August 3, 2009

The more I move, the more I learn

I moved this past weekend, into my third apartment in Amsterdam in 15 months. In my last post I mentioned I was moving into a place in the Oud West, but that ended up not working out (long story) for me, though fortunately some friends of mine ended up taking the apartment. It was such a great place, I'm glad that I can visit!

My new home is in de Pijp, and after just 2 nights, I am so incredibly happy there. It's a ground floor apartment with a large backyard - one of those perfectly charming pijp homes with huge windows in the front and back and very high ceilings. Feeling like I'm living in the right neighborhood is everything to me, and after about 2 hours, I was absolutely sure I was living in the best spot in Amsterdam. It's the same feeling I had about living in Montmartre in Paris - there was no question in my mind that I could live anywhere else in that city. When the rest of Paris was annoying me (for instance, if I had to go shopping on a Saturday in the Marais, or go to work by the Eiffel Tower or in the horrible 16th district), I could always safely retreat back to my neighborhood and feel good and relaxed. The last three weeks that I lived in Paris, I was staying in the Marais, and I really didn't like it. For as much as I like being in that neighborhood (the history, the beauty, the fact that it was very central) and would often find myself there to hang out with friends, I didn't like actually living there.

Anyway, I'm getting the same feeling about different areas of Amsterdam. For instance, the Jordaan is a phenomenal neighborhood, and it's where I work. I recently spent about 10 days living in the Jordaan when I was dog-sitting for a colleague, and after the initial "it's great to be close enough to work to walk!" phase wore off, I was ready to leave. The problem is, anywhere in the Jordaan is going to be close to my office. If I lived in there permanently, I would constantly cycle past my office building, and my entire life would end up taking place in one small area of the city. Fortunately, it's a great area, which is why I love working there so much. It's also why I love that some of my friends live there, it's why I love going out for food or drinks or movies there. But I need some separation from my home life and my work life.

My main complaint about my now-former neighborhood (I lived at the Weesperplein from 1 July 2008 - two days ago) is that it just simply wasn't a neighborhood. It wasn't east enough to be east. It wasn't center enough to really be in the center. There weren't a lot of cool little bars, cafes, or shops within a 5-minute walk of my place (except for the Kriterion, which was great). I never got to know any of my neighbors. Now, before someone jumps in and says "oh it's impossible to get to know your neighbors in the Netherlands, everyone keeps to themselves and the Dutch don't let anyone it and everyone is so private," let me say - that's just simply not true. If that is something you're (you = the foreigner/expat) experiencing, than it's up to you to change something about the way you're approaching the situation. In my first neighborhood (the Oud Zuid, just south of Vondelpark), I lived there for 2 months. After a few weeks, I was regularly having friendly exchanges with all sorts of people in the neighborhood - Dutch and non-Dutch.

It's not to say that living among the Dutch doesn't take some getting used to. The idea that they want to live in apartment buildings that are very close together and that they'll keep their curtains open all the time, or even just leave their front doors wide open - it makes you think that they're happy to have neighbors and live communally. But should you dare make a noise after 11pm, or have friends over for dinner that starts at 10pm, you're breaking the rules and will receive complaints about the noise. Then you (you = the foreigner, or in this case, me) look around and point out that hey, we all live in apartments with giant windows that we want to keep open at night, of course, and these apartments aren't made to be soundproofed. But that's just part of city life, especially city life in an old European city, so ... get used to it, right? I mean, if you value peace and quiet so much, move to the country. Hearing my neighbors walk around has been part of every single apartment I ever lived in. Sometimes hearing parties, music, whatever. It just comes with the territory. The Dutch seem to think they can have it both ways. I disagree.

But this doesn't mean that the Dutch are unfriendly, and it doesn't mean that it's impossible to get to know your neighbors, and it doesn't mean that it's hard to find a place to fit in. I did have to change my lifestyle to suit my surroundings, but in a respectful way, I also required that my neighbors adjust to me. Eating dinner at 10pm with a group of friends who laugh and talk for hours isn't wrong, it's just not typically Dutch. We did eventually find a middle ground.

Getting back the the topic of neighborhoods: I just simply wasn't attached to the neighborhood around the Weesperplein whatsoever. It was an amazing apartment - spacious, a beautiful balcony, conveniently located next to 2 tram lines and the metro - but I grew tired of living in an area that just didn't suit my personality.

Now that I'm in de pijp, I feel 100% at home. Within the first few hours I had met several of the neighbors - some came over purposefully to introduce themselves. Strangers I never met before helped us out. I helped out a guy I had never met jump over the fence in my backyard because he locked himself out. There are tons of cafes, shops, bars, and restaurants all around me. On a Sunday evening I was able to buy fresh bread! (if you live in Amsterdam you understand how rare that is) There's tons of diversity, lots of different languages being spoken at all times. But most of all, there's the food.

If you ask just about any expat what their complaints are about the Netherlands, I'm willing to bet that most will say "the weather and the food." For me it's "the food." Period. The weather I can handle. However, I hate Albert Heijn. This is rough, because Albert Heijn - the big chain of supermarkets - is everywhere, and I really, really hate it. So I went out of my way to buy fruits and vegetables from the organic shops, I tried to make an effort to get to the markets on the weekend and to buy bread from the bakeries when they're are open during the day, etc. But now - now! I live just down the road from the giant Albert Cyup market, which is open 6 days a week. The wikipedia page says the market is the busiest in all of the Netherlands and according to rumour, it is the largest daytime market in Europe... the famous Dutch Stroopwafel can be found here, made fresh right before you. I live down the street from a little night shop that sells wonderful, fresh bread, 7 days a week, even late at night. Basically, I live in a neighborhood with a lot of foreign influence, a lot of Indian, Turkish, North African, and Surnamise people - and this has made the quality of the food improve about ten million percent. All of a sudden, everything is easier. I'm sure I'll go to the supermarket for the basic items, but now a majority of my grocery shopping can take place at the markets and at the small shops that sell their vegetables from bins on the sidewalk, and it's all right outside my door.

