happen again." But it can happen again, can't it? The thought is petrifying. I'm following the Gustav Reporter twitter page this evening, and as I combed through different reports in the media, I found an article titled "In New Orleans, Blogs become crucial decision-making tool" from the Chicago Tribune. I trust blogs and twitter feeds for a more real-life account of what is happening right this minute, and it helps me feel more connected to what's going on at home.

Technology has changed the expat experience. Perhaps a topic worth going into more, but this post has gone on long enough as it is. I'm going to try to post a little more frequently this month, maybe three times a week, so I don't have to just unload everything all at once.

August 27, 2008

Beautiful chaos

I am back in Amsterdam after an incredible long weekend in Rome. I left on the 21st of August and returned late on Monday (the 25th). I traveled on KLM - no complaints there, everything worked as it should, and it was easy to tell that I had landed in Italy by the clapping and cheering of all the passengers once we hit the ground. From the minute I got off the plane, everything was chaotic, noisy, and off schedule - and I loved every minute of it. I've been to Rome before, in the early summer of 2005. This time around, I was staying at the home of C. and A. and getting much better insight into "real" Rome. A. is from Sardinia but has been in Rome for over fifteen years, and is part owner of the bar/restaurant Ombre Rosse (in the Trastevere district) - and that is where I went directly from the airport.

The highlight of the trip was definitely the food, which is no surprise. I could probably write ten pages detailing everything I ate over the course of four days, but I can also just sum it up by saying that everything I ate was flawless and perfect. I followed the Italian rules and never drank a cappuccino after breakfast. I ate big lunches and drank wine only an hour or two after waking up, I ate dinner late and ice cream was a perfect mid-afternoon snack. Instead of filling up my suitcase with clothes or souvenirs, I came back to Amsterdam with 3 different kinds of cheese, balsamic vinegar, and other assorted food items that I wouldn't be able to find at the local Albert Hein.

As far as sight-seeing, I feel like I would need ... a year, at least, to really feel like I've "seen" Rome. Whenever I go to museums or galleries anywhere, I don't really like taking maps or guides or planning out my route - I would rather just wander around and figure out what I like, what I don't, and not be bothered by trying to find my way to the stuff I know I will want to see. Being in Rome is like being in the biggest museum on earth, and since I was only there for 4 days I knew I couldn't even scratch the surface. The one thing I really wanted to see was the Vatican. Despite the absurdly high entrance fee and the massive crowds of people, I really, really wanted to see the Cappella Sistina, the famous tapestries (I love tapestries), and absorb all the history. The trip to the Vatican didn't disappoint and when I left after three hours, my brain felt like mush. To see all that famous art in person, rather than in a textbook or a replica - there are just really no words to describe what that feels like.

The Vatican was the only thing I really made a point of visiting and paying to get into during the day. I did most of my sight-seeing at night while walking around with friends, wandering from place to place. I lost track of how many monuments, fountains, churches, and beautiful old squares I wandered through. I was also fortunate enough to get out of the city for an entire day and drive off to lago di martignano (Martignano lake) with my friends, about 45 minutes north of Rome. We spent the afternoon and evening sunbathing and swimming in the perfectly clean water. I haven't gone swimming since last summer, which was a sad realization. I adore the water, and I especially adore swimming in clean lakes and rivers (rather than the sea or in pools). I felt really lucky to be at such a relaxed place, with little kids running around naked and dogs jumping in the water after frisbees.

Cycling as a mode of transportation does not seem to be at all popular in Rome, which is a real shame, considering that it's a huge city with a pretty lousy public transportation system. My only real complaint about Rome is that it seems like such a car culture - granted, the cars are small and fuel-efficient, but still, the most popular form of transportation for Romans is the automobile (or motorcycle/moped). While waiting for a tram one night, I saw a bigger car crash into a smart car and drive off without stopping (it didn't appear that anyone was injured). I can't emphasize enough how much I truly hate having to rely on a car while in a city - I firmly believe that cars should only be necessary if you live in a small town somewhere. Obviously, most cities are not going to be as bike-friendly as Amsterdam, which is fine - I'm usually pretty good an figuring out local public transportation. But I've honestly seen better public transportation systems in just about every other major European or American city I've ever visited, compared to Rome.

