September 30, 2008

Dealing with reality is so... hard...

Around 8.40am this morning, I stood in front of my living room window with a cup of coffee in my hand, willing it to stop raining. I wouldn't normally be up and about that early, but I have Dutch classes on Tuesday mornings at 9am. At 8.45am, I was thinking "ok, really, I should be walking out the door now if I want to make it on time." The rain came down harder. I felt very, very appreciative that my mother had sent my rain boots to me in the mail a few weeks ago. 8.50am, and I was trying to convince myself that it had really lightened up and I didn't need to bring an extra pair of pants.

Around 8.55am I was really wishing I had bought an extra pair of pants, because my legs were soaked (my jacket and boots kept the rest of me dry). I still gave myself a pat on the back for making it to my Dutch class, especially since only 3 other students braved the elements to make it. With such a small class, we got more speaking time and much more practice. But I did kick myself for not buying the rain pants I checked out over the weekend (it was so bright and sunny this weekend that I couldn't picture a day when I would want rain gear, obviously choosing to live very much in the present with that mindset).

So instead of dwell on the rainy week ahead and the current state of the US and European economy, why not just relive a few beautiful autumn days instead? (click on any of the pictures to see their full size!)

The halfpipe located in the Museum quarter. I stopped to watch the skaters (and rollerbladers and fixed gear cyclists) for a while, trying to think if I had ever seen a skating ramp built right next to some of the most famous art museums in any other city before.

I'm sure there are approximately eight zillion pictures that look exactly like this one, which I took just outside my friends house in the Jordaan. Bicycles, canals, and boats. I will never get tired of this scenery.

The sun started to set and I found myself back in the museumsplein. This is looking away from the museums, sort of toward the Concertgebouw (it's way back there on the left).

Leaving the park area behind and approaching the city streets again, trying to soak up every minute of the long sunset as I could.

So this week might not be ideal for sitting outside at cafes, but at least I'm finally getting the time to read, study Dutch, and maybe even stay home with a movie some night this week. That doesn't actually sound so bad, does it?

September 26, 2008

Five month review: Pros and Cons of expat life in Amsterdam (it's mostly pros)

Before I start, let me acknowledge - five months isn't a very long time to live somewhere!

What makes expat life so easy in Amsterdam?

Last night, my friend Brooke and I walked from my place to the Roti Room (Eerste Oosterparkstraat) for dinner. It was perfect - warm, spicy Indian food served by a really friendly staff who insisted we not rush, that we should ask for more if we were hungry, and instructed us about which sauces to use for which dishes. Another friend happened to be in the neighborhood and stopped by to join us while we finished up the meal. Amsterdam is like this for me - people call me when they're around. I pull out my phone when I'm riding past someone's house that I know, or if I'm in a friend's neighborhood. I like that so much, and that kind of simple stopping-by-to-say-hi thing almost never happened in New York or Philadelphia.

When Brooke and I got back to my place, I had a skype video call with Kevin, a very good friend who lives in Tennessee. Skype is an expat's best friend. Not only can I talk to people without spending any money, but we can see each other, and it makes the distance seem not so great. I carried my computer around my apartment and showed Kevin where I live - he could even watch me make a cup of tea while we chatted. Later on, I caught up with my friend/former roommate who has returned to Italy, also over skype. Sometimes I really miss not having her around so that we can share every single detail of our lives with each other (we're girls, it's what we do), but as I put away my laundry last night I got to hear her explaining what she ate for dinner in Rome and what her new bike looks like, and it was almost like having here there with me. Having good friends all over the world doesn't seem that scary anymore - though of course it's always better when they're actually there, in person.

And of course, there's just my daily routine. Standing out on my balcony this morning, drinking coffee, watching the cyclists and trams go by as I listened to a Guardian podcast. I left my house after 10am and started my picture-perfect commute to work, at times noticing that I had the entire street to myself - no cars, no other cyclists. A commute with no traffic, no stress, no running to catch the train - I can't emphasize enough how much I love that. My headphones were on, the sky was blue, the sun was shining, and there's that wonderful distinct feeling of crisp autumn air. The leaves are starting to change colors, and the temperature is just cool enough for a jacket and scarf, but I haven't had to put on gloves yet (I'm sure that's coming soon).

