On (and off) the tourist trail

It’s another lazy winter weekend. The weather invites us to stay inside, bake some cookies, curl up with a book, maybe watch a movie.  On these kinds of days, though, we often end up asking ourselves if we “should” be doing more. We’re living in a beautiful  European city. Are we wasting time? Will we one day regret these lazy days?

I suspect this is a not-uncommon question for expats. There is a struggle to find the balance between exploring the city, and just having a “normal”, relaxed life. We could easily spend every weekend at a museum. We could become day-trippers who start every Saturday with a train ticket in one hand and a guide book in the other. We could go further afield and fly to another country every Friday evening, getting back just in time to start the work week. Instead, we’ve opted to be slightly lower-key. Maybe we’ll be more ambitious when spring arrives, and the weather is more welcoming.


Planning a trip?

This is not to say that we’ve been total home-bodies. Last weekend we hit a good balance between tourism and local-ism. In preparation for our upcoming move (more about that another time) we went in search of some second-hand furniture. Our hunting took us to Van Dijk & Co., an amazing warehouse in an industrial part of Amsterdam Noord.  No tourists to be found here, just stuff. So much stuff. Shelves of suitcases stacked to the ceiling. Desks, dishes, tables, armoires. Office furniture, filing cabinets, lamps, religious statues. It was a prop-master’s dream. We didn’t buy anything (yet), but it was great to explore the huge space and all its treasures. And it was fun to bike to a part of Noord that we’d never been to before – just getting there felt a bit like a treasure hunt, too.

The following day we were back on the more traditional tourist trail, finally crossing the Amsterdam Museum off our list.  (I should report that I ultimately failed in my year-long quest to get to every museum in Amsterdam that accepts the Museumkaart, but I came close.) After a surprisingly cozy lunch at a very friendly Dutch cafe, we headed to the museum. We were not the only tourists on the trail that day, and the museum was crowded. It was the last day of an exhibit about graffiti artists in the 1970s and 80s, which explained the high number of visitors. Graffiti as art is not something I’m into, but I did find it interesting to see how the artistic influences could be traced from New York City to Amsterdam.  Another of the many links between (Old) Amsterdam and New Amsterdam.


We ended our touristy day with a stroke of great luck. We headed to Van Stapele for an afternoon snack. We were introduced to this charming shop on a Hungry Birds food tour, and it’s become a favorite stop when we’re in the neighborhood (and even when we’re nowhere near the neighborhood). The sign on the door said they were sold out, but we managed to get the last two cookies of the day. Sometimes these little rewards are the best motivation for getting us off the couch and out the door. For today, though, we’re staying put.




A Year Ago Today

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A year ago today, my husband drove me to Logan Airport with two suitcases and a one-way ticket from Boston to Amsterdam. It was the culmination of nine months of dreaming, planning and packing. It was a step into an unknown future. I was leaving behind a house, a community, my family, and even (though briefly) my husband. I will admit to having a momentary freak-out before heading through the security line, when the enormity of what I was about to do hit me. My dear husband calmed me down (mostly by pointing out how absurd I was being), and then I was on my way.

I actually don’t remember too much of those first few days in Amsterdam. The overnight flight through Iceland got me to Schiphol on a cold Sunday morning. My taxi driver started teaching me Dutch almost immediately, explaining the difference between de words and het words. I met the owner of my temporary accommodations and was shown around the small one-bedroom apartment that would be my home for at least a month. I spent much of the afternoon getting settled, although I had little to unpack. I’m sure I went to the grocery store.


Fond memories of my first (loaner) bike.

I woke early the next morning and went to the ExpatCenter and within a few hours I had registered myself in the Netherlands. There was one day that week that I went to the photography museum and another day – windy, cold and rainy – that I stayed inside, reading and making cup after cup of hot chocolate.

What I remember most about those first few weeks is getting lost. For a person with a terrible sense of direction, living in a semi-circular city is a challenge. Every time I stepped out of my apartment I thought carefully about where I was going and the best way to get there. I was confident. I was sure. And yet every time, I was wrong. Every. Time. I went left when I should have gone right. I lost my bearings, got turned around. Eventually I would find a landmark and figure out the right way to go, but every trip was complicated by my disorientation.

Looking back with the perspective that a year’s distance can provide, it seems that my being lost (which inspired the title of this blog, after all) remains a good metaphor. I have made many missteps, and many wrong turns. I already knew that getting lost can be a shortcut to finding something great, and that has often been the case over this past year.  But getting lost can also lead to trouble, and confusion, and pain. Not lessons I expected us to learn, but there they are, mixed in and muddled with all the wonderful new experiences and memories this year gave us.