So if you're looking for a great neighborhood to reside in Amsterdam, I highly recommend de pijp. The only downside of my new place is that it's temporary - 3 or 4 months max (the owners will most likely sell it after that time). When I have to move out of this place, I'm going to try as hard as possible to not move out of the neighborhood. My new commute to work takes me through the museumplein, how could I give that up?

I plan to spend the next 2 weeks in a state of domestic bliss, and then head off on holiday (finally!). Holiday plans step one: 6-day sailing trip around the Croatian Islands to southern Italy. I can hardly wait... but in the meantime, I'll get to know my new neighborhood in Amsterdam. Oh, and as always, I moved with the help of friends and the White Van Man, who provided excellent service.

July 8, 2009

New apartment, new residence permit, same city

Ah, July in Amsterdam. There was a beautiful period where I was wearing summer dresses, covering my tattoos in sunblock when I left the house, and even dared to complain once or twice about the heat. Now we're getting back to normal, with freak thunderstorms during the day which abruptly change to blue skies with sun and then back again, all in the same hour. It's my 2nd July in Amsterdam, and I am feeling the "must take a summer holiday NOW" feeling bigtime. The cinemas I go to on a regular basis are all getting ready to close for their summer breaks. My office is emptying out with everyone taking vacation. I am eagerly looking forward to the 19th of August, when I get on a plane bound for Dubrovnick, Croatia. I'm meeting a group of friends in the city and then spending the next 6 days sailing around (weather permitting) and eventually crossing the Adriatic sea and ending the trip in Bari, Italy. From there I'll go to New York City for a couple days to see some friends, and then to California for 4 days to attend my brother's wedding.

Since I last updated, I've been on the search for a new apartment. My current apartment is beautiful and in a great location, but I'm in need of a 2-bedroom place. The idea of moving into a one-bedroom apartment was to live on my own, but I've never actually done that - I always end up with long term guests or temporary flatmates. My current temporary flatmate and I decided to make our arrangement official and look for a 2-bedroom place to call home. This prompted the great apartment search. Neither of us were too picky about location so we could keep our options open - we didn't consider Amsterdam Nord or anything too far off, but we did search the whole city using every resource we could think of. Using a broker (makelaar) was not something we considered doing - while paying someone to help you find a place will most likely result in finding a place quickly, we couldn't afford it (they typically charge what you would pay in rent for one month). We told everyone we knew, we searched Woningnet in the Vrije Sector, Marktplaats, craigslist, and a bunch of other places. We sent a million emails, made a million phone calls, and saw some really shitty places and some really beautiful places. In the end, we found a great place on the south end of the Overtoom, in the oud west neighborhood - the location is amazing (right next to Vondelpark!), the landlord is great, and the apartment is in really nice condition. Because everyone wants to know, we're paying 1150 Euros for a 2-bedroom place, which is all-inclusive. There's plenty of storage space, a small balcony that overlooks a courtyard, a great kitchen with a dishwasher (!!!!), and it's right next to a tram stop. It's about 15 minutes by bike for me to get to work and there are tons of stores, bars, cafes, and restaurants nearby. I'll be closer to a lot of my friends and really close to a lot of the places I like to hang out.

There was no big secret I can share about finding the apartment - yes, it's a very hard city to find a place to live, but it's possible. It just takes luck and perseverance and the knowledge that it's not going to be easy or fun. Yes, landlords are willing to compromise on rental prices, and yes, there are still some good landlords out there.

My application for my residence permit renewal is still with the IND - I don't foresee any problems, since my work contract was renewed. It cost 188 Euros to apply for the renewal, but fortunately my company reimburses me for that. Bureaucracy can be expensive. And once I move into this new apartment, I'll have to de-register at my old apartment and re-register at the new place, which I'm hoping I can just do online. All of this stuff starts to become routine after awhile, but again, I wouldn't ever say it's enjoyable. It's just part of living abroad, and part of living in The Netherlands.

Right now I'm anxiously awaiting a giant tax refund from The Netherlands. in 2008, I worked in Amsterdam from June through December, but I was taxed as though I had worked a full 12 months. This amounted to a nice sum of money that my Dutch accountant told me would get refunded. I asked around to my friends and colleagues, and they told me that the refund typically comes in July, as long as the taxes were filed on time (which they were). So, hey, Dutch tax authorities! It's July, go ahead and feel free to put that money in my bank account any day now.

Coming up this month: a long weekend in Berlin, but mostly, packing up and moving out to apartment #3. I'm absolutely sure this will not be my last apartment in Amsterdam, so I won't make any claims that I'll never move again. I'll miss my current place - I'll miss riding over the Amstel every day and drinking beer at the Kriterion - but apartment #3 comes with a lot of promises for happy times ahead.

June 5, 2009

Another new beginning

The past few weeks have been pretty amazing.