Even though hearing Kevin talk about going climbing on real mountains made me want to be in the US, and picturing Christine eating that amazing ice cream from San Crispino made me want to be in Italy, every day that I wake up in Amsterdam I am reminded that the very simple, natural, obvious things here make the lack of mountains and good ice cream seem like a small price to pay. The one thing I'm trying to convey, and I hope it's working and I'm not being too dramatic, is that there's nothing super-amazing-unbelievable-oh-my-god-perfect about Amsterdam. It's just consistently good. Hanging out with friends, finding affordable Indian food, cycling, staying in touch with friends from home, and not feeling oppressed or stressed out from the people, atmosphere, traffic, or surroundings - this is what I like about my life here, this is why it's easy.

What are the difficulties of being an expat?

I have to attend the wedding of one of my best friends on 2 May in Philadelphia, and three weeks later my brother is getting married on the 23rd of May in California. I can't miss either of these weddings, but how on earth am I going to come up with the money for two trips to the US in May? The Philadelphia wedding was already going to be a bit of a financial squeeze, but flying to California from Amsterdam in late May? That's just going to be insane. I still have to pay off my US student loan and credit card, but all my money is in Euros now (ok, that part is great) which means monthly bank transfers, which means extra charges (only €10, but still). I still haven't quite gotten used to the European standard of getting paid once a month (in the US, every two weeks is normal), so I find that the last 4-5 days of each pay cycle I'm practically wiped out. And of course even though I live in the Netherlands and would quite happily stay indefinitely, I can't vote here, so I still feel more invested in US politics than Dutch politics. I don't like that. On one hand, what happens in the US (politically) does affect the entire world and I think it's important for everyone to pay attention, the same way we should also pay attention to what happens in Russia, Europe, Africa, etc. But my life is here now, and if Dutch laws and policies change, my daily life could be more directly affected than if the US passes a new law. It is unnerving that I have no say in the country where I live. Let's face it, I will always have to keep part of my life in the US (ie: an address, bank account, voter registration, etc) and part of my life here. For the most part that's ok, but it can become annoying at times.

Anyway, the pro/con list is done for now. Another really beautiful weekend has arrived, and I can't wait for it to get started. The first US presidential debate is on tonight, but it will be shown at 2am here, so I'll most likely catch it over the weekend. My plans consist of climbing, helping friends move, doing a bit of shopping, a party on Saturday night, and a dinner on Sunday night. I'm also going to try to get to the beach to watch the sun set on Saturday evening before the party. These sunsets are just incredible, and it's a short train ride to the sea, and come December I'll be wishing I took advantage of the long days while they were still here.

September 22, 2008

A weekend in September

I just came off one of those weekends that seemed like it lasted for a week (aka: the best kind of weekend). My new roommate and I threw a successful housewarming party on Friday, and it delighted me to see my apartment full of people from all over the world (well, mostly Europe, but we had a chunk of folks from the rest of the globe as well) dancing and drinking and having fun. I ended up closing my eyes around 5.30am on Friday night which meant I had stayed up for about 21 hours or so. Saturday was easy-going and I spent most of my time hanging out with a good friend, enjoying the sun and some quality girl-talk.

On Sunday afternoon I set off on my bike just to ride around and enjoy the city by myself, which I feel like I'll never get tired of doing. I wanted to see if I could feel a difference in car-free Sunday compared to other normal days, and I have to say - it was great, but it wasn't unbelievably different. The concerts and street fairs set up all over the place were different, of course. I encountered my first event as I rode over the Amstel and saw a dance party going on under the bridge. I made it a point to ride along the canals and all through the Jordaan, figuring that's where I would really feel the car-free difference.

The Westerstraat was nice - definitely quieter than usual. But once I got to the Lindengracht, Lindenstraat, and all the little streets around that area, I really saw a difference. The thing is, when you're cycling around on a normal day - even on the streets without a dedicated bike lane - cyclists have the right of way. If a car doesn't have enough room to pass a cyclist, they just slow down and drive behind the bike. It's completely bizarre at first, but it didn't take me that long to get used to it - it just meant that the lack of cars on the street didn't really give me, as a cyclist, any more freedom than usual. What I did love seeing were the little kids playing in the street and pedestrians wandering around wherever they pleased without having to dodge traffic, and everything did seem much more peaceful. I also made it a point to ride around the center of the city in the busiest areas. I felt a difference just about everywhere other than Dam Square. I hate Dam Square, with or without traffic. For more details about car-free sunday, check out Amsterdamize, or go to this flickr page for lots of photographic evidence.

