Family, flowers, and food

Not a bad way to spend a week, eh?

Family: We just hosted our first guests at our new apartment. After months of anticipation, I headed to the airport on Sunday morning to meet my dad and my 13-year-old niece Emily. The trip – her first abroad – was Emily’s birthday present from Grandpa, given to her back in October. My father had visited last summer at the end of a long river cruise, but we had all been looking forward to his return trip, and to sharing Amsterdam with Emily. They arrived sleepy from the overnight flight but (as is my way when it comes to fighting jet lag) I forced them to keep going as long as they could.

They had a few days on their own, though we always met up for dinner to hear the stories of their adventures and observations. We had two great days together, as I played hooky from work and enjoyed near-perfect Amsterdam spring weather. I loved hearing Emily’s impressions of what she saw and felt. She is a vibrant, curious, and very funny person. She noticed so many things that I now take for granted: the frustratingly tiny water glasses at restaurants, the full-sized doors on Dutch public bathrooms (great for us tall gals who end up looking over the door), the ease and efficiency of the tram system.image

Flowers: We spent most of one day at the Keukenhof Gardens, that seasonal wonder that draws millions of tourists and very few Dutch. (This is not a scientific study, but I estimate that 7 of 10 Dutch people I spoke to about the Keukenhof have never been.) We went last year as part of a marvelous, memorable birthday adventure for a dear friend, and it was lovely to go back with family and enjoy the gardens again. We took tons of photos, did a boat ride, ate and explored, until Emily announced that she was “all set” with flowers. Honestly, I think I was all set, too. The brain can only absorb so many facts about the tulip trade or the 7 million bulbs that are planted by hand
in the gardens each year. And maybe our eyes can only absorb so much color and manicured beauty.

Food:  Our usual approach with visitors is to simply eat our way through Amsterdam. Over the course of a few days, we introduced Dad and Emily to rijsttafel, stroopwaffels, the appeltarte at Winkel 43, bitterballen, and gevulde koeken. We convinced my chocolate-hating father to try a chocolate cookie from a store that only makes one kind of cookie. My dad, however, failed to convince Emily to try herring while on a food tour of the Jordaan.

More than the food we ate, I loved our meals together. In those moments, over a beer or the world’s smallest water glass, we were able to really connect, and really catch up. We laughed. We listened. We told the same old stories and a few new ones, too. We learned about each other. We had fun. Together. Not a bad way to spend a week.

Spinning in Bike Town

Why, in a city with more bikes than residents, where 63% of people use their bike(s) daily, where there are 500km of cycling paths and no less than 157 bike shops, why, WHY would anyone take a spinning class?

This was the question I was asking myself last night as I headed (by bike!) to my first exercise class in Amsterdam. A friend invited me to join him and his wife at RoCycle, a relatively new spin/cycling studio in Amsterdam. Billed as a “killer workout for badass people”, I was curious.

As I may have mentioned, I love to bike. I contribute to the imbalance of bikes and people in Amsterdam; I have two bikes. My daily commute is on my city bike, with its coaster breaks and single gear. It is practical and functional and I have come to love it.

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This is my city bike. My racing bike is too fast to be photographed.

My weekend rides are on my beautiful road bike, a black Specialized Roubaix that is light and responsive and has more gears than I need. I did not have to learn to love it.

The biking culture of the Netherlands was one of the things that made moving here so attractive. Even my husband, who does not enjoy cycling, has converted to biking for most of our errands and outings. It’s just the best, fastest way to get around.


Still, I wondered, will people who spend so much time cycling for transport and practicality want to cycle for exercise? It seems that the answer is yes, although there were definitely some Americans and other non-Dutch folk in my first RoCycle class. And of course, most of us came and went by bike. (But wow, was the ride home a challenge!)

I had taken spinning classes before, so I knew my daily bike commute would have about as much in common with RoCycle as watching “Top Chef” does with cooking a 5-course meal for 20 people. Still, I wasn’t worried. Faced with a little anxiety before this new class, I called up a memory from one of the first spinning classes I took in Boston. It would have been in late February or early March of 2010. It was just days after my grandmother passed away, and a few weeks after my mom shared her cancer diagnosis with us. At a challenging moment in the class, probably a climb, the instructor was encouraging us to stay with it, keep going. And a very clear sequence of thoughts came into my head: Your grandmother has died. Your mother is sick, and dying. But you. You are here. You are alive. You are strong. You. Are. Not. Giving. Up.

I come from a line of remarkable women, now gone. In that moment, years ago, my health and fitness offered one way that I could keep the story going, keep the line alive. And I felt that again last night, as the instructor told us to “give it all we had”.  I smiled to myself, knowing that I had a reserve to draw from, that I could handle more work and more sweat and a little more pain. And I did not give up.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t work with any other sport. I’ll wimp out of running in a heartbeat. But on the bike, I am a badass.


“Even old New York was once New Amsterdam”

I’ve lost count of how many times someone has asked me, “So, why Amsterdam?” It normally comes as a puzzled follow-up to the standard expat question, “Did you move here for work or for love?”, to which I usually answer, “Neither. Or both.”

Most foreigners we’ve met have either been transferred to Amsterdam or they’ve followed a romantic partner here. In our case, I did move here for work, but I actively looked for a job, and found a company that would sponsor my visa. We didn’t have the benefit of a corporate office helping with our arrangements; we did most of it ourselves. It was not easy, and I am quite proud of us for managing it, even though we didn’t do it perfectly. So proud, in fact, that I want to be sure it’s clear to people that we weren’t just taken by the hand by a benevolent multi-national employer and given a sunny apartment, a bicycle, and a tax attorney. Which is why I don’t like to say that I moved here for work.