First, there was Ascension day, which I'm linking to because I had no idea what it was celebrating. Ok, ascending, so it must be when Jesus goes up to heaven, right? But doesn't that happen around Easter? So did he come back down and then go up again? Whatever it is (you can google it if you care), it means all businesses are closed in the Netherlands, so it quickly became one of my favorite holidays. It was a Thursday, and man, there is just nothing like having a random weekday off from work. During that day I saw a piece of impromptu theater in Vondelpark, had a 3-hour lunch with friends followed by an amazing dinner with different friends and a documentary screening at a former squat in the oud west. I felt like I was on vacation in my own city, except it was even better because I knew how to get everywhere.

The days are very long now. The sun doesn't set until about 10.30pm, and the sunsets are long and beautiful. On the flip side, I'm getting constant reminders about how late I tend to stay up, as the sun wakes me up every morning around 4.30am.

There was another public holiday just a few days ago, on 1 June - Whit Monday, which is celebrated "seven weeks after Easter Monday, marking the day the Holy Spirit entered the disciples left behind and the beginning of their ministry." Another holiday I never knew existed before, but granted me the day off from work. This time I celebrated by going on an overnight trip to Maastricht, the southern most city in the Netherlands (very close to Belgium). The weather was absolutely amazing, so I spent most of my time in that city just walking around outside, happy to be in the sun. It's a beautiful city and very different from Amsterdam, definitely a place I would recommend visiting.

I went to the huge Damoclash party at the ADM. It was a comeback party, described as "The comeback is as it should be: on a huge squatted terrain, away from the hectic city-life." The journey out there and back was almost as fun as the party - the bike ride took about an hour each way (from the center of Amsterdam to the party). Me and my party companions rode out there at sunset, passing by huge windmills the entire way there. We drank and sang songs and somehow didn't get lost. It took a lot of motivation to get on our bikes and go - none of us are used to having to cycle for more than 20 minutes to get anywhere, so the idea of cycling way out past the city limits of Amsterdam at first seemed daunting. But the fabulous weather and the promise of a fun party got us out, and it was worth it.

So, okay. I've been to some new places, I saw some new things, and I'm planning some great trips. But on a very selfish note, my favorite part of the past few weeks was last night, 4 June - my 30th birthday! I'm a big fan of birthdays in general, especially my own. On the night of 3 June, I stayed up late baking so I could have something to bring to work with me on the 4th. This is a Dutch tradition - the birthday person always brings in the treats on their own birthday. My colleagues happily ate up the chocolate-chip banana bread I made in the morning, and then we toasted in the late afternoon with a bottle of red wine. When I was done with work, I went home, put on a party dress, and sat down to dinner with 11 good friends in my apartment. It was absolutely perfect - my friends were all running around, cooking, blending, and stirring. I was totally overwhelmed by how loved I felt and how perfect the night was. I heard three different languages going on at the dinner table at any given moment and the last guest didn't leave until after 1am.

My favorite birthday greeting came from my friend Kate in New York City: You put the "daaaaamn" in Amsterdam.

Bring on thirty! I think I'm ready. The official birthday party is this Saturday night, and is actually more of a party for my friend Fabio, who was actually born on 6 June. I'm just tagging along because I like parties (and it's at my house). If you're reading and you're a friend of mine here, get in touch if you want to join!

May 14, 2009

Amsterdam, Year Two - officially begins now

I think that for as long as I will live in the Netherlands, there will be one sight I'll never get used to. There's something that I just don't think will ever, ever look normal to me.

Wednesday afternoon: It's lunchtime, and I go to my favorite sandwich shop and wait my turn. There are 4 very well-dressed Dutch guys ahead of me, fancy haircuts and tailored suits and stylish shoes. Ages about late 20's to early 40's. They order their sandwiches and then place their choice of drink on the counter - all four men choose the same thing: milk. Milk! I know this whole drinking-milk-with-lunch thing (and even dinner) as an adult isn't limited to the Netherlands, but it's my first time seeing it on a regular basis. It doesn't matter what lunch is, it could be pizza, a roast beef sandwich, a salad with salmon - a Dutch person will accompany this meal with a 1/2 liter of milk.

I suppose it doesn't help that I've always disliked drinking milk, even as a little kid.

However much I never ever ever plan on joining the Dutch in this particular aspect of their lives, I am incredibly happy to know that I can continue to observe the adult-drinking-milk-with-lunch phenomenon for at least one more year. My work contract has been renewed! So I can breathe a sigh of relief for a million reasons, but here are the top three:

1. it's a horrible time to be out of work right now, which obviously isn't news to anyone (though this article mentions that there has been no rise in unemployment in the Netherlands - the overall unemployment level of 4.4% is the same this year as it was last year).
2. I really, really like my job. This is very special, and I know how lucky I am to be able to say that, I remember that every day.
3. I really, really love Amsterdam, and staying in this city (legally) is dependent on having a job sponsor me.

When I went climbing last night, everything seemed just a little bit better, a little bit happier, because of this renewed contract. My climbing partner is a very good friend, and last night as we sat outside watching the boats go by, I realized I had known him for an entire year. In the grand scheme of life, that isn't very long. But for my life here in Amsterdam, it's forever. When we left the gym shortly after 10pm, it was still a little light outside. A group of people sat in a grassy area on a canal around a large campfire. I'm sure that campfires aren't legal within the city of Amsterdam, but I see them all the time in parks and little grassy areas tucked away somewhere. it's such a strange thing, that this city can be so densely populated but it's still so easy to find quiet areas and out of the way spots. This particular fire went on for at least 2 hours, uninterrupted, with a gang of about 8 people hanging out, and it didn't seem to be in any danger of being stopped anytime soon. As my friend and I left the gym, we crossed the bridge that takes us back into the city, and he said "This is very special, this scene right here - it's so amazing, and so hard to put into words why it's amazing, and is so completely indescribable to anyone who hasn't lived here." He's also an expat, but has lived in the Netherlands for about five years.