Anyway, enough of that. Though I was often in my friend's car going from place to place, I also spent a lot of time getting around by bicycle (C. had one to lend me, which was great). Rome is hilly, with cobblestone streets, uneven pavements, cracked sidewalks - so it makes perfect sense that those who do choose to ride on two wheels choose mountain bikes! It was actually quite a bit of fun to shift gears and bend over the handlebars. C. and I rode from her place to the Vatican in about 40 minutes, and when we went out for ice cream later in the day we just happened to ride around the Pantheon. The moment I realized I was riding my bike past the pantheon on the way to eat the best ice cream in the world (San Crispino) was just as overwhelming as walking into the Sistine Chapel for the first time.

Taking weekend trips to different countries is one of my favorite things about living in Europe, and I am fortunate to have friends (or friends of friends) spread out all over this continent, ready to offer hospitality and accommodation. My next big-ish trip will be to Poland, hopefully in late September or early October. Before then I'm also going to try and get to Antwerp (at least for a day) and maybe a few other places in the Netherlands. Even though I was sad to leave Rome, with all the sunshine and beauty and amazing food, I have to admit that being back in Amsterdam (and back on my own bicycle) feels great. The end of the summer is always a little depressing, but when September arrives it means more visitors, a new roommate, the return of Tuesday night movies at the OT301, and friends coming back into town from their holidays. Even saying goodbye to C. wasn't too hard, because she's returning to Amsterdam for a few weeks and staying with me - so I'll have my Amsterdam roommate back! At this time three months ago, she was hosting me at her apartment in Amsterdam (in the Oud Zuid neighborhood), and I had no idea if I would be sticking around. I was still pretty much living out of suitcases and borrowing everything I needed. It is a really fantastic feeling to now be the one that gets to host her in my own apartment and lend her my guest bike. I've been in Amsterdam just a little over four months, and it really, really feels like home.

August 20, 2008

On Holiday

I left work sometime around 8.30pm tonight - right around the time when it was still bright and sunny, but you could tell that the sun would start to set soon. I walked out of my office carrying a glass of wine and finished writing some texts and emails while sitting on the Herengracht, watching the boats go by. Not a bad way to end the work day.

There's a pattern with the weather in Amsterdam. The days might be totally unpredictable - sunny, rain, warm, cold, windy, beautiful (all within the same hour!) - but it seems like once it hits about 7pm, it calms down and clears up and gives all of us who live here a beautiful sunset. The sunsets here are insane! I don't know if it's the flatness of the land or what, but the sky just seems bigger here. There are more puffy clouds, more stunning views over the canals, and the sunset just seems to last longer than I'm used to. When I rode home tonight, I thought again about how lucky I was to have my "commute" home be a fifteen minute bike ride. During my entire ride home, I think maybe one or two cars rode past me. I felt totally comfortable riding around slowly, taking turns here and there down tiny little streets, answering my phone, or turning around to get a better view of the sky. In Amsterdam, I commute home at my own speed, at my own pace.

I spent the past week hosting a couple guests, including fellow blogger Nomadic Matt and a friend of a friend from Brooklyn. When I wasn't hanging out with my guests, I was dancing at the Nieuwe Anita, drinking Russian vodka with friends in front of their houseboat, and checking out the Open Air Film Festival. Only in Amsterdam could they build up an entire outdoor film venue for 500+ people that includes a bike parking area (for 500+ bikes), a few bars, places to buy food, a beautiful view of the Ij (the huge body of water that divides north and central Amsterdam), and make the entire thing totally free.

And now, following in the lead of almost everyone else I know in Europe, it's time for a holiday. I'm heading off to Rome for five days to visit my good friend C., my former roommate in Amsterdam. I've been studying Italian and daydreaming about the food, wine, and sun for the past few days. The last time I was in Rome was 2005, and I saw a lot of the sights then, so this trip can be mainly focused on challenging myself on how much pizza and gelato I can possibly consume in one day. Luckily, C. lived in Amsterdam for over eight years and therefore depends on a bicycle to get around everywhere, so she promised me lots of late-night bike rides through Rome. Wow, this reminds me, I should start packing!

August 13, 2008

There is a big world out there

I started and stopped writing blog entries all day. I can't figure out which direction to go - do I talk about my day trip to Rotterdam and all the wild architecture in that city, how it reminds me of being in a US city because it's so shiny and new?

Or maybe I should recommend another great cinema/performing arts space/bar/arts venue - the Illuseum, where I saw an interesting movie this past Saturday night that was filmed entirely with mobile phone cameras. It's a small space, very intimate, and there was a feeling that everyone there really cared about the space and wanted to be there. I can't say I loved the movie, but I'm really happy I went.