I rode around for about 3 hours on Sunday before heading to the climbing gym, where I successfully made it up some new routes and turned both of my knees totally black and blue in the process. When me and my climbing buddies left around 7.30pm, I was treated to another long, beautiful sunset as I painfully rode home. The sunsets are absolutely one of my favorite things about Amsterdam - I'm sure I've mentioned that before. I think this weekend I'm going to try and make it a point to get to the sea and watch the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean. I forget sometimes that I can do that - coming from the east coast of the USA, I'm accustomed to seeing the sun rise over the water, but not set.

And finally, after being in the Netherlands for 4 1/2 months, I'm starting Dutch lessons tomorrow! I figure I'll take advantage of the free classes offered by my company for a few months, and then start a more intense class once I've made some progress. Let's just hope it's never pouring rain on a Tuesday morning, so I can make it to every class on time without an excuse.

September 19, 2008

Update on car-free sunday in Amsterdam

Thanks to the comments in my previous entry, I found out a little more information about car-free Sunday! Figured it was worth another post to help spread the word.

From the IAmsterdam website:

The car-free zones extend over the entire area within the A10, with the exception of Zeeburg. Between 10:00 and 17:00 traffic is not allowed into the city, but is allowed to leave. The city is free for residents to organise various events and activities.

Major routes are kept open for emergency services. Public transport and taxi service remain in operation. You can park your car for free on the designated Park and Rail (P+R) parkingareas. You will receive free public transport tickets to reach the city centre.

So taxi service will be around after all! It seems as though a lot of planning went into making this day work, and again - as someone who plans to remain car-free forever - I know I'm going to enjoy it.

The weather forecast is for a beautiful, sunny weekend. The Jordaan festival starts up today (Friday, the 19th) and runs all weekend. There will be events all over the city on Sunday as people take advantage of traffic-free streets. Anyone that lives in Amsterdam or is visiting this weekend shouldn't have to make too much effort to enjoy themselves.

September 18, 2008

Amsterdam is car-free this Sunday

This Sunday, the 21st of September, is car-free Sunday in Amsterdam. According to the HR department at my company, this means it will not be possible to enter the city by car from 10.00 am until 17.00, but it is possible to exit Amsterdam (you just can't come back in until after 17). Public transportation (buses, trams, metro) will be running, but there will be no taxis available.

I'm conflicted about this.

On one hand, I love the idea of pedestrians and cyclists taking over Amsterdam even more than they already do. It sounds amazing, and I completely intend to take advantage of it and ride in the middle of the streets and envision a world where cars don't exist.

On the other hand, Amsterdam makes it easier than anywhere else I've ever been to avoid being in a car. The public transportation system is easy and affordable, bikes have their own lanes, the entire city is very walkable, and I think I know about two people that own a car. This blogger makes a lot of really good points as to why something like car-free day doesn't really have any advantages in Amsterdam. After reading that, I thought about the day I arrived in Amsterdam this past April - I showed up with a big, heavy suitcase and a big, heavy backpack. It just made sense that I took a taxi from Central Station to the apartment where I was staying. I could barley lift my bags onto the curb, nevermind trying to lift them into a tram. And I would have really inconvenienced everyone around me had I been on a tram (by taking up too much room). So what if I was moving into Amsterdam in the same kind of way this Sunday afternoon, and I was told "too bad, we're doing something good here by not allowing cars around the city today." I could have made it work, but man, it would have sucked.

So while everyone who is leaving the city (ie: headed to the airport or wherever) can still load up their cars or taxis with luggage, anyone arriving this Sunday, between 10-17 is out of luck.

If I had my way, no one would own cars, but I've got to say, I wouldn't get rid of taxis. While car-free day sounds like great fun to me, as a car-free person, it doesn't change my life whatsoever.

Thoughts? Has anyone ever experienced a car-free day in Amsterdam (or your own city) before?

September 16, 2008

More successful bike moving

I have furnished my apartment exclusively from other people giving me their stuff or selling it to me. No trips to Ikea! That's something I'm strangely proud of, and it's also the reason why the curtains in my bedroom don't really fit the window. An amazing resource for picking up free stuff is Amsterdam Freecycle.