So yes, big sighs of relief all around. I'm still happy here, and I have a good feeling about Year Two in Amsterdam. The next big thing on my horizon is looking for a new apartment! My sights are set at a 2-bedroom place (I have a great new flatmate), my ideal neighborhood would be de baarsjes. I have no complaints about my current apartment (which I have always called "the Castle"), it's in a great location and it's huge. But 2 bedrooms will make all the difference, and I'm excited for the change. Not so excited to actually look for and find a new place, but fortunately I still have time for that. My first 2 apartments just fell into my lap with no effort... maybe I can get lucky a third time.

May 4, 2009

From over the Atlantic

It's somewhere between May 3rd and May 4th for me, and I'm on a plane - I'll post this once I'm on the ground somewhere. There's this lovely tradition I seem to have of not being able to leave a country without being either very, very tired and/or feeling a twinge of regret for how much I had to drink the night before. I can't just can't seem to travel after a good night of sleep, a clear head, and a full stomach.

So that's how I'm saying goodbye to the US. Tired, hungry, and still putting together all the pieces of the previous evening (which happened to be the wedding of one of my best friends!), which ended around 4.30am. I was in the US for about 17 days, and it felt like a very long time in a very good way. I stopped thinking about work after the first few days. I slept late, I had long lunches and dinners with friends, I had some nice weather, I saw the mountains, I played with dogs and babies. I got really used to being home (well, one of my homes) and hanging out with friends I've known for most of my life. As I ran around New York and Philadelphia I kept passing by places I used to live. How many places can feel so familiar, so that you don't have to look at maps, you know the postal code, you run into people you know without trying? They add up after a while. After I drove by Former Apartment Number 7, I almost felt exhausted.

Whenever I was asked the question "So, are you happy in Amsterdam, do you feel like you could stay?" My answer was always "Yes." And then, if the person was a pretty good friend, I would go on to explain myself by saying that, for the first time in my life, I'm not planning the Next Big Thing. I can't promise I'll stay in Amsterdam forever (I would never make such a claim), but there has never been a time in my life when I wasn't daydreaming about the next place I would live or the next big adventure in my life. Of course I still want to travel and make documentaries and hitchhike through Australia and walk around the Nepalese mountains. None of that has changed. But there's no big change actually being planned, there's nothing I'm saving up for, I'm just... happy and content. There's no better evidence of that then the fact that I do not have a new master plan. Anyone who is reasonably close to me would hear this explanation and then respond "Wow," because I've never said something like that before.

I had the "is the economic crisis hitting Amsterdam the way it's hitting here?" conversation constantly. TV ads, billboards, subway posters, magazine covers - everything there was about the economy (or swine flu). Sometimes the ads were funny, like the subway poster that was advertising a car service where you can use a car for a few hours at a time (like Greenwheels in Amsterdam). "Owning your own car is so pre-recession" was the tagline. But there were also way more serious things going on, the same horrible first-hand stories about not having access to health care or having to pay too much to see a doctor. It seemed like every other commercial I heard on the radio or TV was about the crisis in some way. It was intense. It was something everyone had an opinion about.

Of course I missed my bicycle a lot and I kept feeling slightly hindered by the fact that I didn't have a bike to use. I noticed huge improvements in the way New York City is promoting cycling. It's one of those things that, yeah, sure, there was always "share the road" signs (with a picture of a car and bicycle) hanging around the city, but this time there was an actual difference that I could see - more bike lanes. It's still not enough, it's still been a long time coming, but I was delighted to see the freshly painted bike lanes on the roads and way more street signs up specifically for cyclists. A friend of mine told me that the number of cyclists going over the Williamsburg bridge (which connects part of Brooklyn to Manhattan, and is the bridge I used to ride over) has increased by something like 200% in the past year!

Even though my vacation did feel long and allowed me some very leisurely days, I also ran around a lot. Lots of buses, trains, cars, and subways. I slept in a bunch of different places so I was usually lugging around a lot of stuff with me at all times. This is the nicest part about going home to Amsterdam... just being in my own apartment with access to a washing machine whenever I want one, being able to have coffee exactly the way I like it, sleeping in my own bed, and of course, watching the sun set from my balcony. I'm curious to see what the rest of the spring and summer brings. I have some interesting plans on the horizon, a few trips being planned, and some big changes ahead, but first things first: let's just get my job contract renewed. Once that's taken care of, or the paperwork is in place to start getting that taken care of (basically, once I'm assured that I will have a job after 9 June), I'll breath a sigh of relief and start thinking about everything else.

April 27, 2009

Another American Expat in America

Finally! After a cold and rainy week, the weather in New York has gone from winter to summer overnight, and I spent the past couple days in shorts, dresses, and even bought a new pair of sunglasses - for $5 on Broadway in SoHo. Sunglasses should always cost $5, always be purchased on the street. That's just the way it is. I've probably bought 15 pairs of sunglasses from the same guy at this point.

This past saturday morning in Brooklyn I walked though my old neighborhood to meet a friend for breakfast (iced coffee and bagels!), and it seemed like every single person in the entire neighborhood was outside. There were the groups of big, fat, tough guys, drinking beer out of paper bags and listening to rap blasting out of their illegally parked car. One block away, there was a group of skinny teenage boys, yelling at each other as they listened to Spanish music blasting out of their illegally parked car. Old women sat on their front porches, bicycles of all shapes and sizes were zooming down the street, every single cafe had their doors and windows wide open and outside seating was full. Summer in Brooklyn had begun, which is an odd thing to say in late April.

