December 25, 2008

Road trip, European style!

The days that lead up to my road trip from Amsterdam to Aprilia, Italy were hectic and incredibly fun. I was very proud of myself for remembering to make a second set of bike keys before I left and get myself some insurance. Insurance in the Netherlands is easy and cheap, if you do it through your bank - or at least it was for me, I never know if these things are generally easy or if I just keep getting lucky. I ran into ABN AMRO on Friday afternoon at 4.30pm, and I left at 5pm with liability, travel, and apartment (renters) insurance. Basically, my apartment can burn down or get robbed, I can run over someone on my bike and injure them drastically, and I can lose my laptop and camera and all my clothes while I'm traveling and I'll be totally covered, all for about 10 Euros a month. Amazing! All that combined with the fact that I have health insurance makes me feel like the safest person in the world.

Anyway, I had fun saying goodbye to Amsterdam. Even though I've been thinking for a while now that I really wanted to get out of the city (just because it had been a while since my last trip), the fact is, I always have such a good time being in Amsterdam that forcing myself away from the city doesn't seem that urgent. However, after a few hours of sleep, I woke up on the 21st of December (a Sunday) to leave for a fabulous road trip to Italy. Joining me were three other great people I met through Couch Surfing, all of us on a mission to take V's car back to its home in Aprilia (about 50 km south of Rome). So what's one of the least fun ways to start a sunday morning road trip? Finding out the car you're planning to take has been broken into! As far as breakins go, this was a "lucky" one. Someone had smashed the drivers side window and messed with the lock, but they didn't actually take anything or mess with the car beyond that - and for once it didn't rain, so the car was dry on the inside.

But obviously, it's hard to feel lucky when you're looking at a car that has a 1500 km trip ahead, in December, through Germany and Switzerland, and there's no window.

That's where our good friend plastic came in. We were all determined to go, window or no window, so we taped up some plastic to where the window had once been, the glass was cleaned up, and off we went. We all knew that the fact that it was Sunday was going to make getting the window fixed more difficult, and the fact that the car was insured in Italy and not the Netherlands made things even more complected, and of course the owner of the car didn't have time to make a police report. After I finally managed to get a cup of coffee (the fact that I even left the house that morning without coffee was a very rare thing for me to do) and could start thinking clearly, I made a few calls and we all started to work together to call service agencies and emergency roadside repair places. I know a lot more about how to fix a car in the Netherlands on a Sunday now than I ever knew I would, so let me share a piece of information: it's really expensive if you're not insured in the Netherlands. If you are insured here, then you're in good shape, because someone will come out and fix your car without a problem and it won't cost you anything (I'm taking about a broken window of course, that's where my experience begins and ends). But if you don't have Dutch insurance, a temporary window - really just some hard plastic - will cost you €185 if it's a Sunday. That's a lot of money.

To make a long story short, we drove all the way to Freiburg, Germany with plastic on the window. And honestly, it wasn't really that bad. We weren't cold, it didn't rain, and the only annoying thing was the noise. But no one pulled us over and the plastic held strong the entire way. The four of us switched around a lot in the car, except for me - since I don't have an EU driver license, I was really only a "last resort" driver. I had a good time the entire way, but of course we were all happy to arrive at our destination for the night and meet up with our CS hosts. A dinner party was thrown together, wine was opened, and within 5 minutes we were all laughing and joking around and having a good time. I went to sleep that night in a comfortable bed and felt amazingly lucky and content.

After sharing a really nice breakfast with our hosts the next morning (Monday, the 22nd), the 4 of us gathered together again to head out for the day with a little bit of a delay. See, we had all assumed that Germany would be the answer to our car problems. I mean, it's Germany! Germans love cars, they're efficient, and they know how to fix things. But the first 3 places my friends tried didn't work and they all sent us in the direction of a repair place a bit outside the city. The good news, when we got to that place, was that they could fix it, and fix it properly and perfectly. The bad news was that it would take a few hours - but all things considered, that wasn't so bad. The owner of the car was happy that her window would get fixed the right way, not just with a temporary solution. We had food, we all had books and computers, and there was a really comfortable waiting area. When we were asked if we wanted coffee, we all enthusiastically said yes - and about 10 minutes later, a wonderful angel from German Car Repair Heaven bought out 4 real cups of coffee (I was expecting something instant) with real milk and sugar and cookies and cakes. I have to say, that small gesture completely made our morning. Everything was fixed and ready to go by about 3pm, and we were back on the road. Fortunately, we had just enough daylight left to see some beautiful parts of Switzerland. The sunset was beautiful, the Alps are spectacular, and seeing a landscape that is the total opposite of Holland felt really special.