In my husband’s case, he did (technically) move here for love, as this move was mostly my idea and he was kind enough to agree and to come along. But again, our situation doesn’t fit with the standard answer. We’re not navigating a cross-cultural, cross-language relationship, or thinking about long term plans. So we don’t like to say that we moved here for love.

If my fellow expat is still in the conversation at this point, this is when he or she normally asks, “Ok, but…why Amsterdam?” IMG_1769

It’s not a question for which I have a good answer, other than that there’s just something about the Netherlands and its people that I feel connected to. Like we’re kindred spirits. Maybe it’s that they are all so tall, but I’d like to think I’m not quite so superficial. All I can say is that from the first time I came to Amsterdam, back in 2000 or 2001, I just felt at home here. Still, I couldn’t explain the feeling.

Enter Russell Shorto. Mr. Shorto is an American writer who has lived in the Netherlands. He writes about Dutch history in a way that is compelling and engaging and fun.  I read “Amsterdam” last year and now I’m almost through “The Island at the Center of the World’. It is the story of the “pirates and prostitutes” who were among the first to settle in what is now Manhattan – pioneers and adventurers setting out on behalf of the Dutch West India Company.

Shorto argues that the presence of this thriving, diverse colony – which predated the British presence in the New World – shaped not just New York City, but the whole of America. While some modern Americans would suggest that New York and its “New York City values” are an aberration from the rest of America, Shorto’s research tells us that New York City IS America, thanks to these early Dutch settlers. They weren’t all pirates; there were lawyers and merchants and many others who contributed to early understandings of free trade, religious freedom, and representative governance.

Now, I don’t claim to be a real New Yorker. I’m not from Manhattan. I am, however, from the Dutch half of Long Island (bearing the very Dutch name of Nassau County), based on the treaty that Peter Stuyvesant negotiated with the New Englanders. And then there’s this, buried in a footnote on page 183:

The colors of the Dutch flag of the seventeenth century were adopted in 1915 by the city of New York in recognition of its origins. There is thus a bizarrely direct connection between the colors flown by Dutch privateers cruising for booty on the Spanish Main three hundred and fifty year ago, and the jerseys worn today by the New York Mets…

Aha! Maybe that’s the explanation! Without knowing it, my childhood love of baseball and the Mets has connected me to the Netherlands. The pennant that hung in my bedroom, the black and white stuffed dog with the Mets cap, even the mini plastic helmet that spent years on my desk…these blue and orange trinkets were signposts! Arrows! Signals!  And all these years later, here I am, feeling very much at home in this very orange country.

So from now on, maybe that will be my answer. Why Amsterdam? Because I am a New Amsterdammer who was called to Old Amsterdam. Perhaps I am a descendant – spiritually, if not genetically – of those first adventurers. Perhaps some element of their temperament survives in the air and the soil of modern New York, and seeps into receptive New Amsterdammers however it can: through straight talk, live-and-let-live attitudes, support for individual freedom, and, when necessary, the Mets.

Reflections from Belgium

Some have said that this is difficult, dangerous time to be living in Europe. Honestly, I think it’s a difficult, dangerous time to be living in the world. Violence knows no boundaries, and safety cannot always be ensured. My Dutch friends and colleagues feel this acutely as attacks inch closer to Amsterdam. As an American living in a post-9/11 world, I’ve developed some level of resignation about random violence. Public shootings, gun violence, and mass-casualty attacks have, sadly, become woven into the fabric of American culture.

The recent attacks in Belgium definitely set everyone here on edge. Unrelated to the bombing in Brussels, there was police activity in Amsterdam that same day – a car chase and warning shots fired and an eventual arrest. The evening commute was marked by  sirens and the sound of a helicopter circling. My bike was parked in its usual spot near the Grand Hotel Amrath, but I found the whole block cordoned off by police, so the bike had to spend a night outside and I took the tram home.


From a peace rally in Ghent


There was a bit of additional tension for us, since about 3 weeks before the attacks we had planned a long Easter weekend holiday. In Belgium. Including Brussels. We didn’t want to cancel the whole trip, which included a night each in Bruges and Ghent. I wasn’t concerned about additional attacks. But heading into Brussels 4 days after the bombing didn’t seem like the best idea. We assumed the city would be tense, shut down in areas, and just generally volatile. As it turns out, we were right.

We changed our train ticket and spent an extra night in Ghent, which was a great decision. It is a beautiful city, often compared to Bruges. There seems to be a bit of competition between them, though I found them both charming. Bruges is a bit quainter, though very crowded, even in the early spring. Ghent felt open, more expansive, but equally lovely.


Ghent, from St. Michael’s Bridge



As part of my ongoing effort not to over-schedule our holidays, we didn’t plan too much. Instead, in both cities, we strolled and ate and took boat rides and climbed towers and took lots of pictures. We visited a castle and a church or two and drank some great Belgian beer. We celebrated my husband’s birthday and Easter, just the two of us, without any of the traditions we’re used to. (If nothing else, it was an improvement over last Easter, which was spent in the emergency room in Maastricht…long story.)

The entire trip was peaceful and relaxing, but the ongoing violence in Brussels wasn’t far from my mind. Maybe this is what our lives are now. We enjoy ourselves as fully as we can, because we must. As one of my favorite poems (Jack Gilbert’s A Brief for the Defense) reminds me:

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.

I’ll raise a beer to that.