When I was done with breakfast, I took the subway to Grand Central Station (I was headed to my hometown in upstate New York, about 2 hours from the city). When I transferred at Union Square to head uptown, I picked up my suitcase to carry it up the 3 flights of stairs. A guy walking behind me said "here, let me help you with that." My reaction as a New Yorker was to think immediately, "why is this stranger talking to me, what does he want, and no way am I letting him touch my bag which has my computer in it." My 2-second delayed reaction as a ... person who tries to trust that there is good in this world is what came out instead. "Thank you! That's so nice!" I said.

The guy didn't want anything. He was just being nice. Maybe he knew he could get up the stairs 3 seconds faster if he carried my suitcase, and that's why he offered. Either way, I said thank you again when we got to the top of the stairs. He said no problem. And I was on my way. When people in Europe ask me about New Yorkers and I talk about how nice they are, this is the kind of thing I'm talking about.

While I waited for the 4/5 express train, I stood next to a dad with his 7-year-old looking son. Me and the dad must have both spotted the rat (that's a big, gross, rat, not a cute little mouse) running around in the subway tracks at the same time. I looked at it with a bit of disgust, but the dad said to his son "hey, look!" The kid got really excited. "Oh cool! Look at the rat jump! Come on, rat, jump over that puddle. Dad, what if the rat can't make it over the puddle?" "Don't worry, that rat is having a great time, he's happy." "Look dad, there he goes! Cool!"

When the train came, I pushed my way on with hundreds of other people and went to the Grand Central. The ride upstate was lovely - there's really nothing better than staring out a train window and looking at a river with mountains in the background.

Since I've been away from the states for a year, it's hard to properly catch up with everyone. Sometimes it seems like this trip is flying by, other times the days feel long and slow. I don't really feel any significant culture shock, but there are little things here and there. 1 parking spot in NY could easily be 2 parking spots in Amsterdam - two parking spots with room for a scooter and 5 bikes, actually. I hate how everyone here gives me 10 napkins and a plastic bag if I order a sandwich. I've never had to ask someone in Amsterdam to please not give me a bag and insist that I can eat a sandwich without the help of 10 napkins.

I love that there are ATM machines everywhere (Amsterdam has an unbelievable shortages of those). I love disco fries, mexican food, the availability of perfect avocados, a never-ending supply of amazing pizza and I love seeing all the new bike lanes in the city. I even spotted 2 people on one bike - in lower Manhattan! It was definitely a mom and a child, the child sitting on the bar between the seat and the handlebars. I do keep thinking I'm accidentally walking in a bike lane when I'm on the sidewalk, and I haven't stopped looking both ways to cross the street, even though most of NYC has one-way streets.

Now while everyone else gets ready to go to work on Monday morning, I'm back to taking trains and subways and visiting family and friends. Not a bad way to start the week. Vacation, week two: begins now!

April 24, 2009

One year in Amsterdam

It's April 23rd 2009 (or at least it is to me, as I type this), which marks exactly one year since I've been living in Amsterdam. I know, I know, I haven't updated this blog in a really long time. I meant to write about a million things - the opera, visiting a windmill in Haarlem, how it felt when the sun started to set at 9pm, the trip to Paris, the new/temporary Van Gogh exhibit, and so on.

But that's all in the past now, and while I do wish I wrote about it so I could look back and remember, I'll probably never really forget my first opera experience in Amsterdam anyway. So here I am, in New York City. In Brooklyn, to be precise, resting comfortably at the home of some friends in Williamsburg. Whenever I stand on the street here at night and admire the view of the bridge with the Chrysler building in the background, it only takes about 20 seconds before a taxi slows down and beeps at me. No, taxi guy, I don't want a ride. I'm actually just standing here admiring the view, and yes, I realize I'm not in a touristy neighborhood and most people here don't do this, but I'm actually quite content.

It's insane to think that it's been a year since I've been in New York. I'm just here to visit this time around, and when I stepped off the plane, it felt like I had been gone for about 5 minutes. This is an important fact because I had slept about 5 minutes in the entire week leading up to coming to New York, and being able to arrive here without thinking - with knowing exactly how to get to where I was going - it was wonderful.

So my 1-year anniversary of living in Amsterdam is being celebrated in New York City. But I thought about Amsterdam a lot today, about how much I still completely love that city. I love my apartment, my job, my bike, the lifestyle, the sunsets, everything. But the reason I feel that Amsterdam is my home is because of the people I've met. When I arrived in Amsterdam I was totally alone. I was hungover, actually, having just taken the train from Paris with 2 giant suitcases. In some ways, I think this was an advantage - I was too tired to fully understand that I just showed up in a new city where I didn't know anyone, where I didn't have a job, and I had no idea how to actually fill my days.

I got to know people. I looked for a job. I freaked out, many times... MANY times about my decision. The day before I accepted the job offer, I went over every mistake I had ever made in thinking that living in Amsterdam was a good idea. Every person who told me that it was a bad idea, or stupid, or impossible, or if they gave me that look of "oh, so you're another one of those non-EU people who think they can just up and move to Amsterdam, that's so... cute," these people all affected me.

But it turns out I was right the whole time, and I love being right. Amsterdam is the city for me. It's home. I love it there. So all those freakouts, all that stress, all that uncertainty, it was all worth it.

I'm home here in Brooklyn, but when I go back to Amsterdam, I'll also be going home. How lucky am I, that I get to have more than one home?


Happy one-year anniversary to me!