And I could go on and on about the amazing motorcycle ride I went on with two friends last night. We were outside of the city and zooming around in the middle of nowhere (well, Amsterdam Nord, which feels like the middle of nowhere) at 100kph (62mph), and it was the most fun I've had in ages. Being able to get out of the city so quickly and see farms, cows, sheep, and old windmills - this is what I love about living in Amsterdam.

So I could elaborate on any of those topics, but tonight I really just want to encourage anyone who might be reading to please pay attention to what is going on in the world outside of your home city/town/village. There's a war going on in Georgia that shares its headlines in newspapers with the Olympics - the Olympics which are being held in a country that has so many human rights violations I wouldn't even know where to begin, and you know what really bothers me about that? For months and months, protests against the Olympics were making news and headlines and all my friends were talking about it. People were paying attention to Tibet again, people were talking about China, and it seemed like a good thing - I firmly believe that just simply paying attention is one of the most important things we can do, if we can't be out there actually trying to save the world.

But now the Olympics have started, and everyone just wants to talk about who is winning what. I'm not saying don't watch the Olympics or enjoy the games, but come on! Let's not forget all those months of protests that happened all over the world. Let's not bury the stories of protesters in China somewhere at the bottom of the page, let's keep talking about it.

And let's not let the twenty-four hour Olympic coverage distract us from the fact that Russian tanks are rolling down the streets of Georgia again. The United States was always such a big Georgia supporter, but hey Georgia, thanks for sending your troops to Iraq to fight in a bullshit war and being so pro-USA all the time, but as it turns out when you guys are getting attacked by a country ten zillion times the size as you, we're just going to sit waaaaay over here in the West and say "we think war is bad, it sure would be nice if Russia could stop invading you guys, huh? Oh, did you maybe want our support? Sorry, we're a little busy killing Iraqis over in the middle east, maybe next time."

I know that most people who read this blog don't come here for political commentary, so I'll keep it brief. I do have a list of links on the right-hand side of this blog under the "News, Education, and Politics" heading, and for what my recommendation is worth, I think sources like Al Jazeera English, the daily podcast from The Guardian, and of course Democracy Now are all good places for information. Another habit I'm glad to have picked up again is actually reading the newspaper every day (thanks to my job, we get at about 10 different newspapers every day in Dutch and English).

As always, I really do appreciate everyone who reads and comments. I'll try to be a little more uplifting in my next post.

August 8, 2008

Amsterdam in August

Okay, I admit I'm a little jealous of all my friends that are off traveling the world or relaxing on a beach on a Greek Island during August. Like many other European countries, the Netherlands is only half-operational in August and many people choose to take their vacations now. However, there is good news for those of us who can't afford the time to travel - a ton of great stuff is happening in Amsterdam during the next few weeks. I'm most excited for the Open Air Film Festival, which started last night (7 August) and runs through the 23rd of August. The screenings start once it gets dark (9:30-10pm), there's 500 free beach chairs for anyone to claim, all the films are in English or English subtitled, and it's entirely free. And of course, there's a bar, places to buy food, and the location sounds perfectly ideal (on the Westerdoksdijk, right on the IJ!).

Another really great festival is one of Classical music - the Grachten Festival, running 16-24 of August. The highlight (for me, anyway) sounds like the Prinsengracht concert, which is completely free and takes place literally in the Prinsengracht canal - people listen to the concert from the quays or from the water (in their own boats).

There's also something nice, I have to say, about not making any elaborate travel plans for the summer. Last night I rode from my place to Bos en Lommer, a neighborhood on the other side of the city. It had rained really hard all day long (with thunder and lightening!), but cleared up to be a beautiful evening just when I was getting ready to leave work (good timing). The city had completely come alive, and as I rode southwest through Amsterdam I enjoyed an absolutely beautiful sunset. My route took me over the Amstel, through the Museumplein, around all the tiny streets in the Oud West, and along the Baarsjesweg. By the time I was ready to go home it had gotten dark, and as I rode through Vondelpark while listening to music on my ipod, I remembered the exact moment when I thought to myself "this is where I belong." It was in October 2007, when I was visiting Europe (just Paris and Amsterdam) from Brooklyn, trying to figure out if moving back to Europe was really what I wanted to do. One bike ride through Vondelpark at 2am was enough to convince me that yes, Amsterdam is where I belong. I am still so unbelievably in love with this city. I remember in early June, I rode a (borrowed) bike around 4.30am, right as the sun was starting to come up (and the city was just starting to close down for the night). I thought, wow, this is the best time of day to see the city, it's just perfect. But then last night, during sunset - on a warm summer night after it had rained all day - I thought, no wait, this is the best time to be out. But what about all the middle-of-the-night bike rides I did when I first got here? That was pretty great too.

