“It is so ordered.”

I am the only American at my workplace. (To be fair, there is one young woman who has dual citizenship and spent a few years in California, but her formative years were spent in Europe and I don’t see her as culturally American. I don’t know how she sees herself.) So, at least from my perspective, I am the lone representative of my 350 million countrymen and women.

This is not an easy role to have, especially since the Dutch are so damned practical and reasonable, and so many things about America are not. I have been asked to explain  everything from the big issues – gun control, the Clintons, obesity – to much more subtle questions, including the way we switch our fork back and forth between hands when we cut and eat our food. (That this latter point would be a matter of considerable concern among Europeans took me by surprise.)

Few of these questions have easy answers. I am aware that, as a (very) liberal Democrat from a (very) blue state, my beliefs don’t represent the majority of Americans. Sometimes my response depends on who is asking the question, and how interested I think they are in my assessment of American politics and culture. Sometimes I have no answer, as I feel I haven’t done the work required to have an informed opinion.

But I had no trouble voicing my strong and long-held opinion about the Supreme Court ruling in favor of gay marriage. I had explained to my coworkers that I was monitoring the SCOTUS blog on Friday afternoon, waiting for a decision. As I checked the news around 5pm, I saw that the decision had been announced and already the commentary had begun and then the internet exploded into rainbows of celebration. I could barely contain my happiness as friends shared their joy and relief and amazement. My Dutch colleagues were nonplussed: the Netherlands was the first country to legalize same-sex marriage, in 2001. To them, it seemed long-overdue that the U.S. would do the same.

To me, as well.

I won’t presume to know the politics of my readers, although I know enough of you personally to know that you join me in my celebration. And though I understand that for many Americans this decision seems like a harbinger of the End Times, I will not apologize for my joy that my gay friends and their marriages – which are as complex and mundane as our straight marriages – are fully equal in the eyes of the law. Our country – my country – made monumental steps this week in the direction of justice and dignity. And I will be proud to explain that to anyone who asks.

The Ballad of the Keukenrolhouder

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This is the story of a paper towel holder. Or, as it’s known here in the Netherlands, a keukenrolhouder (literally, a “kitchen towel holder”). We have spent the past three months searching for this simple, humble item. We hit up every home goods or cooking store we’ve stumbled across, not just in Amsterdam but in Haarlem, Maastricht, and Utrecht. We scoured every corner of IKEA: nothing. We even considered trying to make one ourselves. And all that time, our sad, untethered roll of paper towels skitted and slid across our counter-top, sometimes falling over, or messily unrolling itself.

Then, finally, we discovered bol.com, the local equivalent of Amazon. And even though the site is only in Dutch or Belgian, we managed to search, locate, order, and arrange shipment of the keukenrolhouder! It arrived today. I am disproportionately happy about the appearance of this item in my kitchen.

It hasn’t been too hard to function here without a working knowledge of Dutch. I’m sure that if we were living in France, for example, our days would be filled with frustrating miscommunications and embarrassing mistakes. And I actually DO have a working knowledge of French. In general, the level of English spoken in Amsterdam is so high that we’re able to get whatever we need. Coupled with very helpful colleagues, who I often ask to translate tax bills or internet contracts, we more than get by.

But every once in a while, maybe just to keep us grounded, we come up against a minor challenge like the keukenrolhouder, and we need to be a little more creative, a little more resourceful, in order to get what we need. It’s hardly a life-or-death matter, I know, but there’s satisfaction to be found even in the little victories. And every time I neatly tear a paper towel off of the now-stationary roll, I will think of our long – but ultimately successful – quest, and know that we’ll be ready for the next challenge…

Open Garden Days

This weekend was the once-a-year chance to peek into the gardens of the great canal houses in Amsterdam. While some of the 28 stops on the tour are museums that are normally open to the public, many others are privately owned homes. Open Garden Days let you see another side of Amsterdam: what is going on behind the facades of these historic homes.

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Each garden featured a floral arrangement – this one was a favorite.

There’s a bit of a voyeuristic element to events like this, as you walk through a stranger’s home and traipse through their yard. The visits were restricted to the gardens; it wasn’t an open house and most of the rooms were off-limits. Still, you can’t help but feel like an intruder, even though you’ve paid your admission fee (and even though the homeowner is selling cakes and coffee).

Peacocks on the lawn in the garden at the Waldorf Astoria.

Peacocks on the lawn in the garden at the Waldorf Astoria.

This is another one of the many local events in which local people almost never participate. When I told my coworkers that we were going to the Open Tuinen Dagen, the general response was, “Oh, yeah, that’s supposed to be nice. I’ve never done it…”.