March 19, 2009

Springtime is coming soon, so why don't you come to stay

I can feel it, see it, smell it... the arrival of Spring. The flowers are blooming all over the city, my laundry is hanging to dry on the balcony instead of inside the apartment, and best of all, I'm leaving work when it's still light out (I leave work around 7pm). A few nights ago I rode directly home when I left work (which doesn't happen very often) and kept my jacket on. I dashed through the apartment, grabbed a beer and Gian, and insisted that any plans for the evening had to wait until the sun had set. The very first sunset I've been able to watch from my balcony after work! It's going to get even better in a couple weeks, after Daylight Savings time takes effect... 8.30pm sunsets, starting on the 29th of March.

It's not overly warm (averaging about 10-11ºC/ 50ºF), but it has been quite sunny for the past few days. People are sitting outside at cafes, having picnics along the canals, and the tourists walk around delighted with everything. They (mostly) make me smile, because I was that tourist several times while visiting Amsterdam in the Spring. Ok, the almost-spring. I don't care, there's flowers blooming everywhere and sunshine has been pouring through the windows all day so, it's spring now!

In less than a month I'll be back in the US - my first trip back since I arrived last April. I'll see friends and family that I haven't seen in a year, which seems almost impossible. I hope it doesn't feel like I've been gone a long time. I hope when I see my friends again it will be like no time has passed at all - that's what I'm assuming is going to happen.

When I arrived in Amsterdam last year, it was just as Spring was beginning. Only a few days after I arrived, I wrote:

I just love it here so much that it scares me, because I just feel like maybe I really did find home. But there’s still a very, very, very good chance that I won’t just get to stay here indefinitely. If I can’t stay, I can’t stay. I’ll just have to accept it and make the most out of the time I do have here. But ... I really want to stay. It's just all too good.

And I still feel exactly the same way now, 11 months later. I'm watching someone go through a similar process that I was going through last year, the part where you're not sure if you can stay and you really want to but everything is so up in the air with jobs and money and apartments, and you can't make plans for the future because the future is so uncertain, and you just think "but if it all works out..."

When it all works out, it's so worth it in the end.

March 3, 2009

Reasons to feel at home

My unintentional break from blogging is (hopefully) over! The worst flu on earth has passed (almost three weeks being sick really, really makes me appreciate the simple things - like breathing) and I've been back to work and regular routines for a little while now. There are certain things that really make me feel at home in Amsterdam that aren't all about pretty skies and bicycles....

1. Having a doctor to call my own (or at least, a medical practice)
2. Doing my Dutch tax returns
3. Buying a 6-month membership to the climbing gym (woah, commitment!)

Going to the doctor and doing taxes isn't the fun part of life here, but even through my pounding-head-flu-haze, I still really, really appreciated the fact that when I went to the doctor I didn't have to fill out any forms or pay any money. All the doctors and staff spoke English, offered my test results (which were getting mailed to me) in English, and that picking a doctor didn't mean having to stay in any kind of special network - I just picked a doctor, called to make an appointment, and that was that.

I have several guests staying with me at the moment, which always makes me happy (the photo included with today's post was taken by one of them during sunset a few days ago). Having someone new in town always inspires me to go out and do something interesting/new/cultural, so this past Saturday we visited the Jewish Historical Museum (after having a coffee at the Waterlooplein market) to see the Bert Nienhuis exhibit. The Museum cards that were given to me by another friend got us in for free, so it didn't feel like a waste to only spend one hour in the museum. Lunch that day was prepared with fish purchased at the Albert Cuyp market, and eaten at home with good friends. Then, even though the temptation to stay home and nap away the big lunch and red wine that we consumed, I suggested a trip to an Amsterdam Nord cafe. I absolutely love taking the NDSM ferry across the IJ, and since the weather was cooperating (ie: not raining or too cold), it was really nice to stand outside on the ferry as we sailed across the river. We sat in a cafe for a couple hours, drinking beer by a fireplace in big, comfortable chairs. After the sun had set, we took the ferry back to the center (enjoying the view of Amsterdam by night), got some pizza from Cinema Paradiso, and spent the night ... well, we spent the night playing Risk with another friend, but that's not the point.

The point is, that entire day was pretty well packed from beginning to end, and cost almost nothing. The photo exhibit was free. The lunch was made at home with fish purchased at one of the most affordable markets in the city. Taking the ferry - which again, I think of as such a treat - is free. Sitting in a beautiful cafe for several hours, right on the water, with a view of the entire city, cost the price of two beers (€4.40). The pizza was actually the most expensive part of the day, but it was entirely worth it. We got around everywhere by bike, without any need to take public transportation.

Plus, I won the Risk game.

All in all, a pretty spectacular day.

February 4, 2009

Returning to the real world

I owe just about everyone I know an email or phone call, this blog has gone neglected, pictures haven't been uploaded, books haven't been read, DVDs haven't been watched. At least I have a good excuse for the past few days - I got hit with whatever sickness has seemed to infect all of Amsterdam. Honestly, everyone I know is either getting over being sick or sick right now. It's absolutely no fun to be stuck inside because you can't go out, and while the concept of missing work and staying on the couch all day seems nice in theory, I'm really busy at work right now. I know, taking care of myself and getting healthy is priority number one - I've never been the type of person to say "a job is the most important thing in life, health be dammed!" but really, if I had to choose between staying home and feeling like shit or going to work and doing my job, I would chose the latter. Especially because I'm in the fortunate position of actually enjoying my work.

