The Six-Month Mark

Hard to believe, but as of this past Sunday, I have officially lived in the Netherlands for six months. We didn’t do anything in particular to mark the day. We had friends visiting, and we hopped the ferry to NDSM Wharf and explored what is most often referred to as a “post-apocalyptic landscape”. We sat at the Noorderlicht Cafe in the sunshine drinking IJ beer and eating toasties. It was a pretty perfect Amsterdam afternoon. So while there was no fanfare about the milestone of my half-year abroad, I have been thinking a lot about what the past months have taught me…

  • Be patient. It’s easy to have expectations for my life and myself, but sometimes things take longer than I think they will. Give it time.
  • Keep the wonder. Take nothing for granted. Don’t let anything feel routine. Or as the great Mary Oliver says:

Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

  • Go for it. I’ve had to put myself into situations that were uncomfortable, whether asking for help or extending an invitation to someone. But you’ll never know unless you take a risk.
  • Keep learning. The sum total of what I know about Dutch history and culture would fit in one of the saddle bags on my bicycle. Ask questions, and be humble and curious.
  • Embrace it. All of it. Even the bad stuff. Whether it’s a broken friendship or a bike ride home in the stinging rain, it’s part of the experience.
  • Home is where I make it. It’s where the people I love are, and where I find myself both energized and at peace.
  • Explore. There’s more of Amsterdam that we haven’t seen than we have seen. I want to keep finding new places, but also new ways to experience the city.

I’m sure there’s more – much more – that I’ve learned, and more will come. Thanks for sharing the journey this far.  Ever onward…

Cross-cultural baking

After an unbroken string of 5 gorgeous, sunny days, today we get our comeuppance. It is 13 degrees. It is raining. And not just normal rain – this is the wind-swept, sideways, blow-your-umbrella-inside-out sort of rain.

We have friends in town and we did our best to brave the elements and do some exploring this afternoon, but the weather got the best of us. We were soaked through in just a few minutes, and there wasn’t a table to be found at any of the warm and cozy-looking cafés. So we surrendered. Returning to the apartment, I decided it would be a great day to do some baking. Chocolate chip cookies would make everything better. We took a quick inventory, made a list, and headed back out into the wild rain for provisions.

Well. I suppose I should have expected this, but my local grocery store does not have even half of the things you need for Toll House cookies. No chocolate chips. No vanilla extract. No baking soda. No brown sugar. So, Mission: Cookie was a failure. As a back up plan we grabbed some instant brownie mix. The box actually has an American flag on it and says “1-2-3 pakket voor Americans”, so it’s obviously made for expats like me, in search of a little taste of home, who can’t be bothered to do more than add water to dry brownie powder. It even comes with its own little paper baking pan, so you don’t need to dirty a dish.

The brownies have just come out of the oven. The tops were starting to burn, although I suspect they are still undercooked. The rain continues, and from my seat at the kitchen table I can see that it’s falling sideways again. We are warm and dry and relaxed, if a little restless. The brownies will make everything better.

India!

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Mumbai skyline as seen from my (very fancy) hotel.

Greetings from Mumbai – my first visit to India! It’s always amazing to me where life takes me. I never expected to find myself here. In truth, I was always somewhat ambivalent about India. I’ve read a higher-than-average amount of Indian literature, so my impressions were colored by stories of family, struggle, striving, and the thread of magic that runs through so many Indian narratives. Though fictional, these books gave me a view into a rich and fascinating culture that made me very curious.  At the same time, I assumed that the magnitude of India – the sheer numbers of people, and of cars; the noise and the poverty –  would be overwhelming. For some reason, I failed to see that both of my impressions could be correct.

I’ll be the first to tell you that I do not think I’m really “experiencing” India. Today is the last day of a 5 day trip, and I’ve spent most of that time at a work-related conference at a 5-star hotel. I’ve spent 2 days in my company’s office, and the care and hospitality I’ve received from these colleagues is exceptional. It shames me to think that in the US we rarely bother to offer a glass of water to a visitor to our workplace. In contrast, I’ve had everyone from the Managing Director on down fussing over me and making sure I am comfortable.

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Gateway of India.

In spite of the fact that I’m not feeling great, I insisted on getting out of the hotel last night. I’m lucky to be traveling with a coworker who lived in Mumbai for about a year. We took a black and yellow taxi to the Gateway of India, where I went through the least secure security line the world has ever known. We walked to a famous kebab shop and had some snacks, including goat brain. I passed on the brain and stuck to the chicken.

What you can’t help but notice is that Mumbai is on the move. There are people everywhere, out at every hour of the day. Things don’t seem to stop. There are high-rise apartments being constructed amid shacks. The gap between the rich and poor is not surprising, but the proximity of one to the other is. Perhaps there’s just no space for gated communities and walled-off compounds for the wealthy.

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Gateway of India.

