October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween from Amsterdam!

It's pretty safe to say my melancholy mood has lifted over the past few days. A few days without any rain, some quality time with good friends, and my daily bicycle-riding fix was pretty much all I needed to start feeling like all was right in the world. Since daylight savings time hit and it's now always dark when I leave work, my bike ride home or to the climbing gym looks completely different, but one thing remains the same - Amsterdam is a beautiful city, night or day. I love this place.

It's also safe to say that I am 100% in the Halloween spirit. My company is hosting a big pumpkin-carving party today (the 31st), which really makes me appreciate my job - walking in and seeing pumpkins and Halloween decorations was the best way to start this day! Since I waited until the last minute, I figured I would throw together a costume that didn't take too much effort, and just assumed I wouldn't have that many options about what to buy. Turns out I was completely wrong, and the costume store on the Raadhuisstraat is stocked with anything you could want for Halloween. Everything is significantly more expensive than what I'm used to paying, but they have all the right stuff. As I walked around in a happy little Halloween daze, I listened to the people talk around me in Dutch, Australian-accented English, Italian, French, and Spanish. All there to shop for Halloween. It was quite a world-coming-together moment for me.

Today my plans include pumpkin carving and party hopping (and rock climbing - which isn't particularly Halloween-themed but luckily my climbing partner is very patient with my enthusiasm for this holiday). I'm going to start at Batavia, a bar close to Centraal Station that is hosting a free-to-get-in, costume-mandatory party. The backup plan to that is Getto, a bar on the Warmoestraat. I also really like the sound of the event taking place at de Nieuwe Anita - a Texas Chainsaw Massacre "Scream a Long" screening and after party. I love having options!

Other than getting ready for Halloween, there's other things I'm ticking off my list. I finally bought myself a pair of water-resistant rain pants, which means my day-to-day life has just gotten one thousand times more comfortable. I'm also working on getting my roommate officially registered at my apartment. My landlord agreed to write a letter stating that he could stay in the apartment as my guest - according to the guy I talked to at the DPG, this would be sufficient enough to get my roommate in the system (of course, he'll also need all his paperwork and a copy of my housing contract). Once he's registered he can apply for his BSN/SOFI number, and once he has that he's able to get a bank account. I'll update more about that next week once everything is done, because it might be helpful information for someone looking to do the same type of thing.

And now, back to work/obsessing about Halloween. Thanks to everyone who has commented and emailed lately - it always makes my day to hear from a random stranger who found something I said helpful, or to just know that my friends are reading. One of these days I'm going to move this blog over to wordpress and update the design a bit. I never meant to leave this blog looking so generic - anyway, that's another thing on my list of things to do.

October 29, 2008

How many places can be considered home?

I'm sure everyone can relate to the feeling of missing someone or someplace - even people that have lived in the same town their entire lives have probably seen their friends pick up and move away, or have seen their town drastically change before their eyes to the point where it's not the same place anymore. But for those of us who have chosen to leave our home countries, I think there's a different kind of missing friends or places. Sometimes it's like this yearning, where I feel a certain something - a bad mood, a good mood, whatever - but I know exactly what would be perfect. And that exact thing is say, my favorite bar in Brooklyn with a good friend who speaks exactly the same way I speak, who will never say "what?" if I say something kind of slang-ish. Or if it's my favorite bar in Philadelphia, it's ordering a lager and not having the bartender say "what kind?" because in Philadelphia there is only one beer you get when you order a lager. My old bike is still in Philadelphia, being watched over by the same friend that was there to say goodbye to me just a few hours before I left to move to Europe this past April.

A good friend of mine from Brooklyn got in touch with me the other day to excitedly talk about holiday plans, and I had to say "oh, I'm sorry, I haven't told you yet - I'm not going home for the holidays, I'm staying in Europe." Instead of feeling excited about the fact that I'm saving myself a ton of money and stress and making really fun travel plans to explore new places I've never seen before ... I felt kind of sad.