Doing the tourist thing at Zaanse Schans.

So here I stand, on the brink of my second year abroad. This year, though, from the beginning, I will have my landmark, my point of reference to help me find my way. I don’t talk about my husband much here, primarily to respect his privacy. (He may be the last man on earth who is not on Facebook.) But he is the reason we are able to be here – his planning and working and saving have allowed us to pursue this dream which is, honestly, mostly my dream. He is more generous and more loving than I deserve, and I know it too well.

A year ago today I stepped into the unknown. Leaving a home and a community behind was not a mistake. Leaving my husband behind (even briefly) was. This year, I’m going to do things right. We’re in it together, from the start. The plans and memories and adventures will be ours. As will the detours and the doubling back and the where-in-the-hell-are-we-now moments.

Off we go…

Making the most of it

Winter in Amsterdam is not for the faint of heart. The days are short and grey; I leave the house in the dark and make my way home in the dark. There are long stretches of rain. Then wind. Then wind-driven rain. We’ve had some unseasonably “warm” days but this week the cold has set in. Even for someone who has spent most of her life in New England – which is, currently, colder than Amsterdam – the winter has been a bit of a slog.


“Strangers In the Light” – the Walk and Don’t Walk men finally meet…

The Dutch, of course, are completely at ease with the weather. I don’t think they like it – though it gives them something to talk and complain about – but they have learned, out of necessity, how to deal with it. And maybe even how to enjoy it.

This weekend wraps up the Amsterdam Light Festival, which, since late November, has brought some much-needed beauty, light, and art to the dark nights. The Festival offers a staffed and well-marked walking route, as well as a number of canal boat trips to see some of the art up close. We did the walking route a few weeks ago, but it’s been more fun to stumble on some of the light installations as we biked or walked around the city. The Festival ends tomorrow I know I will miss seeing those giant red and green men a few streets away, or the lovely Northern Lights that spans the Amstel. The city will be a little darker without them.

But the days are slowly getting longer and you can start to believe that Spring may actually be a reality, if a distant one. The promise of spring was clear today, as we kicked off the tulip season on National Tulip Day.


Tulpendag – National Tulip Day!

Dam Square in front of the Royal Palace was transformed into a public display and garden of over 200,000 tulips, and crowds lined the square to “pluk ze zelf”, or pick their tulips – for free!

After windmills and wooden clogs, tulips are what most people think about when they think about the Netherlands. (Ok, some people also think about pot and prostitution, but you’re not one of those people, right?) The history of the tulip in Holland is fascinating – fortunes were made and lost during the Tulip Mania of 1637-38. Thankfully, speculation ended but the tulips remained, and today, at least, they were a hopeful and bright sign of warmer days and sunnier skies.

Until those warmer days arrive, we’re doing our best to learn from the Dutch, and find ways to embrace the cold and the grey, instead of just surviving it. Enjoying a crisp December night strolling through the Botanical Gardens to see the Light Festival (and stopping for a cup of gluhwein to warm us up).  Investing in a warm, rainproof coat or a new hat to make biking a bit easier and more comfortable. Using the still-dark morning commute to really notice and absorb things that I may have missed. Doing our best to make the most of it all.




Where to go? What to do?

When you live in a city that welcomes some 5 million tourists each year, you’re bound to be asked for recommendations. What to do, what to eat, where to stay – these are common questions put to anyone who is seen as a resident, and therefore, an expert, of a particular place.

I have a hard time with these questions. (For starters, we don’t generally stay in hotels in Amsterdam, which makes supplying a hotel recommendation near-impossible.) But practical considerations aside, recommendations – particularly for travel – are pretty personal. When I share a favorite quiet corner of Amsterdam, or tell you where to find a great selection of Dutch beer, or lead you to a museum that’s not the Van Gogh, I’m telling you something about me. About what I enjoy, and what I value. Which may not be the same things that you enjoy or value.

Sometimes I imagine that one day we will have a visitor who will take all of my recommendations. In this fantasy, this person not only has a terrible time but he/she also decides that I’m actually pretty boring, or nerdy, and by the time they leave they will be thinking to themselves, “Hey, why am friends with her anyway? She just sent me on the lamest tour ever of what is supposed to be a city of sin and drugs and excitement (or at least some decent shopping). This is the last time I do anything she recommends.”