I also feel totally unprepared for India, in terms of my understanding of both the history and the current situation here. I feel like I’m missing a lot, and not really absorbing what I am seeing. Without context, it’s a hard place to make sense of. Still, I can see how it is a place that gets inside of people. I suspect that the warmth of the Indians and the strange beauty of the city will linger in my memory.

Tonight, after a full day in the office and a party to celebrate the 10th anniversary of my company’s presence here, I’ll board a 12:50am flight back to Amsterdam, via Zurich. I will be glad to get home and rest. But I am also thankful for this opportunity that my life and my work offered me: to experience a place that had loomed in my imagination for so long, and to experience it with and through those who love it.

The Garden Which is the Nearest to God

This is my favorite thing in Amsterdam right now. It will be open until 6 September. If you live in or near Amsterdam, go.

The artwork, by Japanese artist Taturo Atzu, is “a vast observation platform from which you can see the city as you have never seen it before”.  Balanced on the roof of the Oude Kerk (the Old Church, consecrated in 1306, and located in the famous Red Light District), the scaffolding and platform look to many like a functional set-up, another restoration project in a city constantly being repaired. imageIt is not. It is an inspired, imaginative, and altogether wonderful installation.

I will admit that I’m a little bit biased. I have a “thing” for climbing. Towers, domes, forts – you name it, I’ll climb it. I have no fear of heights, and I don’t mind rickety wooden bridges or endlessly spiraling staircases. And I’ve never gotten to the top of something and looked out and thought, “Meh. Not much of a view”. It is always worth the climb.

When I first saw the Atzu installation from the ground, I knew I had to get up there. Today was a perfect blue-sky day in Amsterdam, a pleasant and breezy 25 degrees. I got my ticket and started up the metal scaffolding.

“…the life we call blessed is located on a high peak; a narrow way, they say, leads up to it.”

– Petrarch

imageThe ascent itself is where the experience of the project begins. For some that could mean conquering the fear of heights. For others, the exertion of the climb is said to clear the mind, and let thoughts flow freely. It is “a literal form of transcendence”.

The objective of much of Atzu’s work is to bring monuments that are normally remote into closer proximity. At the Oude Kerk, the viewing platform surrounds both the roof turret and the weather vane, and allows you to interact with them in a totally new way.

imageThe sunken area around the turret creates a bench, of sorts, from which you can really look at the turret, and the bell and mechanisms within it. You can study it, see how its shadow plays against the stark whiteness of the platform.

The weather vane, in the shape of an angel blowing a trumpet, is housed in the small building at the far end of the platform, closest to the street below. And it really is a house; it’s decorated as a simple, living room, with a couch and some books and a few framed pictures hanging on the walls. And there, in the middle of the coffee table – though actually still rising up from the roof of the church – is the angelic weather vane.

imageThese features of the church, which are integral to its design and lend meaning to the space, are normally only seen from far below…and then only if people walking by can take their attention from the, umm, attractions of the Red Light District.

Fortunately for those of us who are looking up, this exhibit is still not very well-known. On a late Friday afternoon, I shared the viewing platform with just a handful of others, giving the space a stillness that is impossible to find in the crowded streets below. imageThe artwork simultaneously brings you close to objects normally unseen – and to the church itself – and also expands your view to encompass the entire city.

The volunteer docent on the platform told me there had been some controversy from the neighbors about this project. The issue was less the project itself, and more the desire of the community to maintain – protect? – the church as a small oasis of quiet and calm against the throngs. I can respect that, but at the same time, I believe that this installation expands that oasis, and elevates it. The space that it creates is not one that will be sought by rowdy stag party mates or school children.  The people who are drawn to this “garden in the air” will, I hope, find what I found: a moment of peace and wonder and stillness created by drawing near to that which is normally out of reach.

Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

(A note: the text in quotes is taken from the very interesting and thorough brochure from the exhibit, written by Rieke Vos. It quotes not only Petrarch but also Louis CK; how many essays about church art do that?)

Just keep rowing…

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The 8pm class gets underway. At 7pm, this was me!

A friend, an MIT professor, lived in Amsterdam for a year or so back in his late 20s. It was an important experience for him, one he remembers fondly. When I told him we would be moving here, he quickly gave me his thoughts about where to live and what to do and see. Among these many things was one unique and brilliant idea (he is an MIT professor, after all). He said, “You need to learn to row. On the Amstel.”

He was not the first person to suggest this activity to me. As you know if you know me, I’m on the taller end of the spectrum. When I started college I was approached to join the crew team, but after attending an information session, I opted out. Later, a coworker who was a rower told me that I had “the perfect body” for rowing. (No, it was not meant to be a pick-up line.) I figured if I had “the perfect body” for something, then I should DO that thing, right? Still, an attempt to learn to row in Boston, on the Charles, about 10 years ago, was unsuccessful, largely due to the (poor) quality of the instruction.