I’ve said the same thing about Boston many times. I lived there for 20 years and there’s a long list of Boston “must-do’s” that I never did. Walk the Freedom Trail? Not completely. Visit the U.S.S. Constitution? Nope. Go sailing on the Charles? Missed it.

It is too easy to take your hometown (adopted or not) for granted, or to assume you’ll always have the time to do the things that you want to do. We don’t know how long we’ll be in Amsterdam, so there’s some sense of urgency to see and do as much as we can…just in case.

This 137-year-old beauty is at the Mayor's residence.

This 137-year-old beauty is at the Mayor’s residence.

I don’t want to be packing up to leave in a few years and regret that we didn’t take full advantage of everything that Amsterdam (and the Netherlands…and Europe!) has to offer us. Yeah, we probably won’t have time to go or to do everything we want, but I don’t want to miss anything because we were lazy, or just not paying attention.

I’m keeping a list (of course) of the places to go and things to do in Amsterdam. At least 2 things get added for every one that gets crossed off. Some places I’ve discovered myself, or read about on Amsterdam websites or in travel magazines. And everyone – especially a few of my colleagues, who are very proud of their city – has their favorite restaurants or parks or day trips to recommend.

Whew! Looking at gardens is exhausting...

Whew! Looking at gardens is exhausting…

So the list keeps growing, and becomes not just a list of what to do or where to eat, but a catalog of the people I’ve met and the things they love about Amsterdam. Nothing on the list is a chore or an obligation. Instead, my list is a way to share the experience and enthusiasm that so many people have for this beautiful, dynamic city.

And as we end this, the longest day of the year, we can check the Open Garden Days off the list…

A random thought on (re-)reading

In general, my daily commute is one of the best parts of my life in Amsterdam. Starting the day with a flat, easy, lovely bike ride (and a ferry!) is good for my health, both mental and physical. The only downside – other than the near-constant head wind – is that I’ve lost some significant reading time. In Boston, at least when I took the T, I had a good 40-60 minutes to read, each way. Here, I’m normally biking. When I do take the bus, the ride is only about 10 minutes, and it hardly seems worth lugging a book or my e-reader for those few minutes.

It’s only recently that I’ve made time to read more consistently, sometimes on the terrace if the weather is good, or in the evenings. My flights back and forth to the U.S. were reading-rich, and I think the trains in the Netherlands might have been made for reading. I finally finished a book by a famous Dutch author that took months to get through, and then I dipped into some non-fiction about Haiti before returning to fiction, to a wonderful debut novel that is still unfolding.

In the middle of all this new reading, I had an experience to which most serious readers will relate. One of my favorite authors is Michael Ondaatje – I can now properly pronounce his Dutch-influenced last name! – and The English Patient is on my short list of all-time favorite books. If you’ve only seen the movie, all I can say is: the book is better. (Just out of curiosity I did a little Google research, and wow! the folks on Goodreads do not agree with me. I’m honestly surprised by how many people hate this book…)

My paperback copy of The English Patient was purchased and first read in Canada during The Worst Vacation Ever (a story for another time). My copy predates the movie, so it doesn’t have the awful promotional movie cover. My copy is underlined, dog-eared, and well-loved. Ondaatje is a poet first, then a novelist, and his prose can be heart-breakingly beautiful.

I tried very hard to explain to my (non-reader) husband why I needed – needed – to bring The English Patient with me to Amsterdam. A waste of the limited space and weight in my suitcase, I was told. So it got packed away with Midnight’s Children and Cry, the Beloved Country and other books I love. At least it has good company.

And then. This week, something from the end of the book came to mind. It was an incomplete thought, a fragment – maybe just a memory of how a few barely remembered lines once made me feel. And I HAD TO read it again. Not the whole book (yet), but I had to find those lines.

At such times, e-readers are a miracle. A few moments, a few dollars, and the book was mine to have, if not to hold.

It is so satisfying to flip through the pages of an actual book. Doing so, you can find the phrases and passages that you know by heart; you can seek them out like lost friends in a crowd. Sliding the bar on an electronic page-finder doesn’t have the same effect. Still, with little effort I found what I was looking for. Reading those closing lines again was a balm; even on their own, without the power of the two hundred-some pages that precede them, they moved me.

A day or so after my longing for Ondaatje, I came across an article stating that readers are “scientifically the best people to fall in love with”.  While I’m not sure about that claim, there were some interesting links to research about deep reading, and studies indicating that readers of fiction have more empathy and a more developed “theory of mind” than non-readers.