So I'm alternating between sleeping and refreshing my email from either bed or the couch, or, if I'm having a particularly good moment, I move over to the dining room table. Fortunately, I have some really wonderful people around me, and I'm being very well taken care of - so don't worry, mom. :)

The other day I was talking to a friend just before 6pm, and noticed something amazing - it wasn't dark outside yet. What a great feeling! The days are getting longer and longer, and I'm really noticing a difference.

I'm hoping to be back in the the real world - or at least my version of the real world - sometime very soon. But even in my hibernation, I still manage to feel very lucky every day. There are people in my life here who I don't have to make an effort with, who will spend time with me even if I'm boring and coughing and cranky. I don't have to change out of my pajamas or try and stay up past 11 at night, and they'll still spend time with me and keep my spirits up. That's all part of feeling at home, and it's wonderful.

January 19, 2009

Playing a bit of catch up

I'm really late with this - if you read any other blogs from anyone living in Holland, I'm sure they've already mentioned that for the first time in 12 years, the Netherland's canals froze this month. I didn't take any of my own pictures, if you follow that link you'll see a great photo on the International Herald Tribune.

There were a lot of reasons to be excited about the frozen canals, but one of the highlights for me was the fact that no one complained about the weather. Seriously. Every single person I know and work with, Dutch and foreign, from warm climates to cold climates, was completely charmed by what was happening outside. It was the most proper winter weather imaginable - bright, sunny, blue skies, cold and clear, the only thing we were missing was snow. And with all the ice and excitement about skating on the ponds and canals, no one minded the lack of snow.

I didn't manage to get out and skate myself (I'm crossing my fingers that I get another opportunity this winter), unfortunately. For the few weeks that the cold snap stuck around, I was mostly in the city center - which was still a beautiful sight. As I rode along the Prinsengracht one morning on trash day, I saw the coolest thing - Christmas trees that people had place out on the curb had blown into the canals overnight and froze! I cursed myself for not getting any pictures, but my friend Zoe came to the rescue with some great shots.

Just a few random things and links - during the road trip from Amsterdam to Italy, one of my travel companions (and friends) filmed the experience and cut together a little video. Watch it on youtube!

The International Rotterdam Film Festival begins on the 21st of January. Here's a tip if you're trying to buy tickets online but you're using the English version of the site - click on the Nederlands version, and the first change that you'll see from the English version are the words "Tickets Kopen." Click there, which will take you to the ticket sales page, and then you can switch to English (by clicking on the British flag). One more tip - most of the foreign films are shown with English subtitles, but there's about 20-25 films that are only shown with Dutch subtitles - the list is here. Tickets are selling out quickly!

And one final link - if you're looking for someplace to watch the Obama Inauguration tomorrow (and let's say you live in Europe and don't have a TV, like me), it's showing live on Joost at 17.00 CET (Central European Time, or GMT+1).

January 7, 2009

The highlight was, of course, the people

The biggest highlight of the Italy trip was the people and friends I met along the way, both old and new. I spent Christmas with very good friends in Rome, enjoying a gigantic and wonderfully traditional Christmas Eve dinner. Through the magic of facebook, I re-connected with an old friend from New Paltz - someone I haven't seen in at least 9 years, maybe longer, and we spent a great night and day together, wandering around Rome and taking trains all over Italy (that part was actually a mistake, but a funny mistake that allowed me to see Fabriano and meet some interesting characters along the way). I shared some meals and drinks with a lovely couple that I met for the first time on Christmas Eve, I caught up with another friend from Amsterdam who bought me to a bar where they allowed us to stay past closing time and drink grappa - and that was only the beginning of the trip.

In Naples, I met up with Italian friends I know from Holland - two girls that I had only met once or twice previously in Amsterdam - and they offered to show me around their home city. Of course, you can't see all of Naples in one or two days, but man, I sure did give it a shot. They walked me all over the place, took me directly to their favorite pizza place and restaurants, told me stories about where they used to hang out when they were kids, and I was even introduced to one of their families. The same thing happened in Sorrento - without making any effort to make a lot of plans, I stayed at the home of a good friend and enjoyed a big dinner with his parents before wandering around the town with two wonderful people at night.

I could go on and on like this - every place I went has a great story, all made possible only because of the people that were there. What was truly one of the most special nights was New Years Eve. I went along with some friends to a party in Taranto at a beautiful house where I was the only non-Italian guest. Almost no one there knew me, I certainly had no frame of reference for where I was or what was going on - and I had a spectacular time. As everyone shouted Italian around me all night, I felt more and more at home. Anyone who did speak English sought me out at some point during the evening to introduce themselves and talk to me, and I kept convincing myself more and more that I could understand this beautiful language that had been filling my ears for the past week. Many of the people at the party had known each other for a long time and were clearly so happy to be together, and it was just simply the best atmosphere to be around. There has really never been a time in my life when language was so entirely unimportant for having a really good time. When the countdown to 2009 took place, I was hugging and kissing old friends, new friends, and strangers - the same way I would have done if I had been in Amsterdam or New York or anywhere in the world.

Up in Conegliano, I stayed with some new friends and their family for a couple days, again, welcomed with unbelievably warm hospitality, and again, unable to even approach the point where I might get hungry (the food... the food!). I loved exploring the town that these new friends grew up in, going to their neighborhood bars, admiring the view from the top of the castle, and just listening to the stories that came up. I managed to spend almost no time by myself until I got to Siena (on the evening of the 4th). And even in Siena, there was always someone to talk to at a cafe or shop. In Pisa, I had a lovely conversation entirely in Italian with the nice guy who owned the sandwich shop across from the place I was staying. I'd like to reiterate, I don't really speak or understand Italian, but after a couple weeks I had enough of a collection of badly pronounced words to have entire conversations that somehow happened with no problem.

