I didn’t need another reason to love the Netherlands. Between the public art, the amazing events, and the opportunities to learn new things in a beautiful setting, this country (and Amsterdam in particular) won my heart a long time ago. But then, as if in an attempt to secure my love, the Netherlands offers up the knooppuntenroute, a nation-wide network of marked cycling paths.

Even people who know little about the Netherlands could probably tell you that there are a lot of bicycles. Bicycles, pot, and prostitution are the most common associations foreigners and visitors have with our fair city. But it is true that bikes rule the roads here, and with good reason. Cycling is the best way to get around Amsterdam, and although some areas are a bit congested (and others just plain terrifying), it is usually the quickest way from Point A to Point B. The history of the cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands is fascinating and involves some significant social activism. I was surprised to learn how recently the switch to bicycles happened, since it seems like the city had always been designed with cyclists in mind.

While most Amsterdammers cycle daily, there’s a smaller group of cyclists who zip through the city on lightweight racing bikes, fully kitted out in pro team gear, riding not just for practical reasons but for fun and fitness. I am happy to say that I am one of these cyclists, although I have resisted the urge to buy a team kit. The culture of cycling was one of the things that was most attractive to me in considering a move here. And once I got my racing bike here back in June, the cycling adventure started.

The first few months were a little slow. Coworkers suggested a route or two, and I mostly just rode out-and-back routes north or south. I usually rode alone, early on Sunday mornings. Nothing too adventurous, given my terrible sense of direction. To be honest, it was getting a little boring. Then, two things happened that changed everything.

First, at the end of a lovely dinner at a local Portuguese restaurant, the couple sitting next to us struck up a conversation. Dutch husband, American wife, living in the US for 20+ years and in Amsterdam for a year-long sabbatical. And, she’s a cyclist!! We were both thrilled to find someone to ride with. Contact information was exchanged and plans made.


Best €6 I’ve spent yet.

Then, in preparation for our first ride, I stopped in to my local bike shop and asked about route maps. Jackpot. For only €6, I suddenly had an endless array of ride options. And this map only covers a small part of the country! The system of cycle junctions on this map – the fietsknooppunten – extend throughout the Netherlands. It is a beautifully simple system. You look at the map, figure out where you are and where you want to go, and then follow (and in our case, write down) the numbered routes. And you’re off! Signposts along the cycle routes point you to the next junction. No need for the map, or Google, or any apps. Just a scrap of paper that says, “52 46 47 79…”.


Where will it take us next…?

Yesterday’s ride with my new friend, on a cool, grey day, took us north out of the city, across the IJ and ultimately to the Uitdammerdijk.  We rode on the narrow bike path along the dijk, buffeted by the wind but loving the moody scenery and temperamental sky. We stopped for tea and a rest at De Blauwe Tuin, (the Blue Garden), which the owner runs “just for fun”, serving drinks and sweets to cyclists, trekkers, and anyone who wanders by. After a delicious pot of tea, we pulled out the map and plotted our way home via an inland route: 77 75 76 42 43…

I learned long ago, when I was young and car-less living in Massachusetts, that a bicycle is a great way to explore; to see things that you can’t get to by train or even by car. Our ride yesterday, which took us less than 25km out of Amsterdam, allowed us to see a completely different landscape, and gave us a new perspective on this beautiful country. Cycling slows you down, lets you turn down side roads and into gardens. It allows for conversation between new friends, and shared adventure. It has been an important part of my life for a long time, and I’m grateful for the many ways that my cycling habit is enriching my experience abroad.

Now…where to next??

My first Dutch birthday

Yes, that’s right: vandaag is het mijn verjaardag.  (I’m not sure about that “het” and if it’s necessary…my Dutch is elementary, at best.)  But this is my first birthday here in the Netherlands! Today I have an all-day off-site meeting with a large group of colleagues, and then an evening event that involves dinner and glow-golf. All of this was planned independently from my birthday, but I have to admit it will be nice to have something fun to do, and I like my coworkers very much. So maybe not how I would have chosen to spend the day, but I’m looking forward to it just the same.

Yesterday I met my obligation to bring sweets for my colleagues. I finally figured out the right baking setting on my weird combi-oven and managed to make a delicious chocolate bundt cake and a couple of batches of chocolate chip cookies. Several people asked me for the recipe for the cookies, which I found funny, since every American knows exactly where to find the recipe for Nestle Toll-House cookies. (Birthday confession: I am eating the leftover cookies for breakfast as I type this. But hey, it’s my birthday, and I get to do what I want. Just for today.)

One of the many opportunities that birthdays give us is the chance to look around at the life we’ve built (and are building) and, more importantly, at the relationships that sustain and enrich that life. I woke up this morning to birthday greetings from Australia, Pakistan and Malaysia. It’s a wonder to me that my circle could ever have spread that far, and I am amazed and grateful for the people that I count among my friends.