All I know is that my reading habit has introduced me to places and people I could never have imagined knowing; to ways of thinking and seeing the world that have made my life richer and fuller. It is a gift to be able to revisit those well-loved places, to know that they’re there, waiting for my return.

Me and my Museumkaart

Settling in to our life in Amsterdam felt a bit like filling out a Bingo card. Instead of B-12 and O-22, the Amsterdam Bingo card includes things like “residency permit” and “BSN number” and “OVChipkaart”. These are the basic credentials and administrative things you need in order to be a legal, functioning Amsterdammer. At the fringes of the Bingo card are the slightly less essential elements, including, but not limited to, a Bonuskaart at the local grocery store and a membership (with 10% discount) at the neighboring liquor store. I am proudly in possession of all of these things.

But the star of my Bingo card is my Museumkaart. The card costs €59.90 for one year and gives me FREE access to at least 32 museums in Amsterdam, and, apparently, over 400 museums throughout the Netherlands. I have made it my personal mission to visit ALL 32 of the participating Amsterdam museums. To date, I have been to nine, so I’ll need to ramp up the summer and fall museum-visiting plans if I’m to meet my goal.

What I love best about the Museumkaart – which also gives you access to a priority entrance line at most museums! – is that it has totally released me from Museum Overload Anxiety and Guilt. You know the feeling: you visit a major city and queue up at its major art museum to see its most famous exhibit and by the time you get inside you’re already overwhelmed and exhausted but you’ve come all this way and waited all this time so you should really just power through and push past all these tourists and get your money’s worth and see what you’ve come to see and then make a quick pass through the gift shop before collapsing, defeated, in the museum cafe.

The Museumkaart absolves me of those feelings. One day I visited de Hortus Botanicus  (annoyingly, not included in my Museumkaart), and then went directly to the Tropenmuseum. The Tropenmuseum is a beautiful space with a series of highly detailed – some might say “exhaustive” – exhibits about the Dutch colonial experience and the cultures that have, in turn, influenced the Dutch. While I loved the building and the exhibit in the central courtyard, the minutia of the permanent exhibits was more than I could absorb. I wandered around a bit longer and left happy, and guilt-free.

Recently, on a day-long visit to Haarlem, we stopped in at the Frans Hals Museum, with little more than an hour to go before closing time. Would we pay €15 each to spend an hour in a museum dedicated to a Dutch portrait painter about whom we knew nothing? The Museumkaart answers that question for us: admission is free! Come on in!

It is very freeing to be able to enjoy a museum on your own terms, and not feel constrained by obligation. Especially for someone like me, who often struggles with art and my own understanding of it. The Museumkaart has changed the terms by which I engage with the art, history, and information on offer at Amsterdam’s cultural institutions. It provides an invitation of sorts, to come late, come early, spend the day, stay for a half an hour, or visit every week and see a little at a time. Just come!

Home again, home again

Yesterday I returned to Amsterdam, where I live and work and where my husband is: it is home. I had spent a week in the U.S., first in New York where my father and brother live, where I stayed in the house I grew up in, and slept in my childhood bedroom and ate at my favorite local pizzeria: it is home.  I traveled to Boston, where I stayed in the house my husband and I own, and I spent time with friends I’ve had for decades, and visited my sister and her family, and ate at my favorite local sandwich shop: it is home.

“Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than a magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration.”
–   Charles Dickens

Living abroad – and then returning to where I left – has made me think more about “home”, and how I define it, and where I find it. I had not expected to go back to the U.S. until Christmas time, but when the opportunity was offered, it seemed like the right thing to do. There were practical considerations: I could return with things we needed (including, critically, my road bike), I could finalize packing lists for things we plan to ship. But beyond that, it just felt right to go back “home” for a little while. Our process of settling in and getting adjusted is generally going well, and my husband and I are both happy here. Still, there is no substitute for time with family, for friends who get your jokes, for people who know and love you just as you are.

And yet…as good as it was to be back, to be surrounded by the familiar, there was still a part of me that felt somehow…out of sorts. I had no illusions about life going on without me there – I knew that my colleagues and coworkers, my friends and family would go on about their lives after I moved. As my dad’s been telling me for years, “Roosevelt died and the world went on…no one is indispensable!”.  But I found myself anxious to get back to Amsterdam, back to my husband and our apartment and the life of the city. I felt split between these many places, in spite of a desire to be fully present at each stop along the way.

It is early in the long course of this adventure, and I obviously still have much to learn about home, about holding places in my heart and in my attention and balancing them, somehow.  I suspect this is not something that only affects those of us living abroad…there are many ways to leave a home, or to find one, or to live in between. For readers who have experience with this, I’d value your perspective and wisdom. How do  you live fully in the place(s) you call home?