We had to drop one of our travelers off near Milan, and I was sad to see him go. When you spend 2 days in a car with someone, you do get this bond to them - I felt like we had all become a little international family (we came from the US, Brazil, the UK, and Italy). He headed off to Genoa and me and my two friends drove the rest of the night to our destination, arriving around 3.30am. I slept like a rock until 12.30pm the next day, and woke up to a beautiful lunch being served by my host. I was drinking wine before I even had a sip of coffee and I saw palm trees and sunshine when I started my day. I mean, if those two things aren't the sign of a good holiday, I don't know what is.

There where three specific things I wanted to note down that happened as soon as we arrived in Italy: everyone started to drive like a lunatic, a very thick fog surrounded us for hours and hours, and the food instantly became incredible. Honestly, a highway rest stop in Italy could be a fancy restaurant in a different country. We stopped a few times for coffee along the way and I give a lot of credit to the drivers of the car, because the fog was really, really intense for a really long time.

It's Christmas Eve now (actually, Christmas day), and I feel completely at home in my friends apartment in Rome. I'm hoping to keep this blog pretty well updated during my trip, so I'll leave this post off here for now. Happy holidays!

December 16, 2008

The song "Hazy Shade of Winter" was written about days like this one

I love fog. It makes everything seem mysterious and spooky, or at least I make up a story in my mind that turns Amsterdam at 10am into a spooky, secretive type of world. Hey, when it's -1°C (30°F) and I'm trying to psych myself into leaving my house and getting on my bike, the one thing that works for me is making up stories.

This previous weekend was a really nice combination of running around and having fun but having enough time to relax with friends. On Saturday I went to my final Italian lesson in the early afternoon, met up with a fellow expat blogger around mid-day, and went out dancing at Occii at night. I must sound like a broken record here, but a Saturday night at Occii is another example of why I love Amsterdam so much. As soon as the music started playing, people started dancing - no one stood around being too cool or too disinterested (ahem, New Yorkers, I'm looking at you). It was really cold that night as well, but by the time I left I barely noticed the temperature and enthusiastically rode my bike through the park without holding on to the handlebars. All the other people that were out were in a similar state as me (as in, we had all probably had more than a couple drinks), and it seemed like none of us could feel the cold. Even the group of French tourists that had managed to fall all over each other and their bikes in the cycle lane on Sarphatistraat were having a good time, and didn't mind that I laughed at them as I tried to make my way through.

On Sunday night I said goodbye to a good friend - one of the first girls I met when I moved to Amsterdam, someone that I definitely got used to having around. I try not to be too sad about friends leaving (especially since I've been the friend that leaves so many times), but when they leave to go to Australia, it's always a bit harder. I mean, Australia isn't a place I can just hop over to for the weekend. Still, if there's one thing I've learned from moving around from place to place, it's that the goodbyes are never final.

There's only five days now before my trip, but in my mind, I'm already pretty much on holiday now. I got together with my travel companions (the people who I'll be driving with) recently so that we could all get to know each other a little better (a good idea, considering we committed to spending 2 days in a car together!). Not only do we get along, I already feel like the three of them are old friends. We're leaving at noon on Sunday, and I can't wait.

It's about 12.30 on Tuesday afternoon, and from my office windows Amsterdam looks like a scene from a fairy tale. The old houses with their triangle roofs, the naked tree branches, the absolute white sky, and the thick fog that is still hanging in the air. Absolutely beautiful. I just wish the canals would freeze...

December 10, 2008

Countdown to vacation

Can anyone else believe there's only [fill in your amount of days here] until [the deadline for whatever you have coming up]? I have 10 days before I leave for Italy!

I saw the last movie of 2008 at the OT 301 last night - and what a way to end the year - Guy Maddin double feature! When I first walked in to the OT301, I was in a half-annoyed mood. Annoyed really isn't the right word, but I felt a rant coming on... how is it that I can walk around in a major European city on a Tuesday night at 9.30pm and still not find anything to eat? I literally walked in and out of 2 different supermarkets, 2 different night shops, a few other quick-food type of restaurants, before settling on take out indonesian. Rice, tofu, egg, tempeh - it's not terrible, it was fairly cheap, but still. Why, why can't there just be some fresh bread at the supermarket? Why is 9.30pm such a late time to get a decent dinner?