This past Sunday night, I had about 11 people over for dinner. Seeing my home filled with friends eating and drinking is my favorite thing in the world, and I am incredibly lucky to have made such good friends in such a short time. I am so appreciative that my phone rings and a friend on the other end is telling me about three different Halloween parties going on this Friday. Everything about my life right now is the best good luck story ever - I landed a great job that sponsors me to live exactly where I want to be, I ride my bike every single day, I have a fantastic apartment, amazing friends, etc. But I admit, I was in a bit of a funk for the past couple days. I started thinking, wait... now I have to get a haircut in Amsterdam? I always planned to get a haircut in New York. And what about a winter coat? The plan was to go to Beacon's Closet in Williamsburg for a winter coat! I've been dying for a new pair of 8 gauge earrings, and I've been buying my jewelry in the same place for past ten years - Infinite Body Jewelry on 3rd and South in Philadelphia. Obviously, there are winter coats and hair salons and earrings in Amsterdam. But - that's not the point! In my mind, a new winter coat, a haircut, and a million other things (like a real onion bagel) were waiting until I was back in New York.

Now is missing out on any of that really so bad? Of course not. My life is comfortable and happy, I'm going to get some much-needed travel time over the holidays, and I'm absolutely sure this funk will pass. But I wanted to write about it anyway, because it's all part of keeping this blog and talking about my life in Amsterdam. I don't forget how fortunate I am every day for everything that has gone right in the past six months - but that doesn't mean that I'm immune to some elements of homesickness. I feel so wonderfully at home in Amsterdam that I don't even want to think of leaving... funny how that's possible. To love where you are, but be wishing to be somewhere else at the same time.

October 23, 2008

October in Amsterdam - Halloween, museum night, zombie movies, and new discoveries

The next few weeks seem to come with that pesky (read: lovely) problem of having too much fun stuff going on. In addition to the huge Amsterdam Dance Event Festival & Conference, it seems like everyone I know is having a party, or inviting me to a party of someone they know.

For me, this time of year has always been anxious preparation for Halloween - excluding the years I spent living in Europe. However, unlike the year I spent sick with food poisoning in Budapest, this year in Amsterdam I am determined to celebrate! The program at the Filmhuis Cavia is showing some scary movies, along with the OT 301 and the Nieuwe Anita and probably a few other places I'm forgetting. Halloween is a very American holiday that is creeping into Europe slowly, but in my opinion, it's happening in a very lame way. There might be a few bars or clubs that do Halloween parties, but unless you grew up trick-or-treating and having a whole Halloween month, it's hard to understand. Halloween isn't just dressing up in a scary costume (costumes don't have to be scary!), it's about carving pumpkins, hayrides, haunted houses, trick-or-treating (or if you're too old, handing out candy to trick or treaters), attending or participating in a parade, scary movies, decorating your house or apartment - the whole deal. In the states, it's not just a one-night celebration, it's the entire month. It's not just for children, it's for everyone.

So I have to say, the fact that there are a few extra zombie movies in Amsterdam during the next few weeks is pretty nice bonus. There are at least two costume-mandatory parties that I know of, and I have a bunch of friends here that are pretty excited. Ok, by "pretty excited" I mean they know when Halloween is (31 October) and understand it means dressing up in a costume. For Europeans, that's pretty good. :) And in addition to Halloween, next weekend is also Museumnacht. On Saturday, 1 November, tons of museums and other venues will stay open until 2am, transportation will be free, and there will be tons of other events and parties going on. The website recommends to get your tickets in advance and warns that it was sold out last year.

Also important to remember to set back your clocks this Sunday if you live in Amsterdam, which is always fun. An extra hour of sleep, and if you happen to be out at 2 or 3 in the morning, that extra hour is cause for celebration. "Sure I can stay out longer, it's not 3am after all, it's only 2! Let's get another drink!" So let's not focus on the fact that daylight savings time also means more darkness and the inevitable arrival of winter... I would rather just look forward to an extra hour of partying.

Last night I discovered another wonderful new gem in Amsterdam - the Moskito Film Lounge. I'm not even sure if that's the right way of saying it (I'm adding the word "Lounge" myself), but I went to see a short film that some of my friends were involved in making at a venue that felt like someone's living room. It bought me to a neighborhood that oddly, I've never been to before. I say "oddly" because the first six weeks that I spent in Amsterdam, I went everywhere. I was lost all of the time on a variety of different borrowed bikes, and I used to ride for eight or ten hours a day. I still find myself saying upon arriving in a new neighborhood "oh I know this place, I was lost here once!" But the area above the Westerpark (I was on the Zoutkeetsgracht) was totally new to me. It was very Amsterdam - boats, canals, small bridge - but there seemed to be something particularly charming about it, and I rode around for a while exploring when I headed out. Before leaving, I talked to a a friend about doing a short film project together. When I left, I felt inspired, and very lucky to be exactly where I am.