Last night I went to pick up 2 nice black chairs from someone in de pijp who was giving them away. When I left work, I first stopped at the market to pick up some food, and filled up my bike-messenger-type bag with cans of beans, vegetables, pasta, and bread. When I got to the apartment where I was picking up the chairs, the (Dutch) guy who was giving them away said "How are you getting these to your place?"

The same way I've gotten pretty much everything to my place (including the large, heavy set of bookshelves that now sits in the living room) - my bike. So in another bike-moving victory moment, I managed to put 2 chairs (upside down) on my luggage rack and sort of just hold them in place with my left hand as I rode to my apartment while carrying a bag full of groceries on my back. The fact that a Dutch person thought I was kind of insane for tying to do all that at once made me feel a huge sense of accomplishment.

I think I'll feel even more accomplished when I finally get some proper bedroom curtains, hang some pictures on the walls, and paint some of my stark-white furniture to be any color other than white.

September 15, 2008

A bit of reminiscing

This time last year, I had recently moved into a tiny little room in another shared apartment in Brooklyn. I told my roommate upon moving in that I could only guarantee I would be there for 6 months (in the end, I was actually only there for five months), because I fully intended to move back to Europe. I hadn't really thought about the details, but I was already planning for it as though was absolutely happening. I remember eating dinner with my new roommate and my new neighbors back in mid-September 2007, telling them I had planned a one-week trip to Paris and Amsterdam, and that I had always loved Amsterdam, that I had always been so happy to visit Amsterdam when I lived in Paris.

"So why don't you just move there?" my neighbor asked. She had just returned to New York after a couple years in Thailand.

"Well, maybe I will," I said.

Back in February, I wrote in this blog:

I know I love Amsterdam and I can't wait to try and make my life there. And yes, I am very, very, very nervous and anxious about doing all of this on my own. I think I get a lot of undeserved credit for deciding to make this move, but the thing that just outright confuses me is when people say "you're so lucky!" I don't get that. Anyone - certainly any American - could do exactly what I'm doing. It's easier because I don't have kids, a house, or a family to support. But otherwise... luck? I decided to quit a really great job in New York City and leave most of my friends and family to move to a country that is already too crowded, where I hardly know anyone, I don't know the language, and the weather sucks. If I succeed in making Amsterdam my home, then maybe one can say I'm lucky ... but if I do succeed it will be because I worked my ass off on making it happen.

You know what? I am extraordinarily lucky that everything kind of happened in the best possible way - I couldn't have possibly predicted that things would work out so easily. But I want to remind readers, and friends of mine that I've met since moving here - that it did take a lot of work. It took a lot of research, a lot of planning for things that never happened, dealing with a lot of criticism, second-guessing everything, and worst of all, it was a lot - a LOT of waiting.

But it was absolutely the right thing to do. I was just talking about this last night with my new roommate. He left a job and friends he adored in Berlin to move to Amsterdam, where he only knows a couple people, to start a new job and be closer to his girlfriend (who lives in Rotterdam). And I could see some hesitation in him, probably asking himself why leave somewhere when there aren't any problems? Where everything is going just fine, where you have friends and you like the city and you love your apartment?

I can't quite explain it, but for some reason, I knew I had to leave New York. Despite the fact that I had a great job I loved. Despite the fact that I had a full social life, an amazing set of friends, family, routines, etc. I mean, really, there was no reason for me to leave. Things were completely fine just the way they were. I was doing well in pretty much every aspect of my life. On my last day in NYC I was standing around with one of my best friends in the world, looking nervously at my backpack full of everything I would be taking with me to Europe, wondering why on earth I was doing this to myself again. "what if it doesn't work? what if I don't make any friends? what if this is all a huge mistake? why the hell am I doing this?" And he just listened to me ramble on and on, then became exasperated with me and told me to just shut up and leave already (in so many words).

Last week I was on my way to the movies here in Amsterdam. The screening was due to start at 8.30pm, but I had wanted to get there early to get a good seat, and I was running late. While I was cycling, I pulled out my phone to call my friend. "hey, I'm on my way, but I probably won't be there for another 20 minutes... would you mind..." and before I could finish my sentence he said "yes, Tami, I'll save you a seat," with a slight tone of exasperation (because I kinda always ask him to do that). When I arrived, the screening was sold out, but he had gotten me a ticket and greeted me with a hug. Then we went into the theater to watch Russian sci-fi from the 1960's with English subtitles.

