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.