The minor inconveniences of not getting internet service as fast as I want it, the abundance of mosquitoes (it is a humid city that is at or below sea level), the fact that all the stores close so damn early - none of that stuff has taken me out of my Honeymoon phase, which is now approaching the 4th month. There's still nowhere else I would rather live than right here.

August 4, 2008

Case closed, start again

Every day, I try to take care of at least one unpleasant or annoying new-to-Amsterdam task. Today that task was call Telfort and figure out exactly why they can't hook up my internet service at home. The reason is ridiculous.

All around me this afternoon, my (foreign) colleagues were on the phone with their internet providers and their doctors and insurance companies, arguing charges or waiting on hold or trying to get answers to questions without success. I decided to join the club and put in a call to Telfort.

The back story is: over a month ago (I'm guessing the 25th of June, or around there), a friend of mine helped me set up my internet service online - I needed the help because the website is all in Dutch. Once everything was translated and explained, the process seemed very easy and logical, and all I had to do was wait... up to eight weeks... for my home internet service. The eight-week wait is common and I knew to expect it. Luckily I found an open wireless network somewhere in my apartment building that is almost always on, so I didn't mind the wait so much.

Sometime in mid-July I received a letter from Telfort, obviously in Dutch, and from what little Dutch I understand I could gather that they weren't going to hook up the service. It was a really vague letter (I had a colleague translate) that basically said "we can't set up your service, and it could be for any one of the reasons listed below, sorry." The only way to get a real answer was to call, so I did that today (putting it off because it just seemed like such a pain in the ass). Navigated my way through several Dutch-language menus (mostly just taking educated guesses), waited on hold for about 15 minutes (and by the way, that phone call cost something like 30 cents a minute, but luckily I called from work), and finally talked to a friendly enough guy who explained that yes, my order had been canceled.


Because I told Telfort (at the time of signing up) that I live in apartment 77-B. This is the address on my rental contract, this is the address where I'm registered with the city of Amsterdam, this is the address on my paystub, my mail, etc.

Yet according to Telfort, there is no 77B on my street. There's 77-1 and 77-2. "You must be in 77-2," the man says to me.

"Yes, I suppose that's the case."

"Anything else?"

"I'm guessing this means I have to start all over again, and wait another 4-8 weeks?"

"That's correct."


There's no point in arguing with them, really. The order I placed (over a month ago!) was canceled, done, finito. All I can really do at this point is double-check with my bank that Telfort hasn't taken any money out of my account yet and start over. The most important lesson I learned, should this happen again, is to call right away.

August 1, 2008

The sidewalks of Amsterdam will provide!

Luck continues to work in my favor in terms of apartment-related stuff. I went into work a little late today, feeling very tired and hungover from the previous day-long party my company threw on Thursday. I rode up Utrechtsestraat, and right after I passed the Keizersgracht I saw what looked to be a huge pile of junk on the sidewalk. But as I got closer, I realized it wasn't junk at all - it was someone completely emptying out their apartment (or store) and giving everything away! Even though I was already late to work, I had to pull over when I saw a big pile of really nice picture frames and claim them for myself.

Everything was up for grabs - a washer/dryer, a desk, lamps, kitchen stuff, tons of clothes, etc - and it was all nice stuff. I grabbed everything I thought I could reasonably transport on my bike, including:

- 5 large-ish silver picture frames
- 1 basket
- 1 small frying pan
- Curtains
- Plates, glasses, bowls
- 1 vase
- 1 carry-on size suitcase

Lots of people gravitated toward the pile on the sidewalk, the folks giving the stuff away were having a good time, and the atmosphere felt like a neighborhood block party. What a great day to be late to work! My apartment is really starting to feel like home, especially now that I have a proper couch (which I also scored for free). I'm more determined than ever to continue not spending money on apartment furnishings and just wait for really good deals to present themselves to me, because so far, so good.

This weekend is Gay Pride, with huge parties and events happening all weekend, of course including the parade. I've been to Gay Pride parades in a few different cities, but I'm especially excited to see Amsterdam's version - which takes place on boats in the canals, so it's effectively a floating parade. Everyone I've talked to - gay, straight, or somewhere in between - is excited for the festivities this weekend. I'll be out all day and night on Saturday, so I'm taking tonight off to recover. So hard to believe that it's already August...