October 21, 2008

Good thing I had already wanted to change my plans

Ever since early 2005, I've been flying on Air India to get from Newark Airport (one of the 3 NYC area airports) to Charles de Gaulle, in Paris. The flight has never changed - it leaves from either 9pm or 10pm from Newark every day, and at 2.30pm every day from Paris. So when I moved to Europe this past April, I bought roundtrip tickets. I left from Newark Airport on 20 April, and my return ticket was for 22 December.

Over the past several days I had been thinking a lot about travel, money, holidays, etc., and decided that rather than go home for Hanukkah/Christmas/New Years, I would stay here in Europe. A huge part of that decision is due to financial reasons - even though I have (well, had) a ticket to the US, I would still have to purchase one back to Europe and fly at a very expensive time. Being in the states over the holidays would mean running all over the place on trains or buses or renting a car - also expensive. Then the major deciding factor came - there were some schedule changes in weddings and events that I'm planning to attend in the spring/summer of 2009, and basically I know that I'll be taking a trip to the states in both May and August. It started to not make any sense to have 3 trips to the states planned for an 8-month period, all at peak travel times. If I have to let one of those trips go, the winter trip makes the most sense. I would rather be in the states when the weather is nice, when I have more money saved up, when the rest of the world isn't all trying to travel at the same time, and so on. So having made that decision, I called the Air India office in Amsterdam to find out the best way of changing my e-ticket. I have done this with Air India in the past and it wasn't complicated.

Well, it wasn't very complicated when Air India was still flying from Paris to New York. Turns out that daily flight has gotten the ax as of this month! Wow, good thing I wasn't planning to use my ticket home, huh? I wondered if they would have bothered to tell me anything if I hadn't checked. I talked to a few different people yesterday, none of which could really help me, except to say that there were no other flights available for the 22nd of December. I was advised to send an email, since I purchased the ticket online - anyway, to make a long, confusing story much shorter, I was pleasantly surprised to actually receive an email back from the airline about 12 hours later. They told me I could change the ticket to fly in late April 2009, re-booked on continental airlines, for a $75 USD charge. That's exactly what I was hoping for, and that $75 USD charge is the same price I paid about three years ago to change a ticket. I mean, I still wish the airline had contacted me to let me know about this pretty major detail, but in the end it all seems to be working out (assuming Continental doesn't go out of business before April 2009).

And now I'm left to my own devices for a winter holiday in Europe! I have a lot of time off work between Christmas and New Years, and I'm pretty excited about making some travel plans. I've been feeling pretty anxious to travel somewhere new lately, but between financial reasons and having so many visitors in Amsterdam, it seemed like I wouldn't get more than a weekend away. Now I have sixteen days to work with, and since I have plenty of time to plan and I'm just sticking to Europe, I can keep it all very affordable. Right now I'm thinking of taking that time to travel slowly from southwest Austria (starting in Innsbruck) to southern Italy (maybe going all the way to Sicily). If I think about all the things I'm likely to be missing by the time December rolls around, it's snow, mountains, and sun (well, I already miss the mountains). With 16 days in that area of Europe, I could get all of that! I'll have to do a little more research into it, but I remember that train travel in Italy isn't very expensive. I'm looking at flights right now that are priced between €7 to €55 - a whole lot cheaper than flying to or from New York City! I might stick to Amsterdam through Christmas and then travel from the 26th of December through the 6th or 7th of January, which would make things even more affordable ... can you tell that as I write, I have five different airline and train websites in the background? I love this part of the planning process, when everything seems like a good idea. The only place in Austria I ever spent time in is Vienna, and in Italy I've just been to Rome (twice) and spent many hours sitting in a park in Bari, so this would all be fairly new for me.

So, if anyone reading has advice/tips/recommendations for what to do with two weeks in Austria and Italy in late December and early January, I'm all ears. I wouldn't even normally plan this much in advance, but traveling around the holidays - even at "off" times or days - well, things do get booked. If anyone else is in the same position as me, let me advise you to check in with your airlines and confirm your plans now! Hopefully the next time I use Air India, it will be to actually go to India. Too bad, I'll miss having some decent food on my cross-Atlantic flights.

October 16, 2008

As I write this blog post, I have the latest US presidential debate in the background. I still haven't figured out what I want to do on election day. Do I stay up all night watching the results? Do I go to Presidents Night at the Melkweg? It's basically an election night type of party - well, i guess the atmosphere of the "party" will depend on how the results turn out. Do I just go to sleep at a normal time, wake up in the morning, and find out what happened? The Netherlands is 6 hours ahead of the east coast, 9 hours ahead of the west coast. Voting booths close around 8pm around the country (maybe later), so that will be 2am here.