But I was not about to give up! After all, I now live in a city of water and canals, and the Amstel is about 3 minutes from my house, and wouldn’t it be great to be out on the water, learning something new? Yes! And so I found myself at the Roeicentrum Burlagebrug tonight, taking my first rowing class. On the Amstel.image

Much to my surprise, we were in the boats and on the water within the first 15 minutes. First, we had a quick lesson on an indoor stationary boat, where we learned how to get in and out (harder than you’d think), and how to position our oars and execute a stroke (exactly as hard as you think). But then we got a boat out from the shed and we were off! My four-person boat only had 3 people today. It was me and two nice Dutchies, a man and a woman who seem to know each other. Our instructor, Nico, is young but very good and totally unflappable.

I was closest to the instructor and was in the “lead” position, so the others had to follow me and try to stay with my pace and rhythm. It took a while to get it right. There’s a lot to remember and a lot of movement that needs to be coordinated. The level of focus required is surprising – it’s not as if I can sit back and enjoy the scenery. But we had some stretches where we got it together and it felt fluid and smooth. Not bad for a first time out!

There have been a few moments during my time here when my perspective has shifted, and a different way of seeing the city presented itself to me. One was when I got my bicycle and started cycling. Tonight was another of those moments. Even if I couldn’t look around and take in the city, being on the river seemed to connect me to the lifeblood of Amsterdam in a way that I haven’t experienced before. And it was wonderful.

Le Grand Départ!

Sometime in late 2013, the powers that be who run the Tour de France announced that the starting city for the 2015 Tour would be Utrecht, in the Netherlands. I have a vivid memory of learning this news, and of my response. I was sitting at my desk at my office in Boston and I turned to my colleague, who is also a fan of Le Tour (hi Chris!), and I said, “Ok. July 2015. I will be in Utrecht for Le Grand Départ of the Tour”.

At that point, my plans to move abroad were still in their very early stages. Amsterdam was an idea more than a plan. But the Tour was something I could pin my idea to – a goal, a deadline, an inspiration.

So, I am very happy to report that yesterday I was in Utrecht, as I promised myself, to witness the start of the 102nd Tour de France.

Welcome to Utrecht!

Welcome to Utrecht!

It was crowded. It was chaotic. It was HOT. And it was fantastic.

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Not sure who he is, but at least the team is American…

He’s only blurry ’cause he’s fast.

Crowds gather at the 1K marker. In retrospect, we should have stayed there to watch the action…

I went with a large group of expats and Dutch folks, including one very funny and enthusiastic French woman who was a Tour veteran. She had her French flag at the ready whenever a French rider or a helicopter or camera passed by.

With a big group – especially one with people with varying levels of interest in the Tour and cycling generally – it was hard to keep

everyone together, so we split up pretty quickly.  I had the good fortune to pair up with a guy who was a cyclist and a huge Tour fan, and who (like me) wanted to see as much as possible.  Although we first had a spot near the end of the course, beyond the finish line, we decided that we wanted to try to get to the start line.

Unfortunately we took the longest possible route to get there. We spent a lot of time looking at people on the other side of one barricade or another, trying to figure out how to get to where they were. But it was fun, not least because we got to see much of the spectacle of the Tour as we wandered around the course. Then, finally, after talking my way “in” through an “out” break in the barricades (sometimes not speaking Dutch is a help!), we had arrived at the starting ramp! At this point it was about 15 minutes before the first rider was scheduled to go.

At the starting ramp!

At the starting ramp!

There was a ceremony (and commentary in Dutch, English and French), with the Mayor of Utrecht and other officials. The first rider was from Eritrea, and part of a South African team. The Minister of Sport of Eritrea was present, and there was a large African fan base cheering him on. We watched the first few riders take off, and then moved to another part of the course and reconnected with a few people from the group (including the flag-waving French woman). After a little more wandering – including a visit to the team bus area, where we saw the riders warming up on stationary bikes – most of our small group was ready to head home. But me? Not quite yet…

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Team car traffic jam!

I said goodbye to the others at the station and then headed back into the fray. Being at the Tour had been a dream for too long to leave without really soaking it in. So I spent a little more time wandering around, watching the route coverage on the big screens scattered around the square, and buying a few souvenirs. (Honestly, I needed a water bottle for my racing bike. Really.)

I don’t think a water bottle and a t-shirt can capture the excitement and the thrill of the day. Yes, it was mostly the excitement of the Tour itself, and of being close to something I have followed at a distance for a long time (and just barely missed once, back in 2013). But there was also a part of the day that was thrilling because of the sense of accomplishment that came along with it. Many people I’ve met here have been transferred by their employers for a year or two – it’s a wonderful opportunity and everyone I know in that situation is making the most of it. But my move to Amsterdam was something that I engineered. I had help, but I did a lot of work and I made it happen. My day at Le Grand Départ was a reminder of that, and a reminder of the day back in Boston, when my idea of moving to Europe started to feel a little more possible.

Vive le Tour!