My point is, you know who your friends are when you don't have to worry about exasperating them. I have tons of friends in the US that I can safely exasperate and annoy, and now after 4 months in Holland, I'm annoying and exasperating a whole new set of people.

Leaving NYC to give Europe another shot was one of the best decisions I ever made, and it was worth it. All the waiting, the research, the planning, etc. It was totally worth it.

September 11, 2008

Letters Against the War, and where to read it in English

One of the best books I ever read is "A Fortune Teller Told Me" by Tiziano Terzani. It was given to me as a present several years ago, and it was the type of book that I couldn't put down. The kind of book that when you're reading it, makes you reluctant to go to the dinner party or movie that you made plans for, because you'd rather be reading your book. Naturally, when I was finished, I looked around for other books by the same author and found several that have all been translated into English (from Italian).

Terzani published a book titled Lettere contro la guerra, or "Letters Against the War," in 2002, and I assumed I would be able to find an English translation in bookstores eventually. I mean, Terzani is a pretty well-known author and journalist. A good friend of mine who is fluent in Italian kept recommending this book to me and I kept wondering, why on earth can't I find this in English? Why can't I just go to Amazon and order it?

Here's the answer from Terzani himself, which I copied directly.

Florence (Italy) early December 2002

Dear Friends,

The year that is about to end has been dramatic for all of us. Never before has each one of us been so unequivocally confronted with the question of war and peace. Back from a long trip into Pakistan and Afghanistan, I started the year publishing, first in Italian and then in various other European languages, a booklet dedicated to my 3-year old American grandson, Novalis. The book "Letters Against the War" was meant to raise questions about the way to face the situation created by the events of September 11th and to suggest that violence might no longer be the best solution for this and future conflicts of mankind.

The book was an immediate success in Italy (for 18 weeks it was among the top 10 best sellers). It was well received, reviewed, and sold in France, Germany, and Spain. Somehow, continental Europe with her, by now almost genetic, memory of war and destruction, seemed extremely responsive to the neo-pacifist appeal of the "Letters." Wherever I went to talk about my experiences as an old war correspondent, big crowds gathered to listen and to discuss.

Unfortunately this was not at all the reaction of the Anglo-Saxon world, particularly of the UK and the USA, whose governments and press have taken a very bellicose, pro-war stand. All attempts to have the "Letters" published in English failed. All the English and American publishers who has printed my previous books responded with a "No, thank you" note. I did not give up. I had the book translated myself and offered it again to all kinds of publishers in London and New York.

To no avail. Even my offer to give the book for free failed.

Finally, a publisher in New Delhi (India Research Press) dared to take up the offer and his Indian edition remains the ONLY English version of the "Letters Against the War" now available in print. Now to allow as many people as possible to have access to the book, I decided, together with Massimo De Martino who in his spare time, generously run the T.T. fan Club founded three years ago, to post the whole book on the internet. You can download it for free and I would be most grateful if you circulate text among you friends and "adversaries."

It is time to think, to discuss, to argue and finally to raise our consciousness and to save ourselves. Nobody else can do it for us.

Thank you very much,

Tiziano Terzani

You can download the entire book for free here. If for any reason that link gives you difficulty, just let me know and I can email it to you.

When I think about how many lives were lost on September 11th, I don't just count the people that died that day. I'm counting the thousands of people all over the world who have died as the result of the US waging a war that still continues to this day. Unbelievable to think that seven years later, Iraqi and American and other foreign troops are still dying, and you'll still hear September 11th used as an excuse to justify it all.

The only way to make it work is to ask for help

Last weekend I helped some friends move in true Amsterdam style - from a houseboat to a 3-story apartment in the Jordaan, complete with a long, narrow, spiral staircase (and earlier last week, I moved a heavy bookshelf into my place with the help of a friend and two bikes!). Only one way to get something like 30 boxes of books (in addition to furniture and everything else) into an apartment like that - through the windows! My friends used the same mover I used a couple times - the White Van Man (highly, highly recommend giving him a call if you need anything moved).