Sometimes I stress out about this imaginary visitor. But more often, I think that if anything like this ever happens, it will be the visitor’s own damn fault. After all, isn’t part of the fun of travel doing some research in advance? Figuring out where to go and what to see, yourself? And isn’t another part of the fun in the random exploration? Following a hunch down a narrow street in Orvieto to find the best lunch of your life. Chatting with a glass artist in a small gallery in Eze. Ordering Chinese food in Czech (ok, just pointing at the pictures) in a tiny restaurant in a tourist-free town far from Prague.

This is not to say that I am not a good host, and that I won’t provide some recommendations. My Dutch coworkers often insist that I know more about events, sites, and restaurants in Amsterdam than they do. In truth, we’ve developed a short list of traditional-but-fun (and not too touristy) activities for visitors that are in regular rotation. And we’ve gotten pretty good at mixing up the short list to meet our guests’ interests: art, shopping, history, food.

The best guests are the ones who come with their own short list and an open mind. We had a friend visit last July (hi Peter!) who was a gung-ho independent traveler. He took us to places we hadn’t considered going to, and uncovered hidden local gems that we had overlooked. And truly, all of the friends and family who came to visit last year were great guests: relaxed, curious, interested, and just happy to spend time together.

To be able to explore a beautiful city with people you love – to share those great, random, memorable adventures together – is a gift. One which I’m looking forward to sharing with our 2016 visitors. (Still, 2016 visitors, this does not mean you’re off the hook. Do your homework!)


Others out there: do you like offering recommendations to visitors or planning their activities, or is it a source of stress? Do you still ask for recommendations (like I always do!) from longer-term expats or locals?


Backwards and forwards

We’re back in Amsterdam! Our holiday break in the U.S. was both relaxing and exhausting – who knew that spending time with family and friends (and at Target) would wipe us out so completely? Thankfully we had a weekend to recover before jumping back into the routine of commuting, working, and day-to-day life, and we’ve already survived the first week of the new year.

I’ve also survived the endless, annual parade of articles, lists, and listicles (whatever the hell those are) touting the “Best [Books/Films/Moments] of 2015″, or the “Year in Review”.  No sooner do I get through those stories than I’m on to, “What’s Hot in the New Year” or “Ones to Watch in 2016”.

The reality is that when it comes to books, news, films, and life in general, I’ll never be able to stay on top of what’s new and – more importantly – what’s good. And by “good” I really mean: what’s worth my time? What will challenge, trouble, motivate, console or enliven me?

I’ve become somewhat addicted to brainpickings.org, a consistently inspiring and well-curated offering of poetry, art, and philosophy about things that matter: love, aging, work, dying. How to have a well-lived life. Most of what I’ve read this year I found thanks to that site. A few years ago, the author of the site, Maria Popova, started a “side project” pairing quotes from favorite books with songs. She calls it the Literary Jukebox, and it is worth your time.

Anyway, a while back, thanks to the Literary Jukebox, I found this quote from Debbie Millman, from her book Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design.

…what keeps me up late at night, and constantly gives me reason to fret, is this: I don’t know what I don’t know. There are universes of things out there — ideas, philosophies, songs, subtleties, facts, emotions — that exist but of which I am totally and thoroughly unaware. This makes me very uncomfortable.

Amen, sister. For some reason, the start of a new year brings this fretting into sharper focus. It’s like I’m staring down this year and the universes – universes!! – of things I am ignorant of, and don’t know where to start.

But I have to start somewhere, right?  I look to some trusted sources.  And I look around. There’s no shortage of inspiration in Amsterdam. And there’s so much that I don’t understand: art, history, modern politics, language, cultural practices. With our first year in the Netherlands behind us, it feels like it’s time to get serious as we go forward. We’ve had a year to adapt, get our feet wet, learn a little. Now we need to dig deeper.  Figure out what we don’t know.  Look for guides to discovery, but also leave room for chance and inspiration.

Bold goals for the new year, especially for someone who doesn’t generally make resolutions. Turning back to Debbie Millman, we’re reminded that this – and “this” is, really, all of it, all of live – is an experiment.

Lives are shaped by chance encounters and by discovering things that we don’t know that we don’t know. The arc of a life is a circuitous one. … In the grand scheme of things, everything we do is an experiment, the outcome of which is unknown.

You never know when a typical life will be anything but, and you won’t know if you are rewriting history, or rewriting the future, until the writing is complete.

This, just this, I am comfortable not knowing.

So here’s a final new year’s toast to 2016: to all that is unknown, and all there is to discover. Cheers!