Anyway, when I entered the OT301, I bought my ticket (4 Euros) to see an amazing movie I've never seen before. I ordered a beer in English (I actually try to do that in Dutch most times, but at this place a lot of people that volunteer don't speak Dutch). The two folks behind the counter started speaking French to each other. French music played in the background. Another group of people came up and started speaking in Spanish. And by the time I had started to eat my food, I was eavesdropping on another conversation going on in Italian. Dutch was being spoken somewhere in the background. Ok, so I have to accept that this is not the city of my dreams in terms of food. But it is a city where I can bring my crappy Indonesian takeout into a legal squat-turned-movie-theater on Tuesday nights, eat it while I drink a 2 euro beer, enjoy the free wireless and sounds of five different languages swirling around me while I waited for my friends.

The wintertime in Amsterdam hasn't really been so bad yet - there's actually some great things you can do during the winter that aren't quite the same during the summer. Like finding an almost empty bruin café in the Jordaan, the type of place that is the very definition of gezellig. It was a small, modest little bar with a beautiful view, and had the perfect atmosphere for a cold winter night. A friend and I each had one drink, sat for about 2 1/2 hours, and were happily left alone to just enjoy our conversation. And even though it seems kind of daunting to ride home at 2am when it's zero degrees (32 fahrenheit), after a couple minutes I had warmed up from cycling as quickly as I could down the Marnixstraat. Only what... four more months to go, before it might start getting warmer again? I think I can handle it. Every so often there's a morning like today, where it's bright and sunny and not that cold, I hear the folks opening their shops call out "good morning" to each other, the tourists walking around seem delighted with all the boats, and things are good. I know I'm lucky that I don't have to wake up and go to work in the darkness, by the time I get out of bed in the morning, the sun is up.

Last night the sky was clear, and on my way home I decided to ride down the Stadhouderskade for fun. That's the road that's under serious construction and while there is a path carved out for bikes, a huge part of that is those big metal-type plates laying on top of sand (the sand that is underneath the street they're ripping up). Seeing stuff like that really blows my mind, I mean, sand! I grew up in the mountains. If you dug a whole in the street of New Paltz, you would not find sand, you would find dirt. Anyway, riding over those boards, on top of sand, in the middle of Amsterdam - that's really surreal. Like being on the beach, except - ok, the sand reminds me of being at the beach, that's really it. I could just as easily avoid the construction and take a different road home, but I like the oddness of that chunk of road, and I love crossing the Amstel over the Mauritskade bridge.

Things are really, really, really busy right now - but with every passing minute I'm more and more in holiday mode. I know these next ten days will fly by, hopefully with lots of fun along the way.

December 4, 2008

Check your lights

There's a law in the Netherlands that says cyclists must use lights when they ride at night. White in the front, red in the back. A lot of people have lights on their bike, but those get stolen frequently - my solution is to keep little lights pinned to the bag I always carry. As long as I go out with the same bag every time (which I do about 90% of the time), I always remember my lights.

The other day I actually got stopped on the way home for a bike-light check! Ok, my lights are pretty small, but they follow the rules, so I was good to go. A few other people weren't so lucky and the police were writing tickets.

It reminded me of one of my favorite Dutch TV commercials - a public service announcement that I first saw on

December 2, 2008

I just realized the leaves have mostly fallen off the trees...

I keep looking at the calender in amazement. December? how on earth did it get to be December? A lot has been going on the past couple weeks, and I have a feeling that the next several weeks are going to be just as busy - I just keep reminding myself of all the time off I'll have between 18 Dec - 7 Jan. I put in as much time as I could at the Documentary Film Festival, I've made all my Dutch and Italian lessons, and I managed to pull off a very successful Thanksgiving party. It meant a lot to me to see my home full of people, eating matzo ball soup and exclaiming over the size of the turkey when we took it out of the oven.

But let's get back to that vacation time I was talking about. My last day of work is 19 December, and I leave for Rome on the 21st of December - traveling by car! I can't believe my luck. Me and three other people are taking two days to drive from Amsterdam, stopping in Switzerland along the way. A real European road trip is something I've always wanted to do, and I can't imagine better timing. When I started looking at dates and prices to come back to Amsterdam, I just selected the cheapest price and ended up with a 30 Euro one-way ticket from Pisa back to Amsterdam. I don't intend to plan much in advance for this trip, other than to learn as much of the language as I can and probably buy a guide book. So much of my life has to be planned in advanced, organized, made into time tables. At work I handle other people's schedules. I really don't mind that kind of thing, but I'm very much looking forward to just letting all that go for a few weeks. Insanely, an old friend from New Paltz (the town where I grew up) is living in Naples and plans to be in Rome for Christmas, so hopefully we'll try to get together.

A short post, just limited by the fact that I have no free time. But it's not a bad thing - work is great, and my free time has simply been filled up by fun, friends, and food. Usually all at the same time, which is exactly the way I like it.