I'm registered in California, which will vote democratic. I have many, many doubts about my absentee ballot being used for anything other than recycling container filling, but I'm sending it in - if for no other reason than to take part in what will (hopefully) be the biggest overseas vote in history. When some reporter says "record amounts of Americans living abroad sent in absentee ballots this year," I want to be part of that record-breaking number. It's all I can really do - well that, and donate money to Obama's campaign on behalf of some of my European friends (I've been asked a few times!).

Anyway, three weeks from now we'll have the answer. Until then, I am grateful that the Daily Show streams episodes from the website, because it's a wonderful relief.

Focusing on day-to-day life in Amsterdam, I'm wondering what happened to my bike overnight to make my front wheel squeak and made me work twice as hard to pedal to work this morning. I'm still having a really great time climbing, taking Dutch classes once a week, going to the movies one or two nights a week, trying to find time to sleep. But there's a few important things I really need to take care of that I've been putting on the backburner.

1. Find a doctor, dentist, and optometrist. I've got this great health care that I'm not putting to use!

2. Get my roommate registered at my apartment, which means hoping that my landlord agrees to write a letter saying that he can stay. My (Australian) roommate has to go through the same process as I did in order to get his address registered, apply for a SOFI/BSN number, and then a bank account.

3. Order some curtains that actually fit my bedroom window and get a real internet connection set up at home, rather than just cross my fingers that the open network I use remains open.

4. Buy a ticket to Paris. I really miss my friends there, and I've been anxious for a weekend trip out of town. There's a million places I haven't been that I would love visit, but I think a weekend with good friends in a city that will always feel like home sounds like a good November trip.

5. Figure out what to be for Halloween! Yes, even here in Holland, I found out about a huge Halloween party planned for the 31st. I'll go ahead and add "Halloween costume" to my top priorities- after all, what's more fun - making a costume or going to the dentist?

October 13, 2008

Ten days in Amsterdam

I had a good friend in town for the past ten days, so I took a bit of a break from blogging (and everything else) to enjoy my time with her. It was her first time in Amsterdam, third or fourth time in Europe, and I was (obviously) hoping to show her a good time. When I said goodbye to her this morning, she said everything had been perfect, so mission accomplished! She was originally planning to do some day trips to other nearby cities, but ended having such a good time just hanging around Amsterdam - and we still didn't do tons of things that we talked about. Here's a brief-as-possible rundown of her trip, in case you're wondering what someone does with ten days in this city.

Day One, Saturday: picked her up at the airport and encouraged her to nap (the time difference from NY to Amsterdam is rough!) while I ran some errands during the day - she didn't protest. When she woke up we took a walk around my neighborhood, I showed her where the bio supermarket is, and we started catching up on the past five months of our lives. Once it got dark, I put her on the back of my bike at night and cycled us over to Cinema Paradiso for a lovely Italian meal - we spent at least 3 or 4 hours in the restaurant and had ample time to catch up, one on one. Went out for drinks with some friends at a bar on the same street, then rode back to my house around 1am and stayed up late with whiskey and good conversation.

Day Two, Sunday: dinner party at home! What better way to introduce her to what my life is like in Amsterdam? I put out the word and got about 12 people in my apartment for a really nice little party. The day was spent food shopping (me) and jogging (her).

Day Three-Six, Monday-Thursday: I had to work these days, so she was on her own to explore. She took a yoga class, went to the Van Gogh museum, read a book in Vondelpark, ate lots of appelflaps and stoopwafels, and rode around the city on her rental bike. We went to the movies at De Niewe Anita (Monday), and enjoyed a long dinner at my place with some friends on Wednesday. On Thursday night, we stopped in a coffeeshop where a friend works, dropped by Da Portare Via (Leliegracht 34) for a pizza, and ended the night with big glasses of German beer at the Soundgarden.

Day Seven, Friday: I took the day off from work and we took the ferry over to Amsterdam Nord with our bikes. We spent several hours riding around, and I did my best to recall the bike ride I went on back in early June, when my old roommate took me to a really great cafe with tables on the water. I couldn't believe it, but I found the cafe, it was a beautiful day, and Ayelet got the full Amsterdam Nord experience - farms, windmills, water, big open spaces. When we got back to the city, we went to the Ij Brewery (aka: "the windmill bar") and had a glass of beer on the patio. We intended to go out that night but found ourselves quite content with wine, food, and good conversation.