Soon I’ll head off to the day’s meeting, and I’ll be greeted with the traditional Dutch birthday congratulations and the sometimes-awkward three kisses. I will do my best to pay attention and make sure that I remember this birthday, my first in my adopted home town. As far as I may be from home, I am never far from friends.

Back to school

It’s Labor Day in the U.S.: the unofficial end of summer. Since it’s not a holiday in the Netherlands, I was at work today, and this evening I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed and seeing pictures of pool parties, barbecues, and beach outings. And although I don’t ever remember starting school before Labor Day, last week Facebook was filled with back to school photos. Everyone had new clothes and shiny new backpacks, and most of the kids looked ready – if not terribly excited – for the new school year.

I’ve never worked in an academic setting, but I still find that September, not January, feels like the start of the year, just like it did back in my school days. If you know me, it won’t be surprise to hear that I LOVED the start of a new school year. As a Catholic school kid, I wore a uniform, so I didn’t have new clothes.  But I usually had a new pair of shoes (which I was not allowed to wear until school started) and new school supplies. Everything seemed clean, ready, and full of potential.  We’d pick up our books a few days before classes started, and I would get an early jump on things by starting to read my history text or my math workbook. Yes, I was that kind of kid. (But like I said: are you surprised?)

The summer vacation in Holland is a bit shorter than in the U.S., and many of my colleagues’ children have already been back to school for several weeks. August was a frenzy of holiday-taking, as everyone tried to fit in a last vacation before the summer ended. So there is also a back-to-school feeling at work, as people return, tan and rested (for now).

I’m also going back to school. Last year, as part of my attempt to un-stick myself from the stuck-ness I was feeling in my work and life, I started looking into graduate programs. I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for, and then I stumbled on an online program at neighboring Northeastern University, in Corporate and Organizational Communication. Since my past work experience was largely operational, this seemed like a good way to balance out my professional self, and it just sounded interesting. Crisis communication, ethics, and, for this semester, negotiation, mediation and facilitation. This class won’t come a moment too soon, as I’ve been called on to do more than my share of (cross-cultural) facilitation recently,

Classes start on the 21st and last a brief but intense 6 weeks, so don’t be surprised if my blogging falls off a bit during that time. And with two weeks until the first day of school, I of course bought one of my books today, and will probably start reading it this week.  Now all I need is a new pair of shoes…

The things we lose – thoughts on distance

Last week we had a stark and difficult reminder of just how far away from home we are. My husband’s grandmother passed away, somewhat suddenly, last Wednesday. In the days before her death, it was hard to get details from his family about her condition. It was also hard to know what to do: should my husband fly home right away, or wait for more information? Should we listen to family or just do what we thought was best?

Thankfully, we were able to work things out quickly and make the right decisions for us. I left Amsterdam a day after my husband, arriving in the U.S. the morning of the wake. We were glad to be with family and I know it was important to my husband to be present for the funeral. And it was a lovely celebration of his grandmother, a vibrant and funny woman who had a fondness for telling dirty jokes to the priests at the Knights of Columbus hall many years ago. Last Christmas, someone gave her a copy of “Fifty Shades of Grey” and when she opened it, she said, “FINALLY! Everyone’s been talking about this and I want to see what all the fuss is about!”. Her spirit and humor were infectious, and she will be missed.

I had time with my dad, sister, and my nieces, all of whom came to the funeral and the luncheon that followed. We also managed to squeeze in a visit with friends, joining in on what has been an annual outing to the famous Woodman’s. While my husband is still in the U.S., I returned the day after the funeral – a total of 55 hours in America. Whew.

For both of us, this was the first time that we really felt the distance between us and our families and lives in the U.S. It is relatively easy to keep in touch with people these days. With email and Skype and regular phone calls, I can maintain the illusion that nothing much has changed from when we lived in Boston. On top of that, there’s the ease of travel. Our families are on the east coast, so we tell ourselves that we’re “only” 6 or 7 hours away.

But in times of crisis or stress, the miles seem to stretch and I can suddenly feel very, very far away. In an abstract sense, we anticipated this when we moved here, but I don’t think we really understood what it meant to leave, to be away from family. You don’t see the incremental erosion of health in aging relatives. You can’t help with the day-to-day maintenance. You miss the regular gatherings, the summer festivals, the sporting events. And when you do return, whether for a few days or for a week, you can feel like you don’t quite belong.

These are the trade-offs we make for the chance to live abroad. In this case, since the crisis was in my husband’s family, I’m acutely aware of the fact that our life abroad was my doing. If not for me and my crazy plans, we would have been a mere hour’s drive from family. John would have been able to see his grandmother before she passed away, and may have felt that he was giving more support to his mom and family.

Maybe it’s just the distance that matters, and not the geography. Maybe I’d be feeling the same if we were living in California or Chicago. We’re not the first people to deal with this challenge, and I’m sure this won’t be the last time we experience this distance, this disconnect. So we’re left to find ways to cope, to be as present and supportive as we can be from far away, and to keep working at it.