Italy works in a way that is the total opposite of Holland. You must talk to people, there's no other way of figuring out what's going on. Trains and buses are always late, track assignments get changed, the signs aren't correct, the clocks all say something different, it can be hard to find street signs, the menu will be totally wrong, the buses don't indicate what stop is coming up or have a route posted inside, there's often no train conductor that comes around to take tickets, etc. I got on a train going the wrong direction at least twice, and both times there was a team of people who wanted to help me out when I asked for assistance. I never, ever had to worry that I wouldn't eventually get where I wanted to go. During my ride from Conegliano to Siena, my train compartment filled up with 6 people and 2 dogs. Within minutes everyone was sharing food, I had pizza and coffee more or less forced upon me, and everyone knew my destination - so when we approached and I wasn't paying attention, my seatmates grabbed my bags and said "this is your stop!" (I'm assuming they said something along those lines, it was all Italian) and shouted directions at me about where to transfer and to have a good trip and everyone shouted ciao! ciao! as I squeezed my way off the train. No one ever checked my ticket, some of us had seat reservations, others didn't - it didn't matter. Whenever I was with my Italian friends at a bar or restaurant and we were speaking English, the server or bartender would ask "where is your friend from?" and then often continue with "are you having a good time? Where have you been?" in a way that felt really genuine.

I guess that's what I'm trying to convey by going on and on with this sentiment - I felt genuinely welcome everywhere I went. I never just crashed at someone's house, I always shared food and wine and coffee with them. I wasn't just shown around to all the major touristy parts of various cities, I was given stories and saw the back streets and the views from the top. I didn't plan things out in advance, I was generally always late for whatever I wanted to do, and I feel like I found a country where that attitude works just fine.

January 5, 2009

La Fiaba

Let's say you've been on holiday for a few weeks, and it's gone a million times better than you ever expected, and the whole thing has you so happy and optimistic about what comes next that you don't quite know what to do with yourself. If you should happen to find yourself in that position, then please, get yourself to Siena, Italy.

When I arrived in Siena last night, it was dark and cold and I didn't really do much exploring. Waking up today to bright blue skies and blinding sunlight was perfect, and I went about a morning routine that I've become quite used to. First, open up the blinds that keep the rooms in Italy pitch black at all hours of the day if they're closed. Then, go for a coffee at whatever bar happens to be closest. Today I started with a macchiato, which I already knew would cost 90 cents. They're all 90 cents, seriously, every place I've been. I stood at the bar, drank quickly, and headed out.

My first stop when I got into the center of the city was at a supermarket for some practical supplies and food. I stood in line at the meat/bread counter waiting for my number to be called. DIECI! the woman yelled a few minutes later, standing about 5 meters away with a million people between us. DIECI! I yelled back, and she ran over. I asked for a small donut, which I ate for breakfast outside.

I don't usually like sweet stuff for breakfast. I've always preferred plain, simple foods like breads or cereal, yogurt, fruit, etc. After a a couple weeks in Italy, I'm now reaching for cookies, croissants, donuts, anything that has sugar in it. If I manage to sleep past an acceptable breakfast time, my first meal of the day becomes lunch, and my first beverage of the day is wine.

Anyway, this town - Siena - is the most perfect backdrop to go along with my mood today. Completely different than anywhere I've ever been. Absolutely beautiful. Peaceful, when I walked down the side streets where there were no shops. I bought a map but never bothered to look at it. When I got tired of walking, I would sit down on church steps or benches or on the ground in a pretty spot in the middle of a city square. Sometimes I would snap out of my daze and try to have a short conversation in Italian with someone at a cafe about travel or coffee or food. My very, very limited vocabulary has not yet stopped anyone from making small talk with me.

So a trip that has felt like a fairy tale the entire time ends appropriately. Tomorrow I'll go to Pisa in the afternoon so I can catch my flight early Wednesday morning to Amsterdam. I'm hoping to go back and fill in this blog with bits and pieces of this trip in the next few days - I think it will take a few days to get back into the swing of Amsterdam anyway. But on that note, I saw a Dutch bicycle in Treviso, and I excitedly took a picture of it, even though I'm about to go back to a city full of identical looking bicycles. I'm looking forward to seeing my friends, even feeling good about returning to work, it's just always hard to end a vacation.

January 3, 2009

Happy New Year from Italy

Since I've been traveling I haven't had much time with my computer, which isn't a bad thing at all. I've managed to explore Rome, Fabriano, Naples, Sorento, Bari, Talsano (well, at least the inside of a house in Talsano), Venice, and Conegliano. I've traveled by train, car, bus, and ferry. The best thing about this trip is that I very easily stuck to the only rule I made for myself: no planning more than a day or two in advance.

I'm updating from lovely Conegliano, a town about 45 minutes from Venice. A town I had no idea that I would visit - when other people asked me if I would go to Venice or Milan, I actually said no, I'm not really planning on going north at all. Yet here I am, having just had a big lunch with a very friendly Italian family, feeling incredibly at home in this house with people I've only just met. During this entire trip, in fact, I've always felt welcome and relaxed anywhere I've been, despite language barriers or anything like that.

The plan is to end the trip in Sienna and fly back to Amsterdam from Pisa on the 7th (of course, if you asked me yesterday, I would have told you that I was going to be in Sienna already this afternoon, and I'm 6 hours away). It's always nice to return to Amsterdam, to my apartment and my bike, but I just wish I could take all to the people (and food) I know here in Italy and bring them with me.