Day Eight, Saturday: started the day by wandering around the Jordaan market, where I convinced myself I needed just about everything that was being sold but only walked away with a bag of lentils, a big hunk of feta cheese, and some olives. I wanted her to experience a piece of apple pie at de Winkel (on the corner of the Westerstraat), but so did everyone else in Amsterdam - the line was insane! So we stopped in a nearby bakery, got some pastries, and took everything over to Vondelpark. After a breakfast of ... well, basically sugar, we stopped at a really amazing chocolate shop for dessert. We bought our chocolates over to the museumplein, sat on the grass, and people-watched before going out for an early evening drink at a pretty basic Dutch "brown bar." Basically the entire day was spent riding around the city, eating, and drinking. On Saturday night we went to a screening at the Kriterion for the Balkan Film Festival and then out to a few clubs and bars that night.

Day Nine, Sunday: We split up for most of the day - she went to return her rental bike, visit one of the English-language bookshops, and do some souvenir shopping while I went rock climbing. When we caught up later that evening, she wanted to go out to dinner, someplace that was open late, nothing fancy, preferably with good meat or fish. I asked some friends for advice and ended up at Cafe De Ponteneur - open until 1am Sunday-Thursday, and until 2am on Fridays and Saturdays. The food and atmosphere were great, and it is one of the only places in Amsterdam I've been without an English menu! I liked that - I used my limited Dutch vocabulary to get through the list of food (and asked the waitress for a few translations).

And day ten, Monday... she left! It seemed so quick - we never made it to Nemo, the Rijksmuseum, and I never gave her a proper tour of the red light district. The weather was too beautiful to be inside museums, and since both of us love food and movies - it makes perfect sense that her trip to Amsterdam was built mainly around food, cinema, and of course cycling. For someone who had not been on a bicycle in a really long time, she took to riding around on the back of mine like a pro, and instantly took to the whole cycling culture in Amsterdam. I can't emphasize this enough: she is not a bike person. I've known her almost my entire life, and she's never been interested in cycling, either as exercise or just as a form of transportation. But by the time she was leaving Amsterdam she said that returning her rental bike felt like "losing a limb" and she was already realizing how much easier life could be in Brooklyn if she had her own bicycle.

My friend said her favorite part of the trip was the bike ride around Amsterdam Nord. My favorite part of the trip was just simply having her around. I mentioned this to someone this morning, but I felt like most of her trip was just doing all the normal stuff (eating, drinking, hanging out with friends) - it's just that all the normal stuff was a million times better because she was around.

October 3, 2008

Looking forward to the airport hug

Is there anything better than the airport/train station greeting? Hellos are the best, especially when you're saying hello to a dear friend that you haven't seen in five months. Especially when that friend shows up at the airport in Amsterdam! A very close friend of mine from New York - someone I've known since childhood - will be visiting for the next 10 days. We have great experiences traveling and living together (we shared an apartment in Brooklyn for almost a year), and I can't wait to have her here. One of the things we have most in common is food.

I love food. A lot. I love eating, cooking, preparing, prepping, thinking about cooking, shopping for ingredients, everything. When Ayelet asks what I've done over the weekend, I always include what I ate and drank and how it played into whatever activity I was doing. When she tells me that she went out to dinner with some mutual friends in NYC, my first question is not "so how is everyone doing?" it's "so what did you order?" And while Holland isn't particularly known for its cuisine, there are still some gems here in Amsterdam and I intend to keep discovering more. One thing I've noticed is that the winter vegetables like pumpkin and squash are really tasty right now and suddenly I want butternut squash to be in everything I eat.

Since I have a friend visiting I'm going to use that as motivation to get my off-peak train travel card and a museum card, which will allow me access to 29 different museums in Amsterdam for about €40. The card is good for one year, and if you live in Amsterdam you can simply order one online. I'll probably just pick mine up at Uitburo (AUB), Leidseplein 26. And next weekend I'm very much looking forward to catching a few movies during the Balkan Film Festival, 9-11 October, at the Kriterion and Studio K. Speaking of film, I went to The Movies a few days ago - The Movies is actually the name of a beautiful old cinema on the Haarlemmerdijk, and it was a lovely venue. Nice, big chairs, a beautiful lobby, and a nice looking bar.

I'm really looking forward to re-discovering Amsterdam a bit this week, but mostly, I just can't wait to eat and drink with one of my best friends... and see if I can get her on a bicycle a few times.