Since they were moving a significant amount of things, they paid for a permit that allowed the van to block the street for a few hours. Parking in Amsterdam is a real issue - the streets are so incredibly narrow and there are thick, metal poles that line many of the (narrow) pedestrian sidewalks so vehicles can't pull over on the canal rings. The only way for delivery vans to unload in many places is to simply stop in the middle of the street and block traffic until they're done, which everyone is used to. Today as I cycled to work I weaved around at least 12 cars waiting for a delivery van to finishing unloading along the Keizersgracht - I can't imagine how annoying it would be to own a car in this city (and I never plan to find out).

Anyway, my friends are smart and responsible people, so they made sure to cover themselves by getting permission to block the street (I think that costs around €45). There was a human chain of people on the narrow staircase, passing up light items from the moving van to the 2nd floor (which is the 3rd floor if you're American). The movers hooked up the ropes and pulleys to the hook that hangs from the top of the building (those hooks are on just about every house in Amsterdam) and started hoisting up everything from tables to furniture, which went through the windows. I stood guard outside to make sure nothing went crashing through the glass storefront on the ground floor (nothing did). We drew quite a crowd as the move carried on - groups of tourists would stop to take pictures, neighbors welcomed my friends to the neighborhood, cyclists would pull over to smile or laugh at the scene. When all the hard stuff was over, we gathered on the roof terrace and celebrated with pizza and beer.

When I think about how much help I had when I first arrived in Amsterdam in terms of moving, apartment hunting, etc., it makes me feel like I owe the world a huge debt of gratitude. Everything I have here - a job, a great place to live, my bike, etc., is because I've had help along the way. A huge chunk of that help came from people I had only just met but were perfectly willing to carry my furniture, loan me bikes, give me a place to stay, or most importantly, introduce me to their friends. There's no real way to repay the amount of kindness that I've been shown, but I 100% guarantee that even if I barely know you, I will help you move. I still need to ask my friends for help all the time - for directions, advice, translations, tips, etc.

I usually get a few emails every week from people who find this blog and want advice, and I'm always happy to try and help. You can contact me at, or just leave a comment here.

September 3, 2008

It's offically autumn in Amsterdam

Last night's Cinemanita screening at the OT301 was fantastic. The documentary was Lets Get Lost by Bruce Webber, and told the story of Chet Baker, the infamous jazz musician who ended up dying in Amsterdam after falling out of a hotel window. I don't think there's a website for the Cinemanita screenings, but you can email and get yourself on the mailing list. I'm really looking forward to seeing Amphibian Man (1962, Russian with English subtitles) this Monday night at the Niewe Anita. I know part of what I love about Cinemanita is that it reminds me so much of my old job in Philadelphia. Part of what I did when I worked for a non-profit cinema was introduce obscure films to small audiences of dedicated film geeks, and re-discovering that part of my life here in Amsterdam has been such a treat. And I have to emphasize that what really makes me adore Amsterdam is that everything is so affordable. The screening this Monday night is €2.50 Beers are €2. I know from experience that as a tourist or visitor, Amsterdam can be really expensive (in terms of hotel costs, restaurants, etc). But to live here and have a good time - you don't have to be rich to enjoy thing.

Another Amsterdam event I'm looking forward to is the Jordaan festival, 19-21 of September. That website is only in Dutch, but there's a short description here of the festival. It basically just sounds like a 3-day party in one of my favorite neighborhoods, and it's going on during the same weekend as my first official housewarming party! I have hosted some gatherings at my new place a few times, but it's been such a process to get furniture and kitchen supplies and put some pictures up on the walls (ok, I still haven't gotten around to that), that I set a housewarming date to force myself to make my apartment come together. I'm also welcoming a new roommate on 12 September, who will be living with me for the next 4 months - so the party is also to welcome him to Amsterdam (from Berlin).

This month's goal is to start a real climbing habit. I'm going to de klim muur tonight to see if I can remember my way around a climbing gym. There's obviously no mountains in the Netherlands, so this is sort of the next best thing! I'm going to have to plan some kind of hiking trip soon - I can't let the entire summer and fall pass me by without hiking up some mountain somewhere. Anyone have any tips as to where to go (bonus if it can be a day trip)? I'm willing to get up early in the morning on a weekend if it means good hiking.